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Feature Interview: Helen Marshall

Look, we’re both short story writers. So I’m sure we both get asked the same question: when are you going to write a novel? Let me turn it around, though, and ask this: why do you like to write short stories? What can a short story do that a novel can’t?

There’s a kind of magic to short stories. I love them, I really, genuinely love them. They’re these beautiful, compact worlds that you can explode without consequences. You can just do things in short stories, you can make anything happen and you only have to convince the reader that it’s real for about thirty pages. That’s tremendously liberating. I’ve heard the advice — from Joe Hill most recently — that in a novel you need to pack your weirdness into the first chapter. A reader will buy anything in the first chapter so you grab your gimmes there and run with them. But in a short story you don’t need to give the reader all the information they need upfront. You can feed it throughout the story. In that sense, discovering the world of the story can provide a certain kind of narrative momentum — but that’s a game more easily played in short stories than in novels because a short story reader must constantly decode the logic of the story. A novel reader does most of the decoding in the first four chapters.

You have a doctorate in Medieval Studies. What specifically was your area? And how does your academic work inform your fiction, and vice versa?

I study medieval manuscripts from fourteenth-century England, mostly the rather scrappy poems and fragments that circulated just before Geoffrey Chaucer showed up on the scene. In particular, I’m interested in medieval “bestsellers”: how some books became popular and widely transmitted while others fell by the wayside. This work has certainly shaped my approach to writing fiction because many of my stories deal with questions of history: how history is represented, how people shape their own personal histories, and how they respond to the choices they’ve made. What’s past is prologue — I really believe that. But on another level I find medieval literature itself a great springboard for writing fantasy and horror. One of the biggest problems that our genre — any genre really! — faces is that it tends to replicate itself. For me, the most exciting work tends to come from unexpected places as writers try to blend genre with new forms: experimental writing, literary writing, writing from other cultures or perspectives. Medieval literature gives me something to work with, ideas to bounce off, that most people aren’t playing with. For example, in Hair Side, Flesh Side, my first collection, I had a story about a young girl who receives the body of St. Lucia of Syracuse for her seventh birthday. At the time, I was fascinated with the way that holy relics were commoditized in medieval culture. They went a long way toward driving the tourist trade, when you think about it! The word “tawdry” even comes from the practice of selling lace necklaces at the pilgrimage site of Saint Audrey in England, who died of a tumour of the throat in 679 AD. Over time, the word came to represent tatty lace sold at rural fairs because the necklaces had become so ubiquitous. But I love the dissonance that comes from the way we think about saints as embodiments of holiness while at the same time there was this seedy industry that grew up around them in which bodies were invented, traded, or outright stolen. That sort of dissonance runs all the way through the Middle Ages: and, for me, dissonance is the mother of invention.

I can’t help but notice that the epigraph from the collection is taken from one of my favorite plays, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. The pleasure of an epigraph is, of course, that we get to see a dialogue of kinds between the source material and the work in the collection. What are the stories or books that stick in your mind when you sit down to do your own work?

I’ve now seen Arcadia twice: the first time was on my first research trip to the British Library in London, and I felt very much like Bernard Nightingale, the bombastic scholar who does everything by instinct. He looks at scraps of evidence and he fills in all the blanks; “Yes! Byron was here! Yes! He fought a duel!” And that’s how I felt, looking at my first medieval manuscripts. There was a sense of recognition, almost déjà vu, a feeling that I could know something about these books. And the second time I saw Arcadia I was just about to submit my PhD dissertation — then I had Hannah Jarvis’s skepticism. I suspect the purpose of a PhD is to create skepticism. I had such certainty when I started out — but the more I learned, the more I came to doubt anyone’s certainty. Arcadia is a play I have read and reread many times, and if there were a single text that inspired my two collections, that crystallized the dichotomy I feel between reason and passion, between instinct and evidence, between what we want to know and what we can know — that’s it. It’s one of the most moving pieces of literature I’ve ever encountered, one of the few where I’ll tear up as I’m reading it just because it’s so damn good!

What was the first thing that you ever wrote where you thought: “okay, yes! This works!” And also, how do you work? Do you have a specific routine?

