Helen Marshall is an award-winning Canadian author, editor, and doctor of medieval studies. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Tor.com and have been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her debut collection of short stories “Hair Side, Flesh Side” (ChiZine Publications, 2012) was named one of the top ten books of 2012 by January Magazine. It won the 2013 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and was short-listed for the 2013 Aurora Award by the Canadian Society of Science Fiction and Fantasy. She also published two volumes of poetry, “Skeleton Leaves” (Kelp Queen Press, 2011), winner of the Aurora Award in 2012 and nominated for the Rhysling Award, and “The Sex Lives of Monsters” (Kelp Queen Press, 2013), nominated for the Bram Stoker Award this year. Helen Marshall’s second collection of short stories, “Gifts for the One Who Comes After”, will be released on fall of this year by ChiZine Publications.
Mihai ADĂSCĂLIŢEI: Thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.
I’ll start by quoting from one of your interviews, “When I was a kid I genuinely thought everyone who wrote books had died a long time ago. Like the dinosaurs. I had never seen a writer. I figured people didn’t write books anymore.” Since this didn’t put you off writing may I ask what determined the start of your writing career? When did you put the pen on paper with the goal of writing fiction?
Helen MARSHALL: My writing, as in most cases, came from reading. I grew up with my nose buried in a book such that I remember, quite vividly, that in Grade One my primary school teacher asked the other children to become my friends—sorry, this is quite sad as I recount it!—but I wasn’t particularly interested: I was happy with the books. As I read more I began to write. Poetry at first, but then short stories as I grew older. In high school, my mother arranged for a family friend, Jeff Fitzgerald, to start working with me on my writing. He had published a few short stories, and he was the first person to help me put together a manuscript submission: a story called “The Deep” about two university students who go searching for the lost land of Lyonesse—God, apparently I still have it on my computer—and it ends very tragically (so I thought) with the two of them drowning. Needless to say, it was rejected. The second person who helped me was a fellow named Ben Trafford, and I can’t say there was anything special about the conversation itself. I was in university, struggling to keep writing while I continued with my studies. I asked him how one becomes a published writer, and he said something along the lines of this: “You just do it.” And he was right: that’s when I realized there wasn’t a particular path to success, you just start doing it. No one will ever invite you to be a writer. No one hands it to you. You just go out and start doing it.
M.A: From the long dead writers who inspired and influenced your writing? How about the living ones?
H.M.: I read fantasy predominantly as I was growing up (as well as an assortment of books on Norse, Celtic, Greek and Roman mythology), and I think my biggest influences back then were probably Neil Gaiman who wrote the first short stories I ever read, Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles de Lint, and Peter Beagle. When I first read them, I just assumed they were all dead (sorry!), but I remember being thrilled to discover that Guy Kay lived in Toronto. Toronto! I knew where that was! I had been there! Afterward, whenever, as a kid, I visited the city I always secretly hoped I would see him. Interestingly, when I moved to Toronto for graduate school, I ended up living quite near to him, and so we did meet for coffee from time to time.
One of my biggest influences in recent years, however, is Robert Shearman, whose work is very clever and blackly funny. When I first read his collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, something chimed in my head. I realized I could write stories from my own perspective, about my own emotional reactions, struggles, passions, and kinks. I realized I could be funny—but my own kind of funny. And weird. And sad. It is strange that someone else’s writing showed me how to develop my own kind of internal honesty, but it did.
Throughout my university career, I became more and more interested in dead writers, particularly those of the medieval period: the Gawain poet, Christine di Pizan, a whole load of anonymous writers, and of course, Geoffrey Chaucer. One of the things I love about reading medieval works is that sometimes you encounter a note from the author saying something like, “Pray for me when I am dead” or “Please correct this work”. Because despite the fact that these writers lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago, they could envision their own death and could imagine some sort of place in history for themselves. They could envision a time when their writing would be copied and re-copied. And, really, they are still talking to us. I find those moments lend a kind of immediacy to their work that bridges the gap in years. It makes them seem peculiarly human, and that’s important because it is very easy to believe the people who lived hundreds of years ago were intrinsically different than us.
