Edgewood author releases book of odd tales
Clare Beams admits her first attempts at fiction were typical stories about ordinary people who “don’t get along at the dinner table, or don’t say the thing they need to say to each other.”
A novel that followed the same track went unpublished, and Beams started to teach English at a school in Falmouth, Mass., after graduating from Columbia University’s master of fine arts program.
Then, after her third year of teaching, she had a revelation during her summer break: A story revealed itself in two or three days, fully formed, about a schoolteacher who starts losing body parts: “… One of her eyebrows lifted from her face like peeling paint and fell in a curl to the seat of the chair,” she writes in “We Show What We Have Learned.”
“That sort of joy and magic of it was what the story had that the novel really didn’t,” says Beams, who releases her debut short-story collection, “We Show What We Have Learned” (Lookout Books, $17.95), Oct. 25 at the White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield. “The novel did get progressively stranger as I continued to write, but it’s just not the book that I would write now.”
The stories in the collection share atypical points of view. A young girl is sent to a boarding school where she and her classmates must wear corsets in “Hourglass.” “World’s End” features an architect in the early 1900s who is given a life-changing project that mirrors his affection for a young woman. “The Saltwater Cure” is about a 16-year-old boy who has to deal with his mother’s overbearing nature and schemes at the family’s inn.
Beams, who lives in Edgewood and has taught creative writing at St. Vincent College in Latrobe and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside, thinks that the collection coheres, just like a novel, around a theme.
“I think what does tie them together — and they do vary a lot in terms of how strange they are — is the idea of transformation,” Beams says. “All of these characters are trying to change themselves or change the people around them, or changing themselves or the people around them in ways they don’t intend. I’m interested in what are the costs of that ability to change, and what are the limits of it.”
One story in particular showcases Beams’ ability to extract poignancy from seemingly odd (and in this case, tragic) circumstances. “All the Keys to All the Doors” is about a woman, Cele, who has bequeathed buildings and monuments to the small town of Middleford in the same way “other women gave candies linty from the bottoms of their purses.” The schools and rec center and town hall Cele has gifted are “taking in life and mess as ballast, affixing themselves.”
Middleford is a stand-in for Newtown, Conn., Beams’ hometown from second grade through her high-school graduation, and the site of the tragic deaths of 28 people, including 20 children, at a school in 2012.
Beams was three months pregnant with her first child when the shootings occurred.
“I still can’t look at those pictures of those kids,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to find a way to write about that, but I’d have to be careful. I knew whatever way I took would have to be peripheral, because that’s all I know of what happened. … That story is just my way of trying to process what happened. There’s the pregnant character, and the woman who wants to try to save the town in a way that’s probably impossible. So what impossible solution could there be, and is the solution worse?”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.