Sophie Van Llewyn discusses her short story, ‘Dinner for Two’, taken from Issue Ten of The Lonely Crowd.
At the time when I began writing ‘Dinner for Two,’ in the winter of 2017, I was, primarily, a flash fiction writer. I had a six-month-old baby, and I only had time to write when she was napping. Fiction in fits and starts defined me back then; and I had just completed my novella-in-flash ‘Bottled Goods’ — the longest fragmented narrative I’ve ever written.
I had been immersed for three months in my novella, cutting and adding flash fictions as I adjusted the story arc. I worked fast, completing a new piece every two or three days. Every now and then, I tried to step back from the planning board, trying to see where they were ‘holes’ in the plot, where a new flash was required.
It had been so fun to write ‘Bottled Goods’: each chapter as a distinctive flash fiction. As I wrote it, I often wondered about the various ways a writer can tell a story, and what makes a story a story. I included flashes as lists, instructions, stories told in reverse chronological order, postcards, and even a story written as a table.
After the novella-in-flash stint, writing a linear narrative was a challenge.
Finding my narrator’s voice was easy. George Baker is a highly intelligent retiree, with an acute sense of irony and self-irony. He’s also suspicious of everyone around him, and rather unreliable as a narrator. I was very excited to spend time with a character like that, channeling his voice. Still, writing the story in a traditional way, as a continuous stream of voice where the past is interwoven seamlessly with the present, seemed awkward to me after the novella-in-flash adventure.
I wanted to weave the two timelines in an inconspicuous way, while, at the same time, offering a clear delineation between them.
So I decided to break the scenes from the past away from the narrative flow, to prevent them from overpowering the scenes in the present. They’re written as mini-chapters in their own right — almost flash fictions in their structure. There’s a complete tiny narrative arc to each of them, just as each is dominated by a single mood. They’re George’s memories, as he puts them down on paper for his sons. They encompass the absolute truth about his marriage, and the role he played in his wife’s downfall. These are realities that George never admitted to himself, let alone to someone else.
The result? ‘Dinner for Two’ came out as a fragmented narrative, just like ‘Bottled Goods.’ To what effect, this is for you, the reader, to judge.
One more thing. I wrote this short story as a part of an online workshop. Its first version had circa 5,000 words. Our instructor, Tom Vowler, advised me to cut down the story to a more ‘publishable’ length of 4,000 words. At the point when I wrote it, I couldn’t possibly see how I could have chopped it down without losing essential bits. I was far too in love with it to be ruthless, so I sent it out as it was. I needed a year to realise that the story indeed had to be shorter — by about 1,000 words, and a few unnecessary details. So much about the importance of killing your darlings.
Sophie van Llewyn lives in Germany. Her prose has been published by or is forthcoming in publications like Ambit, New Delta Review, Banshee, The Guardian. Her novella-in-flash Bottled Goods is available from Fairlight Books. Twitter @sophie_van_l
© Sophie van Llewyn, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.