Friday, January 2, 2015

Interview: Helen Marshall

Helen Marshall is one of the finest practitioners of strange fiction working today. I recently read and reviewed her latest collection, Gifts For The One Who Comes After and found it to be one of the best fiction collections of 2015.

Gifts For The One Who Comes After is one of the finest fiction collections of the year. The themes of legacy and of family are a common thread throughout. What is important to you about these themes and what made you want to explore them?

Let me first say, thanks very much for saying that! It’s tremendously kind! I suppose, in some ways, the themes in Gifts followed on naturally from my first collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side. In that collection, I was exploring issues of history in a broad sense, which no doubt came from the fact that I was in the final stages of a PhD in book history and medieval studies. I was interested in the physical traces of history, and in books particularly. But when I started writing Gifts, my brother had just had his second child; the question of family, what binds them together, what is passed on from generation to generation, seemed very important to me. And when you think about it, it’s just another way of thinking about history—not textbook history, but personal histories, the stories you hear from your grandparents, the fables you make up for your children. And in some ways it seemed like a warmer sort of history, closer to the oral tradition.

Have you always had a love for the fantastic? What brought this about?

I started reading fantasy at a very early age: E Nesbit and Susan Cooper, Patricia C Wrede, Scott O’Dell, Lloyd Alexander. When I got older then I moved onto Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Charles de Lint and Guy Gavriel Kay. My mom would read to my sister and me every night until we were old enough to read ourselves. With me it never really stopped. I was a reader—that peculiar type of child who never stops reading, no matter what. If my family was going to drive from my hometown in Sarnia to Toronto, about three hours away, then I’d get to choose a new book from the bookstore and that would be the best part of the trip. I remember very vividly that my grade one teacher brought over a girl for me to play with at recess because I was always stuck in a book. The whole situation confused me. I didn’t know what to do with her. And I hadn’t been lonely at all.          

What were some of the authors and books that you've read throughout your life that have stuck with you the most?

I mentioned some of them above but, oddly, although those writers made up much of my childhood, they don’t have such a strong connection with what I write now. There’s a part of me that wishes I felt more comfortable with high fantasy. I have a PhD in medieval studies and that seems the perfect background to go write a big, fat, epic trilogy. But I can’t—or I can’t yet. I don’t understand, narratively, how those books work. Or I don’t feel it intuitively the way I can with other kinds of stories. But picking at random amongst the works that have stuck with me, Guy Kay’s Fionavar Tapestries would rank highly. It seemed to me that there was tremendous humanity written into his mythic reworkings, particular the Arthur and Guinevere strand. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is another. I came to it much later in life, as a graduate student on one of my first research trips to London, and it still strikes me as one of the finest pieces of literature ever produced. Just watching it makes me tear up—not even at the sad bits, just because it’s so damn good. The whopper of a novel It was my first introduction to Stephen King and it has a profound effect on my writing. King is a master of the yarn. I read recently that there are stories you fall into effortlessly and stories that give pleasure in the work you do: King is one of the most engrossing storytellers I’ve ever encountered and the way he writes about children and growing up always moves me and charms me at the same time. And then Robert Shearman’s collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical made me fall in love with the form of the short story. Like King, Shearman has an easy, offhand style but there’s such deadly precision in what he does. And I had never encountered absurdist fiction before that—there was something about it that instantly chimed with my own sense of humour, which is both very whimsical and quite dark.

Of your own fiction, what are your favorites and why? 

It’s strange because when I think back on my stories, what I remember most about them is the process rather than the final product. And so I do have favourites—of course I do!—but they’re my favourites because of the way I wrote them. In that respect, “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects” is probably at the top for me. I wrote that story for Kelly Link and Gavin Grant at Clarion West, an intensive six-week workshop I did in 2012. And I was coming up on my deadline to submit but the story I had been trying to get to work—a complex beast of a thing I never managed to crack—completely dissolved. I was trying to force it but I never had the right sense of what I was doing. So in a panic I went to the only part of the story I had written that seemed like it had any life, and that turned out to be the beginning of “Household Objects”, a story about a little girl who adopts two cans of tomato soup. What followed was a mad rush of gleeful typing where I said to myself, “no rules except at the beginning of every section something must happen.”
But some of my other favourites in Gifts for the One Who Comes After are “Supply Limited, Act Now”, about a group of kids who get a working shrink ray, because it’s much lighter. Also—miniature dogs! And from Hair Side, Flesh Side my favourite story is “Sanditon”, about a woman who finds a lost manuscript of Jane Austen written on the inside of her skin. That was the first story I wrote where I really felt as if I tapped into something that was my own, something that felt new and distinctly me rather than an experiment in someone else’s style.

