Heather Fowler is a Renaissance woman, and I’m not speaking of her lush lips, her vibrant red hair, or her jeweled eyes. She is a writer, poet, playwright, screenwriter, painter, and mother, and now she is the author of a debut collection of stories, Suspended Heart, just out from Aqueous Books. It’s a dazzling collection of magical realism, from boys made of clay and girls made of razor blades, to Philip Dick-esque replicants, to vampires and heroic parrots. I talked with Heather about the collection, her emotional pulses, her inner old lady, and more:
Jen Michalski: Magical realism seems to be becoming more popular in the independent press community, but a difference that I’ve noticed with Suspended Heart is, frankly, its heart. You’re much less concerned with fabulism for fabulism’s sake, or as some kind of forced weirdness that’s often encountered. I just wanted to congratulate you for making me care about the characters, for infusing the work with magic but not overpowering them. For instance, in “The Girl with the Razorblade Skin,” the razorblades are a metaphor for the harm we do to ourselves by not speaking our minds, voicing our opinions. Do you begin, when writing a story, with the human element or the fabulist one? Or do they appear intertwined?
Heather Fowler: Thanks so much for observing the heart in my work. I appreciate that. How such a piece begins varies by the story. Sometimes, there’s a rich visual image that appears in my mind, translated from seen language, that begs for characters, like in a new piece I’m working on called “People with Holes,” which will be part of the next magical realism collection. Sometimes, there’s a philosophical idea parsed and, while I consider this idea, I come up with a plot or a storyline with which to commence that is not quite normal, does not fit the traditional literary story model. I’m sure we can agree that most writers don’t feel normal, much of the time, or why the need to so thoroughly dissect ourselves, our experience, and the views of others?
What tends to be true of my process is that I usually start with an emotional pulse from my own experience that is deeply connected, in my mind, to an odd or surreal imagining, a “What If?” Also, my body is very sensitive to mental and emotional stress. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, upon occasion, which is probably why my characters often have things that happen to their own bodies—often wear the magic or feel it begin to destroy or complete them. The title story “Suspended Heart,” for example, pulls from a desire I had, at one time, to be physically separated from my heart, feeling that the symbolic realities connected to the idea of “heart”–Valentine’s Day, true love, passion–seemed to be destroying my happiness. I thought such self-decimating thoughts as: My heart is faulty. I’m no good at love. Why do I meet such bastards? It would be such a relief if the blasted thing would just fall right out. …And the story was born.
When I teach, I often tell my students that magical realism is not just placing a magical element within a fictive piece, but can be exploding a humanistic metaphor. I tell them magical realism has been used to cloak political strife or risky situations, used as a subtle protest, in the Latin American tradition, but that, as Americans, we need not feel excluded from its use or use the same tools in identical ways. We can use Nabokov as our model—his stories were formative for me. Or Kafka. Or more recent authors like Kelly Link or Aimee Bender. When I write magical realism, I want my stories to continuously dialogue with both the real and the magical, which is often a place of “feeling,” a place of dreams, which everyone has seen or experienced. In addition, I would like the stories to reach beyond a community that only enjoys fantasy, science fiction, or speculative fiction—to surprise and delight even a reader who didn’t expect to like them. This may sound funny, but often at readings people will come up to me and announce, “You know, I normally don’t like that magical realism stuff, not even clear on what it is, but I really liked your piece.” They look a little grudging, shuffling on their feet, but I think—Great! Thank you! The ungettable get. And, as an aside, what else do you normally not like? Come look in my trunk. I might have some.
JM: Did you set out to create a collection of magical realism? You’re such a prolific writer, and I’ve read many of your non-surrealist stories (including “If I Kiss That Girl” in my journal, jmww), so it seems a deliberate choice. But maybe not—the stories in Suspended Heart are just as much about men and women and their relationships, about how they love or hurt each other. Because emotions and pain are nonmeasurable, analytical, and it seems apt that these stories have both elements.
HF: Honestly, I did pull this together as a collection—and wrote toward this collection or wrote toward the idea of having a magical realism collection once I realized how many times I’d sampled this genre, but the stories in Suspended Heart are from many frames in my writing life and development, which still continues to evolve. One story, “My Brother Made of Clay” was written during the time I lived in Northern California. The “Companion to Minnow Lake” piece I wrote a first draft of in graduate school at Hollins in 1997. Other pieces like “Bloom in Any Season” and “The Time Broker” are far newer.
