Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Kirsten Gundlack

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Kirsten Gundlack

Kirsten Gundlack's literary debut, Inheritance (Quattro Books) hinges on a harrowing decision. Helena, the narrator, was disfigured in a childhood accident. When her beautiful, beloved older sister Grace dies, Helena is given 24 hours to make an impossible choice when it is revealed what Grace has left her in her will.

Today Kirsten speaks to Open Book about writing from behind Helena's face, what acting taught her about writing, and finding The One.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Inheritance.

Kirsten Gundlack:

Inheritance is the story of a disfigured young woman, Helena, who learns that her recently-deceased sister Grace named her as the object of a directed organ donation: essentially, Grace has left Hellie her face. The novella focuses on the twenty-four-hour period in which Helena must make her decision.


Your character Helena's face is disfigured. How did you approach writing the experiences of a woman whose life has been so affected by her appearance?


With some qualms. As a person of standard appearance I would never presume to know what it’s like to have severe facial differences or their attendant difficulties. But such qualms are good; they ensure humility and respect in one’s approach. I did a fair bit of research, of course, trying to find out as much as I could about the experience of facial trauma, reconstruction and transplants. Many of the specifics didn’t make it into the final piece, but I hope that what I absorbed informed Hellie’s perspective in the right way.

Inheritance had to be written in first person. The reader had to be behind that face, looking out from that vantage point. Perhaps that made the qualms a little stronger, because Hellie’s I-voice had to be authoritative on the subject of her experiences and feelings: this is what happened, this is what it’s like for me. So the challenge was to be sensitive to the subject matter and ensure that authenticity was brought to the right places, but also allow myself complete license to write Helena’s emotional life as I saw fit. I intended the narration as her processing to herself, not a first-person situation where she was addressing a third party. So there was no reason for her to be didactic or inspirational or brave, to shape anything for the sake of a receiver. She could be completely honest about how she felt. Her feelings and opinions might or might not be typical for someone in her situation, but characters should be more than their situations.

It’s underscored to me what I’ve heard repeatedly from my mentors: that this is what you sign up to do when you write fiction. You adopt this other perspective and write from it as respectfully and bravely as you can, remembering always that you’re not trying to represent an entire demographic. You’re telling one imaginary person’s story, creating their circumstances for the reader as faithfully as if they were real. I love that bizarre paradox of good storytelling: the more specificity and compassion the writer brings to the process of imagining the story, the more universal and believable it feels to its audience.


Helena has a huge decision to make in the novel. What drew you to make this the focal point of the story?


I think that this decision — will Helena accept Grace’s face? — is the logical story response to the questions that are begged by this particular what-if. Under what circumstances might someone even consider a familial face transplant? And how would she go about making up her mind? Really, Inheritance is my own personal thought experiment. I wrote it to work through possible answers to my questions.

On the way I made two very interesting discoveries. The first was Helena’s decision: when I began I didn’t know what it would be. I wasn’t invested in any particular outcome; I just wanted it to make sense in the context of who she was. I figured that it would grow out of the character and her relationships, which eventually it did.

The other discovery was the central question governing Helena’s decision. Before I started I assumed that it would be whether or not she could bring herself to take on the face that had belonged to her sister. But when I began writing, I realized that the more immediate question for Hellie would be why Grace had done this. Grace had worked harder than anyone to help Helena accept herself exactly as she was, so why would she then make it possible for Helena to receive a new face? Hellie’s journey became the search for that answer, which I now feel was the only way she could have made the decision. The question of whether or not she could take on Grace’s face was too frightening. She needed to come at it from another angle, find a more specific, concrete, personal way of approaching the choice — which I imagine is the only way anyone could effectively respond to a situation as extraordinary as this.


Helena's family members react very differently to her injury and resulting disfigurement. How did you approach writing this complex family?


I grapple with most aspects of fiction writing, but characters and relationships seem to manifest quite readily. It sounds flaky, but the family came that way and the interaction followed logically. I don’t think in types, and I learned as an actor never to classify my characters morally — people don’t think of themselves as villains. They’re doing what’s necessary in order to survive. Each person in Hellie’s family has a particular need and a way of protecting it, so they can only be as generous as they feel safe. Grace is the most generous because she has the healthiest self-awareness of all of them, and an unassailable core where the others have fear. She’s a family anomaly, but those happen all the time.


Tell us what a perfect writing day might look like for you.


It would be devoted to writing, with no other demands, and would start on time. It would begin with reading, end with a swim, and the afternoon’s work would be punctuated with a short nap. The cat would not butt-type in my absence. The muse would stay for the duration and there would be no interruptions, forehead-pounding or back pain. I would remain cheerful and optimistic throughout.


What were you reading while writing Inheritance? Do you find your reading and writing processes are connected in any way?


I read a lot of research-related non-fiction, and re-read a grab-bag of stuff for different reasons — Geek Love, The Gargoyle, Say Her Name, Annabel Lyon’s Oxygen. While I’m writing I read whatever I think might help, regardless of style or subject matter. I’ll often choose to re-read familiar work to see how the writer addressed a specific problem I’m having.


What are you working on now?


The hundredth-or-so redraft of a novella about a man communing with God during his epileptic seizures. I’ve been unhappy with the point of view for ages — like, years — but recently I hit on a narrative voice that might be The One. Wish me luck!

Kirsten Gundlack found her path into fiction by way of acting, ESL teaching in Tokyo, and freelance writing for creative businesses. She is a graduate of the York University Acting BFA program, the Humber School for Writers, and the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Guelph-Humber. An avid watcher of science and technology trends, she often dreams of electric sheep. Inheritance, co-winner of the 2013 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, is her first novella.

For more information about Inheritance please visit the Quattro Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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