In Search of Je Ne Sais Quoi by Novelist L.K. Simonds
by Writing Workshops Staff
A month ago
First and foremost, my heartfelt thanks to Blake Kimzey and Writing Workshops Dallas for inviting me to post on the WWD blog.
In January 2020, I took the WWD Intermediate Fiction Workshop, comprised of nine writers and instructor Blake Kimzey. They were the first people to read pages of my novel who were not my friends or family. They read six chapters of my work-in-progress, and their comments, critiques, and encouragement were priceless. So were the takeaways from reading the work of my very talented classmates and our workshop discussions.
Now, that work-in-progress has turned into my second novel, Stork Bite, published today, after eight years of working and reworking it. I had wanted to write a novel about my aunt, my mother’s eldest sister, for a long time. In 1930, Aunt Mabel left her tiny Texas hometown and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana to go to Centenary College. In Shreveport, she met and fell for a young man who worked in her uncle’s dry-cleaning store. She jilted her high-school sweetheart and married the guy, who was long on style and short on faithfulness.
I spent a lot of time with Aunt Mabel near the end of her life when she was alone and needed help. By then, she’d been through four marriages, three of which ended in divorce. She had survived breast cancer and her schizophrenic son-in-law’s attempt to blow up her house. She had raised her alcoholic daughter’s children, which ended her third marriage. She matter-of-factly told me that she and her husband, an officer at Barksdale AFB, parted amicably because he had not signed up for kids.
Mabel’s fourth and final husband died from cancer in 1982. Through all her marriages, there was this mysterious thread—a friendship with a man who seemed to be the love of her life, though they never married. She had an art deco coffee table made of glass and metal in her living room, and her eyes and voice softened when she told me he had designed and crafted it for her.
Mabel was world weary but wry, always ready to comment on life’s absurdity with a laugh, and I admired her greatly.
When I retired in 2012—a decade after Mabel’s death—I finally set about to write this novel I had thought about for so long. From my aunt came the character of Mae Compton, and from my aunt’s first husband came the character of Jackson Addington. As characters do, these two soon departed from much resemblance to their real-life inspirations to follow their own arcs.
Then I had an idea for a character who might serve as contrast to Mae. I called this new character Cargie (rhymes with Margie), after a woman friends of mine had known many years ago. Cargie’s opportunities would be different from Mae’s, I decided, and she would make different choices. Cargie’s husband, Thomas, would be very different from Jackson too.
Writing fiction has been compared to groping in darkness. What are we writers groping for? I like to think the object of our quest is a certain je ne sais quoi—an indescribable something—that resonates in our souls. We grope for understanding. For clarity. We don’t know exactly what we’re looking for in a particular story until we find it, but when we do find it, we are certain it’s exactly what we were pursuing all along. It feels inevitable, like destiny. If, in our dark, blind groping, we happen to bump into something universal, and if we have the courage and words to wrangle the thing into the light, then we have our je ne sais quoi.
In the summer of 2013, when I was deep in my pages, a friend gave birth to her first daughter. The child was born with a stork bite birthmark on her forehead, and I knew I had my title. I loved the bark of the hard consonants, and I thought such a birthmark was an apt metaphor for the humanness we all share. For the commonality of our nativities. The old stork bites each of us—every single one of us—before turning loose.
By that summer, more characters had emerged, including a young man named David Walker, whose backstory had to be told. But how to tell it? In the early drafts, I sequenced the chapters telling David’s story, which began in 1913, throughout the novel, interspersing them with those of the other POV characters, whose stories took place much later. Some novels do this back and forth with time successfully, but it just wasn’t working in Stork Bite. My faithful and encouraging beta readers waded through those drafts without complaining too much about the structure, but I know it was challenging and disjointed.
I’m of the school of thought that I, the writer, should work hard so the reader doesn’t have to. It was 2017 before I figured out how to handle David Walker’s backstory, even though the solution was simple. In the final version, you will find David Walker’s story in Book One, a section that spans about a fourth of the novel. At the beginning of Book Two, the reader moves forward in time to a new cast of characters. As the reader becomes involved with Cargie and Mae and the rest of the Shreveport crowd, David’s story is buried by pages, much as the past is buried by years. At least until David resurfaces and his impact is revealed.
In 2019, I trimmed 25,000 words from the 150,000-word manuscript, cutting everything that seemed indulgent or tangential—everything that did not add to the story or move it along in my estimation. I went through the novel again and again with an eye toward the patterns of certain tropes, such as, reconciliation, secrecy, and irony.
In the end, Stork Bite isn’t about my aunt. Not really. But I like to think the novel memorializes the courage of a young woman—of two young women—who chose unconventional lives, as Aunt Mabel did. I dedicated the book to her because I admire her still.
Does Stork Bite have je ne sais quoi? Some readers may think so. Others will not. One reader’s five-star experience with a novel is another’s two-star. But whether those who like the book are many or few, the story speaks. It speaks for me.