Jensen Beach on “The Apartment”
In this Revisionings, Jensen Beach shows us how he used an editor’s note to transform a serviceable sentence into one that convey a complex of character motivations in his short story “The Apartment.” (You can read the published version for free at The New Yorker‘s website!)
. . . . .
I started writing “The Apartment” in 2012. It’s part of my new book, Swallowed by the Cold. Anna Stein, my agent, and I worked on the stories for a couple years before she started sending the manuscript out. After we sold the book, I then worked with my editor, Ethan Nosowsky, on the book for another stretch, with input from my agent, and lots of rewriting and reworking various stories and parts of stories—the book is linked by theme and event, so there were a lot of really complicated webs to intersect; I’m enormously grateful to Ethan and Anna, both of whom pushed these stories to where they needed to go.
“The Apartment” sold to The New Yorker in the summer of 2015. I worked first with Cressida Lyshon on the edits. Then Deborah Treisman edited the story, and then it went through several rounds of copyediting and fact-checking. All-in-all, the experience was really wonderful.
Initially, Cressida sent me notes, mainly style guide stuff, which was fun to see, actually, as The New Yorker is so famous for its style guide. I have to admit I was a little disappointed I didn’t get an umlaut or two. As an editor, I enjoyed seeing the process up close. Most of these initial comments were simply dialogue tags, and how numbers should be written, and drop caps, etc.
Cressida also caught a number of repetitions and made some word choice suggestions that I thought were very good. The edit in the drafts I worked on with her that I found most helpful was the following.
The story’s main character is an alcoholic. At one one point Louise goes to the state liquor store, called Systembolaget, and purchases two bottles of wine. When she leaves the store, she checks the street to see if she recognizes anyone and then puts the bottles of wine in her purse and walks home. I wanted to capture the embarrassment and shame that she felt about purchasing the wine and the lengths she’ll go to to hide her drinking (and other facts about her character) from people she knows, and from herself. This kind of self-deception is central to the story.
Here’s the original sentence, in the draft we submitted to The New Yorker:
“Then she stuffed the bottles into her purse and walked the rest of the way home.”
That sentence is a fine sentence. There’s really nothing wrong with it; it’s doing almost all of the work that it should be doing, if you ask me.
Cressida left a simple note in the margin.
I thought about this for a long time. Admittedly, I know almost nothing about purses. My wife has some purses I assume might be large enough to hold two bottles of wine. Beyond that, I really have no idea. And, anyway, did I need to explain that the purse was a large purse? Should I test the wine bottle carrying capacity of several sample purses and describe Louise’s fictional purse accordingly? Should I change the word to “bag”? Make some other fix? Clearly, my neuroses need very little encouragement. In any case, in some ways the purse struck me as a detail that would be easy enough to leave as it was. The character put two bottles of wine in her purse, I might think if I were reading this story, and then she walked home. Fine with me. I suppose I can, as a reader, imagine a purse large enough to hold two bottles of wine. Some purses seem awfully big to me! But the more I thought about it, the more the fact of the purse seemed to present some possibility, a way to further illustrate Louise and who she was as a character. Here’s the final version of that sentence as it ran in The New Yorker:
“Then she stuffed the bottles into her purse, concealing what wouldn’t fit all the way in with her scarf, and walked the rest of the way home.”
This parenthetical offers all sorts of new possibilities that excited me. I like the word “concealing.” It strikes me as deceptive in itself, a little slithering and cruel. I also like that the fact of Louise having concealed the bottles implies gesture and movement. There is a lot of movement within that word concealing; and the idea of this speaks, I think, usefully to Louise and the way she lies. I didn’t feel like I needed to spend any more space than this line, this parenthetical, on the movement, but I did feel it was useful for the sentence, and for the story. There is, in my estimation, a lot effort involved in both stuffing one’s purse with wine bottles and then, to hide these wine bottles, draping a scarf over the bottles. Or perhaps she wrapped them? And did the scarf stay in place? Did it hide the bottles effectively or did she have adjust it as she walked? It’s all so much work, and it’s ultimately sad in that it’s meaningless. She still bought the wine, she’s still going to drink the wine, she’s still a drunk. And now, instead of being a woman standing on a corner for a moment and then walking home with some wine in her purse, wine she feels a little guilty about, she’s now a woman engaged in deceiving herself and probably no one else. This sentence complicates things to a degree that I find pleasing and good. I don’t know that Cressida predicted any of this. But her simple question about the size of Louise’s purse cracked open the story for me, gave me a chance to fill out the character of Louise in a way that seems simple but, I think, is not.
. . . . .
Jensen Beach is the author of the collection Swallowed by the Cold. His stories have appeared recently the Paris Review and The New Yorker. He lives in Vermont with his family.