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And This, With Wings
Remembering Vivian Dorsel
Just what every creative writing student fears: Her writing instructor steals her short story then murders her (with a chunk of granite) to cover up the evidence.
I started this story in a fit of frustration with myself, vowing to write a story a day to see what would turn up (inspired by Leon Rooke, who once did this). “And This, With Wings” turned up the first day and completely sidetracked my schedule because it took ages to get it right.
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It is comic, noir, demonic. The devil’s syntax, as John Hawkes called it. Unlike the other story I just published, “Teeth”, this is straightforwardly written. The sentences are terse and concrete, with none of the coiling loopiness that characterizes the other. The comic horror is all in how the hero follows his impulses, step by step, to their logical conclusions.
It has just been published in upstreet, Vivian Dorsel’s magazine, her labor of love. And there lies a sad and bittersweet tale, for not long after she and I were in touch about the story, Vivian died.
I had known Vivian for something like 20 years. We first met at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she was my student for one epical semester, after which we were friends until the end. Shortly after graduation, she started upstreet. She was a massive organizer with an aesthetic mission and a business plan. I am sure she put plenty of her money into the magazine, an elegantly covered (always distinctively black) annual that included poetry, fiction, essays, and an extended author interview, which Vivian conducted herself. The names of the writers she interviewed in her first seventeen issues tell a story in themselves: Jim Shepard, Lydia Davis, Wally Lamb, Michael Martone, Robin Hemley, Sue William Silverman, Dani Shapiro, Douglas Glover, Emily Fragos, Robert Olen Butler, Joan Wickersham, Marilyn Hacker, Andre Dubus III, Robin Black, Ann Hood, and David Jauss. (One other interview, with D. Nurkse, was conducted by poetry editor Frances Richey.)
Vivian was very smart about the magazine. She made it an annual, so as not to over-extend herself. She mastered the business of distribution (she was proud of its national distribution). She drew in editors and readers to help. She created an ecosystem that included Twitter, Instagram, a Facebook group, and writing classes near her home in the Berkshires. Every year she would set up a booth at AWP and other writing conferences. Every year she would show up at a VCFA residency with boxes of the latest issue, pleased and proud.
I watched all this with awe and admiration. Between 2010 and 2017, I published my own magazine Numéro Cinq; Vivian and I found a second bond as magazine editors and publishers together. We both knew the effort involved, the things readers and writers never notice.
Vivian was dogged, generous, and indefatigable. She was on the side of the angels. A literature is not built from bestsellers and million-dollar book deals. That’s just the froth on the top. A literature, a nation’s heritage, starts at the grass roots, with small presses, inspired literary magazines, and committed editors. Without the bubbling ferment of new publishers, new writers, and small interconnected communities, there would be no literature. Great writing needs a matrix to seed itself, a place to experiment and grow. Vivian knew this. She dedicated herself to this, fiercely and selflessly.
In November last year, just after she arrived in Charlotte where she spent every winter to be near her son Mike and his family, Vivian fell ill with non-COVID flu and pneumonia. She was hospitalized. On December 3, she was released from hospital, and the following day, all business as usual, she sent out a group email letting everyone know what was happening. Here’s a snippet from that email; I still can’t get over that last line.
I was discharged yesterday and came back to my apartment. Mike and Margot have hired home health aides so that I will not be alone here until everyone thinks it’s ok. I have several things to say: (1) I’m not even fully unpacked yet; my apartment is strewn with luggage, laundry baskets, and other stuff. (2) My main priority (after/during getting well) is upstreet.
That was our last communication. She died December 22. She was a remarkable woman. I miss her.
It is a triumph that her son Mike Dorsel along with Joyce Griffin and the rest of her editorial staff were able to persevere and bring this issue to life.
And This, With Wings (opening pages)
Finbar’s novel was not going well. It had not been going well for five years. His young wife’s disappointment was a mid-winter ice storm in the house, which made it difficult to relax there, let alone eat, sleep, and write. He sometimes slept in his office, showered at the gym. He had spent the pathetic advance they’d paid him. He was up for tenure at the college where he taught, but the auguries were all negative. He loathed teaching, which, in his glory days—after the first book of stories came out—had been a lovefest. He was drinking again, smoked too much dope. His fingers trembled, and his hoarse voice projected the hollowness of his despair. He felt like a man on a train waving goodbye to a figure, weeping and luminous, on the station platform. That figure was himself. And the train had left months ago.
One day, a new student appeared in his introductory fiction class. It was that time of the semester, the drop/add deadline, the last day for anxious, unhappy students to shift classes, which generally only made them more anxious and unhappy. Her name sounded like something out of a romance novel—Hydrangea Fenwood. She was a pale, underfed girl in baggy Wrangler cargo pants, a tie-dye t-shirt stretched out of shape over her flat chest, and Converse sneakers, her lank, nondescript light brown hair pulled back in a pony tailponytail, thin lips, split ends, freckles. She seemed shy, devoid of personality, a totally unsatisfactory addition to an unsatisfactory class. At the end of the session, she handed him her drop/add form to sign. Finbar was reluctant. She was three weeks behind the other students, who had already submitted their first story assignments.
“I have a story ready,” she mumbled almost unintelligibly, offering him a sheaf of hand-written pages from her military surplus messenger bag.
“Typed,” he said. “It’s a requirement.”
Hydrangea gazed at her feet. The words “poor white trash” and “crystal meth” came unbidden to Finbar’s mind. Unjust, he knew. He’d been tweaked the whole time he wrote that first book. But those wild days were long gone.
“My computer’s in the shop,” she whispered.
“You could have used a campus terminal,” he said.
