Interview: Helen Marshall on Gifts For The One Who Comes After, Poetry and Travel

Helen MarshallSo, for those of our readers who don’t know you, could you tell us a bit about yourself? Who is Helen Marshall?

I’m a writer and medieval book historian, originally from Canada but currently situated in Oxford. I like shrunken heads, jetpacks, and single malt scotch. I’ve also got a new collection of short stories recently released called Gifts for the One Who Comes After.

You’ve had two collections of short stories published so far – is there something about the short story form that you’re specifically attracted to as a writer of the fantastic?

It’s much easier to take risks in short stories: risks in terms of form, in terms of content, in terms of plot. Short stories are innocuous. No one suspects them of very much – but it’s really the most radical form around. You can do so much in a short story, and you don’t have to justify it, there’s not the same weight of reality. One of the odd things I’ve found as a writer of the fantastic is that the longer the story, the more the story is forced into realism, even if it has an absurd or fantastic core. Long fiction is about tracing a series of consequences, and so it must be tied together by a believable reality. Short fiction…not so much. It doesn’t have to be sequential. It doesn’t have to be consequential. You can get away with so much more, and that makes it particularly good for horror stories. Horror, to me, is about confronting the fact that we live in a world that doesn’t actually make much sense.

How would you describe your stories – horror or weird fiction or ‘strange stories’ like Robert Aickman called his?

I’d call my stories “strange” but not in the sense that Aickman does, because even though I has enormous respect for Aickman – I just read all four recently released volumes of his short fiction, and ‘The Swords’? Jesus, I wish I wrote that–but it’s not exactly what I do, though my work is very invested in estrangement, curiosity and oddness. Horror is a thing that happens in the stories sometimes, but I wouldn’t characterize all my work that way. Weird is good too – but not in a Lovecraftian sense. I like the term “New Weird” precisely because it doesn’t seem to mean too much to anyone–and yet it’s marketable. So, I’ll pass on this question! It’s up to the critics to decide what it is that I write, and then, no doubt, I’ll go write something that doesn’t fit the bill at all.

It’s fair to say that the stories in Gifts For The One Who Comes After are pretty varied in terms of setting and characters, but do you see any unifying themes underneath the surface?

The theme that really drew the collection together for me was that of legacy. In Hair Side, Flesh Side, my first collection, I wrote an awful lot about history and art because I was finishing a PhD in medieval literature at the time and those were the concepts I was wrestling with. And perhaps legacy is just another side to that, but it seems more personal, more relevant. At the end of the day, you can leave the question of what is history and what is art to someone else – it’s really about a narrative imposed from outside and like most critical judgements it’s about the judge as much as the accused. But legacy does things the other way round. Legacy is about our relationships with one another and the way we ask to be seen, it’s about failure and responsibility, it’s about inheritance.

Have you lived in all the different settings of your stories, or are you just a sucker for research?

The one benefit of being a medieval scholar is that I get to do an awful lot of travel to strange places. And the way I love interacting with a place most is by writing something there. So, for example, in Gifts there a story called ‘All My Love, A Fishhook’ which is set on a Greek island. I wrote most of that in the ancient city of Delos, very close to Mykonos. I was traveling around the Cyclades with my parents and, for whatever reason, we ended up in Mykonos for several days longer than we’d expected, so I just kept taking the ferry and heading back to Delos. If you’ve never seen Delos, it’s spectacular! It was a holy sanctuary that has been around for thousands of years, and because it was built at one of the few geologically stable points in the Mediterranean, it has been remarkably well-preserved. Anyway, there used to be a lake there that was supposed to have contained the sperm of Zeus, but when French archaeologists came in the nineteenth century, they drained the lake because they were getting malaria from the mosquitoes it bred. (That will be in a story one day, malaria – carrying mosquitoes bred in the sperm of Zeus? Talk about your strange STD…) In the end, I spent several hours wandering around near there, looking at the ruins of temples, and coming up with text. I can’t imagine a better place to work.

