Thursday, June 20, 2019

#52 Inside the Emotion of Fiction's THE FIFTH WOMAN by Nona Caspers

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*****Nona Caspers’s The Fifth Woman is #52 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece.

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us?
The Fifth Woman As the stories were coming out into my notebooks, I called them the alley stories. “Oh, this is another alley story,” my writers group would say; because this narrator's apartment is like an island above an alley that brings her the beautiful and dark aspects of humanity. 

Fiction genre?  Ex science fiction, short story, fantasy novella, romance, drama, crime, plays, flash fiction, historical, comedy, movie script, screenplay, etc.  And how many pages long? Novel. Literary novel/collage. An assemblage of short fictions that tilt into surreality (but they felt like reality to me, while writing them). 104 pages long

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no. If yes, what publisher and what publication date? Yes, Sarabande Books, August 2018

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? Wow.  2009?  Pieces started coming out in my notebooks, but I didn’t think of them as a book.  Final edits from Sarabande, May 2018 or something like that 

Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work?  And please describe in detail.  And can you please include a photo? In my office, at home, with a ficus tree outside the window and a figurative drawing by a friend I call Puddlehead (Below) on the wall behind me. My little dog sleeps under the desk. Every once in a while she kicks her legs and she has accompanied me through three books.

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? All of the pieces came out in notebooks from Walgreens, notebook after notebook. I was working on something else in the notebooks, but these pieces would come out during writing sessions with my writers group, the brilliant writers Barbara Tomash, Ann Pelletier, Jesse Nissim.  In the late afternoons the sun would come pouring in past the ficus, and warm me and little dog. The room glowed then. (You can see how this translated into the story in the book entitled "The Dog.")

What is the summary of this specific fiction work? The book jacket summary: At the center of this book is the death of the narrator's partner in a bicycling accident. Each short chapter serves as a brief vignette of or occasionally a magical realist metaphor for the grieving process. A shadow of a dog appears in her apartment with no apparent source; clouds fill her living room as her carpet collects drifts of ash and snow; a crack opens in the ceiling and splits her building down the middle. At times dryly comical, at other times radiantly surreal, The Fifth Woman is a testament to the resurrecting power of memory and enduring love. (Above Left:  Nona's writing partner Edgar)

Can you give the reader just enough information for them to understand what is going on in the excerpt? The narrator's partner died suddenly in the first chapter, which begins her move to a small apartment with bars on the windows in a dangerous neighborhood. Her apartment is on the second floor above an alley, which she can hear and see outside the living room window by her writing table.

Please include the excerpt and include page numbers as reference. The excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer. It's the fourth piece. Page 123.

The Dog
Every day during the summer, at about three o’clock, a shadow shaped like a dog appeared on my writing table.  It was a small dog; I could see the head, the two pointed ears, the fluffy tail.  The dog sat across from me at the far end of the table and then slowly approached until it disappeared at six o’clock. 
I couldn’t locate where the dog came from; it seemed disconnected from the dark rooming house across the alley, from anything in all the inhabitants’ bleak dusty windows.  I know this lack of source makes the dog unreal, but the dog was as true and constant as anything else in my apartment.  I waited for the dog to arrive, and when it did I would sit working on my thesis with the dog for company.  But some days, the dog felt like a bad omen, a nomadic wraith, and on those days I felt as if my apartment had somehow detached from the center of things, and were floating somewhere to the left of anything that mattered. I suppose I could've experienced those days as freedom, but I didn’t.
       Other things appeared in that apartment over the alley. Once, returning from work, I found a piece of paper near an open window with a handwritten verse on it.
The merrier we be
The sunnier we see
and blinded by the light
becomes a melody