Lately, I’ve been very interested in deconstructing gender, in gender roles, in strange or counter-culture sexuality.This is evidenced in the second collection of magical realist stories I have in progress right now, but there are also eight other non-magical fiction collections in progress—and four books of poems that branch both formal and free-verse poetry. In terms of quantity or percentage of my work, I’d say magical realism is like a small but beloved village I dabble with in my territory, but a small sampling of what I do entirely, though I care a lot about what I generate in this arena and find, ironically, that these type stories are sometimes the closest parts of my work to resemble unadorned autobiography.
Writer to writer, I worry about my variety sometimes, how best I can sustain my artistic freedom to do whatever kind of work I want to do at any given time. I am most worried when readers say they love something I’ve done.In a sense, it’s a bit easier to work in a vacuum. I don’t want to get typified as a writer who does ________. The danger in writing in so many different genres and sub-genres–since I do erotic work, feminist work, plays for theatre, poetry, screenplays, literary traditional work, experimental work, literary modern, regional fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, dystopic future narratives, crime noir upon occasion, etc–is that although I am prolific, I wonder if it would be an easier path to specialize, so as not to disappoint a grouping of fans who likes one thing or another that I’ve published. When I chatted about this with a friend once, I remember feeling terrified about this idea, largely arguing with myself about my right to go where the whim takes me, asserting: “I am a sex and love writer. That’s as far as it goes. Maybe all my work fits that umbrella. It’s a large umbrella.It’s a weird umbrella, when it’s mine, but hopefully others will not hold that against me.” So yes, actually, I think you’ve really nailed the goal of my work being the heart of the work—because, in the end, whatever kind of story or poem it is, every story or poem of mine is about relationships or love, in one way or another—love withheld, love desired, love offered and rejected, love that heals, love that hurts, love that breaks, and love that bends. I also like to play with active female sexuality, being female and being sexual. Not backing down. Taking the power of intimacy back, of choice. And I like to write strong women.
JM: Wow! Eight manuscripts. You certainly are a busy bee. And so many forms—not just free verse poems but pantoums, sestinas, villanelles, single sonnets, ghazals, terzanelles. And then there are the screenplays and theater plays in addition to flash and short stories. And I’m not even getting into the subgenres of those! I feel positively one-dimensional. But how does the form shape the subject, or vice versa? I never get up and say, I’m going to write a poem about this dream or a play because I’m a fiction writer. Depending on its length, it may turn into a flash piece, a short story, a novella, or a novel. Have you written a novel in those manuscripts, BTW?
HF: I think my varied forms and styles are actually quite organic for me and have a lot to do with life circumstances. When I’m around theatre actors, for example, I like to write for them. When I was on an exercise jag and walking an hour a day in Modesto, I rented tons of movies to watch while I walked, as distraction. That’s when I wrote screenplays and read them. The rest is explained by my time, or lack thereof. I used to say, “When I don’t have time for novels, I write screenplays. When I don’t have time for that, I write stories. When I have no time for stories, I write poems.” My ex-husband had two children, full custody, from a previous marriage. I have worked all my life, since I was fifteen. Now I have two children of my own, albeit no more husband, and still work a full-time job. Since I work in the literary realm, it has never occurred to me as possible to make enough money to both live and support my kids and the novel form has never fit my scattered windows of time for writing. Thus, my pattern has fit my circumstances. I like doing formal work in poetry since it is sometimes a relief to find confinement in rules, in brevity. It allows for necessary concision and experimentation. Imagine if someone said to you: “Tell me exactly how you feel. You have one hundred and three words and alternating lines must rhyme; thematically, this poem must be about loss.” There would be fewer words to use, but you’d know when the poem must be over—you’d know you must make form and structure work with ideas—and make every word count. I like that discipline sometimes.
