I set out to write a novel, but it fractured into episodes. I fought this disintegration for a long time, trying in vain to hold the pieces together, convincing myself that I had failed to live up to my vision. Then one day I realized it wasn’t me, it was the subject that couldn’t hold to the novel form. The subject was “holidays,” and as I discovered, it’s perfectly suited to the short story. Here’s how it all happened.
There’s this guy. Let’s call him Larry. Middle aged. Outward successful. Rich, even. But Larry’s got some regrets and some dark secrets. One is a girl he once loved. The biggest mistake of his life might have been letting her go. The other is the source of his wealth, the result of a strange coincidence that led him to make an unethical choice that haunts him still. His story is told chronologically from the time he and this girl get together.
There’s this girl. Let’s call her Julie. Middle aged. Outwardly successful until her life falls apart just before the novel opens. She’s got a couple of grown kids who’ve moved away, a husband who’s just run off and no career. Julie also has a dark secret, one that involves Larry, though he doesn’t know anything about it. This secret caused a kind of splintering in her life after she moved away to go to university so she constantly imagines herself living other lives. After the trauma of her husband’s abandonment, she decides to move back to her hometown where she imagines herself beginning again. Her story is told as a series of flashbacks after she returns home and happens upon Larry on, of all days, Valentine’s Day.
And there you have it, the seed of destruction. Valentine’s Day is a particular kind of day, one for which we have certain expectations. We will feel this way. We will do that. We will be happy. Of course, the truth about Valentine’s Day – and about Julie’s life – is that it’s just as likely to make us feel ways we don’t want to feel, ways we believe are not appropriate for that day. We are just as likely to feel like failures because our lives haven’t lived up to our collectively mythologized version of the perfect romantic life that this holiday presents as normal.
Larry’s story starts out as a baby in his mother’s arms as she carries him into a house as stuffed at Christmas as the turkeys in the oven, but with uncles, aunts and cousins. At the centre of this scene are a larger than life great grandmother and great grandfather who are a kind of judgement on what baby Larry will become. Another seed of destruction planted.
The novel fell apart… a short story collection was born.
I realized that holidays are like short stories – they concentrate human experience. At holidays, families gather, expectations rise and are met or not, myths grow out of our experience. Joys and sorrows, successes and failures are intensified. In other words, holidays are microcosms of life. And the short story is the perfect form to explore the subject because they too are concentrated, episodic in nature, pivoting on a single event.
I wrote about a father at his first Christmas after a separation from his wife. I wrote about children giving each other candy hearts and cards at Valentine’s Day and how adult expectations about romantic love can be disastrous in kids. I wrote about the end of summer at Labour Day and how that holiday can ask us to measure the joy we’ve managed to accumulate or not to that point in our lives. I wrote about April Fool’s day and Halloween. I set one story in Jamaica where the main character is on a winter holiday. I wrote about a young man working after graduation and about an older couple learning how to live with each other all over again after retirement. I even wrote a story that takes place during the hockey playoffs when, at least around here, fans seem to take a spring holiday to watch them.
In the end, I wrote 18 holiday stories. Borealis Press liked the idea and my book called – what else – Holidays has just been published. (If you want a copy, visit my website) In all, 13 of those stories made it into the collection. A version of Larry’s story as a baby at Christmas opens the collection. It’s called “What It Would Make of Him as He Went Along.” Julie’s experience didn’t quite succeed as a short story, so it didn’t make the cut. But it could yet anchor a novel.
Author Darcy Rhyno with Relatives
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