John Kendall Strether, or J.S. (Jāse), or Jenks, as he’d recently started to sign himself, put down his brush, wiped his hands on the tea towel that hung from a hook on the easel, and leaned his thin rump back on a high wooden stool. The portrait was the best thing he’d done—Lonnie’s skin was like untouched parchment in the December light, her flaxen hair ready to be stirred by a passing breeze. Only one detail remained: the slender fore and middle fingers of her right hand, raised in an empty V, were waiting for a cigarette.
He could have pulled a dozen pictures up on his phone to use for reference, but in his elated state he relished the idea of a Newport smoldering as he painted, as if Lonnie were already tucked on the couch again, ashtray balanced on her knee. It would add, in some ineffable way, to the work’s authenticity, a quality he’d become obsessed with since the incident.
Ann Aspell’s poems have appeared in many journals, including Spillway, Hunger Mountain, Poetry International, and La Presa, as well as the anthology The Traveler’s Vade Mecum (Red Hen Press). She received an MA in English from the University of Vermont and lives with her husband in Montpelier, the nation’s smallest state capital. A book designer, she has produced over two hundred titles for various publishers. This is her first published story.
Will Allison on “Fair Use”
This month One Story is happy and honored to bring you our second debut story of 2021, “Fair Use,” by Ann Aspell. Set in Burlington, Vermont, during a snowstorm, the story chronicles a chance encounter between two characters: Jenks is a struggling painter who was fired from his teaching job at the university—and who lost his girlfriend, Lonnie—in the wake of a plagiarism scandal. Ro is a successful visual artist passing through town en route to New York City after a museum purchased one of her paintings for its Canadian collection.
The two characters happen upon each other in a park beside Lake Champlain, and when Jenks invites Ro back to his loft to see his masterpiece-in-progress, one might expect they’ll end up in bed together, or not. What one won’t expect is what actually happens: a stunning, subversive transgression that alters the course of Jenks’s life in ways neither character anticipates.
To reveal any more would be to spoil the surprise (and other surprises to come), so I won’t. But suffice it to say, it’s a delightfully satisfying plot, rendered in confident, precise writing that no doubt benefits from Aspell’s background as a poet. The net result is an entertaining, quietly funny, and deeply thoughtful exploration of what it means to borrow from another person’s work.
Q&A by Will Allison
- WA: What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
- AA: I was teaching a freshman comp class that covered plagiarism (what it is, how to avoid it) at the same time I was reading news stories about people who should have known better being caught up in it. I began to wonder to what extent attitudes surrounding fair use—of words, images, guitar riffs—any creative output—were changing. The Jenks character, who was never sure he’d done anything wrong, began there.
- WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- AA: Switching to the second point of view so far into the narrative. I didn’t want the story to lose its momentum, but if Ro was to be more than a catalyst in Jenks’s life, a lot of backstory needed to be woven in. It would have been easier, I think, if she wasn’t such a challenging character—I really wanted her to be likeable—but in the end I had to accept that her actions, though understandable, were going to leave readers ambivalent.
- WA: Did “Fair Use” always have two viewpoint characters?
- AA: Yes. I knew I was breaking the one POV “rule” for short stories, but I couldn’t see a way around it, short of going to an omniscient narrator. The story turns on the very brief collision of two self-absorbed people—I thought the reader needed access to both of their minds for the encounter to develop beyond an ironic anecdote.
- WA: Again and again, the plot of this story defied my expectations—so many satisfying twists and turns. Did you know where the story was headed from the start?
- AA: That’s wonderful to hear—thank you! I had no idea what was going to happen when I began, but I knew who Jenks was and what he wanted to happen. The story unfolded over weeks of me asking, “And then what?” The ending, when it arrived, surprised me, too.
- WA: I also love the story’s authoritative details of visual art and the art world. Are you an artist yourself?
- AA: I’m so glad you found it convincing! But no, not an artist, though I frequently turn to the visual arts for inspiration, and I have friends who are painters or are connected to the art world in other ways.
- WA: Did you have to do any research for this story?
- AA: I had to google “how to fix an oil painting.” But for the artistic influences that shaped the two characters, I drew on past reading. Conversations With Cezanne, which Jenks dips into for his “inspiration,” is one of my favorite books about art. And as a book designer, I’m interested in letter forms and the way the alphabet has evolved as a technology; Ro’s work reflects some of those preoccupations.
- WA: This is your first published story. When did you begin writing fiction?
- AA: A little over four years ago, I took a failed poem and rewrote it as a story. That story’s been rejected many times, but I’ve stuck with fiction—I can’t account for it, but I feel freer to invent in fiction than in poetry.
- WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- AA: About three years, but there were long periods when it lay fallow.
- WA: What are you working on now?
- AA: I have a boy on a hoverboard pushing a stroller up Hospital Hill who needs my immediate attention. Beyond that, I see a story collection taking shape.
- WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- AA: Questions with the word “best” in them tend to leave me stumped. (Best on which day, in which situation?) That said, my mantra has always been “write to discover.” For me, getting something onto the page, whatever the genre, is a lot of work, but finding an unexpected connection, even in something as small as a metaphor, is a pretty great reward.