Q&A with Author Helen Marshall (& W*n a Choice of Book from the ChiZine Catalog)

First off, one stop today on the River Road virtual tour. I’m being interviewed at Juliana Haygert’s blog—you can find out what my dream job would be if I weren’t an author and what three people and three objects I’d take to a desesrted island. This is an official tour stop, so you can enter for the big tour-wide prizes as well as the commenter prizes (see prize list in righthand column of this blog). 

Also, some great reviews in today! Thanks to Sarah at Feeling Fictional, Julie at Yummy Men Kickass Chicks, and Stacy at Urban Fantasy Investigators (and Roger for letting me know about them!) Remember that all comments on these stops enter the commenter for today’s mystery book–one for every day of the tour. 
Now! Today, I welcome author Helen Marshall to the blog. Helen’s new book, Hair Side, Flesh Side, is a debut collection of stories that sound pretty amazing! She lives in Toronto, where she’s studying for her PhD in medieval history. You can learn more about Helen from her website.

ABOUT HAIR SIDE, FLESH SIDE: A child receives the body of Saint Lucia of Syracuse for her seventh birthday. A rebelling angel rewrites the Book of Judgement to protect the woman he loves. A young woman discovers the lost manuscript of Jane Austen written on the inside of her skin. A 747 populated by a dying pantheon makes the extraordinary journey to the beginning of the universe. Lyrical and tender, quirky and cutting, Helen Marshall’ s debut collection weaves the fantastic and the horrific alongside the touchingly human in fifteen modern parables about history, memory, and cost of creating art.

Welcome, Helen!
Give us your elevator pitch:
My collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side, is really a book about books. It’s like English Lit 101 taught by Jorge Luis Borges or Neil Gaiman—filled with warring angels; saints and dragons; the ghosts of dead authors; Jane Austen’s lost manuscript written on the inside of a young woman’s skin; a pantheon of dying gods on a 747 headed for the beginning of the universe; and the fifth tallest statue of Jesus. What’s not to love?
Describe your favorite scene from the new book–and why is it your favorite?
My favorite scene comes in a story titled “Blessed” in which a little girl’s split-up parents each give her the body of a dead saint in order to celebrate her seventh birthday. I love the moment near the end of the story where the story takes a turn from the comic absurdity of the premise to delve into some real darkness, asking the reader to consider what family is, and sacrifice, and what terrible things we might do to ourselves and others in the name of love. I’ve just finished a book tour in which I’ve been reading “Blessed” to an audience: there’s this wonderful moment when you can feel almost palpably the shift in the mood of the crowd as I hit that scene. It’s like the floor is dropping out from underneath them. That’s what I love about it. It’s the moment where the story suddenly works. It stops being about the ridiculousness of watching parents compete to give their daughter St. Lucia of Syracuse or Joan of Arc, and becomes something much more personal and human.
What was the hardest scene to write?
My story “Sanditon”—about an editor who, in the midst of an affair with a famous author, discovers the complete manuscript of Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel on the inside of her body—was the first story where, once I finished it, I really knew what Hair Side, Flesh Sidewas about. It became what I thought of as a “pillar” story. But the story was difficult to write, not only because I wanted to sell to the reader a kind of outlandish situation, but because the subject matter felt so close to my own heart. For me, the heart of the story was me trying to figure out a way to navigate my own writing ambitions, to figure out how they stacked up against whole of human literary achievement. As a writer, it’s easy to feel hollowed out by the work of those people we admire, as if we can’t compete, as if what we do is somehow unnecessary because better, bolder, louder voices have gone before us. So the difficult part of writing the story was trying to find answers to those questions—“What is art? What are we reallytrying to do here?”—and still tell a story that was about smaller but still vital questions of sex and power and love and guilt, and what it’s like to get lost in a destructive relationship.
     (Sadly, you cannot read that story on my website. But if you send me an e-mail at Helen@chizinepub.com then I’d be happy to mail you one of the limited edition, signed chapbooks free of charge while supplies last!)
What’s on your nightstand or top of your TBR pile?
Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa Hannett—I picked up a copy at the World Fantasy Convention a month ago where it was nominated for Best Short Story Collection, and I haven’t had a chance to crack it open yet: I’m just waiting for one of those perfect evenings when the house is empty, the world is quiet and I can pour myself a glass of red wine then sit down to read something glorious and chilling. Some books can’t be read on planes or in the snatches of time between subway stops. I think this will be one of those books, so I’m saving it for myself as a treat.
Book you’ve faked reading (Moby Dick is leading the votes on this question!): 
I’m not sure I want to see my fakery undone so easily as this. All I can say, dear reader, gentle reader, wise reader, is that it is not your book. Of course, I read yourbook. Really. I swear. What? You want to know my favourite part? That bit in the middle? Yeah? That was my favourite bit. Followed by the ending. The ending was triumphant. Yeah. It really… err… you know… pulled the plow. (Unless your book was Moby Dick, in which case, I can happily say that I have not read it… but, I swear, it is on my nightstand right next to Bluegrass Symphony.) (Suzanne: Okay, now THIS is officially my favorite answer to this question!) 

