Claire Spaulding, author of our 2013 contest-winning story (and our latest issue), “Helen,” in conversation with editor Patrick Ryan
What was the first thing that came to you—the first thought or observation—that led to the story that became “Helen”?
I read a lot about the lack of diversity in YA literature, so I started out with a conscious desire to write a kind of story that hadn’t already been told, at least not for a YA audience. That was my first thought. Then a passage in The Great Gatsby inspired me to write a short exercise in description that turned into an important scene of “Helen,” and the rest of the story came to me all at once after that.
Was it always your intention to stick to Walker’s point of view, or did you experiment with telling the story from the points of view of both your main characters?
I did experiment with both characters’ perspectives—as I was writing, I saw each character most clearly through the other character’s eyes, so I had to put myself in Helen’s shoes for a bit to get a solid grasp on Walker. But it would be a very different story from Helen’s point of view, and while I might revisit that idea someday, this story has always belonged to Walker.
You give us the events out of chronological order. Did you ever think of telling it chronologically, or was the plan always to render it the way it is now?
I began writing the most important scenes as they came to me, but I always planned to go back and put them in order later. Then I got halfway through and realized I was already telling the story I wanted to tell. Without giving any spoilers, I think that having the story unfold non-chronologically plays with readers’ assumptions in a powerful way. As more information gets revealed, hopefully “Helen” will challenge some preconceptions and force readers to confront their own biases; that was always my goal in writing this story, and I think the unusual structure contributes to that.
One of the things I love about “Helen” is that it’s a doomed love story, and yet it’s not a story of unrequited love. It’s actually a fairly complicated dynamic you’ve created. If we were to put the events in chronological order and look at the arc of the story, was this always what was in store for these two characters? Or did you consider having things turn out differently for them?
Most books I’ve read draw a clear line between friendship and romance, but affection and attraction and love are a lot more complicated and mixed-up than that, especially for teenagers. I wanted to write “Helen” in part to celebrate a relationship that was deep and loving and important but didn’t fit easily into any boxes. The specific details of what would happen to the two characters at the end of the story came later, but I always knew how their relationship would develop.
What are you working on now?
I’m starting my third round of revisions on a novel that I’ve been working on for a little over a year. It’s a fast-paced urban fantasy, very different from “Helen” stylistically, but it explores some of the same themes of love and identity and social justice. That’s my biggest project at the moment. I also have a few more short stories that I’m working on. I’m actually most comfortable writing novel-length fiction, so I’m trying to challenge myself to write more short fiction and poetry.
What’s the best piece of advice on writing you’ve ever received?
I’ve heard this advice worded several different ways, but it boils down to this: “Write the empty spaces on your bookshelf.” It’s easy to get too focused on trying to write beautiful prose and not realize you’re writing a story that would bore you after three pages if you picked it up at the library. Instead, write the kinds of stories you would want to read. And write the stories and characters that aren’t getting written, whether that means writing more LGBTQ characters, more characters of color, or just more characters dealing with problems and emotions that feel real to you.
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