Monday, March 05, 2018

The Story Behind the Story: “I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression,”
by Patricia Abbott

(Editor’s note: Patricia “Patti” Abbott has been a friend of The Rap Sheet for many years, dating back at least to 2008, when she launched the Web-wide “forgotten books” series, in which Rap Sheet contributors have often since taken part. A rather prolific short-story writer, with more 125 such brief yarns to her credit, Abbott—who, by the way, happens to be the mother of novelist Megan Abbott—has won the Derringer Award, published two e-novels [Monkey Justice and Home Invasion], and in more recent years seen a couple of her novels reach print: Concrete Angel [2015] and Shot in Detroit [2016]. This week brings the release, from Polis Books, of Abbott’s I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression, a collection of her short fiction that Publishers Weekly calls “sparkling” and “brilliant.” In the essay below, this Michigan writer recalls how one of the stories featured in that book was created.)

I will need to make a slight detour here in order to explain how “Burned the Fire” came to be. In 2006, I began blogging on a site I named Pattinase. I was interested in interacting with other readers and writers. Slowly, a network of like-minded readers and writers formed. At its height, before Facebook took a big bite out of blog readership, I got several hundred visitors a day. That number has decreased over time, but I still interact almost daily with other bloggers as well as writers and readers on Facebook.

Eleven and a half years later, I can state that there are many rewarding aspects to blogging. A large number of the people I count as friends today, I got to know through my blog. Also, a lot of the opportunities that came my way originated through people I met online. But there is a downside to blogging, too. The difficulty is in not posting boring, fatuous, self-promotional, argumentative, or repetitive remarks. Striking the right note takes time. I have removed many posts because they felt unwise in the cruel light of day.

Back up now to 2010, a time when blogs were still enjoying their halcyon era. Periodically I’d challenge other writers to create a flash-fiction story from a prompt. (Other blogs also hosted such challenges). An early challenge was to write a story taking place at a Wal-Mart store. The results were successful enough to attract an agent (through the auspices of Steve Weddle) and then a small e-book publisher (Untreed Reads), and the collection is still available under the title Discount Noir. I am proud to be associated with that anthology. Many of those fledgling writers of 2010 have gone on to produce novels that have won awards. Novices became seasoned writers over the years.

“Burned the Fire,” the subject of this essay, however, emanated from an interchange overheard on a street in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A young woman walking ahead of me said to her male companion, “I really don’t mind the scars.” That was all I heard of their conversation, but the phrase stuck with me and I eventually offered it as a prompt for an 800-word flash-fiction challenge. More than 30 people responded. Some of the stories they wrote were published on my blog; others appeared on the writers’ blogs, and I linked to them from Pattinase. Those stories were amazingly diverse, although largely dark … as was mine.

As the blogger who issued that challenge, developing a story of my own to fit the prompt was important, and in this case—where it was a very specific sentence—difficult. What did I know about scars? A fistfight on a street corner did not interest me. But typically, scars come from a physical confrontation: a fight, a fall, an accident of some sort. I wanted to subvert this idea. Or have the reason for the scars come as a surprise. Or if the scars were not to be a surprise, I wanted their origin to be unusual. In the best flash-fiction stories, the ending is inevitable but also a bit of a shock.

As I thought about this, I remembered the story of Siegfried & Roy, two famous German animal tamers. Certainly men who performed with large cats had to have significant scars. Wounds had to be part of their business. Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn performed with white lions and tigers from 1967 until 2003. They were wildly popular until a white tiger bit Roy on the neck and dragged him around the performance stage. On the way to the hospital, Roy’s only concern was that they might put Montecore—the cat who’d attacked him—down. It was this sentiment that I wanted to capture in my story: the relationship between a successful animal handler and his cats.

Did women ever tame big cats? Yes. The most famous such entertainer was Mabel Stark (1889-1968), who performed with tigers for 57 years. After reading about her life, I decided she’d become the Pearl in my story. Despite many incidents of being mauled by her tigers, Stark loved her work and continued appearing in the ring until she was in her 70s. Her most serious mauling required 378 stitches and she was not expected to survive the attack. Yet she was back to work within weeks. Like Roy, she never blamed the tigers for these mishaps, but admitted there was no such thing as a tame tiger.

(Above) This poster above promotes “Miss Mabel Stark and Her Ferocious Giant Jungle Tigers,” one of the best-loved attractions of the Al G. Barnes Circus. As the Los Angeles Times has reported, “In 1912, Mabel Stark bought a ticket to the circus while vacationing in Los Angeles. She loved it so much that she chucked her nursing career. So apparent was her rapport with furry creatures—and with [circus owner] Barnes—that he offered her a job on the spot as a lion tamer.” (To learn more about this poster, click here.)

Stark worked as a stunt double for Mae West in the 1933 motion picture I’m No Angel. According to her 1938 biography, Hold That Tiger, she would have preferred to die at the hands of a tiger than by any other means, but she outlived the possibility of that.

Of course, in an 800-word story, you are limited to presenting only a scene or two, and I chose to describe the frightful mauling and how Pearl dealt with it. The inevitable ending is surprising because the reader does not realize, initially, that Pearl is talking about an animal and not a man. Everything she says about the tiger could hold true for a man as well.

After posting “Burned the Fire” (originally “Burnt the Fire”) as part of my flash-fiction challenge, I dressed it up a bit and published it on the Shotgun Honey Web site. I included it in I Bring Sorrow because it harks back to the time when flash-fiction challenges were a big part of blogging. Nowadays, when there are whole flash-fiction Web sites, such blog challenges make less sense.

I am not sure why I chose this story to talk about in The Rap Sheet. There were 24 others from I Bring Sorrow that I could have selected, some of them longer, some probably better. But Pearl and her beloved tigers stuck with me and became the story behind the story.

READ MORE:Patti Abbott—The BOLO Books Interview,” by
Kristopher Zgorski (BOLO Books).

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