Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hair Side, Flesh Side: An Interview with Helen Marshall

Lobster & Canary is proud to present an interview with our fellow ChiZine author, Helen Marshall.  Without further ado:

Lobster & Canary, question 1.  Your debut collection of short stories-- Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012)-- is extraordinary.  How should we categorize it?  Ruminative horror?  Intellectual horror?  Actually, let's start with "horror," which is a misnomer for what you are doing.  Certainly, horrific images and acts present themselves in your tales, quite memorably indeed.  But the overall effect-- for this reader, at least-- is more subtle, more rarefied even.  We're in the realm rather of the uncanny, the disturbing and unsettling, in the rooms and streets painted by Magritte, in the tableaux created by Ernst in Une semaine de bonte, the collages of Hannah Hoech, or the atmospheres of Leonora Carrington.  Does my statement accord with you?  If not, tell us otherwise.

Helen Marshall:  This is a question I’ve certainly been struggling with (particularly at family dinner parties when I’m called upon to explain what it is that I’m writing—but then again, I think family dinner parties are probably the bane of every writer’s existence!). “Ruminative horror” is a lovely phrase, though whether my stories are horror…I don’t know. I like the idea of horror as the art of going too far (to paraphrase Kim Newman); I like the idea of horror as an emotion. But I think the sort of literary game I try to play is one closer to magic realism in which the characters themselves react to the strange as if it were normal, thereby opening up a space for the reader to feel the “disjunct” between their own expectations and the uncanny. For me, I like the sense of being off-balance. Of breaking the rules. And horror as a “genre”—as something codified—tends to have a rather concrete set of rules for how to scare someone. But I find when you normalize the strange, then suddenly you can cast a new spotlight on what initially seems normal. So the horror of a story like “Blessed” (which you can read here) where a girl is given the body of a dead saint for her seventh birthday isn’t so much in the moment when she discovers the dead body wrapped up special for her, as it is in the ideals of martyring love and self-sacrifice that play out in the girl’s relationship to her mother. The oddity of the world is a kind of sleight of hand that allows me to distract the reader from a deeper game.

2.  Corollary to the above: your work feels much closer in spirit to that of, say, Kelly Link or Aimee Bender, M. Rickert, Karen Russell or Steven Millhauser, than to authors more commonly shelved under "horror" in the bookstore.  "New Weird," "slipstream," "paraspheric" many attempts to corral what is inherently a slippery, tricksy creature!   Do you read the authors just named?  Do you feel the kinship?  Here is another one:  as I read your stories, I kept thinking of Vandana Singh's The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet.  

For about two years the majority of what I was reading (because of my position as Managing Editor at ChiZine Publications) was offbeat horror, so there was certainly an influence there (Cf. David Nickle, Tim Lebbon, Gemma Files, Claude Lalumi√®re and others, but also Neil Gaiman, obviously, and Peter Beagle whom  I adore): it was only when I was in England and I first read Robert Shearman’s collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical that I was introduced to a very different style of “genre” writing. For some reason, that kind of writing felt much more natural—perhaps because of my background in poetry where voice and mood are privileged over linearity and plot. But in the rapid phase of reading I’ve done over the last couple of years I’ve found so many writers who I feel kinship with. Kelly Link was one of my instructors at Clarion West, and, God, what can you say about her? She’s one of the smartest, funniest, most insightful people I know. Her writing is brilliant—definitely you can find something of an influence on some of the more recent stories I’ve written. Other people I’ve found I’ve really enjoyed are Dave Eggers, Karin Tidbeck, Johanna Sinisalo, Audrey Niffeneger, Yann Martel, Michael Chabon…well, I could certainly go on. I still find poetry one of my keenest sources of inspiration, particularly for “paraspheric” material (because in poetry, metaphors govern the world and so you never need to ask if something is real or not), and there I’ve fallen in love with Anne Carson, Sandra Kasturi, David Day, Lorna Crozier (my long time love!), Anne Sexton and others.

3.  Uncanny and eerie does not mean, well, fact, there is a streak of elegant cruelty running through your stories, as hard-edged as that in any authentic fairy tale.  (Again, calls to mind Magritte...and also Bunuel, Kokoschka, Kirchner, Schiele).  How do you balance the cruelty with the love?  How can pain be described in humane ways?

