Fiction co-editor Grace Safford recently had this exchange with Issue #46 featured fiction author Kathryn Ordiway. Here’s what Kathryn had to say about the inspiration for her short story, her editing process, how she uses color in her writing, and more.
First and foremost, what inspired you to write “Portrait of a Marriage as a Young Thing”? Why did you feel this was an important story to tell?
When I started the story in 2016, “Portrait of a Marriage as a Young Thing” was just a fictional space for me to dump my worries about moving to a new state, making friends with a new group of people (who are scientists), and being very far out of my comfort zone, all before it actually happened. By the time I was actually moving, meeting new people, and starting my life in a new state, I had abandoned the story since it wasn’t one at all. At the beginning of 2019, I came back to what I had written and started to aggressively edit it into something somebody else might read. From the place of my own contentment, I realized the isolation I had created for Liv out of my own worry was entirely of her own making, an isolation she was imposing on herself. I thought that separateness—one that does not exist but feels real nonetheless—was worth exploring.
Throughout the story, Liv is on the verge of “the first fight.” This complex desire to fight—to do something seemingly negative in nature—adds so much depth to this story. Could you talk a little bit about why you chose to include this idea/conflict into your story?
While revising this story, I kept thinking about the “first fights” I heard about from peers while I was still in school, this kind of rite of passage in the dating world. I was also thinking about that piece of advice seemingly all married couples get: “don’t go to bed angry.” I imagined all these things in Liv’s head, weighing on her and really preventing her from being happy in what I do believe is a good relationship, and how those thoughts might warp everyday moments (e.g., Rupert offering her food, but not a sandwich, and whether such a slight is worthy of fighting). I wanted to include this detail because I knew very early on that a majority of the conflict of the story would be in Liv’s head, but that she would be seeking a way to take it beyond herself. She very much wants to check this imagined event off her list and to move on to this next stage of her marriage (which is silly, because having this imagined fight won’t actually change anything).
Setting is clearly important to this narrative. The coast is integral. When I first read the piece, I felt like I was actually standing on the coast with Liv. Why did you pick this setting? Why is it important to your story? In your opinion, how do you think setting can add to a piece?
I’m quite enamored with the coast, despite being very far away from it. In my mind, it always conjures up images of vacations, sun, being away from work and responsibility. I decided I wanted to play with that kind of association in this story and flip it on its head: make the coast a place of work for Rupert and a place of dread for Liv. I think there’s so much richness to be found in a well-done setting. This question immediately brought to mind Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, how the house itself is practically a character, how it participates in the narrative. I think that having an active setting (in the sense that it is acting in the narrative) can mirror and highlight the characters and conflict and can even create further conflict. And of course, setting can just be lovely to read about, too.
Another aspect of your story that struck me was your use of color. Liv is constantly repainting her house (I love that detail), and color is very present in your description. I was particularly struck by the moment when Liv is walking down the beach noting the grey colors, saying that “their skin begins to appear gray, another part of the landscape bleeding into everything else. Liv fears that if they walk too far, become too gray, she will be permanently stuck between beaches…” What role does color play in your piece? How can a writer, in your opinion, effectively use color in a narrative?
Something that I sometimes struggle with when writing is paying attention to setting and making it visible to a reader, so I have to push myself to include that kind of detail. A way I can always make myself pay attention to setting is by incorporating color. Thinking about the color of the rooms Liv was painting gave me a chance to slow down and be comfortable in the space I was creating, and consequently gave Liv the opportunity to try and create the home she wanted to be in. Thinking about the colors of the beach forced me to take time to see it, then describe it. When I think about color in narrative, I remember spending a lot of time in high school English classes discussing color symbolism, reading packets that said, “red means x, green means y,” and then applying those definitions to whatever was being studied. I think that’s perhaps a heavy-handed way to approach color in text, but color connects well with emotion, so adding the right kind of color to a narrative can really highlight feeling. And, of course, it’s helpful visually. Not only does the repetitive use of gray in “Portrait of a Marriage” make sure the right kind of beach is being envisioned (not sunny, not filled with vacationing families), but it creates a mood for the story, too.
“Portrait of a Marriage as a Young Thing” is deeply set in reality, and this piece can ring true to many people because of its reality. What power do you think reading realistic fiction can have on our lives?
In everything that I’ve been writing recently, I find myself more and more interested in writing about women, about their desires and their anger and their fear, because I love to read stories about those things and to see that my own desire and anger and fear is valid. There’s something to be said for escaping from reality when reading, for indulging in fantasy. There’s also something to be said for reading and perhaps seeing something very real that resonates with you, that informs your self just a bit, validates you, or, on the other hand, that is completely new to you, that opens your eyes to something different.
Are there any stories you have read that have had a “power” in your life that you would recommend everyone to read?
Oh, the list could go on forever. If I had to choose a single story, it would be “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. I think about that story almost every day, especially when I’m writing. I would recommend her work to absolutely anyone, and her collection Her Body and Other Parties is a book I’ve gifted to several readers in my life. Along with being a story I return to frequently, “The Husband Stitch” also caused a pretty heated argument in a workshop I was in back in 2016—an argument that I’m still not over—and if that’s not real power, I don’t know what is.
At Mud Season Review, we’re always trying to find ways to spread more information about the craft of writing, and information about what people have learned in their own experiences with story. What’s one of the best pieces of writing advice you have been given?
I’ve been told many times to go back and read work out loud—both in fiction and in academic writing. That has never let me down. In drafts, I tend toward cramming a lot into my sentences, and because I’m very in my own thoughts, I don’t realize that what I’ve written doesn’t make sense to anyone else. Reading out loud is a great way to realize I’ve been rambling or overwriting.
We’re also big supporters of the importance of revision/editing. We grew out of a workshop, after all. What’s your revision process? Do you have any personal editing tips for our readers?
After I’ve finished a first draft—sometimes even before that, when I’ve just written out an image or a scene—I like to let what I’ve written sit a bit. In the case of “Portrait of a Marriage,” the story sat for almost three years before I was able to get far enough away from it to really get clarity, but sometimes that time period is just a week or two, maybe a month. Once I’ve separated myself a little from a story, I come back and have fun with it. Editing is easily the best part of the writing process for me; getting a chance to explore ideas, find new solutions, and just play with words and characters is a dream. When I’ve got something I’m really happy with, or something I’ve edited to death and need fresh eyes on, I send the document to a dear friend who reads absolutely everything I write—sometimes at multiple stages. Having someone who has the guts to tell you “this is not your best work” is incredibly helpful, and I’d recommend finding an editing buddy to any writer. Writing can be so lonely! It’s nice to have someone (or multiple someones) in your corner.
Lastly, what are you working on now?
I’m always juggling a couple stories at a time, but right now I’m really digging into the revision of a story about a family in which the first-born daughters are blessed/cursed with clairvoyant dreams.