On the occasion of the paperback release of her new novel, Conscience, Alice Mattison writes about finding possibilities for story—“an engine made of trouble”—at a boat launch in the Adirondacks.
Novelists regularly run out of story. As we write, we may know the nature of the catastrophe that will finally bring lovers together, or the rescue that will fix (or spoil) a life. If not the precise outcome, we at least know the possibilities. But that doesn’t get us through the many pages before the ending. A novel is propelled by an engine made of trouble, and it can be hard to think up enough trouble to keep the wheels turning so that one thing leads to another, and another.
I’ve long known that deadlines and money are useful for novelists. Making a decision will be more complicated for the protagonist, and more suspenseful for the reader, if it must be made this week, and if the best option costs money. We read about someone trying to raise, steal, or borrow money fast, instead of someone quietly making a decision. But deadlines and money aren’t the only sources of story. How about water, and, more specifically, the edge of a body of water? The shore, the dividing line between . . . what and what?
Years ago, my husband, Ed, and I wished to go kayaking. Lacking a garage in which to store a boat, we bought a two-person inflatable kayak. We drove to a lake or river, pumped it up, then paddled inexpertly but cheerfully. The kayak didn’t spring a leak right away, as observers expected, but leaks do happen. Recently we bought our fourth and this time we changed brands. The new one—it’s red—is easier to paddle and looks less like a wading pool than our old boats, but it’s harder to inflate. In each of three valves a little peg on a spring must be fully up—or possibly halfway up, I’m never sure—and the pump is attached by means of an adapter that must be turned, but not too far. Once it’s attached, you dance up and down on a foot pump. Blowing it up is time-consuming, which was why—on a sunny morning in August when Weather.com was predicting afternoon thunderstorms—we and our dog, Harold, spent enough time at a boat launch in the Adirondacks that I saw how water might generate story.
There were no sharks, shipwrecks, or drownings. But as we tried to remember how to attach the valves, a boy, alone—maybe nine, too shy to look at us—paddled to shore and pulled his kayak up. He took out a fishing pole, caught a small fish, threw it back. Along came another kayak, a big motorboat, and a canoe, carrying four adults and four more children. Yelling at one another and the boy, they hauled gear past us as we pumped. Then they rolled forward a cart that had been in the parking lot; it was large enough to hold a boat. A man shouted at the boy, who was trying to keep a big baby out of mischief. His father said he should help one of the women carry her kayak instead. After running off, the boy finally obeyed, radiating scorn. The adults loaded the cart with bundles and bags, not a boat. And then the baby got in trouble. Put into a car, she shrieked.
“This is Noah,” the boy’s mother said, approaching us. “He wants to pump.” Wonderful. Noah helped us pump. He could be the protagonist of a coming-of-age novel: independent, oppressed, ambivalent. A smaller child, too little to understand, tried to pump but couldn’t. They had been camping. The adults—two marriages bristling with complexity—hauled the big boat out of the water.
Now a station wagon pulled up, and six women got out: ponytails, short shorts. City people on a rare vacation, I thought. They looked uncertain. They had paddles and life jackets, no boats. One set her bag in the canoe that belonged to Noah’s father, who, with the help and objections of the other adults, had put his motorboat upside down in the cart, on top of the luggage.
He came down to the shore. “That’s my boat.” (Drama averted, but in a story you would let drama happen. Maybe she takes the canoe out on the water before he notices. Maybe it overturns. Maybe they get into a political argument. The women could be lesbians; he might be homophobic.) In real life the woman looked around and saw our boat. “That one?”
“Belongs to them,” he said, with a bit of a sneer. We were flattered at her interest. She took it for a real boat! At last our kayak was inflated, but I didn’t want to paddle while this judgmental man was around (though in a novel that is just what would happen). The man pointed to a rack holding eight canoes and kayaks, supplied by a nearby hotel. The six women pulled out two big canoes, one of them bossing the others, announcing who would ride with whom. “I need two skinny Minnies for the middles.” The man put his canoe upside down on his upside down boat on his squashed luggage in the cart. After a final episode of shouting, a laden truck with the cart behind it and two cars—the baby still crying in one, the boy in the other—clattered away down the dirt road.
Finally it was time. We eased our kayak into the water. Ed climbed into the stern, and I settled Harold—a black, seventy-five pound pit bull in a red life jacket—in front of him. I got into the bow. We paddled near the shore while loons called. A speedboat zoomed by. In a novel Harold might have jumped out, but he seemed to have gone into a happy trance. Ed and I didn’t have a fight. I wanted to eat lunch, but Ed could barely paddle—Harold, no skinny Minnie, was more or less on his lap—and he couldn’t reach behind him for the lunch bag. We paddled to shore; Ed and Harold got out, and I drifted away in the kayak, eating my sandwich in delightful solitude.
When I returned, one of the canoes was back. The three women had found paddling difficult, and the motorboat scared them. They didn’t know where the other canoe was. One was positive something had gone wrong. “They must have lost a paddle!” She took a single kayak from the rack, jumped in, and paddled off vigorously.
We deflated our boat and rolled it up.
The women came back—fighting. Nothing had gone wrong. The missing canoeists had docked and taken a walk. I wondered if there was a love triangle, if that was why the woman on the shore couldn’t wait, if that was why the lost were angry to be found. Bad things can happen on a shoreline. They were still arguing when we drove off. Thunderstorms were imminent. Deadline.
Alice Mattison’s seventh novel, Conscience (Pegasus, 2018), is now available in paperback. She is also the author of four story collections, a book on the craft of fiction, and a poetry collection. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in_ The New Yorker_, The New York Times, AGNI, The Threepenny Review, The Paris Review, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. (12/2019)