16: Mireille Silcoff, "The Heaviest Dress"

It's December 16. Mireille Silcoff, author of Chez L'arabe, knows a guy who knows a guy.

How would you describe your story?

MIREILLE SILCOFF: It's not often I go back to youth for stories. I find it frustrating to think about how I thought as a teenager. The older me wants to tell the younger me how wrong she is; wants to say "it will get better." This is a story about that period between youth and adulthood, where you make decisions that might impact your life for a long time to come, and yet you don't know why you are making these choices—you are swayed by emotion and a knee-jerk brand of instinct. The protagonist looks at her older relative—a woman who made many "bad" choices—and can't figure out if she is the saddest or most interesting woman she has ever known. Like so many stories I write, this is one about inheritances: what gets passed down, whether you like it or not.

When did you write it, and how did the writing process compare to your other work?

MS: I wrote the first version of this story in 2009, over the entire year, and it simply would not come together. I then sliced it into two stories, and worked on each separately, and ultimately aborted one half and sent the other half—which became this story—to my agent, for possible inclusion in my story collection Chez L'arabe. He told me to put it in a drawer and leave it there. So I did that, but it scratched at me. I knew this was a story I liked and a story I wanted to tell. The image of the heavy, once-glamorous dress depleted of all powers, and of the garment bag like a bodybag, stayed with me, and kept on coming up in other writing. After Chez L'arabe was published, I pulled this story out again and chipped away at it for three months until the themes came to surface. I still think of it as a rangy relative to some of my more careful stories, but I love it for that reason, too.

What kind of research went into this story?

MS: There was a woman in my extended family a bit like Elainey. I had to hold her memory in my mind with tenderness.

What, to you, makes the short story a special form? What can it do that other kinds of writing (novels, poems) can't?

MS: I am writing my first novel now, so I am living these differences. For me a story always begins with a feeling or an atmosphere—in the case of "The Heaviest Dress," it could have been the still-warm smell of Giorgio perfume and Benson and Hedges cigarettes on an older woman—and every other element flows out from there. With the novel, I find that I like to create a frame for a chapter: "it begins here and ends there," or "this is where this idea happens." Once I have that frame, I go about filling it in. It's an approach that feels less dreamy than the way I write stories.

Where can people go to learn more about you and your writing?

MS: I've been a newspaper columnist in one place or another for more than twenty years, so readers can always go online and find things that way. I am a technological lazybones/curmudgeon. I am not on Twitter and I am terrible at Facebook and I don't have a website or a blog or anything that makes this question an easy one to answer. I suppose the best way to know my writing would be to read my books.

What's on your Christmas list this year?

MS: No Christmas for this big Jew, I'm afraid. But my Hanukah list includes:

  1. Guerlain "Apres Londres" cologne
  2. One of those vibrating electric toothbrushes that cost $150 and give you a bit of a headache. Nothing says clean like a little pain!
  3. Money into my 2017 Upholstery Fund. I have a toddler and a five year old and there is not a soft surface in my house that has not been markered, apple juiced, or worse. Every morning, when everyone is still asleep, I creep down to the living room to get some writing done, and I look at my furniture, and I die a little.  

* * * * *

What did you think of today's story? Use the hashtag #ssac2016 on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to check in with your fellow advent calendarians.