Short stories were never my thing. In my youth, with no direction but always a burning passion to write, I wrote one incomplete story after another. One story, however, many decades later, turned into my seventh novel, Barrie Hill Reunion. That anomaly aside, the writing of incomplete stories seemed like little more than a writing exercise for a young, searching mind.
Like many writers, I have folders filled with examples of my youthful angst and confusion: long-winded stream-of-consciousness musings, depressing poetry, and once in a while, a random ray of sunshine. Here’s one such wonder from my teenaged mind:
Wisdom entails years of sleep,
And waking to find the river is deep,
Falling closely, avoiding the rocks,
Knowing the world in a time without clocks.
Waves rush fiercely to salvage the drift,
Creations dancing on a whitened cliff.
Spring of water and honey pie,
Miraculous wonder which never can die.
But most of my poetry read more like this:
Trapped in a cage of gloom,
I wander all over the room.
At every bar, I chance for escape,
Forgetting it’s me in the long black cape.
And sometimes, my poetry was on the artistic side:
At the age of nineteen, I wrote 150 pages of an unfinished novel. As time went on, still without direction, I wrote four screenplays and two plays.
Years later, after a decade-long writer’s block and much introspection, figuring out that I had a simultaneous fear of both rejection and success, I started writing again. By now, I’ve learned that in order to complete something, I need to know what I want to complete. There’s nothing wrong with getting into a car and going for a ride without a destination, but after so long, I need to arrive somewhere.
The realization of what had been holding me back spurred me to write my first novel, Squalor, New Mexico, a 1970s coming-of-age story that takes place in East Coast suburbia.
I went on to become a multi-genre author of seven novels. People had often asked me if I’d ever written short stories. “No,” I had always replied. “My mind doesn’t work that way. My mind only works in long form. I need to write novels.”
And for the most part, maybe that’s true. But in 2015, when I was asked to write two short stories for an anthology called Triptychs: Mind’s Eye Series Book 3, I responded in the affirmative. After completing two short stories, inspired by two photos I was given, I realized the writing of short stories was not beyond my ken. (Insert smart-ass remark here from my brother, Kenneth; I know one is coming.)
While writing for the anthology showed me I could write short stories, it wasn’t enough of an impetus to write more. It was during the writing of my YA paranormal trilogy, The Desert Series, that I became increasingly frustrated by the limitations on language. So, after I finished the first book, while waiting for my edits to be returned, I unleashed my frustration by writing a short story in the literary fiction genre. Ah, what a joy it was to use any words that meandered through my mind. Before too long, I wrote another story.
Writing these stories not only made me feel good, but I found a way to keep on writing during the waiting period. While some authors can easily delve into a new novel, I only like to work on one at a time so I can completely immerse myself in the nuances of my story.
It was around that time that I decided I would slowly start building a themed collection. After three years, Hotel Obscure was finished. My goal had been to have at least fourteen stories, but to my delight, I ended up with seventeen.
Here’s the synopsis for Hotel Obscure:
In a run-down neighborhood in an unnamed city, people live and die in “the Obscure.”
Whether anyone remembers the real name of the derelict establishment is a mystery. In this six-story building, most who occupy the rooms are long-term residents, though some stay for as little as an hour.
The patronage is an eclectic group: musicians, writers, addicts, hookers, lonely people, poor people, rich people, once-well-off people, and those who have reason to hide from their former lives or to escape the demands of a disapproving and punishing society.
As shabby as the Obscure is, as long as its walls keep out the wind and the rain, it remains a shelter, a hideaway, and a home for the many bewildered souls.
Hotel Obscure is a collection of seventeen short stories that all take place in or around the “the Obscure.” While the stories stand alone, they are to be read in order. Some characters appear in multiple stories, and sometimes, a story will continue in an unexpected way.
The Obscure is life. It is death. In the blink of an eye, it may appear supernatural. It is a place we all visit … whether metaphorically or physically, at least once in our time on Earth.
And yes, my ninth book will be a novel. However, I have no doubt that I’ll slowly begin to build another short story collection. Not only do I enjoy literary fiction and having something to do between books, I also find the process of exploring themes and stories without turning them into novels extremely satisfying. But wow, what a trip it’s been to get here.
Maria Haskins was born and grew up in Sweden, but has been a resident of British Columbia, Canada since the early 1990s. Currently, she lives just outside Vancouver with her family – a husband, two kids, and a very large dog. She has had several books published in Sweden, and Odin’s Eye – a collection of science fiction short stories – is her English language debut.
In addition to being a writer and blogger, she is also a certified translator, translating between Swedishand English.
Time to chat with Maria!
What is your latest book?
