If there's any point at all to writing stories—I concede in advance that there might not be—it must be to create an imaginative space for the reader to inhabit, and this space is created by the things we put there. Mostly, these objects come from our memories; that is not a mystery. What is interesting to me is how the act of writing, a sort of memory market, affects the value of these objects for the writer, turning the precious plain, and making the plain precious.
Some of the things of our stories are taken from the formaldehyde of our personal mythologies, pungent objects that preserve places and emotions for us, but using them, taking them out of the jar and exposing them to the elements, can be corrosive. One such object for me while writing Specimen Cases was an orange-handled, hook blade knife. It was always going to be in the story. The menace of its curve, the mystery of its provenance and function, all made it irresistible to a child and to memory. For my brother it was worse. The knife appeared in a recurring nightmare of his: our father holding it in his raised hand, ascending the basement stairs in a stiff-legged wobble.
But the phrase, orange-handled hook blade knife was unwieldy, so to speak, so I called my brother to ask him if he knew its proper name. This is where the process began, the descent from the mythological into the mundane. My brother didn't know the answer, nor did my mother. A tedious search of the internet for tools provided no answers. I suspected the knife might be used for working leather, but the search leather + tool + pictures took me pretty far afield. Finally, I got into my car and drove to the Home Depot on the outskirts of the city. The neatness of its numbered rows, its logoed staff and shopping carts, everything was designed to be repeatable, commonplace, mundane. It was there I discovered, beneath the fluorescent glow, that the knife in question was a linoleum knife. Linoleum. I was disappointed because I couldn't see any way to use the word linoleum in a story. It was irredeemably prosaic. Worse than prosaic, it made the mouth do unpleasant things, the kind of word I call a mouth bug, something wriggly and hard to spit out. Beyond the word, the material of linoleum seemed hopelessly banal, the stuff of scrubbed 50s kitchens. And the purpose of this knife, this mythological object of childhood, was to cut linoleum.
But even if it had lost its magic, the knife still had its utility. It opened up space in my memory. I thought of my brother's dream and followed the knife down the stairs into the cellar, and started looking around. Now I could see other things. I could see the freezer, the drafting table, the pantry and its pickling jars, the room full of balsa. From these things I built the space of the story.
But there is another process at work as well, another way those objects of memory change, ascending from the mundane to the mythological. As I was writing, imagining the landscape of that basement, I remembered a taut clothes line that stretched over the concrete wash basins. And then—with no noticeable effort or conscious act of conjuring—the clothes-pin basket that hung from that line appeared. I had to stand up from my chair. The memory was so surprising that it seemed to have washed up from the bottom of the sea. And it was vivid too. I could see the plaid pattern on the thin cloth of the basket, the colors of the plaid as well. I could see the small tear where part of a wooden clothes pin would stick out. I could see the rusting coil that kept the wooden pin together. I hadn't thought of that basket in 30 years, hadn't mentioned it at a family gathering, hadn't heard anybody mention it to me, yet here it was. Unlike the hook-blade knife, it was not a part of the childhood mythology I had constructed. The memory was pristine. There were no fingerprints.
I don't know if other people do this, or even other writers, but this is the kind of phone call I make at least once a month. Hey mom, how are you doing? Fine, honey, how are you? Good. Do you remember that clothes-pin basket that used to hang in our basement 30 years ago? She laughed and told me that she did remember it and why, on earth, was I asking about it. It was at this moment, before I constructed an answer, that the basket entered my mythology. In this case the thing did not create the space but was created by it, and despite the banality of the basket, the memory of it was so fresh that it provided a direct path into the emotional landscape of Specimen Cases.
Somewhere in this process, in this exchange of value between the mythological and the mundane, there is a point where our memories of things intersect with their appearance in the story. There is something delicate and risky in the process. Like the transplant of an organ, it could go either way. We take the thing out of ourselves, place it in the story, and hope that it will beat.