BY JIM DANIELS
Many readers of Sycamore Review are also writers. So we wanted to pose a few craft questions to contributor Jim Ray Daniels that might illuminate his process and techniques when writing his heartbreaking story “Candy Necklace” which can be read in its entirety in Issue 23.1-Winter/Spring 2011.
Shelley bit another hard, tasteless bead off of her candy necklace. A yellow one. It tasted just like a green or red one. The flimsy elastic holding it together stretched across her mouth. Then, she bit off a red one—pink, really—and pulled the necklace back down over her neck. Sticky where other beads had gotten wet with spit.
Her mother, Ginger, sat next to her on the orange plastic waiting room bench in the emergency room at Mercy Shelley pressed a huge bloody mess of towels against Ginger’s arm as they waited to be called—so much blood dripping onto the floor Shelley thought maybe they’d have to cut the damn arm off, and then her mother could never hit her again, at least with her strong arm.
Candy had to look like itself to taste good, Shelley thought. Like candy bars. They were just bars, That was the perfect shape for chocolate. A rectangle you could wrap a hand around. Bite into it. Candy that was supposed to look like something else always tasted bad: Candy cigarettes. Wax lips. Licorice shoelaces. Swedish fish—What made them Swedish? Did they swim with an accent? Sweden—what did she know about Sweden? Her brother Randy said they made porn there. He was seventeen and imagined pornography in his sleep. Shelley called him Porno Boy until their mother slapped her across the face. Randy had left home. No one had heard from Porno Boy in six months. Ginger told the school he dropped out, though he’d made no such official declaration on his way out the door. He’d stolen at least one car, apparently, so there was some interest in his whereabouts on the part of the authorities. Shelley’s father Stoney was mad because in his line of work, any attention from the authorities was not good for business. Stoney was a truck driver who delivered product.
Ginger—Gin, her friends called her, though Shelley didn’t know how many people fessed up to being her friend these days—had an accident with a half-gallon bottle of whiskey. Candy stitches, Shelley thought. Ginger had let her drive to the hospital, though she was only fourteen. Her mother stretched across the seat and operated the petals, groaning through Shelley’s wide turns. Gin Ginny, she wears her tight dress. Gin, Ginny, her hand is a mess. Shelley had never been in an emergency room before, though even she found that hard to believe.
“How come we’re just sitting here? They should have a long sink out here everybody can bleed into while they wait.” Shelley chomped down hard and bit a few more beads off her necklace.
She was a smartass fourteen, which meant she was sixteen in certain states. She thought this might be an occasion to pull out her harmonica and wail some blues, but she thought wrong. Ginger couldn’t hit her without taking pressure off her wound and risking another blood spurt, but she growled at Shelley so viciously that Shelley just blew one loud defiant note and put the harmonica away in the breast pocket of her shirt. The breast pocket—her breasts were a sore spot. Two sore spots—sore, and that was supposed to be a good sign. Something happening there that had already happened to ten or more of her best and worst friends, and it was time it happened to her.
“Don’t you think it’s time you stopped eating candy,” Ginger said.
“Since when is there an age limit on candy,” Shelley said.
Her mother hesitated—it looked like she was going to say something, but then lost whatever it was in the fog of pain. Or, maybe she was just still drunk.
“You look like you’re going to pass out,” Shelley said evenly. She’d witnessed her mother pass out on numerous occasions, though never from loss of blood or shock or whatever her mother was experiencing at the moment that made her pale face wobble and sweat.
“What’s it take to get attention around here? My mom’s bleeding to death. What’s it take to get some stitches!” She shouted the last part at the fat slouched nurse whose uniform buttons were pulling apart to reveal a lime-green bra beneath the white polyester.
Shelley would never wear a lime green bra, she knew that much. Odd lumpy vegetables. The green showed right through the uniform anyway, like the nurse was some superhero with her costume on underneath. If only, Shelley thought. Then, her mother slumped in her seat and tumbled over, her head hitting the tile floor with a disconcerting clunk. At home they had wall-to-wall carpeting, her mother’s drunken falls cushioned into incidental pauses in the angry static electricity of their daily lives. Lives in which Shelley’s father Stoney made infrequent cameo appearances to either drop off some cash or hock some easily moveable item, depending on the state of the nation.
Sycamore Review: “Candy Necklace” is told in the close third person from Shelley’s perspective. Did you ever consider writing the story–or did you indeed write a draft–from Shelley’s 1st person point of view? I ask because your skill with free indirect style really give the story a clear and distinct voice, which is unusual in third person story.
Jim Daniels: “Candy Necklace” was inspired by the cover of another book—Jeanne Leiby’s Downriver, an excellent collection of stories that I blurbed. The cover photo is of a young girl with a candy necklace around her neck and in her mouth, and it triggered a whole flood of memories and images of Detroit for me (Downriver is also set in the Detroit area). But for me, the story was always from the outside looking at the photo, the character of Shelley. I never considered first person for this story—I didn’t have the confidence to try to pull off a young female narrator. While I felt like I knew and could identify with Shelley, I wanted to be able to come at her character from the outside in order to bring in an awareness of things that she herself might not be able to articulate in her own voice. Point of view is mysterious. Sometimes, I feel like I can just channel someone’s voice and it comes naturally. Other times, it feels forced, and I have to take a step back and either change point of view, or change the main character—it turns out the problems in narration stem from picking the wrong character. It’s not their story, so they shouldn’t be telling it. For example, in this story, Ginger could potentially be the main character—she’s at the center of the action—but emotionally, she functions more as a trigger for some changes in Shelley. “Candy Necklace” will be in my next book of stories, Trigger Man, (Michigan State University Press, Fall 2011). In that book, there are four first-person stories and six third-person stories, so I guess I move back and forth depending on the character and voice that I think will work best.
Sycamore Review: The narrator describes Shelley as “a smartass fourteen, which meant she was sixteen in certain states…” I love that line and I think it speaks volumes of Shelley, but it is also indicative of the sense of humor the narrator displays throughout the story. Can you talk about your use of humor, and possibly the necessity of humor in a story about a family going through more than a few serious issues? They’ve made it work this far, but it seems like the lives they are leading cannot be sustainable very long. How does humor play a role in their lives and what would this story read like without it?
Jim Daniels: Humor works best for me when it’s unconscious and shows up in the flow of the narrative, so I never try to force it in to lighten up a story. I want the humor to come from inside, to seem spontaneous and natural, and to have an edge to it. I want the humor to penetrate, to hurt a little. For the characters in this story, and perhaps in many of my stories, humor is a survival technique and a protection device. Certainly, the circumstances of their lives are pretty bleak, and laughing about them offers one way of coping, brief respites from despair and the worries of an uncertain, unstable future. I have a dark sense of humor, so I’m sometimes surprised after a reading when someone comments about how bleak my stories are—for many of the people I grew up with back in Detroit, this was just how life was. We laughed while holding our hands over our hearts because they ached.