Enjoy our latest author Q+A, this time featuring the great Sunil Patel! His SFF short story, Girl in Blue Dress (1881), appears over at Fantastic Stories of the Imagination.
Check out his piece, then read the “behind the scenes” interview below!
This story deals with the literal objectification of a model in a work of art. How did you arrive at the premise for this piece? Did any other writers/stories inspire this work?
The inspiration for this piece came on the top floor of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where I was looking at various Impressionist paintings, specifically Renoir, and noticing titles like Two Young Girls at the Piano. And that’s common throughout art history. The subjects of the paintings become objects in our eyes, things to view and analyze only in their relation to the artist. This is true of men, horses, and fruit baskets, too, of course, but there is a particular power dynamic in the situations where it’s a male artist and a female subject. He’s taken away her name and marked her with his own—almost like the way a woman traditionally/patriarchally takes a man’s last name after marriage. Like a lot of specific ideas, all it took was a simple “What if…?” What if the woman in that painting were real? What would she be thinking? I wasn’t thinking of any other writers or stories, but I have now discovered that Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio” tackles the same themes as my story, even including a familiar evocative phrase: “A nameless girl in freshest summer greens.” (I am retroactively glad I went with blue.)
Although the girl is trapped in her own painting, and largely deprived of agency, you gave her the ability at the end to chip away the artist’s signature and–at least symbolically–free herself from the painter’s captivity. Do you think the story could have worked without this resolution? Had you tried other ways of resolving the story?
I absolutely don’t think this story could have worked without this resolution; it’s the whole point of the piece, really. While I wanted to examine her plight, I had to give her some way of fighting back, or it’s just “Oh, how sad and tragic.” I wrote a 57-word summary of the story while I was in Paris so I wouldn’t forget, and I knew that was the image I wanted to end on, her chipping away at the artist’s name the way women have been chipping away at the patriarchy for centuries. From the responses I’ve seen, that’s what makes the whole thing resonate, the fact that she does have power in the end. My main concern was whether that was enough, whether I needed to add anything more after that. My flash pieces tend to run longer, so I didn’t know if this one little thing that she could do was a strong enough punch, if I shouldn’t spend some time perhaps confirming her success. But I also like my flash pieces to end on a feeling, and that feeling was embodied in that action; there was nothing more I needed to say beyond that.
Like a lot of great short/flash fiction, this piece imbues a basically static image with enough backstory and context to create a fully realized narrative arc for the protagonist. What came first: the story or the image of the girl?
The story, for sure. As I said, I was inspired by seeing paintings and immediately crafted the basic arc. But when it came time to describe the image of the girl, I thought of two specific paintings. One is a Renoir painting of a girl in a blue dress that, for the life of me, I cannot find, which might mean it’s not a Renoir after all, or I have a faulty memory and can’t recognize it now. The other is Whistler’s The Blue Girl: Portrait of Connie Gilchrist, a painting I stared at for a long time in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow. Ironically, it’s a painting where the subject has kept her name, but even though Girl in Blue Dress isn’t meant to look like The Blue Girl, I think there’s a lot of Connie Gilchrist in the character, just from her stance and expression.
For a lot of readers, there will be an obvious feminist angle to this story. The antagonist, the painter, is an older man, while the victim/protagonist is a young girl. Did you anticipate this angle as you were crafting the story, or is this something that arose on its own?
Oh, this was designed to be feminist as fuck from the get-go. It is a story about female erasure and giving a woman back the agency that’s been taken from her; I was always coming at it from a feminist angle. I wasn’t trying to give a fruit basket back its agency. It’s very deliberately a metaphor for women’s struggle against the patriarchy, chipping away at the paint until it’s gone. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to writing Message Fiction, but even then, if someone chooses to read it as a simple fantasy story about a woman in a painting and completely ignore the—it’s not even subtext, it’s all right there in the text!—then…more power to them, I suppose.
Did you have other people read early drafts of this story? What sorts of feedback (suggestions, critiques) did they give you?
I am nothing without my beta readers! This story did not undergo major changes once I sent it out to beta readers, but they were very helpful in identifying redundancies to be cut, awkward phrasing to be smoothed, clichés to be destroyed, clarifications to be made. For instance, someone pointed out that the idea that the enchantment loosens its hold at night comes out of nowhere, so I threw in “She floats, and she waits for the night” in the beginning as foreshadowing, and I’ve come to love the ominous sound of that line. (Of course, even by the final draft, I had a note to myself that it still needed more build-up, but that line seems to have sufficed.) Another favorite bit came because one reader wouldn’t let me get away with “The museum is silent as a tomb,” which forced me to think of something far more interesting and appropriate: “The museum is silent as the space between centuries.” I humanized the main character more and more with each draft as well as I saw what readers were responding to. I cut a whole paragraph in the last draft because so many readers had small issues with it that I finally realized it wasn’t even adding anything to the story, so it wasn’t worth it. Overall, though, this was one of my most well received stories, so I knew that I had something great to work with; it was simply a matter of teasing it into the best version of itself.
Tell us a little bit about a story you’re working on right now. What ideas and challenges are you dealing with in the story’s composition?
Funnily enough, the story I just finished working on is also Message Fiction, but instead of sexism, it’s racism! It’s much more overt and didactic than this piece, and it deals with microaggressions and the way they dehumanize people. The challenge—and some readers do stumble over this—is that it’s told in three sections, each with a different POV for the same character: third-person, then second-person, then first-person. The change in person mirrors his own experience and development and allows the reader to see a similar scene from three different perspectives. I was afraid the conceit wouldn’t work, wouldn’t have the right effect, but readers responded to it positively. I always enjoy playing with narrative structure, and I hope this one pays off!
Sunil Patel is a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His work has been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival. When he is not writing, he is consuming stories in all forms in order to extract their secrets and put them to use. Plus, he reviews books for Lightspeed and is Assistant Editor of Mothership Zeta. He also likes nachos and milkshakes.