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The Metaworker Podcast | 014 In the Willow Garden by Isabel O’Hara Walsh

Episode Description:

Matthew, Elena, Mel, and Cerid talk with Isabel O’Hara Walsh about her short fiction piece “In the Willow Garden”. Content Warning: We discuss victims of trauma and abuse reclaiming their narratives, the process of writing dark and difficult stories, and the need to take care of one’s mental health while doing so. We also discuss different perspectives on the need for dark fiction vs. light fiction as well as Appalachian culture, language, and dialects. 

Author Bio:

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (she/they) is a graduate from the MFA program in fiction at North Carolina State University and is working on her second novel. She teaches fiction at the Redbud Writing Project, and also works as a Tarot reader and witch. Walsh writes literary fiction with touches of horror that bring buried stories to light. She lives in Raleigh, NC with her partner and many pets.

Referenced in this episode: 

In the Willow Garden by Isabel O’Hara Walsh on The Metaworker website

The Stray Birds band

Kirk Hazen, director of the West Virginia Dialect Project

Jane Austen novels

Promising Young Woman movie

Book Recommendations:

There There by Tommy Origin

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

The Antiracist Writer’s Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez

Episode Transcript:

Matthew Maichen (00:00:00):
Hello, my name is Matthew Maichen, editor-in-chief.

Elena L. Perez (00:00:05):
Hi, I’m Elena Perez. I’m the managing editor.

Melissa Reynolds (00:00:09):
I’m Melissa Reynolds and I’m also an editor.

Cerid Jones (00:00:12):
I’m Cerid, also officially an editor now, for better [inaudible].

Elena Perez and Melissa Reynolds (00:00:16):

Matthew Maichen (00:00:19):
[laughs] We are here today with Isabel O’Hara Walsh, who has her beautiful story that she published with us, “In the Willow Garden”. She will start us off by reading from it to us.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:00:35):
I am Isabel. Thank you all for having me. So, my story is called “In The Willow Garden” and it starts off with a quote from a traditional Appalachian ballad. So I’ll start with that quote and then I’ll continue into the story. “Down in the Willow Garden where me and my true love didn’t eat. There we sat a-courtin my love fell off to sleep.” The ballad is called “Rose Connelly”.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:01:03):
I hear my name in in the mouths of strangers.

I will address my father first. He was never not there, except for the times when I snuck away, which as I became a young woman grew more and more numerous. I lived in a town far from the city, but of course you know that because you lived there too. The schoolhouse is the color of a gray river stone, and in the hour towards dusk it looks like a shadow with no color at all. The few shops stand so close that you can look from the window of one into the window of the next, and imagine yourself standing there in a few moments.

My father had money and we lived in a house nicer than most, nicer than yours. He earned this money by selling things that arrived by way of the river, fabrics mostly, though occasionally tea and other luxuries. Once when I was very young, he ordered a shipment of small metal bells for a festival in the city. Many of us went, our bags and the ribbons at the end of my and my sister’s hair ringing prettily as we jostled on the back of a wagon.

My father often called me disobedient, even when I did exactly what he asked. With three women in his house, he had to show us that despite our number, we were no competition for him. He didn’t fear we’d hurt him, he feared we wouldn’t respect him, and to prevent such a turn of events, he demonstrated how easily an arm can bruise, how loud a voice can sound right in the ear. He liked that my sister and I were soft, by which I only mean that he never showed his softness, as a rule, and the fact that we showed ours gave him an advantage. All people are soft, though most men are taught to deny it. In a way, my father built our softness up, required it as a matter of course. He considered my body and my sister’s body things he could move at will: into the living room to present to a visitor (how lovely she is), out of the door to run an errand (you might as well use those chicken legs to move quickly). And in his house, in return, he protected us from whatever lay beyond the door.

You liked my softness too, and I prefer to think not just because it allowed you to do what you did. Since you liked my softness I have come to resent it, to hide it and only with a great exertion of energy allow it to expand, gently, like dandelion seeds, into the air around me.

When a girl is a child, anyone can touch her, move her if she’s in the way, pick her up as a joke. When a girl starts looking like a woman, men touch her differently, though no less. The meaning of the touch changes: she’s no longer in the way, she is the way, a site of pleasure and a means to evoke amusement or envy in other men.

Because men always touched me, I knew it not to be a special thing. Touch is not love, and because my body often felt like a possession, I grew to think that love might in fact be a form of not-touching, or of only touching at certain times, when it is most wanted. My sister said she sometimes enjoys it when her husband touches her in the married way, and he certainly has more legal right to do so now. When we were younger we read a battered, fabric-bound copy of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales and talked about marrying for love, but as we got older it became apparent quickly that better than passion is safety; better to be a treasured possession than to be kept nowhere at all. We needed, of course, to pass from our father’s house into the houses of other men. My sister succeeded.

You didn’t need to do such a thing; you’d lived your whole life freely leaving your father’s cabin whenever you weren’t working, without fear. You lacked in money, but were wealthy in other ways.

If I needed another man, I thought you might be a good choice. I started thinking this the first time you came to our house to deliver eggs you gathered from your chicken coop. That house of cooing, featherdown bodies feared you undoubtedly more than I did; they’d seen you take their sisters and lay them on a stump. I liked the way your brown hair fell across your forehead, and the way you looked me in the eye when you smiled, though it was as much about what you didn’t do: you had not, as far as I knew, bedded any other women in town, the way the doctor’s son had; you never put your hand on me unless I wanted you to, right up until that last time. It was the caring not-touch I had imagined.

