“If You Are Watching This, I Am Dead” by J. Robert Lennon
Volume #1, Issue #8 • April 10, 2013
J. Robert Lennon is the author of a story collection, Pieces For The Left Hand, and seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and Familiar. He teaches writing at Cornell University.
They are at Trina’s house, and Amber wants to look at Trina’s father’s study. That is, what she has said, at various moments throughout the evening, was that she wanted to “just check it out,” also to “take a peek,” or that the two of them maybe should “hang there,” or “chill there.” And she said to Trina, “Don’t you wonder?” and “I bet he’s got porn,” and though, to that last, Trina pushed Amber over, hard (they were sitting crosslegged in front of the television with a greasy bowl of salty unpopped popcorn kernels between them), she herself imagines that maybe her father does, in fact, have porn in there, and probably other things that Amber would like to see, but that Trina would not.
Q&A by Pei-Ling Lue
Where did the idea of this story come from?
I thought of the title first, and then tried to devise a story to go along with it. This is pretty unusual for me. The idea of the study came next, and then the mystery of the father’s disappearance. I realized pretty soon after that that someone would have to watch a drunken videocassette.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
The hardest bit was trying to create a compelling epiphany for the protagonist, Trina. In an early draft, I had her wondering if the father really was dead, and made this possibility the dramatic center of the story. But two of my friends/editors suggested the same thing—that the father’s status is a red herring, and the story should really be about Trina’s self-discovery.
Have you ever found something you weren’t expecting in your parent’s room? If so, can you tell us what happened?
I’m afraid not! If my parents have secrets, they keep the lid on pretty tightly. What made for a happy childhood didn’t make for great fiction, so I’ve had to make stuff up for a living.
I love that this whole story happens in real time. Was this an active choice you made?
Yeah, I wanted to try and capture that feeling of revelatory thoughts sneaking up and taking you by surprise. That happened to me a lot when I was 15.
Do you think that Trina’s father ends up coming back home?
No, I doubt it, but I do think they’ll be reunited before too long. My feeling is that her father is on the run from a failed marriage, but probably loves his daughter a lot. He’s irresponsible but not a bad guy. He just doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.
Do you think the friendship between Trina and Amber changes after this night?
Yes, probably. I remember how bonds of friendship that seemed inviolable could dissolve in an instant—not out of malice, but out of the chaos of adolescence. These girls are about to go on different paths.
Did you write this story with a young adult audience in mind?
Not at all! I do like writing about young people, but I thought of this as a story for adults. It wasn’t until someone snatched it out of the One Story pile and diverted it to One Teen Story that I realized it might be suitable for kids to read. My own teen years were very intense and emotional, and I haven’t forgotten them—I do hope I’m evoking them effectively here.
How long did it take you to complete this story?
The first draft only took a few hours—two sittings, over two days. I let it languish for a couple of months before I revised it.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel about an emotionally blocked woman in a rock band.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever gotten?
A very blunt teacher of mine said, about a story of which I was quite proud, “If this is the kind of thing you want to do, I guess this is about as good as it’s going to get.” She made me realize that I wasn’t challenging myself—that I was sticking to things I was sure I could do.