Author Interview: Helena Bell (Issue 16)

Tell us how the story came to be.
The story began as a flash piece for a competition in which you have only a weekend to write 750 words or less.  I went back to look for the prompts to figure out which one I used but I have absolutely  no idea.  None of them seem to fit which I guess indicates I tend to be belligerent regarding rules in general (an excellent trait for a lawyer to have!).

What I do know is I came up with the title first.  I have a particular fetish for long titles and often strive to come up with something which will have a different meaning at the beginning and the end of the piece.  I also have a particular fascination with second person direct address and started writing the story as soon as I had the narrator’s voice in hand.  The rest was fleshed out over time as I borrowed from various hurricane and other childhood experiences.

You write both prose and poetry. Do you see a difference between the two, or do you feel they’re related?
One is more often than not longer than the other? I get frustrated when people call a story a ‘prose poem’ since they usually do so when they feel that the language used within the prose is poetic.  A prose poem on the other hand is a distinct form of poetry in which, to borrow the words of one of my professors, ‘the poet resists the rhythm of the line’.  The best example I can give is ‘A Story About the Body’ by Robert Hass in which the author is sparing and sharp in his word choices.  The effect is a frictionless sentence and you find yourself constantly running into periods.  Yes, there is a rhythm to it but it’s not the same as the rhythm of line breaks. Then again a lot of people disagree on definitions in general, but my feeling is that you need to keep the two separate otherwise there’s no point in calling one one thing and the other another thing.

I like words and poetry and image and rhythm–I would be lying if I said the one discipline did not inform the other but they are very different disciplines.  A poem can travel from the body to the room to the other side of India to the migratory pattern of bees with less effort because a poem does not have the same expectations of form and structure attached.  At the same time, you are allowed fewer reversals.  The poem must have a thesis which builds and builds and each image and leap must support this thesis.  It’s very difficult for characters to change in poetry unless it’s very linear.

Then again, there are many different types of poems: the confessional, the narrative, the language, the imagist… I divide poetry and prose in ways that make sense to me, but these divisions are hardly universal.  In fact one thing I think genre fiction could borrow is the concept of the School.  How interesting could it be to create competing and overlapping manifestos–perhaps even full scale battles could be waged at conventions.  I should probably come up with a name first… Or a particularly long title.

On your blog, you talk about going to Lafayette Cemetery #1 in New Orelans, and you point out that fantastic lime green tomb. When I visited, I never for one minute felt alone; that place feels occupied. What feeling did you come away with? Did the location inspire anything in your writing?
Mostly feeling like I wanted a Plum St snowball because it gets dreadfully hot in New Orleans in July…

On a more serious note, I think the dead are a presence in New Orleans and the South in a way they are not in other cities.  Since I’m originally from there it never seemed strange to me that we use above-ground tombs, but more than that, in my family we frequently talk about the dead as if they’re still here.  The other night at dinner my Aunt told a story of my great-grandmother’s funeral: because she was too cheap to buy new underwear, but she’d shrunk considerably in her old age, my grandmother and aunts had to stuff her bra.  Apparently she’d been a very busty woman since later, sitting in the front row of the funeral parlor, you could see two round peaks just over the lid of the casket.

As the story is being told, others jump in with how appalled my grandmother (who is dead) would be that we’re telling this story at dinner and how my other great-grandmother (also dead, but also not the great-grandmother with the stuffed bra) would find it hilarious.  I’m sure lots of families, particularly writers’ families, have similar tendencies, but since it’s my entire frame of reference, I have no idea how ubiquitous it is.

As for inspiration, I had to give myself a rule a while back that I’m not allowed to write about dead people, dead babies, or kill anyone at the end of the story anymore (what’s strange is I don’t actually write horror or what I consider dark fantasy–it just happens that I have a lot of dead stuff in my work).  The lime green tomb will have to make an appearance somewhere, someday eventually.

What is your favorite Bradbury story/novel?
Something Wicked This Way Comes which is strange because I’m pretty sure I never actually finished reading it–I just always loved the title (it’s so long!).

Do you have a favorite story among your own?
I love all my stories equally!  Which course, like children, is a big lie.  Space Elevator has always been a favorite because of the last line (which I will not share in case people have not read it).  Like titles, last images are often the first thing I come up with.  However finding the correct last line is always more work than I think it should be and I always find it in different ways: writing past the last line, then cutting, or rewriting the ending completely and it comes in a passing fit of inspiration, or sending the story out to multiple markets before I realize the ending is incorrect and try out various things until they work.  Space Elevator had an incorrect last line for a long time, but fortunately I found it in time for submission to Shimmer.  Another favorite currently making the rounds is another pseudo alien invasion story featuring a nun.  Like Space Elevator it deals heavily in the construction and perpetuation of myth in order to navigate situations of upheaval.  Perhaps ‘myth’ will have to be added to the list of ‘do not include’ for my fiction along with dead things.

What’s next for you?
Cake please.

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