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Paige and her sister, Emma, were fused from the upper chest to right below the belly. They shared almost everything. Their liver. Their heart. Some nine liters of blood. But according to the experts, the girls had separate nervous systems; they were not meant to share pain. A medical procedure to one nevertheless caused them both to cry the night before. And beg their parents not to make them go. So it went until age nudged the fear off their faces. By then, the girls were so accustomed to hospitals that to go some months without visiting one upset their understanding of their bodies.
Emma was the angry sister with the younger soul. When she felt slighted by the more restrained Paige, she would lie awake at night and think exciting thoughts until their shared heart beat so fast neither could sleep. In the morning, when their eyes beat red, they would resolve the conflict without speaking. Emma would never say sorry but would feel sorry, and Paige would somehow know that.
The girls were twelve when they died of pneumonia. Their doctors said it was a miracle they made it so long, but it didn’t feel like a miracle to their parents.
Ian Bassingthwaighte’s debut novel, Live from Cairo, was published by Scribner in 2017. It was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Will Allison on “The Crucible”
Twenty years ago at a writers conference in California, I was lucky to make friends with an energetic, irreverent woman, Jane, and one of her teenaged daughters, Rose. This was around the same time my wife and I were deciding if and when to start a family, and Jane, having a big head start in that department, shared a lot of parenthood wisdom I was grateful for.
A few nights after I got home from the conference, Jane sent a funny email telling me to disregard anything positive she had said about having kids. Her daughters were driving her crazy; she couldn’t get any writing done. Her best parenting advice at the moment, she said, was don’t do it!
Twelve hours later, Jane emailed again to say she didn’t mean it. In fact, she wanted to take back every negative thing she had ever said about being a parent. That afternoon, she wrote, Rose had been driving with a friend when an oncoming truck crossed the center line and caused a collision. Both girls were killed.
Ever since then, I have struggled to get my head around what Rose’s death and its aftermath must have been like for Jane. If I’m being honest, the thought of it all was often too terrifying and too heartbreaking to even contemplate, especially after my wife and I had a daughter of our own two years later.
The shock and pain of Rose’s death came back to me as I read “The Crucible,” by Ian Bassingthwaighte. What opens as the story of conjoined twins Paige and Emma becomes the story of their parents, Alistair and Johanna, when, only three paragraphs in, the girls die of pneumonia at age 12. What follows is an exquisite meditation on grief and loss, limned by Bassingthwaighte’s distinctive, bittersweet humor. More than anything else I’ve read, the story made me feel like I was getting a glimpse of what Jane might have gone through in those awful first days after Rose died. What struck me most is the story’s intricate intertwining of love and loss. The strangely beautiful ending—which finds Alistair and Johanna breaking into the local mortuary—reminded me of how Jane ended that second email. “You and Deborah should make your family just as you want it,” Jane wrote. “No guts, no glory.”
I hope you find “The Crucible” as memorable and moving as we did here at One Story.
Q&A by Will Allison
- WA: What was the seed of this story? What was the first thing you wrote?
- IB: A writing prompt so aggravating I still get a little mad when I think about it: Write a story in which two or more people are connected. Aren’t all stories with two or more people about connection of some kind? Even a story in which just one person appears has to connect at some point to other people. Through a memory. Or a found object, which hints at some other life. Even just the sound of chatter. Humanity’s tendrils are inescapable. So the prompt, rid of its veneer, was just telling me to write a story. Hence my aggravation. The problem being, insofar as writing is concerned, I have sadomasochistic tendencies; I couldn’t just move on from the prompt, even if it was the exact opposite of helpful. So I sat with the prompt for hours and, out of sheer spite, decided to interpret it as if I were still in kindergarten. Oh, you want connection? Fine. I’ll tie two people up with a rope. Hahaha, I remember thinking. I have defeated you. Damn near a week passed as crappy first paragraphs piled up. The connection kept getting stronger, as if that would improve my writing. The rope became a chain. The chain became a complicated knot of organs and blood vessels. What connection is stronger than that? The tragic elements rose naturally in the drafting, as if any story beginning with such a connection was obliged to break it.
- WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- IB: Is “all of it” an acceptable answer? I say that partly in jest. Although the other part is completely serious. Not all writers are regularly (or ever) struck upside the head by inspiration, and have to extract their stories by force. For a long time, I always felt like a bad writer because the act of writing felt so much like actual work. As in, digging a ditch. Just brutal. And seemingly fruitless, until you reach the end. At which point you can look back and admire the feat of labor, if no other aspect of the work. It’s taken me a long time to accept this as a perfectly valid experience. As a method, it even has a benefit. I don’t have to wait around for inspiration. I just keep putting my shovel in the dirt, regardless of how I feel about it. There goes a shovel’s worth of dirt. There goes a shovel’s worth of dirt. Oh, my ditch is in the wrong place? Fine. Let’s move over a few paces and start over. There goes a shovel’s worth of dirt. And so on.
