Friday, March 2, 2012

Busted!—Margot Livesey Caught Using Alarming Detail

At a recent program, poet Ben Heins had participants trolling sample poetry for techniques that could help us as prose writers. One of the many questions he suggested we ask ourselves about our prose is whether our description is “vivid, sensual, and alarming.”

That last word—“alarming”— really stuck with many participants. Alarming images are not easy to forget, and indeed, his use of the word in his talk makes it a craft tip I am not likely to forget. As an example he used the poem by Andrew Hudgins, “Grandmother’s Spit”—is that a title you’re likely to forget?

In scanning for an alarming image to share here from prose literature, I thought of Margot Livesey’s Banishing Verona (the first line of which I used in a former post). It’s about the interaction between a handyman with Asperger’s, who is renovating a home in the owner’s absence, and the very pregnant woman who arrives on the doorstep claiming to be the owner’s niece.

In her opening lines Livesey uses the startling detail of light bulb filaments repeatedly flying apart to foreshadow that something highly charged is about to happen. The handyman, Zeke, is befuddled by the arrival of this niece, yet responds to her self-confidence. He has soon made her tea, which she takes upstairs. By the end of the day she has successfully reversed their positions, asking if he’ll be returning tomorrow—and parting him from his house key.

When Zeke returns the next morning, by climbing through a window, she is out getting them egg sandwiches. She says she wants to help him work, “to keep her mind off things,” and slips into a pair of coveralls she finds—“her belly split the front like a chestnut in its shell.” As they work, she gets Zeke talking. Ill at ease with social graces, he later realizes: “After all these hours it was too late to ask her name."

After a remarkable day in her company the tired woman asks Zeke for help getting out of the coveralls—and one thing leads to another. Zeke can’t believe any of it is happening.

The next morning it is he who goes out for the egg sandwiches, resolving that, “however stupid, however embarrassing, he would ask her name.” When he arrives back at the house, this is what he finds:
The bed was unmade, empty and cold to the touch, the suitcases gone. At the foot of the bed the rug was rolled up, and spread-eagled on the bare wooden boards lay the coveralls, neatly buttoned, arms and legs stretched wide, like an empty person. Only when he knelt to pick them up did Zeke discover the three-inch nails that skewered the collar, pinned the cuffs and ankles to the floor.

At the Sewanee Writers' Conference, where in 2002 I heard Livesey finish reading her first chapter with those words, audible groans from the audience were followed by wild applause. We were thrilled—nailed coveralls is an alarming image, one I feel certain most of us had never entertained.

Can I tell you exactly what it means? Read the book and let’s talk—I’m sure that reaching for meaning has kept alive many discussions of this book, whose inclusion of this alarming detail made it truly unforgettable.

Have you used alarming detail in your work? What alarming images do you recall from your own reading?

Note: In an interesting confluence of events, both Livesey and Hudgins will be on faculty at the 2012 Sewanee Writers' Conference!

Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. What a hook! I might have to try and get hold of this book.

  2. I know! Hearing Livesey read it live had us all on the edge of our seats...and the chapter ended, reading over. And we couldn't rush out to buy it because the book was still months from its release! But believe me, I kept checking. A good tip for selecting a passage for pre-release reading from your book!

  3. Wow, it gets the imagination going for sure! I hope the reasons aren't as alarming as the image. I have alarming images from books, movies, and real life I'd love to wipe from my memory banks. They often aren't "worth it" for me.

  4. When asked how I'm doing, I sometimes answer, "I'm doing so well, there ought to be two of me." How's that for an alarming image?

  5. Haha, Chris, good one! To combine your comment with Dani's--that might keep her up nights!

  6. It's the imagery that transports words into art.

  7. Yes, Linda, I agree. The imagery allows the reader to bring his/her own life experience into the mix, binding her to the story. A blossoming flower, though? Overused to the point of cliche. Whereas coveralls nailed to the floor...

  8. Wow! Alarming is good. Thank you for sharing this. Something to think about in our writing.

  9. Description comes hard for me, so I'm glad to read about someone who does it well.

    Morgan Mandel

  10. Fantastic article, Kathryn! So many excellent images in that passage -- the light bulb filament, the overalls -- even the fact one could hear "egg sandwich" and think, "Wow, that is specific!" is testament to how memorable Livesey's writing is. Hearing her and Hudgins together in the same place? Priceless! For more alarming imagery, check out Hudgins's "Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought." Arguably one of his best. Anyone care to share some of their own alarming images?

  11. Thanks for reading, Morgan and Heidi.

    And Ben, thanks so much for both inspiring this post and stopping by to comment!

    Another alarming image I recall was from the opening of Regina McBride's Land of Women. A girl, Fiona, is asking her mother, Jane, about a well-preserved girl who'd been dug up from a bog near an Ireland orphanage. Fiona is perusing a clipping with a photograph.

    "Why is she holding that rope?"

    "It isn't rope, Fiona."

    "What is it?"

    "A braid of hair."

  12. Definitely makes me want to read more!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.