‘Mask’ was sparked by real life experience and then veered into imagined territory. I started writing it while I was cat sitting at a friend’s house in France, just like the protagonist in the story. I had gone away to work on a novel and I was struggling with it. I ended up writing short stories and poems. There was an ornamental mask on the wall of the house and I found it really eerie. I wrote a description of it in my notebook.
Months later, when I was back at home, I came across the description again. I started thinking about how unfamiliar objects can jolt you or disturb you unexpectedly. I had been working on a series of short stories exploring the idea of the familiar and the unfamiliar co-existing. One of the things so eerie about the mask was that it looked both artificial and real. It was clearly made of papier-mâché but its painted face was unusually animated, as though it could just open its mouth and start talking. What if it did just start talking, I wondered? And then I realised I had a story.
By this time I had also started reading a lot of Anna Kavan, a mid twentieth century writer whose genre-defying work I really admire. Her novel Ice really impressed me, the way it balances the real and the surreal with peculiar lyrical sorrow. Her short story, ‘Julia and the Bazooka’ is also one of the saddest and yet oddly beautiful things I have ever read on the subject of drug addiction. Kavan works with tensions that interest me: the familiar and the unfamiliar, the real and the imagined, the mad and the sane, the public and private, the asserted and the assumed.
With the passage of time and a dose of Kavan, ‘Mask’ became an exploration of a character in unfamiliar terrain forging her own path, despite her lack of understanding of her surroundings and despite her fears.
Kate North is the author of Bistro (2012), a poetry collection and Eva Shell (2008), a novel. She is interested in urban life and the impact of technology on writing and identity. She is also interested in communicating scientific and medical subjects through creative writing. She teaches at Cardiff Metropolitan University.