The Story Behind the Stories: “Stud Fee”

5 Sep

 

The Story Behind the Stories: Stud Fee

This story began back in the late 90’s and was one of the first I wrote. There are many influences that shaped this story, and I hope I can remember them all. Sometime in 1995 I was made aware of a tale. In this tale, a friend approached an old high school sweetheart about having an affair. The lady was not subtle, and she made clear she wanted to have another child, but that her husband was impotent due to a childhood disease. The affair began; the lady became pregnant, and the child was born. In a perfect world, life goes on, but of course, the world is not perfect. Although the child was born within wedlock, assumed legitimate, and the woman’s husband was happy to be made a father without questioning the source at the time, a short time later when faced with paying support for a child that was not his, the man had second thoughts. He suspected his wife and knew who the father was, even having his female attorney contact the stud. I heard about this tale from the stud, who laughed about telling the lady attorney he’d had an affair with the woman, but couldn’t have gotten her pregnant as he’d had a vasectomy. The attorney asked if he had medical proof, and he said he’d even come to her office and let her take a picture of the scar. The attorney declined. He offered to send her an email with a picture of the scar. Once again, the lady attorney declined. The stud never heard from the attorney again.

I always believed there was a story there.

Years later I moved to Russellville, Arkansas, where I attended a small local church. I moved there during the early spring of 1998, and I was fascinated by the hang-gliders that constantly soared overhead after launching from the pinnacle of Mt. Nebo, a tall buttress within the MT. Nebo State Park that sat just across the Arkansas River and loomed over the river town of Dardanelle. I knew I wanted to write about those hang-gliders. I had a cousin who had supposedly gone to California when he was younger and had flown hang-gliders, and everyone in my family talked about it as if he were crazy. But I always respected this dear cousin, who is dead now, and because of him I was fascinated with the gliders and these crazy people who jumped off the face of a tall mountain strapped to a kite.
While in Russellville I was invited to the home of a couple for a Sunday dinner. I was never approached about being a stud, not by that couple, but the whole experience had a tremendous impact on this story. The wife was an ordinary, yet beautiful lady. Her husband was a carpenter who had only recently built their home. While cooking burgers outback, she invited me upstairs to look at her paintings.  The scene described in the story where Mike goes upstairs and sits on the bed as she shows him a painting of the fox was totally inspired by that experience. The painting of the fox she revealed was incredible.

I became interested in in-vitro procedures and whether private insurance would pay, and I was surprised to learn how little support fertility procedures received from health insurance. Of course, the process and its acceptance has made great strides, but the story is set in the early 1990’s, which proved to be problematic as at one point I had the couple finding a home remedy online. My research showed the net was in its infancy during that time, so I had to revise that part of the story.

I studied reasons why men could become sterile, and although it was not a major part of the story, I realized the setting in Russellville was perfect for using MT. Nebo as a final meeting place for them, and  Russellville  provided the perfect place for employment of her husband—the nuclear power plant. Anyone reading the story would connect his sterility with his employment, and of course, the plant would deny any connection between the two. But I soon discovered a jewel: idiopathic spermatogenesis.

All of these things came together for a first draft of the story I submitted to workshop in McNeese to simply have it trashed. As an owner of horses, I understood the terms “Standing” and “Now Standing” and “Standing at Stud” and gave the story an initial title of “Standing.” I looked up the definitions of standing which were long and complex. There were many different aspects of the word that applied to the story, from standing at stud to legal standing as far as the actual parent of the child and legal rights as far as a sperm donor, to standing in for the husband in the marriage relationship. But none of my readers caught the connections, so I had to dumb down the title a bit and go for something a bit more obvious.
The story still wasn’t good at that time. But I caught a break when Michael Knight came to McNeese and did a manuscript consultation with me about the story. I still had no idea what I wanted the story to do, and even worse I wasn’t aware of that fact. Neil Connelly told me I was trying to do too much with the story and that I actually had enough to create a whole collection—which I eventually did. Michael Knight and Antonya Nelson both had a tremendous impact in teaching me that the vision of what a story is to accomplish is narrow, and needs to be a conscious plateau in my mind. Knight also suggested the story was not about the two lovers getting together afterwards, but about her sticking with her husband afterwards. The more I thought of that, the more I knew he was right.

The story began to take shape after that.

