Interview: Helen Marshall and the Weird

"Art should move us. Art should scare us. Art should go too far."

Helen Marshall Author PhotoAurora-winning poet Helen Marshall is an author, editor, and bibliophile. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and She recently released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side was released from ChiZine Publications in 2012. She also serves as the Managing Editor for ChiZine. More can be found from and about the author at her personal site. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto.

I recently interviewed Marshall via email about her writing, how she sees herself fitting into the spectrum of weird fiction, and how she is influenced by medieval literature and art, among other things… What kinds of fiction or stories did you read and watch growing up? And how have your tastes changed between what originally captivated you and what seizes you now, if at all?

Helen Marshall: I read pretty eclectically growing up. My favorite days were when we would get the Scholastic book catalogue at school, and I’d just pick whatever struck my fancy. I was pretty genre-blind, but eventually I found myself veering more toward the mythic and the fantastic. Guy Gavriel Kay was an author who had an early hold on me. I loved the way he blended history and fantasy. Charles de Lint as well. My earliest short stories were all attempts to write about this artsy, Bohemian lifestyle I imagined all authors lived. I could never get those stories to work for me. At some point, I realized this was because I didn’t actually live an artsy, Bohemian lifestyle. My lifestyle, more or less, involved being (happily) shut up in a lot of libraries. I’ve never grown out of a love of the fantastic, but I find myself drawn more and more to poetry and experimental fiction, because it gives me the same feeling that reading straight fantasy did as a kid: the feeling of having the world disassembled and rebuilt around you. That feeling you get when you take a speed bump a little too fast and the road drops out underneath your car. What would you consider your favorite weird or uncanny story or stories, and why?

Marshall: I love Kelly Link’s writing, particularly her story “The Cannon” which is sweet and bizarre and nonsensical, and — for all those reasons — terribly brave. Robert Shearman’s collection, Love Songs for the Strange and Cynical, was one of the first tuning fork collections I ever read. It showed me a way to write that just clicked. I love “Granny’s Grinning” because it is disturbing and twisted in a way that makes laugh (because sometimes I just laugh in delight when an author catches me out and that’s what this story does.). What writers or storytellers do you look up to the most?

Marshall: I’m also a big fan of writers like Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, the late Ray Bradbury, Gemma Files, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, and, more recently, Lisa Hannett and Angela Slatter. Those are just a few, though! These writers constantly take me by surprise, and when I read their work I always think to myself, “That’s the kind of thing I want to write.” That list has a lot more horror or dark fantasy in it than it would have five years ago, but I’m interested in figuring out how horror works right now so that’s where my head is at.

My favorite poets are probably Anne Carson, Lorna Crozier and, most recently discovered, Ann Sexton (who I wish I had read years ago!). They are…transcendent! Gorgeous! There isn’t any other way to say it. They use an entirely different kind of language, one that’s joyous and cutting all at the same time. And they are storytellers too in their own way, although poets tend to get the short end of pretty much every stick. They shouldn’t! We should all read more poetry. Absolutely agreed! Now, on that note: how do you perceive the relationship between your poetry writing and your fiction writing? It’s evident that you have a different set of influences and favorites for each. What makes you want to write a poem, as opposed to wanting to write a story?

Marshall: I find there’s actually a lot of back and forth conversation between my poetry and my fiction. I started off writing poetry, in part, because it’s very short. Disposable. If an experiment didn’t work then I could easily throw it out and try again, whereas the investment for a story was much bigger. But now I find the difference is more…formal, I suppose. With poetry, you can focus more on concept and language; a poem often involves only a single narrative or emotional “turn” if you know what I mean. Fiction is about the slow, successive build. It’s less about concept and more about exploration and character.

Let me try this again. Poetry is making something happen to you. Fiction is making it happen to someone else. Right now, I’m enjoying making things happen to other people. How would you classify yourself as a writer? What kinds of traditions or conventions do you see yourself more often than not drawing from, or perhaps even challenging?

Marshall: This is a genuinely difficult question: when I put out Hair Side, Flesh Side, I hoped that better critics than me might be able to place it in the field, and the response seems to be that many of the stories are horror. This surprised me to some extent. I didn’t read anything that I would have considered to be horror until I started working for ChiZine Publications because I’m very susceptible to it. I will spend nights up, awake and terrified. At the same time, because of that genuinely visceral response I find myself more and more interested in what horror is and how it works because it’s so affective. And that’s what art should be, isn’t it? Art should move us. Art should scare us. Art should go too far. And so in some ways I like that horror really can be a sort of avant garde art form even though it’s seldom recognized as such.

The other place I tend to draw a lot of inspiration is from the structure of magic realism. Magic realism has become a bit of a catch-all phrase that doesn’t mean much in some circles beyond a fancy way to re-label “fantasy” for grant applications; but to me magic realism functions at odd ends with fantasy. It deliberately normalizes the fantastical element in order to explore it as simultaneously as real (that is, concrete) and as a metaphor for something else. I like stories that manage the balancing act between real and metaphorical readings. That’s cool. You’re always left feeling vaguely uneasy, like the author is playing a trick on you.

