Publishing is the finish line every aspiring writer aims for—those of us who carry a love of words dream of the day we see our names on the cover of a book. But once it’s achieved, it needs to happen again.
For Helen Marshall, this success has become more and more frequent as the years go by. In September, Marshall released her second collection of short stories, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, to a stellar reception by critics. She also earned a doctorate in medieval studies at U of T this past June and has worked as a TA for the campus’s English department. She brings her scholarly background to her fiction to lend some surprising realism to her stories, which are sometimes fantasy and sometimes horror. “Studying the past has definitely shaped the way I approach writing,” Marshall said. “The past is endlessly fascinating and endlessly strange.
“Writing the first collection felt like driving in whiteout conditions,” she said about how this experience was different from her debut, and added that she has since learned to navigate the “scary middles” of the writing process.
What attracted Marshall to a doctorate at U of T was the Centre for Medieval Studies and the opportunities offered there for close work with medieval manuscripts. “The first time I held a manuscript was electric—touching something so old and realizing there was still something to be uncovered about it,” she said. She views her work as a literary historian not only as a careful analysis of the past, but also as an act of storytelling, using the physical evidence from different periods to piece together a story about the generations that have come and gone. “What excites me most about storytelling is finding a way to understand the personal narratives of individual lives against the broader canvas,” she said. Marshall combines her academic work with her creative work through this interest in how one generation can affect the ones that follow, and the question “What is the nature of the legacy we pass on to our children?” is one she explores in all her work.
It’s certainly paid off—Marshall’s work has been very well received in the literary world. The reviews for Gifts so far have been overwhelmingly positive—even garnering praise from Neil Gaiman himself—but the cherry on top for her hard work over the past two years has been winning the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer. “It was a tremendous thrill to be up on stage with writers such as Susan Cooper and Neil Gaiman, writers whose imaginations shaped my childhood and adolescence,” Marshall said. “The field of literature has always felt to me like a series of ongoing conversations, and it is amazing to think, ‘Okay, I’m in the game now. Let’s go.’ ”
Marshall brings a unique voice to this literary conversation. Her stories delve into worlds in which the supernatural is not only possible, but also commonplace. Often in her stories, the supernatural takes a turn into dark, murky waters and explores a side of the genre that leaves behind the good-natured fairies and magic and dives into more sinister happenings. “I suppose I’ve always been attracted to the fantastic,” Marshall said. “When I was a child, I devoured books about mythology and fairy tales. […] It wasn’t until I began to work as an editor for the Toronto press ChiZine Publications that I became fascinated with the darker side of the myths.”
These influences are evident in Marshall’s work; stories like “The Hanging Game” and “Crossroads and Gateways” have a mythic feel to them, and many of her stories feature children learning to deal with the world around them and encountering the supernatural in some way that will profoundly impact them. She doesn’t shy away from the dark and gritty, either.
Underneath it all, however, are still recognizable themes anyone can relate to. “What has always excited me about fantasy and horror is that they aim to evoke wonder and awe, they try to find a way to open us up to the possibility of a world which is larger and more complicated […] than we see in our daily lives,” she said. “I believe that sense of openness to the possibility of the universe is something that readers carry away with them.”
Trying to ask questions, for Marshall, lies at the heart of her writing process. “I typically like to come up with an idea that sounds very silly […] and then I try to explore the real-world consequences of that impossible premise,” she said. Her work is just as much characterized by the undeniable realism of her characters and her worlds as by the bizarre events or objects in and around them.
“The hardest thing about writing is forcing yourself to sit in front of a blank page without knowing how you will fill it,” she said, adding that most crucial thing is to find ways to overcome this fear. “But writing is still tricky. It never stops being tricky. And it never stops being scary. I just try to remind myself, on the bad days, that showing up is enough […] and if it doesn’t work today I’ll still be able to take a crack at writing tomorrow.”
Her biggest message to young writers looking to get published and feeling discouraged was to keep returning to the blank page. “Write funny stuff. Write sad stuff. Write happy stuff. Write weird stuff,” she said. “Finish what you start. You may not realize it, but there is a gift in writing when no one is paying attention. You can make mistakes and no one knows. So make every mistake you can because that’s how you’ll get better. And then start sending it out into the world.”