The first story I finished where I really thought, “Yes! This is me!” was “Sanditon.” There were various stories I completed before that, some of which appear in my collections, that worked — but they weren’t stories that were really about me, they weren’t stories that only I could have written. During most of my undergraduate when I first started writing fiction, I was trying very much to emulate Charles de Lint, whose Newford stories I had been reading for years. But the problem was that although I was trying to write these fables about artsy, bohemian types just like de Lint does, that wasn’t my life at all. I grew up in a very sedate little city and I never encountered the grungy urban settings that he brought to life. Those weren’t my people. I wanted them to be, but they just weren’t — and my daily struggles and anxieties didn’t really feel like theirs. Several years later I was living in Oxford for four months doing research. It was a strangely lonely time. Anyone who has done a PhD knows that there’s a period of massive uncertainty that comes as you move from coursework to the prospect of writing the dissertation. I had just started working for ChiZine Publications in Toronto and it was tremendously exhilarating to be part of that literary community — but then I had to leave it all behind. Oxford was beautiful, but I didn’t know anyone, not really, and I was trying to figure out how to balance all the different things I wanted to do in life, not knowing if any of them were going to offer me feasible career paths. And about six months later I wrote “Sanditon,” which was about a young editor who discovers a lost manuscript of Jane Austen on the inside of her skin. It was just supposed to be a silly idea, more of a gag than anything else, but as I wrote it the story began to feel more and more personal: it was about that time I spent in Oxford, the way I was feeling certain pressures to subordinate my writing to those around me, as an editor, and to historical figures, as an academic. And while that might sound a little cold, a little overly intellectual, I think many early writers struggle with similar problems: what makes this path worth pursuing? Is it worth it? Will anyone really care when there are so many other writers who have already done it better?

As for how I work, well, my life has been pretty unstable in many respects over the course of the last couple of years. Early on I wrote when I had time to write and an idea — which was seldom enough — but as I started to get commissions that had to change. So I learned how to gear up to write a story. I find what works for me best is to read poetry — really good poetry — before I start to write. When I read poetry it’s sometimes as if there’s a kind of music playing in my head, and if I can keep that music going while I jump over to prose, I can run with it for a while. Beginnings, for me, are hardest. I can’t start a story until I have the voice. Once I have the voice of the story, I can normally write straight through to the middle. At that point, I typically panic because I have to make a decision about where the story is going and how it might resolve itself. So I muddle around, take a walk, or simply wait. If I can’t wait, I pour a finger of Scotch, close my eyes, and hope for the best. This probably sounds a bit chaotic and a bit terrifying — and it is. I wish I knew a better way to do it, but I don’t yet. But that’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes you don’t know the way so you just close your eyes, pick a direction to travel, and hope for the best.

It took me a while to realize that writers don’t necessarily like to be identified by a genre. I say this as someone who thinks of herself as a science fiction writer. Do you think of yourself as a horror writer?

I never would have thought of you as a science fiction writer! Ha! That actually makes it much easier for me to say that I don’t really think of myself as a horror writer. I didn’t grow up reading horror — in fact, I stayed as far away from it as I possibly could — and it was only in the last five years that I started reading the field. So I still have trouble with the label, and that’s, in part, because there are so many authors out there who are horror authors. That’s what they do. That’s what they’ve always done. And they know their stuff! I feel a bit unworthy laying claim to the title they genuinely deserve. I’m more of a writer who sometimes writes horror. But sometimes I write fantasy and sometimes I write poetry and sometimes I write articles about medieval punctuation. I’m all those things. That being said, the more I read, the more commonalities I find between my work and writers like Stephen King and Robert Aickman and Shirley Jackson, because horror isn’t really what I thought it was when I first started. It’s far more open and playful. What I love about horror stories is that, at their heart, they have this almost anarchic quality. There’s always a moment in horror stories when the world essentially goes crazy. I’m currently rereading The Castle of Otranto, and it begins when the Lord’s son is crushed mysteriously beneath an enormous steel helmet. It’s mad, genuinely mad — but also very funny from my perspective. And that’s what I like about horror — the utter chaos that comes when the world turns out to be stranger than you believed. And as a writer, I find that exciting to explore. It’s like a game you can play with your reader. You create a world, then you begin to twist it very slowly, saying, “This is the truth. Or this! Or this!” Horror is great for that because you can go anywhere, nothing’s off the table.

Your titles are terrific: “We Ruin the Sky,” “A Brief History of Science Fiction,” “I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said.” Not sure I have a question here. Except, maybe, do you ever come up with titles first?

“I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said” was probably one of the most bizarre writing experiences I’ve ever had. That story was commissioned by Jonathan Oliver for his collection End of the Road, and it was my very first themed commission before. I’d never had to write to spec so I was feeling very nervous. And I was on vacation with my family in Mexico when I got the email. I kept tossing around ideas for stories to my sister, Laura, and she kept shooting them down. (I had this idea about a kid who was a road dowser, you know, he’d use a hazel twig to find roads the same way someone might search for water. Anyway, Laura says to me, “Helen, that’s ridiculous, you can just see roads. Look, there’s a road. I’m a road dowser!”) The following morning I woke up at about five a.m. and that line — ”I’m the lady of good times, she said; I’m the lady of the ill wind blowing” — was stuck in my head, playing over and over like an ear worm until finally I had to sneak off to the bathroom with my laptop to start writing. And I wrote the entire story in an almost trance-like state of utter concentration. It was our final day in Mexico, and I remember trying to scrawl dialogue in a notepad at the airport. Laura had to keep taking my passport from me to get us through security checks because I was completely useless.

