5 Questions with Rosanne Rabinowitz on HELEN’S STORY and the Shirley Jackson Award

[NOTE: This is part of a series of Q&As with the Shirley Jackson Award nominees.]

Rosanne lives in South London, so it’s no surprise she has a story titled “Lambeth North” in the anthology Horror Without Victims. A longstanding member of the precariat, Rosanne engages in a variety of occupations including freelance editing, copywriting and care work.

Her novella Helen’s Story (PS Publishing) has been shortlisted for the 2013 Shirley Jackson prize and she has contributed to anthologies such as Rustblind and Silverbright (with Mat Joiner), Never Again: Weird Fiction Against Racism and Fascism, Extended Play: the Elastic Book of Music, The Slow Mirror: New Fiction by Jewish Writers, Conflicts, The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies and a new science fiction collection, Life Seed. You can visit her website here: rosannerabinowitz.wordpress.com

Rosanne was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about HELEN’S STORY!


Kristin Centorcelli: Congrats on the Shirley Jackson Award nomination! Will you tell us about your novella and what inspired you to write it?

Rosanne Rabinowitz: Helen’s Story was inspired by Arthur Machen’s novella The Great God Pan, which features an enigmatic half-human femme fatale named Helen Vaughan. Born from a botched experiment, she has sexual appetites so dreadful that they cause heart attacks, seizures and ‘utter collapse’ in men who come into her orbit. We also read of the mysterious fate of 16-year-old Rachel, who had a relationship of a ‘peculiarly intimate character’ with Helen. Meanwhile, a series of well-heeled chaps commit suicide in the “West End Horrors”.

But Helen herself has no voice in The Great God Pan. She is at the centre of the mystery, but we only hear about her second-hand. Her only real engagement with a main character comes towards the end when a pompous twit called Villiers barges into her bedroom with his ‘thick hempen rope’.

But I always found the collage of events in this book fascinating. What did Helen actually do? What happened to Rachel? What would it feel like to be brought up by a man who is convinced she is loathsome and shuffles her between foster homes and boarding schools?

Meanwhile, I’ve always enjoyed the grand tradition of literary ripostes from villains or marginalized characters in classic stories. One favourite is Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of Mr Rochester’s mad first wife in Jane Eyre. I 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.

So I thought it was about time that The Great God Pan receives the same treatment, and Helen finally gets to tell her story. However, I wanted to do more than revisit The Great God Pan. I wanted to move forward too. What would Helen get up to if she lived in London now? I imagined her as an artist, who learned a few tricks from her ill-fated artist boyfriend Arthur Meyrick. And given that she’s not all human, she could possibly live a very long life. Despite those rumours of her death, she’s alive and well and living in Shoreditch!

KC: What, or who, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing, and why did you first begin writing?

RR: I’ve been a voracious reader as far back as I can remember, so my influences are wide and varied. People I read and loved in my teens include Marge Piercy, Ursula LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, Jean Rhys, Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr, Robert Silverberg, Samuel Delaney and Tom Robbins. I was also partial to Beat poets like Ginzburg, Ferlinghetti and Rexroth, and I was fond of sprawling social realist epics. This included classics like Zola, early 20th century writing like Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth and Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker – which unfortunately got made into a ultra-crap film. Marge Piercy has written that kind of novel, as well as her science fiction classics Woman on the Edge of Time and Body of Glass. I also liked the way she wrote across several genres, which has been an influence too.

As to Machen, an obvious inspiration for Helen’s Story. I first read his novella The White People when I was about 12. 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. Then I read as much Machen that I could get my hands on. The Great God Pan didn’t cast quite the spell as The White People, but I’ve always loved the way it evokes landscapes of beauty and menace, of sunlight and ‘swaying leaves’ and ‘quivering shadows on the grass’. It’s no coincidence that two of my favourite writers – M John Harrison and Elizabeth Hand – also cite Machen as an influence.

I’m attracted to writers who bring both the ‘real’ and the fantastical to their fiction — and blur the boundaries between the two. In recent years I’ve enjoyed work by Joel Lane, Ali Smith, Caitlin Kiernan, Junot Diaz, Helen Oyeyemi, Kate Atkinson, Michel Faber, Nicholas Royle, David Mitchell, Geoff Ryman, Nina Allen, and Graham Joyce. And there are many others.

I can also mention some historians — EP Thompson, Christopher Hill, Silvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh, Marcus Rediker and Maria Mies. These authors look for “hidden narratives” of the past and I often approach writing fiction in the same way.

