Moonlake: Hi, I’m Moonlake Ku and welcome to the second episode of Writer’s Awakenings. Today, we have author Helen Patrice with us. Firstly, tell us about yourself and your journey into writing, Helen.
Helen: It started with me loving being read to as a little girl, and then once I learned to read, starting to soak up books. I laugh now to think that I was put in the Remedial Reading Programme, because it was thought I couldn’t read, when in fact, I was just too shy to read out loud in class, even to the teacher. But I first wrote a story at age 10, I think, when I saw the movie PLANET OF THE APES on TV, and both loved it to bits, and thought there was a lack of women in it (what a proto-feminist, Bechdel tester I was, even in 1974). So next day, I sat down and rewrote the story so that the female astronaut lived and was much smarter than Charlton Heston. From there, it wasn’t much of leap to try my hand at my own version of ‘Wuthering Heights’, followed by ‘The Great Houdini’ telemovie. I soaked up TV, and turned it into what I wanted. I didn’t know this was fan fiction.
Moonlake: When did you actually find out, about the term fan fiction?
Helen: I discovered fan fiction proper age 16, through a Star Trek fanzine called SPOCK, and wrote for it until about age 30, I think. Issues 21-60 anyway. It was a great place to practice storytelling, and iron out a lot of my narrative hiccoughs. Eventually, I wanted my own characters, so I moved on from fan fiction. I’ll never regret those years though. I had the time of my life as a fan writer, and in fandom in general.
Moonlake: Is that all of the writing you’ve been doing in that time?
Helen: No, I was first professionally published in The Age, in 1981, age 17, and just shy of my last HSC exam. Ms Bighead Helen was convinced she’d be running The Age by 1985, and nearly failed her Politics exam as a result of ‘not needing to study’. I didn’t get published again until 1984 (rather sobering), and my first pro fiction not until perhaps 1986.
I had a steady rate of publication in literary journals after that, until 1989, when I became a mother, and it blew my writing career out of the water.
Moonlake: How long did the motherhood hold up your writing career and what was the recovery like?
Helen: How long? That’s a debatable answer. On some levels, I’d say a few years. On others, it’s still ongoing. Certainly, post-natal depression exacerbated what seems to be a tendency to depression anyway. Possibly a genetic predisposition, as I think my mother was depressed, and quite possibly my grandmother. Certain female members of my extended family have also suffered repeated, or occacional bouts of depression. Post-natal depression segued into chronic ongoing depression, as I wasn’t diagnosed until 2008, and had my first baby in 1989.
Moonlake: Oh, that’s a long period! But I guess your recovery didn’t take that long? You did come back to writing before 08?
Helen: Those early years with small babies are tough on every parent, but I felt I’d been totally denatured, down pas the cellular level and into sub-atomic particles. Who I was prior to December 1989 disappeared into a sea of nappies, and who I became was a long process of re-discovery. I was so shattered in 1990 and 1991 that my best friend and mentor Rosemary Nissen (later Rosemary Nissen Wade) suggested that I write haiku, just as a way of keeping touch with myself. I did try that, and started keeping a journal around 1993 I think. I wrote some articles then for Mother And Baby, and Melbourne Child, which were well-received.
Moonlake: I see, well short prose like haikus keep you in touch with writing and it’s a good thing that Rosemary suggested it. Same with article writing. So, what happened next?
Helen: Later, I enrolled first in the Myths and Symbols class at Holmesglen Tafe, as a way of…I dunno…I said it was a way of feeding my non-existent writing, but really, it was somewhere to go once a week that didn’t involve children. I started saving my own life, and mind. I started a post-apocalyptic novel set in Melbourne, but it never went beyond a few thousand words. I had a lot to say, but it wasn’t going to be science fiction. My daughter was diagnosed with a severe-profound hearing impairment and I entered the world of disability, hearing aids, ears, and Taralye Early Intervention Centre.
My son was diagnosed with a hearing impairment at 5 months, so by the end of 1992, I was totally immersed in this strange, foreign world of disability. I enrolled in Short Story Writing after Myths and Symbols, both with legendary tutor Mike Slusher, and he helped me keep my writing alive for a while.
