In today’s ORIGINS, Samuel J Adams discusses the origins of his story, “The Night of the Stoppering,” which appeared recently in jmww.
I began “The Night of the Stoppering” sitting on a porch in western Ohio. It faced a street with giant walnut trees and green lawns and pretty old houses with wooden shutters. There was also a wide-skirted fir (or something) where I once watched a racoon, a skunk, and an opossum enter at the same time, as if for a card game. From the porch, I saw kids and parents and dogs; homey American types; what they saw when they looked me way is not for me to say.
In the slice of California where I’m from, we’ve got a mono-season (minus, lately, the mini-season of rains, fires, and days of extreme heat). So the seasonal changes of Ohio amazed: permutations of this scene through all of atmospheric filters. So I took giant walks, and conquered the only hills available to me, and went on the porch a lot, adulterating myself with this or that, and observed: the cottontails making their inscrutable commutes, the lanky fellow who sang blue-eyed soul perfectly while he jogged, the loud breakup arguments held by couples walking with a twenty-foot wide space between them, the streets returning to the comfortably creepy quiet that sustained when the wet tires of cars weren’t swishing by. For me, everything you can see from such porches begat stories, so one evening, in the warm slow easy weeks after graduation, I sat on an Adirondack and decided to draft something in a notebook, in my fiendish, myopic longhand. This process netted me: a family, the stoppers, “jig and a haircut,” and the nighttime dreamland of western Ohio, land of astronauts and electoral tragedy; moments and a place, it got me. My writing isn’t governed by many rules, but I have a policy holds that when something falls easily out of the sky onto the page, I keep it, dressing up its impact from the landing, if needed. I use these elements with no particular pride in their finding, just the resolution to love the bits of fallen mental space junk from which I will collage a story.
Unfortunately, that policy will not, in and of itself, get me to a story (although, typed up and expanded, the first draft of “Stoppering” netted me two non-stories when I shared it with a friend, who pointed out where and why to cleave them in two). So to do my best to make things tense and fit them in a flash; I tried to interrogate and heighten all the binaries I could find within the story: disruption vs. calm; global scale vs. the family unit; comforting quiet vs. menacing silence; overreacting vs. underreacting; preparation vs. that for which there can be no preparing—all this with the maximalist goal of making everything fit in the neither and both category. I made sure that in moments of bonding Sarah and Arthur argued with each other, albeit quietly. And I made a decision to make Sarah’s calmness and strength come through by contrasting it with the hapless (if useful) good nature of her husband, made her comparative maturity a sort of normalizing anchor for the kids, while his qualities, lightened the mood, halted the mounting tragedies of life with displacing annoyance of a Dad joke, the ones he makes, and the ones I the narrator supply (namely about the kids having difficult names).
After that, the storytelling approach became a trick of balancing the global with the intimate: staying locked into the mental habits and problem-solving inclinations of parents, while modernizing the use of smart phone technology, the internet being now a space where families surely huddle for comfort as much as they do a home. Gathered at their gadgets, intimate with yet displaced from the mounting scenes of death and chaos that have not yet reached their quiet suburban street, the one Sara watches from her porch, which is based on the porch where I found this story.
The story is part of a still in-progress collection of stories set (and mostly written) in Bowling Green, Ohio where I did my MFA. All the stories were written during or soon after, the giant cultural, psychic, and even perceptual changes the country went through in the 2016 election. A bluish college town in a red area was a good vantage point to take it all on. Motherland of astronauts and presidents, kaleidoscope of coziness and blight, industry and agriculture, preservation and loss, a state Frankensteined from parts east coast, southern, midwestern, Ohio serves as a storytelling and cinematic shorthand for a normal “Anytown, USA” place. But Ohio also is the source of a book that catalyzed much of modern American fiction, Winesburg Ohio, a writhingly odd and strange affair, all told. So in a place perceived as vanilla and predicable, I was amazed at how thoroughly the freezing swamp of Ohio insisted on its oddness: the stink bugs that cast shadows in my room, the 24-hour cookie places, the teeming forests and empty trainyards and angelic cottontail bunnies. The only place I’d live with similar weather was Estonia, and so my new home seemed almost post-Soviet, drunk on indulging a Love the Lord by Ecstatically Settling for Less Consumerism (perhaps best enshrined in the field of concrete corncobs in Dublin, Ohio).
“The Night of the Stoppering” depicts cataclysmic change in which everyone does their best to keep everything normal, and in which everything normal act acquires a strange a veneer, as though it too were of arbitrary selection, done from habit for a comfort it doesn’t provide. So when I write of Ohio I write toward version of that. Stories similar to “Stoppering” appear online in BULL, Spork, Landlocked, Coffin Bell, and will appear in print in Elm Leaves Journal’s forthcoming Bliss issue.
Samuel J Adams is a writer from northern California. Recent stories of his can be found in Ruminate, Moon City Review, DIAGRAM, Monkeybicycle, and on the longlist for the Wigleaf Top 50 (2019).