My short story “To Possess Nature” was just published in Verdad Magazine. Yeah! I planned to do another goofy mock interview like I did for my story published Sixfold, but I’m too crazy busy these days for that much zaniness. I’m working on a big project writing online EFL lessons for primary and secondary students in British English. Like I’ve written here before, I write so much in British English these days my computer is convinced I’m English. It somehow set itself to BE, so when I’m writing favorite it automatically changes it to favourite or puts those angry red dots underneath like it just did when I wrote out the word in AmEn. Boo! Down with the U! Z before S! Meters not metres (and why the hell would I ever use the metric system, anyway?)
Yes, my (British) alter ego is Helen Winterbottom of Essex who takes a long drag on her fag and a sip of amber whisky (Scottish on her mother’s side, you know) whilst teaching tots about adverbs of frequency in the most divine RP (egads! Not RP! Everyone knows it’s fallen out of fashion. Besides, if I were English there’s no way in hell I’d be posh, of that much I’m sure.) These days, Miss Winterbottom is in charge, so this post will be short(ish) and sweet(ish), no silly video added.
Anyway, here’s the lowdown on my story (and, yes, you should read the story first if you want this to make any sense). Enjoy!
I’ve long been fascinated with the natural history wave of the Victorian period. When my daughters were younger, we spent many an afternoon at the Museum of Natural History here in Berlin. The place has a feel of dust and death, like the naturalists at the time felt they could conquer nature one pinned beetle at a time. And, of course, it was all quite the aristocratic pursuit, not anything for the common working man (and their history at that time had it’s special brand of darkness too). The whole thing has this obsessive, dark drive to it which appeals to me and creeps me out at the same time. How exciting it must have been to explore an undiscovered world, how dangerous and mad.
Of course, from our modern perspective, it also seems incredibly cruel at times. I was reminded of this when I read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. As she writes in the book, towards the end, the Great Auk’s extinction was greatly accelerated by the demand of naturalists who demanded more body parts of this once ubiquitous bird, made rare by overhunting. Ideas like conservation or protecting endangered species are modern concepts. The naturalists of this era saw nature as something to be possessed, collected and cataloged, stored away in a cabinet or a drawer. The dark strangeness of this, and how it seemed perfectly normal at the time, was what inspired me to write “To Possess Nature.”
In “To Possess Nature” I intentionally used a formal, slightly clunky style because it suited the story best. However, now I wonder if I overdid it a bit. Does the awkwardness of some of the sentences give the reader the claustrophobic feeling of a Victorian corset, or does it just come across as bad writing? Did I go a little overboard with the semi-colons?
These are the questions that came up when I re-read the story shortly before the launch. But I’m not taking the worries too seriously. Really, it’s just typical writer stuff (i.e. obsessive editing and later obsessing over the obsessive editing). I took a class with the writer Kate Brown and she told us a story about going to a reading where the writer would read a sentence, frown, and cross it out. And this in a book already published. Either way, the story is out there now and it is what it is. Too late now to change anything, which is probably for the best anyway.
Although the Great Auk’s extinction and the characters have stayed the same, the story has changed quite a bit. Originally, Friedrich died in the story of scarlet fever, a bit of the Velveteen Rabbit only sans rabbit and a sad ending for the kid. The story was mainly about how people deal differently with death. However, I workshopped it with Sixfold and nearly everyone agreed that the parts about the bird were interesting, but the parts about the boy’s death not so interesting. Or, as one reader bluntly put it, “Love the bird, don’t give a crap about the dead kid.”
I toyed around with the story after that, trying to decide if I agreed with the feedback or not. Then Trump won the election and the world felt like a crueler, more alienating place. The edits started and the story got much darker.
I think the story works better now, which I’m glad about. It also find it terrifying in a way. The Victorian age had it’s own cruel, careless attitude towards nature, but we do too. And we’ll pay a price for it. I just hope the price won’t be too high in the end…
Ok folks, Helen calls. She’s got to get back too it (and yes, I am aware that “get back too it” is undoubtedly a shameless Americanism!)