Interview with Helena Paoli
By Joseph Linscott
“When the genres merge, I see new life.”
— Helena Paoli
You write in your bio that you are exploring where “literary genres merge.” That word “merge” is so interesting to me. Whereas hybridity and experimental writing makes something else entirely out of these previous forms, you are looking at the actual space where those genres touch. Can you touch on this work that you are doing, and what you are seeing when these genres merge?
When we think of literary genres, we usually think of expectations. For the plot, for the characters, for the themes. Tropes help to sell, and publishing houses know it very well. However, sometimes expectations feel like gates, not only from a creative point of view. Here in Italy, there is also a persistent conviction that we should expect less quality from genre fiction, especially when it comes to fantasy. It’s frustrating. Every story is born from a “what if”, a twist that serves the purpose to tell our truth.
Nowadays, we talk a lot about how the rise of AI will change our work as writers: I think that only a human being can challenge readers’ expectations successfully. I do not have the audacity to believe I could create something path-breaking, but I’m curious about the way I can enrich my writings if I just open those gates.
When the genres merge, I see new life.
Did that work have an influence in these stories?
Absolutely. These are stories about friendships and ordinary girls stuck in their heads, but they are also stories about ghosts, sybils and witches. It depends on the reader’s will to cross the gates…
You have also written three fantasy novels in Italian, published through Fanucci Editore and Bibliotheka Edizioni. What was similar or dissimilar in the writing process for your novels versus the process for these stories? Were there surprises to you in what was dis/similar between the two forms?
The very first difference is the language. I wrote my novels in my mother tongue, feeling like I had the power to express any thought, if I just kept adding words. Writing in a second language is something else, entirely. You sense how every single word has its own weight. You taste it. You don’t take your stories from the usual vigorous river of thinking; you fish them out a creek. A creek of crystal-clear water.
With this in mind, what benefit did you see writing these as flash stories?
They weren’t polluted by my over-thinking.
Your stories are interested in human connections and, as you wrote, “the uncanny complexity of female friendships.” I’m wondering if you could expand on how that became the focus in these stories?
I wrote a lot of stories on this same theme, in a very short period. I remember I kept thinking about one sonetto written by Dante about the woman he loved. She saves him with her eyes, with her walk, with her voice. Basically, just existing.
Sometimes I feel like that when I’m with my girls. Saved by their existence. We have a way of communicating that goes beyond words. I believe it’s because Italian–or language in general–doesn’t fully belong to us. It still reflects the way men think and speak.
However, I wanted to explore this emotion of “salvation” from every possible angle, even the darkest one. What happens when you lose this feeling? And when you’re too scared to reach it?
As you said, I find human connections interesting, almost in a mystical way.
In all the relationships we’re witness to in these stories, as well as what I could gather from the synopses of your three novels, characters’ memories and self-perception play a role in how they behave. Could you also touch on the dynamics of memory and identity to these relationships?
It seems to me that we are a generation of people obsessed with memories. Maybe it’s commonplace, but I see social media as an expression of our need to be remembered. We take a lot of pictures of our lives to share them with other people. Of course, it’s about ego. Yet how can I define and understand myself without others?
My characters are usually entangled in this problem. However, they are not fixated on the general perception of them, just on their loved ones’.
There’s so much in these three stories that is left unsaid, unwritten, unseen by the reader, yet we can feel the nuances of these relationships and situations that the characters are in. I’m thinking particularly of the ending of “My Ghost,” when the narrator momentarily fears that Alessandra “will run outside in the falling snow, the freezing air filling her lovely lungs” to reach Carlotta, instead of staying inside “where everything is warm and good,” and how poignantly the language of this moment captures everything about the relationship we did or didn’t see before it. It makes me wonder what these stories looked like in earlier versions. What was the writing process for these stories like?
Thank you for your care and your words. They mean a lot to me. As a reader, I love stories that use images and symbols to draw their characters’ relationships. It’s a joy to find other readers like me!
I got the idea for My Ghost after the last lockdown in Italy. Life outside came back as before COVID, but it felt different. When I left home, there was always a sensation of unease. It was strange. One time, I imagined this narrator, a jealous and possessive house, who wanted me to stay in and forget about the people outside.
After that, I tried two or three times to outline a story using that idea, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. I remember one of the earlier versions ending with Alessandra burning the house to the ground. However, everything came to place when I realized this story wasn’t about rage, but about love.
Do you have a routine or a certain ritual that you like to stick to when you are writing?
Not really. Before a writing session, I often listen to Taylor Swift’s songs. In a way, she helps me feel my feelings!
When you begin writing a story, does it start from plot or character or some other element? What inspires you when you write?
It depends. It often starts with a feeling. If it’s interesting enough, I look for a way to explore it, through characters or situations. Writing my novels, I wanted this feeling to be like an atmosphere, that the characters breathed in all the time. I see authenticity in emotions. They always inspire and connect.
What are some of your other literary pursuits? How do you see those impacting the writing that you do?
I’m currently writing a lot of stories in English. I’m also working on a project about the relations between short stories written by Italian and American women from the ‘50s. I have an idea for a screenplay set in Bari, my Italian hometown.
As every twenty-something person, I don’t know anything about the future. Yet it’s a magical time.