Have you ever met someone who completely changed our world view? You might not have realized at the moment how importantly they would factor in your life. It might not have been someone you were even that close to, but they affected you on some deep level, and afterward you were never the same. That’s the type of encounter that Jil writes about in what our group has informally dubbed “the Bobbie story.” Jil began writing this story years ago and to our intense delight, she’s pulled Bobbie out of the drawer and is working to finish the book. We got an early peek and are excited to share it!
Here’s an excerpt from a scene we talked about at our latest Dogpatch gathering:
When Jerod came home after his graveyard shift, he knew something was wrong. The crusted, empty pot of mac n cheese on the stove, an upturned carton of orange juice in the sink, an open and empty tuna can on the kitchen floor, and the lid to the bottle of tequila on the counter.
“Babe?” He called into what appeared to be an empty house. “Hello?”
There was no answer.
“Hello?” He called again, peering into the living room.
Bobbie and Desiree lay curled up on their sides on the floor like two bookends, enclosing the space in front of the empty bookshelf. All of the books that had been shelved now lay scattered between them, the empty bottle of tequila still clutched in Desiree’s hand. Punkin skittered from behind the pulled curtain.
“What the hell?!” Jerod said.
Bobbie woke with a cough and wiped the drool off the side of her mouth.
“What the hell?” Jerod said again. He nudged one of Desiree’s bare feet with the toe of his shoe.
“Hi, officer,” Bobbie said, “Did you come to arrest us? We haven’t been disturbing the peace, I promise.” She giggled and coughed again.
Desiree groaned, rolled on her side and pushed herself up into a sitting position. She looked up at Jerod, a tall, tall man, looking at her like she was a bad, bad girl.
At the Dogpatch, we share and discuss the stories we’re working on. Here’s our comments to Jil about the full segment of the Bobbie story she shared with us. Feel free to jump into the fray!
Dear Jil: I’ve said it already, and I’ll say again how delighted I am to read more of your Bobbie scenes. This story and these characters stick in the reader’s head, certainly mine. I think I first read the poker party scene nearly two decades ago, and when I opened the file it was like meeting up with an old friend I really wanted to see again. I don’t take it lightly when a story sticks with me for that long. As your reader, I think it means that you’ve spoken to something deep in me, and I’m responding by saving a special spot in my brain for your story. About that story: Bobbie is fascinating, but to me it’s ultimately Desiree’s experience of her world and of Bobbie that we’re talking about. There’s a great universalizing effect: Desiree’s experiences echo the reality of being trapped by the expectations of others and having to grapple with your own fears as you climb out of someone else’s world and into your own. I really want Desiree to win, and knowing her creator, I know that she will and, in fact, will live to tell the story. It’s the particular how she survives that is even more compelling.
Since Wes and I now have read the longer Bobbie “poetry scene” alongside a cluster of shorter scenes, including the troubling waitress-in-a-pizza-joint escapade, the unforgettable and equally troubling wedding scene, and the infamous poker party scene, it’s difficult not to comment on all of them at once. So, these comments hop around a bit, as I’ve been pondering the scenes as a set that will become part of the larger book.
Maybe we should tell Dogpatch readers that Desire is newly married to an undercover cop who seems to have a built-in set of expectations for how she should behave. He’s not a bad guy, in fact, he has a big heart, but he’s rigid. When Bobbie arrives in the midst of this young marriage, we get a love triangle of sorts, only instead of romance or physical attraction, the love is about what other person makes the deepest impression on someone’s psyche, in this case on Desiree’s.
For the scene that ensues when Bobbie first shows up—the “poetry scene” to give it a quick name, I thought that hindsight might enter the chapter a little too much. Does Desiree love her man? He’s presented as a hunky alpha male, but we seem to go right to her feeling of not belonging in the marriage without any sense of whether there is a good side to the relationship or whether there was any honeymoon phase. I kept wondering if it made sense to flip the balance, so we get great, great, great on the surface with the not-so-great feelings only starting to poke out while she’s getting drunk with Bobbie.
