August 19, 2015
DD Miller's debut fiction collection, David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories, features a series of slacker heroes whose lives fall apart – spectacularly and, for the reader, humorously – when they fail to act. These men are survivors, even if they don't realize it, and Miller's deft characterization makes them sympathetic even as, or perhaps because, it exposes their flaws.
In another of our new blog features, The Story Behind the Story, Miller shares how he arrived at the idea for his story "The Wrong Numbers," which is featured in the collection and also appeared in Joyland, an online magazine dedicated to short fiction.
I don’t remember exactly when the wrong numbers started, but I remember that it was summer because it was hot. Sticky Toronto hot. I remember stepping out from the controlled climate of the college I teach at to catch a bus and my phone started vibrating. I was so unused to the sensation that it took me a moment to realize it was ringing; I hesitated before answering, as I didn’t know the number. I let it ring. Eventually, my phone informed me that the call was just one of five missed calls that morning. My voicemail box, I noticed, was full.
Phones are not built to be phones anymore, and they don’t resemble anything like the objects that were originally patented by Alexander Graham Bell in the 1870s. They are probably just called phones because we have not yet thought of a better name for them. I couldn’t think of the last time I spoke to anyone aside from my mother or father on the phone.
But suddenly, my voicemail was full.
I checked the messages as soon as I got on the bus. They were all variations of the same thing; basically, “I’m calling about the one-bedroom apartment you have available…” they started before jumping into specifics.
I called the first number back. When I mentioned that I’d received a call about an apartment, he jumped right in.
“Oh yes, thank you for returning my call,” he said and began to express his enthusiastic interest in a one-bedroom apartment.
“Sorry!” I interrupted, “I just wanted to let you know that you’d called the wrong number,” I explained.
‘Really?” he asked after a moment, and there was a hesitancy in his voice.
“Yeah, sorry,” I offered again, and there was silence on the other end – but he didn’t hang up – and I remember thinking that he didn’t believe me. Like I was lying. I couldn’t quite place his accent specifically, but I believed it was South Asian.
After an increasingly awkward silence, he hung up.
The calls continued for days but I never answered. My partner told me I should find out where the confusion was coming from, but I never answered or returned any of the messages after that first time. There was a distinct pattern: everyone who called was a man, and most, if not all, had at least faint South Asian accents of some sort. I pictured recent immigrants, scrounging for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto through which to kick-start their new lives in their new country. Or maybe they weren’t new Canadians at all, but just recent divorcés suddenly thrust into bachelorhood, who came across my number mistakenly written on an ad at some South Asian club for single men in suburban Toronto.
Whatever the situation, there was a certain sadness to it all that I couldn’t quite place. A loneliness emanated from all of these men looking for a one-bedroom apartment, calling a number that was falsely advertised, waiting – perhaps impatiently, perhaps expectantly – for a return call that would never come.
Being a writer, I eventually saw that there was a story in the mixup. But when I sat down to write out the opening scene on the bus – almost exactly as it had occurred – I knew that the sadness at the heart of the story would not come from those making the calls, but from the character receiving them. How would a profoundly sad and lonely man react to the calls? What would he seek from them? Eventually, through the character’s reactions to the phone calls, I finally got to the root of his sadness, and, therefore, the root of the story.
Sometimes, wrong numbers turn out to be right for something.
DD (Dave) Miller is also known as The Derby Nerd for his work as coach and commentator with the Toronto Roller Derby league and his writings on one of the world's most fascinating emerging sports. He is originally from Nova Scotia but now lives in Toronto, where he teaches college English. David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories is his first collection and helped launch Wolsak & Wynn's Buckrider Books imprint in Spring 2014.