My mother was thrilled to be dying of brain cancer after a lifetime of smoking. She had dodged the bullet of lung cancer after all, she triumphantly announced to me on the phone that summer afternoon. All those years my brothers and I had hassled her, lectured her, begged her, berated her (“Don’t you want to see your grandchildren graduate from college?”)—and for what? Her lungs were fine! She’d finally quit two years before, after a bitter and tumultuous relationship with patches and gum and hypnosis and electric cigarettes, but look!—there’d been no need! The long-dreaded cancer had found some other place to roost.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked her. “Throw a party?” I was trembling from the inside out—my mother was dying—and furious at her for reporting her diagnosis so flippantly, as if I, too, would be so thoroughly amused by the irony that the news would just roll right off me. I looked out the kitchen window and saw my children in the backyard, their half-naked bodies slick from the sprinkler, their hair nearly sparkling in the sunlight. It was a suffocating Midwestern Saturday smack in the middle of July. My son was rolling up my daughter in a badminton net.
“I would love a party!” she said. “Just the two of us. Leave Kevin with the kids, and we’ll send your father away and indulge for a few days. Can you?”
Susan Perabo is writer in residence and an associate professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She is the author of a novel, The Broken Places, and a collection of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be (both from Simon & Schuster). Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including Story, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun.
Q&A by Will Allison
- WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- SP: I wanted to write a love letter to cigarettes. I wanted to write a story that genuinely, without irony, celebrated smoking. I am no longer a smoker, but I enjoyed every cigarette I ever smoked, all 47,000 of them. I loved to smoke, and now, ten years after quitting, I recall cigarettes with an affection that I feel for no other nonliving thing.
- WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- SP: Once I realized what was going to happen in the end (and I realized this within the first couple of pages), I had to forget that it was going to happen so that I could write the story as if it were all really taking place. I did not want to break the spell for myself, or I knew I would break the spell for the reader. Once I realized I had to do this, it was not hard to do, because, as it turned out, it was just an extension of what fiction writers do with every story. As you’re writing, you’re believing. The people are real, and the events are happening, full stop. That’s essential.
- WA: And the most satisfying aspect?
- SP: Writing about smoking in this celebratory way was an indulgence for me. I also enjoyed writing about the O. J. Simpson trial, which—under different circumstances—I did spend a great deal of time watching with my mother.
- WA: Can you tell us a little about the title?
- SP: [Editor’s note: spoiler alert!] As I mentioned, it was, truly, an indulgence for me to write the story. Also, I wrote most of the ending very early in the process (after I realized that’s where I was going), and I felt that the line about indulging in revision was really the crux of the whole thing. I briefly considered calling it “Things I Meant to Tell My Mother Before She Died,” thus giving away the ending, acknowledging the trick up front, for people to get, or not. But I decided against this.
- WA: The ending of this story will come as a surprise—albeit a highly satisfying surprise—to most readers. Was the ending part of your original conception of the story?
- SP: [Editor’s note: another spoiler alert!] It was not part of the conception, but after I wrote the first scene—the phone call—I had the idea, and I leapt ahead and wrote the end, almost exactly as it reads now. Then, as I said, I made myself forget it and went back and wrote the rest of the story. As I neared the end, I considered that maybe I’d made a mistake, that maybe it was a cheap trick. (“No tricks,” Raymond Carver said. I used to have this on a Post-it note above my desk.) I had become invested in the story, and I was really, really sad to discover (well, rediscover) that the narrator had made it all up. When I felt that profound sadness, that was when I realized I had to do it. I wanted the reader to feel the same sadness.
- WA: Does “Indulgence” include any autobiographical elements?
- SP: Indeed it does.
- WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- SP: A few months of thinking, a few weeks of drafting, a few months of tinkering.
- WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- SP: This isn’t exactly “advice,” but over my desk (where “No tricks,” among other bits of Post-it advice, used to live) I have for many years now had only William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Every line is crucial, and different ones speak to me at different times, depending on what I’m working on, but the one that speaks the most to me these days is, “I decline to accept the end of man.” It plays in my head, in a loop, and in Faulkner’s voice. (I’ve also listened to the recording many times.) “I decline to accept the end of man.” Is that writing advice? I suppose, in a way, that it is. Maybe it’s even what happens at the end of my story (she realizes, in a flash of inspiration).