What You Have Left
I was sentenced to life on my grandfather’s dairy farm in the summer of 1976. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, a month or so until my mother recovered from her water-skiing accident, but after one week, on the first day she was able to get out of her hospital bed and walk, a blood clot traveled up from her leg, blocked the vessels to her lungs, and killed her. My father had been the one driving the boat, the one who steered too close to the dock. Three days after the funeral, he walked out of the insurance agency where he worked and wasn’t heard from again.
My grandfather, Cal, spent months trying to track him down, but it was no use, and that’s how, at the age of six, I came to be spending my nights in the same bed my mother had slept in as a child. Cal made a gift to me of my mother’s arrowhead collection, which he’d helped her assemble when she was little. He also decided to repaint her bedroom for me and said that I could pick the color. He was trying to be nice, but I wasn’t ready for nice.
Will Allison was born in South Carolina and lives with his wife and daughter in Indianapolis, where he teaches creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He also serves as a staff member at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in Squaw Valley, California. “What You Have Left” is from a collection of connected stories and was funded in part by a grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis. Others stories from the collection have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, American Short Fiction, and Atlanta magazine.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- WA: Dementia runs in my family, so I’ve been curious about it since I was a kid, visiting my great-grandmother at her nursing home, visiting my once-brilliant godfather as he explained that soon he’d no longer know my name, etc. In 1998, I wrote a story called “Alligator” about a grandfather with Alzheimer’s who wanted to die and the granddaughter who wanted to stop him. After it was (rightfully) rejected by thirteen magazines, I put it in the drawer. I was still interested in the basic premise, though, and five years later, I tried to revive and revise it for a collection of connected short stories. What I ended up with was an entirely different story (though two or three lines from “Alligator” remain).
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- WA: Figuring out how best to dramatize Cal and Holly’s story. Even when I know the basic premise of a story, I’m still paralyzed by the knowledge that there are thousands of ways to tell it. That’s always the hardest part for me: sifting through all the possibilities, knowing that I’ll never hit upon the “perfect” solution. I know—this is kind of like saying, “The most challenging aspect of writing this story was writing this story.”
- HT: Did you know when you started writing that Cal was going to die?
- WA: Yes. My grandfather lived for many years after he got Alzheimer’s. It was especially hard on my father, who moved back to the farm to take care of him. In both this story and “Alligator,” I suppose I was trying to imagine a “better” death—quicker, more dignified, less painful for everyone involved.
- HT: Why did you choose to put so much of Maddy’s story in with her daughter’s? Was it difficult to weave those two together?
- WA: I thought the reader needed to understand Maddy’s relationship with Cal in order to understand his relationship with Holly. I spent a lot of time moving the Maddy sections around, trying to figure out where they felt right. In the end, I think those sections also helped me to better control the pace of the story’s present action.
- HT: Did you mean for this story to be political in its message, or did you simply want to tell a story?
- WA: I wrote “Alligator” at the height of Kevorkian’s fame, and I believe assisted suicide should be legal, but once I sat down to write, all I hoped for was to tell a good story.
- HT: Why did you choose to use the Hubert Humphrey quote: “My friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts; it’s what you do with what you have left”?
- WA: Because I love it and I hate it. When I’m in an optimistic frame of mind, I consider it a smart piece of advice, full of truth. In a pessimistic mood, I’m more inclined to view it as a simplistic homily for desperate suckers.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- WA: Funny you should ask. I keep track of my hours because “clocking in” when I write helps me stay focused. All told, “What You Have Left” took 378 hours, fifteen minutes (over the course of ten months). That’s a huge improvement over my last story, which took 477 hours, twenty-five minutes. I hate the fact that I’m such a slow writer and am constantly tinkering with ways to speed things up. In the meantime, I take solace in the words of my friend Daniel Orozco, another slow-poke. “I used to wish I wrote faster,” he once told me, “but I don’t anymore. It’s like wishing I were taller—it just ain’t gonna happen.”
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- WA: Get a complete draft on paper—a beginning, middle, and end—before you start revising. It’s very tempting for me to revise as I go, but I inevitably end up agonizing over lots of material that gets cut later. I don’t remember who gave me this advice, but I’m reminded of it when I see my two-year-old daughter playing with her play dough: You can’t make anything out of play dough until you first have the play dough itself.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- WA: The next story in the collection—Holly and Lyle in the aftermath of Cal’s death. It’s another first-person story, this time from Lyle’s perspective. I’ve logged about 150 hours so far. It still sucks, but I’m at the point now where I can at least imagine it not sucking.