How did the story "Vacancy" come about?
Vacancy grew slowly at first, like most of my stories. Five years back, I had a kind of video clip image of a man sitting on one of those lounging chairs with an aluminum frame at night in a used car lot on Ridgewood Ave in South Daytona where I used to live. He would look up now and again and stare at something across the street.
The image stuck with me and a couple of weeks later I wrote the first few pages, trying to fix Cliff's character, using a friend of mine, a minor Hollywood actor who I went to high school with as the model, and deciding that what he was staring at was the Vacancy sign of the Celeste Motel; but beyond that I could not go. I set it aside and didn't come back to it for a year or so. Then I wrote a few more pages and figured out two or three more things. Then I stalled again.
I picked up the story now and again over the next few years and just couldn't finish it. Then Ellen Datlow called me up and asked if I could write her a novella in two weeks. Sure, I said, and picked up Vacancy again. This time I seemed to know a lot more about the story--not everything, there were still surprises, but a lot. And after that it went fairly easily.
In some of your stories, you've mentioned the Philippines but it plays a bigger role in "Vacancy". Why that particular country and did you have to do much research or was it based on personal experience?
I was in Manila once for about a week, waiting for friend to meet me and then go on to Thailand together. I stayed in very cheap hotel with a zoo of lizards and bugs in every room. I did a lot of walking around and the city appealed to me. I walked through one neighborhood where almost every morning they had shit-fights, hurling feces at each other over back fences. It impressed me as a very effective and reasonable way of settling one's differences. I drank a lot, got hustled by bar girls, and was able to use my Spanish. What's not to like? My friend arrived and we went off to Thailand, I thought I'd return to Manila, but India took too much of my time--maybe that frustration is why it pops up in my fiction now and then. And maybe my experience in Manila played into Vacancy.
What in your opinion are the elements that make a story not only good but powerful and effective?
I really don't know how to answer that and I'm not sure I want to know. For me, I guess, every story that works well is grounded in experience--in those stories there's a depth that comes across, a surety with the basic materials, a substantiality that speaks through the characters and gives the story weight, even when I'm writing about something that couldn't possibly happen. But I don't think about my work analytically. I just try to write until the emotions of the characters impinge upon me, until I get a hit of emotion. Then I know I'm there, where the story wanted to me to take it.
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