M.A.: You have a PhD in medieval studies, but is the decision of pursuing this career related in any way to your love for fiction and books or it remains of strictly academic interest? Is the attention required by medieval manuscripts reflected on your writing and editing?
H.M.: The question of how I balance my academic work and my fiction work is an interesting one, and it is something I continue to juggle and debate with myself on an ongoing basis. I like to think I draw inspiration from my academic work, which I bring to my creative writing. Hair Side, Flesh Side is a perfect example of that: many of the stories were inspired by the love of history my work has fostered in me, and a number of the stories themselves—such as “Blessed” where a girl receives the body of Saint Lucia of Syracuse for her birthday—really came directly out of my research. There’s so much odd minutiae you come across when studying the Middle Ages, odd beliefs, strange ritual elements and the like, that haven’t been mined so heavily despite the boatloads of European-inspired epic fantasies out there. There’s also an enormous frisson that comes from participating in the Oxford-Cambridge intellectual tradition: M. R. James wrote his ghost stories while preparing catalogues of medieval English manuscripts I still use; Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings while studying the Northern dialect play in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale; C. S. Lewis composed The Chronicles of Narnia while lecturing on medieval romance and allegory. There’s a fine tradition here.
But in many ways writing and research are very different tasks. When researching, I try to hold the object of study very closely so that I can see all of its minute details. I come to the truths I want to write about by way of facts and grounded hypothesis. When I write, I deliberately hold the object of narration, which is frequently grounded in some part of my real life, at a distance so that it grows fuzzy in my mind. This allows me to lie about it more effectively. And that’s a big difference, I think, the impulse to discover facts and the impulse to lie outrageously—I try to keep them separate!
M.A.: Did it happen for something you discovered in a medieval manuscript to become part of a subject of your fiction? Can it be said that the dark characteristics of Medieval Ages, such as violence, plague or poverty, have also an influence on your fiction?
H.M.: I have always wanted to discover something in a medieval manuscript that would be part of my fiction, but, for some reason, it never quite works out that way. In part, I think, because of the warring impulses I spoke of above. But your second question, about the dark characteristics of the Medieval Ages, is probably closer to the mark. Studying history gives me a sense of a wider perspective. I’ve said before that history is something like a horror story: everyone dies at the end. And as a result a large amount of my fiction is about how we balance our immediate sense of ourselves as living, breathing, loving individuals against the knowledge of our insignificance in terms of a larger narrative. I find myself returning to that question over and over again. In Hair Side, Flesh Side, the question manifested itself in terms of the value of artistic endeavor and the way we relate specifically to historical objects. In my second collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, the question manifests itself in terms of the personal legacies we leave behind for our children.
M.A.: Is this also one of the reasons for chosing to approach the dark side of Peter Pan’s story in your debut poetry collection “Skeleton Leaves”? What are the other motives that led to a deeper exploration of the Peter Pan myth?
H.M.: Truthfully, Peter Pan is one of those stories that has so much lurking beneath the surface, so much deeply concealed tension and repressed feeling, that it took very little work on my part to expose some of it. I’ve always been fascinated by Peter Pan as a character: this utterly sociopathic personality whom Wendy finds irresistible. What I find interesting about him is that J. M. Barrie simultaneously casts him as a figure of death, willing to kill any of the Lost Boys who get too old for him, and as the ultimate figure of life and eternal youth. It’s an intriguing contradiction, and ultimately a frightening one. Also, I suppose, I quite like the image of kids as happy, little psychopaths—I’m not sure I believe it entirely, but I like playing with the connection between innocence and moral ignorance. In one story for my new collection, entitled “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects,” a young girl decides to practice being a mother by adopting two cans of tomato soup, one of whom she rolls down the stairs and eventually eats. It’s probably one of my most bizarre—and funny!—stories, but it comes out of that question of what it means for a child to try to come to an understanding of how the world works.
