“Summer Mask” is as chilling as it is poetic. What inspired you to pen this particular tale?
Long ago, I ran across an article online about the summer getaways post-WWII, where disfigured veterans went. There was a line in the article that said something like how these getaways would be the only time the veterans felt the sun on their skin, because they would be allowed to remove their masks that they otherwise had to wear when in public. The article went on to talk about the artists that made these masks for the soldiers. I think I found more research on this as well, one article that highlighted a specific artist. And I thought what a beautiful image that was, of these men removing their masks to feel the sun—but also how sad; it was another aspect of the cost of war. I thought how compassionate it was that these artists created masks that looked like the soldiers’ real faces, so they could be or feel more “normal” in their everyday life. Everything about this little known part of history spurred me to write my version of it. It was important to me to capture the emotion of it all.
I love the way the story opens, the exploration of “classic” beauty, whether as not quite perfect, unseen, or endured as hardship. The second line describing the physical injuries is the perfect contrast to the ephemeral beauty of the opening line. Is there anything about the juxtaposition of beauty and the horrific that appeals to you as a writer?
Beauty and its contrasts have been a theme of mine in a lot of my work, because I’m fascinated by the emphasis society places on it and my own relationship to the concept (because I am not a physical beauty by any means), so in a way this story was some part meditation on it. Below beauty, too, there can be a lot of ugliness—which isn’t a new idea, of course. Beauty as an aesthetic or as a concept can’t exist without ugliness; you can’t have one without the other. So the narrative parts of this story seemed to fit that entire theme, contrasting war with beauty, and love and beauty, and all of those nuances therein. Love can be made into something ugly too. All of these concepts can be twisted, and I like to write about those intersections.
The story touches on elements of body horror, stalker horror, PTSD, and the realities of war. These elements become more pointed until they pierce the reader’s heart at the end. When writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s hoped for response, of how you would like them to feel when they turn the final page?
I don’t think I’m very conscious of the reader at all when I write, in that I write for myself first. If I feel something, if I’m drawn to something, then the hope is any reader will be, too. But if I can’t first react to the piece, then there is no way I can manipulate another reader to react to it, purposefully or not. I’m conscious of crafting the story on some level, of trying to get the thoughts and emotions in my mind onto the page in the most accurate way, using precise language. But I’m not specifically thinking of how a reader will react to that. Unless you count the author as the first reader. And even in that case, it’s not something I can quantify exactly. It’s a feeling. I tend to know when I’m hitting the mark for myself, and when I’m not. If a line doesn’t land right emotionally, I know it. But there’s always a certain amount of surprise once the story is released to the wild and people bring their own emotions and thoughts to a piece. That’s the beauty of art. It’s communication, and another reader can get something else from something I wrote than what I had felt myself. Of course, the hope is they don’t get something so far afield that you realize you wrote poorly.
You’ve been writing since you were “cognizant enough to put sentences together in narrative form on paper.” Are there any writing challenges you have yet to tackle, any projects you would like to explore?
Everything I haven’t done already. I’ve been writing more poetry; I’ve always written poetry, but it fell a bit to the wayside as I concentrated on novels and short stories. I’d love to write an original screenplay (or adapt one of my novels). I’d love to write a graphic novel. I would just love to do everything related to creative fiction, whether that’s in collaboration with another writer or something I do solo. I’d even write song lyrics. I’ve never felt like I had to stick to one thing, but it is a matter of focus and opportunity. With regard to this story in particular, I wanted to write something specifically in the horror genre and this was my attempt. I have ideas that are more horror leaning and I would love to explore them. So with regard to narrative writing, I have challenges set for myself that way too. Maybe I’ll tackle a straight-up romance at some point, who knows. I don’t necessarily like to write romance, so I kind of want to see if I could.
What’s next for Karin Lowachee? What can eager readers expect from you in the future?
I’ve got a Patreon (patreon.com/karinlow) that basically requires me to write a short story/vignette and chapters of two separate novels every month. It’s challenging, but I tend to need deadlines to get anything done, so it’s working so far. On top of that, I’m working on other ideas to complete separately from the Patreon and that have nothing to do with my old SF series. And I’m still writing short stories when the opportunities come along or when I have time. Taking an unintended break from novel writing and focusing on short stories has had an interesting effect on my novel writing now. I think I understand pacing better, and I got to experiment with voice in my short stories. It was a wonderful freedom, in a way, and it sharpened some dull skills from my writerly tool box. So now I hope to move forward in my projects and continue to become a better writer—because that’s basically the bottom line for me. I want to get better.
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