In this segment of The Story Behind the Story, Christopher Lowe talks about what motivated him to write “These People.”
It’s almost always the case that my stories begin with a fairly standard character/action trigger. A character pops into my head and I imagine that character – still in a half-formed state – engaged in some action. Big, small, meaningful, frivolous, it doesn’t really matter. I write that action, and then I see where the story goes from there. Sometimes, that triggering character/action sticks as the inciting incident in the story. Sometimes it ends up on the cutting room floor. None of that is intentional; it’s just how I tend to write.
“These People” is an exception to that process. This is that odd (for me) story that came completely from language. I was in the middle of a draft of my long-gestating novel, a process that requires me to sit down daily and bang my head against the words I’ve already written. I got fed up of that one day, fed up of tinkering with my characters and shuffling chapters. I opened a new document, and the first line of “These People” popped into my head. I typed it out, let it sit there for a minute, and then followed it down the rabbit hole. It’s probably not a coincidence that from a POV stand-point, it’s very different from anything else that I’ve ever written. That strange, floating narrative voice that embraces the reader as part of itself was a byproduct of the language in the opening line. It blossomed out from there, and as I went, it gave me the opportunity to view this couple’s situation from a slightly different angle.
After I finished the story, I shot it off to a buddy of mine who gives me plenty of good feedback. He said it was my version of Hemingway’s great story “Hills Like White Elephants.” He’s probably right; I think I wrote the story about a week after having taught “Hills,” so it was fresh on my mind, but where Hemingway’s digging into a couple’s decision to have an abortion, trying to parse how this relationship is unbalanced, I was drawn to the time after the decision, to the point where outside judgment comes into play. We (the narrator, the reader, society) are quick to judge, quick to apply handy labels to anyone we can tag as “these people.” All of this is intellectual of course. It’s all after-the-fact analysis. When I was writing the story, I was mostly just interested in sitting in that sad couple’s backseat where I could listen to the hum of their tires while they avoided saying the things they’d each like to say.