13 Questions with Rachel Kendall

by HST UK on December 4, 2011

Rachel Kendall is a writer and editor (ISMs Press / Sein und Werden) living in Manchester with her partner of photographic things and her daughter of much-messness. The house is full of junk, dead things (some stuffed, others skeletal), books, a toy tea-set, an Iggle Piggle, a few cameras, many films, stacking cups, a couple of stairgates and a clanger. She collects animal-feet brooches and loves the printed word.

HST talks with Rachel about amongst other things, her short story collection The Bride Stripped Bare, Sein und Werden and the Horror genre.

HST: ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ is your second short story collection, the stories defy conventional storytelling, in the sense that the reader doesn’t just take in the words, but they have to contemplate more, and work things out. Was it a deliberate intention of yours to engage and challenge the reader?

Isn’t that every writer’s intention? I think a reader wants to be challenged. I know I do. To spell everything out is insulting to the reader’s intelligence, not to mention boring. By hinting, making suggestions, putting the idea that something may or may not be happening into the reader’s mind you transport them into your world. It makes for a more personal read, I think, when you have to get involved a little in the feel of the story, its taste, touch, smell. They’re the ingredients for an experience that is unique to each individual consumer of words.

HST: A number of stories in the collection present an alternative view to pregnancy, which despite dwelling into surreal waters, portrays feelings that are profoundly real. It was interesting to read in another interview you did that a lot of these stories were written before you gave birth; did these stories represent your own internal fears about this unique experience?

Yes, I think so. The thought of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood were always so alien to me, yet at the same time something I felt I had to experience. I want to experience things. I want to experience everything. How could I go through life without rising to the challenge of that which my physical self is made for (despite my nagging arguments to the contrary)? So, my weird obsession became a reality, which meant it was no longer something I had to get out of my system. Interestingly though, I found being pregnant the most ‘unnatural’ and alien thing I’d ever felt.

HST: One of my favourite short story writers Bernard Malamud once said “Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing”. How do you go about revising and crafting a story, after you’ve completed a first draft?

Ah, now there’s a writer who’s been recommended to me on many occasions but I still haven’t got around to sampling his fiction. I would have to say that I HATE revising my work. I do it; I edit till I have the thing pared down to a skeleton of its former self, but I don’t enjoy it. For me the enjoyment comes from the flow of writing, and even the physical aspect of typing (or hand-writing. Before I used a PC to write, I loved pen and paper, the flourishes of hand-written text and would write till I had calluses. Now that I use the PC I love to type. I can touch-type and the feel of my fingers flitting over the keys gives me a strange pleasure). But yes, it’s the stream of ideas, flowing faster than I am able to type, ideas and images falling over each other to get onto the page. Who was it who said ideas are like butterflies and it’s the writer’s job to pin down as many as possible? Probably Nabokov!

HST: Do you believe that we are currently living in a post-existential world, where we are now withdrawing from our own individual paths, falling into some brain numbing technological void that is beyond absurdity?

Post-existential? I wouldn’t quite say that, but yes, I do feel like we’re becoming lumped more as ‘society’ than as a collective of individuals. Because of everyone having to have the latest gizmo and everyone saving up for the next gadget and all of us losing our identities to a certain degree to the virtual world. I have no idea what technophiles are talking about half the time. I work with university students and they never show me what they have jotted down on a piece of paper. No, they bring this gadget out of their pocket and refer me to some text on a screen. As far as going beyond absurdity, on a personal level I have to agree with that. I feel like I am being left behind as the world skates into a new phase of being. A post-post-modern (or perhaps we’ll end up full circle and be pre-past, or something) existence. But in reality, that’s just me being out of my comfort zone. I don’t think we’re quite at a critical level of post-existentialism yet.

HST: I was reading a young relative some Grimms’ Fairy Tales last weekend. It amazed me how strong these stories were, surviving centuries. Why aren’t fairy tales as resolute as they once were? Why aren’t they as dark?

I love those old, original tales. Stories of fingers being lopped off and girls dancing until their feet burnt. We have a copy of Struwwelpeter (a German children’s book from 1845) (http://konkykru.com/e.hoffmann.html) which has various gruesome tales I expect are intended, like any other fairytale, to ensure kids stay on the right moral path. My favourite in that collection is The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb, about a boy who wouldn’t stop sucking his thumbs until the scissor-man came along and cut them off. I guess these tales aren’t as dark for the same reason we don’t cane children anymore, or make them work or wash out their mouths out with soap. We’re a society of parents and teachers and health workers who listen, discuss and reason rather than smack because we want our children to learn right from wrong not through fear but through understanding. So we have happy stories, or at least, less bloody ones! At the same time, though, sex and gore are on our screens and in our magazines and available to the younger generation more than ever now.

