“In Literature, Concepts and Deities Can Shapeshift”: An Interview With Helen McClory

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In 2014, we published a short story from Helen McClory as part of the Sunday Stories series. It combined a terrific sense of place with a distinctive approach to surrealism, and I was happy to see that McClory’s debut collection, On the Edges of Vision, is due out next month. (She’s also running a fundraising campaign for her book tour.) Via email, I talked with her about her collection, her feelings on realism in fiction, location, and the current state of Scottish literature.

How did the particular group of stories that make up On the Edges of Vision come together? What was the process of ordering them like?

I had two stories, ‘Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break’ and ‘Boy Cyclops’ that were a bit older, and I think the impetus behind them was something that my subconscious needed time to gnaw on a while. I wrote most of the rest of the stories in a month and a half, pushed on by the sudden realisation that I really wanted to write about monsters, and monstrous humanity. The various shifting and unsettle selves we carry or let rattle around in these strange things, our bodies.

Ordering was based around looking to compliment themes and styles – if one story was first person, it should go next to third. If the story was of corpses or reanimated bodies, I wanted its neighbour to be full of life. It was pretty intuitive that way. Stick each down like a coloured scrap of paper, where it feels like it will look best.

The stories in your collection are set across a wide variety of locations. What attracts you to these different spaces?

After a childhood spent mostly in the same rainy hilly Northern country, I was drawn to travel, always wondering what might be over the next mountain – fabulous villages? A glacier? No. Mostly just moorland and golf courses and the sea. I daydreamed a lot, and was drawn to landscapes in books as a way of travelling when I could barely leave the island I was on. As an adult I’ve worked abroad in Italy, Spain, Australia (where I also studied), America and most recently Canada, where I had a fellowship at The Banff Centre. These places brought thick fir woods and deserts and motels and gold spec huts into my writing. There are also plenty of landscapes from Scotland in there. All the Scotland-set stories are based on real places; Sea lochs, old castles re-purposed into youth hostels, lands owned by Scottish nobility, that sort of thing. I want other people to read and feel themselves in these landscapes, the way I do when I’m reading.

Bodies and viscera play a significant role in many stories in On the Edges of Vision. What do you find to be the best way to convey this physicality in prose form?

This is a difficult one! I tend to focus on the tactility of bodies. The texture of flesh. The best piece of writing advice I ever heard was to make people touch – adjust a collar, stroke or grab an arm. We understand the world and ourselves through touch in such a personal, sometimes painful way. And if the flesh that is touched begins to crumble or slough off, it’s eerie. If blood crosses the threshold of the body. I’m extremely squeamish. I have fainted reading a particularly gruesome piece of prose before. But I’ve been (very slowly) trying to read Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, and she says (with much more eloquence) something like the thing we are phobic of becomes like an abscess in our minds – we are drawn to it, to touch it and withdraw from it again. So I try to bring in that form of touching too, or sometimes its yearning absence.

In “Shadows,” you invoke the concepts of both gods and monsters. When you’re working with ages-old concepts, how do you prefer to handle them in order to make them yours?

For my undergraduate degree, I studied English Lit and Classical Studies, mostly because by combining them I could avoid the harder topics of both and have the ones I really wanted. So no learning Old English or studying Ancient Roman politics. I got all the literature (and even a module in Ancient Magic, which I was abysmal at analysing). I got to read Apulieus’ The Golden Ass, where a version of the Cupid and Psyche myth can be found. I read Milton and discovered Dante’s Inferno by myself because I didn’t like Milton that much and needed something a bit more Catholic and catty I could get behind. I saw how those and preceding and proceeding centuries of authors played about with the grandest things, tweaked them, inserted their enemies and basically did whatever they wanted. And I thought, well. Literature is permeable. In literature, concepts and deities can shapeshift like caterpillars and werewolves alike, though in accordance with the dictates of the climate around them. If not me, then someone else, some otherwhere else, is going to muck about.

To make them mine isn’t really the goal then, because gods and monsters are just going to keep doing that, through us.

Your website features your manifesto as a reader. Has writing that up had any effect on the way that you write fiction? Are you your own ideal reader?

Writing that meant that I pushed myself to read more, and with more variety than I had been doing (it was sorry there for a while) so I think that helped draw me towards new approaches to fiction. Hopefully less clumsy approaches. Am I my ideal reader? Ach, probably? That sounds awful. I like description when I read so I tend to write description too. I get a bit starved of it when reading some books so then I go and try to conjure up a house somewhere (it took a lot of effort for me not to pile up the adjectives in front of that house right there). Maybe a richer version of me. I mean richer in that they have a richer sense of things, a more organised and stately mind and might sent criticism that helps feed my writing. I love a smart critique.

You’re a Scottish writer with work coming out on two different American presses. Do you find that, on a larger scale, there’s a different literary sensibility afoot in each place?

It seems to me intensely different, though I haven’t had much luck finding a home for my work with Scottish, or more broadly UK presses yet. I feel the vibrancy of the American literary scene can allow more variety of styles and approaches. Scotland in particular is famed for crime fiction – and realist crime fiction at that –  over and above all else, and while that is necessary, and desired by the public, it often dominates the discussion. I love it when I get the chance to read something Scottish that is dreamy and new (and I can give a few fine examples) and hope that in the coming years there will be a renaissance of strange and unsettling non-realist Scottish literature. The 19th century was bountiful for that. More again, one day.

Your novel Flesh of the Peach will be out next year on Civil Coping Mechanisms. How would you say that it compares to On the Edges of Vision, thematically speaking?

I wrote Flesh of the Peach before On the Edges of Vision, part way between living in America and recovering from living in America (so much to process I still don’t think I’ve managed). Thematically, it covers the struggle to be an artist, to be an immigrant, to be a fully rounded human being and not a horror – the failures here are many. So in that way there is something which lead to the collection. The trying, hard. The loneliness of bodies passing through spaces and trying to protect themselves while desperately wanting to reach out and touch. What happens, sometimes catastrophically when they do.


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