On Writing ‘Undertaker’

Bethany W. Pope

Writing is a form of playful exploration. It is a way of packing up your bag, settling your machete into the sheathe on your belt, and plunging out into the wilderness to learn just a little bit more about the world you inhabit while having an adventure. When I write a short story or a novel I am trying to answer a question which I’ve asked myself. In the case of ‘Undertaker’ that question was, ‘Who was your mother before your father came along?’

I started by examining the clues. I knew, for example, that she was a blue-collar girl who got a work-permit for her fourteenth birthday so that she could ease the financial burden on her family by getting a job and buying her own toiletries and clothes. I knew that when she was a little girl she liked to spend hours dressing up as characters from fantasy novels and running around having adventures in the back yard. I knew that she worked at McDonalds, that everyone in her family considered her to be the ugly sister, I knew that she fell in love with Shakespeare while she was in high school and lost all fear of being called ‘pretentious’. I knew that she earned a partial scholarship to study theatre at a local university and that she made up the difference by taking a variety of jobs – including the one described in this story. I knew that she eventually became a successful fashion model. I knew that, at some point, she decided that if only she could make herself over externally she could change her insides as well. She could, she hoped, erase her own history and replace it with something that she thought was better.

She succeeded, for whatever that’s worth.

I am very interested in masks; in what they reveal, in what they disguise. Some masks tell the truth by enabling the wearers to reveal something about themselves without fear of repercussions. This is one reason that I love Halloween so much. In choosing their costumes, people are showing you who they really are – on Halloween it is ok for the priest to admit that she would like to be a pirate; the nurse can tell the world that he longs to be a super-hero. Other masks are attempts at creating a disguise, hiding a feature that the wearer considers to be deeply shameful. This later variety of mask tends to be metaphorical. In any case, this is a theme that I explore in much greater detail in my upcoming novel (also called Masque) which will be released by Seren this June. It’s a re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera in which every character is revealed to be pretending to be something they are not. It was also a pretty good excuse to write a rip-roaring Victorian adventure novel full of monsters, guns, swords, capital ‘R’ Romance, and underground tunnels. Excuse is another word for ‘pretence’ and I needed one to give myself permission to play with the themes at hand.

In ‘Undertaker’ a girl takes a job as a make-up artist for a funeral parlour. In writing this story, I set off into the territory held by the twin states of pretence and compassion, intending to map it out. Here is what I found: pretension can reveal truth; whether it takes the form of a working-class girl who changes her accent in order to perform Shakespeare or a gentle hand salving makeup onto the face of a corpse so that grieving parents will have one life-like picture of the child they lost. The mask of pretension can be the tool through which compassion operates. In writing this story, I wore the mask, the made-up, borrowed consciousness of my mother. I attempted to show her compassion by living in her skin for a little while. It is possible that all I managed was wearing the mask of a mask, a copy of an idea of a woman who is still, in many senses, a stranger. Writing might just be the adult equivalent of putting on a costume and running around in the back yard pretending to be a fantasy character, but playing is how we learn, and if all I managed here was a form of grown-up playing, then I’m OK with that. In any case, it is a hell of a lot of fun.

Bethany W Pope is an award-winning writer. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012) Crown of Thorns, (Oneiros Books, 2013), and The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014), and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). Her fourth full collection, The Rag and Boneyard will be published by Indigo Dreams in early 2016. Her first novel, Masque, shall be published by Seren in 2016.

You can read ‘Undertaker’ in the new issue of the spring issue of The Lonely Crowd which can be purchases here.

© Bethany W. Pope, 2016.