Research Notes · 11/04/2016

My Life As An Animal, Stories

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Laurie Stone writes about My Life as an Animal from Triquarterly Books.

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The first story in My Life as an Animal is called, “Yard Sale,” and you could look at the book as a yard sale you browse in, turning over lived-in artifacts. I did not write the stories with the idea of building a book. After a while, though, when a consistent narrator emerged as well as linked stories about falling in love and leaving New York, I began to shift the puzzle pieces into a structure. Each story earned its place by either making something strange feel ordinary or by making something ordinary feel strange.

To research a story, I go outside. I, like our primate ancestor Lucy, who lived 3.2 million years ago, spend much of my time walking and looking for something to happen. I picture Lucy on a savanna, a stick in her paw, her eyes alert for a means of escape. She looks like my mother. She would, wouldn’t she?

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In My Life as an Animal, the narrator’s partner is a Brit named Richard, and he is a museologist based in Arizona. He thinks about the kinds of institutions museums are. He is interested in spaces that have been interpreted, whether wildlife trails with marked lookouts or sites of conscience, their former uses now defunct, such as a concentration camp. Richard is interested in how meaning rises off collections of things.

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I, too, have a partner named Richard who is a museologist based in Arizona, and he has made me aware of what I collect. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but I want to say something about the difference between the narrator of the stories and me. I have created her. Me, I have less control over. She is more generous, more loving, more curious, less judgmental, funnier and probably sexier than I am because she needs to seduce the reader to the next sentence.

In building stories, I work at the level of the sentence. The first sentence is a provocation setting in motion the next sentence, and so on. I layer the narrator’s reaction to an earlier moment with what the narrator makes of it now—at the time of the telling—whether the lookback is five minutes ago or twenty years in the past. I see actual memory as the enemy of story, in that we remember what consoles and arouses us, and the reader doesn’t care about the author’s need to re-experience a feeling.

One winter on Broadway, on the coldest day of the year, I said, “Hello,” to a homeless man swaddled in a dirt-caked blanket in front of the Victoria’s Secret on 84^th^ Street. He looked up under a mop of dark curls and said, “Another place, another time.” I met a Russian woman who said, “I love the smell of men in war.” I said, “What do they smell like?” I could see the swell of her breasts above the opening of her blouse. She said, “Like the perfume Shalimar, very concentrated.” A friend said, “Why do you work as a servant?” She was referring to the catering jobs I took. She was past middle age and slowly cutting a piece of smoked salmon. She put down her fork and said, “You need a hundred seconals to die. It takes forty minutes. My father’s Alzheimer’s came on when he was seventy-two. You have to find the right moment after knowing what’s coming and before you can no longer act.” She picked up her fork and said, “Why do you serve?” I said, “It makes me forget who I am.” I think of human remains as indistinguishable from other kinds of objects, but when I think about my father’s ashes and my mother’s ashes, I find it difficult to breathe. A lawyer gave me a silver dish that had belonged to her mother and said, “Don’t sell it.” I polished the silver and placed a begonia plant inside it. The leaves were edged with tiny teeth. It was a cutting from a plant she’d been given by the family of a man she’d failed to deliver from death row. Storm clouds over the desert are extra black, making up for the fact it seldom rains.

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Why these incidents among so many others? I am looking for moments that change direction. I like to dramatize contradictions that cannot be resolved. Human beings desire to be in two places at the same time: the present and the past; home and anywhere but home. The narrator of Animal is vulnerable, limited, and often comic. Comedy is about limits. Tragedy is about transcendence. I don’t believe in transcendence.

The other day I was weary, and it was hot. My sister had had a toxic reaction to several prescribed drugs, and we had spent six hours in an emergency room in New Jersey. She was nauseous and had not eaten for three days. She held my hand and said, “Help me die if it comes to that.” I knew she would recover and said, “I’m not going kill you and go to jail.” She said, “It’s legal in Vermont. Promise you’ll drive me.” She was given fluids and began to feel better, and I returned to Manhattan to attend the birthday party of a friend. He lived in a neighborhood forgotten by public transportation, and I walked miles from the subway, my computer on my back. After midnight I retraced the route to the Essex and Delancey Street subway. My ballet slippers were in shreds. The platform of the F train was the dive bar at the end of the universe, every planet and dirtball piece of space debris drifting around. It was 110 degrees, at least, and everyone was glistening, and I thought about people in boxcars because boxcars come to mind when the air is that close. I walked a little, just to move, and my sister came into my thoughts, and I felt like a fly in glue, and then suddenly I heard music and was changed. A band was playing a raucous mix of doowop and indie rock. The singer was a guy in a dress with tiny lights in his wig. He played guitar and sang in a falsetto that bent notes into velvetty Billie Holiday blues. The drummer wore a hat ringed with colored crayons and stared out with an impassive squint. They were called Pinc Louds, and they had set up in a sauna, and it made no sense. Everyone had arrived through the same slog, and now everyone looked beautiful. They looked like fashion models, swaying and jumping. There is always a girl who dances by herself as if she’s stoned and at Woodstock while her date looks on stiff and mortified. Our girl was wearing a sheer blue blouse, and her eyes were half-closed, and I remembered when I was that girl. I felt my outline dissolve, and the day drew into itself, dense and small enough to hold in my palm. The city was the illness, and the city was the cure, and it has given me, little by little, My Life as an Animal.

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Laurie Stone is author of My Life as an Animal, Stories (TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press), Starting with Serge, and Laughing in the Dark (Ecco). Former theater critic for The Nation, critic-at-large on Fresh Air, and decades-long writer for the Village Voice, she’s editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone (Grove). She won the 1996 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Her memoir essays and stories have appeared in Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, Nanofiction, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, Ms., TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, Memorious, Creative Nonfiction, St Petersburg Review, and Four Way Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction’s been anthologized in They’re at It Again: Stories from Twenty Years of Open City, In the Fullness of Time, The Face in the Mirror, The Other Woman, Best New Writing of 2007, Full Frontal Fiction, and Money, Honey, among others. She lives in New York City.