I revised and revised and worked on the story and submitted it for publication and received a long list of rejections, so I set it aside. Some time after I transferred to Memphis, Robert Morgan came to town as part of the Southern Festival of Books which was being held in Memphis because of repairs to the original host site of the festival. I had revised the story recently and submitted it to workshop for critique that week, but was approached by the workshop director Cary Holladay who needed an extra story for Morgan’s workshop to be held on our campus. I gave her the story, with the new title “Stud Fee.”
Submitting a story to a workshop held by a visiting author can be dangerous to a writer’s ego. Most are kind and generous with their critiques. Many are vicious. This was part of the reason why so few had submitted. Robert Morgan was unknown to us at the time, but we soon learned there was nothing to fear from this fantastic writer and teacher.
Morgan loved the story, and commented favorably on the opening and the closing and even read passages from the story. My ego swelled! His critique became even more powerful later when I read all of the comments from workshop that continued to trash the story and the concept. But with Morgan’s blessing, I knew I had a story worth pursuing.

The story was accepted for publication shortly thereafter and is the second story of my new collection. It was originally the title story of the first collection I had marketed for sometime before scavenging select stories with religious themes for this new collection.

Robert Olen Butler’s critique of yearning had a major impact on the story. As I initially developed the story, I wanted to write a piece from a woman’s point of view. I thought of the things a woman might yearn for that would result in their sacrificing everything to grasp the object of their desire. Having a baby was the answer.

Ironically the story gets mixed reviews. At a writer’s conference I directed, one of the more conservative ladies of the group scorned the story and said no woman would sacrifice her salvation and her marriage just to get pregnant. Another lady in the workshop asked her how many children she had. The scoffer admitted to having four. My defender then explained the story was her life-story as she had tried all of her life to have children and couldn’t. There was nothing she wouldn’t have done to become a mother. The Bible-thumper then rose and left the workshop, mumbling something about “heathens.”

I had found both of my markets. The ones who had lived this nightmare and yearned to have children would relate to the story, even consider it a story of their life. The others would scoff and claim they would never sacrifice their Christianity for any such vice. Those were the ones I wanted to write about, and that is how God’s Naked Will, the collection, came into being.

Most of the men who read the story seem to agree the story feels right. Many women readers hate the story—most of whom have children. But the responses I have received from the women who have lived this nightmare have vindicated my efforts in writing this story.

I remember a class taught by Neil Connelly at McNeese where we studied a story by Robert Olen Butler titled “Preparation” from his Pulitzer winning collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. The guys in the class loved the story and thought it perfectly depicted the female psyche. The women in the class trashed the story. I laughed because I thought it was simply too real for them to accept. I have witnessed this trend in many other social and educational settings. The opposite is also true. Men usually trash prose that perfectly depicts us, while women say the words ring true. Perhaps this is humanities self-defense mechanism acting as critic. Since then I have come to accept criticism from the opposite gender as praise. Perhaps that is why I am so flawed! But I do remember thinking that if such a powerful story by a writer of Butler’s formidable talent could be trashed, I didn’t have a chance. Then I realized that if a story rings true for anyone who has experienced the very events about which I write, then I have found my reader. Those are the readers whose opinions matter. Now I simply ask anyone who doesn’t like the story how many children they have. Their response always explains their critique of the story.
I also wanted to write about those people who have a one-line clichéd response based upon some scripture from the Bible for every situation. I wanted to expose their hypocrisy and insanity, their lies and sanctimonious lives based upon dogma that even they could not live up to. I wanted to write about preachers who condemned gay marriage but had themselves engaged in illicit sex. I wanted to write about pillars of the church who love to look down their noses at others, forgetting the skeletons that hang in their own closets. I wanted to write about the insanity in the churches where they condemn women for having abortions but then also condemn and scorn the single pregnant mother. I call this insanity because they are too ignorant to realize that one action feeds the other. The abortions are many times a means to avoid the public condemnation and scorn cast upon them by the Bible-thumpers.  “Stud Fee” and Lani gave me a character to begin this wonderful exploration that will no doubt land me on many prayer lists around the country. But that is OK! I can always use more prayers, so long as they are not for my ruination.

One final note. As I was completing my MFA thesis, I looked at the story to see how it would fit with my thesis—an interconnected set of stories about a predicted earthquake scare in northeast Arkansas. I thought about moving the story from MT. Nebo to Crowley’s Ridge, but couldn’t. That was when I learned how the setting had become such an important character in the story. But I soon realized I had the perfect way of doing this. Michael was a bridge engineer in Arkansas shoring up bridges for  the Union Pacific. I simply allowed him to move up the line and work on bridges in northeast Arkansas after he finished his bridge across Petit Jean Creek. That way I could allow the story to remain on top of MT. Nebo, and then bring my bridge engineer to NE Arkansas where he made a brief appearance in “The Sheriff of Jester County” published in Natural Bridge. This required some minor tweaking, but worked.
And now you have the rest of the story!

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