[We asked Robert James Russell, author of DON'T ASK ME TO SPELL IT OUT, to talk to us about story origins. These story origins are two stories called "Doing The Thing" and "Claude." You can buy your own copy of DON'T ASK ME TO SPELL IT OUT in the WhiskeyPaper store.]
DOING THE THING
To me, good relationships are all about good communication. Bad relationships have bad communication. I think dating, for most people, is all about exploring communication. Wants, desires. How we tell our partners what we want, what we don't want...goals, fears, likes, dislikes, etcetera. This fascinates me, and plays such a crucial role in just about every story in the book: what is said and, more importantly, what is not said. This story was just something I felt compelled to tell. Staying in a relationship that isn’t working for too long, or for the wrong reasons, and how, even though it’s on the tip of your tongue—your unhappiness—it’s easier to ignore it and move on. Now, happily married, it seems odd to me that anyone would choose action over inaction, no matter how painful it may be. But I get it. You cling to things you hope to see again, that once were the driving force of said relationship, all in the hopes that, maybe, it will come back. That the magic time you once had together is still there, buried under everything else.
The question is, then, how buried is it? Can it ever—truly—ever be uncovered again? Or is this futile? And these characters…they’re enacting out their roles. Clearly, there’s unhappiness, clearly the narrator isn’t pulling his weight in the relationship, but they’re both so just used to one another, to what they have, that, no matter how bad it is, it’s too hard to pull off that Band-Aid and deal with it. But I also think this is part of maturing. Going through this, learning, eventually, what you do want, what you do value. Learning what you need in a partner in order to be able to share, to communicate.
For me, the ocean—water, really—is such an important image. It’s running, it’s there, always, doing its thing (title callback!). Everything else changes, the world around it changes, and the waves still break on the shore. And I love that, because relationships aren’t like that. Nothing ever stays the same. And it shouldn’t. Even in a great relationship things must change and morph. And I just really loved the idea of that image of this relationship crumbling—the sand of the beach, perhaps, being pushed down and away by the onslaught of the ocean’s surge—while the world goes on. You can either deal with what’s wrong, you can embrace that relationships evolve and change, or you can hold on wishing for something else to happen. And being trapped that way, not being honest with yourself, above all others, is something I really wanted to explore with this story.
Also: I love fish tacos and two-for-one specials.
This story started as a simple idea: the narrator walking through Wicker Park at night, during sticky summer, angry about something and holding a copy of the Paris Review. Why, though? Of course someone named Claude “outdid” him without ever being physically present. And since so much of this collection is about failed relationships, or learning from relationships—and an inability to act—I just thought it fitting to bring up dating someone who isn’t fully over an ex. Because it happens to everyone, the “dating too soon” scenario. So maybe this isn’t a failed relationship—it’s not really even a relationship—but I think it’s an interesting dynamic. How much we tell people about ourselves, how much we want things to be true…to be real. But we each have our own histories and obviously, we can’t know everything. The narrator is blindsided by the fact that the woman ditches him, basically, for a phone call. That as good as things were going, she has an entire history he doesn’t know about. Did she let him in at all, even? Was anything she said real? I think that’s where the frustration comes in: the idea that you can give so much of yourself, you can start to feel good about things, but then, so quickly, it can dissolve. And this is about how you pick yourself up, what you do. The narrator decides to act childishly and destroy a copy of the Paris Review while he’s being surrounded by the sound of happy couples and a beautiful summer night. Everyone is having a go of it—everyone seems happy—but this guy can’t even get the full story on someone. And his night—or however long he’s invested in this—was for nothing.
Moral: Dating sucks.
About the Author of DON’T ASK ME TO SPELL IT OUT: Robert James Russell is the author of the novels Mesilla and Sea of Trees, and the founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.