My latest book is ‘Cuts & Collected Poems 1989 – 2015’. It’s a sort of poetry-anthology. It includes one book of poetry called Cuts, the first one I’ve ever written in English, and translations of my three previously published Swedish collections of poetry.
Last year I also self-published Odin’s Eye, a collection of science fiction short stories. The stories are set in an unspecified distant future when humanity has colonized parts of the solar system, and are also exploring outer space. My stories deal with things like artificial intelligence, cloning, human colonization of alien worlds, and how human life on Earth has been affected by conflict and environmental problems. And aliens: there are definitely some aliens, too! One of the themes running through the book is how human beings and society are affected by technological change. I’d say that the focus in my stories is on how technology affects human beings, the human experience, and the human condition, rather than on the specifics of the technology itself.
How did you choose the genre(s) you write in? Or did they choose you?
I feel like I’ve written poetry, fantasy and science fiction pretty much my whole life.
I’ve been a huge fan of science fiction ever since I was a child. Books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation-series set me on that path, just like Tolkien’s and Ursula K. Le Guin’s work made me fall in love with the fantasy genre. There’s just something about these kinds of stories set in other worlds (whether alternate fantasy worlds, or sci-fi future-worlds) that appeals to me very strongly. Part of it is that there’s a freedom in the storytelling, and in what you can do as a writer (and what you can expect as a reader) in those kinds of stories. I have written other kinds of fiction, and I do write poetry as well, but science fiction and fantasy are definitely my first loves when it comes to both reading and writing, and that’s my focus as a writer right now.
I’ve written poetry since I was a young teenager. It was a way to express myself and use my creativity, but it was also a way to process everything I was thinking and feeling. That’s the way it still is for me. It’s almost like a safety valve, and it was definitely a safety valve when I was a teen.
What really changed the way I thought about poetry, and how I wrote poetry, was when we read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in high school. I still have the printout of the poem we were given in class. Eliot’s language, and the way he mixes and blends the strange and the familiar, memories and literary references… that made a huge impression on me. It made me realize that you could do things with language that I hadn’t realized were even possible before that. You could sort of paint your feelings with words on paper. The Waste Land is still one my favourite poems. I come back to it all the time and still find it very inspiring. It is such a strange and beautiful poem, almost like a hallucination or fever-dream. Reading The Waste Land opened my eyes to the fact that things don’t have to “make sense” in poetry (or prose, really) for you to understand them. Interestingly, even when I had terrible writer’s block, I would still write poetry occasionally because it was so much more immediate and visceral, perhaps, than writing prose.
What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories?
Probably creating a sense of the place and the world your story is set in without a lot of exposition, and also giving the reader a feel for your characters without using pages and pages to do it. But that challenge is also what makes writing short stories a lot of fun! You have to really think about what NOT to say, just as much as you think about what you DO say: keeping some mystery rather than explaining things thoroughly. One of my favourite short stories is Ray Bradbury’s The One Who Waits, about a strange being that lives “like smoke in a well”. It’s brief, enigmatic, haunting, scary, and totally awesome. And Bradbury’s prose is just perfect in that story. That is sort of my gold standard for what a short story should be.
What’s the greatest challenge in writing poetry?
I’d say that it is getting at the emotional truth of what it is you want to say, and not lose sight of what, exactly, you’re trying to express. That’s what I aim for when I write, to focus on a feeling or mood and express it in words the way I feel it in my own mind. Often, that means NOT writing what comes to mind first, but digging deeper and not be afraid to be strange and weird. It usually also means paring it all down to the very core of what you’re feeling, even if that can be painful.
A poem in my latest collection ‘Cuts’ is called ‘Pain in Progress’ and it was written when I found out that a friend of mine had died from cancer. She was close to my own age and it hit me so hard: the finality of it, that death can come for someone you know and all of a sudden they’re just not part of the world anymore. I basically wrote that poem in a day, just in the pain of missing her, anger at death and cancer for taking her away. Everything was so raw and close. It was painful to write it, but there were so many feelings just screaming to get out of me. It was a way to talk to myself and others about that grief and pain.
Another challenge when I was getting my collection of poetry ready for self-publication was translating my old poetry, written in Swedish many years ago, into English. That was rather daunting, but also kind of exhilarating: to revisit those poems that I wrote many, many years ago and almost reinterpret them into English. Translating poetry is tough, that’s why there is that famous quote about “poetry is what gets lost in translation”, because it’s so hard to capture the exact meaning, rhythm, and nuances of one language when you translate a poem into another language. There is no way to do it without losing something of the original along the way, that’s just the nature of the beast, but at least in my own case I knew what I originally meant to say. It was gratifying to translate all that poetry, to read it again and experience it again, and actually capture it – to some extent at least! – on the page in English.
