1 Camille Bordas on How Children Bend Time By Willing Davidson The New Yorker This Week in Fiction February 28, 2022 The author discusses “One Sun Only,” her story from the latest issue of the magazine. In “One Sun Only,” your story in this week’s issue, a father is at home with his two children; in the course of an evening, they deal with the aftermath of his father’s death, plus a couple of slightly smaller tragedies. The story takes place entirely in the home, and takes just a few hours, in which no new momentous events occur. And yet it’s totally gripping. How do you go about constructing a story that expands outward from such a constrained plot? Photograph by Adam Levin This almost never happens to me, but, for “One Sun Only,” I had a sense of the story’s scope from the beginning. I knew that it would all take place in one apartment and in one evening. The working title, for a while, was “Friday Night with Children.” I’m not a parent, but I have babysat and nannied a lot over the years, and I always thought that I would write one day about the distortion of time that can happen around children, about how, because your level of energy never matches theirs, you can end up feeling like you’ve given them your all but then you look at your watch and see that only five minutes have passed and the kids are still at 99.5 per cent. That’s not really where the story ended up going, but that was a starting point, and traces of this initial impulse remain, like when the narrator complains about time moving too slowly when his kids are around. It’s not that he finds them boring (I’ve actually never met a boring child, and I’m not sure I could write a convincing one); it’s that he feels they exist in a parallel reality, and that he has to be the one to do the work of meeting them in theirs, because he wants to be a good father, and he thinks that’s what a good father does. So he tries to meet his children in child-time, but he’s very stuck in adult-time all the while (thinking about his own father, his book, his failed marriage), and I liked that friction. The story proceeds and expands outward from it, I think. In part, at least. There are many sad things in this story—the death of a father, and those of a puppy and a school janitor, plus a divorce—but the tone is never quite sad. Instead, it’s wistful, maybe accepting. Does tone come from intention, in your stories, and how do you get it to work against the grain of the events of a story? I struggle with the word “intention.” Which I probably shouldn’t admit, because I use it a lot in class. But, there, I’ve said it. Narrative intentions are often retroactive for me. I usually only start a story (or any day of work, really) with two intentions: to write good sentences, and to not be boring. Other than that, I let the story decide where it’s going, and it’s only once I know where it was headed that I can revise it in that direction and pretend that I had intention all along. Tone, however, I have a more immediate grasp on. I didn’t want the story to be a sad story. That’s why all the sad stuff you mention happens before it even starts—I don’t expect a reader to be heartbroken over the loss 2 of characters that he’s never met. I placed my narrator in the aftermath of all this, in a moment where he sees that life has resumed somewhat normally for others while he’s still stuck. There’s a lot of his thinking about other people in the story, and how differently time seems to be moving for them. His colleague’s life is exciting, his ex-wife is getting drunk somewhere with a friend, young people are going out to party, his sister-in-law is expecting. . . . But he’s home, not writing, with children who, to his mind, are not growing fast enough. The tone of the story had to accommodate all of this. You’re from France, have lived in Chicago, and now live in Florida. You’ve set stories in the first two places, but not yet in Florida, as far as I can tell. How long does it take a place to get metabolized, so to speak, before you can use it in fiction? And how would this story be different if it were set in Florida? VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER Crossword Puzzles with a Side of Millennial Socialism It’s as much a question of time as distance for me. On a physical level, I think I’ve metabolized Florida all right. At least, the heat doesn’t hurt as much as it used to, and I accept the odd lizard in the kitchen. A stray frog in the bathroom at work won’t give me a heart attack. (However, my friend and colleague Ange Mlinko once found a living bat taking a nap in her office trash can, and that I don’t think I could have handled with nearly as much good humor as she did.) It’s still a bit weird to me, though, this place, and I think that as long as it remains that way I won’t write much about it. I don’t want to be a writer writing, “Reader! Look at how weird this is!” But maybe I’ll realize how much I understand about the place if I spend some time away from it. I’m starting, four years after leaving Chicago, to write stories that are set in my old neighborhood, because Chicago makes more sense to me now that I don’t live there anymore. Maybe it’s as simple as the place no longer being polluted by the little details of my everyday life, enabling me to see it more clearly, to project fictional characters onto the setting. It’s funny to imagine this story in Florida, though. I think, if I were to write a Gainesville version, the family wouldn’t be at home but in a motel, while their house is being tented for termites. You see this a lot here, houses covered in blue tarp for forty-eight hours while pest control saturates them with termite poison. I don’t know why, but this strikes me as the proper beginning for “One Sun Only, the Florida Edit.” All the family’s belongings being blasted with toxic chemicals while they eat fried chicken in a motel room. In the past few years, you’ve published a number of stories in The New Yorker. Can you identify anything that unites them, or something that they, as a whole, are working toward? I’d never really read short stories before I moved to the United States. Not even Maupassant, which in retrospect strikes me as odd, since it seems every French kid reads him at some point in junior high. Perhaps my class read him the year I skipped a lot of school. Before the age of twenty-five, as a French person, the way I saw the short story was as an outdated form. I didn’t know how alive it was elsewhere. This horrified my husband when we met. On our first date, he bought me a copy of “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” by George Saunders, and I guess it all started from there. I had a lot of reading to catch up on. It still took me a couple of years of reading stories, hundreds of them, before the idea of writing one even occurred to me. All this to say that, when I look back on the past seven years (which is how long I’ve been writing stories), what I see is a lot of 3 experimentation, although I don’t imagine many other readers see that. (My work definitely isn’t what’s usually considered “experimental.”) To me, that’s what it comes down to: I spent seven years playing with the form, seeing what it allowed for, jumping from first to third person, leaping through time, compressing entire life stories into single paragraphs. I had a lot of fun. I still am having a lot of fun. I love taking breaks from the novel I’m working on to write stories. But, as for what unites them on paper, what it all “means,” it’s hard for me to say. They’re pure fiction, yet they have been a way for me to engage with the real world. They all feature people thinking. Often (but not always!), someone has died or dies or is about to die. Time exerts pressure. The stories are concerned with characters more than societal issues. They’re not taking a moral stand, or making political statements; but I’ve now started talking about what the stories are not, so it’s probably a sign that I should stop trying to define them. There’s a Philip Roth line that came to mind, though, when you asked the question. In “Reading Myself and Others,” he writes, “My own feeling is that times are tough for a fiction writer when he takes to writing letters to his newspaper rather than those complicated, disguised letters to himself, which are stories.” Willing Davidson is a senior editor at The New Yorker. Downloaded from https://www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-ﬁction/ca mille-bordas-03-07-22?