Behind the Short Story: “First of a Fine Spectacle”

I’m honored that my short story / high farce “First of a Fine Spectacle” was selected for Pure Slush No. 7, Catherine refracted.

I’m a history buff. But I’ve not had much interest writing historical fiction. Or flash fiction. So historical flash?

What drew me was the collection’s theme: Catherine the Great. A canvas rife with legend, some deserved, others warped by time. If ever a life was writ large, it was Sophie/Katherina, Empress and Plutocrat of All the Russians.

Writing gold.

Nothing about the horse legends or string of lovers  grabbed me. I went for a niche few would have chosen to mine and found it quicky: opera. Catherine was an avid supporter, as she did all the arts, but opera was special to her. Maybe she saw in its grand stage the only spectacle able to match that of her life. She built the first grand Bolshoi house. She styled herself a librettist and studied under masters of the form. As best I can tell, she was half-decent at it too, though she admitted never to having enough conflict. Both of which I tried to reflect in “Spectacle” via her nymphs and satyrs trickery. Writing her was a blast, someone intelligent and sly and comfortably over the top in all things. Reading her quotes and bits of her writing was fascinating.

So. A form I knew little about based around an performing art I knew little about. I ditched any actual opera stuff for the key moment, Artur meets Sophie (like it or not). It’s his story and their battle of wills, and my struggle to sort through to a thematic question almost stopped it cold. Iteratively and with help I got to the point: is it better to be heard clearly but indirectly as a ghostwriter or to thine own voice be true. Both can be artistically pure; both involve compromises. Artur chooses, or is conned into choosing, to sign on as her partner. All comedies get a happy ending, remember.

I’d like to thank Matt Potter for his editorial patience and eye for weak spots. He made this zing. Most of all, I am eternally grateful to writer buddy Lily Wilson who critiqued this not once but twice. Without her, this never saw print. Or binary e-code. Whichever you prefer.

I leave “Spectacle” the same casual opera listener but with a better sense for it, librettos especially. The title, by the by, comes from a tweak on 17th Century philosopher Jean de La Bruyère:

The Opera is obviously the first draft of a fine spectacle; it suggests the idea of  one.