Sarah Selecky on Annabel Lyon’s “Watch Me”

April 30, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Sarah Selecky is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted story collection This Cake Is for the Party. She is guest posting on TSR on the final stop of her month-long blog tour. Here, Selecky discusses Annabel Lyon’s story “Watch Me.”

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“Watch Me”

by Annabel Lyon (from Oxygen)

I read this story at least three times every year. I’ve been devoted to it ever since it came out in 2000. I go back to it when I’m spinning out at my writing desk, the same way you might hold on to a lucky stone you keep in your pocket when you feel anxious. The title has taken on another meaning for me, now. It’s like Lyon is saying, “Watch me – watch how I write this.”

The story is about family, responsibility, and what it means to be an adult. It makes you laugh and it breaks your heart, often simultaneously. And isn’t that an accurate way to evoke the spirit of family?

Here’s the story: Since the death of her husband, which happened years ago – we’re never told exactly how long it’s been, or how he died – Laura is getting on with life. She watches the young children next door when their parents disappear for days at a time. The parents are drug addicts; at least, that’s what Laura’s adult children think. They’re concerned about the situation next door, but they’re mostly worried about their mother, who is aging, and living alone. Laura will have nothing to do with their meddling. She seems immune to worry – or grief, for that matter.

Marie, Laura’s daughter, handles sadness differently – she pours herself Scotch with the energy of a pouting child. Laura’s son, Steven, tries to make things okay. He speaks to everyone in an easy, teasing manner, and his jokes rise out of the narrative like sparklers.

At the end of the story, this fractured family prepares to make a decision that will affect the family next door. It’s a hard decision, and there will be consequences. Marie thinks she knows best; Laura thinks she knows best. But when Marie tries to change everything, it is finally Steven who makes it happen. “We all love each other,” he says. “That’s how these things start.”

I return to this story to watch Lyon write dialogue, to watch her attention to voice and detail. It’s a showpiece of characterization: a deep, self-sustaining world of subtlety and detail mapped over 13 pages. The characters are real. They are so effortlessly and quintessentially themselves, especially Laura, with her unique way of speaking. This story has been one of my favourite writing teachers.

I leave you with a few small excerpts, so you can see what I mean.

Marie’s brother called to tell her the junkies were gone.

“Since when?” she asked.

“Two days,” Steven said. “But mum has their babies.”

“Oh, surprise.”

“I know, Marie, but two days. She says she’s running out of activities.”

“Someone should report those people.”

“Someone did. Mum reported them to me and now I’m reporting them to you.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know I’m going this afternoon and you’re coming. Pick you up in an hour.”

“Oh, Steven.” She cut him off with the tip of her finger and poked her mother’s number.

“Beth?” Laura, her mother, answered. Beth was the woman junkie.

“No.”

“Oh, Marie,” said her mother. “Now, I wish you had been here for lunch. I made this pesto salad such that the curtains smell of garlic.”

“How are things?”

“Well,” Laura said. “I’m surprised you can’t smell it down the phone, it’s that strong.”

“I can’t smell it,” Marie said.

***

“… Steven?”

“Mum?” Steven said.

“I need you to look at the washing machine. It’s thumping again.”

“Somebody needs to,” he said.

“Your father used to grease it with a little Vaseline, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Steven went downstairs and Marie sat next to Natalie.

“We have certain responsibilities here,” Marie said.

“Don’t start me,” Laura said.

***

Marie picked up a science magazine with her father’s name on the mailing label and began to read an article on robotics.

“I should cancel that,” Laura said, coming back into the kitchen a few minutes later. She opened the fridge and started pulling foods out and setting them on the counter. “I never bothered.”

“Don’t you dare.” Marie didn’t look up.

“Pumpkin,” Laura said.

“Remember when he gave me that microscope? Remember how he was the only one who ever called me Molly? Can I have his slide projector?”

“I gave it to charity.”

“Jesus,” Marie said. She started to cry.

“Stop that, chicken,” Laura said. “You have his armchair, his cushions, his good gloves, his antique typewriter and his bifocals.”

“I told you always to check with me first.”

“I have every right to dispose of my husband’s things. Now reach me the cilantro.”

Marie didn’t move.

“What did I raise?” Laura asked the ceiling.

***

(A version of this piece originally appeared in Quill & Quire.)

Apparently, there are prizes associated with this tour, courtesy of Thomas Allen Publishers. Click here to find out more.

Comments

2 Responses to “Sarah Selecky on Annabel Lyon’s “Watch Me””
  1. Sean (aka Semido) says:

    There’s such an interesting interplay between the characters of Laura, Marie and Steven. It’s amazing how dialogue can convey, not only from its written word but the spaces in between, the characterization of figures in a story. It’s like you’re condensing paragraphs of written expository into one simple line such as “I can’t smell it” or “What did I raise?”
    Very interesting.

  2. Aidan says:

    It’s so interesting to me how we are all affected by stories, how we bring our own experience to them. Someone in my family is affectionately called “chicken,” and so I find myself already making assumptions about the relationship in the story… I look forward to reading it.