You asked me if I wanted to walk in the willow grove near the river, the most beautiful place in town, you said. We went walking there exactly six times. I allowed myself to start counting after the third, by which time I’d confirmed you would only push me down in the grass when invited, and leave my skirt where it was. I invited it twice; I counted those too. You listened to me talk, and promised me things: freedom from my father, a companion in escape. I had known true calm only when I snuck away by myself to the woods, and it was during those times, when I knew my body to be safe, that I allowed my mind to indulge in fantasies of climbing in the back of one of the delivery wagons, and watching other parts of the world move by as I lay hidden under bales of fabric. I started to imagine that I could share these fantasies with another person. Gradually, I allowed my mind and spirit to cultivate an infatuation with you. I allowed myself to find pleasure in the shape of your shoulders and the gentleness of your kisses. I watched you in the moments when you looked up at the long, swaying branches, their cascade of thin leaves which you once told me reminded you of my hair, and observed the way your pupils fixed, very still, on one location. I imagined you were considering my own beauty, though I know now you were concerned with other things. My mother smiled at you on the rare times when you came to call, and my father said you were too poor and forbid me from seeing you, though of course I’d become very accomplished at sneaking away, particularly after my sister left.

Once, we went to your father’s cabin. It startled me how small it was and how large the gaps between the boards of the walls; mice and wind came through with equal ease. Your father sat mostly in a chair and smiled at me. I know now that he was smiling at my clothes, which were made of the patterned fabrics my father traded and had no holes in them. It’s possible he was looking also at my eyes, the way the skin wrinkled at their corners; at my hands, the lines on my palms, the way their backs were clear of sunspots and other signs of age. But if he saw these things, they were overshadowed by my family’s wealth. I felt uncomfortable, wanted to bring you food and money, but didn’t know how to offer these things to men, who rarely like to accept help from women. My father would never have shared his wealth with you, even if we married. When you finally asked me to bring you several paper bills to help you both, I felt relief, and gladly agreed. I would steal them.

The last day, I wore a dress I thought fitting for walking in the willow grove, made of a green linen with a delicate pattern of small flower buds. You were especially quiet as we walked along the muddy river bank, your pack slung over your shoulder. I asked you if you thought I matched the trees, and pushed your arm gently. You smiled back and said of course. I could say now that I had a sense of something wrong, but it wouldn’t mean anything, because I always had a sense of something. I had a sense you might still push me on the ground and force me; worse had happened to other girls I knew. I had a sense that if we married, our courting would end and we might not walk in the willow grove ever again; this often happens to lovers. It happened with my parents.

I don’t think that I had a sense of what you intended, or I wouldn’t have drunk the wine. You pulled it out of your pack, the glass bottle stopped with a cork. Songs and poets say wine is the color of blood, but I find blood lighter in color, like the shade of a red aster flower where the petals meet at its center. This wine was red like the deep red velvet my father once ordered for a man in the city. You offered me some; it tasted like peach jam and soil and fresh marjoram. I let it sit on the back of my tongue. It tasted, too, like something bitter; the rind of an orange, an under-ripe walnut. You looked up at me from under your eyelids, and I foolishly thought you were admiring me. You didn’t drink any.

When you tell the story, you say that I then fell asleep. It’s true that I lay back, my head resting on my jacket, and fell into a kind of doze, but I was never completely unaware of what was happening. Does it make it better that you wanted me to be asleep? Some people might say it makes you a coward, and still others would say it makes you gentle, to resist killing a woman in a painful manner. I don’t care one way or the other, though I know it matters greatly to you: this kind of speculation makes the story yours.

My eyelids fell almost closed, and I could see the thin, hanging branches above us sifting the sunlight as it reached us in mottled fragments. My body seemed to float, as if I were swaddled in a thick coat and could barely feel the ground brushing against my shrouded back. I felt you moving next to me, and when you reached into my pocket and took the bills I had brought to help you and your father, I tried to speak, but my tongue was too heavy in my mouth. You took the silver necklace I wore; you took the rings from my ears. I began to panic, and my eyes moved back and forth beneath my eyelids, but either you couldn’t see this or preferred to pretend.

I don’t ask why you stole from me. Your family knew a kind of struggle I didn’t: had I been you I might have done the same.

You call me “my love” when you tell the story, and that is what angers me. I don’t wonder how you can, after what you did, as during my life I heard men say all sorts of things when they thought I wasn’t there: I crept outside my father’s study when he had buyers at our house, I hid behind the milliner’s shop and listened to him tell his son what to say to make a woman give in.

What allows me to rise from the place you threw my body and tell the story over again is the way the words “my love” call your listener to mourn for you, as if you lost something you sorely wished to keep, as though you’re not as bad as anyone else who took a body and made it something different.

You moved beside me and pulled a knife from your bag, though I didn’t know what it was until I felt its point pressed against my abdomen, just below my ribs. I heard you breathe deeply, then shove the long knife down. At first I felt a shock, the surprise of skin realizing the close-knit web of its fabric has broken. Then the heat, like my own flesh was producing the flame, and then the sharp ache, growing in pain until it overcame my thoughts and I could only watch.