This really puts the finger on where horror comes into my stories (at least in my own head). There are horrible things that happen in my stories, but most of them are the things that are done by people who ostensibly love each other. The reason is simple: it’s easiest to hurt the people we love. It’s easiest to disappoint them. It’s easier to break them a little. To want them to be something they are not. Loving someone is a constant process of tiny injuries. But, at the same time, there’s beauty and there’s kindness and there are moments when selfishness slips away—and the injury is part of that. I think, deep down, I try to find ways to forgive all my characters—that’s both rather daunting and sometimes rather heartbreaking in and of itself. But there’s something glorious and redemptive that comes at the moment in which you say, “Yes, you’ve hurt me, and you’re a little bit broken, and I’m a little bit broken…but there’s something there, and it’s love.” One of my stories that comes to mind is “Dead White Men” (which you can read here)—in which a young man falls for a girl who has the strange power of summoning dead authors to inhabit his body when they have sex. And in the story, Ernie knows that Celia doesn’t love him, she’s just using him for a moment of communion with someone else. But he changes for her, and he becomes a great author himself. And when he dies, she brings him back by use of some other poor soul as a medium. I don’t know if that’s sweet. I don’t know if that’s a happy ending. I don’t know if that’s a sad ending. I don’t know if that’s a cruel ending. It’s just two people bending a little bit more towards each other.

4.  You have a great ear for dialogue, which makes your plots all the more jarring.   You give us seemingly ordinary people, speaking as ordinary folk do, suddenly doing or thinking the most extreme things...what could be more discordant?   Talk about how you use this technique.

I went through a phase where I got very interested in stage plays, particularly the works of Tom Stoppard. (I still contend that Arcadia is one of the most beautiful, heart-breaking plays I’ve ever seen.) Plays tend to work quite differently from stories. In a play, people talk around and around the thing that they are trying to say. In a play, you never mean “I love you” if you say it right off—you mean something else, or you mean it ironically, or you say it as a way to convince the other person it’s true. It establishes a kind of rhythm or patter that’s almost hypnotic, but the more you hear it, the more you start hearing the way people step around things. The refusal to name what they are afraid of. The refusal to ask the question that’s most important because they don’t want to know the answer.
Listen to any of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. It repeats and it repeats and it repeats like a kind of litany or call-and-response. But always, always, always the thing that gets repeated is turned on its head in the final act. It’s brilliant! The audience has been lulled into forgetting the thing, the “hook” of the story because it’s repeated so often.
That works extraordinarily well for the kinds of stories I like to tell in which I don’t want to the reader to ask certain questions while they are reading—questions like, “Yes, but why are you giving your daughter the body of Joan of Arc?” or “Why aren’t you reacting with hysteria—or even curiosity—when you discover the lost manuscript of Jane Austen written on the inside of your skin?” Because those questions sort of dismantle that feeling of discord. So Hanna in “Sanditon” asks Gavin about the doctor he’s promised to bring her, but he always deflects her, and she always lets him do it. Because we’re willing to accept deflection from a character like Gavin. Their relationship is entirely about deflection. It works a little bit like a magician’s patter—they speak to draw your attention away from the mechanism of the trick, to lull you, to keep your eyes where they want them. And it means that when you suddenly want a character to speak honestly and directly, it has so much more force. It stops the reader dead because it breaks the patter.

5.  Your work is visceral-- from the title to the sub-titles, from the themes to the images.  Bodies, bones, teeth, skin...  What drives this?

The title Hair Side, Flesh Side came early on, emerging directly out of my work as a medieval book historian. Parchment was quite literally made from the skins of dead sheep and goats, and so one of themes that my adviser, Alexandra Gillespie, returned to again and again in her lectures was the physicality of books. How they were encountered viscerally. And so, the idea of the book as a physical body represented in Chris Roberts’ amazing artwork for the Table of Contents felt like a gorgeous way of bringing that out. People become books in Hair Side, Flesh Side; history becomes a very physical, very tangible thing. And bodies are horrific. They seem like the most stable point of identity, but we know that they aren’t, we know that we have so little control over our bodies but they define us completely. It makes the body a great site to explore the uncanny.

6.  Hunger underlies much of what your characters experience, a hunger for love, a hunger that takes them to the bleak edges of (often forbidden or, at the least, difficult) love, to the potential for pain and a hollow ending.  Talk about the role hunger plays in your fiction.

