The story’s setting, funny enough, parallels my current state of suspension in the midst of a manuscript. It takes place in a book called the book, a place I think of as being a literal, physical manifestation of a social network along the lines of Facebook, an unwieldy, well-worn volume, dusty in some sections, moldy in others, a place where people must overcome large numbers of pages in order to communicate with one another. This meta shtick sounds gimmicky, I know, but I feel there may be an emotional cost to the extent which we now virtually interact, and my hope is that something about this setting can conjure or at least point toward this lack, which is otherwise so hard to pin down.
The characters that populate this setting form a triangle: a retired stewardess and a young straight couple who suffer a bit from a case of the hipsters. The couple consists of Poni Maree, a Portlander fresh out of public policy school, and Remy, a young man from a wealthy background who helped develop the book. The retired stewardess, Myrne, is singled out as a political candidate for Poni Maree to mentor and possibly install as a puppet dictator in the newly opened district of the book.
Danielle Steel made an appearance on The View a few weeks ago, where she mentioned that she abstained from reading while in the midst of working on a book, because she was too afraid of being imitative (She also mentioned that she had five manuscripts going at all times, which, well, I’ll stop there. Poor Danielle is too easy of a target, and for the sake of Lotus Heath, I refuse to pick on her. Besides, she looked absolutely stunning.). While avoiding clichés is a worthy goal, absorbing the techniques of other writers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had one writing teacher who encouraged imitation and even gave us the option of using a published short story as a template on which to hang our own characters and their interactions. Another teacher talked a lot about conversations that happen between works of literature. She assigned us the book Literature and the Gods by Roberto Calasso, a deeply spiritual text that discusses the ancient gods who refuse to die, who appear and reappear in books. The point is, I think there’s a kind of cyclical magic, a fortuitousness of discovery that often happens when looking backwards, one that’s often necessary to completing a creative work.
And here’s where Jean Rhys enters the conversation—or at least Jean Rhys as channeled through her short story “The Lotus”. I read Rhys’s story—which is about writing and youth and death and loneliness and other great Rhysian stuff—a few weeks ago, when I was somewhat nearer the beginning of the middle of writing “face”. “The Lotus”, like my story, concerns a triangle consisting of a young, condescending couple (Ronnie and Christine) and an older woman (Lotus Heath) who finds herself an object of their ridicule. There were points when “The Lotus” gave me chills, like Rhys’s work often does, but it wasn’t until after I’d finished the story that I realized its triangle was not only eerily similar to, but also an ideal emotional template for my own.
Roxane Gay, in a recent interview with Caitlin Horrocks, author of This Is Not Your City, asked Horrocks if she wrote “toward or from a place of emotion.” Horrocks remarked that it’s a great question, and I would have to agree, as my answer is similar to hers: Toward. Emotion is essential to a great story, but it doesn’t come naturally to me—I have to work for it. That’s why finding a template like “The Lotus” made me feel like I’d struck gold.
Is this plagiarism? It’s often said that great fiction is characterized by its universality; I’d like to think I’m just trying to tap into that universe.
This is the first of two parts. The second part of this post is here.