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The Story Behind the Story: “An Attempt to Set the Record Straight Concerning the Drowning”

From The Antioch Review, Summer 2013, Volume 71, Number 3

Nathan Oates’ story, “An Attempt to Set the Record Straight Concerning the

Drowning,” details the events surrounding the

Nathan Oates

Nathan Oates

death of a wife:

Some of my stories arrive quickly, only a few months between first idea and final draft, others take more time to settle, but never has a story taken as long to find its form as “An Attempt to Set the Record Straight Concerning the Drowning.” The seed for this story came from a newspaper article that was tacked to the wall of the It’ll Do Café in Chitina, Alaska, near the entrance to the Denali National Park. This was, I hesitate to admit, in 1998. Having just graduated college, I’d driven with my father and three brothers to Alaska from Kentucky. This was, as you might imagine, exhausting and stressful, and while my brothers finished eating breakfast I escaped to read the old clippings along the walls. Most of the articles were from local, Alaskan papers about what I took to be typically Alaskan events – snow, bears, and so on – but one was from a newspaper in Tennessee about the arrest of a college professor who was accused of drowning his wife, or at least not helping her as she drowned in a lake near their home. I was drawn to the article because it was so out of place, but also because of a photograph they included of the silhouette of man standing on a rock as the sun set over a lake. This obviously wasn’t the accused man, was a construction, and now, of course, my memories of the article are so tainted by time that whatever I actually “remember” is as much a fiction as that picture. But I remember being intrigued by the obvious bias in the reporting against the professor and the seeming lack of any real evidence against him other than the accusations of neighbors who clearly loathed him. Immediately, I wanted to write this story, to explore the mystery of what really happened. At the time I was reading a lot of Nabokov and was fascinated by his narrators in novels such as Pale Fire and Despair, characters who are repellant but persuasive, and I wanted to try something in this vein.

Unfortunately, or maybe, retrospectively, fortunately, this was beyond me at the time. I wrote a version of the story the next year, thinking it might be a novel, but I only got fifteen or so pages in before I realized I couldn’t finish the story, though I knew, at the time, that the sentences were some of the best I’d yet written. I put the story aside, but unlike many of the stories I’ve put aside over the years, I kept thinking about this one, these characters, and several times over the next decade I returned to the story, but couldn’t make it work, until, this past year, when I cut large sections, and then, with Robert Fogarty’s guidance, tightened the story up even more into its current form. For obvious reasons I’m attached to this story, in part because I can see, in some of the sentences, the shadow of my younger self – as much a construction as my memories of that article tacked to the wall, or of the article itself – who first tried to write a story that was beyond him, which is what I think all writers are almost always doing, or should be doing.

Nathan Oates’s debut collection of short stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize and is forthcoming in 2013. Learn more about Nathan Oates at nathanoates.net.

© 2013 The Antioch Review