That said, I have played lightly with the novel form. I wrote one novel and currently have two in progress, but my lifestyle of care-taking creates my greater affinity for short work. This fear of time constraints, of the lack of time I often have, is evidenced in Suspended Heart’s closing story “The Time Broker,” which is a piece that speaks to many of these themes. When I read a novel, I’m obsessive. I want to read it front to back. Similarly, when I write, I want a window big enough to get lost inside, to write like a demon, to exhaust myself. But I am moving more towards forcing my work to align with the novel, if only so that I can get more short fiction placed and out. Oh, did I say that aloud? Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.
In truth, the form daunts me for other reasons too. My first attempts at novel writing, years ago, were plagued with a sense of loss or failure. With one book, since it was an homage piece to a Nabokov story, I had a harrowing experience asking permission for derivative rights from Nabokov’s estate. Though I had written a screenplay and half a novel, I abandoned that project after their strange reply, which I believe was something to the effect of: We will sell you derivative rights for the screenplay when you have a film deal, but we can’t sell derivative rights on a story for a novel. Then, in my second foray with long-form, which took me a long time to approach after this experience—after I lost sleep for months while writing my second novel at night, I finished it, I offered it to friends to read, and a onetime friend and mentor said: “It’s a good practice novel. Maybe keep it in a drawer.” He was also my muse, so this was fetal-ball cutting. I hated it for a while. But I’ll be back to it. The long-form. I am strong enough now.
JM: There was an interesting post on HTML Giant not too long ago about the uses of pseudonyms in the writing community (the specific example being the writer xTX). Some have argued that the pseudonym allows more freedom of expression, considering one’s children, ex-lovers, and parents have access to Google and Amazon. How do you address your subject matter, such as erotica, knowing your children (or someone else’s) may be reading your work? I guess there’s been a “mommy is a writer” discussion with your children? You’ve also gone on record as scaring a troop of girl scouts away from a public reading (eg. your interview at Vermin on the Mount).
HF: While I worry about that, I don’t worry overmuch. I published an erotic piece in an anthology once, for example, but I felt good about that since the whole Coming Together series benefits varies charities. I think I write a lot of content that apes more pornographic content, but I do so with a literary filter. The swingers piece in PANK, for example. My kids are five and eight. This may be more of a concern when they are teenagers, but teenagers will do what they do regardless of whether their mother writes content that is beyond the pale. Honestly, I worry more that they will think I was deeply unhappy, that they will worry about me, when they later read my work. I think more about having the conversation with them, when they are old enough, that tells them: “Mommy writes sad and dark stories to let the pain out, to vent it, so that she can return to you happy, so that she can be free to purge and come back stronger.” But I’m rather a prude about what children should be exposed to on everyday media. I don’t my kids to watch scary or dark shows too young, I want to protect their innocence for as long as I can—because they, like everybody else with a reasonable choice, should be allowed to grow into who they are and which images they will keep in their image repertoires. I didn’t expect the Girl Scouts. I probably would have read gentler poems, had I known, in advance, I would attract children. I love children. I wish for them all a safe and protected reality, an absence of the pain of being an adult and making the choices that are so hard it can almost makes you weep.
JM: Can you talk some about your relationship with Aqueous Books and Cynthia Reeser? You’re one of the first titles off the press, and well, of course, after reading it, I can see why.
Thanks so much for the vote of confidence in Suspended Heart! I love that this was my debut collection—and I love that it came out with Aqueous Books. I have huge respect and admiration for Cynthia Reeser. She’s savvy, smart, and kind. My experience with Aqueous Books has been perfect; I couldn’t imagine a better place to dip my toes into book-length publication. Throughout the editing process, I felt nurtured and cared for, heard. My opinion mattered. The critiques were spot on and challenging in that several stories underwent substantial changes, even stories that had already been published, but the book is stronger for this interplay. I am grateful.
To have smart, skillful editors combing your work and calling you out on your lazy constructions is a boon.
Aqueous is a young press, yes, so it doesn’t have the big marketing machine of larger presses behind it and it still works out the kinks of getting its books seen, but the vision is there, in place. I think it will continue to grow and gain visibility with Cynthia’s editorial eye and the titles it selects. For my part, I was happy to go with a smaller press since I felt there was something to be said for the fact that, with Aqueous, my book will not be remaindered, will not go out of print. That matters to me. So if I keep working hard, I hope that my continued agenda of writing, publication, and visibility will help Suspended Heart continue to be read long after it first came out.