HST: Let’s talk about ‘Sein und Werden’, through the experiences thus far, would you say that the journal has blazed the trail for writers to hurdle conventional guidelines, and produce works that bounce off set themes like a golf ball bounce off concrete, evoking more expressive writing?

I don’t know about that. It’s just a wee zine after all. It’s a nice thought though. I do receive emails and letters of thanks for providing a podium for unconventional work, which is wonderful. And I know that having different themes cultivates a community of writers and artists all working towards one objective and I like the thought of firing up their creative community spirit.

HST: Tell me, what is ‘Werdenism’?

Werdenism is a bit of a nonsense word with good intentions. It was actually coined by Spyros Heniadis, the man who kick-started Sein in the printed form. I’ve always seen the zine as a kind of on-going multi-artist project where each piece of text and each image is an integral part of a whole, a machine, whose cogs are in constant revolution. ‘Werden’ means ‘becoming’ which suggests, in an existential sense, that we will never arrive. We are forever mutating, evolving, as individuals, and that is how I see the zine. For this reason there isn’t a particular format I follow with the print issue. Sometimes it is A5 and saddle-stitched, other times it is A4 and clipped together. Often it is a raw, photocopied, b&w punk zine and other times it is printed at home and tied together with black lace. Tis a monster that lives and breathes.

HST: Last month I was at an art gallery that exhibited a collection of Diane Arbus’ photographs. Portraying the so-called marginalized and deviant, however to me at least these people were a representation of ‘normal’, because they were people existing how they were, not hiding behind masks. Why do you suppose conservative British values encourage people to blend, and to conform into false expressions of themselves?

I don’t know. It’s not just conservative British values is it? I should think it’s any Westernised society and goes back to your question 4 regarding the need to withdraw from individual paths. There are a number of other artists who have used themselves (bodily) to the same effect as Arbus did with her photos. The photographer Jo Spence, for example, documented the invasive treatment, including a lumpectomy and then a mastectomy, she received following a diagnosis of breast cancer. By showing her scars, her mammogram screening, her weight loss and sickness, her lack of a breast (the black-hole of culture’s femininity), she openly confronts the horror that plagues all women, that of losing one’s identity, one’s sex appeal. Similarly Nan Goldin who, often on the receiving end of domestic abuse, photographed women in hostels baring their bruises, and men and women struck down with HIV and AIDs. And then on a different level you have ‘Exquisite Pain’ by Sophie Calle which records the very personal trauma of the breakdown of a relationship, alongside a collection of other people’s worst memories, all which help her mental healing.

HST: You wrote an essay about House of 1000 Corpses for ‘Butcher Knives and Body Counts’, please tell me firstly why you decided to write an essay about this film, and also what ground the essay covered? (Is the essay available to read online?). I was enamoured by Rob Zombie’s first two directorial efforts, but felt his remake of Halloween were two major steps backwards.

When I was invited to write an essay on my favourite horror/slasher film there was no doubt in my mind which film I would discuss. House of 1000 Corpses is such a wonderful box of tricks and Zombie continually pulls the gutted rabbit out of the hat with this one. I haven’t seen the remake of Halloween because I watched The Devil’s Rejects and yes, it’s ‘horror’ble and there are moments that turned my stomach, but it’s lacking something. I’m not sure what. Perhaps I just crave more of a spectacle in my horror films, more theatrics. If anything I like to overindulge in films, whereas I prefer my reading material to be more subtle.

I found the formula of The Devil’s Rejects quite sterile, like the myriad backwoods/red-neck/hill-billy-set films where good-looking and remarkably agile teenagers are hunted down and you know from the beginning which slightly less dumb guy or gal is going to outwit the ‘monster’. In 1000 Corpses Zombie took the classic formulae and remoulded and remashed them into a spectator sport, a wonderfully glamorous, fun, silly, montage of old favourites. I mean, you have the dysfunctional family, the demented clown, the old curiosity shoppe and the murder-ride (an acknowledgement of our love of the macabre). You have cheerleaders, mutilation, philosophy, sex, the occult, evil doctors, lunatics, hybrids, inbreds and the foetus in a jar. What more can you ask for?

HST: Box Office horror films in the last couple of years have either descended into terrible remakes, or attempts to recreate the shaky hand held camera realism of the Blair Witch Project, with the obvious example of this being the atrocious Paranormal Activity franchise. It’s proven throughout the last few decades that people like to be scared, why have creative horror directors thrived in the underground, but not been able to reach a mass audience?

