Observing Your Stories

Karen Heuler, whose short story “Sissy and the Penises” was featured in Volume 71.2, reflects on the diverse content of her three new books and offers writing advice to everyone still looking for their own, unique voice.



You write your first story and then your second. You might have written a novel or be working on a novel. Sooner or later, you’ll look at your work and wonder how it all fits together. 

I had three books come out last year. While this was just serendipity, it also made me look at how the books related to each other. I’m old, with more than 125 stories published in literary and speculative journals and anthologies. These books were the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth books I’ve had published. Most writers have a theme to a collection, certainly a theme to a novel, with essentially a few consistent themes in their writing in general. We write what interests us, so it’s no surprise that we pass by the same routes frequently. 

But reflections and developments between stories pull a collection together. The first collection that came out last summer was Forgetting, published by BitingDuck Press, a small press with diverse interests. The stories are about dementia. Let me just say that there are topics that are a hard sell because the world they come from is not a comfortable world; you’re asking a lot by hoping readers will be willing to go there and visit. My mother went insane due to dementia, and the odd thing was that so much of my writing deals with reality going astray, with worries about what exactly constitutes the self. I saw exactly this—my own obsessions—embodied by my mother as the disease affected her, so it was impossible not to write about it. Stories create meaning out of chaos, and the book contains sad stories, funny stories, gentle stories, stories about sibling rivalry. Life, in fact. 

Reality has always seemed unreliable to me, and it is not possible to avoid a topic once it takes hold of your thoughts. Most of the stories in Forgetting are literary, but they veer toward the offbeat. And offbeat is my territory, whether it’s literary or speculative fiction. Shenandoah was kind enough to publish “Sissy and the Penises” in their Spring 2022 issue; it’s a realistic story that starts with a man exposing himself then runs with it. Women’s bodies have, of course, been a constant resource in men’s fiction, but women write about men’s bodies less often. This disparity interests me. Both my feminism and environmentalism are perpetually showing themselves in my writing, sometimes in the forefront and sometimes simmering just beneath the surface. It’s hard to get away from your own beliefs when writing; you always lean on what engages you. The creative part is making it essential for the reader as well. 

It can still be essential even if it doesn’t find a home quickly. Forgetting took almost ten years to find a publisher, and it’s not the first story of mine to do so. If you love what you wrote and believe in it, don’t give up. You may have to keep searching for the right small publisher, but it’s worth the effort.

Like most authors with a wealth of writing, I have recurring themes and obsessions. Both dark fantasy and literary works utilize personal experience via metaphor, and since I dip into magic realism a lot, my stories interpret experience as if life were an analogy. Writing is a lot like life—we walk about with our preoccupations, making sense of the world both externally and internally. Why we didn’t get a promotion or the job we wanted, why a relationship broke up, or a plan fell through—all kinds of metaphors make these things more understandable. 

My second collection, A Slice of the Dark, is representative of my dark fantasy side. The same exploration of reality and the self that comes up with the dementia collection is also evident in this one. In it, a woman’s fingers grow tired of their usual positions and demand change. When a man eats a slice of cake, the world suddenly turns objects completely dark. Perception changes reality; reality changes perception. The stories represent our reaction to the objective, physical world as it breaks down into the subjective: A woman becomes death’s lover. Another with a physical deformity enters into a community of rats. People are always trying to find a world that makes sense and matters. 

So, my personal themes come through in both realistic and speculative writing. Important note: Don’t be afraid to test yourself by exploring different genres. Let yourself relax and try out noir (always fun), detective, ghost stories, and so on. You don’t want to find out that you’ve narrowed your own options or misplaced your respect by thinking there’s only one legitimate genre. 

My third book is political satire, a fantasy called The Splendid City. If, like me, you’re bothered by some of the decisions other people make, you might find yourself drawn there. In it, Texas secedes from the U.S. and sets up its own government with a president in a palace, animatronic presidential heads checking your acquiescence, water shortages, and a missing witch. We see this from the viewpoint of a novice Wiccan who accidentally transforms her bullying coworker into a (talking) cat. The two of them are exiled to Liberty, the “Splendid City” of the title. This cat is a manipulative, fast-talking, gun-toting lover of life on his own terms; he can turn anything to his advantage. The people in Liberty accept way too much. They believe everything is good because it works for them. There’s never any reason to wonder what happens to the people who get taken away when the Messenger vans roll in because the vans also give away new cars, and there are showers of nougats for the right kind of people. 

Of course, this reflects my own political attitude, as the collections embody my approach to subjective versus objective reality. But the novel also explores truth. Is it all as good as it seems? Is there any such thing as paradise? 

The bottom line is that you have to discover your territory, and it may not be the territory you were taught to love in school. Whatever you write, it must be true to you. Discover what that is, and keep at it. and Someday you’ll find you have collections and novels that are distinctly your own. The work comes first; the market comes second. 

Karen Heuler ’s stories appear in over 120 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies, as well as in a number of Best Of anthologies. Her fifth and sixth story collections (one on dementia and one on dark fantasy) and her fifth novel (an outrageous satire) will be coming out this year. She’s won an O. Henry Prize and various other awards and wouldn’t mind winning a few more.