I wrote some short stories, some of which were published in Aurealis and ASIM. I guess I could continue going through the long litany of what I wrote, and when, but I’m not sure that’s called for. I have eked out a writing life along the edges of survival. I’ve raised two kids as a single mother. My daughter is now 27, my other adult offspring is 25. I have three grandchildren by my daughter. My other child also has autism, and a mild intellectual impairment. I’ve written a memoir about raising the younger one, but that’s on hiatus. It’s difficult to write and revise a memoir about something that you’re still living.
Moonlake: Helen, I think the next part of the interview is already partially covered by your previous answers. But to delve into things in more specific details, I’m going to ask you what are the circumstances in which you first decided to pursue writing in a serious way?
Helen: A question that makes me squirm a little. In my arrogant youth, I was all about publication, and went about it in an almost robotic fashion. Write the story, rewrite the story, send it out, send it out, send it out, bingo, publication. The rejection slips didn’t bother me. It was just part of the business.
Once I became a mother, and suffered pretty severe post-natal depression, it was like that tough dinosaur hide was torn off me, and these days, it’s much harder for me to send anything out into the world. If I’d kept going the way I was, I dunno, maybe I’d be a Carmel Bird, or a Marge Piercy by now. Who knows.
But I didn’t, and in a lot of ways, I’m still a beginner. My yoga practice helps me constantly return to beginner’s mind.
Of late, and by that I mean the last six months, I’ve been following Angela Slatter online, since reading her excellent book VIGIL. I am enamoured not only of her talent, but her business-like way of going about her writing. She’s a ‘write every day’ author, and far-seeing in terms of her plans. Even as her second book is coming out, she is well into the third, and still submitting stories, as well as appearing at science fiction and fantasy conventions. She’s inspired me to finally, at age 53, get serious again, and decide that if I want even a quarter of the success of an Angela, a Carmel, a Marge, then I need to get my arse into gear.
It hasn’t hurt, either, that various tarot readings in the past four years, and a couple of tea leaf readings recently have all shouted ‘get your arse in gear, woman!’ either.
Moonlake: Now, looking back, would you have done anything differently, and what?
Hmm, that’s a tough one, because so much of what I did revolves around my mental state, and if I hadn’t become a mother, then I wouldn’t have had all that incredible life-at-the-coalface experience, I wouldn’t have my two great children, nor my wonderful grandchildren. Sure, I wish I hadn’t copped post-natal depression. I wish I didn’t have depression, and anxiety, and fibromyalgia. But I do, and that’s that.
I wish perhaps I’d kept up my storytelling short fiction, and been braver there. I wish I’d written through those early years as a mother and gotten serious much sooner. But I didn’t, and I’m here now, and if I’m lucky, I have another 40 years or so to go full tilt at my writing, and see where it takes me.
Moonlake: Overall, how far do you think you have progressed from your initial point?
Helen: How long is a piece of string? I’m no longer writing little fan fictions and keeping them in a school suitcase under the bed, so that’s something. I made quite a name for myself as a fan writer in the 80’s, and was nominated for Best Fan Writer a few times. I dabbled in Harry Potter fan fiction in that long period between books 4 and 5, and had a lot of fun on fanfic.net for a while. I had a very big following in Scandinavia, with fans begging for new stories that messed with all the beloved fan tropes. Oh, I do love messing with tropes.
Moonlake: Wow, a Scandinavian fans base!
Helen: Yeah, I’d get the most entertaining and bizarre feedback on my fan fiction stories from that part of the world. I had quite the following of people waiting for my next story. I dunno. Maybe with all those long cold dark months, there’s not much else to do but read fan fiction? I also had a bundle of fans in the States. They liked my actual writing more, but didn’t so much like me sending up their beloved tropes.
Moonlake: Think we went off base a little, we were talking about your overall progress from the initial point.
Helen: Well, I’m not as successful as I’d like to be, but I’ll get there. I think it’s a continuous journey without an end point.
Moonlake: Yep, it’s definitely a journey as life is a journey. I love this way of conceptualising things. So that brings us to the conclusion of this interview. Thank you for your time today, Helen. Readers, see you all till next time