JM: I’m so excited that you like Lucille Clifton—I was blessed to take a class with her at St. Mary’s College of MD in the early 1990s, and she has such a lovely lyrical style. Of course, I love Anne Sexton, too, but I’m not sure we’re allowed to admit that since we’re out of college. 😉 Who are you following in the independent press?
HF: Let me just say that I love Lucille Clifton. I love the way her words are so stark and felt and real. I am neither ashamed to admit my deep love for Anne Sexton, but will take the shame count ten steps further and say: I also have deep love for Sylvia Plath and Longfellow and Shakespeare and all of the canonical writers who may or may not be in vogue but have touched me. Regarding the independent press scene, I confess that my time is so limited I often read dead people. All my life, I’ve felt I was catching up to some invisible measure. That I went to the public school system and therefore didn’t have the advantages of kids who were sent to, say, boarding school. I was raised in what was predominantly a single-parent household, worked through both my undergrad and graduate school years, so now I read what I missed, what others have been talking about first, that which has been determined lasting in its appeal, and I don’t often read people who still breathe—except in the form of online journals, where I tend to read work ravenously, story by story. That said, when a friend publishes a book, I do carve out the time to read that, but I follow my own themes and muses more often than the modern literary scene.
I also tend to read new work when someone tells me: “You have to read this! It will blow you away!” I found Etgar Keret that way. And then I met him a few years back at AWP. Not only is he handsome, self-effacing, and charming, but his kindness did my work a good turn. It’s heartening to see talented people who take risks with their work and possess an uncommon luster—at the same time being classy as hell in their conduct with new or emerging writers. These are the gatekeepers I emulate and admire. I hope one day to mirror their generosity. When a new writer comes up to me and says, “Hey, I love what you do”—I want to reply back, “Wow. Thanks. What do you do? Whatever it is, believe in it. If you love it, keep doing it.” If my legacy could be one thing when I’m gone, I would like it to be the permissive spirit of, “You can. Work hard. You can.”
Because we’re all struggling against ourselves, more than half the time, against feelings of prohibitive incapability, against insecurities, against our light dying out with a sputter and a feint. Don’t you agree?
JM: “Because we’re all struggling against ourselves, more than half the time, against feelings of prohibitive incapability, against insecurities, against our light dying out with a sputter and a feint. Don’t you agree?”
I totally agree with you here, and it’s a big part of what fuels and makes Suspended Heart so successful. I want to talk about some of the stories—you’ve mentioned “My Brother, Made of Clay,” already, and I just thought of it again when you mentioned struggling against ourselves. I love this story because, on a literal level, it’s about a boy whose body slowly turns into clay and he disintegrates, but on another level there’s no one clear answer as to what is causing it. It’s a fault he’s born with, a fault he exacerbates on his own, but his parents help it along, too, by ignoring him. He’s a boy with so much youth and so many misdirected energies and nothing positive to sap them. He reminds me of a whole neighborhood of lean, wolf-like boys I grew up with–hungry for love, attention, sex, excitement. But mostly just hungry, and everyone—parents, school, society, not providing any sustenance.
HF: I love your description of “lean, wolf-like boys” and that you note a whole “neighborhood” of them—Yes! I can see these boys in my mind’s eye. Did you grow up near me in California?
About “My Brother Made of Clay,” you’ve really pinpointed the crux of the story—the moral, which is: all good things go bad by neglect. While I wrote this piece, I remember I was particularly focused on the idea of boys and their fathers—on how fathers can either inspire boys to be better men, or criticize them to the point where the divide is so vast nearly nothing can solve it. But I tap both genders in the discussion.
Also present in the story is the narcissistic mother, who practices self-absorbed living and a lack of adequate concern for her children—surface concern, yes, but concentrated help and guidance, no. I wanted to set up a parallel here with the mother and the daughter and the father and the son. Granted, the “I” narrator survives her childhood. She escapes her brother’s path, though she is still the one to take his remains, to try to bring him back, to be the record-keeper. Still, she is not undamaged by her experience.The parenting in the piece also causes her own adult removal from those around her, her fear of revealing herself and making connections. What it came down to for me, about this piece, is developmental self-esteem—yes, the Jimmy character had the magical trait of being born with loam on his chest—but loam is fertile, children are fertile, yet if they are not sculpted and cared for, but instead “treated like dirt,” that is what they will become or think they are. In considering the narrative along those lines, I suppose that this particular story, for me, was like a plea to parents: Hey! Wake up! Love your kids please. Remember the ruler should measure growth more than apply discipline. Remember they are fragile and in need of your guidance. Damn it, now. Listen to them now. Love them now.
