Many years later, knots of grief cinched intractably within her, Ruth still urged her memory back to their first evening together: drinks at a posh restaurant on the shores of Lake Erie, how Gus offered to pay long before the bartender even noticed them, how he spoke so earnestly of dovetail joints. He wore a flannel shirt and carpenter’s jeans with fabric gone thin at the knees. He was wiry as a cornstalk and always would be. That night he spoke of how he wanted to make desks. “Desks!” he said, smiling as if he knew how absurd it sounded. For now he had his union card and worked what jobs came his way.
Ruth was working on her Ph.D. in applied mathematics at Case Western, studying stochastics. She spoke at length about her research, which involved probability theory, random variables, and chaotic systems. Gus listened with genuine interest, and when she finally paused to say, “Does that make sense?” he admitted that he wasn’t a graduate student, wasn’t a student at all, had in fact never been to a college campus. “I doubt I can even spell stochastic,” he said, “but I love listening to you talk about it.”
Brad Felver’s fiction and essays have recently appeared in Colorado Review, Hunger Mountain, Harpur Palate, Midwestern Gothic and elsewhere, and his story “Out of the Bronx” won the 2015 Zone 3 Fiction Award. He lives with his wife and son in northern Ohio where he teaches at Bowling Green State University.
Hannah Tinti on “Queen Elizabeth”
I love a good love story. But boy, are they hard to pull off! The risk is getting too sentimental, or, leaning too far in the other direction, and becoming cynical and heartless. Every once in a while, however, a writer skillfully walks the emotional line, capturing the complicated truth of what it feels like to be bound to another human soul. “Queen Elizabeth,” by Brad Felver, strikes a perfect balance between reality and hopefulness, and blossoms just like the ancient tree at the center of this heartwarming tale. A great deal of its success has to do with the authentic and complex characters Felver creates: Ruth, a mathematician who uses numbers to cope with her emotions, and Gus, an artisan woodworker, who creates beautiful, handmade desks (that will haunt the dreams of any writer who reads this story). “Queen Elizabeth” begins with a tussle over the bill on a first date, and ends many years later, with Ruth and Gus sitting across from each other once again, feeling the same pull towards each other that they did when they first met. Between these two brilliant set pieces, Brad Felver skips through time, zeroing in on the briefest of moments that often define our lives. I hope that you’ll read Brad Felver’s thoughtful Q&A with us, where he discusses everything from woodworking to Euclidean planes, and even gives a glimpse into Gus and Ruth’s future, past the memorable ending of this marvelously satisfying love story.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
- BF: I wanted to write a story about two people who are helplessly tethered together. So I started by writing a bunch of little vignettes about this couple even though I had no idea how anything might connect. This was an unusual way for me to start. Usually I begin with a predicament that seems ripe with conflict and complexity. But I just kept writing those vignettes, and it was so liberating to not even think about things like characterization or conflict or tension. Slowly, a story started to emerge, and I liked the way that those short sections connected without any obvious transitions. It struck me as true—we remember such strange, random things about our lives. Occasionally, these are big life moments, but most of the time, it’s more mundane, day-to-day stuff that only feels important much later.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- BF: Finding the right gestures for those little sections. I realized early on that I was playing a connect-the-dots game: these sections had to add up to a whole that felt like half a lifetime for two different people. I wanted each one to feel almost like a random snapshot for the reader, though of course they couldn’t be random at all. But that’s the job, right? Painstakingly building the machinery of story and then making sure to hide all the gears from the reader. I wrote dozens of those vignettes that never made it into the story, and cutting those was no fun at all. I also became a father while I was writing this story, and that changed, well, everything. Beyond the logistical stuff (re-training myself to write at my son’s convenience rather than my own), I found that I became much like Gus—I fixated on keeping him safe. I’m not a worrier by nature, but fatherhood has turned me into one. I found myself agonizing over what I would do if something happened to him. I felt compelled to write about this, but making it fictional rather than personal, and fitting it into the demands of this particular story, proved difficult.
