In this segment of The Story Behind the Story, Ben Shields talks about what motivated him to write “He Had Vigor.”
I wrote this story in December 2011, so my memories of the writing verge on faded. I know this, though, that I was in grad school for an MFA, and this was the first story I felt like I kicked the hell out of. When I finished it, I read it to my wife, grinning like a dope the whole time, just glowing with pride at my baby. Her reaction, I can’t see it clearly, but I’m pretty sure it was some version of a face in question. That didn’t matter. I knew, ya know, that I’d done something well. I’d done the thing I wanted to do more than anything well. This feeling lived in me about a week until right about the time I understood that one seven-page story meant almost zip in the long run. Then, of course, came the load of self-doubt about whether I could ever recreate whatever kind of magic I had just made over and over again. That’s a whole different thing. About this story, though, I don’t say any of the previous because “He Had Vigor” is super top-notch. It’s just that it was for me at the time. It was my clear and obvious peak, what I’d been after for a couple years. It convinced me that maybe I’ve got a level a competence I could hone and coddle and see what happens.
Like almost everything I write, the tidbits in the story came, at least somewhat, from my own life. My luck, I think, is that a few things came together in my head around the same time. Nicotine in general was something I’d been trying to kick for what felt like forever. The ladybugs, I got this from my parents’ house. When the weather steadies on cold, ladybugs pile up all over the place in truly overwhelming numbers. They get in your dinner, tickle you when you sleep, and give the cats endless hours of play. The baby drama came from two things: me being a married twenty-six year old and pregnancy being an oft-discussed topic. This story was likely me working through a bit of that in my head, imagining what would go down, and raising the stakes accordingly because my real life was/is far less interesting than the total events of the story. The poor, pitiful cat in the story was a longtime companion of mine, a steady friend for many years. He was still living when I wrote the piece, and managed a few months longer after I was done, but he was on the way down, thin and tired when I was working on the story.
I’d been sitting on this story over a year when Fiction Southeast picked it up. This was my first ever published story after many months of sending things out and getting rejections enough to flood my email. When the acceptance came through, I flipped out. Instant regression into the standard ten year old, new bike/pellet gun/gaming system scenario. It was a wonderful moment.