On Writing ‘The Redemption of Oren Barry’

Recently, my good friends at The Stoneslide Corrective published “The Redemption of Oren Barry,” which is perhaps the Best Short Story I Have Ever Written (although I have a real soft spot for “Late Night On Rt. 17“).  “Redemption” was a story I had given up on until I saw their short story contest on Twitter, and when I got the email saying that I had been named an Honorable Mention, well, it was one of the happiest days of my writing career.  Editor Jonathan Weisberg wrote in his email “I have a real affection for “The Redemption of Oren Barry; it was a great pleasure to read” when I thanked him for including it in the honorable mentions.  When I suggested he publish it, he agreed, because he’s awesome like that.

“Redemption” is a milestone for me, a marker of a moment when my writing style shifted.  From age 20 to about 26, I was writing primarily nasty, gritty crime fiction, with some insanely terrible literary-type work in-between that showed no regard for story structure or character depth, just me working out my narcissistic, emotional garbage.  I had just been let go from my adjunct teaching position at SUNY Cobleskill, and was suffering from a bad shoulder injury caused by slipping on ice outside my office. So I don’t know if it was the painkillers, or my binge-watching Ray McKinnon movies and Justified or what, but one night I dreamed of this.

I dream very vividly and generally, I function within my dreams.  But in this one, I was not present as I watched the interaction between a man and his sister-in-law, knowing in dream-logic that he had just been released from prison and he was staying with her.  When I woke up, I couldn’t stop thinking about these two; their lives and that quiet interaction, her with the folded blanket, him with a confused and aching sort of love in his heart.  I sat down to write, and two weeks later, I had a finished draft.

“Redemption” is the final published piece of what I call the “Southern Trilogy;” which also features “The Hand of God” (American Fiction vol. 13) and “Purgatory Blues,” all which came to me in dreams, all set in variations on the suburban south.  I am an Oklahoma girl by birth, and was always frustrated with literary portrayals of the south and the southwest as being barely out of the 1950s, barefoot women, outhouses and all.

Hint: Goggins

Hint: Goggins

This is why I love Ray McKinnon so goddamn much; his south is modern and complicated.  Yes, they have flush toilets and shopping malls, even in Arkansas.  If you’re notwatching Rectify on Netflix, you should be, because it’s fucking amazing.  I also have mad love for Randy and the Mob, but I think we all know why.

But more than that, in writing “Redemption,” I took a step into writing a different sort of fiction, one where the characters–not my fragile, bullshit ego–drove the story.  Oren and LynnBaby were fully-realized characters whose lives had nothing to do with anything I was dealing with in my own.  None of the dialogue was inspired by a Tom Waits song or Sin City.  I trusted myself to tell their story, to let it develop organically and not try to force a certain style upon it.  And most of all, it forced me to write from a vulnerable place.  Because it wasn’t dressed up in style or buried under mountains of sarcasm and bitterness like so much of my other work, it had to have my whole heart to work.  I had to make these characters into people with lives and disappointments and hope.  That much, at least, we had in common.

And the results were something akin to magic.  While reading it again for edits, I was amazed that, Holy Crow, I actually wrote this.  It didn’t seem like something that could ever come from my pen or my keyboard.  It had a beauty to it that I didn’t know I was capable of feeling, let alone writing.  Best of all, it made my writing partner/best friend Matthew cry, which is a sure sign that it’s awesome because he never cries at ANYTHING.

But it was a long, hard road to publication.  It was rejected by every magazine I sent it to and generally without feedback.  I was not going to give up on this story.  It meant too much to me, I knew there was something powerful and wonderful about it.  I wrote other stories, I sold other stories, but none were as close to my heart as this one.  I’ve never been in love with a character I wrote before, but Oren comes as close to a fiction-crush as I’ve ever had.

And then Jonathan, lovely Jonathan, he saw something in this story.  And sure enough, he published it.  And for that, I am forever grateful.

It was nearly four years between when I wrote “Redemption” and when I sold it.  Living proof to never, ever give up on your work.

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