The blood ran out over the green of my dress, pooling in the grass beside me. I heard your breath, shallow now. You lay down next to me, propped on your arm over me. Your hair fell over your forehead. “What have I done to you?” you asked. I imagine this sentence provided a place from which to grow your song, the one you sing in your jail cell, the one others overhear and enjoy and have started to sing in their houses and fields.

As you asked your question, you ran your fingers over and through my hair, pressed them into the hollows of my neck, touched my eyelids, traced the bone of my jaw. You slid your hands down my sides, touching the blood though not lingering in it, ran your palms over the still-warm surfaces of my legs, clutched at my feet. You perpetuated the moment, the presence of my body, a lingering denial of what you did.

I know from your song that your father told you to kill me for my money. I stole it from my own father’s desk, which I unlocked with a long needle: my sister taught me when we were small. I thought that if I brought it to you I might have a life like hers, a home good enough to make me content, a reason to leave like she did, so that I wasn’t alone in our house, child and not child.

This amount of money would be more useful to you, your father said, if I weren’t attached to it; if you could leave the obligation of supporting me and what children we might have behind. You would both be free, he said.

You are free, even though you sit in a jail cell waiting to be hanged. In your song, you tell of how your life will soon end, of how you threw my body into the river. You sing to cleanse yourself through a romance you invented; I didn’t feel any poetry in that moment. Not one word or note sings to me, or my life, or what it was like to be killed. That is how I know you’re free. “Dear little girl,” the words go, and listeners shake their heads; she was dear, they murmur. They don’t know how I stole liquor from my own house and walked into the woods, alone, to taste it; they don’t know about the time I set my sister’s husband’s horses loose when they were visiting so she couldn’t leave me again. Your words make me someone I never was.

How weak you are: clever enough to know what poetry and feeling are, and yet unwilling to imagine my poetry, my feeling. My name was Rose, your song got that right.

Matthew Maichen (00:11:59):
Wow. Thank you.

Elena L. Perez (00:15:30):
Amazing. Thanks.

Matthew Maichen (00:15:32):
That continues to be really powerful. Oof. We are going to have our discussion while Isabel recovers from reading that entire story.

Elena L. Perez (00:15:44):
Thank you for that. [laughs]

Matthew Maichen (00:15:45):
Yeah, thank you. So, when we discussed this piece, we had a lot of discussions about the nature of the folk ballad that this is based on because the quote starts at the beginning and I had never heard this song before and it really led me to look at it. And it’s so interesting that there is a song that is just about a man mourning the woman he murdered. I don’t mean interesting as in, ‘Oh, that’s great’. It’s very troubling in some ways and we had a lot of discussion about that. I’m curious, in the months since, what thoughts do we have about that now, especially after refreshing our memories on this whole piece again, and the way that it portrays this?

Cerid Jones (00:16:43):
Since I wasn’t around for the last wave of discussion, I can’t really talk about the reflection, but I can say…I mean the song is really quite creepy in so many ways. It’s a really unsettling feeling because listening to it, you’ve got this…it almost sounds kind of sweet in a way, you know, but there’s this haunting undercurrent that makes you just always feel really scratchy under the skin. It leaves you with so many questions. What I really, really like about this piece is it answers some of those questions that you get this haunting, unsettling from. It gives a voice to ‘who’ the whole song is about. ‘Who’ is sort of nonexistent from the song. Being able to give that woman a voice and a character that’s deeper than just being this sweet little thing that had this sort of tragic end is really interesting.

Matthew Maichen (00:17:51):
Yeah. I actually remember the exact words that Marina said when we were discussing this. Someone said, ‘you know, this whole thing kind of makes me uncomfortable’ and Marina said, ‘yeah, I kind of wish that this song didn’t exist, but it does, and we have to address this as a response to it and embrace that in the sense that it’s a real thing and this is a person responding to it in a way of trying to give agency back, I guess, to a victim, you know’?

Melissa Reynolds (00:18:27):
Yeah. What I remember from that discussion was a lot of talk about the culture of that time, when a lot of the folk music was dark and had these undertones that in today’s culture hits differently, so to speak. I agree with Cerid when she says that the story is giving a voice to the victim and letting them have their say and that’s what I really like about it.

Elena L. Perez (00:19:05):
Um, yes. Mel, when you talked about the dark nature, that kind of reminds me of…well it is a folk ballad, so I guess it kind of…it’s similar to the fairy tales of that time. The original fairy tales—like Grimms fairy tales—were actually really dark. The versions that we know today are not, you know? They’re this fluffy narrative, but the original ones are pretty gruesome. This story kind of puts me in that same kind of vibe, thinking about all the struggles that women have had to go through throughout history, and all the different ways that they dealt with it. The stories that they told. I mean, a lot of the fairy tales were warnings for girls growing up. You know, ‘this is how the world is. You have to be aware of this and learn how to protect yourself’. That’s what this reminds me of a lot. I guess when I look at it that way…when I first read this story, I was kind of hesitant. I think, Matthew, you’re remembering that I was the one who was saying that it was uncomfortable. I remember saying that I would rather that we didn’t have to tell these kind of stories and that we didn’t have to take the narrative back from such a violent story. I always like the kind of stories where we turn the reality around and imagine something different, something better than what we have now. I guess that was my struggle with this story at first, like, ‘Why does it have to be that way’?