I’m not really sure that answers your question except that titles are quite tricky. I can only come up with them in the middle of the story or at the very end, because, for me, they have to provide a sense of unity and I often don’t know what a story is about — really about — until I finish it. The only title I’ve ever had at the outset of a story is for the piece I’m working at the moment, “We Have Always Lived in the Cthulhu” — the title kept making me giggle hysterically. And there’s no better way to start a story than giggling hysterically to yourself.

The majority of these stories are about family. Many of the protagonists are children or adolescents. I have been mulling over, recently, the idea that a story with a young protagonist reads differently than the same story would when the protagonist is an adult. (Or maybe it’s a difference of genre, Young Adult can get pretty dark, but there’s still hope that things change for the better some day after the book ends. Whereas in a story with an adult protagonist, a bad choice can pretty much be the end.) But your stories seem to suggest that patterns, set in place in childhood, are difficult  — or even impossible  — to work free of. Does this say something true to you, or in fact am I revealing something about myself and the way I read your stories?

That’s a very good question — about patterns developed in childhood persisting into adulthood and also about how one mistake can haunt you forever. The main theme I wanted to explore in Gifts for the One Who Comes After was legacy, and the way the past continues to exert an influence on the future. And perhaps when I started the collection I believed more strongly in the idea of the past as something which is inescapable: it’s a motif that’s particularly resonant in horror fiction, I think, which frequently forces characters to encounter whatever has been buried or repressed or ignored for too long. What are ghosts, really, except a metaphor for the hold the past has on us? But I find that I have a more optimistic viewpoint now: while the past hangs around, you can still push back, reconsider, mend relationships, reclaim ground, put your ghosts to rest. But it takes work. Sometimes a lot of work. That was a realization I reached through writing the book rather than one I had in my head at the very beginning.

I love writing about children because all of their experiences are so visceral, so immediate, and also so open. It’s a little bit like what I was saying about short stories early on. Children are constantly forced to decode the world around them, and they’re far more used to encountering things that don’t make sense. A fluid worldview is absolutely necessary. I imagine it must be quite difficult as a young child, asking adults about how the world works because adults lie all the time. They lie when they don’t know the answer. They lie when they don’t want to share the answer. Or they lie when they think it’s funny — but children are reliant upon others to help them put together a sense of how the world works. They’re tremendously vulnerable. One of my favourite stories about children in Gifts for the One Who Comes After is “Supply Limited, Act Now” because it’s about the dawning realization children have that actions have consequences that can be far-reaching — and that the world is also vulnerable to them. In the story, a group of kids get a working shrink ray: they run around town shrinking the hell out of mailboxes and garbage cans and trucks and baseball diamonds and each other — but the rules of the shrink ray are never quite explained. Will the stuff eventually go back to normal? They certainly think so. But they don’t know, not for sure. I wanted to play with the unease an adult feels in seeing kids do something that might have disastrous consequences — and how the kids themselves react when they begin to consider those consequences for themselves. Because part of growing up is realizing that you can do harm, even if you never meant to.

How do stories start for you?

They normally start with me turning to the person next to me and saying, “How about a story where . . . ?” If they laugh or make a face, I know it’s worth doing. Mostly I try out my ideas on my sister, Laura, who manages to be both incredibly encouraging while also possessing the most withering stare I’ve ever encountered; Rob Shearman, who reads first drafts of pretty much everything I write; and Vince Haig, the one person in Oxford always willing to meet for a pint when the writing is tough.

What do you do when you aren’t writing? (Besides the usual sorts of things, I mean.)

Right now I don’t have many hobbies, which is sad because I’m a happy dilettante. That being said, there are all sorts of things I’d love to come back to that I’ve tried out over the last couple of years including rock-climbing, karate, Argentinian tango, and axe-throwing. Because then I would make a most excellent spy.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever got, writing or otherwise?

Write the stories only you can write.

I’m going to end by asking a question that the writer David Levithan always asks at the start of an interview. What did your grandparents do?

My grandfather on my mother’s side was an architect in Cape Town, South Africa and my grandparents on my father’s side, so I’ve been told, raised budgies and all sorts of animals in what was then Rhodesia. Interestingly, my paternal grandfather’s last name was originally “Shufflebotham” but he changed it to “Marshall” at my grandmother’s insistence before they got married. This was a family secret for many years. So. You know. Don’t tell anyone.

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Kelly Link

Kelly LinkKelly Link is the author of the story collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters, as well as the founder, with her husband Gavin J. Grant, of Small Beer Press. A fourth collection of stories, Get in Trouble, is just out from Random House.