Exclusive Interview: “A Slice Of The Dark” Author Karen Heuler
Some writers struggle to write enough short stories to fill one book. Not Karen Heuler. As she mentions in the following email interview about her latest short story collection, A Slice Of The Dark (paperback, Kindle), some of her stories wait years for just the right book to appear in.
To start, is there a theme to A Slice Of The Dark?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what unites most of my stories and what interests me in my own writing. I started out in literary, but my stories kept moving to the outskirts, to what is often called magical realism, which is as close as literary fiction can get to respecting fantasy (though of course there are fairy tales and Poe and Hawthorne and a lot of other things, but I digress). I find the boundaries of the self and the edges of reality to be the area where I land most often. So, A Slice of the Dark fits into that overall handbag rather well. I see I mentioned boundaries and edges, so let me consider why that is. I very much like when we make mistakes, visually or conceptually. That split second, for instance, when the shadow coming at you seems malevolent, but it’s only the shadow from a cloud. A misapprehension. I keep thinking about things that are a step away from what we are confident is reality. And those stories that are clearly not magical realism. “Teeth,” for instance, test what the personality is, what the concept of one’s self is. Am I this thing I am doing or am I something else? If I always believed myself to be one thing, but it turns out I’m something else, or could be something else, then have I changed? Has my new knowledge changed me? Do we want our perceptions to be stable and unchanging? Can anything be immutable if there are others around? It’s like the package everyone receives in “Do Not Open”; once someone sets a change going, will any additional changes matter?
Did the theme emerge as you were putting this collection together or did you start out with the theme?
I’ve had a number of collections, and each time there’s a certain pattern to how I make choices. I can make a list of all the available stories or, if there are a lot, I can put each individual story on a piece of paper. For the list, I’ll just put an asterisk for the ones that leap out at me as being thematically connected. For the ones on pieces of paper, I sort them into piles. I enjoy this. It’s like sorting a heap of stones by color, then again by pattern, or again by size. The organizing principle keeps changing the groups. And across the collections now, there are stories that could be pulled out and make yet another collection. I have a few recurring characters, for instance, that started in literary and stepped into fantasy. I like how both character and author evolve together.
What was it about this theme that made you want to go with it?
What interests me is not so much reality as the perception of reality. Both dogs and people live in the same physical world, but we see it differently. Both infants and adults respond to sensory input, but don’t share the same processing abilities. The world may be seen differently when you have a high fever, or by extreme pain or grief. Each alters perceptions, and since reality is merely our perception, when that perception changes, reality changes. When I was in college years ago, we were forever talking about “objective correlatives,” and I can see that a lot of the situations in my stories use correlatives as points of departure. Have you never felt thwarted by the world, by your own body, by everything working against you? Then you can indeed see how you would be affected if your fingers decided they wanted to change their role on your hand. Maybe it’s your approach that’s wrong, not the world. And if you wander through life missing twenty minutes here, five minutes there — always late or failing to remember what you did yesterday — perhaps there’s a meaning in “Ghost Mice” that might apply to you. Perhaps you are not who you think you are (a fault in most of us, surely).
Aside from having to fit the theme, what other conditions did the stories in A Slice Of The Dark have to fit? Like, did they have to fit a certain length, did you only include ones that were relatively new…what?
All but a few are relatively new, say from the last five years — I have stories from 20, 30, 40 years ago and I can wait for them to find the collection they belong in. I don’t mind their age. All people, all writers, have preoccupations. We have themes in our lives, and an older story is interesting because it represents an aspect (a slice!) of our lives that got caught and rendered into prose. It can be interesting to consider, for instance, what I thought about a society where men were unavailable, and then, years later, a story about one man who won’t stop being available.
Is there any significance to this collection being called A Slice Of The Dark And Other Stories as opposed to The Living Wood And Other Stories or The Dream Thief And Other Stories or being named for some other story in it?
It did have a few different names as I went through the sorting, and one or two stories that came in and then went out, but when I got to the final arrangement, A Slice Of The Dark was immediately the right title. It does go a little dark, doesn’t it? But not so dark that anyone would call it, Too Dark To Read When You’re Alone. It twitches at the edges but does no real harm. Okay, well, maybe “Teeth” does some harm. I liked the tone of that story, though, and the rush of it. And it does indeed grapple with the self, with identity, with how one can come to be something entirely other than imagined.
What genres do the stories in A Slice Of The Dark represent?
