Jan 162010

I’ve been re-reading Gaitskill’s story, “The Little Boy” and using it as a structural model for a story I’m working on.  I like the way she blends the front story with the backstory, using both scenic flashbacks and more willowy type memories.  I think (hope) that using a story model to build from is considered kosher.  The weird part has been how it freed up the writing for me.  I had this idea for a story but couldn’t figure out how to squeeze it into an actual form.  I had read Gaitskill’s story a month or so ago on a plane ride and thought it would be a good one to look at later, but didn’t really consider it with my subject matter until recently.   We’ll see how it ends up, but it’s been a fun start.  Also started reading Audrey Niffenegger’s “Her Fearful Symmetry” for a book club I’m in.  Not a huge fan of it so far.  The book feels very plot-driven to me, with lots of things happening just because they need to.  There is an OCD character though that’s pretty interesting, but I think her POV shifts are awkward and arbitrary.  Some good descriptive scenes and lots of movement, but whenever a writer uses a scene set in Starbucks, with a latte as a prop, I feel a bit cheated.

—Richard Farrell

  2 Responses to “Mary Gaitskill”

  1. Re. backfill or backstory: Here is an excerpt from a packet letter I wrote to a student who was writing an essay on this topic.

    “The subject of your essay is the most obvious techniques for inserting backfill into a story. 1) as little as possible, 2) the conventional structure (fairly hefty chunks of backfill inserted after the opening, 3) a more layered, recursive or dancing approach with backfill tipped into the story along the way.

    Elizabeth Tallent’s story “No One’s A Mystery” uses very little backfill, almost none. In Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh” there are maybe three crucial backfill techniques in play 1) Mason does conventional backfill chunks which she inserts in two places. The first comes after the opening and talks about the baby dying. The second comes after the drug dealer scene, and in this chunk of backfill we get the actual scene of when the baby died. These sections are examples of what most people mean by backfill. There is also another smaller chunk of conventional backfill that explains about Mabel’s marriage and honeymoon trip to Shiloh. 2) Mason uses several times an interesting then/now grammatical construction. A then/now construction is a way of tying past and present together as a bit of story within the story. It’s crisp and neat and works also as a contrast between then and now. Mason mostly uses these for filling in passages of past time, how things have changed. 3) Then there are layering or repetitive references to the backfill throughout the story (references to the baby, or dead babies, and so on).” dg

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