The author discusses “A King Alone,” her story from the latest issue of the magazine.
July 4, 2022
Illustration by Valerie Chiang; Source photograph by Chloe Aftel
Your story “A King Alone” revolves around a road trip that a country songwriter named George takes to visit his adult daughter, who is also a songwriter. What made you choose that profession for this character, and the particular landscape—in and around Tennessee—that he drives through?
I was already into the story when I realized that George was a songwriter. As he drove, the portrait of who he was and how he moved through this landscape became more vivid in my imagination. His habit of listening for vernacular truth, of kind of rag-picking from other people’s speech patterns, seemed right. He hears a man, walking into a dive bar, yell, “Honey, I’m home!” My husband had heard a guy shout this as he walked into a liquor store, while the cashiers, behind bulletproof glass, just stared at him, and I had been thinking about that scene, which was to me full of life and comedy. These tiny acts of genius are happening all the time. Who is collecting and making art from them? George, maybe. I think George would agree with what Bob Dylan says, in “Chronicles,” about being “equal to the situation”: in other words, hoping to make something that is worthy of what you see, what you draw inspiration from, what you steal.
As I wrote my own scene in which a guy shouts, “Honey, I’m home,” suddenly George was turning the phrase over in his mind, and adding a phrase—“Honey, I’m home, but I can’t stay long.” And I realized how George’s mind worked, how alert he was to phrasemaking and what I might categorize as folk poetry. I don’t know much about songwriting except that well-crafted songs show us guilt and regret and agony and all that stuff, but they do it in a way that is minimalist, almost anonymous, so that lyrics can take on the personal dramas and the acute feelings of the listener.
In terms of the region, it was a combination of things. I was thinking about this particular railroad crossing in Asheville, North Carolina, where the story begins, and where a guy I once knew really did lose his leg while crossing the tracks to get to happy hour, like the man in the story to whom George gives a ride. From there, George travels west up into the mountains, passes through part of Kentucky, and goes down to Nashville, then Memphis. I had him take routes I’ve taken, which allowed me to revisit my own past, and to give George an opportunity to think about what changes and what doesn’t. I was remembering my own experiences in Memphis, which aren’t many, but are indelible, and seemed to fit the moods and contours of George’s approach to this landscape, his desire to see places that look the way he remembers them looking.
The story pulls us into George’s internal monologue, and it’s a while before we understand that his relationship with his daughter, Jenny, is not what we assumed it was. How did you handle that gradual release of information—which allows us almost to feel that we are the ones uncovering the truth?
I wrote the story from George’s perspective, but I realize that, beyond the technical matter of creating and abiding by the limits of his point of view, I shared his point of view. I felt I understood why he sees his relationship with his adult daughter as this meaningful, if not exactly intimate, connection of like minds, and why he sees his distance from her as respect, as a kind of autonomy he extends to her, an independence that he himself would like to be offered. There are parts of George’s past, as a father, that he’s willing to look into, and others that he won’t. He’s not a masochist trying to feel bad or guilty, and he has a certain padding from drama and melodrama. He would never hold on to anger at his own parents, for instance, in the way that his daughter does with her anger at him. Since the story doesn’t offer access to Jenny’s thoughts, she is rendered in a more “behaviorist” modality: she goes and retrieves a hammer and smashes his windshield, or tries to. So we come to understand her anger only as she demonstrates it to George, who hasn’t anticipated it. What’s worse, George is very calm in his reaction; he’s unruffled, which gives her anger no good place to land. At which point, we suddenly see him from another point of view—hers.
George spends a lot of time drawing parallels between himself and Jenny—she dresses the same way, she writes songs, too, she fixes her own car, she appreciates the same eccentricity in others. He’s making a case for his closeness with his child, but for whom is he making it?
People portray themselves to themselves, if you will, and this is something that I believe can be replicated particularly well in fiction—the rationales, justifications, and myths. But, in this case, what George is telling himself about the ways in which he and Jenny are alike is probably true. They look alike and dress alike, and they both appreciate the candy store of their own Americana, the one they live in and draw from for their shared vocation. That she’s a tomboy allows him to comfortably assume a shared perspective on the world and an ease that comes with being a man. It could be that George’s insistence on their similarities is denial on his part, but it’s only at the very end of the story, as I see things, that George’s denial stops working for him. Suddenly, he might not be the person he thought he was, and the way he “portrays himself to himself” forms a crack, a fissure.
We get to know George partly through his exchanges with a series of hitchhikers he picks up. Did you know from the beginning that the story would revolve around those encounters with strangers?
Definitely. I had been thinking about the intimacy of a car, of sharing it with a stranger you’ll never see again. But, originally, I planned to write a more episodic story about a guy who picks up various people—in my mind, the encounters would all be of equal weight, a chain of them—drawing from experiences I’d actually had. My parents sometimes picked up hitchhikers when I was a child. As a teen-ager, I hitchhiked. Last summer, my son and I picked up a hitchhiker like the one in the story who is ex-military and going for the Triple Crown of hiking. The guy we gave a ride to was young, and possessed by his mission, and he seemed so alone. And then we dropped him off and went to a diner and there were, like, four guys eating alone, all Pacific Crest Trail hikers who looked exactly like him, and I thought, The land is full of people on these very intense odysseys.
