Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Keren Heenan’s fiction piece, Black As
John: Edie and Kahsn feel almost like opposing archetypes—joy and depression, social and anti-social. Sadly, Edie is no match for Kahsn. Why do you suppose negative emotions feel stronger to us than the positive ones?
Keren: I suppose we are more aware of them because we have to actually deal with the problem that caused the negative emotions in the first place. The time spent dwelling on a loss, or working out how to get over some difficulty, we remember this. The energy expelled is greater than when we simply bathe in the glory of a win, a success or a simple pleasure. We don’t feel the need to respond to positive things, they are simply good, great, fantastic! And our bodies are zinging with the flush of the emotion. There’s no need to actually do anything, to resolve an issue or make any decisions. Kahsn is the shadow side of the other girls, as she silently grinds away at the vulnerabilities in their friendship. And in doing so plays the role of the archetypal Trickster—Puck, wicked fairy, bogie, hobgoblin—on a mission of mischief, to annoy, find the cracks and turn Edie’s ‘glass half-full’ into her own ‘glass half-empty.’ We see this in her small twisted smile at the end. A sort of mission accomplished grin.
The narrator’s day is ruined by an act of kindness, but they required the generosity of another to free their car. Is the road to hell indeed paved with good intentions? How much personal sacrifice can we be expected to make for others?
I don’t think I could answer that with an absolute. It really depends on the burden of guilt each individual thinks they will bear if they don’t make a particular personal sacrifice. Some people manage to go through life without sacrificing their own pleasure for others, while for some the sacrifices are so much greater than our own that we wonder what it is they must gain in return. We live in communities where interaction often requires small sacrifices that don’t infringe greatly upon our personal state. Empathy is a wonderful thing. If it were as widespread as greed and intolerance, we’d no longer be troubled by the scourge of war. Perhaps those with greater empathy are those who make the greatest sacrifices. I’m an advocate for treading the middle ground between outright selfish and doormat. As the narrator, Jess, and Edie comment: ‘Bloody Sarah! If only she wouldn’t be so damned nice all the time.’ ‘Yeah, sometimes you just have to be a bit mean.’
One of the things I love about this story is the strong narrative arc. Are you a planner? Did you know how things were going to go in this story before you began writing, or do you just wander around with an idea to see where you end up?
No, I’m not a planner at all. I have to let the idea grow and see where it takes me. Sometimes I have an end in mind and can try to steer the story in that direction, but that doesn’t always work. The story has to want to go there! When I started writing Black As, all I had was a writing prompt to place a new character in amongst a tight-knit group. I knew I wanted them in the close confines of a car, and that the car would be headed north to the sun, perhaps away from the cold south. I had no idea the hitchhiker was going to be the gloomy Kahsn until I let the narrative develop. The story was originally in the third person and when I rewrote it in second person, as an experiment, it resulted in a shorter and tighter story once the unnecessary fat was trimmed.
What aspects of writing fiction do you find easiest? What is most difficult for you, and why do you suppose that is?
I think when the writing itself is easy, when it’s quick and clean and I’ve found the voice immediately for a particular story, that’s when writing fiction is easiest. When you can feel your way through a story rather than think your way through it. But that doesn’t always happen, sometimes I have to work at an idea and it can become a hard slog to find the story arc. Sometimes a great idea is just that, and it refuses to become a story. Sometimes I’ve put these ideas away for months, years even, and I go through them again and realise that two of those abandoned ideas actually work well together. One of the difficulties in writing fiction is knowing when it’s just enough; the reader still has some work to do but is not bewildered by a lack of detail nor beaten around the head with unnecessary backstory. It’s hard to read your own work as a reader would, that’s where a writer’s group comes in handy; they often see what’s not working and why. I have a tendency to overwrite in the first instance. But I don’t mind the editing process either, there’s satisfaction in cutting back and reshaping a story. Leaving a story for several weeks before taking a fresh look also helps. If those little things still trip you up then they shouldn’t be there, no matter how lyrical or original they may sound in isolation.