What else have you been working on?
After self-publishing Odin’s Eye, and my collection of poetry last year, I’ve been working a lot on short stories and flash fiction mainly fantasy and science fiction. I have two short stories coming out in the next Mind’s Eye anthology, and I also have a short story in an anthology from Inklings Press called ‘Alternate Earths’. It’s a science fiction / alternate history story, and different from the kind of writing I’ve done before: it’s my first time diving into alternate history. I am really excited to be part of those two anthologies!
Having our work out there to be judged by strangers is often daunting for writers. Do you have any tips on handling a negative review?
It’s hard. It’s tough to deal with somebody saying that they don’t like something you poured your heart and soul into. I’m not great at handling it to be honest, but I try. I try to at least not take things personally. One thing to keep in my mind is that not every reader will like your work, regardless of how good a writer you are. And sometimes you can learn from it as well: that’s the good and scary part about criticism, when it points out actual flaws in our work!
Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?
I’ve written stories pretty much as long as I can remember. It’s always been a part of me, and it’s always been something I do.
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
My life is pretty busy with kids, a dog, and a part-time job as a translator, so I try to grab whatever moments are available. If I could pick, it would be to work before noon, and maybe late nights after everyone else has gone to bed. I find that my creativity is probably best earlier in the day, but late nights are pretty good for editing and poetry. As for must-haves, I must have my cup of extra strong tea, and sometimes I like listening to instrumental music as well.
We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
I think covers are important. They are not everything, but they can definitely help. When it came to Odin’s Eye, I was really lucky, or maybe it was serendipity or fate or whatever. Anyway, once I had decided on the title, I stumbled on an image of the Helix nebula online: it’s a nebula that looks like a giant eye in space. Sometimes it’s been called the “eye of god”. It was such a perfect image for the book, and I knew immediately that this had to be the cover. Luckily for me, the picture was in the public domain! I was so pleased with how that cover came out, and I still get a thrill every time I see it. I have thank Caligraphics for designing that cover!
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?
I suffered from a very bad case of writer’s block for a few years. There were a lot of things behind that. One thing was that my two wonderful-crazy-nutty kids came along, shifting my priorities and changing my life: and I am so deeply grateful for them, but yes, having kids did affect my writing. I was used to just being able to write whenever I felt like it, and suddenly that wasn’t really possible anymore. I also wanted to switch from writing in Swedish (I was born and grew up in Sweden, and my first books were published in Swedish) but I was terrified of writing in English, and extremely worried that I’d just suck at it. There were several other factors at play too, things I can kind of see now, but wasn’t able to really see clearly at the time. Getting out of that hole was very hard. I actually started blogging as a way of getting back into writing: just to write something, anything, even if it wasn’t fiction. I also took a course in technical writing which was helpful: again, I was writing and learning about writing, but without doing the “dreaded” fiction-thing. It was a very slow process to get back to fiction writing – almost like overcoming a phobia! What I had enjoyed doing more than anything else suddenly became a source of anxiety, even fear, so I avoided it. I’m very happy to be back to fiction-writing and I know it might sound odd that you’d ever have trouble doing something that you love… but there it is. These days I try to live by Karen Blixen’s words: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
I live just outside Vancouver on Canada’s west coast. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, I think. If I had to move somewhere, I’d either want to move back to Sweden, where I’m originally from, or to Maui. I’ve been to Maui a couple of times, and that place is just magical. I do know I always want to live fairly close to the ocean. Not necessarily beach front, but somewhere where you can get to a beach without too much trouble. I think there’s just a fundamental, deep connection between humans and the ocean and I don’t want to be too far away from that.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
I love food. I love eating it, reading about it, and cooking it. Well, OK, maybe I don’t like cooking every day, but I do usually enjoy it. It’s hard to pick just one dish… I love spicy food, Chinese food, I love pizza, sushi, I love steak, and I love all kinds of seafood. But if I had to pick just one thing as a comfort food, it would probably be fresh bread with butter, and maybe cheese: simple but so good you just can’t stop eating it. Least favourite food would include oysters. I’ve tried them cooked every which way, but I just don’t get the attraction.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
One of the best gifts I have ever received was my Kindle e-reader. My husband bought it for me even though I had told him I didn’t want one. These days, I can’t imagine my reading life without it. Another great gift was a ring my mom gave me after my grandmother passed away. It was my grandmother’s silver ring, adorned with this large crystal. It’s a piece of jewelry that I remember my grandma wearing many times, and whenever I wear it I feel like she’s a bit closer to me.
