You, on a Good Day
You don’t give the finger to the black pickup truck that tailgates and passes you aggressively, then let go of the wheel to give it two fingers when you see a rainbow-tinted peace sticker on the bumper. You do not call the friend—the one who was in the hospital a few weeks ago, and whom you did not visit or call—you do not call her today because today you need something from her. You do not consider dousing your refrigerator with gasoline and setting it on fire because of the sound its motor makes while you’re trying to work. You do not wish the earth would just ignite and everyone would die in a ball of flame simply because it has been hot for a few days. You do not conjure up, in as vivid detail as possible, every time anyone has ever wronged you in any way. You do not think: We’re a ruined, useless lot, and we deserve everything we get. You do not say under your breath, while forgoing a pack of cigarettes: It’s either pain in the body or pain in the mind, take your pick.
Alethea Black was born in Boston and graduated from Harvard in 1991. Her father was a mathematician, and for a long time she believed her name, the Greek word for truth, was his way of tipping his cap to the idea of absolutes. Then one day her mother overheard her and said, “No, we got your name from a TV show” (Judd, for the Defense). Black’s recently published collection of short stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely (Broadway Books/Random House), was an Oprah.com book-of-the-week and a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick. She lives in Dutchess County, NY. www.aletheablack.com
Q&A by Will Allison
- WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- AB: This story took hold of me when I was in a fugue state of rage. I was mad about something, and I noticed that my mind kept skipping to other things I could also be mad about. The little crack of light appeared when I discovered I had more control over the process than I’d realized, and I told myself: “The world is overflowing with injustice and scoundrels. Are you going to sit here all day and think about all of them? Then you could really get your panties in a twist.” Some part of me realized that what I was doing was both unhealthy and controllable, and that I might as well get a story out of it.
- WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- AB: The danger with a story like this, where mood and tone are so central, is that without sufficient plot, it could become more rant than story. I tried hard to give “You, on a Good Day” enough of an emotional turn to satisfy my appetite for action and change.
- WA: How did you decide on the second-person viewpoint?
- AB: Point of view is one of those things that I always feel chooses me more than I choose it. Although since this story started when I was trying to talk myself off a ledge, that may have helped suggest the second-person voice.
- WA: This story has a lot of funny lines. How important is humor for you as a writer?
- AB: Thank you. I think humor is as paramount in writing as it is in life. If I don’t laugh—or cry—at some point while I’m working on a new story, I start to think the thing might be a turkey.
- WA: Can you talk about the relationship between autobiography and fiction in your work in general and this story in particular?
- AB: I tend to draw strongly from real life in my fiction. My first book of stories was published in July 2011, and I found myself wondering if after reading it, people would know me more intimately than if they’d read a memoir. It’s been strange and a little intimidating to realize that anyone with ten dollars now has access to my inner life. A lot of this new story is true. Of course, one of the enduring mysteries of fiction is that in order to tell the truth, you often have to make things up.
- WA: When the protagonist goes to see an unnamed movie at the end of the story, did you have a particular real movie in mind?
- AB: No. I’ve been on a bit of a 1970s movie kick lately, but when I described that movie at the end, I was thinking of all and none of them.
- WA: It’s refreshing to read a story with such an unabashedly happy, hopeful ending. Do you think happy endings are harder to pull off than not-so-happy endings?
- AB: That’s a good question. I think what sets alarm bells off for readers and writers alike is an ending that’s facile or in any way false. A happy ending that’s unearned betrays the trust of the reader, and violates Writing Rule Number One: Do not waste a stranger’s time. That said, I’m not afraid of a little closure or a little hope. For a while, those qualities have seemed unfashionable in contemporary fiction—a friend of mine described a recent award-winning collection as “slices of bummer”—but maybe that’s changing.
- WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- AB: This one moved through me relatively quickly. I’d say three weeks, something like that? Which is lucky, because the emotional state it required wouldn’t have been sustainable for very long.
- WA: What are you working on now?
- AB: I’m revising a short novel called The Key.
- WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- AB: When in doubt, make the cut. If a word (or a paragraph or a scene) is meant to be there, when you revisit the piece with fresh eyes, it’ll suggest itself anew. Author’s Note: I remember the afternoon about ten years ago when The Story Prize director Larry Dark told me there was a great new literary magazine called One Story; I’ve wanted to be a part of it ever since. So today really is A Good Day for me.