From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Fascination Led Me to Sensuality: Karen Heuler

Karen Heuler has published over 50 short stories in both literary and speculative magazines, as well as two novels and a short story collection. She’s won an O. Henry Award and her fiction has appeared recently in Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, and Cemetery Dance. She lives in New York City. Her story, “Oh He Is,” appears this week in Fantasy Magazine.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Your background and life today?

I wrote my first “novel” when I was eleven; I believe it was five pages long. I started writing short stories in my teens; they were about three pages long. Now of course I’m an adult and I write novels and stories of all shapes and sizes. But I’m still an unstructured writer—I don’t keep to a schedule, I stare a lot, I daydream a lot and that seems to be the right way for me to be able to write. I admire people who can write to regular hours, and I imagine these are the same kind of people who buy clothes that need ironing and then actually iron them.

In your story in this week’s Fantasy Magazine, “Oh He Is,” Nina and Fleur go out for a walk:

Something ran from the side and then in front of them, and they both started. “What was that?” Fleur cried, and Nina bent slightly, looking past her friend to the shadows. “A rat,” she said. “I think it was a rat.”

Fleur stiffened. “We don’t have rats here.”

Later we learn that a strange man, Piers, who has returned to town, is a musician who’s been cheated by the wheel chair-bound Walter, who is keeping a group of children in a storefront window. Observably, you’re retelling “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” or picking up where it left off. Could you share a thought or two on this? What led you to want to rework this famous tale in such an unusual, unique way?

I wondered what happened to the children—there were theories about where they went (through the mountain to a new settlement; to death; to be conscripted in the Children’s Crusade), but the tale really ends with the children being swallowed up by a mysterious opening in a mountain. And the piper is gone. Obviously the piper was indifferent to the children, who were a means to an end for him. But the children were enthralled (in thrall) and, I thought, must have been transformed. I assumed the piper was also irrevocably transformed by his ability to mesmerize. So the story is about fascination, and fascination led me to sensuality—about how you can be both attracted and repulsed, and how hard it becomes to tell them apart or to act freely. That’s true for the piper as well. You can’t have a sensuous world overburdened with attraction without desperate actions.

How would you classify “Oh He Is”? Revisionist fantasy? Magical realism? Surrealism? Perhaps shades of Steampunk with its use of the clockwork dolls?

I used to say I write stories that are a little odd. Then I started saying that I write fantastic stories, until someone I like corrected that with, “She means the type of story is fantastic.” I’m going to try saying surreal.

What was your thematic intention behind the windup dolls in the story? With the children in the storefront window?

The original children followed the piper quite willingly, and they were never differentiated (except for the versions where a child was left behind or spared)—so I got rid of their individuality and they became as mechanical as dolls. Walter wants the dolls to behave like children because he thinks that will somehow get the children to break away from each other, and relieve him of his guilt. For a while I thought the dolls might be a way to resolve the story, but you have to be careful with mechanical dolls or they take over.

The wider theme surely has to do with the repercussions of longing—how it traps you. How breaking free of it is violent.

Could you describe the process of initial idea to a story’s fruition? How does a piece usually come about? Do you outline? Go through several drafts?

Most of my stories start with an image or an idea—and I suppose that’s one of the reasons I judge myself a plot person. An image or an idea—not necessarily a character. I loved the image of a bunch of children who act as one and I loved the idea of fascination. So the threads began to connect. The sensual details in the beginning—the scents and the streets and the eerie image of the children in the store window—all set the scene for me, a hypnotic setting ripe with expectation. But I didn’t know where to go at first. Then I realized the story wasn’t about the children. I had a slightly shocking image on my hands, however, and I found I had to defuse it, and I’d been thinking about the “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” for a long time—it, along with the “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” was one of my favorite fairy tales. So the children in the window were a perfect start for a story about the piper. I had to wait for it to connect.

I find an idea or image that absorbs me and I get the first paragraph or two easily. Then I fight every inch of the way to the end, trying to find the right action, mood and resolution. Usually the first half is easy and the last half isn’t.

You’ve published in many literary magazines. What led you to writing and publishing in the speculative fiction genre?

I’ve actually had a number of offbeat stories published by literary magazines and in my first (and so far, only) collection. But it seemed to me that some of the stories I liked the best were having the hardest time finding a place. About five or six years ago I finally stumbled upon (please forgive me) slipstream, cross-genre, interstitial, fabulist—all the wonderful writers and categories that described what I’d been doing for such a long time. I thought maybe I belonged with them. Ultimately, imagination pleases me; the juxtaposition of the present and the possible catches my attention. Even reality is awfully strange.

You recently had a story in last December’s Clarkesworld, “The Completely Rechargeable Man.” To me, this is a humorous social commentary on modern-day power, economics, and how the individual fits in and functions in society. Was that your intent with this piece?

It resulted from a prompt for a contest for another magazine, Tin House—I think the prompt was “off the grid.” And I want to say at this point that I’m grateful that Clarkesworld gently asked for a better ending than my original. Although I teach writing workshops, and I even have a lecture on endings, I find endings to be curmudgeonly things indeed. What surprises me is how I chew at the damn things forever, suddenly come up with the right ending, and then discover it isn’t right at all. I hate endings. I used to think that the only true ending for novels, for instance, is: And eventually everyone died. I say this even though I know how to appreciate, enjoy, adore a really good ending when someone else does it; and even when I do it.

Who are some of your literary influences?

The first and perpetual influence on me is Alice in Wonderland. Then Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Then (nonfiction) Oliver Sacks. Plus, of course, I adore Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Pat Barker, Dostoevsky, Gogol. For years I wanted to be a Russian writer. I hesitate to mention the current writers I like because there are so many and I don’t want to leave anyone out, but it’s a great thing to read someone else’s story and think, I wish I’d written that. It’s also great to think, I could never have written that. The stories I love the most are the ones that convince and surprise me at the same time.

What question are you really hoping I won’t ask?

I hope you won’t ask what I’m working on now; I hate that question.

What are you working on now or have coming out soon?

I’m working on a couple of stories; I’m working on finding an agent. I’m thinking about what I’m going to do with some stories that obviously are going to be an episodic novel. I have stories coming out in Albedo One, in Phantom, in Alaska Quarterly Review. And I’m happy to report, in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2009 and Best of the Web 2009.

What are your aspirations for the future? Goals? Ambitions?

One of my stories has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. I think I’m supposed to say “I’m humbled” by the nomination, but I’m not. I’m delighted. And so my goal is, simply, to get more of this delightful stuff, please. More.

Interviewer Marshall Payne has written over 90 short stories and his fiction has or will appear in Aeon Speculative Fiction, Brutarian, Talebones, and Fictitious Force to name a few. His numerous interviews with various luminaries of the field, as well as with up-and-coming SF/F writers, have appeared at The Fix. He has a homepage at

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