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Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘30% Off’ by Clodagh O’Brien, a beautifully perceptive examination of one woman’s emotional breakdown.
Asking a reader to invest emotionally in a character is a big ask. Get it right and you create an understanding which is rewarding and revealing. Get it wrong and you risk creating a story that feels hollow, and is driven by characters who are difficult to understand or care about.
It’s a crucial connection, the difference between a story which lives and breathes within the reader long after they have read it, and one which is instantly forgotten.
I have read ‘30% Off’ many times now and, each time, my reaction is the same. I want to step into the page and hold the central character in my arms for a while. Tell her everything will be okay.
I need to know it will be okay.
Why should I care about an imagined girl in a corner shop?
The power of quiet
30% Off is a quiet story. But it is also a story which contains a lot of drama and emotional turmoil.
We know from the start that something awful is going to happen. The writer is honest with us from the very first sentence.
‘This morning Donna’s life fell down.’
It could feel like a punch in the gut, an opening like that, and while it is certainly powerful, what follows is almost mundane.
Donna in the corner shop, laden down with a few bits and pieces. No revelatory thoughts in her head, save the banal dilemma of whether or not to get a basket.
And the shop itself is a safe place, a familiar place. She knows the owners by name. And we know it too. The shop where you buy just a few things. Where the eggs are almost out of date and going at a discount.
We’ve all been in a shop like this one.
So when the phone rings it doesn’t feel like a prelude to anything. It’s not a warning, that telephone going off, just another everyday moment in another everyday place.
Only it isn’t.
And it’s not so much the things which are said that during the call which trigger the crisis. In some respects the words go unheeded.
Rather, it is Donna’s response we feel.
‘They said you and we as if talking about a different species, a different type of human.’
At this point we still don’t know what the caller is referring to, why the news is so devastating. But we start to feel it. The way it seems to have hollowed-out Donna, given her a sense of herself as the caller sees her, as others see her – ‘a different type of human’.
I read that line and felt winded by it.
Here is a girl who feels she is not quite a part of the world, not quite one with it.
And when she stands in the shop and sees the ‘bright light and rows of bottles in the fridge’ I also feel slightly dizzy, slightly disoriented.
And when the caller asks “Are you there?”
Donna’s internal reply -“In what way? In what way?” – is one of the quietest depictions of a breakdown I have ever read.
A less accomplished writer may have set off emotional fireworks at this point, allowed Donna to sink into a rage of grief or frustration, to let rip a melodramatic outburst of screaming or wailing.
But Clodagh O’Brien is very careful.
First she allows the world to settle once again.
The phone is put back into Donna’s pocket and the air is still. She gives the reader a moment to pause and catch their breath before the impact is revealed.
Surreal, almost horrific.
‘Hair strayed into her face, damp and faint with coconut. She let it cling, felt the black roots on top of her head slide down like mud. In the glass of the fridge she caught her reflection; saw her skin fall away in fat bloody chunks.’
And Donna falls down. Donna’s life falls down. And we fall down with her.
The eggs a poignant symbol of all she has lost. The wasted, un-nurtured life which she is tender with at first.
She rocks the first egg in her palm, feels its warmth, understands what it is and then, what it represents.
So that when she hurls it at her own reflection we understand why she does it even before. we are told, almost as an aside, of this skeleton Donna, this troubled woman, whosemany worries and fears are known to the shop keepers. And now, also, to us.
You can almost feel that fourth egg in your hand as you squeeze it tight and feel the yolk explode between your fingers.
And you understand too, that if you were Donna, you would do the same.
Interview with Clodagh O’Brien
Jen: I was very moved by Donna as a character – I could empathise with her completely. How clear was she to you as a character when you came to write about her?
Clodagh: When I began ‘30% Off’ Donna was a shadow, a ghost I felt inside that gained shape as the story unfolded. I tend to write stories with a first line in mind. Sometimes they come to me like a bullet from a gun, other times I have an idea and I let it sit, roll around my brain until the words form. By the middle of the story I knew Donna, pictured her in the shop, saw her reflection in the fridge. My job was then to bring her story to a conclusion, show how her life fell down and why.
Jen: Why did you choose a corner shop as the location for the story?
Clodagh: I used to live in London and corner shops were everywhere you went. They always seemed to be family run with the entire family working there, from daughters and sons to cousins and grandparents. I wanted to set Donna, who was losing her own family, against a close knit family situation and a corner shop seemed the perfect place. I also wanted to instil a feeling of claustrophobia. Donna being hemmed in by the intimate environment of a corner shop where she was known, an intense situation compared to the anonymity of a supermarket.
Jen: The symbolism of the eggs – the way they represent life and also fragility – was a beautiful touch I thought. How did this arise? Did you know from the outset you would have this incident with the eggs?
Clodagh: Thanks so much, I’m thrilled that the symbolism worked. At the time of writing ‘30% Off’ I was pregnant and had the prospect of a new life on my mind. I wanted to write about a woman losing her daughter and the fragility of an egg seemed the best way to represent a child lost, a should-be-bird not allowed to develop into a chick. I also wanted to use the yellow of the yolk, a colour usually associated with happiness, to represent the extinguishing of Donna’s hope as she shattered each shell, like a light going out. I must confess the introduction of the egg was a lightning bolt moment, rather than a carefully constructed idea from the outset.
Jen: Is this the type of story you usually write – character driven pieces? Where do you draw inspiration from, for such intriguing characters?
Clodagh: I am very character driven. I love writing interesting people as much as I love exploring the reasons for the way people are, the journey their life has taken. The choices people make fascinate me and I try to make my stories realistic, situations that a reader could imagine happening and relate to. Ultimately I am intrigued by human behaviour.
My inspiration for characters comes from listening and watching people. I have always been an observer and eavesdrop on conversations on public transport, in queues and in cafés. I often read Wikipedia to get a snapshot of people’s lives. Be that a movie star from the 20’s or a politician in an obscure country I know very little about. It’s amazing what you find weaved into people’s life paths, and I often come across revelations that are so bizarre if they were written as fiction would not be believed! I also read a lot of newspapers and magazines along with watching documentaries, which often spawns intriguing characters.
Jen: Finally, you’ve read what we love about ‘30% Off’. What do you like about it?
Clodagh: I enjoyed writing ‘30% Off’ as it was one of those rare stories that on first draft was near finished. I tweaked it over the months that followed, but what you read is pretty much what I wrote in the first sitting. It’s a wonderful thing when that happens.
In terms of the story, I tend to leave conclusions to the reader and like that you are never told how Donna got to this point in her life or indeed very much about her. Instead, you feel her. I hope that ‘30% Off’ invites a reader into a life-changing moment and as they read it they fall, just as Donna does.
What do you think about ‘30% Off’? Why not take a read and let us know.