Coffin Bell: Introduce yourself.
Rachel Hehl: Rachel Hehl (pronounced hell!) is a twenty-four-year-old demonic entity from Melbourne in Australia. In between falling in love with a new fictional villain every day of the week and collecting glittery items for her ever-expanding hoard, she enjoys writing. Her short story ‘Rotting Fruit’ is a celebration of all her favourite things – dark, brooding anti-heroes, take-no-shit girls, blood and fruit.
CB: When you write, do you start with a plan and move from there, or do you generally go where the writing takes you?
RH: I recently did one of those quizzes that tell you your approach to plotting stories, and I am definitely a ‘chaotic pantser’. I don’t go in with a plot – it sounds cliché but I really just go in with a feeling, a mood that I want to capture. With “Rotting Fruit,” that mood was one of longing, seduction, and that sense of the forbidden fruit. I let the writing take me where it wants to, and if it’s a bit disjointed at the end, I’ll try to restructure it (or beg one of my long-suffering friends to edit it for me, as my eye isn’t objective enough!).
CB: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
RH: It came from my mum, actually! I frequently get into slumps with my creativity, and after participating in NaNoWriMo last year (which was where I wrote “Rotting Fruit”) I was burnt out, I hadn’t written in months. I was flat and uninspired. So, I texted my mum to cry about it, and she told me, “You know your tools are sharp by now. Just create with them. Even if it doesn’t flow right now, it just means the dam will burst later. Just let this run its course.” So essentially, she was telling me to just write anyway, straight through the writer’s block, and trust that inspiration will always come back. And she was right – it did. Thanks Mum!
CB: What advice can you give on editing and revising?
RH: I edit the creative section for our university’s magazine, so that has taught me a little bit about editing other people’s writing, but absolutely nothing when it comes to my own – they’re entirely different beasts! I’m a bad example in that I edit as I go along – I know you’re meant to just let the words flow and edit it later, but I am weirdly pedantic about the way words look on the page (word processor?) and want to make them perfect before I move onto the next sentence. As for revising, some of the best advice I’ve been given (from my friend Jeanne, hello if you’re reading!) is to read out loud – even when you think you’re at a point when your work is fit to submit, sometimes sentences can be too long and pull readers out of a story, or phrasing can be clunky and you won’t have picked up on it without reading aloud. This advice has really helped me take my revisions to the next level before submitting a piece – it can be the difference between an acceptance or rejection, I’ve found!
CB: What publishing advice can you give?
RH: Submit, submit, submit! Write a story, polish it up until it shines, look around for somewhere that fits the theme of your work, and submit! Sharing your work and getting it out there in the world is so important – up until I started studying literature at uni, I kept my work extremely private, I would only let my mum read it. And I honestly feel like it impeded my growth as a creative – nowadays, being extremely fortunate to have a great friendship circle of creative writers, I share my work much more freely, and all their feedback is so valuable. I can also offer insight from the other side of the door, as the creative editor for our student magazine – I love it when I receive a submission from someone new, who tells me this is the first time sharing their work. It’s a thrill to be able to publish someone’s creative piece and feel their excitement at having something they’ve worked so hard on get acknowledgement. Be brave and submit! Even if you don’t get accepted, it’s worth a try.
CB: Who are your influences?
RH: Ooh, this is a tough one – there are so many! I’d have to say my biggest is Angela Carter – the biggest compliment I’ve ever received was a friend telling me my work reminded them of Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’. I greatly admire the work she did in transforming old folktales with a feminist twist – her writing style is so decadent and bitingly sharp and it’s everything I aspire to be. Her short story ‘Lady of the House of Love’ was one of the stories I studied last year in gothic lit, and it shaped my writing immensely. Other than Angela, I read a fair bit of fantasy and spec fic – I am influenced by Melissa Marr’s worldbuilding and sense of magic in her tales of faerie, Sarah J. Maas and her balls-to-the-wall style in A Court of Thorns and Roses, and Holly Black’s unlimited imagination in her urban fantasy series. Outside the literature sphere, I am hugely inspired by movies – Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is my favourite movie; I actually wrote about it for a lit class once, and I also have noticed a lot of Tim Burton-esque influence in my writing lately – what can I say, I love his eccentricity!
CB: What’s one thing you wish every journal editor knew?
RH: That I think they are deities of the written word, basically! And that every time I submit to a journal it’s usually in the dead of night, and I am always tempted to do some kind of dark magic sacrifice and whisper ‘please like my stuff’ into the witch-wind. Watch me get zero acceptances anymore after saying that.
CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.
