The Immortal Feet
As it happened, Rebbecca’s feet did not grow, so though in time she herself became a very tall woman, her feet remained as small as a child’s, with tiny rosebud toes and nails as thin and translucent as the membranes of eggs. As it also happened, Rebbecca’s ambition in life, her one true and most steadfast desire, was to grow up and climb mountains. And not just any mountains either, but the tallest mountains in the world—Everest, K2, Denali. Old people had done it; young people had done it; even once, a blind man had done it—and Rebbecca reasoned, if they could, why not her?
Rebbecca’s desire, however, had taken hold of her long before she knew any of this. It was, she would relate years later, a stubborn clutch of longing that was never as if it had not been a part of her core self. Even as a very young child, she had dreams of herself clinging to the sheer face of a rock. She believed she knew just what it would feel like, and in the image she had of this feeling, it was the force of icy wind screaming at her hair, and ears, and teeth that filled her most completely with determination and awe.
Katharine Haake’s most recent books are a novel, That Water, Those Rocks (2003), and a collection of short stories, The Height and Depth of Everything (2001), both from the University of Nevada’s Western Literature Series. Her first book of stories, No Reason on Earth (1986) was from Dragon Gate Press. “The Immortal Feet” is from a new collection, with stories also appearing in The Iowa Review, Witness, and The Santa Monica Review, and currently featured in the on line magazine, Segue. In October 2003, selections from the book were performed in the New Short Fiction Series, LA’s only “live literary magazine.” Her fiction has been recognized by Pushcart Prize nominations, distinguished story recognitions from Best American Short Stories and Best of the West, and an Editor’s Choice Award from Cream City Review. Her other books are What Our Speech Disrupts: Feminism and Creative Writing Studies (NCTE, 2000) and, with Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom, the textbook Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively (Longmans, 2001). A Professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where she directs the Creative Writing Program, she was honored as the 1998/99 Jerome Richfield Memorial Scholar. She lives in Los Angeles and is the mother of two sons.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- KH: It wasn’t an idea, but a sentence, and it came to me after a long day of working on another story at an artist’s colony when, in the late afternoon, I finally left my little cabin for a walk to the beach, about two miles distant, and down some nicely rolling hills. The sentence in question, which is the first sentence of “The Immortal Feet” and the origin of the story itself—“As it happened, Rebbecca’s feet did not grow, so though in time she turned out to be a very tall woman, her feet remained as small as an infant’s, with tiny rosebud toes and nails as thin and translucent as the membranes of eggs.”—came into my head after about a half mile of walking, as if someone were reading it to me. Well, I liked that sentence quite a bit, so I reached, into my pocket for my notepad and pen, which I had neatly laid out on the little cabin’s table to take with me, but—I had forgotten the pen! Oh dear, I thought, I’ll have to go back, but I felt so terribly disappointed because, really, I did want to walk, and, really, I did want to get to the beach, but already the second and third sentences were rolling off the first one, with the story coming on fast and—this I will have to admit—my memory is not quite what it once was—so I turned, with grave reluctance, to go back, and then I had another, brighter thought: Oh that’s all right, I thought, I’ll just find a pencil. So off I went, back on my way to the beach, writing the whole opening of the story in my head, and not too concerned I’d lose it because of the pencil that was waiting somewhere for me on my path. The road curved down through the hills in a stretch of unpopulated country, with some goats and chickens here and there. The shoulder of the road was sandy gravel, and extremely well groomed, and although I was expecting a pencil at almost any moment, I still admired the absence of trash. The words kept coming, precisely, and precisely I committed them to memory, a highly exacting process since, as a sentence writer, I find that if a single word gets changed, or omitted, or moved around, there’s a strong ripple effect that requires multiple adjustments, forward and back. Half a mile later and some page or so into the story, I did find a pen, just as I had been expecting, and as I bent to pick it up I felt both vindicated and excited, but—oh dear—the pen, a shattered Bic, was out of ink. The road, at that moment, seemed particularly deserted as I looked about, not at all dejected, and told myself: oh, that’s all right, it was supposed to be a pencil. Of course I can tell this story because just before I got to the beach that day, I did find a pencil, one of the glittery kinds children carry, just the broken off nub of it really, with the metal at the base of the eraser already rusted, but with enough of the graphite exposed that I could record what I’d already written of the story about the mountain climber with the tiny feet, which just goes to show that writing is an act of faith, like any other, governed by the force of the desire that things should hold together long enough to write them.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- KH: Memorizing the first couple of pages, or so, as I was walking and writing it, before finding the pencil. I used to write stories like this all the time, circumscribing the lengths of my walks by the length of the text I could commit to memory, a good practice for writing but one that becomes more difficult as time, as it does, goes on.
