Alas My Love, You Do Me Wrong
The week Smiley dies is like any other week. It begins with a Monday and ends with a Sunday, or begins with a Sunday and ends with a Saturday, whichever you prefer. It is neither winter nor spring, but a season in-between that dawdles, stretches out indefinitely. There are calla lilies and birds-of-paradise in bloom, and the courtyard of Smiley’s apartment building is dominated by white-blossomed trees that everyone swears smell like semen. There are eleven apartments in all, including the manager’s, in an old but well-maintained building; it sits in a border neighborhood of the city that is neither trendy nor dilapidated, an area that was once firmly middle-class.
Its tenants consist of in-between types, those who don’t fit in either Hollywood or Central Los Angeles. The majority of the apartments face in, towards each other; the public space is dotted with barbecues, potted plants, green plastic furniture and a single set of bamboo wind chimes.
Melissa Yancy is a graduate of the Master’s of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she works at a not-for-profit mental health agency for teens on probation. She is presently working on various pieces of fiction (both short and long).
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- MY: A neighbor, not surprisingly. He lived in the building next to mine, and from the deck above my garage I could see and hear some of the goings-on over there. There was a wall in the alley that kept getting tagged, and it didn’t look innocent. Taggers prefer visible spots, not hidden garages, and it was filled with ominous, cliché stuff like 187 and a guy’s name with a line through it, so it seemed like it was a message, and I thought it was directed at this particular guy. I kept thinking he was going to get shot. He never did, though. Not that I know of.
- HT: Was it difficult to get inside so many different characters?
- MY: No, not at all, though some of the characters are more fully realized than others, I’m sure. I’m character focused, sometimes at the expense of everything else. What was more difficult was not being able to get inside Smiley; we only see him through other points-of-view, other characters’ loaded ideas about him.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- MY: After a number of people read the story, I realized it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. What really interested me was how the characters would feel after Smiley was dead, their potential guilt, relief, whatnot, and we never get to see any of that. We only build up to the moment. I wanted the reader to flash forward in a sense, to experience whatever culpability the characters would feel when they found out about his death. But that doesn’t exist in the text. It’s not causal—these neighbors aren’t directly responsible for Smiley’s death—he was shot by someone they don’t know, for a reason they don’t know. But I wanted to focus on the small things they might have done or thought leading up to that day that could make them feel that they’d contributed to the world and circumstances in which his death occurs. I suppose that was a way for me to try to get at the larger sense of responsibility we often feel for people and events that are far removed from us. That we have and haven’t caused. It seems like an American curse.
- HT: Do Los Angeles ice cream trucks really play Greensleeves?
- MY: They do. And they come by year-round. Evidence that LA really is interesting.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- MY: If you can’t write, lower your standards.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- MY: Revising a batch of stories. Writing a novel.