One of the strongest contrasts I find myself perceiving in the book now is between the very deep hunger that seems to drive the characters and their almost observer-like quality. They aren’t characters who act to pursue their own desires, for the most part; they are characters who get pushed into situations where they seem to deliberately repress their hunger until it threatens to consume them or it manifests itself so profoundly and so physically that it can’t be ignored any longer. I think, on a personal level, I wrote the stories at a time at which I felt very much caught between those two poles; it’s clear to me that “Eternal Things”, in which a young academic meets the ghost of Chaucer comes rather directly out of a sudden loss of intellectual momentum I found in my own research. (This comes, I believe, to most people making the transition into the thesis-writing stage of their dissertation.) But I think it might be more generally reflective of the trouble my generation faces coming, often massively over-educated and loaded with student debt, into a workforce for which there isn’t very much room for us. We all feel hungry to use our skills and to do something, but most of us get sidelined into careers we never quite expected and didn’t train for because we can’t get the career we want. So I think that sense of hunger is maybe a reflection of that kind of dissatisfaction you face as you close in on thirty and realize you’re still a ways off from where you wanted to be: stalled relationships, wrong turns on your career path, all of the things that growing up delivers. But. Even though that carries with it a certain bleakness, I think that there is something redemptive about the stories. People find ways to accommodate the disappointments. To make small steps to move forward. Most of the stories hinge on characters whom have been acted upon coming to make a choice for themselves and taking a new path.

7.  Your most arresting image, stemming in part from the very title of your collection, is that of the word incarnating, the lost work of Jane Austen appearing inside the body of your heroine, unspooling as she starts to flay herself.  A Borgesian turn, a nod to Bradbury's Illustrated Man,  Vinculus in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, who has the "King's Letters" inscribed on his body as an infant and becomes a living book... As a deep, devout reader and writer, do you sometimes feel that we have literally become the texts we love?  

Of course! I think the stories we tell ourselves shape us very deeply. And one of the things you find about growing older is how much your decisions get inscribed on your body, whether it's pregnancy stretch marks or old injuries which never quite heal properly. When I was young I thought I could, essentially, make myself anew whenever I wanted to. But the older you get, the more you discover that identity isn’t really as malleable as you want it to be; you carry things with you for a long time. One of my earliest stories (never published) was about a kid whom Lucifer fashions to be a repository for his sins, so that he doesn’t need to carry them around with him anymore. And that’s an idea as old as the mark God leaves on Cain so that all will recognize and know his story simply by looking at him. And it was certainly something I struggled with as an editor: getting filled up with other people’s stories when you are trying to come up with something of your own. That’s what Hanna’s up against in “Sanditon”. But it’s also what Gavin’s up against as well—he wants to publish the material, but suddenly he’s in a position where he’s become famous for discovering someone else’s book even though he’s quite a good novelist in his own right. As writers, we all live in the shadow of other people’s work. That’s both terribly wonderful and terribly daunting. And, mostly, you just deal with it by eventually saying, “Well, f*ck it, I’m going to write this story anyway.”

8.  As a deep, devout reader and who is an editor and works in publishing...what most excites you about fiction as we move into 2013, what most disappoints?

Everything about the fiction itself excites me. Everything! I still have these wonderful moments when I pick up a new book and I think, “Yeah, that’s why we are all doing this! Because people are out there making some kind of magic happening.” Right now, there are some of the most vibrant literary communities managing to thrive, many of them centred around small presses like ChiZine Publications or Small Beer Press—people who are out there taking a tremendous risk and doing a ridiculous amount of work because they think it is work worth doing. There’s a lot of bravery in the industry; there’s also a lot of fear. All I can wish for 2013 is that fortune favours the brave…

9.  If you could ask any artists (living or dead, working in whatever genre, medium, style, etc.) to dinner, whom would you ask, and why?

Neil Gaiman, dead. But only recently dead. I think he’d have a heck of a perspective on what you might find on the other side; I’m not sure there’s anyone better suited right now to be a literary psychopomp…

(Too far dead, though, and I think the smell would probably put me off my appetite…)

10.  What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it in print?

I’m currently working on a second as-yet-unnamed (or, named-too-often) collection of short stories that will feature some wicked prophesying, a disappearing silk top hat, what lies on the other side of a mother’s bellybutton, a floating bull shark who may or may not be the angel of Death, a very sad can of tomato soup, a telescope that can reveal the past, a phantom thumb, and at least one happy ending. I hope. The first of the stories, “The Hanging Game” will be published on some time early 2013. As for the others? They remain in the lap of the gods.

Also, a dissertation on medieval book production in the early fourteenth century. That should be along any day now.

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