- WA: The first time I read “The Crucible,” I thought it was going to be about the conjoined twins, Paige and Emma—so I was more than a little surprised when they were dead before the end of page one. Was that your plan all along, to focus on the girls’ parents, Alistair and Johanna, and their grief?
- IB: I fell in love with Paige and Emma as I tried for more than a year to write their story. I’m glad I tried, but I’m also glad I stopped. I couldn’t do it justice. I just couldn’t. I kept writing around the sisters, and their bodies. That was all I could write about. Iteration after iteration. Circling without ever getting closer to their truth. And if I couldn’t do justice to their story, then I had no business telling it. Eventually, in complete despair, it clicked. Perhaps I could do justice to the story of loving them, for I loved them. So I started over by looking through different eyes. Not theirs, but their parents’.
- WA: As much as I tried not to, I found it impossible to read this story without considering what it would be like to lose my own daughter. Do you have kids, and if so, was this an issue for you too, in writing the story?
- IB: I don’t have kids and have been stuck for years now in the hinterland between wanting and not wanting them. There are a variety reasons, but one relates to their making. I imagine genes flying around randomly. The chance that any one thing goes wrong is small, but what is the sum total of all those small chances? I know this is an absurd question. And yet it keeps me awake at night. Or keeps me awake on nights following days in which my wife brings up the issue of kids. Those days are becoming more frequent. I keep saying, “I don’t know.” Or, “I’m not ready.” But what I actually mean, probably, if I’m honest, is, “I’m really scared.” I think this story, at least in part, is an attempt to challenge my assumption that fear is warranted. Because I sit here wondering: Would Alistair and Johanna, at the zenith of their grieving, take anything back? I honestly don’t think they would.
- WA: For a story that is so much about grief, there’s also a lot of humor here. Could you talk about how you find a balance between the two?
- IB: If life is grief, then humor is coping. Because of that, I think it’s less balancing than begetting: one from the other, endlessly. Just ask comedians, who are notoriously depressed. The inverse of this sad clown paradox is the “toll of happiness.” Patton Oswalt reportedly said that he wasn’t as funny anymore because he was happily married and having regular sex. I imagine there was some truth and some horror in his grin as he said that. He really was less funny. Less stunning to watch, for a time. But life happened and Oswalt got funny again, I think because he needed to. This is not to say that artists should or must suffer to produce their best work, just that suffering and creation are connected the way grief and humor are connected. The latter is a kind of salve for the pain.
- WA: Is this the same Alistair who has appeared in some of your other stories?
- IB: I’ve used the name Alistair a few times. Semi-recently, in a sort of ghost story involving a peculiar outsider and a few lost cows that show up as bones scattered along the road. This Alistair is not the same, although wouldn’t that be cool? It would be like one of those fan theories in which the Game of Thrones universe is actually on the far side of the Hogwarts property. I’ve just grown, for some unknown reason, attached to that name. I like it. Also, I spend so much time thinking about names and not writing, that perhaps I reused it just so I wouldn’t have to torture myself trying to find a better one.
- WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- IB: Between writing prompt and publication? Five years of digging probably ten different ditches.
- WA: What are you working on now?
- IB: I was working on my second novel, and got about 200 pages into it. I discovered recently that it’s not good. Whether that’s an actual opinion or just fear masquerading as an opinion is an open question. Anyway, I put it aside. Then challenged myself to tell a story in an entirely different medium. Just to be rid of the pressure of a largely blank page and that blinking text cursor, daring me every .5 seconds to type. By different medium, I mean entirely different. I just finished building a video game. If I had to pick a genre in which it fits best, I would say it’s a walking simulator. Some developers have argued the term is disparaging and prefer to call it a first-person adventure. The idea, generally, is that you cap the player’s movement speed. You typically can’t run. (Hence the name, which I personally think is hilarious.) The “point” of the game is typically exploration and the gradual unraveling of a story, often through narration, found objects, letters, environmental storytelling, etc. In that way, it’s totally unlike the vast majority of games. There aren’t enemies. There’s no health bar. No death sequence. No boss fight. Some would argue there’s no challenge, but I think there is one, which is defined best in questions. How far will you go? How deep will you look? It’s such an exciting medium, in my view, because players don’t expect to use their emotions, so aren’t actively guarding them. One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had yet as a “storyteller” was watching players stream my game live on Twitch. And just listening to their commentary. It’s so very different than hoping there are readers out there connecting to something you’ve written. Sometimes you just want to know. Sometimes you just want to see people type that they are crying. With an exclamation point. Because they are so damn excited to feel. It has been both a technical and artistic challenge, and took several months. But it really changed the way I think about stories, objects, characters, and the role of the reader (or player) as an active participant in the narrative. I put a full play-through for those who don’t play games, and also a trailer for those who don’t play games and don’t have much spare time.
- WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- IB: “Consider doing something else.” I think this was a professor. Or it might’ve been one of my parents. I can’t remember. What I remember is ignoring them. And knowing, at once, who I was.