Susan Tepper:  “Origin” is a complex and layered story, the most difficult type of story to write well.  Marcelle, you pulled it off, and then some.  Your first line: “The woman was looking for the bathroom when she came across the girl.”

Woman / bathroom / girl

That the woman was not looking for, say, the kitchen or living room or front porch – when she comes across this girl- well that simple first line felt very loaded to me.

Marcelle Heath:   Thank you so much, Susan. I knew when I began the story that I would have a woman brushing a girl’s hair and that the girl would be a stranger. There’s an intimacy in brushing someone’s hair. I also knew that the woman would be at a party, and that the house would be unfamiliar. So, in this scene, she’s in this strange place, and the girl guides her. The bathroom is definitely loaded– it’s a private space, a place of sanctuary, and can be its opposite as well, a place of shame, repulsion, and fear.

Susan: The woman (who remains unnamed) seems to be at a crossroads.  You tell us that she “…waved tentatively at a colleague who was promoted ahead of her.”  You also tells us the house in which she is visiting, contains “two narrow staircases that led in opposite directions.”

What is that all about, the two staircases, in terms of this story?

Marcelle: Yes, the woman is at a crossroads. The colleague, and the person she wanted to seduce, left with someone else. The party is a disappointment, a burden, and an obligation. I think of it as a fairytale – the two staircases are paths in her journey.

Susan:  So the staircases are symbolic?

Marcelle: Yes, one will lead her to enlightenment, the other to destruction.

Susan:  Hmm..  And someone she wanted to seduce left with someone else.  Not much fun in that!  You get her into the bathroom and someone outside is trying the doorknob.

You write:  “The woman scrambled into her underwear.  The garment was aubergine and baroquely laced around the edges.”

What shade is aubergine?  It’s a beautiful word, by the way, as is your other description baroquely laced around the edges.  Words that set the tone of the story as it continues.  Do you think if you’d dressed her in plain cotton undies, the story would have taken on a whole different slant?

Marcelle:  Ha! Yes, aubergine is a great word – it’s eggplant. The language becomes more ornate, definitely, as a way to describe the sense of strangeness or other-wordliness by contrasting the realist setting with the beginnings of the uncanny – embellishment. Of course, “baroquely-laced” suggested something both old-fashioned and futile to me. After all, she wore them for the purpose of a failed seduction. If she had worn something else, the effect would be much different. The tone would be starker, perhaps? I’m not sure. If the description had been “plain, white panties,” I almost think the tone would add an element of the grotesque, especially with the word “panties.” I remember one reader suggesting I cut “baroquely-laced” from the story, but I couldn’t part with it.

Susan:  I agree with you about leaving baroquely-laced in the story- totally!   It’s so interesting how word choices can make such a difference in what the characters decide to do and how the story will progress.  You made other lush choices:

“The oval hairbrush was a silver antique.  There was a repoussé design of a woman’s head at top.  Flowers flowed out of her hair and continued down her neck into the handle.”

All of this suggests to me that you were working deep out of your unconscious.  I believe it’s the unconscious flow of words that create the most provocative stories.  Tell us more about the little girl and her significance.

Marcelle:  Thank you! I spent days thinking about the brush, its shape, its heft, its bristles. I could feel it in my hand, how heavy it was. I thought of the woman’s hair like Medusa’s – as if at any moment it could come alive. However, I’m not sure how unconscious the words – I did a lot of research, looked up antique brushes. There was no brush that matched mine, but the term “repoussé ” is completely taken from descriptions. My vocabulary isn’t that extensive! The little girl was strange to me from the beginning. Her heavy flannel nightgown and matted hair, suggesting that she had woken up from something, maybe a nightmare.

And when the narrator begins to question who she is, asking at one point “You’re not Matilde, are you?” I remember thinking, yes! I’ve found a way in. Like the woman, she seems not to belong anywhere, she’s a wanderer in a way.

Susan:  It’s a fascinating story.  I don’t want to go much further because it will give away too many of your delicate and delicious plot details.  But I will say that I was captivated by what you wrote and what you ask of the reader to consider about this story.   And about their own delicate lives.

Read Origin” by Marcelle Heath

Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.

  1. Marcus Speh

    “origin” is one of those truly multi-layered short stories that can creep up on you. it reminded me, when i first read it, of wilhelm hauff’s dark german fairy tales that take place in the deep dark woods which will never let you go. and of course, the quality of your discussion and the attention to detail is both rewarding and breathtaking…thank you for these “origins”.

  2. David Ackley

    “Origins” is a powerful and affecting story, one that, even on first reading, made such an impression that I felt I could nearly recite the story from memory. It also showed possibilities in the very short form that I’d never realized before, a revelatory story in that way too. One of the very best, in short.

  3. Meg Pokrass

    This story “Origins” is stuck fluttering inside my brain. I love what you say here, Marcelle, about how you could write about the brush itself forever. I imagine it is exactly this passion, love of the writing process, along with vivid sensory and emotional attention, which leaves a forever imprint. Special on steroids.

  4. estelle bruno

    I had to read Origins over again. Still wonderfully creepy. Your choice of descriptive words are astounding.

    A wonderful Chat.

  5. Gloria Mindock

    Another great chat. Thanks to you both!

  6. Sam Rasnake

    Origins is a wonderful piece. Well-written. I enjoyed this discussion.

  7. James Lloyd Davis

    I remembered “Origins” as soon as I read the first line, which is unusual for me, but that story stuck with me for the longest time. Fascinating interview. Thank you, Susan and Marcelle.

  8. Michelle Elvy

    I recall this story from a year ago. Dark and delicate at the same time — lasting impressions from back then, and now this interview to add to the layers.

  9. Kathy Fish

    Loved that story. Great interview, you two!

  10. Robert Vaughan

    An amazing story, prompting yet another level of intimacy through this exchange, Susan and Marcelle! I am blown away continually by the talents we have at Fictionaut. Thanks for that reminder.

  11. Marcelle Heath

    Thank you so much, everyone, for your comments!

  12. MaryAnne Kolton

    Nicely done, Susan and Marcelle. Origin is the kind of story one doesn’t soon forget.

  13. Foster Trecost

    Amazing insights prodded by just the right questions. Wonderful, both of you.

  14. Jane Hammons

    I love this story and have sent it to a lot my friends to read. It so beautifully creepy–aubergine; baroquely-laced; silver antique hairbrushes–the story is really alive in these details. A woman combing the hair of a little girl she doesn’t know–terrifying intimacy. One of the things I love about Marcelle’s writing: she wields aubergine lingerie and shotguns with the same powerful force.

  15. susan tepper

    To everyone who left such great comments on Marcelle’s chat~ Thank you!!! I adore her story “Origin” and adore Marcelle who is one of the most giving people at Fictionaut. It was wonderful talking with her.

  16. Jp Reese

    I’m late getting to this, but it was a great read. I especially like that Marcelle researched a tiny piece of her story, the hairbrush, so thoroughly. I often find myself reading lengthy explanations of topics or items I plan to use, and I’m happy to see someone else feels the need to do so as well. Writers are explorers, and the world is our subject. Enjoyed this chat.

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