As for why I write – it just seemed the thing to do. I often wrote when I was angry, and still do. During most of the 80s and 90s, I concentrated on non-fiction and polemic. I was involved with producing radical women’s ’zines like Feminaxe and Bad Attitude, doing page lay-out as well as writing articles. That kind of thing is very different from fiction, but it did get me into the habit of writing on a regular basis and when I got positive responses I became more confident.

One moment of pride came after I wrote a long piece about increased harassment of benefit claimants and the threat of workfare – yup, way back in the 1990s – and about claimants unions and resistance. Then someone wrote to us to say that she contacted a local group when she was getting grief down at the job centre; they helped her sort out her problems and she met lots of great people. So I was excited that something I wrote could make a difference to a people I don’t even know.

But eventually, I wanted to do more to explore nuances and emotions in my writing. Fiction also allows more scope for imagination and vision. So I got into making stuff up again…

KC: If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?

RR: That’s a difficult question! I keep asking myself – would I experience it at the age I read it, or re-experience that book now? I might have a very different reaction.

I was totally entranced with Clive Barker’s Weaveworld. And I recently downloaded it onto my Kindle, with the intention of rereading. But you… I must want to keep that book’s magic in the realm of memory.

KC: What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award?

RR: I was absolutely thrilled. It came as a total surprise. With other awards there’s usually a build-up of long lists and internet chatter. But this one came out of the blue. When I received the email informing me of my nomination, I was gibbering in surprise and amazement in a way that would do any Lovecraftian cultist proud. I couldn’t sleep that night!

I first read “The Lottery” in school and I read The Haunting of Hill House shortly after. I never suspected that I’d be nominated for an award in her name. I’ve resolved to read more of her work now, and revisit what I read long ago.

KC: What’s next for you?

KC: I actually have two novels on the go, which I’ve interrupted to complete short stories. It’s only recently that I’ve been getting personal approaches to contribute stories, which I find extremely flattering, but I will have to learn how to coordinate this with novel-writing..

As you might have noticed, I have an interest in history. Most things I’ve been writing explore the layers of history and how the past affects the present and the future. I’m currently writing a novel called Heretics, which is about a woman leader of the “Adamites” or Pikarts, the most radical faction in the Hussite Revolution in 15th century Bohemia. They stood for all-out class warfare against the church, nobility and the feudal system, and very strongly for sexual freedom and a kind of anarchistic communism. You could compare them to the Ranters in the English Revolution, except there were more of them and they actually took over an island in the Nezarka River. Near the site of that island there’s now a pub called the Restaurace Adamita.

My idea for Heretics was sparked by a few historical references to a woman leader of the this group called Maria. The only thing known about her is her name, really. And it became apparent that if I wanted to know more, once again I would have to make it up.

These so-called Adamites (the term was first applied to the Bohemian revolutionaries by an 18th historian) received very bad press from the likes of Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium. He regarded them simply as thugs. But surviving historical accounts were written by the Pikarts’ enemies, whether they were conservative Catholics, mainstream Hussites or Cold War-influenced historians like Cohn.

Czech historian and philosopher Robert Kalivoda tried to counter this, denouncing the reactionaries that have heaped “five centuries of schmutz” on the unknown peasants and artisans who fought for their freedom and died as the premature “protagonists of the modern European revolution”.

So I find myself doing something similar to Helen’s Story in taking up the perspective of these villains. There are elements of myth and strangeness in this book, but so far it’s not overtly speculative.

Then there’s a big novel called Noise Leads Me, which is actually finished. But I’m always giving it a tweak now and then. An episode from it was published as the short story “Survivor’s Guilt” in the anthology Never Again: Weird Fiction Against Racism and Fascism.

Noise features a vampire (of sorts) who identifies with the have-nots and discontented and joins in 300 years of conflict between the dispossessed and those who wield power. My character’s turbulent journey embraces 18th century Montenegro and Vienna, participation in the Luddite uprisings of 19th century England and revolution in the ruins of post-WWI Munich. Then she returns to London in 1995, just in time for a riot.

Music plays a central role in the novel, inspiring my character to pursue a vision that anticipates popular unrest in our own century as barriers between past and present, memory, reality and desire break down. And this reflects the way that music has influenced my writing, especially punk and all the permutations of folk music.

While paying more attention to these projects in the coming months, I still hope to carry on writing short fiction. I have a few things coming out in anthologies including Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease and The Mammoth Book of the Vatican Vaults.

I’m also signed up to take part in a Lovecraftian shared world anthology called The Outsiders, from Crystal Lake Publishing. This will be a new experience. So far it’s been fun to air ideas with the editor and other contributors, rather than sweating it out on my own in a proverbial garret. I enjoyed collaborating with Birmingham writer Mat Joiner on a story that appears in Eibonvale Press’ anthology Rustblind and Silverbright, so I thought I’d give sharing worlds a go too.