You are such an awesome writer, and the scene is definitely compelling. If being super hard on it, in a few spots, the skilled writing might mask cases where details and dialogue seem hyper-written, as if trying to get the reader to grasp exactly what’s wrong versus letting the dilemma unfold more gradually. But then we seem to skip over what might be a crucial transition in Desiree and Bobbie’s relationship; they go straight from total strangers to an hour later being drunk on alcohol and emotion, and they decide they’re sisters. I really want to see those missing hours unfold in the scene before we get down to the crucial disclosures. And then I wondered if Desiree would think versus say some of the key disclosures she makes. Is the point for her to tell Bobbie or to tell herself?
When we do get to the personal disclosures about family and self, they tend to sound like they come from more mature women. Desiree and Bobbie tend to speak in pretty complete sentences and with pretty standard syntax and diction. Would Bobbie’s diction be a little tangled or juvenile? Young people often know the self-talk terms and the emotional honesty catch words, but they sometimes cutely mess up words or the diction: I’ve heard things like “confide myself in her,” “he lacks genuinity,” “I don’t want to be disingenue.” And they’re often physical, moving all the time while talking. It’s like aerobic and cheerleading moves pepper any conversation while their metabolisms burn high.
That’s all a long way of saying that the action of the poetry scene, its arc and dramatic intention are all in order, but maybe you know that intention so well that you get us there in too hurried and direct a path.
Turning to the string of shorter scenes—the wedding, poker night, waitressing, grocery shopping, the crank caller, and the friendship with the cat—there my main comment is Wow! There is so much to admire about this unfolding story, and I’m super excited for you to finish it. In this string of shorter scenes, we’ve talked about which one would make for a shocking opening. I won’t say that here, so that readers can be surprised when the book comes out, but my main comment about the scenes is that the shorter scenes as a set seem to arise from a sort of thesis that the writer wants to deliver to the reader, with each of the scenes on some level functioning as “evidence,” similar to the series of family anecdotes Desiree tells to Bobbie when trying to explain her family history. The thesis underlying the scenes seems to be something like: This is why Desiree is the way she is, and here’s the dramatic arguments to back up that contention.
We’ve said in our discussion that most or all of these scenes are really key scenes, and we probably should see the build to each scene vs. having them occur without transitions. I don’t know that the order matters as much as the dramatic build to each scene and the connecting scenes between the key scenes. In other words, we might have the outcomes but not all of the contextualizing material. Each of the scenes right now has its own thematic payoff in Desiree’s life and history, but we don’t yet have enough of the container story to identify its overall shape. Is this book going to be structured as a series of memories and encounters, or are we going to feel like we’re experiencing Desiree’s day-to-day life? We seem to get a potential subplot with the crank callers and Jerod and his fellow officers having to deal with that, but we haven’t yet seen where that goes. Another way to say this is that each of these scenes feels significant enough to be the impetus for the larger story, but they all seem important, so I think it will be critical to decide not only the order in which to deliver them but the framework in which to position them. Once you’re settled on that, this story will be un-put-downable.
Thanks for the chance to be one of your readers.
XO Laurel Leigh
The newlywed wife of an undercover cop in a medium-sized Midwestern city in the late 1970s encounters a young runaway who changes her life forever. That, in a nutshell, is the ‘Bobbie story,’ which I have heard described for years now by other members of the Dogpatch who have read it, but which I’ve never seen myself until now. I’m glad finally to be able to see what all the talk was about.
The first of the two chapters you have shown us lays out the wedding and the early weeks of the main protagonist Desiree’s marriage; the second chapter shows us the first meeting between Desiree and the young runaway, Bobbie, who is brought home to Desiree late one night by her undercover cop husband, Jerod, who has a habit of bringing home strays, human and otherwise. You gave us two alternate openings for the book — a scene in which Desiree, prior to her wedding, is working as a waitress at a pizza parlor, and a scene from the wedding itself, where the groomsmen, all cops, fire their handguns in unison into the ground to toast (or is it roast?) the groom’s new bride.
I vote for opening with the wedding scene.
Much is made in your narrative of the gender and social politics of 1970s America, a surprisingly benighted time for one rumored to be so open-minded and carefree compared to our own cautious and judgmental times. (As for myself, I have no memory of the 1970s, being too young at the time for any of the Me Decade to make an impression on me, he said, head turned aside and eyes cast downward, one hand covering his face from view.)
