Amelia Gray on “Labyrinth”
This week in Revisionings, Amelia Gray takes us through the editing process behind her story “Labyrinth,” which was published in The New Yorker in February (and which can be read in its entirety here). Gray also gave us permission to post
the images of one page from her marked-up draft.
. . . . .
John McElwee and I edited the piece over the course of one week, exchanging about 60 emails back and forth with full drafts, small line changes, and fact checking.
Though John sent a full draft with changes marked, I wanted to focus on the last line first—mostly because I wasn’t happy with it and wanted to talk about a few different options. The version submitted to the magazine had the last line:
The carved glyphs bit into my chest and branded the skin. I was alone. Of course, then I met the Minotaur.
I was editing the piece at the same time for my collection, and had changed it back to the way it was in my original draft (which I wrote in July 2013):
The carved glyphs bit into my chest and branded my skin. I was alone. It was at this point that I met the Minotaur.
I was caught between a conversational tone and one more matter-of-fact, wanting to deliver a soothing kind of punch by the last line. In the first round, John seemed to feel the same way about easing into the ending; before I showed him the alt above, he had already suggested the change to:
“The carved glyphs bit into my chest and branded the skin. I was alone. Of course, it was then that I met the Minotaur.”
He said he would think about it as we looked at other edits but before he got back to me, I returned with a draft responding to his edits another attempt at the ending:
“The carved glyphs bit into my chest and branded my skin. I was alone. Then I met the Minotaur.”
It was the blunt ending I had wanted since writing it, but had held back on; maybe because I read it in public when it was a pretty early draft, and aloud I wanted the audience to hold on the last line a little longer. In print, though, the extra words felt like I was holding back too much when a direct approach would have a greater result. Putting it on its own line would have been too dramatic, but the short line at the end of the paragraph would offer a nice balance. John agreed on the short ending and we moved on to the rest of the draft.
Some of my dialogue ran into the house style, which mandates ending dialogue phrases with “said.” For example, John wanted to change my original:
“My kids aren’t going in there by themselves,” said the high-school football coach, taking a knee to clutch two boys to his chest.
“My kids aren’t going in there by themselves,” the high-school football coach, taking a knee to clutch two boys to his chest said.
And my original:
A general murmur rose. “What’s the distinction?” asked a woman holding a whorl of candy floss.
A general murmur rose. “What’s the distinction?” a woman holding a whorl of candy floss said.
I didn’t like the way these changes altered the rhythm, but I didn’t feel the need to challenge the specifics of house style in order to fix it to what I wanted. (They also snuck an umlaut in there.) I suggested the following two lines:
The high-school football coach took a knee to clutch his two boys to his chest. “My kids aren’t going in there by themselves.”
A general murmur rose. A woman holding a whorl of candy floss wanted to know the distinction.
Making those edits was a way to adhere to house style without having to seriously alter the line. I was also introducing so many characters in those lines that it was getting harder to care which woman was holding candy floss and which was with a townie and similar–taking the candy floss woman’s question out of quotation marks was a way to keep it in there without distinguishing her as a character too much.
In my original version, I introduced the ancient Phaistos Disk from the more-or-less clueless protagonist’s perspective, who puzzled over its etchings:
The trivet was etched with strange symbols. There were men and warriors and saws and a shield and something that resembled the buttock of a woman.
John wanted to know if I meant saws or if I was thinking more of swords/spears/knives, maybe because those things would be easier to picture, or more obviously placed in the category of things warriors would use. I did mean saws, which I came up with when I originally looked at the disk and saw a long staff with toothy jaws on it that looked like a saw. But in thinking about it, I realized that alluding more to things warriors would use would align nicely with the idea that the protagonist was himself becoming a kind of legendary figure as he walked toward the center of the labyrinth. I suggested changing “saws” to “arrows” because, looking at the disk again, I couldn’t really spot swords, spears or knives.
After that, we heard from the fact checker, who pointed out that I said “men and warriors,” which was a little misleading, suggesting the character had seen both, and also there weren’t explicit differences between figures on the disk. I didn’t mind the character getting something factually wrong since he’s not supposed to be an expert, but in thinking about this one, I realized that changing it to “men or warriors” would call back again to the idea that the protagonist was in this strange place between reality and legend. The line as it landed:
The trivet was etched with strange symbols. There were men or warriors and arrows and a shield and something that resembled the buttock of a woman.
The fact checker, who by luck was Greek, also noted as a point of national pride that a governmental problem I described earlier in the story which led to the Disk going up for sale would be a huge oversight indeed given the country’s policies on antiquities. I asked that the line stand but appreciated his thoroughness. Later he would request the artist change the illustration because their labyrinth was multicursal and not unicursal as the story specifies. I felt grateful for his attention to detail and considered asking him to come to L.A. on a day rate in order to fact check various elements of my life.
A draft of Amelia Gray’s “Labyrinth,” as marked up by editor John McElwee.
Amelia Gray is the author of four books, including her latest, Gutshot, a collection of short stories.