- HT: How did you hit upon the image of Rebbecca’s tiny feet?
- KH: Serendipity. Although, at the time, I had just completed two stories—one about an astronomer with a square head who, in discovering the origin of stars, finds himself unable to intervene in their extinction, and another about a boy without the ability to distinguish phonetic difference who grows up to be a renowned musician whose music develops curative powers. These characters grew out of their sentences, is all. And I was interested in them.
- HT: Are you a climber?
- KH: Although I did a fair amount of backpacking as a young person, returning the sport last summer with great enthusiasm, I have never climbed anything higher than a well- groomed mountain pass.
- HT: Did you start out meaning to write an ‘end of the world’ piece?
- KH: No, although I’ve long been accused of having an apocalyptic imagination. However, I don’t really think of this—or the other stories in the collection—as end of the world stories, so much as I think of them as post-modern fables. In the world of these stories, each character is defined by an essential flaw that somehow reflects not just the sad demise of both earth and history, but also the remaining human capacity for hope and grace. My hope is that the strange and somehow arbitrary surrealistic wounding at the center of each story works to ground and organize each separate narrative, and the project as a whole, as it considers where we are now in terms that are not entirely bleak, but leavened with a little of what Italo Calvino might call “lightness” and “quickness.”
- HT: How is your writing influenced by the environment?
- KH: “Nothing,” writes art historian Linda Nochlin, “is more interesting, more poignant, or more difficult to seize than the intersection between self and history.” In my own work, in the world itself, the environment is the clearest marker of our historical condition there is. My last book was a multi-discursive novel about a river, and a dam, what I’ve always thought of as a land narrative. Before that, a collection of stories was organized around natural disasters—floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, draught. This new collection attempts to move beyond the Western landscapes that have preoccupied my writing to address, ok, the possibility of the end of everything, which, not to be didactic (although what’s a fable for?), depends upon its opposite, that is, the capacity to imagine otherwise. But the short answer is that, to me, there isn’t any more compelling—or important—story than the story of the earth on which, if we are fortunate, we—and our children—plant our feet.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- KH: I wrote the first draft of this story in two and a half days at Hedgebrook Cottages for Women in the spring of 2001. I suppose that in actual writing time, the revisions took a month or so more, but that time has been spread out over three years. I write sentence by sentence, which is painstaking work, because, as I note above, one small change changes everything. Recently, I saw this story performed in a “live literary magazine,” Sally Shore’s New Short Fiction Series at the Beverly Hills Library, where professional actors do dramatic readings of selections from a new book, a humbling experience for a writer. After that, I cut the story by some thousand words or more. So, probably, it’s not finished, even now, though it’s getting closer, I hope.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- KH: My dissertation adviser, Francois Camoin, advised me not to think when I was writing, and I fought him on this, for years, before finally conceding he was right. Of course, what he really meant to say was that writing is an intransitive act which proceeds from language, not image, that every sentence carries in it the imperative of its own next sentence, that writing is really a process of listening to what has just been written rather than making up what’s coming next, something like that, which is really what he meant to say, I think. But what he actually said was, “Don’t think,” which turns out to be remarkable good advice in the long haul.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- KH: Oh, a novel, in the same mode of the post-modern fable, set in a post-apocalyptic American west, more or less. In general, I think writing continues only when we let ourselves write what we don’t know how to write, and looking back, it seems that I have established a pattern, of working out a new form, or preoccupation, in a collection of stories, which I then extend into a book-length narrative. So I’m flailing through the book-length narrative stage of this process, and then, who knows? I used to panic that writing would end when I ended a book (this story collection is recently finished), but I don’t do that anymore. Still, I supposed it’s possible. If the world can end, so can writing. Thanks for asking.