‘Novels are the Devil’: An Interview with Helen McClory — Thom Cuell

Helen McClory’s second collection, Mayhem and Death, is a dark anthology of short and micro fictions, located in wilderness and dealing with mytholgies and fractured identities. Published by 404 Ink, who have also released a fanzine of McClory’s Jeff Goldblum-inspired short fiction, demonstrates McClory’s versatility, dark wit and imagination.

mayhem and death

You’re now published by one of the most exciting indie presses around, 404 Ink – how do you think the rise of micro presses like this have changed the literary landscape, and what has it meant for you as a writer?

I think small presses have made it possible for the literary scene to be more diverse than it would otherwise be – they are like little rockpools carved out by hand, full of life (I want to say ‘teeming’, cliche as it is, because it makes me think of lots of little brightly coloured crabs and darting fish in great profusion). Work by people trying new things the bigger presses don’t have the time to understand, work by marginalised voices (queer especially). For me, it’s meant being published at all. And as a reader, that I get to regularly encounter books that crack me open by the ribs.

One of your reviews, quoted at the beginning of Mayhem and Death, compares your writing with the likes of Miller and Mailer – is occupying traditionally ‘male’ literary territory something you’ve deliberately set out to do? And do you think this demarcation is still relevant?

Rather hilariously I’ve read neither (or, maybe Miller, years ago, as a teenager). I didn’t set out to imitate a masculine voice. Male territory, in the worst possible sense would be writing that writes from a male point of view, external views of sultry women, wouldn’t it? I – don’t do that. I just write short sentences, sometimes brutal (emotionally or otherwise). Plenty of female writers have done this for me to echo, and I love many of them. Jean Rhys. Muriel Spark. Anne Carson. I hope that writing can be taken as genderless territories, though I know we are far from there yet.

Mayhem and Death includes short and micro fiction, fragments, and a novella. Do you have a preferred form, or is does the story dictate its own style?

The story dictates its shape, sometimes in an easier way, sometimes harder. I prefer writing shorter things as they are usually more direct about how I can proceed through them. Novels are the devil.

Following on, do you think the rise of digital media has affected the way you approach your writing, in terms of style or form?

Flash is now in a great profusion online, and certainly my exposure to it has shaped my love for it – so much goodness out there, brought to my attention via social media. This way of reading also gives rise to encounters with fragments. Pieces of poems, little lines that are often only partially attributed. If I love them, I go hunting them down. Perhaps it’s made my reading of poetry different. I look for the small hard parts that will grip me. But then, reading offline poems in a book is a totally different experience, much more louche. I love it too.

While your novel, Flesh of the Peach, took in New York and the Rockies, Mayhem and Death seems more rooted in rural Scotland. What drew you back to that landscape?

The collection is dark, and Scotland has a lot of dark landscape – in winter, in the midst of the weather. I was writing pieces that were about the pain and isolation of living now (in the Anthropocene, in the age of despots and Brexit and so on). There are parts of Scotland that are treeless and windlashed and the sea is biting away. But I think I’m going to try to look for sunshine in my next work, if I can. For now, for me, this is truthful.

Charms and spells are a recurring theme throughout your stories, how has folklore influenced your writing?

In much the same way as rural Scotland has shaped my writing in terms of place, so it has shaped it in terms of its myths, its sense of an ongoing haunting, a thing witnessed only as penumbra. History embedded in the rocks in a Cleared village or abandoned croft. Stories passed on at the peripheries often have more of a totemic quality than the stories told in mass broadcasting or textbooks.

Then, also, sometimes the charms are a result of feeling helpless and trying to make change via a repetition or a bit of twisty dark colourfulness. Writing as performative utterance. I know it’s useless but where would we be without a little ritual in life?

You’ve already published a ‘zine of Jeff Goldblum-themed micro-fiction, and there are some more Goldblum vignettes here. How did Jeff Goldblum come to play such a large part in your imagination?

It’s a total fluke – a writing prompt for the Paperchain Podcast (simply ‘Jeff Goldblum’, provided by co-guest Gillian Best) just led to me writing a big old pile, which then 404 turned into a pamphlet. It was kind of a mental holiday to write them (I listened to The Goldberg Variations while writing and editing). Otherwise I don’t have too many thoughts about the man, other than he seems stylish and weird in a good way.

Which current writers do you most enjoy reading at the moment?

I’m reading Kaveh Akbar‘s Calling a Wolf a Wolf and the poetry in it is regularly destroying me. And Joanna Walsh is regularly brilliant in a glassy, phosphorescently- intelligent way.

What’s your favourite portrait (can be a painting, book, song, film, anything)?

Helen McClory Portrait

(see attached  – bought from a charity shop, I have no idea who painted it. But I call the sitter Vivian and pretend it is a haunted painting)

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

Aside from books (perhaps every book is there already?), a swiss army knife. I’m planning on fighting when I get there too. And opening bottles of wine.


Helen McClory lives in Edinburgh and grew up between there and the isle of Skye. Her first collection, On the Edges of Vision, won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, was published by Freight in Spring 2017. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.