Rachel Lyon, "Tripping Sunny Chaudhry"
It's December 24. Rachel Lyon, author of Self-Portrait with Boy, has Bing Crosby stuck in her head right now.
How would you describe your story?
RACHEL LYON: The bulk of "Tripping Sunny Chaudhry" is made up of the story-within-a-story that the main character's ex-boyfriend boasts of at the Christmas Eve bonfire. Really I think this short story is about the dynamics of a newly married couple. The husband feels comfortable and secure, while the wife is testing the boundaries of her new commitment. Ambivalent, she dwells on her feelings for an ex, Sean Martin, who hasn't been a part of her life for many years. She is attracted to this man's bravado, even as she is sketched out by his questionable morality, and still half in love with the pitiable boy he used to be. In the end, though, the story-within-the-story that Sean tells could almost be any story at all. The important thing is that it makes her question him, and come back to her husband with the simple satisfaction of having a man to call her own—a satisfaction that is rather morally questionable in and of itself. So on another level the story is about how Christmas is an occasion to consider sin.
When did you write it, and how did the writing process compare to your other work?
RL: I wrote this story a couple of years ago. I am not from New Jersey, my parents are not divorced, and my Christmases look nothing like this one, but nevertheless there is some distant autobiography in this piece: an ex of mine had recently told a story similar to the one Sean Martin tells in this piece. I realized after I'd written it that I actually have another short story that ends this way, with a woman expressing her love through possessiveness over another the beloved. The idea or feeling of possession of another person has always interested me. It makes for a haunting kind of love. The process of writing this story was relatively smooth and easy, maybe because I'd been toying with its themes for a long time.
What kind of research went into this story?
RL: This was a simple story that didn't require much research. I did look up common Indian names, and landed on Chaudhry because it felt familiar to me, like the name of someone I used to know.
What, to you, makes the short story a special form? What can it do that other kinds of writing can't?
RL: When it comes to short stories I'm a traditionalist. I think of the short story as a very specific form. You've got your inciting incident, your rising action, your climax, and your dénouement. Sometimes they come out of order, and they're not always equally important, but they've all always got to be in there—and when they're mixed together right, they make for a perfect catharsis.
This approach doesn't come naturally to me, actually. I often say to my student that there are tree writers and forest writers. Tree writers focus on detail and make their way through a story from tree to tree and stream to cliff. They tend to get lost in the scenery at the expense of form. Forest writers see their stories from a bird's-eye view. They might not write much sensory detail, but they know the structure of each story right away. By nature I think I have a more meandering, tangent-prone, tree writer's sort of mind, but I've been trying to train myself to be more of a forest writer, to keep in mind your basic Freytag's triangle while I write. That's part of why I often write very short stories, just a few pages long. I don't think I necessarily have the chops to write some thirty-page meditation on the human condition. I want to master the form first, to the extent that I'm able.
Where should people go to learn more about you and your work?
What's the best gift you've ever been given?
RL: There's this crazy chaotic Christmas market every year in Union Square, with all these pop-up kiosk stores that sell all kinds of kitschy gifty things: felt hats, origami ornaments, jewelry made out of coins, clocks made out of old car parts. Who knows. Among them is this funny, cheapo store that sells otherwise unremarkable items covered in Swarovski crystals. I'm a writer and deep down I'm kind of a girly girl, and roaming the market at night with a cup of hot chocolate, I fell a little in love with this ridiculous little crystal-encrusted pen. It was pretty expensive, though, so I just lusted after it from afar.
A few months after I sold my novel, some friends and I packed a picnic and a bunch of warm blankets and went to have a little celebration on Brighton beach. It was late December, dark and windy and freezing cold, but we had hot drinks and a lot of fun, and as a gift they gave me the pen I'd been wanting so badly, saying I could bring it to sign books at readings on my book tour someday. It was so thoughtful, so sweet, and so magical. I love it so much.
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