Helen McClory is a Scottish writer whose stories are multi-faceted gems, filled with atmosphere, mystery, and vivid detail. I discovered her work through Twitter and instantly loved it. Her flash fiction is collected in On the Edges of Vision, and you can read some of the pieces at her blog, Schietree. Her first novel, Flesh of the Peach, is forthcoming this year. McClory was kind enough to answer some of my questions. In our discussion, we talk about gender, Sylvia Plath, unlikable women, and much more.
Nonfiction Editor of Burning House Press
Helen, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I am such a fan of your writing, and I’m so excited to have this discussion with you. First, I would just like to ask you some general questions about life and writing.
What are you currently reading? What made you want to read it?
I’m currently reading Alan Garner’s The Stone Book Quartet, a book ostensibly for children (like most of his work) that is composed of economical, brilliant sentences weighted with folkloric meaning. I loved his writing as a child myself and wanted to revisit his work (though I don’t think I ever read this one) because I’m writing a sort of fantasy/folklore novel myself and thought I’d look to one of the masters of the form.
You have a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and a MA in Creative Writing from UNSW, Australia. What are your thoughts on writing programs? What was your experience like?
Both experiences were very different: UNSW was more favourable to experimentation – it was here that I was taught about innovation, intertextual approaches and the complexities of boldness. Glasgow was definitely more traditional (as traditional as a fairly new discipline like Creative Writing can be). It looked to the English department and the canon. It demanded hard work and an academic nimbleness to defend ones choices. I was better at the first part of that than the second. For a long while afterwards I had to recover, both physically and mentally. But I’d say the experience at Glasgow proved to me that I had it in me to write something long and to stand by it.
You recently started a newsletter called The Unsung Letter. I am a subscriber and really enjoy it. Can you speak more about it and why you created it?
The Unsung Letter brings a weekly letter by a different writer, critic, or other sort of book lover, singing the praises of a lesser-known book by a living author. It is a way of shining a spotlight on those unjustly left in the dark by the giant whirring publicity machine of the press and the whims of chance. I created it with some prompting by Twitter friends, as I was pondering out loud there about the number of books we miss, and how to address that. As a writer whose first book was not widely reviewed, I am aware of the indifferent randomness of the bookish universe. It makes me feel glad that I can do some work to the positive, to hold up something otherwise heading towards forgotten. And I’ve loved how the contributors have thrown their energies into writing some smart and lyrical pieces just out of their own passion.
Okay, now on to your work! I have some questions about your flash fiction and your upcoming novel, Flesh of the Peach. I’d like to start with your flash fiction.
Something that fascinates me about flash fiction is the economy. Every word has to be precise and perfectly chosen. What attracts you to flash fiction? How do you edit a piece down? Do you go through multiple drafts or is the story there already for the most part?
What I love about flash fiction is just this economy. This lack of bagginess. Don’t get me wrong: a good short story can also be economical, but speaking for myself I find it hard to keep it that way. It’s too easy to drift. With flash, the built-in constraint is its source of strength. A story so short must know what it is, even if that meaning is obscure or slight as a breath of wind through the irises. The form welcomes alternative approaches to narrative, though it can be quite traditional too. Beginning, middle, end. List, fragment, blur. When I write flash, I don’t usually have to edit down; if it starts to get longer, say over 1,100 words, I know the form is short story instead and I’ll try to lean into it. But usually the narrative, such as it might be, of a flash comes into its form and all of its energy is contained within that small space. It’s like thinking of writing a poem; unlikely to wobble outwards and suddenly become a novel. It really depends on the piece whether I need to work a long time on edits or a little. I love not having to do so much work, but I can never predict one way or the other whether I’ll be lucky or have to really fix the thing up.
I was very compelled by your flash fiction “The Romantic Comedy.” It conjured images of the film Runaway Bride and the heroine of Plath’s poem “Ariel” who rides a horse. You even allude to a line by Plath “Is there no way out of the mind?” and add to it “Only as a punchline, only as a kiss.”
I loved this passage: “Because you want too much, and that’s the trouble with you women. You want the wrong things. Like flesh and life, like a wet heart and nimble, unheld fingers. The only choice is to protect yourself with the things you’ve been given.”
The story has a subversion about it. You’re challenging these romantic comedy tropes, pushing back against the limitations imposed on women. Would you say that’s an important part of your writing, this act of subverting and challenging gender roles? Is Plath an inspiration for you?