While I think the Pizza Joint scene is powerful — poor Desiree is sexually humiliated by a roomful of drunken men out on a bachelor party — and gives us a sense of how her mind works, it is similar in many ways to a later scene where her husband has his cop buddies over to the house for poker night. Desiree is afraid to leave the bedroom, where she is hiding, when Nature calls because the men are making rude, suggestive comments about her, and she is feeling too threatened and exposed to walk past the dining room table where they are all playing cards.
I think the poker night scene carries more than enough water within the story, making the Pizza Joint scene unnecessary, even redundant.
There seems to be a tendency in the story as it’s written now to rush through some of the scenes. The wedding scene which opens the story is one I especially would like to see drawn out a bit more. The cop groomsmen all firing their guns into the ground is an indelible image, but I feel you miss many opportunities to flesh out some of the other peripheral, but still important, characters. For example, I would like to see Desiree’s mother in action to get a sense of the type of female role-model our hero had growing up. We hear her father speak, but we don’t hear Mom say anything.
One question that hangs over the first chapter, as well as the later chapter where Desiree and Bobbie first meet, is, Why doesn’t Desiree love her husband, Jerod? He seems like a nice guy, for a cop; the kind of person who habitually brings home strays. He’s a bit bossy, sure. But then Desiree is only 19 years old and doesn’t seem to know much about life, which to a seasoned cop like Jerod might be adorable — or annoying, even infuriating
Portions of the narrative as it currently stands read like a series of semi-connected flashbacks, the through-line being Desiree’s increasing disenchantment with her new life as wife and homemaker. Also, the notion of escape figures heavily in Desiree’s teenage view of marriage and setting up house with Jerod. She is trying to get away from a stifling childhood home, within an enormous farming family that includes dozens and dozens of aunts and cousins all silently passing judgment on a teenage girl — Desiree — who is just trying to figure things out for herself, a girl for whom ‘finding the right words’ is something she’s not very good at.
What I think Desiree really means by this is that she is no good at advocating for herself, and that she has no clear idea what she wants out of life.
And so then we come to the chapter where Bobbie and Desiree first meet. This is another scene, like the wedding, that I would like to see play out a bit more. When Bobbie and Desiree meet for that very first time, they manage in no time at all to get stinking drunk. And yet the narrative moves from the cracking open of the tequila bottle to flat-out drunkenness in the blink of an eye.
This is a huge opportunity missed, in my opinion. I feel like the character Bobbie lives more fully formed in the author’s imagination than she does on the page. I really can’t get a clear picture of her in my mind yet. I would like more of an idea how she looks, how she moves in space, and what interests her, other than flouting convention (like most any teenager), drinking (ditto), and getting it on with her dad (ouch…and yuck). And so a scene where she gets progressively drunker with Desiree would be a good opportunity to make her come more alive on the page and to learn more about her individual quirks.
The male gaze figures prominently in the daily lives of these two women. But more so for Desiree, who is willing to play the role of traditional stay-at-home wife. For Bobbie, who apparently thinks nothing of turning tricks to earn some traveling money, the male gaze is merely an opportunity to exercise the power of her desirability; while for Desiree, it is something that batters her down and keeps her compliant to what men want of her.
Finally, the narrative voice is pitched quite high emotionally from the start — outrage and self-disgust being the primary emotions coloring the action of the story. The hyperventilating tone — we see and hear an awful lot of how Desiree feels about the injustice of her life — sucks a lot of the air out of the room and leaves little space for the reader’s own emotional responses to play themselves out as she sees the horrors our young hero must encounter in a world of callous, dominating, possibly violent men. For a novel that seems to be about the abjectness of women and the violent idiocy of men, I think it might be necessary to drop the emotional pitch of the narrative tone a few notches so that the POV of your protagonist can build up to whatever outrage will be necessary to move her through whatever is coming next.
And whatever that is, I feel like it’s going to be wonderfully terrible. Or terribly wonderful. Awesome job, Hoffmann!
—header photo credit: Tumblr