That being said, I really did come at things backwards. I can now align my writing with other genres in a way I couldn’t at all when I was writing because I hadn’t read that widely in horror or magic realism. At the time it felt like I was lost in the wilderness, making it up as I went along. That’s the glory of first books: you don’t know all the rules. You don’t know enough, and so you make up what you don’t know. Even now I find myself almost deliberately trying to keep from reading too comprehensively. I don’t really want to know how other people are doing it — I want to read stuff that spurs me on to do my own thing. Some of your stories seem to derive a lot of significance, for characters and readers, from being in dialogue with other writers and their lives and works. Most obviously, I’m thinking of “Sanditon,” which involves Jane Austen’s final, supposedly unfinished manuscript being written on the inside of a young woman’s skin, and “Dead White Men,” where you have this woman who brings men to cemeteries so they can be possessed by famed dead writers before coitus. What drives you to write stories like these? Is it something in those writers’ work that you feel resonates with your own?

Marshall: There was definitely a specific set of issues I was trying to work out in Hair Side, Flesh Side relationship to writing, editing, and researching. I mean, as writers we always carry about the baggage (for better or worse) of the people who have come before us. We’re always trying to measure up to them. As a literary scholar I found there could be a distinct tension between wanting to write and wanting to act as…well, a sort of medium for dead medieval writers, wanting to find a way to recover something of their contexts or their lives that had been lost over the ages. There’s something about the idea of the Great Writer that I find interesting. Because when you get down to it, we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all sitting in front of a page and trying to make something happen, so what makes someone Great? What does it mean to be Great? “Sanditon” and “Dead White Men” are really just two sides of that question. In “Sanditon”, an editor with writing aspirations finds her body literally taken over by someone else’s text, and in “Dead White Men” Ernie tacitly agrees to transform himself — to lose his identity — so that he can become the kind of person that Celia might love. There’s something exceptionally ironic about that! (Also, between you and me, I just fell in love with the idea of staging an orgy of sorts in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey!) How about your story “The Mouth, Open,” which we’ve reprinted elsewhere on this site? What inspired you to write that story in particular? Please walk us through the process of the story from inception to completion.

Marshall: That story? That story is true. I just wrote it as it happened. Mostly, anyway.

Croatia, 2010. Me feeling bloated after spending four months in England drinking nothing but pints of lager and eating fish and chips, then being forced to cram into a bathing suit in a place where everyone is used to wearing bathing suits.

I was lucky enough to spend a week driving across Croatia with my sister, Laura, and my brother and his wife, Valerie, who had a great deal of family scattered across the country. We arrived in Zagreb, Valerie told us a series of rules and customs regarding food, and how we had to make sure we always had food on our plate until the very end where there could be nothing left on the plate, and it would be rude to turn anything down.

I’m desperately afraid of heights. I get nervous driving over bridges. And Croatia is a place of many, many mountains. Beautiful mountains! Gorgeous mountains! Very, very high mountains. So as my brother drove and we were weaving around these hairpin turns, me white-knuckled the entire time,  I started using the time to write down what was happening on the trip so that I didn’t have to look out the window and see how perilously close we were to death. How does your experience and interest in studying medieval literature enmesh with your writing, exactly? It would seem there are definite parallels, not the least withstanding the often macabre subject matter of many notable medieval texts and artistic works.

Marshall: The Middle Ages is a wondrously strange place: it’s a world in which people assumed, for the most part, that reality had a depth and complexity to it that we’ve mostly flattened out at this stage of history. Hair Side, Flesh Side very much came out — not of medieval literature itself — but of the process of studying it. When you’re working on a Ph. D, you end up narrowing your focus more and more and more, almost rigidly locking off the bigger questions that prompted you to go to graduate school in the first place. I sort of hit a wall in the third year of my Ph. D. I was in Oxford, and I had just gone through a phase of being a very productive, very industrious little graduate student, but then suddenly I was on my own for four months for the sole purposes of researching where Middle English literature came from, mostly by doing somewhat obtuse tasks like measuring the punctuation marks in fourteenth-century manuscripts. Writing fiction became a way to humanize that process. To enliven it.

When you work with something as intensely as I work with medieval literature, though, you start to develop a…kind of shared vocabulary that you don’t even realize you’re using anymore. I’m not talking about at the level of words. I mean more at the level of ideas. I find myself interested in the idea of sanctity and sacrifice, and then I realize that the terms we use to talk about it now are entirely different from the language I’m used to reading. Or death. Can you imagine a half of the population wiped out? Just like that? That was the big crisis of the fourteenth century. Half the population suddenly gone. That’s crazy! We don’t really think in terms like that for that most part. We don’t have the frame of reference. But that’s what history is…that sense that the world as you know it, everyone you know and understand, the things you love, they could be radically different in fifty years. History is about scale. Fiction is about particularity. Do you have any other projects currently in the works now?

Marshall: I’m currently working on a second collection of short stories that will feature bears, 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, several signs of the end of the world, and at least one happy ending. I hope. I’m also slowly working on a novel called Icarus Kids about children who come back from the dead. With wings. Finally, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever read, and why?

Marshall: Probably the work of the Canadian horror writer Tony Burgess. Pontypool Changes Everything and Idaho Winter are both…just very strange and trippy and very scary in their own way. You’ve gotta love any writer who, when he receives an editorial note saying he changed the gender of a character mid-way through the novel, just shrugs and decides to let it ride because it fits with the story.

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