Thank you. My knowledge of Plath is actually shocking – as a young woman I avoided really getting into her poems because they felt so much, too breathless too freighted with Plath’s personal mythos and – loud? Can a poem be louder than other poems? It’s not a criticism, either, just a flinch. But online I could see snippets of Plath, and found that easier to process. Distilled bits, like that line, came to me without their poems and I could listen.
I’d say challenging gender roles is a natural part of trying to write stories where the central figures are almost all women. All women, fictional or otherwise, sprout outwards in action and (representation of) thought, and become too complex to be limited to the roles placed upon them by the old kyriarchy. Formal experimentation too has a way of breaking characters apart and out of the expected. This is true of any gender though, isn’t it? Writing deepens and sharpens and distorts, just depending on the actions chosen. So better say I keep choosing to write most of my protagonists as women because for a long time while at university the books I read valued male perspectives so much that women became almost obliterated, bleached of colour, and I wanted to fight that.
Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your first novel, Flesh of the Peach. What is the novel about? Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
Thank you! The novel follows Sarah Browne, an English immigrant living in New York City. Sarah has just unceremoniously been dumped by her married girlfriend and learned of her estranged mother Maud Browne’s death from a long illness. Sarah, rather than deal with any of her grief, runs off across the states to live in her mother’s cabin in New Mexico. She tries to bury her pain and guilt in sex and making art and trying to understand America, but her memories chase her relentlessly everywhere she goes, and a future violence is brewing.
I was living in New York when I started writing it, and decided to take a research trip out to New Mexico, so a lot of what happens on Sarah’s long uncomfortable Greyhound journey was taken directly from real life. The rest I made up though. I’m happily married, not estranged from my family and I didn’t grow up in a crumbling mansion on the Cornish coast.
What was the process like as you wrote your novel? How long did it take you? How did it compare to writing flash fiction, besides the obvious difference of length?
It took me about three years to write the novel. Then no one wanted to publish it, so it sat for three years or so, until I wrote and secured publication for my flash fiction collection. The collection was only possible because of the work I’d done on the novel: the novel is only available today because of the collection’s modest success. I’d say that’s something useful for other folk who are finding it hard right now to have their work published. Nothing is really wasted. Flesh of the Peach is itself told in flash chapters – over the course of 270ish pages, there are 104 chapters. I was trying something that I then fully embraced in the collection. The real difference with flash is it’s easier to find readers for it than for a whole novel of an untested writer. It’s also much less agonising. The work is there, in your hand, in a much quicker time. Flash is a lightness of the soul.
I noticed that on the dedication page of Flesh of the Peach you wrote “To all the unlikable women in fiction and outwith it.” In recent years, there has been an ongoing discussion about “unlikable women,” mainly ignited by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (at least that is the first book that comes to my mind). What are your thoughts on this discussion, on the idea of women having to be likable both in fiction and in real life? How might we push back against this expectation of likability and why do you think it’s so important to push back against it?
This comes back to the earlier question about subverting gender roles. I have a lot of thoughts about this, and really can go on way too long. Women, like everyone else, have hugely varying characters. I don’t like that reviewers both professional and non- seem to complain about not liking a fictional woman. It is of course fine if some characters are the most lovable and strong-willed or insightful woman (Jane Eyre, she whispered) or witty and clever and good (why, Elizabeth Bennett!) so long as every woman shouldn’t have to be that. How shallow an understanding we would have of ourselves, how shamefully we’d view our moral failings, how blankly we’d look at others if all we had were the good girls to show us around the interiors and exteriors of emotional life. Just as if every book was written in a realist style that acted like modernism hadn’t been through culture like a high speed train. We need to see more, do more, allow for more experiments, depths, routes through. I don’t think I’d necessarily want to ascribe to the idea that this would make us better people in real life (because how does that get us away from the selfsame Victorian moralising?) but it at least makes us more deliberate. And gives the reader something new.
Here at Burning House Press, we like to ask people a very important question in each interview. If the house is burning, what do you take with you and why?
All objects can be replaced. I’d just want to make sure my husband, D got out with me, and maybe our small fish tank. And a change of warm clothes so I don’t freeze while the firefighters come and put out the blaze.
Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press in August 2015 and won the Saltire First Book of the Year. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Freight in 2017. She can be found @HelenMcClory. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.