On Monday, we published Heather Marshall’s magnificent “Celestial Navigation,” the honorable mention from our 2020-2021 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers, which you can read here. Today we are proud to share this interview that assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw conducted with the writer.
How did you get the idea for “Celestial Navigation”? What’s its genesis in your psyche?
A couple of things came together for this story. I began writing it several years ago, when my youngest child was in high school. After years of raising children, my friends and I had begun to wonder what adventures we might have when the youngest of them was launched, so to speak. For a few of us, recent divorces had added an unexpected dimension to this topic, which included a revisiting of our expectations for our lives. In addition, I’d visited the Isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, several times over the course of the few years prior to writing the story. I’m from Scotland, and I love islands, especially the western isles of Scotland; in the years immediately preceding the first draft of this story, I was called to this landscape, literally as well as on the page, again and again. So, all of this was swirling in the background, more than at a conscious level. In those days, I got up early in the morning to write (4:30) and when I put pen to page on several successive mornings, the core of the story was there.
It takes a lot of skill and effort to pull mythic elements into contemporary fiction without landing flat or cliché. Tell us how you managed to create dimension, depth, and drive out of essentially a lot of constellation names.
Thanks for attributing skill and effort here! The constellations felt organic and necessary to the story and to the protagonist as I was writing, so although it took me some time, it didn’t feel as though I was toiling. The constellations have meaning for the protagonist far beyond their names and descriptions—they are about her own story, her childhood, her points of connection to and/or disconnection to her parents and to her journey to self. They are, then, about what meaning she has made of them, as we all do about different elements of our lives. What I was doing was one of my favorite parts of the writing practice: allowing myself to fully drop down into the character and into each beat to allow the truth of it to lead. I hope that doesn’t sound too precious or airy-fairy. It was about going back and forth between head and heart/gut, leading with the gut first and working with technical aspects/head next, back and forth until it seemed right, or at least until I felt I’d exhausted my own resources and got it to the best place I could.
I love the tension between a daughter rebelling against and bonding with her father, in his life and his death. Do you often write about family relationships like this one? Or is this an unusual piece for you?
Again, thanks. Yes and yes, I often write about family relationships and, less so, about relationship with the living and the dead. Perhaps because I have a slightly unusual family, I’m fascinated with how family shapes us as well as where and when we find our agency as a result of those influences. I’m adopted and have found my natural/biological family, which means I have extra branches on the family tree. I’m also aware that my natural mother was stripped of her agency to a large degree during her pregnancy with me. This, and adoption, thwarted my own sense of agency for a long time. In terms of the death element of the story, I do have others that explore relationship beyond the grave. I don’t think I’m alone in being influenced by those I’ve loved who have died. I don’t mean this in a ‘speak-from-beyond-the-grave’ way; I mean in a ‘we-took-on-some-of-their-shit-and-its-still-fertilizing-us’ way. Perhaps that just shows my age. I’ve just completed a novel manuscript that has an epistolary thread from the grandmother of the protagonist; the grandmother dies before the protagonist can meet her. Despite this, her words have a transformative impact.
I would characterize this piece as ‘floaty’ but in a good way, like drifting amongst both sky and sea. How did you engage language to make that happen while still keeping the piece grounded in scene and character?
The short answer to that is detail (I think). The specifics of place and of appropriate beats, I think, ground the piece. This, as I wrote in response to a previous question, is about dropping down into each moment. In terms of finding the right language, I’m allowing the senses to lead. What does it look, smell, taste, sound like? What of these resonates most? The choices here make the difference.
We gotta ask—what’s your sign? Are you astrologically minded in your daily life as well, and if so, how does that inform your work as a writer?
My western sign is Taurus; my Vedic (Jyotish) sign is Pisces. Having confessed that, I don’t suppose I can get away with denying any astrological influence in my daily life? I’m going to do it anyway! I am interested in astrology—in how our whole universe intersects and influences. It’s hard for me to believe that the moon that pulls the seas doesn’t also pull us, and, by extension, that there are other elements in the universe that we don’t yet fully understand on an intellectual level that can influence and guide us. I’ve also received some deep wisdom from a couple of Jyotish astrologists. Nonetheless, it’s not a part of my daily life. I haven’t read my horoscope in years, though I do have a Jyotish chart that I occasionally reference. In terms of my work as a writer, it influences my work primarily because of my sense of the interconnectedness of our universe—sea, stars, land, us; past, present, future—all that energy floating and changing and bumping around. How wonderful! (I can hear my children cringing as I write this!) I’m always looking to see where there might be interesting connections that I can explore through writing.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw