Randolph Thomas's story "According to Foxfire" is the winner of the April 2009 "Family Matters" competition from Glimmer Train Stories. His stories have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, the Hudson Review, Southwest Review, and in the recent anthology, Writes of Passage. His poems have appeared in many journals including Poetry, Witness, Louisiana Literature, Texas Review, and Don't Leave Hungry: Fifty Years of Southern Poetry Review. In 2008, his alternative country rock band, Flatbed Honeymoon, released its eponymous debut CD, available for download from internet music retailers. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
In December of 2005, while visiting my parents, I wrote in my journal that I wanted to put together a new story about my father growing up in Cambria, Virginia, during the Great Depression, centering on a hog slaughter gone wrong. The story I foresaw was to combine my own dim memories (when I was a small child, we kept hogs in a pen behind our house), along with two older family stories. One was an incident involving my father. As a small child, he had pointed a loaded rifle at a neighbor who had come to help out with the hog slaughter. The other event was simply a warning, a story told by an elder family member, to my mother and her siblings, about a misbehaving child who, on the day of a hog slaughter, fell into a vat of boiling water.
I began asking my parents questions, doing a little research, and by February 2006, I had begun writing the story in first person; the narrator was a fictional version of my father. The first ten or twenty drafts of the story, which I called "The Rendering," failed to please me enough. Although I liked the sense of place and the characters (the story felt real), something was missing. In the words of one of my readers, it was too literal, never rising above the tale my father had told me, touching as it might have been, about his misconduct and punishment.
The characters needed stronger motivation. I began to realize that the story would be much more important if the child pointed the rifle at the man for a reason, if it wasn't simply childish misbehavior, and gradually I began to build the characters of the mother, the father, and the helpful neighbor, who had become the narrator's uncle. I updated the time setting of the story, closer to my own childhood. I developed a clearer vision of the family members' backgrounds, borrowing some ideas and details from my own family but not replicating them exactly. I discovered my characters' personalities, and their conflict developed along with them. It turned out that the father in the story was mostly passive, somewhat irresponsible, and largely uncommitted to the family home. The mother was confrontational, understandably frustrated because she felt she deserved a better life than the one she was getting, but it also became clear that some of her anger was irrational. The father and mother were incompatible, and the narrator was gradually learning this fact, even though he hated what he was learning. The uncle, who looked down on the father, came to help out on the day they are to slaughter their hogs, so there was plenty of opportunity for conflict to rise naturally.
Now I knew who the characters were; I understood their conflicts. I kept asking myself, what happens to them? As I continued to work, I saw the necessity for the storyline itself to grow beyond the day of the hog slaughter. I found it necessary to jump ahead into the narrator's teen years, in order for him to have a more mature understanding, to place his understanding of himself and his parents in a more important context. It also became important to me that the narrator see his parents' traits in himself, to see them warring in him the way they did throughout their marriage. Once I got the story rolling I knew that the narrator's conflicted self was key to making the story work. The truth was that the parents were irreconcilable, and so the arc of the story had to lie in the narrator's understanding that he was the product of their differences, a kind of walking metaphor of them. To remain true to life, the ending had to have resolution in understanding, in experience, and not play out unrealistically.
In shaping the story I looked again and again at the work of a couple of the most instructive and best writers I can think of, Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. Ford's stories helped with the structure, how to have a narrator recall an incident in the past, open with brief recollections of characters, expand them into a long, consistent event or scene, then move confidently closer to the present. Then when I'm sure about the structure of a story, I almost always go back and review a few of Carver's endings again to make sure I haven't overdone it, I haven't given too much away or made it too easy on anyone.
The story's title changed to "Of the Flesh," and finally to "According to Foxfire," both in honor of one of my sources, a brilliant series of books everyone should explore, and to highlight the father's dependence on guidebooks, his deficit in experience.
I was almost finished. My revisions had taken a lot of time and energy, but was I really writing what I'd set out to write? It seemed different, and yet, all of what I was writing made sense to me, like something I'd intended without knowing it. In July 2008, I wrote in my journal, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the relationship between dreams and art. Art is really like a constructed dream. I think of my story, "Of the Flesh." In it there are my parents and my uncle, not exactly as they were in life but possessing some of the details from their real lives, like people in dreams you recognize and say, "That was my mother in the dream. She didn't look anything like herself, but it was her."
In "According to Foxfire," I revisit themes that run through many of my stories and poems, the division between the past and the present, our present actions and the actions that came before, the present person and the people who made this person. In this story, the narrator has only begun to discover who his parents were and who he is.
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