I fit quite comfortably into literary, magic realism, dark fantasy, science fiction, and a little bit of horror. When I get an idea for a story (with me, it starts with an idea), it almost always come tagged with a genre. I believe there have been a few stories that changed from, say, magic realism to science fiction or the like in the course of writing, but by and large the idea itself contains the geography of the genre, if I can express it that way. I’m a plot person, and I feel my way forward without a plan, so I’m okay with just seeing what happens. I usually type straight into a Word file, but I’ve gone back to longhand for the moment. I suffered a catastrophic computer event that caused me to lose two years’ worth of files. This was absolutely due to my believing I’d backed up files recently when I hadn’t. For now, I need to write in longhand. It forces me to go a little slower, which I think is never a bad thing. I can go back a few paragraphs and cross something out and write over it — I always find that satisfying.
Many of the stories in A Slice Of The Dark were previously published in such journals as The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction and such anthologies as Strange Tales: Tartarus Press At 30. Are the versions in Dark the same as those earlier versions, or did you change them at all?
About half the stories were previously published, but half are new to this volume. I have to admit that I am not an organized person, so in my hunt for the final version that was published, I may have missed the real final version. I have a tendency to want to move on once a story is published. I’m not one of those people who read my writing once it’s seen its way into print. That story is all grown up and on its own at that point. Until it gets published I am open to revising, to changing endings, etc. Whatever it takes to make it work while still keeping its intent, its tone, the revelation at the core of it. What revelation? Each story has to reach a moment when what was thought to be true or is true yields to something else.
Now, along with A Slice Of The Dark, you also have two other new books out. Let’s start with your novel, The Splendid City, which came out this past June. What is that book about, plot-wise, and when and where is it set?
It’s set in New York City and in what used to be known as Texas before it seceded from the U.S. and declared itself to be Liberty. A witch and the man she turned into a cat are exiled in Liberty, which has constant parades, a president in a castle, animatronic presidential heads checking on things on all the streets, and a sassy, infuriating, manipulative cat who knows how to make it all work for him. The witch he’s paired with is charged with trying to find a particular local witch and a missing river. It’s political and environmental, and spins some of our recent political history into satire. You’ll recognize some things from our world, but they’re twisted.
And is there a reason why The Splendid City is about a trigger-happy talking cat as opposed to, say, a mute dog with a penchant for knives or a machete-loving octopus who communicates using sign language?
Very much so. In the late ’60s or early ’70s I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master And Margarita, a novel I loved and found revelatory in terms of what you could do with fiction. I was majoring in English with a kind of specialty in 19th century British and Russian literature. That combination — the patterned British life and the overheated Russian one — set a standard for me. I wanted literature to push a little, to nibble at the edges of things.
It sounds like A Slice Of The Dark is a surreal sci-fi story, but one with a bit of a political bent…
What I write usually is political. I’m a feminist and an environmentalist. I believe in justice over accumulation. I think a political system that is willing to leave a huge number of adults and children below the poverty line is morally bankrupt.
Along with A Slice Of The Dark, your other new book, so to speak, is a reissue of your 2013 short story collection The Inner City. Is there a theme to this collection?
Surprisingly so. Forgetting collects a lot of stories I wrote during my mother’s descent into dementia. She lost track of reality very often, and thought she was being detained or imprisoned, or that the hospital was a fake hospital with fake doctors. Her truth changed. She wasn’t wrong to think she had just come back from a long walk with my deceased father or that she was on a runaway train that no one knew how to stop — it was all true in her head, which is where our own realities reside. So, in a way, my mother dwelt where I usually pitch my stories. Seeing how variable reality was with her was familiar because it hit so many of my own concerns — i.e., what is reality? How do we know it’s real? Will it change again? The issues that have preoccupied me for decades, how to determine truth when it relies on physical interpretations in our brains — this was happening to her. She had vascular dementia, which meant a relentless series of strokes, and each stroke hit a different part of her brain and produced a different mania. The fake hospital part was Capgras syndrome; she was in detention, on a train that no one could stop or a plane that couldn’t land; her sense of impending disaster kept developing new twists. She could have been a story of mine. And then ultimately, she was many stories of mine, some poignant, some bizarre, some funny. And all of them true.
Going back to A Slice Of The Dark, Hollywood loves turning short stories into films. Do you think any of the stories in Slice could work as a movie?
I think “The Constant Lover” would be a standout film. It’s dark and funny, and I think most adults have experienced at least one relationship where the other person refused to be dropped.
And if someone wanted to make that movie, any suggestions as to who they should cast in the main roles?
Allison Janney and Martin Sheen. I’m sorry, I love The West Wing so much, and it would be great to see a twisted version of it as “The Constant Lover.” Alternatively, David Byrne and me, because I have such a crush on him. I’d be hard to get rid of, not him, so there would have to be a switcheroo. That would be fun.
Finally, if someone enjoys A Slice Of The Dark, which of your other short story collections would you suggest they read next?
If you like this collection, I think you’ll like all of them. Other Places does collect the science fiction ones, if you like science fiction, while The Clockworm goes brightly into the absurd. All of them go through various degrees of comedy, tragedy, and genius. Yes. Genius. Take that, high school.