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Interview with Idabel Allen, author of Headshots

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Tell us about Headshots

This short story collection is loaded with shotgun blasts that deliver the goods on life in all its pain and glory: a boy learns how hard it is to be good in post war Mississippi, a father teaches his beloved daughter her place in the world, and an elderly doctor makes the ultimate sacrifice on a dying planet.

The common theme for these stories is the loss of innocence, that moment a child realizes their parents are not perfect, and the world is not fair.  It’s about the events that shape and form us, and not always for the better. In Headshots, the paths paved by parents have left their children difficult passages to navigate life on.

I wrote this collection of short stories a few years ago as a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  I’d written a couple of full length novels, but had never written a short story.  When these were complete, I decided to self publish the collection mostly to test the water and see how readers would respond.  It’s one thing to hole up in an office and write for years on end, quite another thing to put that writing before an audience.  Thus far, the response has been very positive, very encouraging.

Also, publishing this book forced me to “come out of the closet” to family and friends who had no idea I was writing.  This was pretty difficult as I tend to be kind of private.

What type of stories are they? Do they belong to a particular genre?
These stories tend to fall in the Southern Gothic genre, due to the strong element of the “grotesque”.  Meaning these stories feature deeply flawed characters, decayed, claustrophobic settings, or sinister events, often linking them to racism, poverty, or violence.

I probably shouldn’t admit my stories are pretty grotesque, but I cannot escape the truth.  These stories are mired in realism in an age of fantasy writing.  There are no vampires or wizards or sexcapades between the covers of this book.

You once wrote that your “characters’ greatest battles are fought within themselves… Ultimately, the fight for salvation is the greatest battle my characters fight.” Is that what you were talking about?
Fantasy fiction is pretty big right now.  It’s filled with characters battling monsters or sea serpents or werewolves or you name it.  My work tends to focus on the battles which wage within us.  Battles which, to me, are more frightening as they are real, whereas battles with werewolves, for the most part, are not real.

My characters come from backgrounds which are not ideal.  Children are abandoned, made to do terrible things, neglected, unwanted, orphaned, poor, unhappy and unloved.  And from these desperate backgrounds emerges terrible guilt and shame.  Shame in who they are, where they come from or what they’ve done.  Guilt in that they feel responsible for the unhappiness, the lack of love, the neglect which characterized their young life.  They feel unworthy of love from others and from God.

In my books, my characters want to run or hide from life.  In truth, they are barely hanging on.  Ultimately, my characters reach a point where they can’t run or hide any longer, but they can’t move forward either.  It’s either hang on and fight for a future, or give up and let go of life.

But to hang on and fight they must turn inward and address the feelings of shame, guilt and unworthiness.  By coming to understand who they truly are and their self worth, they begin to overcome the obstacles in their lives and become strong enough to face both the past and the future.

The salvation comes from finding oneself and letting go of the things which are not true.

What kind of readers will it appeal to?
This book appeals to readers who like to dive deep into characters, to step into someone else’s shoes for a while and walk a mile or two.  That mile or two will stay with the reader long after the last page of Headshots has been read.  That mile or two will give the reader something to chew on, something real and meaningful.

As one reader put it, “The stories are introspective and well written, with deep insight into the human condition.”

One of the most common things readers say about Headshots is the stories are too short.  They want to know more about the characters and what happens to them.  They want a book instead of a short story.
The ending of each story hits the reader with an emotional sucker punch.  So, if you are a reader who enjoys getting sucker punched, Headshots is for you!

In some ways is it harder to write good short stories than it is to write a good novel?
I had already written three full length novels before I sat down to write my first short story.  My first impression writing a short story was I didn’t have enough elbow room.  I was accustomed to having 300 to 400 hundred pages to tell a story.  Try telling that same story in 10 to 15 pages.

The more I kept writing short stories I learned what all writers learn, that there is great strength in brevity.  A sentence stripped of adverbs and adjectives, even stripped of good sentence structure can pack more raw emotion than the most perfectly detailed sentence.

From short stories I learned to be a really sound editor.  I learned how to critique my work with a more objective eye.  The key to writing a novel or short story is the ability to get to the truth and heart of the story, and get rid of everything else.  This is what writing short stories taught me.

Complete this sentence for us: If you like_________, you’ll love Headshots.
Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty or William Faulkner.

It feels pretty arrogant comparing Headshots to the writers listed above, but they are the writers I grew up on and their influence is undeniable.  These stories have Flannery’s bite, Eudora’s humour and Faulkner’s unique characterization.

My characters aren’t perfect, they don’t always do the right thing, but you can understand them and relate to them even if it seems they come from another world.  And like the stories of the writers listed above, Headshots is engaging and a whole lot of fun to read.

Do you have a favourite story in the collection? If yes, why that particular one?
My favourite in the collection is Molasses, the first story I wrote.  Set in post World War II Mississippi, Molasses is about a young country boy who finds himself left out of the bond his brother and city slicker cousin form, and his attempts to be included as one of the boys.

This story also tells the tale of Molasses’ father, a fearsome bull of a man working to build his place in the world so that no other could ever tell him what he could or could not do.  It’s a story of self-reliance and sacrifice; it’s a story of drive and determination to become his own man.

In this story, there’s also a sense of permanency.  With all the new changes sweeping the land, this family firmly understands what is important for their family and their community.  They are not easily pressured into a new way of thinking or of doing things by outsiders who really do not understand them.

From a technical standpoint, I’m pleased with the way Molasses’ narration really drives the story and puts the reader immediately in this place and time that has long since passed.  I also like the dialogue between the boys.  I think most people can relate to being made fun of and picked on.   I even like the ending, although shocking on the one hand, it does accomplish Molasses’ goal of being with the boys.

But most of all, I love Molasses.  He is a wonderful character.

We can’t wait to meet him, but for now can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a chick who has spent the last fifteen years holed up in my bedroom or office, secretly writing away like crazy.  I have two manuscripts with an agent and am working on what could be the greatest novel ever written in the history of man.  At least, I hope so.
I am married, have a couple of just about grown kids, work for a company in the education field, and like long walks along the beach and sunsets.  Oh, and pina coladas. I grew up in the south, live in Iowa, the icicle state, and have illusions of grandeur.

Nice to know you.

Nice to know you, too. Have you got a blog or a website where we can all get to know you even more? How can we follow you on Face book and/or Twitter?
You can catch up with me on Twitter at @idafiction.

I have a Facebook page for Idabel Allen, but the truth of the matter is a lot of my relatives and high school friends on this page and it embarrasses the fire out of me to post my writing updates there.  So there hasn’t been much Facebook activity in a long time.

I have a great blog called A Lowbrow Literary Life.

And finally, to get more information about me and my books, check out my website at www.idabelallen.com.

Where can we buy Headshots?
Headshots is available electronically at Amazon ( US , UK ), Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

What’s next?
My next project is a historical novel set in the South during the years after the civil war through the great depression.  The story is about the invitation of evil into utopia, the destruction it causes and the quest for salvation.  Big surprise, huh?

This will be my first novel based on historical events, and will include an element of the spiritual or supernatural, something I’ve never done either.  I started out wanting to write a book as terrifying as Peter Straub’s book Ghost Story, but as all stories do, it has taken a on a life of its own and the horror element may not work out.

We’ll see how it goes.  Just know it will be pretty dang good.

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