Matthew Maichen (00:20:50):
Yeah. There’s a kind of weird positivity in this, despite all of the darkness, in the sense that the power of ghost stories—and I think this is actually a literal ghost story. Ghost stories have been doing this for hundreds of years, reclaiming victimhood narratives. A narrative that is just about a person being murdered becomes a narrative about that person still being alive. That person still having agency. Even if they aren’t alive, they still exist. In that sense, they still have agency. That I think, despite everything, is the weird positivity that you can glean from this. That there is a victim becoming a person again, reclaiming her personhood.

Cerid Jones (00:21:53):
I think one of the things that this does, which is really interesting, which is off the back of both what Matthew’s just said and what Elena said before, is it kind of highlights what was already lost. In “In The Willow Garden”, she talks a great deal, the narrator talks a great deal, about the lack of agency she has. Even from the beginning, you know, she doesn’t have a voice with her family. She doesn’t have a voice in her society. She doesn’t have that. It’s almost…she’s already a ghost of her womanhood and herself. Then to have that taken away from her, there’s a strange irony. Now she’s got the freedom to have this voice. I agree with you in some ways, Elena, in that it’s a real shame that we are still having to tell this story today, you know? This story should be redundant in so many ways, but it is just as poignant and significant now as it was…I mean, I don’t know when the folk song’s written, but I’m just gonna throw out a hundred years ago. [laughs] ‘Cause I mean, why not? Not that much has changed in that respect. Interestingly, too—Elena you brought folk tales, which are mentioned in the story, and one of the things that really hit me when I originally started reading this, I instantly started thinking Beauty and the Beast, right? ‘Cause it’s the merchant’s daughter, I’m thinking we are gonna get told this sort of story of that lack of agency as having a strong voice and being the modern interpretation. Then the narcissistic control that comes with that, and how we can get easily swept up with that because of our ideals of what images and society looks are, which is another thing that’s really strong in this piece. The romance or the appeal to each other is so superficial. It talks about the images, you know, him looking good or how he looks doing this. And she even asks like, ‘do I look good like this’? So, there’s this superficial layer, which is another depth, which is uncomfortable, you know? [laughs] You kind of want a tragic story like this song to have some kind of deep romantic meaning behind it, and it’s just not the case, and that’s kind of unsettling. Is that sort of in a way what you’re getting at a little bit?

Elena L. Perez (00:24:24):
Yes, exactly. I was struggling to put it into words, but yes, that’s exactly it. My thoughts are like, ‘why do we keep having to have these kind of stories’? Why has nothing changed? What can we do different that will prevent these stories from needing to be told? I guess that was my struggle. It’s not that I don’t like this story at all, because it’s very emotional and very powerful the way that it’s written. It’s just the essence of why—exactly, Cerid—why do we need to keep having this same conversation?

Matthew Maichen (00:24:58):

Cerid Jones (00:24:59):
And the thing, of course, that we can do is have this podcast and talk about these pieces. People are having these conversations, which is really exciting.

Elena L. Perez (00:25:08):
[laughs] Exactly.

Matthew Maichen (00:25:10):
Yeah. That is a whole very complicated topic that is bigger than this story. My view on it is that, because I write a lot of dark fiction myself, the purpose of dark fiction—especially dark fiction that touches on important things—is to acknowledge the reality of the darker things that have happened. Personally—this is just me—I will publish positive things for this literary magazine, but I won’t really seek out stories that have happy endings or read them in my free time. Because…personally, I believe that in my life I’m doing whatever I can to try to make my little section of the world a better place. But there’s a lot of things that I feel just constantly angry about and I have found that when I read stories in which the thing that makes me angry or sad isn’t there, it actually makes me feel worse, personally. Because we’re not acknowledging it. We’re burying it, we’re putting it under the rug. We’re not allowing ourselves to give it daylight. That’s how I feel sometimes. It really depends on what you are looking for personally. It’s a very interesting philosophical conversation about light versus dark art, I guess.

Elena L. Perez (00:27:05):
That’s interesting because I’m the opposite in the sense that I don’t typically like to read these kind of stories because they make me feel so sad and so depressed and so angry at the state of the world. I know I am doing what I can, like you’re saying, Matthew, to try and change things, but sometimes it feels like my efforts as one person aren’t enough when I read all the dark stories. I like to read the positive stories, you know, the uplifting stories, imagining what a better future could be because that gives me inspiration, that gives me motivation to keep working towards that future instead of just dwelling in this sad reality. So, instead of feeling like I’m stuck in a loop, reacting to the violence, reading positive stories helps me figure out the root of that violence so I can work toward change. In my opinion, positive stories are not all meant to escape reality or sweep it under the rug. For me, they do address the dark issues, but they tackle them from a different angle. The way the world works now doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. We’re capable of building a better reality that fixes the violence of the current one. So, I think there’s value in the positive stories, definitely, to help us imagine and model what that better world can be like. It’s definitely two different views of looking at these kind of stories. Different people need different things. I like that, you know, we balance each other out in that way in choosing these stories.

Cerid Jones (00:28:34):
In a weird way, this story kind of does both, right? We were just sort of saying before that it brings to surface these uncomfortable things…

Elena L. Perez (00:28:43):

Cerid Jones (00:28:43):
…these dark elements and it has, like Matthew was saying, that positive spin in a way because it is giving agency and it is giving voice, even though it’s kind of tricky to say that that’s inherently positive, but you get this kind of empowerment feeling in a way.