JM: I also have to mention “Cracking-Smoking Parrots,” which is about a boy and girl parrot who smoke crack and run a literary magazine. Their greatest pleasure is shitting on the submissions. Your response to the literary community at large?
HF: Ha! I have to say that the “Crack Smoking Parrots” piece was fueled by a bit of my inner class-warrior—not in response to the literary community at large, but in response to being a writer without connections who has often watched big honors get virtually handed to those with wealth and circumstance, with connections, with the ability to take leisure time and attend ritzy programs and conferences that the average working person cannot afford. Not unlike how it is in Hollywood—where it seems every marketed instant success story has hands behind the scenes, massaging the wheel, greasing it, if you will. When you live outside of the main continental literary Meccas and have done nothing but lose sleep and keep your dreams alive on fumes, when you can’t afford to enter big contests all the time or pay for postage to submit endlessly to a hardly consulted slush-pile, yes, it starts to piss you off when you wonder how thoroughly that slush-pile has even been read. Is my cost of submission in the hands of an intern, where a story that is no stronger has been sent to a journal by Big Famous Faculty Writer Somewhere or Big Agent From New York Who Farmed This Submission From a Top-Tier Graduate Program—and thus, the issue gets filled with these lucky newcomers or Big Famous Writer Already Established (who sends in what might be sub-par work, but hey will sell journals due to the name recognition) and the little guy never really had a chance?
I have to say, that stuff rankles. It’s not new, but it bothers me. I hate when my sense of fairness in the world is so suffocated by the idea of class-war nepotism superseding unrepresented fresh talent.
JM: There’s a really long and lovely piece included, “A Companion to Minnow Lake,” that was recently nominated for a Pushcart? Congratulations! It’s a nice change of pace at the end, I almost feel as if Cecil, the older father who returns to the lake of his youth, is a person close to you, like a grandfather or father.
HF: I actually got a Pushcart nomination this year for a love poem entitled “No. 14 (White and Greens in Blue)” that features a Rothko painting, and the “Companion to Minnow Lake” piece was nominated for the storySouth Million Writers Award. 🙂 These were both exciting events. About the choice of protagonist, I have to say that I have a huge crush on old people, always have. When I was a child, I had many eye operations. I would have gone blind had I not had these—and apparently I was quite small and quite articulate. The old ladies at the nursing home where I would go to do egregious ballet routines with larger troupes—in which the startlingly bad dancer watched the shoes of the nearest adjacent dancer and was not at all aligned with anything the other girls were doing, nor particularly caring—they always gave me candy. Those little butterscotch disks. Taffy. Sitting and talking with old folks was my favorite thing. I still love to do so.
But perhaps it behooves me here to make the connection, for me, between near blindness and graceless childhood ballet. I often liked to talk to old people about my eyes. My operations. My clumsiness, which I could clearly attribute to my poor peripheral vision and bad sight—as was evidenced by my coke-bottle, thick-rimmed glasses. Since many old people have eye troubles themselves, this may have contributed to my feeling of companionship and belonging upon these outings.I loved them and felt a bond.
As part of that memory or habit, here’s a weird factoid—I sometimes call a grouping of work that I’ve done my “old people stories,” which are what I label these pieces that are so traditional, so involved with the narratives of the elderly.The Minnow Lake piece was one of the earliest of these pieces. It was also likely my first magical realism story I ever wrote, or very close. I just remembered that I wanted Cecil to be likable, the sort of old man I swooned for as a child, imagining what kind of old man my inner old lady would want in years to come–one with pluck and a certain measure of perversity, but a heart that was loyal, enamored, and kind. Is it strange that even as a child I had an imagined “inner old lady”? Probably so. Alas.We’re getting back to my feeling of strangeness again—and that, I suppose, pervades everything.But it’s better not to be normal, don’t you think?Besides, what is normal, anyway?I have never known.
(You can read more about Heather Fowler here)