For our first issue of 2022, we interviewed Helena Pantsis about their story "Big Red." Join us for a conversation on urban legends, innocence and selfishness, and a bone shaped like an elephant's head.
Ethan Brightbill: Jenny’s grievances with Fig seem simple: she doesn’t like that Fig is over at her house, and she resents it when Fig doesn’t buy into the urban myth she tries to share. Yet that’s enough to prod Jenny into some vicious personal attacks on Fig, and as the story ends, the last thought we get from her isn’t concern or horror for what just happened, but wondering if dinner is ready. What are your thoughts on Jenny and this malice of hers? And what does it say about us when that kind of cruelty in a child feels so plausible?
Helena Pantsis: Jenny isn’t written to be a likeable likeable character really. She’s a part in all of us I think we can relate to, the resentment and anger that lives in contained and hidden parts of us. The beauty of this appearing so brazenly in a child is that there isn’t any expectation for them to conceal what we perceive as ugly. There’s an innocence behind a child’s apathy and selfishness that makes it forgivable to an extent. The plausibility of Jenny is our collective capacity to understand that children aren’t fully molded people yet, and it’s the responsibility of their environment to provide them with the social and emotional development they need.
EB: I love the paragraphs where the story riffs on urban legends for Big Red, almost like choruses in a song. How did you come up with using Big Red that way, and how does it play out in the story?
HP: I just loved this notion of an urban legend leading the story—in fact, Big Red was the idea that propelled the entire story forwards before Jenny and Fig even came to exist. The image of this big red stain on the sidewalk had me imagining all the explanations for it, and I was reminded of high school when one story would branch out into a million different adaptations. In this way Big Red is actually central to the plot, acting as the inciting incident, with Fig showing interest in its being, Jenny growing smug with her supposed knowledge of the landmark, then mad at Fig’s responses, with Fig then ultimately contributing to another rendition of Big Red’s tales in the end.
EB: You mention in your bio that you have an appreciation for dark and experimental writing. Who are your literary influences, and what are you reading now?
HP: Right now I’m reading ‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter, a story that definitely makes light of some dark material. I love to look home for sources of inspiration when it comes to writing, so authors such as Helen Garner and Ellen van Neervan stand out as stellar authors who have pushed the bounds of content and form in their times, encouraging me to do the same in my own work.
EB: You have a fair number of publications under your belt, including prominent Australian journals such as Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, and Overland, and you’re also completing a masters in creative writing, publishing, and editing. What’s next for you and your writing?
HP: I’m sure a lot of writers can relate when I say I have a ton of works-in-progress right now. I’m really interested in working beyond the confines of conventional storytelling and genre, and through my degree, I’m practicing new ways to tell stories. In fact, I’ve started moving into creating comics this year, as I love the combination of illustrations and the written word. I’m also moving into editing, which is really lending me a new lens to see my own writing through, and working with other writers in an editorial capacity has really seen me grow as a creator.
EB: Finally, what’s your favorite bone?
HP: Actually a big fan of the pelvis. I like the way the top bones kind of poke through the skin so you can trace your fingers over them. Also just the general shape of it is very reminiscent of an elephant’s head.