Elena L. Perez (00:28:59):

Cerid Jones (00:28:59):
Like your strong reaction that you had to it, Elena, you know, that’s the empowerment, right? [laughs] It’s there.

Elena L. Perez (00:29:06):

Matthew Maichen (00:29:07):
Yeah. It’s such a struggle. I agree with what Marina said in that original discussion, ’cause the folk ballad is going to exist. No matter what.

Elena L. Perez (00:29:19):

Matthew Maichen (00:29:20):
There is not a universe in which it doesn’t exist and we just ignore it and move on.

Elena L. Perez (00:29:27):

Matthew Maichen (00:29:27):
You know, it’s there and it’s real, so there has to be some acknowledgement of it. It has to…it deserves to be discussed.

Melissa Reynolds (00:29:42):
Yeah. I actually wanted to agree with you really quick there. I typically lean more towards the darker stories myself and I don’t think it’s a…it’s not highlighting the darkness that we have within ourselves. It’s more of an acknowledgement because when that acknowledgement comes, that’s when true change can happen. Because if you don’t wanna talk about it, you don’t want to define what the problem is, exactly, then the solutions are much more difficult to find. I think that there is value in reading the more positive and lighthearted things, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge the reality of how the world is.

Matthew Maichen (00:30:27):
Before we get too sidetracked into that, I actually do want to bring Isabel in.

Elena L. Perez (00:30:36):
Before we bring her in, we haven’t talked about the craft, and I did wanna mention that really quick. I really liked the way that the atmosphere is described. It just brings you into the story right away. In [a] very short paragraph, it describes the house and the river and the schoolhouse. It paints this really beautiful picture in the very first two, three paragraphs that I just thought was really powerful. Another thing that stood out to me that I really liked was, there’s a little bit of foreshadowing when the narrator talks about the willow grove. I also wanted to…Cerid, brought up something earlier about this whole culture, the macho culture or these men being narcissists and I just thought that was really strongly portrayed. The word choice helped evoke really strong emotions right from the get-go. Like the lines: ‘my father called me disobedient, even when I did exactly what he asked. With three women in his house, he had to show us that despite our number, we were no competition for him’. Right away we can recognize who this man is just by those two sentences. This story is just really great at evoking big emotions with such concise language.

Cerid Jones (00:31:59):
Yeah, definitely. And I think adding on the craft commentary, having this as kind of like an open letter to the writer of the song and directly saying, ‘you were like this’, you know, in between.

Matthew Maichen (00:32:13):

Cerid Jones (00:32:13):
That’s so intriguing for the reader and that really makes that—what you’re talking about, Elena—so strong. That contrast that happens of what is the perspective of the narrator and the person who’s done this to her, the guy who’s put her in this situation. Which is really incredible. Then, of course, right at the end being followed up by saying, ‘well, I’m not that girl ’cause I’ve done these bad things too’, which adds just a whole other fascinating element to that storytelling and that character building.

Matthew Maichen (00:32:46):
Yeah, I think one of the things that came up and continues to come up is we don’t know whether this was a real person. We don’t know whether someone actually did murder a woman and then write a song about a real woman that he murdered and that song caught on. So, for that reason alone, I feel so much of that sense of response, that ‘I/you’. It becomes so important in this story. I think that it’s just so valuable to write it that way.

Elena L. Perez (00:33:32):
Yeah. Because this is something that could happen—that has happened—now. People do this kind of thing and they don’t get called out for it. They don’t get caught, they don’t get punished. And they often get celebrated for it. Like you’re saying, who knows if this was a real story, but it probably was.

Matthew Maichen (00:33:55):
Alright. Isabel, hi.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:33:59):

Matthew Maichen (00:34:02):
Wow, that was quite a discussion. How does it feel to have your story discussed by editors after hearing it?

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:34:14):
It feels exciting. I think I have a lot of appreciation for this kind of conversation and the space that you guys make for it around of taking a story off of the page and putting it into a cultural context, putting it into a broader literary reading context. It’s exciting and a lot of the things that you guys were talking about are concepts and questions that I really thought about and considered deeply when I was writing this. Then I think, you know, this story is just one part of a larger writing and musical practice in my life, so I think about this stuff a lot, generally. It’s exciting to hear you talk about it. I really connected with a lot of what you were saying.

Matthew Maichen (00:35:06):
I appreciate that. The next question that we always typically ask is: there are a lot of places to submit short stories these days. What drew you to The Metaworker?

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:35:23):
Yeah, I loved The Metaworker’s…I sort of got a feeling of balance between…rigor is the word that’s coming to mind, but I think rigor can also have some old academia white supremacist tones to it. So, what I mean by rigor is a really deep level of interest that you guys demonstrate in this kind of conversation. Thinking about craft, thinking about cultural impact of writing, but also a balance of that and a welcomeness to writers who are new to publishing, to bring in new voices online in a space where they could reach a broader audience. That balance felt really good to me. Then I also think part of it is just that your site is easy to navigate and pleasurable to look at. When I look for online publications to submit to, how the website feels…I’m an energy worker, also, so a lot of it is just kind of, like, ‘how does this feel to me in my body’? In reading the other stories that you had already published and the way that you present them. I didn’t know that you had a podcast when I submitted, but I could feel some of that author-publisher care and connection.

