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Interview: David Prill on “Vishnu Summer”

Tell us a bit about “Vishnu Summer.”

Non-spoiler version: “Vishnu Summer” is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl living in the rural Midwest, and the mysterious stranger who arrives and upends her world.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I believe the original inspiration for “Vishnu Summer” came from a cartoon in the Charles Addams book, Addams and Evil, which I first read in junior high (my hero Robert Bloch did a take-off on the title with his Atoms and Evil collection). The cartoon depicts a husband and wife, the latter holding a frying pan, spatula and baby. The caption has her saying: “Wait a minute, can’t you? I’ve only got three hands.” What I didn’t spot at the time were the subtle clues that this wasn’t an ordinary husband and wife, this couple belonged to a carnival sideshow. Addams’ drawing, as usual, was both banal and bizarre, and the image stuck with me over the years.

So a story about someone with three arms might be interesting. Had it been tried before? I did a search…and found the Edward Albee play, The Man with Three Arms. I was crushed! However, Mr. Albee’s many-armed character didn’t go over well at all. A critic in the New York Times wrote: “It isn’t a play, it’s a temper tantrum in two acts… One of the more shocking lapses of Mr. Albee’s writing is that he makes almost no attempt even to pretend that Himself is anything other than a maudlin stand-in for himself, with the disappearing arm representing an atrophied talent.” Well clearly there was room here for a non-navel-gazing version of the Three-Armed Man. And off I went.

 

“Vishnu Summer” went through more than one iteration before it was published, both in the title (at one point it was called “The Ballad of the Three-Armed Man”) and in its ending.  Can you talk about the transformations that this story underwent, and was the writing of “Vishnu Summer” typical of your writing process generally?

In the beginning, the story was called “Summer of the Three-Armed Man.” The narrator is reliving a childhood memory about that odd summer, and wonders what ever happened to Three-Arm. I was thinking of a Something Wicked This Way Comes feeling (Bradbury’s book made a huge impact on me as a youth). I couldn’t figure out where the narrator fit into the story, though, so I moved on.

Then came “Ballad of the Three-Armed Man,” which was a dark, terribly sad story about how Three-Arm comes back to the small town where he once was a sensation…and nobody cares. Most of the townspeople had died or moved or whatnot. His third arm has arthritis, so he can’t play the guitar like he used to. A whole lotta angst in this version. He ends up cutting off his third arm. Paging Mr. Albee! I abandoned it.

Finally came the version with Audrey. An early version of this one had her ma cutting off her arm, so there’d be symmetry with Three-Arm. A farm accident seemed more appropriate, considering the setting. The idea of a three-armed person interacting with a one-armed person made me sit up on the edge of my seat. I had her ma painting visions on the back of the barn early on.  At some point you just start linking elements of the story together, and if they hold, you keep adding on to it. As soon as I wrote the first line, I knew I had her voice. Very comfortable fit for me, probably more than any character I’ve written before. I enjoy the mix of low-brow/high-brow writing.

The ending changed three times. Ending #1 had Audrey and Three-Arm hopping a train to head west, but lawmen swarm the rail yard when the train makes a stop not far from town. Three-Arm tries to flee, and is crushed beneath an oncoming train, and the farm burns down because her ma’s vision is destroyed, and Audrey ends up on Venice Beach in California. Whew! Ending #2 had Audrey go into the maze, but she does not pull off her cornstalk arm, thus ensuring that Three-Arm never notices her, and so she is saved from a fate worse than whatever. I changed that ending (while at the same time tweaking Three-Arm to make him more sympathetic) because I wanted it to be Audrey’s choice, not just passively obeying a parent’s wishes. This change gave the ending more impact, and it became more of a coming-of-age story. I liked the idea of giving Audrey another ride on the merry-go-round.

This whole process was a pretty drastic departure from the way I usually work. Often when a story goes through this many changes, it ends up being a bit of a mess. I’m not sure why it worked this time. One of the mysteries of creation.

 

What are you working on now?

I just finished writing a pair of linked novelettes as part of the Clarion writing workshop’s annual Write-a-Thon. I took part because without Clarion, there would have been no “Vishnu Summer.” Donations provide scholarships for students, names you’ll eventually see in the pages of F&SF.  Go to http://clarionwriteathon.org/ for details.

 

“Vishnu Summer” appears in the July/August 2016 issue of F&SF.

You can buy that issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1607.htm

You can subscribe to F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

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