M.A.: With more modern stories reinterpreting the classical fairy tales are you tempted to offer your own version of such tales, besides Peter Pan, in the future? What would be the fairy tales with the most appeal to you for a reinterpretation?
H.M.: I’ve just finished writing a short story called “Ship House” for the new collection, which centers around a young woman who returns to her family home in South Africa in order to convince her mother, who appears to be developing Alzheimer’s, to pack up her belongings and move somewhere safer. There, she discovers the two halves of Rumpelstiltskin (recall: he tears himself in half at the end of the fairy tale!) in the cellar beneath the house. It is a very strange story, and also a deeply personal one, as it weaves together distorted pieces of my own family history with this larger mythic presence. It is also a story about how, generations down the line, one deals with the uncomfortable and compromised history that emerges from living in a place like South Africa and having benefited, even unknowingly, from one’s position. I like the idea of dealing with Rumpelstiltskin as this malignant secret that has been swept under the carpet, that everyone in the family knows about, but no one is willing to talk about.
M.A.: Although “Skeleton Leaves” offers a more sinister and dangerous version of Peter Pan’s story I understand that when some of the stories from your collection “Hair Side, Flesh Side” were labeled horror you have been surprised to some extent. Do you think that your collection, despite its obvious literary qualities, failed to reach more readers just because it is labeled as horror? Are you, as a writer, perceived differently just because you write horror and weird fiction?
H.M.: This is a tricky question: initially, I was surprised about being labeled a horror writer because, in my head, many of the stories are more absurdist than genuinely horrific. Also, as a child I had a strong aversion to horror: I couldn’t stomach it in the least. Everything scared me. The only horror I had read, previous to writing Hair Side, Flesh Side, were the books I was editing for ChiZine Publications, and those books were strange and dark but very few of them were what I considered to be outright horror. But now I find that it is exactly those things that provoked the strongest reaction from me, that I now mine for writing material—so in that sense, I feel much more comfortable with the idea of being called a horror writer. I’ve read much more widely in the genre—Stephen King has become a huge influence recently, not necessarily for his horror, but for his intensely likable narrators—but I still don’t know that I’m a horror writer per se, because I think if we take that old adage that horror is an emotion, not a genre, then I’m often trying to convey multiple emotions at once. Rarely is fear the predominant emotion I’d like my readers to take away with them. But that might just be splitting hairs: I find that there is a great deal of interesting writing occurring that combines horror and literary sensibilities. Nathan Ballingrud leaps to mind as one of the best in recent years. But more than that, I think horror fiction has a tremendous amount to offer literary fiction in that it is, as Kim Newman says, the art of going too far. It is—or it can be—a genre without limits. That’s very appealing.
M.A.: Do you consider that your fiction belongs strictly to one particular genre? How important is for a writer to step outside one genre in order to be original and find a personal style?
H.M.: My fiction moves all over the place, I think, because as a reader I read whatever comes to hand. I read lots of literary fiction because I find the attention to style, voice and form often prompts me to push myself in new directions. To make my words, and my sentences, work harder. But, at the same time, I like writing that pushes at and breaks the boundaries of realism: I like surprises. I love any moment that causes me to laugh with delight because something happens that is entirely unexpected but also entirely suited to the story. And I get bored very quickly, which means that I often jump around from style to style in what I read and what I write, in the hopes of surprising myself. Other writers prefer to develop a more consistent style, and that’s their prerogative—I hardly hold it against them!—but I like the freedom to do something completely different, to jump traditions, and to throw different elements of different traditions together. My thesis adviser once called me a “magpie theorist” which, in that context, was not necessarily a good thing: but when it comes to fiction I find the magpie tendency to pick up anything shiny to be quite helpful. It is also one reason why I do not necessarily like “reading the field” in its totality: I don’t necessarily want to follow too closely what writers similar to me are doing, I’d rather find something very different and sprint off in that direction.