I can honestly say I have never worried about being buried alive! My biggest and most enduring fear is spiders – I would definitely say I have arachnophobia, ever since an enormous huntsman (we get them a lot in Australia) crawled up my leg when I was five years old in the back of my mum’s car. I refused to drive a car for years because I just knew if a spider ever surprised me, I’d flip out and crash and kill someone. If I ever get to a level where I receive fan mail, I bet someone will eventually mail me a spider for a laugh and I’ll die of fright. Overall, though, I’d say I’m more philic than phobic – for example, my mum’s terrified of clowns (coulrophobia), my auntie is phobic of balloons (globophobia) and I have friends that are unnerved by clusters of holes (trytophobia). I love all those things (I definitely went through a phase of crushing on Pennywise, oops, and the season of American Horror Story that delved into trypophobia was my favourite)! I’m fascinated by phobias. Is that weird?
CB: What draws you to dark fiction?
RH: I think it’s just something embedded in my own psychology, and my preferences. I’ve always preferred stories that are dark and disturbing to those that have happy endings, and I’ve always preferred the villain to the hero, ever since I was little – my first proper teenage crush was on the Phantom in the Phantom of the Opera, and I loved that movie precisely because it was a dark romance and ended unhappily. Get out, Raoul! Give me the unrequited love, and torture, and seduction, and piles of angst over the fluffy ending any day. I think what draws me to it as well is that sense of unease – I have always liked stories that unsettle me, that make me think, that remind me I’m not immortal (yet! One day, I swear). That’s why I was so thrilled to stumble across Coffin Bell one day when I was browsing Submittable for somewhere to submit my work – dark fiction and ‘cursed verse’, as you put it, is my favourite thing to write and read – it’s a match made in gothic heaven.
CB: How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?
RH: I think because the story of Hades and Persephone is already so dark, it was easy to just build on that for the piece, to make it darker and more sensual. One of the things I really took on board this year was the importance of motifs and symbols in a story – so I was conscious of really trying to work symbols associated with darkness and sexuality into the story. The pomegranate is already associated with sex, it’s known as an ‘aphrodisiacal’ fruit, and I loved being able to write about shadows and blood and bone, all things associated with sex and death. The myth of Hades and Persephone is one of the origins of the Death and the Maiden trope we see in a lot of stories today, so that darkness was definitely already there in the root source – writing it in the way I did just solidified that darkness, I guess. I also tried to show that it isn’t just Hades who is a character of darkness – I mean, Persephone/Proserpine eats the pomegranate seeds and becomes the queen of Hell, and is even more feared than Hades is in the original mythology. Her name itself means ‘Destroyer of Light’. She’s a badass. Sorry, this is probably a really rambling non-answer – I just stan Persephone.
CB: How important are your surroundings when you write?
RH: Hugely important. I like to write in near-silence, or occasionally with music playing in my headphones (for example, a lot of my writing in the past years has been set in space, so I like to have some interstellar jams going on – like, literally the soundtrack of Interstellar). I like to be in dark settings, with my fairy lights switched on if I’m in my room. But last year I also found I could write very productively at the State Library of Victoria up in the city, probably because it’s such a renowned ‘studying’ place and just has a vibe of productivity. It helps that there’s a Starbucks across the road, too. I can’t write in places that are loud, frenetic, or don’t have the right vibe.
CB: Do you use any sources for your material aside from experience?
RH: It really depends. A lot of the time when I’m writing creatively, I don’t write from experience, as so much of what I write is fantasy or speculative fiction, and obviously I can’t go to space, come back and write about it (I wish! Does anyone want to sponsor me to become an astronaut? And maybe take the math tests for me?) or descend into the underworld, as tempting as that is. So I do a lot of reading and a lot of research – when I was writing about aliens for a story last year I read a lot of articles about the sort of Area 51 creatures humans have found over the years, and about conspiracy theories surrounding UFOs and extra-terrestrial contact. For Rotting Fruit, I read a lot of different versions of the myth of Hades and Persephone, and for the most recent piece I’ve written, another mythic retelling about Cupid and Psyche, I read the source text ‘The Golden Asse’ by Apuleius, that is said to have inspired the French writer who wrote the original fairytale of Beauty and the Beast – it was less dry than I imagined!
CB: Where can we find more of your work?
RH: Apart from Coffin Bell? This year and last year, I have had the privilege to be published in an amazing little collective called F*EMSzine in Melbourne, run by some of the most inspiring young artists and women I know. Before I was on the editing squad for Lot’s Wife, our student magazine, I had a few pieces in there. You can browse my Tumblr for a complete list of published works, along with samples of other writing, and if you search hard enough, you just might find a link to my archiveofourown pseudonym, where I publish all my fanfiction *hides*
Thank you so much for asking these questions about my work, it’s an honour to be published in Coffin Bell – it’s not an exaggeration to say this has been one of the best experiences of my life.