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Camille Bordas on How Children Bend Time[One Sun Only] Davidson NYer 2022Feb28 (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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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