Last week I had an online chat with Helena Hann-Basquiat a Canadian writer, about our recent and forthcoming publications.
My novel Our Endless Numbered Days, has already received positive reviews in the national press, and Helena currently has a Pubslush campaign taking pre-orders for Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume Two, and is also publishing a Shakespearean-style play, a tragi-comedy called Penelope, Countess of Arcadia.
Overheard over coffee at Helena’s…
I’ve just grabbed a coffee, are you sitting comfortably?
Well, Claire, I guess to start off, I should say that I really only know you from Friday Fictioneers, but that I’ve already a respect for your writing. I can’t recall how long ago you announced that Our Endless Numbered Days was being published, but I recall being excited. How long a journey has this been for you?
The book sold in the UK and Canada nineteen months ago (July 2013) and to my US publisher I think it was in the November of that year – so it feels like ages! So you’re about to release volume two of Memoirs of a Dilettante, is that right? Can you tell me a bit about the project and volume one to start with.
Well, the strange thing is, I’m going completely against the advice of the person who started it all. A friend of mine urged me to start writing again, if only for myself, and so I began writing as Helena, both for anonymity reasons and to amuse myself and keep myself entertained. It was never meant for an audience, per se, but my vanity demanded it be read, and slowly I picked up readers. Volume One is a looser collection of stories and essays, mostly unconnected to each other, though there are some story arcs that last for a few chapters. It’s a fine first effort, I feel, but it was in no way as intentional as Volume Two.
Volume Two is, as strange as it sounds coming from me, who has maintained an enigmatic air, deeply personal — even more so than some of the stories in Volume One.
I was a little confused on your website as to who was the alter-ego and who was the real you…
And the confusion is deliberate I assure you. Only recently have I revealed my identity to the world, but I still maintain that there should be a disconnect between the writer and their work. The writing should speak for itself. Now, I’ve only had a chance to read your descriptions of Our Endless Numbered Days (haven’t got my hands on it yet!) but tell me if I’ve got the start of it, because even this captivates me. A man takes his daughter into the woods to protect her, and tries to convince her that the world outside of that forest has ended. Can you take it from there and tell me a bit more?
Hmm, not to protect her, but because of some particular family circumstances. And yes, he tells his daughter Peggy that the world beyond their little patch of land has disappeared, and because she’s only eight, she believes him. They live there for nine years, just about surviving, until Peggy makes it home. You know from the outset that she makes it home, but just not how… that’s the twist if you like. And for you – being such a private person, how was it making your writing public and getting such a following – you have 4000 ish followers on your blog don’t you?
Ah, so it’s not for protective reasons. Curious… As for making my writing public — it was a lot of fun, and sometimes a lot of heartache. All I really wanted to do was write, but it doesn’t work like that, and so I found myself socializing as Helena, and people took to her. The way you describe your story, I’m not sure what to make of it — is this something that’s going to be disturbing? Or is this something that’s going to be heartwarming? I guess I should ask who you think your audience is — what do they read?
It’s more disturbing than heartwarming. It’s set in 1976 up until 1985. People have compared the subject matter to Emma Donoghue’s Room (which I loved). Have you read that? About a girl abducted and kept in a cellar, but mine is outside in the woods. Can you give me some idea of your style of writing, or the content of some of the stories?
Ah, see, my other alter ego, Jessica B. Bell, writes all the disturbing stuff, and when I heard “man keeps daughter out in the woods for nine years” my mind went all sorts of dark places.
For Memoirs, stylistically, it began as a sort of “no holds barred” writing experiment, intentionally breaking a lot of writing rules and flaunting them.
Don’t use alliteration. Don’t use adverbs. Don’t talk to your audience.
Broken. Broken. Broken.
I took stories from my own life, dressed them up in flamboyant clothes, and sometimes, it was something as simple as a trip to McDonalds.
That sounds really interesting. We are told all sorts of rules as writers. I think you have to be quite courageous to break them. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of adverbs, but I like it when authors talk to their audience.
I quite frequently break the fourth wall. In the play I also just finished writing — a Shakespearean mash up called Penelope, Countess of Arcadia — I actually included You (as in the audience) as a character, and use them a couple of times for interjections.
I grew up watching a lot of Looney Tunes, and I think that’s where a lot of my absurd humour comes from.
I like the idea of writing in the second person. Have you read ‘If on a Winters Night A Traveler’? The novel I’m writing now is half letters from a wife to her husband, so it has quite a big second person feel to it.
I can’t say I broke any literary rules with Our Endless Numbered Days. I just wanted to write a book about a subject that I might be interested in reading.
I’ve not read that, but I’ve toyed with that idea myself — I think it pretty much HAS to come in the form of letters, otherwise it comes off as pretentious. I used some of that technique in the meta-novel JESSICA.
I have to ask you — are you familiar with the Iron and Wine album by the same name – Our Endless Numbered Days?
Oh yes. That inspired the title. I love Iron and Wine and listened to all his music when I was writing. I acknowledge the debt in the book. What are your titles and how did you come up with them?
I once made up a word as a title – I love neologism, and in another life I probably would have made a good linguist. The day H.R. Giger (the Swiss artist famous for designing Ridley Scott’s Alien) died, I wrote a tale about a woman who gives birth to something macabre. I wanted the title to mean Strange Birth, but that was too transparent, so I created the word Paraxenogenesis from two Greek words, literally Strange and Birth.
Our Endless Numbered Days is out now — are you doing any book tours or signing appearances?
Good word! Actually it’s now in the UK and Canada, and 17th March in the USA. Tin House, my US publisher can’t bring me over from the UK as much as I’d love to go, but there are quite a few signings and readings booked in the UK already. How will you go about promoting Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume Two?
I’m promoting it via a Pubslush campaign right now, and with the funds raised from pre-orders, am planning on doing some advertising. Now that my identity is public, it kind of changes the game for me, and I’m a bit freer to do more personal things, like public appearances and such. I have got contacts with a lot of local book stores to set those kinds of things up.
And are you looking forward to those – public appearances?
After two years of hiding, it might be interesting to talk to people, but I’m so much of an introvert it makes me a bit nervous! How about you — is this something that excites you or do you just want to get back to writing?
That’s interesting, because your online personality comes across as so extrovert. I worked in marketing for a long time, so I’ve found that I’m really happy to get out there and speak to readers. It is so amazing when you speak to someone who’s read your book who isn’t in part of the publishing team or a relative. I love that side of things, but that has surprised me. I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert.
That’s why Helena’s so fun… I get to channel my inner extrovert! Well, thank you so much for talking to me today! I can’t wait to get my hands on the book!
It’s been really nice talking to you too.
Some people attribute the invention of the Ampersand to her, but she has never made that claim herself.
Last year, she published Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume One, and is about to release Volume Two, along with a Shakespearean style tragi-comedy, entitled Penelope, Countess of Arcadia.
Helena writes strange, dark fiction under the name Jessica B. Bell. VISCERA, a collection of strange tales, will be published by Sirens Call Publications later this year. Find more of her writing at http://www.helenahb.com or and http://www.whoisjessica.com Connect with her via Twitter @HHBasquiat , and keep up with her ever growing body of work at GOODREADS, or visit her AMAZON PAGE