Interviewed by Amy Scharmann
This story was originally one of several fables, all of which are from a young boy’s perspective and involve a particular object as a trigger for larger reflection or meditation. How do you feel about “The Balloon” as a stand-alone piece? Did you see this as a possibility?
I had originally conceived of “Fables” as a quintet of self-contained vignettes, in which the character of “the boy” learns five allegorical life lessons from the everyday objects of his childhood. In one of them, he encounters a frightened chipmunk on the sidewalk and learns about predestination and the horrific fatedness of death: it’s basically a rodent reworking of the “Appointment at Samarra” parable. There’s also a crow, a dog, and a chunk of melting ice. But because the vignettes don’t develop in a linear way (for instance, the mother in “The Balloon” is not an importantly recurring character), each has to function as its own fable, with a discrete dramatic situation and an elaborated narrative logic. In that sense, at least, they really are all stand-alone pieces. So although I never thought about publishing “The Balloon” separately, it didn’t feel counterintuitive to me.
The red balloon represents larger concepts of loss, obsession, regret, etc. What inspired you to write this story, and how did you build from that inspiration?
Each fable has at its core a fairly explicit philosopheme, some simple idea that the scenario tries to dramatize. In “The Balloon,” it’s the relationship between law and desire: namely, that ancient Pauline paradox in which the law seems to engender the very sin it forbids (“Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” Romans 7:7.) In 20th-century thought about this paradox, the important twist is that the law engenders not just the sin, but the self: the prohibition posits both the illicit desire and the desiring subject, thereby interpellating some anterior version of you, the repressed part of you that had to have been desiring the forbidden thing all along.
A fair follow-up question would be, “Well, okay, but what inspired you to use a balloon in particular?” Boring answer: My mom really did buy me a balloon and really did forbid me—out of the blue—to release it, whereupon I really did disobey her, compelled by pretty much the same ineluctable logic as “the boy.” Nor did my mom relent on her punishment and buy me a replacement. (This led to many endearing exchanges with Subtropics editor David Leavitt, who was aghast at the mom’s mercilessness: “My mom would never do such a thing!”)
I really appreciate your level of control as a writer, which seems particularly difficult to achieve in stories written in present tense, with such heightened emotions. What is your revision process like? Do you allow yourself to finish a story before tweaking it, or do you find yourself tinkering as you go?
In general, revision is a hell of self-hatred. It’s less about tinkering or tweaking than consigning stuff to the flames. Any time I glance at a manuscript, I find some mistake—a word, a scene, a transition—that makes me wince with shame. Sometimes I can just burn away the wince words as I go, until the prose is “polished” (i.e., until it has been annealed in the heat of my self-hatred). Other times I find that I have to set fire to the entire manuscript and start all over. In interviews, Wells Tower often refers to this as a “slash and burn” revision process, which sounds right to me. From the flamethrower of the delete key, the phoenix of the final draft.
Was there a particular moment or experience that made you realize that you wanted to be a writer—that you had to be a writer?
I’ve been reading and writing since I was a kid, and I honestly can’t remember whether there was a formative, origin-story moment, when I picked up a quill pen in my crib or anything. What I remember are the moments when someone encouraged me to keep writing, and I resolved not to quit. For as long as I’ve wanted to write, I’ve despaired of ever being able to write, and have periodically sworn off (to this day still swear off) ever writing again. So the milestone moments usually end up being whenever my teachers, friends, or family support me.
I noticed that you don’t assign a geographical location to this story, which allowed me to focus on who the characters are rather than where they are. Did you imagine a particular place while writing it?
I did, in fact: the supermarket parking lot back in Baton Rouge where I released my own balloon.
The short-short form is admittedly difficult for many writers, if not impossible. Are you more comfortable with this form, or does it present as a challenge?
I guess I don’t think of the “short-short” as having a distinct form from other stories. “The Balloon” presented me with the standard package of narrative challenges, and the formal decisions it entailed were actually pretty mundane: I had to settle on a third-person narrator, calibrate the free indirect discourse, modulate voice and tone, characterize a protagonist, dramatize a conflict, and develop a fictional idea to completion. The big difference, of course, was proportion. Because “The Balloon” is a two-page idea rather than a twenty-page idea, I had to develop it on a miniaturized scale. But I didn’t think of this compression as a necessarily formal difference. A bonsai has the same form as a live oak.
For me the difficulty of the “short-short”—and one reason, I assume, that some writers never try it—is primarily psychological. The fact is, the dominant form in the fiction market is still the 20-page, 6,000-word story. Indeed, it is the normative length that we subconsciously associate with “story” itself. The average 200-page collection simply comprises ten of these 20-pagers. Reading them, I sometimes wonder, “Has this author never had a five-page idea? A 50-page idea?” I suspect that the authors (most of whom must be admirers of Barthelme, Borges, Calvino, Chekhov, Davis, Hannah, Joyce, Kafka, Kawabata, Paley, Schulz, and so on) do have five-page ideas. But they probably experience the same sort of anxiety and self-consciousness and phallic inferiority that I did, when I found myself wasting yet another morning on “The Balloon”: “This isn’t even a story. It’s a runty little 600-word nothing.”
Of course, the market’s not as homogenous as I made it out to be. There are literary magazines like Subtropics, part of whose value lies in this commitment to heterogeneous forms. Needless to say, I feel lucky to have found such a good home for my little two-pager.
Bennett Sims’s story “The Balloon” appears in Subtropics 15.