Matthew Maichen (00:36:48):
I really appreciate that.

Elena L. Perez (00:36:50):
Thank you for saying that. Yeah. [laughs]

Melissa Reynolds (00:36:52):
Elena works super hard on the website, so we gotta give her props for that.

Matthew Maichen (00:36:56):
Oh, my gosh.

Melissa Reynolds (00:36:56):
Yeah. She’s amazing.

Elena L. Perez (00:36:57):
I appreciate that.

Matthew Maichen (00:36:59):
It’s quite a thing to run a website.

Elena L. Perez (00:37:04):
Yeah. I just organize it how I would like to see websites organized. [laughs] because—yeah, I like finding things. [laughs]

Matthew Maichen (00:37:13):
[laughs] So, my next question, back to the specifics of the story itself. This story has some very strong—because of the folk song, it has some very strong Appalachian roots in it. Maybe even Irish roots before that. What I’m curious about is do you have any connection to that culture or experience with that culture? Or are you just drawing from it in the way that it’s just a massive part of our culture? Why did this song jump out to you as something that you should write about?

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:37:55):
I came across this song first when it was covered by a band that I love that is no longer a band. They’ve disbanded, but they were called The Stray Birds and this was recorded on their first album and sung by Maya de Vitry, who’s a really incredible deep embodied vocalist. I found it really haunting ’cause I love her vocals so much and it’s a woman singing it, and yet the song is so horrifying. I mean, I’m definitely coming to folk songs…this is one of a few stories that I’ve written that are retellings of American-slash-European folk songs that came over on boats and then spread across the east coast. The way that I came to that songwriting and singing tradition was through the New England folk music community. I grew up in New England and I went to a music camp in New Hampshire for several years where people were playing a ton of folk music and really discussing the history. So, that was where I kind of landed in this musical realm. I play a lot of music in this genre and there’s a real movement of mainly young women folk singer-songwriters who are really mad about just how many murder ballads there are. Not just how many murder ballads there are, but how much they are still played publicly, often by men, for profit. So, that was how I came both to this song and then also to this songwriting tradition of taking a murder ballad and rewriting it in the voice of the murdered victim. That’s not an original idea of mine. This is a strong songwriting tradition of women creating these songs and reclaiming these narratives. I also live in North Carolina now, not far from Appalachia. As a New Englander, I’m sure I’m pronouncing it wrong ’cause I’m a transplant. I have this real awareness of, when I choose these songs to write about, not wanting to co-opt a culture that I don’t belong to and didn’t grow up in. With this one and there’s another song that I’ve written about called “Pretty Fair Maid”. Sometimes it’s called “The Broken Token”. They both are Appalachian, but also, you know, probably trickled down through New England and came from Ireland or England. The original root of the song is hard to track. The original recordings were usually someone sitting in their kitchen in the mountains when early recording devices were invented. You know, there’s recordings of that in archives and stuff like that. But, um, yeah. I consider this one…my family definitely has Irish and English background and so I felt enough connection to it to feel comfortable doing some reclamation around it. But it was really the contemporary folk scene that got me connected with it in the first place.

Elena L. Perez (00:41:27):
That’s really interesting.

Melissa Reynolds (00:41:29):
Yeah. I have to speak up a little bit because I am a native West Virginian, so I’m not quite in the middle, but the state is there in Appalachia. What I found really interesting is how these stories and ballads can be traced back to their European starts. There’s actually a documentary on YouTube of all places about how the way people that live in the mountains speak is closer to Old English than many of the other places. So, they actually study those people who still speak that way because it’s so closely tied to Old English. At WVU we have a linguistics professor who’s doing an Appalachian dialect project. His name is Kirk Hazen, and he interviews—especially the college students who are Native West Virginians—he asks them, ‘how did your grandpa say this’? Or ‘how did your grandma…what were some of her idioms that she would say’? So, it’s really fascinating to follow those roots back back to Europe, really. I wish I could tell you more specifics, but there’s a lot of really interesting things to be found out there.

Matthew Maichen (00:43:06):
Yeah, that’s super interesting.

Melissa Reynolds (00:43:08):

Elena L. Perez (00:43:09):
I love that. I love listening to the history and learning about all that. It’s fascinating to me.

Cerid Jones (00:43:15):
Absolutely. I kind of think that’s another thing that’s quite nicely reflected in those pieces because it is so timeless, you know? You don’t get a really strong sense of it coming from a particular culture or a particular place despite being inspired by those. It could be set in any time and any country. All the language, all those visuals, are just so timeless. It fits really nice into that…like what you’re talking about, Mel. How things sort of change and evolve and keep these old roots from things. It’s a nice synergy that happens.

Melissa Reynolds (00:43:47):
Yeah. And I also love that you did not fall into the stereotypes and…

Matthew Maichen (00:43:54):
Oh yeah.

