FOTW Author Helen Nathaniel-Fulton takes on Savage Jigsaw: a Novella.
We asked our 'Of Myths and Mothers' anthology writers to tell us about what they are working on now! Today we hand over to Helen Nathaniel-Fulton to tell us about how she has gone from the form of a short story to the form of a novella. Enjoy!
A novella is quite simply the hardest jigsaw I will ever do...
I appeared as an author in the Fly on the Wall anthology Of Myths and Mothers by Fly on the Wall this year.
My current challenge is not just moving from one form to another - short stories to novella - but what to do as a writer to convey a complex and taboo experience. I want to encapsulate the totality of experience of a child subject to sexual abuse in a family context from 0-8.
Is there a way to share safely such a grim & lonely experience, the child concerned telling no-one & thus, in a bewildering and somehow chilling contradiction, having an outwardly 'normal', fun and even loving childhood too?
To achieve that, the biggest challenge will be creating a balance, making the more negative experiences true & real but bearable to a reader. Can you cross a taboo line to describe what so many don't want to admit exists, but not lose your audience?
As a survivor of abuse & ex social worker, I know 1st hand how people involved (or not - even professionals) need to hold back from admitting - let alone fully confronting - the realities involved. The deviation from ideals, the extent of psychic pain & absolute inversion of trust, the irrevocable damage done quite rightly appal & frighten.
Even worse is the 'monster' responsible is not just a fellow human being but someone's father, husband, brother, uncle, mother, sister etc. etc. Indistinguishable from the benign, they are the very opposite of nurturing & protecting as a family member should be. No-one suspects them and even if they do, may find ways to avoid direct action . . .
I need to think carefully, of how to reach out, draw the reader in gently so they will stay to experience the trauma & aftermath, yet feel safe enough to continue to the end. I'll be asking a reader to handle the jagged pieces as a continuing assault on a fledgling brain splits a consciousness into pieces. It’s not a gentle process: the pieces have sharp, cutting edges.
So I decide it can work only if I take the leap to be the child/young person, the ‘victim’ and survivor, talking direct to the reader, confiding and explaining every step of the way. I'll need to begin in her passive babyhood, trying to convey how the world is to her eyes & senses, how she experiences that world & people around her as she begins to develop.
I will need to find ways to convey how she reacts as a baby, before her brain begins its slow upward development, when only instinct is available to govern her reactions and provide limited choices.
The first chapters must be written with simplicity too, developing the context but reflecting her stages of development, only growing a little more fluent, assured & maturely expressed as she & her brain grow, spark, come to full functioning.
All the time I'll have to work hard to draw the reader further in so they truly get to know her inside & out, care what happens, are willing, eager even in the end, to understand how she deals with trauma & its results ... Are even rooting for her perhaps to find a way to live with her reality because she must.
How far though CAN she succeed & what are the effects on her behaviour, how she lives her life, relates to people? This means taking the reader through her psychological journey: first, the fight or flight choice when she's too young to do either physically. Where to go but on an inward path?
If she achieves flight through some mechanism, how can she keep coming back, relate in any way meaningfully to the other, now alien, world that goes on so blithely around her? How to convey the strange, complex dance that follows when she won't/can’t look at the floor or her own feet?
The terrible silences & stresses are charted, the continuing impact on her at every stage of childhood & teenage years. A reader will go with her through good times & bad, how she evolves a whole range of strategies - including a lively sense of humour - to cope.
I can then take the reader down her various escape routes, enjoying successes & accepting disappointments, taking refuge in loving relatives, routines & normalities - but also through times when the inner screens she has put up wobble or wear very thin, almost break. Can she maintain an inward refuge whilst living in & affected by the other world? Can she belong to it at all?
Some parts have to be challenging but without being needlessly graphic or sensationalist, I'll relate honestly how from her babyhood on she will go through night terrors & many different phases of working the pain out. I want to make it possible to understand what she is conditioned to, yet how she achieves some balance & peace, even weathering two aftershocks that shake but don't destroy her.
So I hope the reader will still be with her as she reaches 18, a survivor washing up at university, aching to begin life anew but pre-programmed - though she doesn't know herself yet to what extent.
I want to break some bounds of fiction here & not be distanced at all from the character or telling the story from any kind of distance. I and the reader will be in every moment. Only if I can take the reader into her skin, into her developing brain, her dreams, her everyday life, can that work.
It's a daunting task testing motivation, skill, tact, courage, compassion, an ability to manage the spur of emotions - can it be done? Do I possess the capability? It seems a responsibility to do it well & reach perhaps a few people with some real truth of & insight into the experience.
The novella is taking shape just now - and only other people can judge when it's complete if I've succeeded - or not. Another daunting prospect!