M.A.: You published so far two volumes of poetry, “Skeleton Leave” and “The Sex Lives of Monsters”, and a collection of short stories, “Hair Side, Flesh Side”. With which one do you feel more comfortable? Did you start writing longer fiction already or would you approach a novel format soon?
H.M.: I’ve found that poetry and short fiction accomplish different things. Poetry often gives you a single moment, beautifully crystallized, a single gut punch. Short fiction gives you more space to slap your reader around a little bit, work them over, before you get to the knock out stage. I like both forms, but my interest, right now, is in fiction in part because I like the process of fleshing out quirky ideas and seeing where they will take me. Length changes what you can do with an idea. I’m beginning work on a novel at the moment called “Icarus Kids” in which children begin to come back from the dead. With wings. And while it might start off sounding a bit like a zombie story, really, it’s about death as transformation, and the grief of the people who get left behind. What I’ve found when writing the novel, however, is that the deeper I explore the idea, the more the narrative shifts toward realism—that is, I prefer to develop the human consequences of the idea rather than elaborating upon the central premise itself.
M.A.: Can the writing of poetry give more depth to a writer’s prose? Can the experience of writing poetry have an influence on the prose of a writer, making it more beautiful, compact and effective?
H.M.: Whenever I am struggling to get into the right headspace to write fiction, reading poetry is the perfect cure. I heard an excellent quotation from Dan Paterson at a lecture yesterday, that sums up my feelings on poetry:
“Poetry is a dark art, a form of magic, because it tries to change the way we perceive the world. That is to say that it aims to make the texture of our perception malleable…by seeding and planting things in the memory of the reader with such force and insidious originality that they cannot be deprogrammed.”
What I like about poetry is that it forces you to try to bring a reader to a certain place, or a certain emotion, by subtle and less straightforward strategies: through language, seeded imagery, texture, voice—and only lastly by means of narrative. Poetry works like a magic trick. It allows you to pull off certain effects that appear effortless but require a great deal of technical mastery. There’s a logic to poetry that is different than the logic of fiction, what Kelly Link once described to me as “night time logic” or dream logic. Dreams have their own internal rules that do not correspond to the rules of the real world—but that does not mean that they are without consistency and stakes within the dream world. I find that sometimes I like to explore the possibility of bringing poetic logic into fiction, just to see what I can get away with.
To offer a quick example, in the story I mentioned earlier, “Blessed,” a child receives the body of St. Lucia of Syracuse from her divorced father and his new girlfriend, and this kicks off a battle of gifts as her mother presents her with a better saint—Joan of Arc. On the surface, the story takes an absurd premise and milks it for comic value, but the end of the story hinges on the fact that saints—or martyrs in this case—signify for us in two very different ways: both as images of blessedness and as images of passive resistance who will suffer all sorts of outrageous forms of violence for love. For me, the trick of that story is overtly playing up the first meaning throughout the beginning of the story while seeding in the second meaning under the surface. The climax of the story then hinges on the way in which the mother, who ends up essentially torturing her accepting daughter, acknowledges the much darker signification of what saintly love might mean. To me, that story works by poetic logic in that it is grounded in the transformation of ideas that are encoded into the resonance of specific words rather than through straight narrative.
M.A.: Even from the debut your works have been acknowledged by being nominated and winning various awards. How important is for a new writer to receive such recognition? Is this the best way of learning the value of your writing or is popularity to be preferred?
H.M.: Awards are really as important as you let them be: I have to say, one of the greatest moments of my life was when I won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer. I was in tears for the entire night because I was so touched by the recognition, and the opportunity to stand on a stage with some of my idols—Neil Gaiman was the Master of Ceremonies, Susan Cooper was accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award—and to know that I was a part of that community. That’s what an award gives you: the sense of being honoured by your peers. And, of course, as a new writer—and I was very new, I had published one short story prior to the collection—I had to work very hard to build a readership entirely from scratch. In many ways, I’ve been absolutely bowled over by the reception of my first collection. My expectations were much humbler.