You’ve recently moved to Oxford, so can your UK readers expect some British based stories soon? And speaking of Oxford, have you seen The Headington Shark yet? It’s not quite ‘The Slipway Grey’, but close…

I’ve got one Oxford-based story called ‘Funeral Rites’ in The Spectral Book of Horror Stories recently edited by Mark Morris. When I first started looking for accommodations, I found an old lady who was willing to host postdocs for short – term. Because I’d run afoul of a scam last time I searched for accommodations in Oxford, I asked to see the place: when I got there she told me it was called “The Doll’s House”…most of what happens in that story is based off personal anecdotes I was told by my university friends in the first couple of weeks. And I have seen The Headington Shark, which might just be my favourite landmark ever! It was, in fact, one of the inspirations for ‘The Slipway Grey’. As you can see, my writing is a little more like burglary than invention.

Whilst a lot of your work has a fantastically strong sense of place, none of them could be described as ‘realistic’ in any literal sense. What does adding an element of unreality allow you to do, as a writer, that straight-forward realism couldn’t?

Realism doesn’t offer the same potential for surprise, I think, that the fantastic does. When you read a story set in a non-realistic world, it means all bets are off for the rules of engagement. I like that. It allows me to approach things obliquely, through metaphor, and that has always seemed like a more powerful way of reaching readers.

What writers or stories would you say were influences on the stories in Gifts For The One Who Comes After?

Most of my influences when writing tend to be immediate: this time round, from Kelly Link I learned about night-time logic; from Ted Chiang, a theory of sentences; from Stephen King, colloquial charm; from Roald Dahl, the joys of nastiness.

GiftsWho are your favourite writers working today?

I’ve had a pretty excellent year reading fiction and so, God, I have an awful lot. In no particular order (and let’s count as read the living ones I’ve mentioned above): Robert Shearman, Nathan Ballingrud, Mike Carey, Jonathan Saffran Foer, Lisa Hannett, Anne Carson, Blythe Woolston, A. S. King, Karen Joy Fowler, Benjamin Percy, Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman and, possibly my favourite living writer, Sir Tom Stoppard.

You’re also a published poet – do you think writing poetry is an influence on your fiction, or are they two separate disciplines to your mind?

Writing poetry taught me about my practice, though, the problem is that there seems to be no greater back-handed compliment for a specific writer than to say she has a “poetic” style. That being said, I do have a poetic style, and I tend to make use of what I’ve come to think of as a poetic logic in my writing (or, perhaps, night-time logic, as Kelly Link would call it). That is to say, if we accept that all stories are words, then those words bring with them their own kind of interior logic, a logic of affect that doesn’t necessarily follow rational lines of thinking. My work sometimes feels dreamlike for that reason. I would rather convey a sense of the story through tone and voice; I love it when as a reader I reach the end of a story and the absurd elements make a kind of sense to me which I cannot articulate but which is entirely compelling. Also, I love that there’s an inherent level of uncertainty in using poetic language in a fantastic story. Take this hypothetical opening line, “On Tuesday I wore my heart on my sleeve.” It could be literal or metaphorical. In a fantastic world, one for which the reader has not yet decoded the rules, both means could be true. And that seems fun to me, it’s something I can play with.

One striking thing about Gifts For The One Who Comes After is how distinctive your titles are – do you typically have the title in mind before you start the story, or is it more a last minute thing?

To be honest, I tend to think I’m pretty rubbish at titles – except my book titles, which I’m quite proud of – so I’m glad you liked them! Mostly I tend to come up with my titles once I’ve finished writing the story because I don’t tend to know entirely what a story is about until I reach the end of writing it. And you have to know for a story title. It’s the best way of convincing a reader that you had everything planned from the start.

What’s the one book you’ve always wanted to read but haven’t got round to yet?

I’d like to read the Oxford English Dictionary – seriously.

If you did have a real shrink-ray, like the kids in ‘Supply Limited, Act Now’, what one person or thing would you shrink?

The thing about growing up, I’ve found, is that everything is shrinking around you already. I’d rather big things up, if I can, which, I suppose, is the point of the story. So that’s one answer; the other is a hippopotamus. I would really like to own a tiny hippopotamus.

What can we look forward to from you next – any new books on the horizon?

I’m working on a novel tentatively titled Icarus Kids, which features children who back from the dead — with wings. It’s sort of a beautiful apocalypse, because I’m rather tired of bleakness in the books I read. What I’d like to see is a bit of horror, but, you know, horror tempered with joy.


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  1. Great interview Helen and James

  2. Cheers Jim!

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