Author of the short story collection, The
Safety of Obejcts
In the summer
of 1989 I was invited to Yaddo, the infamous art colony in upstate
New York. To be invited was to be legitimized to be included among
the hundreds of writers, artists, composers who spent time there,
Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Sylvia Plath,
James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Katherine Anne Porter, Patricia Highsmith.
Hidden in the woods among the tall northern pines near Saratoga
Springs, Yaddo is a magical castle, a gothic mansion, filled with
dark wood, furnishings that have been there for one hundred years,
ghostly stories, real live bats slipping through cracks and flying
like stealth planes, through the dark corridors.
Arriving midday—not a soul in sight, only closed doors and
the sound of computer keys—I was shown to my rooms by
someone who claimed these were the very rooms used by John Cheever.
It turned out that he used to say that to every new guest no matter
what rooms they were given.
I was here to write—I felt obligated to start immediately.
My first novel coming out at the end of the summer and I was pushing
hard to finish a collection of short stories—The
Safety of Objects.
My room looked out over the great lawn, the kind of enormous expanse
I’d only previously seen in movies about the great houses
of England. Every afternoon I was witness to a series of Fellinesque
pilgrimages as wedding parties made their way past the large
white fountain at the bottom of the hill and into the rose garden.
Each procession had a different theme and color scheme, powder blue
tuxedos, white gowns trailing 12 foot trains.
The grandeur of the place, the incredible good care the staff took
of the guests, made me feel compelled to work harder than ever.
In the evenings at Yaddo there are sometimes readings or performances
by the guests—or there is the town of Saratoga. I quickly
bonded with two other writers—Jay McInerney, fresh off the
success of Bright Lights, Big City
and Janet Hobhouse, an English novelist, working on what would be
her last novel—The Furies.
She was the kind of woman everyone fell in love with, wild, brilliant,
intimidating—and incredibly great fun.
Desperate to be out of our own thoughts but not confronted by conversation,
we started going to the movies at the Saratoga Mall. It didn’t
matter what was playing, the point was to get out for a couple of
hours, and at the same time, maintain the focus of our work—in
effect to keep working in the dark.
The mall itself was downscale, with a Montgomery Ward, a poorly
stocked record store, a candy shop called JoAnn’s Nut House
and Praises, a Bible Supply store.
One night in the center of the mall, a contest was starting—a
car contest—how long can you keep your hands on the car? The
area was surrounded by little campsites; Igloo coolers, cheesy webbed
lawn chairs, it looked like the strangest indoor barbecue.
We became addicted, returning to the mall every day to check on
things. There was something horrific about it, like the dancing
contest in They Shoot Horses Don’t
They? This wasn’t entertainment sponsored by the
local radio station, it was an emergency. These contestants needed
that car—badly—as if by winning the car they’d
win their freedom, their lives would be changed.
Over the course of several days there were ice packs, Tylenol, bottles
of water, massages and then fewer contestants and even fewer people
watching. In the end it came down to an older woman, feral with
fatigue with raccoonish dark circles around her eyes, and a young
man with a t-shirt that said “Keep Your Hands Off My
The morning Jay left Yaddo, Janet and I made a pilgrimage to the
mall. While we were watching, the contest ended—the older
woman fainted, slumped and her hands came off the car. In the corner
a lone boom box broadcast the sounds of thunderous applause—as
the announcer proclaimed—“We have a winner at the Pyramid
Mall.” There was applause on the boom box where there was
none in the mall—deeply strange.
Ten years later—I was again at Yaddo. It has become my refuge,
the place where I get most of my work done. My life and imagination
are caught up in life and death events; I’m struggling to
make sense of what’s been happening to my partner who has
cancer. The film of The Safety of Objects
is shooting in Toronto and the producers keep calling and inviting
me to come and see what they’re doing. And so I leave the
sanctuary of Yaddo—which thankfully remains, exactly as it
was, suspended from the passage of time—thinking about the
stories and the old mall which has been torn down and replaced by
a Target and a Barnes and Noble, and my old friend Janet Hobhouse
who’s been dead for more than five years and I fly to Toronto.
They’re shooting nights and are up to the mall scene—a
chauffeur driven car speeds down empty highways, taking us through
the fog, to a huge upscale mall at the edge of town—I may
as well be traveling in a time machine.
I arrive at
the film version of the Saratoga mall and there’s Glenn Close
wearing a T-shirt that says Esther—from my short story “Esther
In The Night,” and she’s talking to Dermot Mulroney
who’s playing a character combined /conflated from the stories,
Jim Train, and The Bullet Catcher.
looking at them, knowing I made all of this up—a long time
ago—invented them out of an ether as otherworldly as this
foggy middle of the Canadian night.
And I’m thinking how the stories came to exist 10 years ago
and how the ideas that define them ran through the filter of my
imagination becoming one thing and now have gone through the filter
of director Rose Troche’s imagination becoming something else.
It’s all entirely familiar and at the same time—not.
To see something come to life on film is to see it become a wholly
other kind of fiction—hallucinatory, surrealistic. To watch
actors crawl inside characters that existed only in my minds eye
is exhilarating, and on some level deeply disconcerting.
During a break, I overhear Dermot talking to a reporter from
E! TV about Jim Train, and it’s like everything’s gone
3-D, like my mind is suddenly a View-Master reel.
In Rose Troche’s film of The Safety
of Objects, this scene at the mall becomes part of a
sequence that creates something that didn’t exist in the stories.
The scene builds to a stunning moment when the car contest and the
lives of all the characters explode into an incredible, terrifying
recognition of just how interwoven all of our lives are. The commonality
of our needs, desires, circumstance and passion become one—when
I see it on screen, I know it. I know it from the inside out and