Not Your Usual: Heather Parry on writing the body
Not Your Usual is a new series from The Skinny and Glayva highlighting interesting and exciting artists from across the Scottish scene. For our third instalment we catch up with prolific author Heather Parry over a Jumping Bean glocktail
When Heather Parry was a small child, her skin would regularly come off in sheets. Suffering from an extreme form of eczema, she would be wrapped in emollient and bandages at night, peeling and raw, waking up in the morning with flakes of skin in the bed. “I was a little buttery flapjack of a child,” she laughs. “But in my most formative years, I had to grow up in a world where the barrier between me and the outside world wasn’t strong or reliable. My physical body felt vulnerable, changeable… I would wake up and not know what the state of my body would be.”
All our adult lives, some people say, are merely an attempt to relitigate and process the eerie, shadowed, half-understood events of our childhoods; if so, Parry’s writing is a clear cipher for attempting to feel out the edges of a body’s boundaries – its flimsy, permeable outer shell. Her formidable output (next April will mark the release of her third book in less than two years) all revolves around the body: its possibilities, its deceptive border spaces, the ways – as Parry says – it can become “a site of transformation, a site of horror, a site of inspiration.”
Her debut novel Orpheus Builds a Girl, released in October of last year, builds upon the true story of Carl Tanzler, a German medical professional in 1920s Florida who fell in love with a young Cuban tuberculosis patient and stole her body from its grave for seven years. If Frankenstein was the modern-day Prometheus, then Orpheus Builds a Girl is the modern-day Frankenstein, a chilling, Gothic investigation into a bodily solipsism, and the violence that occurs when certain bodies are deemed usable and passive.
Similar themes run through her short story collection, This Is My Body, Given For You, while her upcoming debut non-fiction book, Electric Dreams: Sex Robots and the Failed Promises of Capitalism, examines intersections between power, desire and technology. “I’m really interested in why we find them so seductive as a concept,” Parry explains, “and why we listen to the Elon Musks and Peter Thiels when they tell us not only that they will happen, but that we’ll want them.”
Synthetic, bleeding, decaying, assembled… there is something about the body in all of its forms that keeps drawing Parry back, a continued exploration since childhood of its uncanny conditions. “I write about food a lot,” Parry considers, “and sex sometimes, which are [also] really embodied experiences. It’s all to do with things going in and out of your body, isn’t it? How your body chooses to meld with other things and what pleasures you can take in them. But what dangers there are, as well.
“I guess I’m concerned with how we are trapped in our bodies,” she continues. “We’re trapped in a relationship with food. We’re trapped in a relationship with sex. Even if [we're] rejecting it, that’s having a relation, that’s making a choice. I can’t conceive of thinking of the body as a neutral space.”
Thematically, then, all of Parry’s books have the distinctive Heather Parry touch – what she terms her “little obsessions” – but they unusually span across genre and form, encompassing everything from experimental prose to witty essays. Why this practice across different modes of writing?
“I suppose they offer different things,” Parry says, “because with fiction, you’re asking someone to enter into a what-if scenario with you. Like, what if this happened? And what I like to do is reveal at the end that it’s based on something true, so it’s a what-if, but you’re already living in the what-if world. Whereas with non-fiction, you’re really just trying to pull someone’s point of view towards yours for a brief period to see if they find it more comfortable than their own. You don’t require them to trust you quite so much. You need a reader to trust you with fiction, but with non-fiction there's no leap of faith.”
Parry’s elasticity when it comes to exploring her little obsessions shows no sign of stopping: she has two more novels in the works, and is brimming with ideas for essay collections – books that would continue to straddle the line between the private intimacies of the body and the public interventions of power made upon it. The possibilities of non-fiction particularly excite her: a return, she explains laughingly, that pivots back to her earliest writing experiences.
“I wanted to be a music journalist at university,” she admits. “The most exciting day of my life was when I drank with Biffy Clyro. I really wanted to be Lester Bangs, and that didn’t happen for obvious reasons. I do like the idea of writing long, insane fictional monologues with Lou Reed. But my life took me off that course.”
Orpheus Builds a Girl is out with Gallic Books. This Is My Body, Given For You is out with Haunt Publishing. Electric Dreams: Sex Robots and the Failed Promises of Capitalism is out with 404 Ink in April 2024.
Listen to an extended chat with Heather Parry on The Skinny and Glayva's new podcast, Not Your Usual, in the player below or wherever you get your podcasts (click here if it's not displaying correctly).