If you are a TV watcher, would you share the names of your favorite shows with us?
I don’t watch a lot of TV anymore, but Game of Thrones is definitely must-watch TV for me. I love George R.R. Martin’s books, and I’m not sure I’m all that crazy about the deviations from the books this most recent season, but it’s still a gripping and well-cast show. Past TV-shows I love include Firefly (I’m still not over that it was cancelled after just one season), Star Trek the Next Generation (Picard!), and Lost, a show I was absolutely obsessed with. Through my kids, I’ve been introduced to Adventure Time and I really love that show: it is completely and insanely warped and trippy, but brilliant.
If you could add a room onto your current home, what would you put in it?
A separate writing room for me. I don’t have a separate room for me to write in right now, though I do have a good writing space in the house. And I’d love to add a library: a library with my computer desk, and a ton of books on all the walls: that would be ideal.
What’s your favorite film of all times? Favorite book?
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is definitely my all-time favourite movie, though I have other loves as well. The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca rank very high on my list as well! My favorite book would be The Lord of the Rings. I never get tired of it, and by now I’ve read it so many times that I’ve lost count! Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle is a very close second, though.
Short stories have always been elusive to me. Despite the countless number that I wrote in my late teens and early twenties, I never finished writing even one of them. Although there wasn’t a name for it back then, I was basically writing flash fiction, though purely for my own enjoyment. Apparently, though, nothing I wrote interested me enough to finish it.
At age nineteen, I had 150 pages of a novel added to my repertoire of incomplete stories. Stories, novels—it didn’t matter: I was an equal opportunity non-finisher.
As I later learned through introspection, it was a combined fear of success and failure that kept me from finishing my work, coupled with the age-old issue of having no idea where I was going with my many WIPs. Eventually, I resolved the reasons for my unproductiveness, and with those fears no longer holding me back, I began to write. In the early days, I wrote four screenplays (still collecting dust somewhere) and two plays. Years later, my deep desire to be a novelist was liberated. I began writing books—and finishing those, too.
I first wrote three standalone novels in different genres (Crooked Moon; Squalor, New Mexico, & Molly Hacker Is Too Picky!), and then began a YA paranormal trilogy, The Desert Series. Mind you, I was still a short-story virgin. I never even thought about popping the short story cherry.
Short stories were alien beings to me. They really were.
The above quote, which is attributed to Mark Twain, has been attributed to others as well. I’m not sure who said it or even if Twain did. But what I do know is that it packs a whole lot of truth.
It’s usually much easier to ramble on than it is to take an idea and express it in few words. Plus, there are still so many novels in my head waiting to be written, and I couldn’t grasp the concept of having an idea that could be … dare I say it … a short story! (Rather ironic coming from someone has tweeted every day since 2009.)
So how did I lose my short-story virginity?
It was after I finished edits for the first book in my YA paranormal trilogy, Mystical High, and was writing book 2, Desert Star, that I found myself longing to write without any language restraints. It was time to release the pent-up literary fiction writer in me. I quietly did the deed, then gave birth to my first short story, and then to another. (I’m slowly putting together a collection for some time down the road.)
When fellow author Maria Savva asked me to write two short stories for the Triptychs, the third book in The Mind’s Eye series, I was eager to join my fellow authors in being a contributor for this fascinating anthology.
In the first two books of the series, Reflections and Perspectives, each author wrote a short story inspired by a unique photograph. In Triptychs, the same photo was given to three different writers who were asked to write a short story or poem inspired by the image. Authors were neither able to choose the photos nor given any information to jumpstart their imagination.
But when I was given these two photographs, although pretty, they’re not ones that I would have chosen to inspire me to write a story. I really had to think outside of “the box.” I had to find a flicker of something in these photos that resonated with me so that I could build a story I felt passionate about telling.
This exercise fascinated me because for years, I had considered writing stories centered around famous paintings, especially some by Edward Hopper. For example, this is Edward Hopper’s, A Room in New York, one of the many paintings I thought would be a great starting point for a story or a novel.
I have been imagining stories in my head for a lifetime, but I have always done so when looking at photos, paintings, people, cities, or just about anything that inspires me. Never before had I written stories based on what someone else felt passionate about. The challenge of writing these stories for Triptychs really stretched my imagination in new and extraordinary directions.
It’s interesting, too, that while viewing one of the photographs, it took me about a minute to conceive the story “I Wish…”
(Credit: Helle Gade)
When viewing the second photograph, however, my story, “May Twenty-Fourth,” took weeks. Creativity is endlessly fascinating, don’t you think?
(Credit: Martin David Porter)
Triptychs is now available at a pre-order price of .99 until the book is published on March 16, 2015.