Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Helena Bell

I know you draw from a lot of influences when crafting a story. Can you explain some of the ones you used in “Mouth”?

“A face like an imperfectly shaven tennis ball.”

Many years ago a friend of mine sent me a link to something called “The Surrealist Compliment Generator” and that was one of the compliments. It stuck with me and eventually, somehow, in that sideways way the brain works, it managed to turn itself into a story about a girl whose body disassembled itself once a month. The story didn’t go anywhere because I was a terrible writer at the time, but the images stuck with me and eventually the core of it got turned into a poem. Then a few months ago the first line of “Mouth” popped into my head, and a story about guilt and troubled relationships slowly started to lean on my continued fascination with take-it-apart-yourself anatomy. The body just has so many beautiful words associated with it. Is there anything finer than the phrase “suppurative wound”? P.S. Don’t look that one up; it’s not pretty unless you don’t know what it means.

Another influence would have to be the writer Kirsty Logan. I read her collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales and the way she picked an odd idea and both relied on and avoided the obvious metaphors associated with it resonated with me.

What was the hardest part of writing this story?

Anytime I put any sort of romantic relationship in a story, I want to run and hide. They’re foreign and weird to me, and I’m convinced that anytime I try writing about one everyone is going to think, “Yeah, she doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about at all.” Which would be true, but it would be very limiting to any potential writing career if I let a silly thing like that stop me. After all, I also know absolutely nothing about removing a boy’s appendix while he sleeps, but that’s in there.

What’s up with the owl? Does it mean something or are they just cool?

Owls are awesome. When I was a kid, a friend of my father’s got his falconry permit and took in a few birds on his farm. They also become certified to take in injured raptors on behalf of the Wildlife service. For a while they had a small owl named Hootie and looking back on it, it seemed strange to me that I never thought it was strange that these people had an owl as a (pseudo) pet. I used to have a cockatiel; the parents of a boy I knew had a parrot. Why not an owl?

As for why owls are in this story, I knew I wanted to include the lobster (more about that next) and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we like to categorize people by what animals they randomly allow to live in their homes. We refer to dog people and cat people. Then you have horse people and farm people who take in all kinds. My brother had a pet iguana because my mother had a rule that all reptiles in the house needed to have legs.

Ann, being rather predatory herself, seemed more like an owl person than a cat person. And she reacts to it the way she reacts to all other things in her life: analyze, dissect, and eventually (to a certain extent), destroy. In an earlier draft of this story, there were indications that she’s actually taking apart the owl and putting it back together every time someone leaves. Which is one of the reasons she never gives it a name of its own: it’s never the same owl twice. An owl seemed like the only kind of animal that could keep coming back for that.

Also, going back to influences: The owl in The Secret of NIMH made a significant impression on me as a small child. I know lots of people see owls as these majestic, wise creatures, but all I can think of is “Big birds that eat bones. Bones.”

Was there a real person named Nerval with a pet lobster in Paris, and how did you find out about him? (Alternately, what inspired you to create such a person?)

Yes! Nerval is the pseudonym of Gérard Labrunie, a French Romantic poet from the mid-nineteenth century. No one is entirely sure if he actually had a pet lobster, or just claimed (in letters) that he did. As for how I found out about him, the conversation in the story actually happened, almost word for word, when I was driving a law school classmate home one day. He told me he’d always wanted a lobster for a pet (like Nerval, he said), but his mother said no girl would go out with him. But at the time he was telling me this story, he had a serious girlfriend and so he said now maybe he could get a lobster. And then I responded just as Ann does: What if she breaks up with you and then you have to eat your lobster, and this cycle just repeats, ad infinitum? Which pretty much tells you exactly what I know and think of relationships, hence my fear of writing about them.

When I started writing this story, that conversation came back to me, as it fit with my understanding of Ann. She’s a girl who thinks she knows what she wants and who she is. She thinks she’s relatively well adjusted and feels more sorry for her brother, and for the people who leave her, than she does for herself. Which is probably good, since if she finally realized the extent to which she is the author of her own misery, she probably wouldn’t take it well. There’s a great Tennessee Williams quote that a friend of mine has tattooed on her arm: “It’s hard to be human, but for God’s sake try.” Ann is trying, but she’s just not very good at it.

As an aside, the classmate and his (then) girlfriend are now married. They have a child. I do not know if its name is Lobster, or Nerval, but I doubt it.

What are you working on lately?

A novella. I do not know what it’s about, or what it’s called. But I’m in John Kessel’s novella writing workshop this semester at NCSU, so from now until April, that’s what I’m working on. Theoretically.

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Laurel Amberdine

Laurel Amberdine

Laurel Amberdine was raised by cats in the suburbs of Chicago. She’s good at naps, begging for food, and turning ordinary objects into toys. She currently lives in San Francisco where she works for Locus Magazine. Find her on Twitter at @amberdine.