The Good Word
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On vacation we met a German. He wanted to go south to the ocean for two nights. He invited us along. There will be many buses to take, he said. In the end we would stay in a place he knew on the beach. He had stayed there once before. His name was Jurgen. We said okay while eating dinner in the dining room of the boarding house. We were tired of the food they served us. We were tired of the same old tablecloth that was never washed. We ate with our plate rims shadowing stains from our breakfasts of black beans spilled days before. We could use a few days vacation from our vacation.
He explained a German word for which there was no translation in English. It means a good feeling people have when they are together, he said, and then he said the word. We could not pronounce the word. Iris said how trying to say the word hurt her throat. She took a drink of her water, she touched her pale skin at her small Adam’s apple.
Yannick Murphy’s most recent novel, Signed, Mata Hari, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice Book. She is also the author of the novels The Sea of Trees, a New York Times Notable Book, and Here They Come, as well as the collections Stories in Another Language and In A Bear’s Eye, the title story of which was included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007; and a children’s book, Ahwoooooooo!. Yannick is a recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award, a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, a MacDowell Artists’ Colony fellowship and a Chesterfield Film Project Fellow, awarded in conjunction with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Her short fiction has been published in The Quarterly, Epoch, The Antioch Review, AGNI, and McSweeney’s, among others. She lives with her husband and three children in Vermont.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- YM: I went on vacation to Guatemala once with a good friend. There we stayed at a boarding house. We really did meet a German who taught us a word in German that meant a good feeling among friends. We took a side trip to a small coastal town. The place we stayed at was run by an old man. Nothing much happened there. We swam. We watched the skinny dogs that seemed to belong to no one trot up and down the beach.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- YM: The most challenging part was letting it take the course it wanted to. I really have to listen to where my stories want to go and I have to keep myself from imposing a formality on them, or making them follow a typical or normative path. If I let them deviate, and go where they want to go, then I have much more fun writing them.
- HT: The prose in “The Good Wood” is reminiscent of Hemingway’s spare style. Is or was he an inspiration?
- YM: I haven’t read Hemingway in years, but I love his writing. When I write, though, I don’t think about writing like anyone else, or like writing a story similar to someone else’s. I just try to get the story right. My stories are determined by the first sentence, it contains everything—how the story will sound, and how the speaker will sound. It suggests how much or how little possibility there is for a really profound story to evolve.
- HT: The dynamics between characters are subtle yet powerfully rendered. What influenced your decision to have the old man treat Jurgen so badly?
- YM: The Old Man was becoming weak. Getting old meant he wasn’t going to date young women any longer. It meant he wasn’t going to be as strong as he once was. Jurgen showed up at the Old Man’s place with two young attractive women and it was a bitter reminder to the Old Man that he was no longer young.
- HT: Will you tell us what the good word is? Why did you decide not to represent the word in the story?
- YM: The good word is difficult to say. I’m not even sure I can say it. It’s probably spelled something like this “Gemuttleskeit” but then again, that could be way off. Maybe if I weren’t so lazy, I would have looked up the correct spelling of the good word, and added it to the story, but I didn’t. Maybe, by not naming the word it added more mystery to the story, and any time I can write a story with a bit of mystery, it raises the stakes, and takes the story to another level where it takes on its own meaning, and not a meaning I’ve imposed on it.
- HT: The appearance of “The Connector” ratchets up the tension, in many ways. Why did you decide to add him to the mix, and how does he turn the story?
- YM: The Connector was the final nail in the coffin for the Old Man. His own son showed up to remind him that he was getting old, that he just wasn’t right in the head any longer and needed help. The Connector also went after the girl in the story who the Old Man was attracted to, it all became too much for the Old Man to endure.
- HT: The swimming scenes act as a chorus to which the story goes back to again and again. While the characters swim, other characters lose track of them, and the ocean seems like a dark place where people could go missing, or transform somehow. Can you talk a bit about how this vacation setting drives the narrative?
- YM: Water frequently shows up in my writing. It’s inherently mysterious. If a transformation were to take place, I think it’d be likely to take place in the ocean. The Old Man would like to transform, he’d like to not get old. Characters go into the water in this story, and come out in a different place. Nothing seems sure in these characters lives, so the act of going into the water and coming out in a different place mirrors what they are experiencing. I wanted to do this to keep the story turbulent and unsettling. I thought this would give the story a strange kind of momentum.
- HT: The repetition of words and also scenes (such as the chickens at the beginning and end) create a beautiful pattern in this story, at times making it feel like a prose poem. Why do you choose to use repetition, and is it a style that you use often in your work?
- YM: Writing is like quilting. I like to repeat patterns, but I also like to pair a shape with a shape I haven’t paired it with previously. By shapes I mean objects, things that happen in the story or repeated images. The weaving of the images helps the story take on a stronger meaning all of its own. That meaning wouldn’t be as strong if I didn’t keep re-working and layering the images throughout.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- YM: Maybe a total of four hours spanned over a couple of days. Then I went back to tinker with it a few more times.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- YM: Archery. I have a compound bow that’s a lot of fun to shoot. If I raise the bow and shoot it exactly the same way every time, then I improve. But it’s hard to remember to do everything the same way every time. You have to stand with your feet the same distance apart. You have to take the same number of breaths as you did the last time. You have to have the bow string resting against your nose in the same place every time. You have to hold your fingers the same way every time around the nock of the arrow before you let it fly.