Karen Heuler’s stories have appeared in dozens of literary and speculative magazines and anthologies from Alaska Quarterly Review and Arts & Letters to Weird Tales. She has published two novels and a short story collection, and has won an O. Henry award. Her latest novel, Journey to Bom Goody, concerns strange doings in the Amazon. She lives in New York City with her dog, Booker Prize, and cat, Pulitzer. This is her second story in Fantasy Magazine.
What inspired “Exile”?
I got caught up in fairy tales a few years ago (and I’ve ended up teaching about them), and I’ve noticed that we each have certain tales that fascinate us more than others. For me it was The Pied Piper, which inspired my story “Oh He Is” in last year’s Fantasy Magazine, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses (I love that underworld where they dance all night), which also gave me a story, and the Three Wishes, and then, surprisingly, Donkeyskin. I say “surprisingly” because on the surface I don’t know why the story attracts me. It’s about a girl whose mother dies and whose father wants to marry her (in some stories it’s her stepfather). She puts on a disguise of a donkeyskin, escapes and ends up with a successful prince. She’s mistaken a great deal of the time for being a servant rather than a princess herself.
Maybe it’s an illicit attraction leading to disaster leading to success. . . I’m not quite sure. The story took an odd turn for me while writing it, because suddenly the situation was reversed, and it was the girl who was attracted to her stepfather. I’ll come right out now and say that I strongly disliked the whole Woody Allen and Soon-Yi relationship, so why in the world did this story go this way? I think I have an underlying assumption that even inappropriate relationships can redeem themselves if they stand the test of time—but then do I have to approve of Woody Allen now? I can only say that I went with it. There’s no point in fighting this kind of thing. If a story wants to go a certain way, it will not work any other way. Janet wasn’t about to change her mind. In fact, I like that about her.
In “Exile” Janet gets lost in the woods, finds herself denied access to then kicked out of the ugly man’s house, and finally is unseen and unheard at the party. Do you find it useful as a writer to have protagonists who are exiled from larger society? Is there a point where a character can be too outside of society or too included in society for the story to be interesting?
What Janet wants isn’t acceptable; metaphorically she’s taken a problematic path, so it’s no surprise that the world responds by disapproving in one way or another. But I do like willfulness; to a certain extent, only the willful succeed. I wouldn’t like her very much if she just went away somewhere and moped over her stepfather. Sometimes, if you’re wrong long enough, you’re suddenly right again. Is that possible? Why not?
Most fictional journeys—metaphoric journeys—are taken alone, since they represent an inner quest for a goal. In this case, it’s doubly solitary because she wants what is essentially an incestuous relationship. I’m not saying that’s good; I’m saying it’s her journey. So I think it’s no surprise that the society she meets turns her away or (in the case of the house in the woods) declares her invisible. She has violated social norms. But I do find myself dealing with the journey motif repeatedly. Of course each life is a journey; we each face trials and tests and do our best to reach a goal. Because it’s such an individual experience, it’s hard not to pose it as one person against society. And yes, there certainly can be too much of that kind of thing; if the story went any longer, Janet would definitely need a helper, some sort of spiritual or psychological relief because that’s also part of a quest and definitely a requirement in most fairy tales.
To continue with the theme of exile, do you find that individuals self-select their inclusion or exclusion to groups? Janet hisses at the boys she dances with, and she drives off the women Artie dates. She also becomes furious at the ugly man’s house and incensed at the party. Janet prides herself on waiting for Artie, who “always complained that no one could wait,” but she is angry at him for not waiting for her. How much of Janet’s exile is self-imposed?
All of it is self-imposed. Why should she like any of the things that interfere with getting what she wants?
In last year’s Fantasy Magazine interview, you said that you “find endings to be curmudgeonly things.” Was the ending to “Exile” equally curmudgeonly? Could you tell us about the process of writing it?
Every once in a while there’s an easy ending. In this case, I knew she would meet Artie again, but I didn’t know if he’d be dead or alive, so I tried it out a few ways and settled on alive. The dance they take at the end was satisfying to me—having Artie draped over her references the donkey skin in the fairy tale, which the heroine uses to disguise herself—but here it’s a man she uses and it’s not a disguise, but a guise. And that’s the kind of dance her life will be, I suppose, kind of mismanaged. She didn’t make an easy choice. That’s a lot of analysis. The wheels of vultures kept pulling me forward as an image, as did the parallel course of the unknown victim, so in my thinking everything eventually had to converge.
You’ve also said that you hate the question “What are you working on now?” Instead, to wrap up, could you tell us about an idea or a project or a non-writing related opportunity that you would like to try?
I’m overwhelmed with stories right now, though this current bunch I’m writing are not related to fairy tales. I seem to be getting interested in ghosts. I’m also interested in dementia, since my mother has been diagnosed with it, so the loss of self is taking over my thoughts. I’d like to get back to a novel-in-stories I started years ago. It’s hard to get to everything. Journeys have detours and obstructions. There just isn’t enough time.