For our latest author interview we're excited to welcome Maria Haskins, author of 'Balawats portar' 'The Gates of Balawat', reprinted in our September issue, to talk to us about short fiction, museums and her favourite reads of 2017.
What was the inspiration for 'The Gates of Balawat'?
I wrote this quite a few years ago, but the original inspiration was my love for the collections at the British Museum. I lived just outside London for a year right after high school, working as a nanny, and one of my favourite pastimes was going to the museum. The Balawat gates made a lasting impression on me when I saw them, and I still get chills even just looking at pictures of them. There is something really evocative about imagining these gates, and the wall, the city, the world, where they would have opened. And when you see them, there's this added layer of weirdness, because they are in London, in this building, totally removed from the context, the time and place where they were originally crafted. That goes for most of the objects in the museum, of course: marbles from Greece, statues from Egypt, jewelry from all these old civilizations and places around the globe... It's a wonderful place, but that disconnect between where the items came from, and where they are now was one main inspiration for the story. How much do we really understand about these objects, looking at them from the present day? How much would people at some point in our future history understand, if they were even more removed from that history and that context? That alienation, that disconnect and separation, that distance, was on my mind when I wrote this story.
I was particularly drawn, in your story, to the idea of the British Museum being copied and perhaps becoming, itself, part of a "collection." You write evocatively of objects your narrator cannot interpret and books 'telling stories no one could read', and the company the narrator works for destroys the artifacts once they are scanned, to 'protect the company’s copyright, and secure its exclusive rights to the artifacts'. What draws you to these ideas of memory and ownership?
I think it's fascinating what society, and groups within societies, choose to remember and then share and pass down as history. So much is forgotten or distorted and just erased, quite deliberately. This has happened for political and religious reasons throughout history. I find this process both frightening and interesting. And the idea that private companies might buy the actual, physical remnants of our history and then charge money to grant us access to that history, is something I can imagine even more easily now than when I wrote this story. People sometimes seem to think that "important" history can't be forgotten, suppressed or wiped out, that our collective memory is resilient, and it's true that remnants of it often remain, hidden away in the corners and margins. But I think it's way easier than we might imagine for our past to be altered and shaped by companies and governments, and by our own indifference as well.
You returned to writing fiction in 2015 after a break of many years -have you changed as a writer, and, if so, how? Has the world of writing changed?
I've changed as a person and as a writer in so many ways that it's hard for me to quantify or describe it. For one thing, becoming a parent has changed how I write and what I write about. Another change is that before, I wrote exclusively in Swedish, even though I'd lived in Canada for many years and was fluent in English. I wrote poetry, I wrote a collection of science fiction short stories, and I wrote a novel that was basically literary fiction. When I came back to writing, I knew I needed to take the leap and write in English. It was a good change, ultimately, but scary. When I came back, I also knew that I wanted to write speculative fiction. So now I write science fiction, which I'd done before, but also a lot of fantasy and fantasy with horror creeping into it, something I didn't write at all when I was younger.
The world of writing has changed fundamentally since my first kick of the can. When I debuted as a writer there were no ebooks, no social media. Self-publishing and online zines were in an embryonic stage if they existed at all. As a newbie writer in Sweden, I was lucky enough to be published by one of Sweden's biggest publishers, Norstedts, and I had an editor who was supportive and helpful, and they bought my work for years. It's kind of weird to look back on that and realize how odd and idyllic that sounds now! These days, I've self-published a few ebooks, and I kind of love social media in all its messy, dirty glory. Social media has given me a sense of being part of a writer's community in a way that I've never experienced before. I always lived far away from the center of Swedish writing - both when I still lived in Sweden, and of course later when I moved to Canada - and I love the sense of community that I've found online. There are bad things about social media, but the good outweighs the bad for me: I love reading other' people's work, sharing tips and stories with other writers and readers.
On your blog you write a monthly short fiction roundup, and you seem to have a real affinity for the short story form. Do you think short stories can accomplish things that longer narratives can't?
I read a lot of everything: novels, novellas, short fiction... But yes, I love reading and writing short fiction. It's such a flexible and pliable form. You can do crazy things with point of view and voice, and you can play around with language and story structure in a way that is sometimes hard to do well in longer formats. Plus, there are so many fantastic writers out there writing stunning short fiction. Flash fiction has become a particular obsession of mine. When I first came back to writing, I'd never even heard of flash fiction, and now I love reading and writing it. One of the things I love about short fiction is experimenting with how little you actually need to say to tell a story effectively. That's one of the reasons I love flash, the challenge of "how can I tell this story using the absolute minimum of words?"
What's the best book you read in 2017?
That is a very tough question. I read so many fantastic books this past year, but I'll mention three (I can't do just one!). N.K. Jemisin's The Stone Sky is brilliant. I also loved Angela Slatter's Corpselight (part two of her Verity Fassbinder series), and I just finished Silvia Moreno-Garcia's The Beautiful Ones, and it was an absolute treat to read.