Laura Bogart interview with Meg Tuite
Your story “Hurricane Drunk,” has so many levels moving through it. What was your inspiration for this story and how did you decide on the diptych structure that weaves its way through this exceptional piece?
I appreciate your kind words, Meg! My inspiration for this story actually came from a reality TV show called Jail (which, as I’m sure you can guess, is all about the goings on in various jails around the country.); in the first episode I watched, a young guy was hauled in on a DUI after he plowed his car into another driver. Whether this other driver was going to live was still uncertain, and as the officers explained this to the guy, he broke down. They did actually have to strap him down into a restraint chair. I was really haunted by the moment where this man realized that his life as he knew it was over in a very raw, very primal way. And yet, I couldn’t feel sympathy for him because he may have very literally taken away another person’s life. We never did find out what happened to the other driver, by the way. The show skipped on to another facility. But that moment really remained with me and I knew I wanted to write a story about it.
I wanted to emphasize the sheer callousness and stupidity of the arrested man’s actions, and I thought that the best way to draw out that emphasis would be to contrast him with a character whose life as she knew it was also ending, but because of something completely out of her control. This was around the time of the Komen/Planned Parenthood scandal, and I was reading a lot of blog posts and comments from breast cancer survivors who felt infantilized and demeaned by the “Komen pink” and “you go girl” rhetoric. From here, I started to conceive the character of Dolly, someone who feels alienated by her condition, and by the way that she’s expected to react to it.
As for the structure, I really wanted to introduce these characters to each other in a kind of breakneck, in-your-face way to maximize the emotional impact. Meechum’s selfishness and childishness had to build on Dolly to make her do what she does at the end of the story. I wanted that scene in the break room to be the catalyst for her to unleash her own rage at Meechum. So I gave the story a little breathing room and moved the characters to the break room.
The narrator of this story, Dolly, considers herself “the strongest female guard,” but she’s dealing with something much bigger than the drunk who hits a woman about the same age as her in the story. He brings up flashbacks from her childhood and her diagnosis.
“Dolly searched his face for some recognition that he might spend the good years of his life in a series of rooms even smaller and grayer than the one she’d lock him in tonight. She actually preferred cell-gray to the aggressively exuberant “It’s A Girl!” pink of the infusion room she’d toured.”
Tell us more about how you mapped out this incredible story.
Whenever I write a short story, I usually start with the ending and work backward. I knew I wanted the story to end with Dolly striking back, in her own way, at the unfairness of the world as represented by the guileless creep, Meechum. I knew that I wanted to work toward that scene and I knew that there were certain scenes that I needed to include: taking him to the nurse couldn’t help but jar Dolly’s thoughts about her own medical condition, and the strapping into the restraint chair articulated her own sense of helplessness while putting Meechum exactly where he needs to be for the ending to even occur; I also wanted Reichel’s talk about being in the hurricane, and his complete obliviousness to how he played with his life, to be the thing that sets Dolly off. She’s never been allowed to be carefree about anything in life, and I kind of intuitively placed the flashbacks to Ma and Memaw in areas that would reflect and enhance Dolly’s resentment.
So many great lines in here: “Every time most folks opened their mouths, they just affirmed the petty deceptions that made their lives bearable.” This story was extremely visual. And what a superlative mix of exposition with dialogue and scenes? Have you been working on this story for a while?
I’d say the story took me several months to write. I do a lot of putting in and taking out again. I also do a lot of my conceptualizing while I’m walking my dog, so I hashed and rehashed certain scenes/lines in my head quite a bit before I committed to a final version. I’m pretty ruthless about cutting when I need to be.
I know you’re an animal lover from the talks we’ve had. Did you ever consider becoming a vet, like Dolly in “Hurricane Drunk?”
I never considered becoming a vet, but I actually had daydreams about being a detective. I was always that kid in the sandlot who never abided a bully, and I still try to take up for others whenever I can. However, a shield and a gun were not in the cards for me.
Tell us who your writing inspirations are?
My motto is “What Would Mary Gaitskill Do?” I go back to her work a lot for inspiration, and Flannery O’Connor’s as well. Reading Joyce Carol Oates in college was revelatory for me. I also write a lot to Neko Case and PJ Harvey’s music.
What books are you reading at this time?
I just started reading Winter’s Bone and before that, I read Torch by Cheryl Strayed and some short stories by Flannery O’Connor.
What other genres do you work in? Any poetry, plays, screenplays? I could see this story as a scene in a film.
I’d love to learn to write a screenplay, but I really mostly work in fiction and non-fiction.
What projects are you working on at this time?
I’ve started my novel, which is tentatively titled Your Name is No.
Give us one of your favorite quotes of all time to end this interview.
“I own every bell that tolls me” – Neko Case
Thank you so much, Laura, for sharing some of your process with us. “Hurricane Drunk” is unforgettable! Enjoy the video reading!