Research Notes · 03/19/2021

Mannequin and Wife

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jen Fawkes writes about Mannequin and Wife from Louisiana State University Press.

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How to Write Mannequin and Wife

Step one: At age four, wake in a smoke-filled room, coughing. Hear your mother’s panicked voice: Girls! Get up! Come on! Hours later, walk through the first floor of the San Jose, CA, split-level ranch your parents bought in 1975 for $19,000, clinging to your mother. Study a black path that snakes through green shag carpet, from the front door through the living room, down the hall to the bedrooms – the room you share with your sister and the one your parents shared until your mother asked for a divorce, and your father moved out. Study walls and ceilings – now blacked with soot and ash, now dripping with the water that prevented further damage. Hear a fireman say to your mother, I know it’s difficult, Mrs. Fawkes, but this was clearly intentional. Are you sure you don’t want to press charges? Look from your mother, who is crying – who is always crying – to the fireman, whose face is inscrutable.

Step two: At sixteen, lose your only sister to morbid obesity. Walk through this period – one that will never end – trying to comprehend what you’ve lost. Dwell on the times you hurt her – pig, cow, whale – the times you wished her dead. Drown in guilt and shame and horror, feel undeserving of pity or understanding. Begin to see that forgiveness, like love, like truth, like happiness, like Jennifer, is merely a collection of letters, devoid of meaning. Fail to comfort anyone, least of all yourself.

Step three: At nearly every age – one, three, nine, twelve, twenty-two, thirty-eight, forty-five – pack up and move house. Every one of your belongings. Your whole life. Into and out of boxes. Over and over and over. Envy every rooted tree you encounter.

Step four: At thirty-four, leave the man you’ve been living with for nine years to pursue what may the world’s most useless advanced degree. Because you aren’t ready to clip the cord, move four hours away from Asheville, NC, rather than fourteen. As you drive back and forth for two years – visiting a life you can’t quite seem to leave – write intricate, catastrophic, clanging stories and hold them, suspended, in your mind. Fantasize about setting the world on fire with words, about blessed acts of immolation.

Step five: At thirty-nine, receive a phone call from a King County, WA, Coroner’s Inspector named Delgado. Learn of the death of your father, whom you last saw at age twelve. Learn that he died alone in his condominium and wasn’t found for weeks. That his corpse was finally extracted by firemen, who chopped down the front door. Travel to Seattle and dig through your father’s home – a hoarder nightmare you will jokingly refer to as Death Condo. As you sift through a lifetime of detritus masquerading as memories, as you contemplate multicolored stains his body left on the carpet, picture your father creeping through the first floor of that split-level ranch house in San Jose, pouring kerosene on green shag, tossing a match. Close your eyes and strain to feel as he must have felt in that murderous moment.

Step six: At every age, wonder endlessly about this old world, about man’s inhumanity to man, about resilience and horror and comedy and madness, about the inner workings of perception and time. Even once you see that there are no answers, keep asking questions. You have no choice.

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Jen Fawkes’s debut book, Mannequin and Wife (LSU Press), was named one of Largehearted Boy’s Favorite Short Story Collections of 2020, as well as a Best Book of 2020 by The Brooklyn Rail. Mannequin and Wife is a current finalist for two Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards, in Literary Fiction and Short Stories. Her next book, Tales the Devil Told Me, won the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and is forthcoming in October 2021. Jen’s work has appeared in One Story, Lit Hub, Crazyhorse, Best Small Fictions 2020, and many other venues, and has won numerous fiction prizes, from The Pinch, Salamander, Washington Square Review, and others.