Carol Farrelly discusses the creative process behind her short story ‘Wolf in the Ultraviolet’, featured in Issue Thirteen.
Several years ago, I was researching face blindness, or prosopagnosia, for a novel I was writing. One of my characters couldn’t recognise the faces of people she knew, even those closest to her. It’s a very real and often upsetting neurological condition, which I didn’t want to write as metaphor—but of course its effects and meanings inevitably transmitted through the character’s life, affecting her relationships with others and herself.
Typical magpie writer, I set out to glean more on how perception works: the relationship between brain and eye but also mental health and sight. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was my first hunting ground. I also read more broadly on the evolution of the human eye and soon became quite the fascinated magpie. I went to the kaleidoscopic exhibition on ‘Colour and Vision’ at London’s Natural History Museum, where I experienced the gorgeous and terrifying bioluminescence of the ocean’s depths. I read and reread Simon Ings’ brilliant book ‘The Eye: A Natural History’. Ings made me think on our ability to watch seasons’ shapes and shades come and go, to have a favourite colour, to know a beloved face by heart: all this depends on the intricate organ, the eye, which has evolved over time. Human sight is an adaptation, a developed response to light and movement. It suits how we have come to walk in the world. There are, however, many other ways of seeing. Birds and dragonflies and wolves perceive the world quite differently, according to their needs. Squids have built-in headlights; prey animals have a far wider visual field; foxes and raccoons enjoy far better night vision; reindeer can see into the ultraviolet. There was one idea, though, that stopped me in Ings’ book. Tears, he said, are costly. We blur our vision when we cry, making us vulnerable to attack. This, scientists surmise, is why humans are the only creatures known to shed emotional tears. No other creatures are willing to risk the cost of such vulnerability.
I think this was the start of Sam’s story, ‘Wolf in the Ultraviolet’. Here is a girl who doesn’t want to cry because of the cost. I decided she must already know the cost. She’s suffered a traumatic loss; she’s seen her world turn dark; she’s felt herself prey. And so, Sam wants to be able to see in the dark, sense any attack, like a horse.
I didn’t know much more than this when I started writing this story. It was an adventure to imagine with new eyes and heightened senses, to travel through dusky woods and spy every root or burrow that might fell a human. Altered rather than alternate worlds seem to figure a lot in my more recent work. As I wrote Sam’s story, however, her way of seeing soon became a dream. The ability to see and to live in darkness—the woods’ darkness and her father’s darkness—gave the story its edge. Here was the edge between what the character thinks she wants and what she needs. Does she want to inhabit this dark world? Is this darkness hers? The rest of Sam’s story, or my journey with Sam, was to reveal her past and her possible future.
I’ve grown very comfortable writing short stories with this mindset of let’s see what happens, go into the not knowing, brave the dusk with a narrow visual field that will broaden. It’s a joy. My project now is to transfer that willingness to trust to my novel-writing. Robert Frost says it best, and I hope he’d forgive me for adapting:
‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. A poem [story] may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being…It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.’
Carol Farrelly is a fiction writer, living in Scotland. She is the regional winner (Canada and Europe) of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her stories have been published in journals such as Granta, Irish Times, New Writing Scotland and Stand; and have been commissioned by BBC Radio 4. She is a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellow and a Scottish Book Trust New Writer. She is currently working on a short story collection. www.carolfarrelly.com
Image by Jo Mazelis