Melissa Reynolds (00:43:56):
I’m sure most people know the stereotypes around people who are in Appalachia or in West Virginia as this idea of we’re all toothless, barefoot hillbillies that can’t speak or, you know, whatever that is. I actually…I’m not exactly offended, but I’m usually disappointed when I see a writer try to write in dialect or an accent because with the way things are now, I don’t feel like that dialect is as strong. I don’t know, maybe I speak with an accent that I can’t pick up, but it’s definitely one of those things that is not necessarily true anymore. Having a story like this that doesn’t fall back on those types of tropes is amazing. Thank you.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:44:55):
I also wanted to write this in a way that it could take place somewhere in America or in Ireland.

Matthew Maichen (00:45:03):

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:45:04):
I’ve been to Ireland and I have kind of researched some of my family history there and, you know, femicide happens everywhere, but I also can see why this song was written. There’s a really strong history of ballads in Ireland, of Sean-nos old-style singing in Irish and then I think probably translating some of that into English and then writing in English these really…Ireland is a place [where] people can be real sad a lot. And there’s a lot of mourning and drinking and there’s really, on one hand, this incredible history of grieving the dead in really deep, spiritual ways. Then there’s also deep misogyny, so I could see this…those are all…it’s all both/and. They all coexist, at least at this time in Ireland. I won’t speak to what it’s like to be a woman in Ireland at this particular moment. But I wanted to write this in a way where it was a little bit of a fairy tale, but rooted enough in, you know, the practicalities of day-to-day life that it could exist in either of those places and suggest to a reader that this could kind of happen anywhere where there would be trees and a river and a schoolhouse. I think you guys talked about it earlier that it could also happen now when we maybe don’t have a wooden schoolhouse anymore, but that this is still…the fact that people are singing these ballads now…I mean, Elena, you talked about it a lot. We shouldn’t need to tell these stories as either a cautionary tale or a reclamation, but we do, and part of the reason that we do is that people still sing murder ballads without talking about it. In public spaces as a form of musical entertainment and there’s no conversation around it. So, I think I’m participating in that contemporary conversation as well.

Matthew Maichen (00:47:20):
I think that’s such a good segue into one of the questions I had, which is that one of the things that impresses me personally about this story is how you reference a lot of feminist ideas and concepts without putting modern words into your character’s mouth. Without being overtly heavy-handed, yet still letting the reader know exactly what you mean. I’m curious, was it hard to strike that balance? Or how do you strike that balance so well?

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:48:06):
Well, I’m time traveling backwards in my mind ’cause I’m currently…a lot of the writing that I’m doing is more contemporary and there’s more cursing and ranting in contemporary rageful ways. But I don’t think it was that hard for me because I think the concepts are old. You know, I’ve read…I used to be super into Jane Austen. I still think Jane Austen is amazing, I’ve just expanded my interest. [laughs] But she writes in a way that is incredibly biting and feminist, but was published in a time when she had to really keep her language, both in a social dialect of her social echelon, but also when she was one of very few women publishing and probably had to be super careful. I think I have read a lot of literature by women writing about these times when the anger was there just as much, but the way that it could be let out was more controlled. So, I think what I did in writing this, and again, in rereading it out loud today, I was just thinking it’s a form of acting. I’m not a great…I would be a terrible stage or screen actor, but I can do it in my mind where I think, ‘okay, I’m putting myself into this person’s world. What language would she have gotten comfortable with’? And I tried to pick, in writing this kind of story about these songs, language that is not old timey ’cause I think that can really pull a reader out of the story. It’s another form of dialect writing that I don’t have enough experience with to do it well and I think a lot of readers are…it would be distracting. I tried to pick language that felt sort of neutral. I didn’t use a lot of contractions and the sentences are kind of long. Ways of speaking that just feel instinctively a little old timey to me. So yeah, I think there’s sort of…women were not allowed—probably not allowed—to speak in short, sharp sentences, and by spreading her language out that way, I think it makes it both…I think it makes it feel of the time in part because women of this time would not have spoken in shorter, sharper declarations. And this character is discovering her anger as she talks through it in her mind using the language of the world that she has grown up in.

Matthew Maichen (00:51:03):
Wow. I’m gonna…actually, that leads so well into the next question that I’m just gonna jump right into it if that’s okay, because that really confirms for me that the moment-to-moment wording in this story is so purposeful. What is your writing process like? What draft of this story is this?

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:51:34):
I’m trying to remember. [laughs] I think that it’s different for these song stories than for a lot of my other writing. I write some short stories, but I mostly write novel-length works. Writing something like this is both harder because it’s less familiar and kind of a sweet treat in that it’s like, ‘oh my God, if I can just get seven pages out, then I’ve got my constrained world and I can just exist within there and shape it’. I really think that when I was writing this, I had the song lyrics up and then I was just like—well, there’s also a little cheating. There’s my story map, there’s my outline. Now what I need to do is fill in the character background details that don’t exist in the lyrics. I would say that because the language of the song is of its time, it pretty immediately put my head in that kind of linguistic space. I would imagine that I tried to get into that voice early in order to access this character’s opinions and perspectives because that’s just the way that she would think. Actually, now that I’m saying that out loud, I think it’s harder to do that with contemporary characters. Right now I’m writing first person, from the perspective of a 23 year-old woman in essentially a sort of—quote unquote—present day. Sometime around now. And it’s so easy for me to just elide my own thoughts with her thoughts and then end up mixing them up. So, the language of the song and having those limitations—this person would’ve existed in this time, her life would’ve been really different from yours in x, y, z ways—I think probably really helped me with that first draft. Then the sort of beautifying of the language, making it maybe a little bit lyrical, which I think I used to love to do in all my writing, and now I’m starting to use more short, sharp sentences. [laughs] I think that I probably had three or four drafts of this and it was probably towards the end that I was really picking and choosing, you know, ‘oh, this should be two sentences, these sentences could combine to flow a little bit more’. There’s also, you know, the obvious parallel that I didn’t think of until just this moment of it’s about a song, so I probably was thinking sort of ‘songily’ in my head when I was writing it and I write songs, too. That sort of flowing of one sentence into the next sentence, my brain was likely doing that, as well.