- HT: This is such a heartfelt love story—and love stories are so hard to write! Were you at all nervous to go “romantic”? Curious as well, if there are any love stories that you’ve read that inspired you?
- BF: Nervous? No, I’m utterly terrified about going romantic, even now, and even more terrified that it borders on maudlin. In all seriousness, one thing I strive to be is earnest. There’s so much sarcasm and insincerity in the world, and it can really beat you down. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. But any love story that works at all has to be earnest, and I was reaching for that here. I love how James Salter wrote about love. It always felt tender and honest without being saccharine. Also Jim Harrison, Marilynne Robinson, Per Petterson, Annie Proulx, William Trevor, Virginia Woolf. I think each of them captured, for me, anyway, one of the strangest contradictions of being love—how internally, it feels raucous and loud, but externally, this often manifests itself in quiet, if only because humans seem ill-equipped to articulate any of this.
- HT: The details of Gus’s beautiful, handmade desks are so vivid. Have you ever done any woodworking yourself?
- BF: I’ve been a woodworker all my life, though I should be clear that I’m not on Gus’s level. He’s an artist; I’m a guy with a table saw. But you don’t have to be a good woodworker to enjoy it.
- HT: Gus insists on three-legs—a Euclidean plane—when building his desks. You also bring in mathematics with Ruth, whose specialty is stochastics, and again, when the subject of atoms comes up after Annabelle’s diagnosis. What made you decide to weave these mathematical elements into the story?
- BF: I wish I had a good answer to this, but I really don’t. These things happen mysteriously sometimes. I think I was probably reading some oddball stuff about Newtonian physics or cosmology that seeped its way into my brain. Often when a story is giving me fits, I go read, often nonfiction, and I’m always shocked by the solutions that good books suggest. In this case, I remember being struck by the art v. science approach to grief.
- HT: What inspired the tree, Queen Elizabeth?
- BF: It’s based on a real tree on our old family homestead in Mercer County, Ohio. In 2007, we had to sell the property. It had been in our family for 151 years. While working on this story, I also wrote an essay about that tree and my need to age it. I just can’t get it out of my head, and I’ll probably write about it more in the future. An old tree is just such a good anchor for both place and time.
- HT: The end of the story feels hopeful. What are Ruth & Gus’s chances, do you think? Will they build another country together?
- BF: I’m so glad to hear that it’s ambiguous enough to suggest the possibility of hope. And I certainly don’t want to tell anyone how to read the story. Once it’s out of my hands, I don’t get to do that anymore. That said, no, I don’t think Gus and Ruth will end up back together. I originally tried an ending to the story where they did reconcile, but it just felt false. Too authorial. I spent a long time on this story, which means that I grew attached to Gus and Ruth. That can be a dangerous thing when you must do bad things to your characters. Ultimately, I knew that my loyalty had to be to the story, to telling a story that struck me as true, and that meant making some tough calls. This pushed me back toward my original notion—to write a story about two people who are helplessly tethered together. Even at the end of the story, that’s still true, though the tether has turned into a set of shackles. That reversal struck me as true and sad and oddly satisfying all at once.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- BF: About two years to get a full draft that I wasn’t embarrassed to show my wife. Then it sat on the shelf for a few months so I could agonize over all the remaining problems. Once you were kind enough to pick it up at One Story, we went through some more re-writes. So, call it two and a half years from start to finish. A long time for one story, but I was working on other projects during that time, of course. I jump around a lot, which tends to keep my energy-level up.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- BF: I’m trying to finish up a novella at the moment. I’m also deep into a novel that I’d love to get back to. I’m very excited about each of them—they’ve each sprouted some vital organs at this point—but like most writers, I just need the time to dig into them more.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- BF: I had a mentor early on, Steven Bauer, who told me the four most important words for a writer are “apply ass to chair.” At the time, I thought he was just being funny, which he was, but he meant it, too. There’s no nuance to this advice, no contradictions or loopholes, which good advice tends to be full of. His words have bludgeoned me into compliance thousands of times over the years.