Danielle McLaughlin — How I Wrote ‘Primal Cuts’

My protagonist in this story, Maurice, emerged during a Tessa Hadley workshop at the West Cork Literary Festival back in 2012. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about all the trouble he’s caused me. By late 2015 when I wrote ‘Maurice, or Diary of a Short Story’ for the Irish Times Book Club, his story was still eluding me, though I did know that it was a story concerning unresolved feelings of guilt and loss. Here’s a line from the opening paragraph of that earlier piece: as I write I am chasing a certain core feeling or hunch that builds around an image or series of images, and it is this elusive thing that I follow through various shape-shifting characters and scenarios. Well, the elusiveness continued for several more years, as did the shifting of scenarios and characters.

Maurice himself had got left behind a while back. Other characters, perhaps fuelled by impatience or frustration, had pushed to the fore and declared the story to be about them. The material had gone in a different direction. I was pleased with that other story, but the problem of what to do with Maurice remained. At that stage I had thousands of words written about him. In February of this year I sent a new draft of the story to Valerie Sirr. I’d constructed it by recycling and stitching together chunks of previously discarded material about Maurice, who had now become Tim. In the earlier drafts his sister had been called Cassie, and because Cassie had stayed put in the off-shoot story, in name at least, Tim’s sister now became Jess. His other sister, Lou Anne, became Carol.

Valerie got back to me with some suggestions. She had lots of nice things to say about the story, but she also thought that perhaps Jess needed to be slightly more present. She wondered if I needed to give the reader a ‘manifest glimpse’ of the relationship between Tim (formerly Maurice) & Jess, ‘besides his later in life anger at her demise’. I re-read the story and decided that Valerie was absolutely right. It occurred to me that there wasn’t a whole lot happening in the present in this story; much of the story was playing out at a distance: people feeling sad about something that had happened in the past. But what was happening now? Where was the sense of immediacy, the momentum that – in my opinion at least – a story needs?

I did what I often do when I re-write or edit – I wrote a different story. In this new story, most of the action happens in the ‘now’, without abandoning the ghostly past, which, I think, in this version does become more manifest. Maurice goes back to being called Maurice. Jess becomes Tara. I’d like to say that there was some profound reason for the change to Tara, but really it had to do with the complications around someone whose name ends in ‘s’ owning things – eg Jess’ hair – and also how I would pronounce that if I ever had to read the story aloud, given that I have a slight lisp. Carol is still Carol. My long-suffering writing group read the new story, not once but several times, and, as always, it was much improved by their input.

I sent the new story – very much at the last minute – to Valerie who, to my relief, liked what I’d done with it. I’m grateful to Valerie for her suggestions – I much prefer the new version. Reading back over the older version now, I’m struck by how very different it is, and also by how much material I have written only to be discarded. This time round, I find that I no longer have any interest in doing something with the off cuts. This story is told. I’m not sure to what extent Maurice has exorcised himself of his ghosts, but I have, at long last, exorcised myself of Maurice.

Danielle McLaughlin’s short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, and elsewhere. Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs On Other Planets, was published in Ireland in 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press, in the UK and US in 2016 by John Murray and Random House, and, most recently, in Slovakia by Inaque.

You can read ‘Primal Cuts’ in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.

Copyright © Danielle McLaughlin, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.