Clare Howdle’s “Petrified” earned the Honorable Mention for our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New writers. Assistant Editor Melissa Hinshaw had the opportunity to talk with Clare about the story and her writing. Read on:
It’s a boring question, but I have to know with “Petrified”—where on earth did you get the idea for this story?
It’s not boring at all! There are a few different seeds that came together to make the story, the first being a very literal one. There really is a tree trunk in the Natural History Museum in London that has been petrified and when I worked in London I would often go to the Museum. The idea of a living thing turning to stone stayed with me – it felt like there was a story in there somewhere. The rest of the story took shape when my partner and I were talking about the challenges of growing up as a young man right now, the pressures to be a certain way, the comfort you can feel if you find your people, and the ease with which you can be convinced to believe or see things a certain way. We also talked at one point about walking through walls. In fact, he would say that the story is 100% his idea because of this!
Is this sort of story—magical realism, maybe we’ll call it—the sort of thing you usually write, or is “Petrified” an anomaly for your typical style and tone? In other words: are there others like this? If it is unique to your personal canon, tell us more about that, too.
I don’t think of my writing as magical realism, but I have always been drawn to stories that blend the every day world with something odd, off kilter or magical in some way. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Louis Borges, Helen Oyeyemi, Daisy Johnson and Akwaeke Emezi are all writers I love so that has certainly influenced the style and subject of what I write. I find it an interesting and exciting way of exploring what makes us humans. For example stories that I’ve written like “Petrified” have a fantastical element as an overarching metaphor, others play a bit more with time, format or structure, and some introduce fictional characters from other authors’ work (a bit of a liberty) to see how my protagonist behaves when faced with them in their own ‘reality’. I guess it would be fair to say that all of my stories have something a bit out of the ordinary about them.
I love the narration in this piece, the way it manages to be both third person omniscient and second person plural, weaving between those. It helps that the walls are everywhere—very clever, and lends a sinister feeling throughout. How did you balance this sort of monstrous and surreal feeling with very real and normal family characters?
It was the trickiest part! I enjoy stories that play with point of view well and wanted to see if I could challenge myself with something more unusual, but at the same time I knew it needed to be done for a reason. The walls’ prevalence, in every space, made that possible; that they could observe, comment and begin to feel with him. I really wanted the shadow of the walls to be felt throughout and the connection they have with Daniel to intensify as they ‘get to know’ more of him. It was important that as the narrator the walls were able to speak for Daniel, increasingly, as the story built to convey the sense of immersion he feels as he loses himself to them. I thought of the walls very much as a character in the story and interrogated at every point to make sure what they knew, what they could share, rang true with their character and their access to what has happening for Daniel. I definitely find point of view to be a huge part of my writing style and something I spend a lot of time on/have rather an unhealthy obsession with. For example in the novel I’m working on at the moment there’s first person and third person (from the main protagonist, marking different times of her life and how connected she feels to her own story) interspersed with second person (from a character telling midnight stories to the protagonist and addressing her directly). The tough bit is doing it in a way that retains the flow of the story and keeps the reader immersed and wanting more. I’m working on that!
Bonus question: what song(s) would you pair with “Petrified”?
Gosh, so hard. I listen to a lot of music as I write, but I can’t listen to songs with lyrics as I find it too distracting. Jóhann Jóhannsson (particularly Fordlandia) and Stars of the Lid are constant go-tos for me, or if I’m trying to think of new ideas or want inspiration I love Bill Withers, or Nina Simone or Bowie—such storytellers.
In terms of pairing suggestions with “Petrified”, I found music that was unsettling and sorrowful really valuable when working on “Petrified” and that feels right for Daniel in many senses, but perhaps also something that chimes with the idea of being a teenage boy struggling with your sense of self and who you’re supposed to be (side note, the story isn’t set in a particular era, but because my experience of teenage angst was in the ‘90s that’s where my recommendations have come from!). Something angsty and a bit thrashy perhaps. And then maybe the song I imagined Daniel’s mother putting on in the car—almost getting it right, but still somehow so wrong, which makes it way worse for him. This is the only time music is mentioned in the story so it felt right to try and represent it. It happens when they’re waiting outside the school gates with Daniel simultaneously not wanting to be in the car, but not wanting to leave it. Here are my suggestions—listen at your peril!
- A Deal With Chaos, Hildur Guðnadóttir
- Overgrown, James Blake
- Everything In Its Right Place, Radiohead
- In Bloom, Nirvana
- Do You Remember the First Time, Pulp