Charles Tan Interviews Rosanne Rabinowitz

Rosanne Rabinowitz’s novella Helen’s Story is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: Considering Helen’s Story and The Great God Pan were novellas, what is it about the format that interests you?

Rosanne Rabinowitz: I noticed that the novella category for the Shirley Jackson Awards includes seven nominees – the longest shortlist of the lot! Perhaps this highlights the special place the novella holds for fantastical fiction.

I gave some thought to that earlier in the year, when a critic – Matthew Fryer – included Helen as one of his favourites of 2013. This was much to my delight – and a touch of bemusement when he put Helen in the novel category. At just under 40,000 words Helen would be considered a novella in most camps, and that’s how I’ve viewed it. But a reader picking up the hard copy doesn’t have access to the word count.

Now, I’ve noticed that some novellas read as a longer short story, while others contain the layering you usually find in a novel. I’ve enjoyed both types of novella, but maybe the latter satisfies and resonates the most. Alice Munro is able to convey the time-span and complex story arcs of a novel in about thirty pages. Elizabeth Hand and Nina Allan have also written this kind of novella.

So I wondered: does word count alone define these forms, or is it the structure and mood that defines the short story, the novella and the novel? Can we look at the novella as a fictional form in its own right, which is neither extended short story or condensed novel? Since then, I’ve had some further ideas.

The novella offers a writer space to develop character and atmosphere. But it also lends itself to an intensity that’s difficult to maintain in a novel. And with a novel, maybe we do need some downtime just to hang out with the characters. This thought might just reflect my own taste in big and baggy novels, and the fact I’ve committed such a beast myself.

So maybe it’s that fusion of intensity with depth that characterises a strong novella – and that’s why the form lends itself so well to exploring the weird and strange.

Charles Tan:What made you want to tell Helen Vaughan’s perspective and how did Arthur Machen’s novella inspire you?

Rosanne Rabinowitz: I first read Machen when I was 12. In fact, my first encounter with Machen was through another novella,  The White People. Perhaps I was just at the right age to enjoy this tale about a neglected and imaginative girl who roams the countryside near her father’s house, seeking the magical and unknown. It impressed me so much that I went on to read as much Machen that I could get my hands on – my local library had old copies of Tales of Horror and the Supernatural and The Three Imposters too. When I read The Great God Pan, it didn’t cast quite the spell that The White People did. But its collage of events and voices fascinated me. I kept puzzling over it. So what did Helen actually do? What happened to her friend Rachel?

I’ve always loved the way The Great God Pan evokes landscapes of beauty and menace, of sunlight and ‘swaying leaves’ and ‘quivering shadows on the grass’. Machen is able to conjure such foreboding in a breeze blowing through a field in Wales on a summer afternoon, the odour of decay lurking beneath the scent of wild roses or a walk along a dank street off a busy London thoroughfare.

But Helen has no voice at all in The Great God Pan, and little actual presence. Her only real engagement with a main character comes towards the end when that old busybody Villiers barges into her bedroom with his ‘thick hempen rope’.

So what would it feel like to be Helen: brought up by a man who is convinced she is loathsome, shuffled between foster homes and boarding schools? She would have taken on a good deal of arrogance from her upper-class milieu but she also appealed to me as an outcast. She is, after all, partly human. She would be aware that she’s different from those around her, and wonder why.

I kept coming back to The Great God Pan for clues, and those speculations grew into Helen’s Story. While weird fiction often works by use of suggestion rather than revelation, I thought it was definitely time to explore some of these suggestions and make a few of my own.  And what would our Helen get up to in contemporary London? I had a lot of fun imagining that.

I’ve always been interested in the ‘other side’ of classic stories, especially from the villain’s point of view. One favourite book is Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of Mr Rochester’s mad first wife in Jane Eyre. I also remember a book that took on Great Expectations from Estella’s point of view. Reworkings of Dracula by Kim Newman and Brian Stableford also come to mind. There’s a grand tradition of fictional ripostes. I love the idea of literature as a continuing dialogue – even an argument.

Charles Tan: What was the most challenging part when it came to writing the story?

Rosanne Rabinowitz: Developing Helen as a character certainly challenged me. Contrarian that I am, I was continually tempted to make Helen ‘good’ – that is, a totally sympathetic outcast and rebel – in opposition to Machen’s portrayal of her as pure evil.

As mentioned, I did perceive arrogance in her character and sometimes she does treat people badly. Yet she would be struggling with isolation and an attempt to understand who she is. It took many drafts and critiques before I felt satisfied with the results. And of course, portraying a consciousness that is not entirely human is always a challenge.

I also have an ambivalent relationship with Machen’s story – on one hand, parts of it are truly evocative and haunting. On the other, there’s a definite ‘evil thy name is woman’ vibe going through it. So I wanted to treat the original with the respect and affection I felt for it, yet not pull any punches in confronting the way it deals with women and sexuality. And I certainly didn’t want to suppress the humour provoked by its more florid passages.

Well, Mr Machen himself liked a good laugh in the pub along with his whisky, so I think a satirical note or two does justice to the spirit of his work.

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