The Genie at Low Tide (Ploughshares, 2013)
What was the inspiration for The Genie at Low Tide?
I hope it doesn’t sound evasive to say I don’t remember, but the story went through so many iterations, it’s hard to go back and pinpoint the initial inspiration. Some stories spring from the brain almost fully formed at a single sitting, and others undergo numerous transformations before achieving their final form. This story was of the latter. The earlier versions focused on Josh. I was interested in this ‘flash in the pan’ type character in his later years, a person whose star had burned very bright for a very brief time when he was young and now, in his later years, has more or less given up on life.
I’ll digress here beyond the scope of your question and volunteer that as the character of Josh developed, I began to see that much of his failure was his own fault, traceable to an independent streak at the core of his personality. As a young man, he had to be independent to surmount the obstacles presented by his background (a mean, alcoholic father, a passive mother, poverty). But Josh becomes, literally, independent to a fault. This is summed up in the scene where he avoids lying to Carl. “He didn’t like lying, not because of fidelity to some moral code, but because it ascribed excessive value to the opinion of the person being lied to.” Other people’s opinions weren’t worth the trouble. Near the end of the story, he begins to see that this independent streak is at the root of most of his problems in life, including his getting hit by a line drive and knocked out of the majors. He confesses to Marybelle, “It was my own fault. I never learned to square up. . . . They said I wasn’t coachable.”
And of course Marybelle predictably replies, “I can see that.”
So the earlier versions focused on Josh. Marybelle played a more minor role. She was a sort of counter character for Josh to react against. In those versions she didn’t claim to be his daughter; she was just a woman looking for work. But there was something about Marybelle that captured my imagination. I just really liked her, her audacity and her eternal optimism. She is as unshakably positive as Josh is independent. I began to see that she was the spoon that stirred the pot. And that’s when I decided she should claim to be Josh’s daughter.
What inspired the title?
It wasn’t always entitled “The Genie at Low Tide”. In its earlier iterations, it was called “Rookie of the Year,” which was intended to be taken ironically, in the sense that despite his success as a baseball player, he was a rookie at life. That’s when the story still centered on Josh. As Marybelle began to develop more fully, the story began to take on a mystical quality. I was conscious of this in my rewrites, and rewrote the story over and over with this sense of mysticism in mind. The idea of ‘the genie’ came from Josh, when he wonders if Marybelle might be “some kind of genie.” Several different titles came to mind with the word ‘genie,’ such as ‘The Marsh Genie’ and ‘The Genie of Cutter Island’, none of which sounded quite right. Then it just hit me, ‘The Genie at Low Tide,’ and I ran with it.
What process did you follow for publication?
I only submitted it to Ploughshares, no one else. I knew they published longer pieces in e-book format, and The Genie was 32 manuscript pages, so I sent it off to them.
What is one piece of advice you’d like to share with beginning writers? What is one thing you wish you had known?
Probably pretty much what everyone has heard a hundred times. Don’t give up, learn your craft, keep trying to improve as a writer. And maybe one more thing, which I think comes from Hemmingway: “What we shoot is not good writing, but good re-writing.” Even if you think you’ve got a completed piece, try to think of ways to make it better.
What are your future writing goals and dreams?
Just to be the best story teller I can, and to write really good works.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ m writing a novel that takes place during the Spanish Civil War. It’s about a young man from a small Catalan fishing village who gets accepted to the University of Barcelona in 1936, a fortuity made possible by the new socialist/communist government. The protagonist gets caught up in the political bedlam of Barcelona and eventually the war. I lived in Spain for 6 years and developed an interest in that period of Spanish history.
What do you do for a living?
I own a few rental properties which provide me enough income to live on.
What role does writing play in your life?
It’s at the core of everything I do and am.
How do you handle rejection?
Well, I don’t stomp my feet and scream, or kick the dog. I just keep slogging away.
Do you enter your writings in contests?
I’ve entered a few, even won a few. I don’t enter much anymore.
What is your cure to writer’s block?
I’ve never had it. I don’t understand what people mean by it. You either have something to say or you don’t.
Describe The Genie at Low Tide in 30 words or less.
It’s a story about the magic of life. If I did my job correctly, the reader should initially wonder whether or not Marybelle really is Josh’s daughter, but then reach a point where he/she stops wondering because she/he realizes it doesn’t matter.
Paul Byall grew up in Ohio and received degrees from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the University of California. He lived in Barcelona, Spain, for six years and in New York City for ten years before moving to Savannah, Georgia, where he now writes full time. His first published story, written while a student at the University of California, received mention as a distinguished story in The Best American Short Stories anthology. He is the recipient of the 2011 Porter Fleming Short Story Award, the 2010 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and the 2009 New South Fiction Award.
From my new novel, Trencadís:
Last night I decided to kidnap my grandson. At least for a few hours. With Rafa and Isabel locked in a pre-divorce wrangle over assets and custody, mentally circling each other like wrestlers in a ring, the Ripoll household exuded a toxic air, no environment for an eight-year old with neither brother nor sister to share in the misery. Thinking in terms of escape, my mind immediately fixed on Güell Park, a place as detached from reality as a champagne dream. Also, I wanted to see it myself. I hadn’t been there in years, and I had an enduring attachment to the place.
My plans for the day ought to have popped me out of bed this morning with an eager heart, but instead I lay there like an arthritic old hound, my head as heavy as a keg of nails, the sheets damp from some fright I’d pushed aside in the middle of the night. A function of age, I suppose. I lifted my head from the pillow and hauled my old bones out of the tangled bed and into the shower.
An hour long telephone argument with Rafa the previous night had driven me to drink: a couple snifters of brandy to help me sleep. Maybe even three. I was in a state and didn’t keep track. At any rate, it hadn’t worked. Or worked too well. I’m not sure which.