“I’ll do it right next time,” she said. Her eyes lifted to his, nakedly timid and pleading.
Finbar had to turn away. Her non-existent eyebrows repelled him. She seemed more like a mannequin than a real girl. She fled with her signed form, leaving Finbar clutching that sheaf of dense ball point cursive. He wasn’t even sure he could decipher it. He slumped at his desk before the eerily empty seats, the sounds of the emptying building distant in the corridors, shouts and laughter beyond the windows. He rested his palms against his eyes. Then he squared the papers in front of him and began to read.
At first, all he could make out was the title. “And This, With Wings.” She signed herself HF. The rest was a palimpsest of cross-outs, insertions, text balloons, and arrows. In the margins: doodles, female heads, constellations of five-pointed stars. The writing was tiny and peculiar, with words systematically foreshortened, a private code. He had to reconstruct the hand before he could make much of the story. Then suddenly it took, the words began to flow and resonate, and flowing, they seemed to come out of him, from some deep writerly core.
He slipped his laptop out of his bag, flipped it open, and began to transcribe the text. “And This, With Wings,” by Hydrangea Fenwood. The name looked silly. He backed up and retyped. By HF. Then he blanked out the initials and watched the cursor blink on the screen, like the pulse of blood in his brain. Then, for the hell of it, he typed, by Finbar Hanlon. It could do no harm because the draft would never leave his docs folder.
The nacreous glow of sunrise already silhouetted the campus buildings when he finished. He could hear the first chirps of birds, the swishing of tires in the distance, the city waking, like a new world. He rested the heels of his palms against his eyes once more, then checked the word count. 27,892 words. It seemed miraculous. He leafed through the handwritten pages, estimating. He had typed more words than existed on Hydrangea’s manuscript. He checked her last page and his own. He’d written clear past her stopping point. He’d added scenes, themes, characters, and plot steps. Where she had suggested an image pattern, he had worked out an entire symbolic structure. It was her story but different; maybe seventy per cent of the words were his alone. And he thought they were good, a little masterpiece, tragic, iconic.
He had never experienced inspiration at that level, had never felt so alive. And This, With Wings by Finbar Hanlon. He could see the cover of the book, the Publishers Weekly starred review. He couldn’t stop himself from fantasizing but felt sick at heart. In a spasm of guilt, he clicked the file and hit DELETE. Then spent a frenzied minute scouring the TRASH folder and restoring the file. He was terrified his computer might crash and the file disappear into the ether. He attached the file to an email and sent it to himself. Safe now, he thought, when he saw the email appear in his inbox. It was the child of his heart.
He couldn’t bear the thought of no one ever reading it, which was all the more galling for the years of emails and phone calls from his agent, from his editor. How’s that novel going? Slash, burn, kill. Every email pushed him further and further from the novel, which had become a titanic presence in its total absence.
He drafted a quick email to Spence, his agent, once a friend, his best reader when there had been something to read. “Strictly between us, Spence. Just a draft. Not to be disseminated. I want you to see the juices are starting to flow again.” Outside, the thunder of a trash truck, the beep as it reversed into a dumpster, the metallic lock, the roar of the hydraulics and thump of the rubbish. When it was done, he had clicked SEND.
He cancelled classes for the day. He couldn’t face Hydrangea Fenwood, or anyone else for that matter. But Hydrangea especially because he couldn’t think what he’d say to her. His eyes ached with fatigue, yet his mind was clear. He felt triumphant. He had never written anything so beautiful. But Hydrangea loomed awkwardly between Finbar and apotheosis. She could never have finished the book, but neither could he have started it on his own. Somehow And This, With Wings remained essentially hers even though, as he typed the words, they had seemed so natural to him that in his mind he could easily have invented them himself.
He drove home in a fragile state, kicked the dog, shouted at his wife when she asked where he had spent the night, packed a bag, and checked into a motel with three bottles of Old Crow for life support. By noon, Spence had texted him. And This, With Wings was a work of surpassing originality, of pure genius, unlike anything that had ever come across his desk. Fully acknowledging that Finbar wanted to keep it secret, he had only sent it out to eight select editors on his A list. One had taken only 20 minutes to reply with an offer, which of course he rejected. Sign of a feeding frenzy.
Finbar turned out the lights, pulled the curtains, and smoked a joint in bed. Then he telephoned the departmental secretary and asked for contact information for Hydrangea Fenwood, a transfer student in his intro class. But the paperwork had not come through yet; Hydrangea was not registered in any other lit or writing classes. He called the registrar. Hydrangea Fenwood had enrolled last minute, pulling credits from a community college nestled in the mountains on the western edge of the state. They had an out-of-town home address with a zip code the registrar’s clerk had never seen before, no current address, and no email or cell. The clerk sounded annoyed and surprised. Hydrangea’s registration fees had not been paid. She was in fact technically not yet a student at the college.
Spence texted to say he had just turned down a six-figure advance. Finbar texted: “Negative. Withdraw book. Not for any advance.” He packed a bottle of hooch, eight joints, and his reserve vial of Xanax in his computer bag and left for school. Now it occurred to him that he had to find Hydrangea. He still didn’t know what he’d say, didn’t know quite what he wanted from her. He couldn’t imagine a scenario with a satisfactory outcome. Perhaps he would tell her the story was no good and advise her to drop the class. She didn’t look like a reader. His last book had sold only 387 copies nationwide, so it wasn’t likely she would even notice if the book came out. Or he could confess what he’d done and propose a co-authorship arrangement, her name on the cover, just under his.
To read the rest of the story, please pick up a copy of the magazine. There are plenty of other contributors and fine reading.