You know, this craze of remaking old favourites really annoys me. Not just in the horror world but films in general. What also pisses me off is Hollywood, like a two year old kid, having to grab hold of anything good and prove that it can do it better. ‘Let the Right One In’ had only been running on our screens for two minutes before ‘Let Me In’ appeared. And there’s the wonderful Russian vampire trilogy ‘Nightwatch’ which actually didn’t make it any further than two films in before Hollywood entered and said they were going to remake it the Hollywood way. Why? It was perfectly good enough as it was. And even Asian horrors remade in Hollywood, American good-looking blonde girls cast in place of dark-haired Asian beauties, with the original director dipping his toe into American waters – even then the films are never as good as the original. Why? Because Asian horror (I’m thinking such films as The Grudge, The Ring, Dark Waters etc) is so linked to Asian culture… they know how to terrorise their audience with merely a look askance. A few torn off fingernails, a face concealed behind a black wall of hair, an intimated presence off camera. Why do these directors choose to join forces with ‘Hollywood’? Is it to reach a bigger audience? Are we so afraid of reading subtitles that we have to have our decent horror films translated into a language (both discourse and culture) that we understand?

HST: The horror genre in film is unflinchingly confronting a number of extreme taboos, sometimes rather clumsily (The Human Centipede!). As an editor, writer and reader of horror, are you noticing a similar trend in literature?

I don’t actually read much horror, apart from Sein submissions. I watch it. I’ll always love to watch it (my second love, after literature, is film) with a mixed feeling of nostalgia and the constant surprise that I can still be repulsed after all these years, but your typical horror novel doesn’t really do it for me. Murder fiction, lustmord, crime, noir, I like that class of ‘horror’, but not monsters so much, so I don’t think I can really comment on that. I do agree that film is going to further and further extremes to engage the reader in a way it hasn’t done for a long time, perhaps since the original science fiction movies of the 50s that shocked with special effects and played on the fear of nuclear war/radioactive fallout. I haven’t seen The Human Centipede though I know it was recently mentioned in the news for reasons of censorship but even films like Saw and Final Destination, whose only premise is to shock in new and revolting ways, demonstrate how the film industry has hit a brick wall when it comes to tackling horror entertainment.

HST: Going back to your own writing, you’ve written a novel titled ‘The Blush’, which takes place in Paris. What were your own reasons for visiting Paris, and does it annoy you that Paris is perceived cynically as a place where many artistic types travel to in hope of finding a trail left by the great and the dead?

I have always had a ‘thing’ for Paris. Yes, I know it’s clichéd but I love the literature and films it has birthed, along with the great thinkers, the food, the wine, the language, the cafe culture, the attitude. I spent a summer there working on my novel and in a way it was that trail left by the great and the dead that brought me there as much as anything else. I wanted to see what the great French saw; I wanted to visit the graves of Man Ray, Colette, Proust, Piaf, along with the other non-French artistic types who were drawn to the city, such as Picasso, Henry Miller, Modigliani, Orwell. Paris is a seductress, and she will continue to seduce because of her past as much as her present, I think.

HST: Every morning before I head off to work I end up watching ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ whilst eating my breakfast. Towards the end of the show, the pretentious presenter James Lipton usually asks ten questions inspired by Bernard Pivot’s use of the Proust Questionnaire.

I hadn’t heard of this so I went online and ended up at Wiki. Interesting. I like Proust. I set myself the challenge a few years ago of reading all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. That was after some instruction from Edmund White and Alain de Botton. It was enjoyable. But I obviously had a lot more time on my hands then.

HST: Could you answer them for me?

(a)What is your favorite word?
I don’t have a favourite word. Does anyone? I like lots and lots of words. I like the word ‘lots’ and ‘word’ and ‘and’.

(b)What is your least favorite word?
That’s a tough one. I don’t think I have one. It’d have to be something like ‘work’ or ‘money’ or ‘responsibility’. I dislike those things. However, it is not the fault of the word. The word is always good!

(c)What turns you on?
Music. Singing. Having the house to myself and dancing like my life depends on it. Lady Gaga is my dirty secret.

(d)What turns you off?
Emotional suffocation.

(e)What sound or noise do you love?
My two year old daughter singing.

(f)What sound or noise do you hate?
The sound of someone eating.

(g)What is your favorite curse word?
Fuck, without a doubt.

(h)What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Film director. I read a fantastic book, I see a beautiful skyline, I hear one side of a strange conversation and I think about how it might translate to film. I recently read Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs and though the book didn’t do much for me and actually left me a little disappointed, I had some great ideas for turning it into a horror film, and the effects I might use to superimpose the horrors of war, the tranquility of the south of France, the spirit of communism and the physicality of the beasts.

And if that failed, I’d like to be an architect. Buildings are sexy.

(i)What profession would you not like to do?
Podiatrist. Feet. No!

(j)If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
What took you so long?


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