M.A.: This year you will co-edit together with Sandra Kasturi the third collection of best Canadian speculative writing, “Imaginarium”. How important is your experience as an associate and managing editor at Chizine Publications in the editing of “Imaginarium 2014”? For “Imaginarium” do you look for stories more in the line of your work or would you prefer something different?
H.M.: My experience as an editor at ChiZine Publications gave me the opportunity to collaborate with Sandra Kasturi on a number of big projects, and what I discovered was a true kindred spirit, someone warm and wise and witty, whom I continually wanted to impress. I’m very excited about collaborating with her on Imaginarium 2014 in part because—despite what I said about not wanting to “read the field”—I have a very deep love for the Canadian genre scene. There are some tremendous authors out there whom I’ve had a chance to work with at ChiZine Publications, and many others whom I’ve met at conventions and the like. Something special is happening in Canada, a kind of genre renaissance, and though there is a fear that any time you come to recognize a crest, you fear that it may already be over, nevertheless, I know that many Canadian authors are just beginning to gain traction. It is hard to say exactly what Sandra and I are looking for in Imaginarium: I certainly expect to come across a wider variety of genre angles than I typically write myself, but I would say that I am looking for the same things I try to put into my own work—moments of surprise, delight, and transcendence. And good spelling.
M.A.: Not only that all your published books were illustrated by Chris Roberts, but also your forthcoming new collection of short stories, “Gifts for the One Who Comes After”, benefits from his works. How did the collaboration with Chris Roberts start? Would you like to repeat in the future the experience of illustrating your books with a different artist?
H.M.: I met Chris Roberts at the World Horror Convention in Austin, and he kindly offered to do the cover and interior art for my first chapbook, Skeleton Leaves. I have always been impressed by his attention to detail, and his ability to pick out moments of emotional nuance and recast those moments in graphic form. I’ve just last week seen the interior pieces he has put together for Gifts for the One Who Comes After, and they are stunning. Absolutely stunning. I would go out on a limb and say that it is some of his best work to date.
As a book historian, I love the form of the book itself, and the artistic possibilities of that form. What first drew me to ChiZine Publications’ books was that Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi were willing to put time and effort into their design, frequently incorporating artwork or interesting layouts. That impressed me, and I think it impressed everyone.
I suppose, of course, I’d be like to repeat the experience of having my books illustrated by different artists—and I’ve seen some lovely artwork for individual short stories like Chris Buzelli’s magnificent cover piece for my story “The Hanging Game” on Tor.com—but Chris Roberts gets me. I get him. It makes for a great working relationship.
M.A.: Since I mentioned “Gifts for the One Who Comes After” can you give us a few details about your new short stories collection? What should your old and new readers expect from “Gifts for the One Who Comes After”?
H.M.: Gifts for the One Who Comes After will feature eighteen short stories—only six of them, at this stage, previously published. As I mentioned before, whereas Hair Side, Flesh Side was very interested in history and the cost of creating art, the new collection explores the theme of legacy as a monstrous or brutal weight. It has some of my favourite stories in it including “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects”, which was shortlisted for the Gloria Vanderbilt Short Fiction prize; “Ship House”, which is something like Rumplestitskin meets The Haunting of Hill House; “The Slipway Grey”, which was on the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker award, about a grandfather who contemplates his own death in the form of a massive bull shark haunting the Selebi mines in Zimbabwe; and “The Gallery of the Eliminated”, about a boy who goes to a special zoo where he watches a circus performer give birth to an extinct giant sloth. (The research for that last story involved some rather graphic YouTube videos!) Those are just a couple of the stories—but they are wild, I promise you!
M.A.: Besides “Gifts for the One Who Comes After” and “Imaginarium 2014” what other future projects do you have? At what are you working at the moment?
H.M.: Both of those projects are slated for publication in 2014, and so, I’m just in the final stages of submitting those manuscripts. Apart from that, I’m working away on my young adult novel Icarus Kids, which I expect to finish in the next couple of months, while also juggling a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford where I’m turning my recently defended dissertation into a monograph. There’s lots to keep me busy!
M.A.: Thank you very much for your time and answers.