BackStory: Six Questions with Stella Klein

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

BackStory: Six Questions with Stella Klein
Author of Becoming Helen

What are your favourite pieces of historical flash, prose poetry or hybrid work? What do you like about it them?

Petrol by Martina Evans is a novella-in-flash that springs to mind. Written in the most crystalline poetic prose from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old girl living in the shadow of a violent father, the setting (a family-run petrol station in 1970s rural Ireland) still haunts me. In terms of historical novels, I remember admiring Tracy Chevalier’s A Girl with Pearl Earrings and As Meat Loves Salt by Mary McCann, how through all that intricately researched detail, they created such a strong sense of place and time.

Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?

I was sad to give up the phrase ‘dervish in the darkness’. Also the image of a ‘golden’ thread to depict Helen’s moment of sudden recollection. I agreed with the editors that these were risky choices for conjuring the perspective of a deafblind girl, especially in a such a short semi-fictional piece where every word counts so much if I want to transport the reader to her world. Helen Keller was not born blind and deaf, though (she lost her sight and hearing at the age of 19 months following what was thought to be an attack of Scarlet Fever). So I’m still intrigued about what colours and images might have remained in her ‘mind’s eye’, and about the part that her very early exposure to spoken language might have played in her extraordinary education and later achievements as a writer and activist.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

‘Becoming Helen’ was almost entirely inspired by a 1962 black and white film, The Miracle Worker, that I first saw on TV around the age of ten and which I remember having so gripped me at the time. Based on Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life, the film recounts the beginnings of her relationship with Anne Sullivan who became her lifelong teacher and friend. Watching excerpts of the film much more recently online, I realised how melodramatic (and probably strongly fictional) it is as an account of her early years. All the same, I still find the film hauntingly beautiful. I also found some amazing photographs and film footage of the real Helen Keller as an older woman that helped me to imagine a life made up predominantly of vibration and touch as I wrote the piece. I am fascinated by memory and how our recollections and perceptions are shaped by our unique orientation to the world.

What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?

Staring at a blank screen, waiting for the next little bomb of an idea to drop is the part I find so nerve-wracking. But once I see the potential of a first draft, I’ll happily work and re-work it for as long as it takes. Moving words and lines about, sharpening an image, framing the piece with final details, I love all of that.

What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?

A love of language. And although I certainly couldn’t call myself an activist, I sympathise strongly with to Helen’s urge to be understood, which is also reflected in my work as a teacher.

What do you like most about writing flash?

To see or feel the effect I want to achieve ‘in a flash’ and being able to keep hold of the ‘whole’ during the process of drafting and editing. It’s not unlike clicking the shutter on a camera at the sight of something captivating, and then adjusting the framing, the contrast and the brightness and so on until I’m happy with it. Kathy Fish suggests that flash fiction need consist of no more than a small single movement, as long as the piece as a whole is ‘concise, innovative and emotionally resonant’. I love that definition, and it’s fine by me because I find pacing and plotting of action the most difficult aspect of fiction writing. Precision and depth is far more what I’m interested in.

Stella is a London based dyslexia tutor and writing coach. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in print and online in anthologies including The Mechanics Institute Review 13, The Blue Nib, The Southbank Review, and 101 Stories. Her winning piece, ‘Baristas’, was part of Spread The Word’s 2018 City of Stories collection.

Photograph courtesy of the US Library of Congress.