The writer had scratched out melody and wrote tragedy.
Another time, when cleaning, I found a multi-colored rubber ball under the couch; a week later a child’s sock, though there were no children in the building or in the rooming house next door.  In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single child the three years I lived there.  The sock was lime green with a picture of a horse face over the toe; if you put your hand inside, the horse’s face bloomed into three dimensions and stared at you under droopy lashes.  Another time, nearer the end of my stay, the sudden smell of lilacs hit me as I walked through the door, again with no apparent source.
       Some days, the dog appeared to be sitting up, alert; other days the dog’s head hung low; still other days the dog seemed to be sleeping, its head resting on its small paws.
       One day the dog appeared with only one ear.  I didn’t notice the missing ear immediately—it was only when I looked up a third time, during the middle of a long and arduous thought, that I saw the one ear clearly sticking up and the other ear gone.  The next day half of its tail was missing, leaving a fluffy stump.  The next day it seemed to be missing a paw. 
That night, in my bed, I began to imagine the dog outside my apartment, roaming the streets and scavenging, sleeping in doorways or maybe in alleys.  I lay awake worrying about the dog, but of course there was nothing I could do, and I knew the dog wasn’t real, and that there were real dogs out there getting hurt and I should worry about them.  Nonetheless, I worried about my shadow dog.
I woke in the morning late, took a shower, and read another book.  At one o’clock I sat at my table and tried to write, but I couldn’t concentrate.  I began instead to think about the dog.  I had read an article about dog fighting in the City, about gambling rings and people who stole dogs off the street and out of cars to use for these fights.  I imagined a basement with concrete floors and oil stains and a walled arena surrounded with chairs, the men in T-shirts smoking and drinking whiskey.  And I imagined my little shadow dog in a cage in the corner, sitting quietly, shaking. 
That’s where I had to stop; it was too sad.
I had imagined the dog in the worst situation, but I could just as easily have imagined it roaming through the park, sniffing Eucalyptus leaves, sleeping under the trees and stars.
At three o’clock, the dog appeared with one ear, half a fluffy tail, all four paws intact, and a shorter snout.  But it looked content, its head tilted slightly to one side.  I was happy to see it.  I said hello, and then I went back to work.  Now the apartment was brighter; there was a glow in my small room as there always was when the dog appeared.  Every time I looked up the little dog was there, in its own way steadfast.  Just as the air began to thicken and prepare for dusk, the dog vanished, and I wondered what shape it would be in the next day, what it would be missing, or if it would appear at all. 
What kind of suffering are we off to?  What kind of joy?
Why is this excerpt so emotional for you? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? In the writing of “The Dog,” and all of the pieces, I was trying to find the language for the world that opened up to me after I lost a girlfriend and plummeted into deep grief.  In the Foreward to The Fifth Woman, Stacy D’Erasmo described this world as "miraculously layered, strange, and emotionally multifaceted."  The narrator feels a connection to and accompanied by shadows of dogs, light and whether, people on the street, old friends, foliage, animals both real and imagined. The grief makes her tender, and that tenderness extends to the world around her.  Sometimes I miss that world.  It’s there for all of us though.  The world could use our tenderness and imagination.

Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt. I can’t find the notebook piece, only near final drafts (it came out pretty whole)  I changed the poem to one I wrote rather than verse from Dickenson.  I played with the end and made some sharpening cuts about the thesis comments. 
Other works you have published? Heavier Than Air: Stories. Was awarded the Grace Paley prize in Short fiction and listed as an editor's choice in the New York Times book review. Little Book of Days. Nonfiction: Lawfully Wedded Wives: Rethinking Marriage in The 21St-Century.

Anything you would like to add?
When I was about ten, my father asked if I wanted to learn his cow insemination trade or become a nun. My mother didn’t think I was nun material…so what choice did that leave me but to move to San Francisco and become a writer?”
     Nona Caspers' The Fifth Woman, (Sarabande Books, 2018), is a finalist in the 35th Annual LAMBDA literary award and the Foreward Review Best Indie Book of 2018 Award.  Caspers’ other books of fiction include Heavier Than Air (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), awarded the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and listed as a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, and Little Book of Days (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009).  In 2013 she co-edited with Joell Hallowell a book of oral histories, Lawfully Wedded Wives:  Rethinking Marriage in the 21st Century.
     Her work has been supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a San Francisco Arts Commission Cultural Equity Grant, Barbara Deming Memorial Grant and Award, a LAMBDA Literary Award nomination, and the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award. Stories have appeared in numerous literary reviews, including Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, Cimarron Review, Black Warrior, Ontario Review, and The Sun. She is a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University and lives in San Francisco with her little dog, Edgar.


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