Maurice or Diary of a Short Story by Danielle McLaughlin
The Irish Times Book Club author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets explores the convoluted evolution of one story, The Smell of Dead Flowers, over many drafts
Danielle McLaughlin: If the initial characters and plot have fled the scene by the time the story ends, have I not simply abandoned one story for another without the inconvenience of opening a new notebook? To which I can only say that as I write I am chasing a certain core feeling or hunch that builds around an image or series of images, and it is this elusive thing that I follow through various shape-shifting characters and scenarios
My stories tend to change hugely between first draft and final draft. How then can you say that it’s the same story, somebody asked me once. Good question, I remember thinking. If the initial characters and plot have fled the scene by the time the story ends, have I not simply abandoned one story for another without the inconvenience of opening a new notebook? To which I can only say that as I write I am chasing a certain core feeling or hunch that builds around an image or series of images, and it is this elusive thing that I follow through various shape-shifting characters and scenarios.
The Smell of Dead Flowers, one of the longer stories in my collection, began in a Tessa Hadley workshop at West Cork Literary Festival in 2012. I was reading Tessa’s collection, Married Love, that week, also William Trevor’s After Rain, and I remember lying on the floor of my room in the Maritime Hotel, starting the story. As part of an exercise we’d been given, I had to incorporate an autobiographical element and so I chose a collection of dead butterflies I had as a child. Back in 2012, the story was called Unending Flight and the opening featured a fanlight, inspired I think by a detail on the cover of Married Love. The story had two characters: a middle-aged man called Maurice and his slightly older sister, Lou Anne.
Fast forward to early October 2012 and the story has acquired a scene in a psychiatric hospital in Portrane. Looking back over drafts from that time, I see that the hospital offered itself up in great detail: the corridors, the statues, the ceilings, the sheets, the sink with its cracked tiles, the view across the hospital grounds. Maurice, whose background up to this point was pretty sketchy, has emerged from the narrative mist to reveal himself to be a surgeon on his first visit home from the US in 10 years. Various drafts later and by mid-October I am reasonably sure that the story will be about Maurice’s guilt surrounding the death of another sister, Cassie. But by the end of October Maurice is not co-operating. Any which way I try to lead him, he is awkward. I decide that the story must start further back, and I put him at the airport, at the baggage carousel, at Glasnevin Cemetery. The story is at this stage approximately 5,000 words long. It still has Lou Anne and the dead butterflies, because a story must have some dead things; this is non-negotiable.
By late November I have tired of the airport thing as well as the cemetery thing. Possibly out of sheer exasperation, I decide I will simply land Maurice unceremoniously into an upstairs bedroom of his old family home and will take it from there. Looking back now, I can see that Maurice was reluctant to be part of this story at all. Like a recalcitrant horse, he was refusing every fence. Perhaps at this point, still just a few months in, I should have ditched Maurice, cut my losses, but no, I would not let him go.
End of January and the story has acquired a redemptive second half. It is a rather sickeningly sentimental ending that involves absolution of sorts for Maurice and a commemorative statue. Oh, and birds. The birds are alive and this in itself should have told me something. My editor will not like this ending, most other people won’t like it either, it will be short-lived. I send it out to Bridport. Because I don’t work on stories while they are out on submission, nothing more happens until September 2013 when the Bridport results are notified and I learn that the story was shortlisted but didn’t progress further. By the end of September the sickly ending is gone and with it the happy, living birds. I send the story out again, but it slinks back to me, tail between its legs.
There follows a despondent gap until February 2014 at which point I begin working on it again and change the title to Flight, though in most other respects it remains essentially the same story. A breakthrough occurs in June 2014 when I attend a workshop with MJ Hyland at London Short Story Festival. Up until then, the story was in third person. I switch it to first and interesting things start to happen. “Focus on the main character,” MJ advises. But wasn’t that what I was doing? I was focusing on Maurice. And that was when it hit me. Maurice wasn’t, and never would be, the main character in this story. It was time to let Maurice go, kindly but firmly; to follow him to his desk and stand over him as he packed his belongings into a cardboard box, to escort him to the car park.
But what now? In July 2014, the “I” voice morphs into a 34-year-old Irish woman, working as a doctor in the US (Maurice still casting a shadow). She is an old friend of Lou Anne’s sister Cassie, Cassie in this version being alive, and the story becomes one about mercy killing. Come August 2014, the story has acquired a new title: Day Trip to the Lake. It keeps the Drumcondra setting, but now part of the story takes place at, yes, you’ve guessed it, a lake. Nobody returns from the US. The narrator has become a teenager arriving in Dublin from Co Clare to attend university and lodge with a friend of her mother’s, although in a bit of reverse narrative engineering, she will later travel from Ireland to the US. There is a young man called Marcus. The hospital is gone, though I move some of its furnishings into the house in Drumcondra and then take them out again.
The story takes hold in a way that earlier versions didn’t. I retitle it The Smell of Dead Flowers and in various drafts through September and October the word count grows to just under 9,000 words. Jean Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea have somehow insinuated themselves into the narrative. Cassie is there still, not at the hospital but at the house, alive. Lou Anne and the dead butterflies have survived to the bitter end. This is the version, give or take, that will eventually be published in the collection. I see from my computer that I have sent this story, in various incarnations, to my long-suffering writing group at least five times.
But what now is to become of Maurice? Looking back over my material, I see that I have written thousands of words about this middle-aged, troubled man striving to make sense of his past, dealing with unprocessed grief. I have a dozen or more unused scenes: Maurice in the hospital, in the grounds, in a US hospital, at the airport, the cemetery, his old family home. It strikes me that amid all this detritus lies another, different, story. Now that Maurice has been freed from the influence of Lou Anne and Cassie, it just might find its way out. Reading over my earliest handwritten scribbles, one sentence in particular catches my eye. It is a sentence I wrote back in 2012 in the Maritime Hotel and looking at my notes I think it may once have been the opening sentence: “Twice during the night he had got out of bed with the thought of leaving.” And there it is, waiting for me still: Maurice’s story.
Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin is published by Stinging Fly