Marisa Silver on Logic and the Human Heart

Your story “Tiny, Meaningless Things” explores the relationship between a seventy-four-year-old widow and the seven-year-old boy who lives across the hall. How did the idea come to you?

I’ve been working on a collection of stories about two women, Evelyn and Helene, whose lives are thrown together through the marriage of their children, and who have a sometimes comic, sometimes antagonistic, always intense alliance. By the time this story takes place, Helene has died. Evelyn, retired from work and largely alone, has created a structure for her days that revolves around housekeeping. I began writing the story by exploring Evelyn’s state of mind in relationship to her daily tasks. Her feelings about them have something to do with her need for order and control and her emotional caution. And then, while I was writing about that, a boy appeared at her door. I say that fully aware that I imagined Scotty and put him there. But his appearance was not so much decided upon as discovered. Evelyn was busy ironing and thinking about things, framing her life in a way that suited her, and then . . . there was Scotty, ready, narratively, at any rate, to disrupt her world. When a character or a story line arrives unbidden, when my initial intention gets hijacked by my subconscious—for me, that’s where the excitement lies.

Evelyn is the mother of three adult daughters, with whom she has a somewhat strained relationship. I get the sense that she wasn’t the easiest mother. How much of the distance between them is simply generational, and how much is due to a certain rigidity or blindness in Evelyn?

Yeah, Evelyn is not an easy one! She is a sharp-edged, emotionally guarded woman. Even when her actions cause great friction, as they have with her youngest daughter, Paula, she’s unlikely to blame herself. In today’s parlance, we’d say that she has not “done a lot of work on herself.” She’d scoff at that idea! As she would at the notion of dwelling in your feelings. She would tell anyone who asked that she loves her daughters, and I think that’s true. I think they are the most important people in her life. But she can’t (or can’t yet) empathize with their sadness or struggles, because that would require her to examine her own.

There aren’t many seven-year-old boys who would choose to continually help the widow next door with her chores. What do you think it is that keeps Scotty coming back? A sense of order that he doesn’t get from his own frazzled mother?

When I write characters, especially in close third person or first person, I try not to write with a sense that I know more than they do. Or maybe a better way of saying that is that I try to fully inhabit their limited perspective. Scotty simply likes it at Evelyn’s apartment. He feels good there. He has a job to do, and she makes him feel useful. And there is a way that Evelyn’s orderliness appeals to him. And let’s not forget the lure of cinnamon toast.

Part of my attempt to adhere to the angle of vision of my characters has very much to do with the nuts and bolts of the writing itself. If I maintain that connection, then my word choices, the rhythm of my sentences, and the over-all register or tone of the piece somehow bring clarity to a character without my having to do much explaining.

Scotty’s visits reassure Evelyn that she is “intrinsically good.” Scotty wouldn’t be comfortable singing around her if she weren’t, she tells herself. First, why is she questioning her goodness, and, second, why doesn’t it occur to her that Scotty may just lack self-consciousness? Why does she need Scotty to be a kind of mirror that reflects her in a flattering light?

Evelyn has worked hard to keep herself at a distance from emotional discomfort. She is not vulnerable with people—we see that in her inability to express her feelings about the thefts to Paula—and she keeps the possibility of intimacy at arm’s length. She ended her second marriage. I think Evelyn has curated her world and her activities to conform to a certain idea of herself that she clings to. I’m sure that there are other people—her daughters, in particular—who might argue with her assessment. She’s overheard her daughters talking about her need for order in a less than flattering way. But here is Scotty, who appears at her door, and who seems to like the things she admires most in herself. He may be the only person in her life who doesn’t approach her with a critical gaze.

At one point in the story, Evelyn says, “Children know what’s what. Children and dogs.” I think that many of us have had the experience of holding a friend’s baby and feeling proud that the baby doesn’t cry, or of seeing a kid on the bus smile at us. A child’s intuitive acceptance feels like a kind of absolution. Evelyn needs some absolution.

Why do you think Scotty takes the things he takes? Does he know?

Scotty has no idea, at least none that he could verbalize. Again, I stick closely to Scotty’s perspective and try not to overlay too much analysis onto his behavior. When I write, I’m not trying to explain why a character does something. I’m trying to describe action and reaction in a way that may be unexpected but feels true. This leaves room, I hope, for a reader to become curious, and to look for the more resonant and even metaphorical implications of behavior. For me, the aim of putting behavior on the page is to reach beyond psychological cause and effect toward something more unknowable about the way people are. I’m not sure that logic really applies to the human heart, and it is not what draws me to write about characters in fiction. I’m looking for something on the outskirts of logic. We are enigmas, oftentimes to ourselves. That’s what I want to put on the page.

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