Craft of Writing: Interiors and Interiorities
One of the things that has always daunted me in writing is the description of ordinary spaces, and how to use them effectively without being bogged down by unnecessary detail. A love story on a deserted island with coconut palms and roaring seas (excuse the cliché) would be a thrill to describe, but those aren’t the scenarios in which daily life plays out. An office cubicle, a playground, a dining table where a child eats her cereal on a school morning, the restaurant at the heart of a small mid-western town—the sort with the clapboard exterior, the rows of tables with faux-wood veneer borders, the cushioned chairs, the perky waitress, the laminated menu. Ordinary as these are, they can become dramatic spaces in the hands of a careful writer. Elizabeth Strout juxtaposes the mundane locations of Crosby, Maine, the small town where her stories unfold, with the restless interiorities of her characters. In “Olive Kitteridge”, her Pulitzer prize winning collection of short stories, Strout describes the nondescript interiors—of the restaurants, churches, hospitals and neighborhoods that American readers are all too familiar with and which sometimes suffer from a heightened sameness, by introducing particulars of a location into the scattered thoughts of a character, so that a single image evokes a known world. We have all read stories where the mood of a place underlines the mood of the characters occupying it—either by echoing it, or opposing it. Strout does this particularly well. She embroiders epiphanies, doubts and musings—the revelatory aspects of character—with the most mundane details of routine and locale.
Patty Howe poured coffee unto two white mugs, placed them on the counter, said quietly, “You’re welcome,” and moved back to arrange corn muffins that had just been passed through the opening from the kitchen. She had seen the man sitting in the car—he’d been there well over an hour—but people did that sometimes, drove out of town just to gaze at the water. Still, there was something about him that was troubling her. “They’re perfect,” she said to the cook, because the tops of muffins were crispy at the edges, yellow as rising suns. The fact that their newly baked scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad…
The screen door opened, banged shut. Through the large window, Patty saw that the man in the car still sat looking at the water, and as Patty poured coffee for an elderly couple that had seated themselves slowly into a booth, as she asked how they were this nice morning, she suddenly knew who the man was, and something passed over her, like a shadow crossing in front of the sun. “There you go,” she said to the couple, and didn’t glance out the window again.
(From the short story “Incoming Tide”, in the collection, Olive Kitteridge.)
These paragraphs introduce us to the character and her setting—a breakfast joint in Crosby, Maine. Where an average writer might waste words creating the sense of space that Patty occupies internally (in her mind), and externally (at her job as a waitress), Strout captures her in the act of pouring coffee into two white mugs. We, the readers. know white mugs and coffee, and corn muffins. With three simple and ubiquitous images, we know where she is, and what she might be employed as. We return now, nudged gently by Strout, to Patty’s mind. The man in the car is unknown to her, and to us, so what is there to do, but have her make a comment to the cook, about the beauty of the muffins—yellow as rising suns—a nod to the time of day (morning), and the goodness of the food, and the woman, Patty, who is handling it. She is sad, which makes her sympathetic, and this heightens the dramatic tension of her being troubled by the man in the car.
The scene consists of a screen door, a large window and a booth—three objects that signify again, the kind of restaurant. It serves breakfast, and is not upscale. And just as she greets her customers, the realization dawns. She recognizes the man and it is not a happy recognition. In two paragraphs, Strout not only delves into the character’s mind, but makes her eminently human (she is kind, she is sad about something, she is frightened from having recognized the man). Most importantly though, she drives the story forward by piquing our curiosity and our concern. Who is this man, and what is he to Patty Howe?
All it took was some deft and brilliant interweaving of a state of mind with telling details of space and gestures, for a new character, Patty Howe, to unfold and shine through.
– Mary Ann Koruth