A conversation with Heather Fowler
What books and/or authors have had the most influence on your writing?
I feel I have a variety of influences behind my work. Flannery O’Connor and her collected stories have been very formative, as have the collected stories of Vladimir Nabokov, which I used to carry around constantly. I select Flannery for her density, bold characterization, and brave pursuits of moments of violent grace—and Nabokov for his elaborate and detailed combinations of image and meaning that spark the most fascinating alchemies with his words. I’ve also been quite absorbed and entertained by authors like Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Carson, Margaret Atwood and Federico García Lorca, Shakespeare and Kafka, Shirley Jackson and T.C. Boyle—this could go on and on. I should stop here. Basically, I’m a ravenous beast.
I feel each one of the authors named above has been formative for my work. I have stolen the glimmering bits I love from their efforts and incorporated them in my own writer’s toolbox. But there are several types of influences that can be discussed—influence of stylistics, of politics, of topical treatments, etcetera. What I love is when I read a book and it lights my eyes on fire, when the idea or story looms up like a living thing from the page and sweeps me into its fabric. I also enjoy every time I have a moment when I read something and feel intense jealousy pangs, coupled with delighted awe.
That’s how I know an author has launched him or herself into my personal canon of phenomenal; it’s also how I choose which work to study in my private time.
How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?
I am terrible at this, and my experience with submitting has been so mixed, it has not supported any theory I’ve come up with about “finished work.” The stories I have accepted are usually anywhere from three weeks to twelve years old.
Basically, I love everything I’ve written during its newborn stage (let’s call this the first fourteen days)—but I have to not send it out then. I have to remember that I will soon need to carve it down and bolster it, that I will love it less when all glimmers of the fictive dream have effectively died behind my eyes, other imaginings have taken root, and all that’s left of the formerly beautiful new baby is the rough skeleton of its prototype on the page.
Provided I have been successful at not sharing or submitting a story in that stage (gets easier as I have more in reserve), I will usually do an embellishment edit to fill in sensory details and add conversations that were not written in the heat of the first draft. I will edit it until I feel satisfied and then I submit. If the story is rejected, I will edit it once more each time that happens.
What would you consider to be a productive day of work, and do you have a writing routine?
A productive day of work would be a day in which I have done what I need to do to pay bills, I have made my children very happy somehow, I have managed all personal crises while appreciating my friends, and I have written something start to finish—a poem, a chapter, a story.
I do have a writing routine. I am just not sure what it is anymore. It resembles catch-as-catch-can.
What part of your writing process do you most enjoy?
Honestly? The writing process is work, is diligence, is introspection, is time in the chair, is intensity in craft—is often painful in what I discover both while and after writing whatever it is that compels me. Thus, the part I enjoy most about this process is probably the latter end, the readers’ reactions when the effort has been worth the time in what the writing reaps.
I like hearing what makes my heart swell in the echoes of reactions that return to me. I am particularly partial to messages from women who are glad I put my work out there or those from the middle class—because they feel, in some stories, that I speak for them, give them power, or give them hope.
Literature gave me that same thing, both as a child and as a young adult—which is why I started writing. To create work that elicits reactions from readers that they feel heard, that they were entertained or moved—that’s the highest honor. If they write to me and say they cried when they read something I wrote, I probably cried when I wrote whatever made them cry. I prefer to make them laugh. But perhaps the tears can be healing, as tears often are, in writing and in life.
Your collection of stories, People With Holes, intertwines the strange and unreal with a very tangible, believable world. How do you think these elements work together in your stories to add to their meaning?
Magical realism is a genre that really liberates the subconscious, allows for the wacky and sublime. It is a vehicle I like to use when the quality of the idea I’m driving at resembles the truths one finds in dreams. I may be in the minority here, but I think everyone’s life resembles a strange dream, at least everyone I usually find of interest.
I also think that, like humor, the unusual is an ice-breaker. It suspends a standard dialogue and opens conversations from different angles. As to what the stories mean, I leave that to the readers. For me, they mean so many things. They are like paintings where there is no singular, correct interpretation.
Your newest book, This Time, While We’re Awake, was just released from Aqueous Books. What can readers expect from this collection?
I’d like to just say first that I love this book. I think it is a love letter to the middle class and a cautionary tale about both capitalism and cyber-dependency. Too, I think it is about the misuse of the media and the schism of privilege that exists, that is causal to resentments, even now, between the haves and the have-nots. Perhaps it is an artistic call for the return of reason and idealism in American culture (or anywhere), one I’d like to see reflected in both career paths, environmental concerns, and interpersonal relationships—or it is a wish, fashioned in stories, for a movement away from the shallow and profit-driven modalities that have stolen yesteryear’s kind of heroes from our children (the brave, the strong, the smart, the good, the talented), only to replace them with pop stars and athletes and no real news.
No one wants to be a police officer or a fireman anymore, these days. Teachers are paid like slaves. The environment is rapidly deteriorating. I see so much in the world that frightens me—especially parts of the population so indoctrinated in propaganda as to support the regression of women’s reproductive rights—as if women, again, should be treated as subalterns, as chattel.
In short, readers can expect to read stories with a disdain for modern media—and a hope for humanity that we can heal this planet before we completely destroy it. But we will have to work together, we will have to get smarter, faster—or life will get horrifically primitive in a hurry.
Do you have a favorite story in This Time, While We’re Awake? If so, what is it and why?
This is a hard call. To pick a clear favorite among these odd stories is like deciding which of my beautiful, toxic, freak children I love the most. I think my favorite story in this collection is one called “Forgetting So Much Shining Light and Laughter.”
I love it because there is a devastated world in which its characters interact—but nothing has changed in the way human love is exhibited, human sacrifice, human support. In this story, an older sister purchases the opportunity to share her positive memories of a lake that no longer exists with her younger sister—because the lake is a tie-in to their deceased parents, because she is the only one who remembers how to swim, and because it is relevant for her to pass on whatever happy memories she can recall from their childhoods, to share them. Even in dystopias, the love runs deep.
This is how the story starts:
Two sisters lay on a wood raft in the moonlight, their limbs entwined. Lake water all around, the moon shines down, a white hole of light larger than that of the surrounding stars. It finds its mirror on the water, the place through which they imagine the heavens have carried themselves, with effort, through the dark.
What else are you working on, and where can readers go to find more of your work?
I have two more books slated to come out in the next two years. The first is entitled Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness, and that is an illustrated collection of traditional modern and historical literary stories about characters with mental illness. Pablo Vision has created custom work for each narrative. It is due out from Queen’s Ferry Press in May of 2014.
I have also just won the 2013 Twin Antlers Prize for Collaborative Poetry through Artistically Declined Press with a manuscript entitled Bare Bulbs Swinging that was co-written with talented poets Michelle Messina Reale and Meg Tuite, which will be released in 2014.
I am at work on a dystopia novel called The Suicide Ministries. I hope to finish this novel this summer.
Readers can find more of my work at Amazon.com or via my publishers Aqueous Books and Pink Narcissus Press and are invited to check out my website or “like” my Facebook author page if they’d like to receive updates for current publications.
Finally, what advice would you give yourself when you first started writing?
“Dear self: I love you. Life will be hard. Life will be magnificent. Sometimes one thing will outweigh the other. Write more. Read more. Don’t give up.”
…But I would also send that message to myself right now.