March 5, 2013

Anatomy of a Collection: a guest post by Karen Heuler, author of "The Inner City"

Karen Heuler's stories have appeared in over sixty literary and speculative journals and anthologies, including several "Best of" collections. She's published a short story collection and three novels, and won an O. Henry award in 1998. She lives in New York with her dog, Philip K. Dick, and her cats, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.
In my latest collection, “The Inner City,” I have a story called “Creating Cow,” where a young girl creates a cow out of packaged meats she gets from stores. Of course you should think of Frankenstein, another packaged being; I’d like you to. But at the core of the story is my feelings about meat, about the creatures who die to provide meat for us, and a fantasy of meat taking its revenge on us.

Decades ago, when I was a college freshman, we had to dissect fetal pigs in a biology class. They had the same organs we did; there was much to identify with here, and in fact, I became a vegetarian as a result. There was too close an association.

If you’ve ever read Terry Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat,” you can perhaps understand that who is meat and who is the consumer of meat varies by perspective.

So my character begins to assemble her cow from packaged meat and butcher by-products and what she can find in medical waste—and a sloppy, angry creature is born. It begins to roam around the suburban landscape, gathering what it can to survive, and eventually it begins to construct a consort made out of meat and creates a family of meat.

This is a horror, of course; but from my point of view, the horror is that we have an entire industry raising animals under obscene conditions and slaughtering them under obscene conditions, and then, occasionally, discarding millions of pounds of their flesh when we have a food scare.

Oh well. The world is not a pleasant place unless you’re lucky.

It’s probably unlikely that anyone will become a vegetarian as a result of “Creating Cow,” but one of the few perks of being a writer, in fact, is that you get to insert your preoccupations and biases into stories.

For instance, the main character in “The Hair” has her hair stolen by a new coworker, who moves in to take her job as well. I began this while going through chemotherapy. Losing your hair makes you feel very vulnerable; it also symbolizes a battle for a place in life. Both these came together for me in this story, and as an added feature, I got to include stuff about the identity we get from our jobs, as well. Our jobs define us, whether we like it or not; whether we have the job we want or not. At the time I worried, too, about whether there would be long-term effects from treatment: would my imagination come through unscathed? I dealt with all of this metaphorically in “The Hair.” This is story, too, owes a debt to another writer’s story—Gogol’s “The Nose.” I had a lot of freedom to insert my thoughts about working in an office,  and in a bureaucracy (and I don’t automatically blame “bureaucracies” for what they do; bureaucracies are made of people. It’s the people who scheme and build impenetrable systems around themselves). So the bosses and coworkers represent a lot of my feelings about the arbitrariness of jobs and, by extension, life.

Of course these stories get a little dark, but sometimes  darkness is a little funny, isn’t it? In “The Great Spin,” which deals with the coming Rapture and whether or not it takes the right people, one boy is intent on making sure everyone who expects to be taken leaves their goods behind for him. In “Landscape, with Fish,” we’ve got some ominous fish behaving like birds, and birds behaving like people. With the wonders of YouTube, you can probably find some real-life examples of this.

In “After Images,” we’ve got a reporter who can’t help asking the wrong questions, and in “FishWish,” we’ve got a wish that can’t turn out well. That’s always the way, isn’t it? Even in the hospital, there’s a jockeying for Best Patient and in the case of “Beds,” a battle to be the patient who doesn’t get sent Away (wherever that is). The point is, life’s got a hidden agenda.

And it just might include you.

Thanks to Karen for the great guest blog post. As for the rest of you, you can actually check out her story, "The Hair," online by clicking on this link:

Also, you can check out Karen's website, or find her on Twitter (@KarenHeuler), Goodreads, or find out more on the book by visiting Chizine Publications.


  1. Happy to discover your work! I'm buying The Inner City from CZP.

    I'm a comic artist and writer from the Toronto area.

  2. Hope you enjoy it. The cover it total eye candy.