Helena Bell is an occasional poet, writer, and international traveler which means that over half of what she says is completely made up, the other half is probably made up, and the third half is about the condition of the roads. She has a BA, an MFA, a JD, and Tax LLM which fulfills her life long dream of having more letters follow her name than are actually in it. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Brain Harvest, and Daily Science Fiction. Her story “Sincerely, Your Psychic,” appears in Issue #17.
Tell us how “Sincerely, Your Psychic” came about.
A few years ago a friend of mine gifted me a session with an astrologer. The entire experience was a bit weird in that she didn’t believe that she was a fortune teller, but she really believed in the accuracy of astrological charts. I’ve always maintained that you can have really great, insightful experiences with Tarot readers, psychics, palm readers, etc, so long as the person doing your reading has an extraordinary level of empathy. So I went into it with an open mind, but I still have an unhealthy level of snark in me and so a few of the things she said just rubbed me the wrong way. This story actually began as an attempt to poke a little fun at the whole practice, but it quickly veered into another direction entirely. It’s not fair to mock something that most people don’t take seriously to begin with, and so I became more interested in the idea of negative space: the decisions we didn’t make, or the decisions we regret, and the solace we take from wondering about ‘what ifs’.
Alternate universes are a comforting thought. Somewhere surely there is a Helena Bell who learned to do everything correctly the first time, and never said a wrong or unkind thing. Somewhere there is a universe in which my cousin never got his girlfriend pregnant and didn’t have to give his child up for adoption. Somewhere there is a world where people eat cake every day. Somewhere there are all the bees.
Of course there must be an equal number of universes where Hitler killed everyone as there are universes where Hitler is a relatively unknown but moderately successful painter.
And who knows what universes the dinosaurs dream about.
Thus rather than making fun of an inept psychic, I started telling a story about an accidentally brilliant one. In some ways the narrator speaks like all authors: gradually learning more and more about the person for whom she is making grand pronouncements re: backstory, wants, needs, a plan for resolution and eventually discovering that she didn’t know what she was doing until she’d hurt herself in the process. Art isn’t art unless we cut ourselves a little. Or maybe I’m just really bad with scissors.
You write both prose and poetry. How do the forms differ? How are they similar?
When I write a poem I begin with an image. I think of a line or an idea that I wish to build to gradually. When the poem ends I want to leave people breathless and bewildered and more than a little bit sad.
When I write a story… I do the exact same thing.
A poem is going to have more ‘I’ in it, since the presumption in literary poetry is that the author is the narrator. That doesn’t mean that poetry is strictly biographical, only that we’re quick to appropriate, reframe, and present information with the most efficient POV choice which is usually first person, or first person omniscient. If someone tells me a story, or better a story they heard from someone else, but I want to use it in a poem I’ll cut out the ‘So and so told me’ and either present it as my own story or I might use ‘I heard’. This creates weird truth issues since about 90% of the poem will be deeply confessional but the rest is an outright lie.
The percentages may be slightly different for fiction, but any story which doesn’t have some dark truth to it isn’t going to haunt me for the rest of my days.
Your story “Robot” was on this year’s Nebula ballot—and congrats again. Does a nomination like that place more stress on you with future work, or does it factor in at all?
No, not at all. It is entirely by coincidence that I have not written a single new thing since the nominations were announced. It is doubly coincidental that I will let my mouse hover over the ‘withdraw’ button on submission queue websites where I have a story under consideration out of fear that when the editors read it, they will proceed to point and laugh at me.
What is currently in your cd player/iTunes/Spotify/8 Track?
Take Five by Dave Brubeck. I am still in mourning.
At some point in writing this reply I switched over to Damon Buxton because mourning is exhausting.
Since we talked about your favorite Bradbury story last time, what’s your favorite dinosaur? Asking for a friend.
Velociraptor. I like things with which I would never be able to survive an encounter.