If an unfamiliar reader asks you about your fiction, how would you best describe it to them?

Clumsily, for the most part. I still don’t have a good answer to this question and in part that’s because my fiction is quite changeable. Sometimes it’s surrealistic, sometimes more openly fantastic or horrific, sometimes poetic. I don’t know. Many people call me a horror writer but I have a sort of push-pull relationship with horror. I quite enjoy certain kinds of horror fiction: ghost stories, the strange and the weird. But there are aspects of the horror genre that I find myself resisting: namely, brutality and open violence, excessive gore, the sometimes shoddy characterizations of women. But I suppose that’s the best reason to be part of a genre—because you feel invested but you still have something to push against.

In another recent interview you said you were a lover of single malt scotch. I'm also quite a fan, and have been considering writing up whiskey (or booze in general) pairings to go with books. What are your favorite whiskeys? If you  had to choose a whiskey to pair with each of your ChiZine collections, which would you choose?

I’d choose Glen Morangie to go with Gifts for the One Who Comes After: it’s sweet on top but it’s still got a bit of smoke and fire to it underneath. Hair Side, Flesh Side would probably be a dirty martini. There’s a touch more bitterness there, but also it’s a bit naughty. (When I was writing Hair Side, I eventually ran out of gin and vermouth and came up with a pretty poor substitute—olive juice and tequila. I’m not sure I recommend it.)

What are you currently reading? Do you have any recommendations for fans of the weird and fantastic?

I’ve been working my way through all of David Mitchell’s books. What a find! He’s brilliant! I started off with The Bone Clocks but in all honesty my favourite of his is probably Black Swan Green, a completely realistic novel about a kid growing up in Worcestershire in the eighties. The writing is extraordinary. As for recommendations for fans of the weird and fantastic, well, I discovered Robert Aickman’s short stories this year and he’s wonderful: dry, witty and very, very odd. Julio Cort├ízar was an Argentinian short story writer who I like very, very much. He wrote a short story called “Letter to a Lady in Paris” in the collection Blow-up about a tenant who starts vomiting up rabbits. His work is so wonderfully surreal and often hilarious. More people should be reading him, I think. I also came across a fantastic collection of graphic short stories called Through the Woods by the Canadian web cartoonist Emily Carroll. She’s a wonderful inventor of grisly little ghost stories and her use of space is amazing. You can also find her work online at

What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you, and/or the weirdest place you've ever been?

I visited the island of Delos last year. It is hard to explain how amazingly cool it is: it’s one of the most geologically stable places in the Mediterranean and so, as a result, it became a holy sanctuary and was the reputed birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The site, which is huge, is filled with numerous temples belonging to the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, my favourite of which was the temple of Dionysus, which featured relief carvings of chickens with entirely phallic heads. I ended up wandering around with my notepad for most of the day, writing roughly a series of passages which eventually became “All My Love, a Fishhook”. But near the museum there was a large forested area that used to be the sacred lake of Zeus, which apparently held the spermatozoa until it was drained on account of the mosquitoes which were breeding there. There were benches set up so I sat down to write. About twenty minutes in, I heard chanting. There were men and women in bright orange robes all around who were getting on with a ritual of some sort—apparently, so the guard at the museum told me, they were cultists and they regularly performed their rites there.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

I have a couple of stories coming out in collections in 2015 including “The Vault of Heaven” in Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas; “Stud” in Twenty-First Century Bestiary edited by Heather Wood; and a story in Cassilda’s Song, edited by Joe Pulver. I’m also hard at work on a novel called Icarus Kids about children who come back from the dead with wings. I hope to have that finished off in a month or so!

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