Book you’re an evangelist for: 

Remember Why You Fear Me by Robert Shearman: this was the final book I edited for ChiZine Publications, and it was a remarkable way to finish. If you’re looking for a writer who is wickedly smart, blackly comic, and knows how to leave you smiling even after he’s pulled the knife from your gut, then he is one to follow. Short fiction is, I think, one of the hardest forms to write because it’s so compressed, so confrontational in many ways. But Shearman is one of the great talents of our generation, and he can show you how it’s done.
Book you’ve bought for the cover:
I picked up Anne Carson’s Nox after I saw that it came in its own holding box: it’s one of the strangest things you’ll encounter, half a book of poetry, half a scrapbook to commemorate her brother’s death. When you open the box, you discover that the “book” is an accordion set of images that you can pull out the way you pull out one of those folding postcard sets. With eBooks making straight prose much more accessible electronically, I find myself drawn to writers and publishers who are doing really innovative things with the physical forms of books. Like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes—a sculptural object made from Bruno Shulz’s Tree of Crocodiles, the pages of which have been literally carved apart, words dissected and removed, so that you can see through to the pages behind. It’s glorious in its strangeness! I live in a tiny apartment in Toronto so I find, now, that if I want to make room for a book on my shelf then I want it to be a beautiful object.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
This might sound strange, but a children’s picture book called Death, Duck and the Tulipby Wolf Erlbruch: it’s one of the most heart-breaking, simple and sweet meditations on death that I’ve ever encountered. It was published in Germany, originally, which makes sense because I couldn’t imagine it being published, for the first time, in North America. Sometimes you read something and it’s like the breath catches in your throat. Magical. I wish I could read everything with that same sense of wonder.
Favorite line from a book:
“Death stroked a few rumpled feathers back into place, then carried her to the great river. He laid her gently on the water and nudged her on her way. … When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved. But that’s life, thought Death.”
Thanks, Helen! ChiZine Publications is offering one commenter any ebook of choice from their catalog. I’m thinking Hair Side, Flesh Side sounds like a good choice! Do you like to read collections of shorts—if so, do you have a favorite? I’ve found from a writing standpoint that short stories are difficult for me. I’m not sure if I’m not disciplined enough, or if it’s because I haven’t read enough of them to truly understand the form, or what—but I’d rather write a 90,000-word novel any day.
Up to five entries possible: +1 for comment, +1 for blog follow, +1 for Twitter follow, +1 for a Tweet or RT about the contest, +1 for a Facebook follow. Contests end at midnight CDT U.S. on Saturday. Now…go!

4 thoughts on “Q&A with Author Helen Marshall (& W*n a Choice of Book from the ChiZine Catalog)

  1. I do read collections of short stories. Started many years ago with the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Later the short story collections of Stephen King. Both gave me many hours of great reading.

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  2. I prefer collections of short stories that were written by one author. My favorite is Dance Band on the Titanic by Jack Chalker

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