Welcome back, Helena! Your story “I’ve Come to Marry the Princess” is a wonderful collision of the mundane—summer camp, Walmart parking lot cart returns—and the surreal, absurd, and fantastic. It’s one of the things I’ve most enjoyed about some of your past work, as well. What goes into that collage, and what attracts to you to it?
Many of my stories (including this one) usually start with me remarking to someone “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if . . . ” Only I don’t know how to write humor, so the hilarious idea (in this case it was “wouldn’t it be funny if instead of helping him save the world, the dragon ate the farm boy?”) usually gets paired with something decidedly unfunny (like remember that time my brother and I got sent to camp, and I read eight books in three weeks because I didn’t know how to talk to people, and my brother got bullied?) and going from there. And since I don’t know how to write plot, I tend to fill my stories with bits I’ve stolen shamelessly from real life. For example, my brother really did fall flat on his face (on purpose) at a camp talent show and my father really did used to wander the aisles of Wal-Mart after being called to the hospital in the middle of the night. Even I’ve Come to Marry the Princess is a real skit with dozens of variations though none seem to end as bloodily as the one I wrote. Beyond helping me get words on the page, it helps keep me focused on the characters rather than worrying about the believability of the situation.
The details of summer camp seem to be universal—this story took me back to my own childhood experiences. What was your own experience of camp? Was it a place you dreaded or looked forward to?
A little bit of both? The camp in the story is a mishmash of two different camps I went to as a kid. The first and biggest influence was Camp Morehead, a co-ed camp for feral children. My brother and I got sent there because my father and his siblings had gone and loved it. Like I mentioned above, I read eight books and my brother got pushed around a lot. Next we went to Seagull and Seafarer, which were significantly more organized. I still had a hard time making friends since I was still very much an introvert (hint to parents: camp doesn’t cure that), but the camp also managed to maintain a hyper-friendly atmosphere bordering on the cult-like. Even though I dreaded going each summer, I would bawl at the candlelight ceremony the night before we were going to be sent home. One of my dreams is to have a summer camp only attended by writers, with someone like Ben Percy as Director. To be clear: there would be no writing workshops; it would be a traditional summer camp in the mountains with campfires and ghost stories and talent shows and awkward dances . . . only we’d all be adults and able to enjoy it for once.
Despite being forgotten by everyone, including his own parents, Jack is special in that he has a dragon egg. I saw the dragon egg as Jack’s unhatched potential, the thing that made him unique that nobody else noticed—but once it hatched somewhere in his future, no one would be able to ignore. (And aren’t grandmothers always the ones who see that when no one else does?) What might you say to the invisible and forgotten kids like Jack?
I would say that my brother and I were introverted weirdos, and we turned out okay. The important thing is to figure out what you like to do and keep doing that.
You’re also a poet, with an MFA in poetry. How does your study and practice of poetry inform your prose?
The biggest influence is probably on the way that I construct stories. I don’t really understand how to plot so most of my stories end up progressing via leaps of association. Sometimes I also have the issue of wanting to take the last words of the first six lines and repeat them throughout the story in a set pattern ending in an envoi . . .
What’s next for you?
The CPA exam. Exciting right?
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