Andrew Riconda’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and crime-fiction publications, including The Amherst Review, The William and Mary Review, Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Class Review, and Rio Grande Review. One of his stories was selected for The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. He’s a recipient of a Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award for 2021. In this post he discusses the inspiration for his debut story for EQMM, “If I Could Walk My Brother Into the Deep Woods,” which appears in EQMM’s current issue (November/December 2022), as well as other sources of inspiration that writers may want to try tapping. —Janet Hutchings
One of the most famous lines in The Catcher in the Rye is its first, the one about “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” the personal stuff Holden is not willing to share much of with us because it would give his folks “two hemorrhages a piece” if he did.
My parents would’ve been solidly in the hemorrhaging camp.
Let me give you a little last week, late night autobiography:
On the eve of the publication of my first story for EQMM, I had this dream: I am at a place I used to write at in NYC, The Writers Room, but, of course, it’s not that place; it seems to be an airport hangar. I’m pushing my writer’s desk to a sunny spot on the floor amenable for great wordsmithing, but I push too hard and fast and the desk bumps into another writer’s desk, a pretty librarian type, and knocks the urn containing her father’s ashes to the ground. She’s angry, I apologize, and she says, “Now you’re standing in him!” I sheepishly start to pick up her dead dad’s particles, but then the ashes and the linoleum beneath become quicksand and my left foots begins to sink. I ask the writer if she wants me to continue to collect her dearly departed’s dust (I am often polite to a fault, that’s my way), and she says, “No, I’ll just sue you—and your family,” and points to my right where my late mother has materialized only to remain mute on the entire subject (and that was her way). At that point, the Executive Director of the Writers Room shows up (for the last thirty years, she has been the big sister Mom and Dad refused to give me), and, deus ex machina, proclaims, “She will not sue.” (It would’ve been better, of course, Donna, if you had said, “She shall not sue.”)
The dream should’ve ended there (there was something about me having to drive Diane Lane to her matinee performance of Annie; I assume she was playing Miss Hannigan), and I could’ve jotted off a snotty Thank You note to my psyche for allowing me to so blissfully enjoy publication day.
I do not think I have to invent a therapist of Dr. Melfian proportions to interpret. It goes without saying that I’m proud of the story’s inclusion in this venerated magazine, but I think it’s also clear I have some of the same misgivings about picking the delicate fruit from the family tree—even though Mom and Dad, and the brother and aunt depicted in the story are all deceased. (The aunt, it should be noted, was as quadruple-hemorrhage proponent, for years saying if I ever wrote about her she would haunt me from beyond the grave; this has not come to pass unless you consider me still receiving Verizon FiOS offers in her name the best she can muster from the Beyond.)
So what do you do if you want to (or, dear Lord, have to) borrow from your own life for the fictional ones you create? Well, first, you wait for all your closest relatives who will take issue to pass way. Done? Good!
But wait: Maybe you’re too impatient for that. Then what? Well, there are several approaches that have worked for me, some easier than others.
THE STALE BREAD APPROACH—
Stale bread doesn’t have to be just for the birds, it’s great for stuffing, too. An old anecdote from your father’s childhood, or his mother’s (like the one week she worked at Macy’s in Manhattan and got fired because two men walked right past her and out the door with a canoe they hadn’t paid for), can be a great place to start. You are such removed from the events, they may be more readily accessed with less fretting than the more personal stuff (like that sonuvabitch McDonald’s manager that made me count ice cubes in the freezer one night). I recently used my grandfather, whom I never had the pleasure to be acquainted with, in such a manner. He was a professional baseball player, and during a game he got into a spiking war with Ty Cobb and they both got kicked out of the game.
Perhaps getting your feet wet in this manner will allow a progression to it being almost all about you elsewhere:
THE MY BROTHER-IN-LAW IS AN IDIOT APPROACH—
Are you now ready to dip further into the autobio pool? I would suggest starting at the shallow end, the family members you hate. Your brother-in-law, he’s always been a bit of a jerk, right? Maybe he thinks boiled eggs should be broken at the big end rather than at the little end or he thinks Roger Moore was the better James Bond, whatever.
You can set off to capture the absolute scurrilous and contemptible with reckless abandon—enjoy! And perhaps you are secure in the knowledge that your subject is an illiterate and you know there’s no way he or she will ever encounter a New Yorker or Harper’s even in a doctor’s office, let alone some obscure literary journal you’ve warted with their, ah, wartiness.
And you may come out of your righteous rancor surprised. I workshopped a borderline sociopath of a brother-in-law story once, only to find my audience found him more sympathetic than the family he intends to kill over Thanksgiving dinner. That certainly wasn’t my intent; yet, the result was more satisfying. Again, it would seem I wasn’t really making it all about me.
Of course, the closer you get to home, the dicier this all gets. As the poet Hans Gruber said, “Sooner or later I might get to someone you do care about.”
And there are two approaches to try here: Be Honest. Or Lie Like Hell.
THE LIE LIKE HELL APPROACH—
This one is also called the “I always tell the truth, even when I lie,” per another poet, Tony Montana. Some of my first-draft readers have commented that the fathers I depict are a rather unsavory lot of cheats, liars, and scoundrels and I must’ve had a heck of a home life.
My Bad Dads are indeed based on my father, but in a very different way than conjectured. My dad was a wonderful, kind human being with heart bigger than all outdoors—and much of the indoors, too. (Mom, you were aces too, FYI). So, what do I do when I need an appalling pop on paper? I think what my father would do and say, and then I have the fictional louse do the exact opposite.
THE HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY (BUT DON’T BEAT IT TO DEATH) APPROACH—
My EQMM story is a “brother’s keeper” story, a fictional distillation of many actual encounters I had with my eldest sibling, who battled with schizophrenia for many, many sad years. I was designated to be my brother’s keeper by my parents’ will (literally), but had been handling those duties for years anyway—it was expected of me from everyone, including myself. I often felt alone in this legal and moral conservatorship. But he was there, too, my brother, and a certain amount of resentfulness festers within the kept as well as the keeper. It’s that tension that I wanted to write about. But it was all so close, and so recent . . . and my brother may be gone, but I’m not. So, I opted for a sort of snatch and grab approach, get in and out, hoping concision wouldn’t derail feeling. Brevity is the soul of wit, but I hoped it could work for the somber stuff, too.
Onward and inward:
THE FUTURE IMPERFECT TENSE ME APPROACH—
I’m in the midst of a Love in the Age of Covid story right now, and the protagonist is a good-looking, witty fella named Andrew Riconda. Well, I thought he was the protagonist. After rereading the latest draft, I’m thinking he’s perhaps the antagonist. And a bit of a worm at that. But we’ll see how it goes: I hope at least his creator tries his best to be an honest worm in his rendering.
Perhaps all of these above were not so much approaches, perhaps they were more rungs of a ladder taking me closer and closer to something. I heard David Duchovny paraphrasing Neil Simon on Real Time with Bill Maher recently: It’s all autobiographical, even the stuff I make up. Maybe so, and maybe when you get to the last rung of the fictional ladder you’re face-to-face with nothing more than a mirror. So, is it ever really me, myself or I? I dunno. In the movies, when they still made movies about people, they used to say, “inspired by true events.” Inspired, that word gives us a lot of leeway for the truths and alt-truths we create about ourselves. So much so, it’s rather inspiring.