Pamela Carter Joern’s debut novel, The Floor of the Sky (Nebraska, 2006), was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and winner of the Alex Award and the Nebraska Book Award. She is also the author of The Plain Sense of Things (Nebraska, 2008) and In Reach (Nebraska, 2014), which is now available. Visit her website pamelacarterjoern.com.
My stories are built out of seemingly disparate threads of experience that, when brought together, make something new and unexpected. The first glimmer of a story may be something I’ve overheard or witnessed or been told about. Take, for example, the opening story in my collection, In Reach. My friend, Mae, told me of her cousin, a gay man, who sat with a relative who died of AIDS. I didn’t know either of these men, but the poignancy of that tending stayed with me. When I sat down to write about it, two other snippets from real life entered into my story: a man in my hometown collected oil lamps; my fifth grade teacher shared a house with her brother. None of these three people became the characters of my story, but they were seeds of inspiration.
All writers weave these glimpses of real life into their work, some more openly than others. My friend, Angela O’Donnell, in writing a biography of Flannery O’Connor, discovered that O’Connor had been jilted by a traveling salesman the same year she wrote “Good Country People,” a heart-breaking story about a traveling Bible salesman who abandons a woman and steals her wooden leg. In every case, the story becomes something else, but the factual elements provide inspiration, excite curiosity, or ground the story in believable detail. Someday I’m going to write a story about a man I saw in a café rifling through old photos and postcards he carried about in a recipe box. I saw him years ago, but the memory haunts me and calls for exploration.
Sometimes, it can take a long while to discover what or even who the story is about. I wrote multiple drafts of “Lessons at the PO,” all falling short of what I wanted to achieve. I had written each of them from the point-of-view of Annie, the piano student. Then, one day, it dawned on me that the story wasn’t about Annie at all; the story was about her teacher, Elsie, and the insight Elsie gains into her life with her wastrel husband. Once I knew that, the story fell into place.
I had written several of the stories in this collection before I realized that they might go together in a book. All the characters have ties to the same small town in western Nebraska, even though some have moved away. In a real sense, the town becomes a character as the reader moves through decades and gains a sense of the community’s ethos. The reader chances upon returning characters much the way you might cross a street and recognize someone you once knew.
For a long time, I called the book Out of Place, a not bad title for people isolated by circumstance. In the end, I felt that yearning for connection was a more powerful and accurate portrait of the stories’ core. I decided on In Reach thematically before I named the town Reach. That happened one day when I was leafing through a dictionary and noticed the word reach defined as an unbroken expanse of land or water. I dubbed the town Reach and invented a founder, Arthur Weston, who said the vast prairie reminded him of the open reach of the ocean.
The beauty of a short story is not so much that it is short, though it does lend itself well to bedtime reading. The beauty of a short story is that it focuses on a defining moment or a pivotal sequence of events that may seem unremarkable, but has reverberating meaning. In this way, stories help us pay attention to the nuances and charged moments that, in our own lives, we often recognize only in retrospect.
In the end, I write to teach myself compassion. If you, the reader, should find yourself with the smallest expanding heart, I will be gratified.
-Pamela Carter Joern