As I was mentally plotting the story, when I got to the final passenger my character picks up, I realized that it was actually a story about this one interaction, between two strangers, and that the psychological implications for the driver, in the predicament that the stranger presents for him, were the entire point of the story. From there, the whole structure fell into place.
At some point in the past, George picked up an (unnamed) photographer who bears a close resemblance to the real photographer William Eggleston. What made you choose to include him in the story? Does Eggleston’s work have a connection with the character George for you?
I realized, after finishing “A King Alone,” that this was the second time I’d put an Eggleston cameo in my fiction. (The first was in “The Flamethrowers,” where he and the actress and Warhol muse Viva were the inspirations for a wild couple whom the narrator encounters and follows back to the Chelsea Hotel.)
Eggleston is one of the great American artists of the twentieth century. He changed art history by elevating color photography, and his images taught me to see. Or maybe I already saw that way, and his images formalized and made ceremonious an approach to vernacular beauty that is deep-seated and personal for me. His catalogue of images is like one enormous novel capturing a world, showing us the sly poetry and correspondence of things in casual repose. Maybe aspects of what he’s doing are related to what I want to do, in terms of what I see around me and try to capture and put into fiction. But, lately, I’m constantly asking myself what his early photography meant when he was doing it. Now it preserves something that’s gone, but the original impulse wasn’t nostalgia. And yet the way he captures people, in particular, has a memorial tenor, as though the camera itself knows that people can’t stay the way they are at the moment the photo is taken. His portraits have, as the late, great curator Walter Hopps put it, “torque.”
But none of this explains my impulse to keep giving him walk-on roles as a fictional character. Some of it is the way his persona leaks into his work: in the few but quite striking self-portraits; in the evidence of his life in the pictures he takes of his family; in the way his friends, drunk or whacked-out on quaaludes, yell “Biiiillll ” into the camera in the one movie he made, “Stranded in Canton.” And then there’s Eggleston himself, in Michael Almereyda’s film about him, “William Eggleston and the Real World,” almost brought to tears by the beauty of a Roy Orbison song. In the stories about him told by Walter Hopps—an early champion of his work—some of which ended up in the book you worked on with Hopps, “The Dream Colony,” Eggleston is either a man of grace and reverence, so quiet that you can hear his heart beating, or he’s in a suit and white shirt and tie, passed out with his face in a big plate of spaghetti. He’s got his wildness, but he’s also doing this prodigious work.
Eggleston is from the Mississippi Delta, a region he has photographed extensively, often from a roadside perspective, and it seems quite believable to me that he’d be somewhere west of Memphis and in need of a ride. And George would absolutely stop for him, and would pay close attention, would be able to hear what someone like Eggleston was saying. There would be some overlap between them, as connoisseurs of the mundanely strange, though they have their differences. George, to me, is someone who wants to be almost unseen, while Eggleston, well . . . Viva said that, when they left a hotel room, it could look as if the Rolling Stones had been there with groupies.
George goes in search of his daughter and finds instead this mysterious woman who may be mentally unstable or homeless and who completely unsettles him. Why are his feelings about her so conflicted?
He pulls over thinking that the script of what will take place is going to be familiar to him, or at least manageable: George will be the Good Samaritan, and his passenger will have some story or won’t, and then he’ll keep going. But this person isn’t who he thought, and there is no familiar script. The stranger doesn’t act in a way that George, tolerant and relaxed as he might be, would call normal, and he is alone in his car with her. He’s a caring person who is wondering, What is her situation? But she’s also a complete stranger, and so why should he involve himself? When he sees the deep scratches on her arms, he wants to be free of her; she’s a bad omen. He finally does get free of her, and it’s at that moment of freedom, having restored the precious autonomy on which George’s life, his habits, are built, that he panics. He has dropped this woman off in a huge American city, which he has chosen for her at random. He feels responsible for her, and he can’t shake the sense that she’s in danger and is out there in the wilderness of the world. Underneath it all is something to do with gender: the fact that he thought she was a man, and she isn’t, has upended things and forced him to face himself. It doesn’t seem to dawn on him that the person he can’t protect isn’t this stranger but his own daughter. That part remains submerged in his unconscious. But this mysterious woman has brought to the surface something that George repressed, and, as a result, she’s left him in a state of turbulence.
You leave George driving five miles an hour along a boulevard in Dallas as he searches for the hitchhiker. Where do you think his story might go from there?
I see this story as existing under a bell jar. The short story takes place in a world that has particularity and enough of a reality factor to feel like this world, and yet it’s also a closed universe, a kind of eternity where only the characters in the story live, and only the events we read as having happened have happened.
By which I mean: George is still on that eight-lane boulevard, looking for the woman he spent a day and a night and another day trying to get rid of. In that eternal moment, he has to accept that he can’t find this woman, or forget that he wanted to un-find her when she was in his car. It’s as if he’d been visited by a ghost, and the ghost had done its work, which was to make him feel incomplete and haunted, and the ghost has now retreated. ♦