Heather Parry has been a central figure in Scottish writing for some time, co-founding the literary magazine Extra Teeth, working with the Society of Authors, and creating The Illustrated Freelancer’s Guide with artist Maria Stoian. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Orpheus Builds a Girl, came out last year, and a short story collection, This Is My Body, Given For You, has just been published by Haunt.
SNACK caught up with Heather to discuss the themes of the collection, the difference in approach to long and short-form fiction, Cartesian dualism, applying Brechtian distancing to fiction, and so much more.
The theme of This Is My Body, Given For You ostensibly is the body, and you explore the strength, fragility, fear, vulnerability, and mythology. However, much of the tension comes from the interaction between individuals and their reaction, and often repulsion, to what’s unfolding. Is the relationship between the physical and psychological key to these stories?
I think the key to any story really depends on the reader, but the question of mind/body separation is definitely at the heart of this book.
Since college, since I studied Descartes really, I’ve been fascinated by how the mind affects the body and vice versa; how the non-physical affects the physical, and the other way around too. Obviously our bodies affect our minds, but they affect other people’s too. Perhaps that’s part of the human condition, this kind of tense interconnectedness?
There is a lot of humour, often dark and surreal. Are you surprised when you find humour in what can be dark subject matter? Do you ever surprise yourself with what you have written?
I think I’ve got an incredibly dark sense of humour, and the darkest times of my life and the lives of those around me have been punctuated by humour, so this doesn’t surprise me at all. But sometimes I am surprised by what I’ve written, especially given the years between writing some of these stories and having them published.
The younger me was definitely more willing to pick at a scab, to really unearth something gross, and it’s easy to forget that about yourself. Some of the stories seem to offer up a sense of what’s unfolding rather than a clear explanation (‘A Meal For The Man In Tails’ in particular) as if the reader has just had a dream rather than read a story.
Is such ambiguity appealing?
It’s interesting that you say that about a story specifically about grief, as I think that’s probably a good description of what living in a grief state feels like: a weird, dark, ambiguous dream.
A friend of mine suffered a really huge loss, and after that, the world seemed completely off-kilter. We still refer to this as the ‘Swan in a Bag’ period, because strange shit just kept happening, as if the logical sheen of the world had been peeled off and now we could see the psychedelic morass underneath. In a sense, we all are still there. Perhaps that’s what that story reaches towards?
Your novel Orpheus Builds a Girl was published last year. Do you approach the two forms of writing differently?
Yes, very much so. I have a theory that if you write both novels and short stories, you’re naturally either a short story writer OR a novelist, and so one comes much easier to you than the other.
I love writing novels, even when they’re challenging, and I feel like I know what I’m doing. Writing a short story, on the other hand, is always like getting teeth pulled and then being pushed into a dark forest with no phone; I’m in pain, disoriented, panicked, and haven’t a clue where I’m going.
Many of the stories are extreme in terms of ideas and imagery. Does the short story format encourage experimentation which may not be possible in a longer form?
I think so – although I’m also very into formal experimentation in novels, and both my next novel and the one I’m writing now are a bit more formally ambitious. But it can feel cheap in a novel if you’re not careful, an attempt to cover over the fact you can’t carry a long narrative. Whereas bold experimentation in short stories always feels, to me, perfectly placed. To be honest, I think it would be more difficult for me to write a traditional short story!
Working on a novel is so much about fitting together a grand jigsaw puzzle in your mind, whereas for me at least, writing stories is much sharper, much more pressured and difficult.
The book is split into eight sections, with explanations as to what the reader can expect from each. The eighth almost reads like ironic, even sarcastic, life advice along the lines of Trainspotting’s ‘Choose Life’ speech. Is that at all accurate?
I certainly wasn’t thinking of the ‘Choose Life’ speech when I wrote them – it’s very different in tone – but I can see what you mean.
The weird blurbs between the sections are my attempt at what’s known as Brechtian distancing: something that pushes the reader away from the work in whatever form it’s in, forcing them to consider it as a piece of intentional art. That’s a lot of pretentious words to explain [that it’s] basically pushing the reader away, stopping them from being completely consumed in the narrative, so they have to think about the fact that somebody wrote this, somebody made these choices. And then they ask themselves: why?
I want the reader to think about the political message of the stories as a whole, and I don’t want the reader to read the book in its totality without stopping. When I read short story collections like that, they completely fall flat for me.
Are you working on anything at the moment you can tell us about?
Yes! I’m currently writing my Inkling for 404 Ink, which is a 20,000-word non-fiction book on sex robots, called Electric Dreams. There’s a second novel – a claustrophobic queer Edwardian Gothic – and a second short story collection waiting. I’m in the weeds with a third novel: a squishy, salty, bizarro love story, which, like all my work, is very much about bodies.