Elena L. Perez (00:54:26):
‘Songily’. I like that. [laughs]

Matthew Maichen (00:54:30):
‘Songily’. Yeah. That is now a word. ‘Songily’ is a word. A writer invented it, so we’re allowed to use it. That’s how it works. A writer invented the word and now it’s a word.

All (00:54:39):

Matthew Maichen (00:54:39):
Yeah. Um, anyway…

Elena L. Perez (00:54:42):
I like what you were saying about spreading the language, making the words, making the thoughts, into a longer sentence that…you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that before, but that is definitely an old timey kind of vibe.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:55:00):
Very ballad-y.

Matthew Maichen (00:55:02):
Very ballad-y. Another word. So, you keep leading into the next topic that I was going to ask about. It’s a weird coincidence. This is a super intimate story, right? Even the way that the murder is described is so grotesque because of how intimate it is. Was it hard or painful to write for that reason? Diving into her head so much and being there with her so much?

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (00:55:41):
Yeah, I think on one hand it definitely sucked ’cause it’s a grotesque and intimate and violating thing to imagine. To speak to some of what you were talking about earlier, Matthew. You write dark things and you enjoy reading dark things because there’s some comfort in processing the reality of what exists. I feel the same about this and about a lot of my writing. I think I tend to write sort of…I tend to write feminist horror with sort of magical realism elements that are usually the grotesque-est parts of whatever social horror is being enacted. In this case, it’s a man murdering a woman for money in a way that was…you know, all the murder ballads are—not all of them. I can’t say that—but many, many of them are about: ‘oops, you got pregnant and I didn’t wanna deal with that’. Or, you know, ‘it was actually just more convenient for me to not have you in my life’. So, the horror of that can then become an embodied physical horror, which to me feels kind of gratifying to ground it. It’s a way to get us, as readers, to process things that are conceptually hard to grasp as horrific in terms of how social groups harm one another or sexism or racism. Things that…our brains don’t wanna look at how horrifying they are because they’re so dark. And then to embody it in a way that we can relate to physically, I think, is a helpful translating tool. And so it was definitely…I think I do…in a lot of my writing have to make sure to take a break and get a snack, have a drink of water if I’m starting to enter into a panic attack in my body because of what I am writing. Notice that it’s gone that far, and take a step back and say, ‘okay, I need to list five things that I can see and four that I can hear.’ Then do all of those sort of self-care grounding exercises in order to then come back and say, ‘maybe I won’t touch this for a week. Maybe that got too far into my own mental health world’. But then when it feels safe and exciting again to come back to it and continue diving in. And this, to me…I don’t think I will ever write a sexual assault scene. I never say never, but that to me, I think I would dissociate during that process in a way that I just don’t wanna engage with and I don’t think would be necessarily productive or helpful for unpacking challenging concepts in my writing. I don’t think it’s a worthwhile trade necessarily. And this one, because being stabbed in the stomach was something that I felt further away from as a threat in my life, I think I could dive into it a little bit more safely in my mind. I’m looking back at it. I think about this particular paragraph where the knife is going into her body. I think pain is really interesting and I think the way that our bodies register pain, and if we can describe that well on the page, it can be a really strong way to reach a reader. I’ve, in particular, felt it was really important in this story, where the song, the original song, is not telling this moment of stabbing in this level of detail. To really slow it down and say, ‘cute song’. This is what you did. This is what you have done to this human person and not romanticize it and not say, ‘oh my God, what have I done? It’s so terrible. The tragedy’. But to say, here’s physically what happened and let’s think about that and accept that. I think that also helped me probably stay grounded in writing it, that it’s factual. I wasn’t writing about the horror of her sadness, about betrayal or another kind of violation. I don’t have a clean ending for this one, but that’s what I think it was like for me.

Melissa Reynolds (01:00:37):
Oh, I just wanted to bring up that I really love that this aspect of writing is coming into our conversation because it’s something that you don’t really think about until you are asked, or your work requires you to write something that is maybe a bit uncomfortable or maybe feels a bit vulnerable for yourself. I do think it’s important to take those breaks and take those moments of saying, ‘okay, let’s get re-grounded’ as you say, or ‘let’s eat a snack, something and take a break and come back to this when I feel safe’. It’s just not anything that you really think about until you need to. So, I love that you brought that up. Thank you.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (01:01:28):
Thank you for saying that.

Matthew Maichen (01:01:29):
Yeah. It really reminds me of the interesting conversation we’re having these days about writing our trauma and writing down the things that have hurt us. Because I do remember at least a few stories that I wrote personally that are about challenges that I face that are not just personal challenges, but very deep and systemic ones, as well. You know, like this story. Sometimes I think back to writing those things and I ask myself ‘was that worth the pain I went through’? It’s always such a struggle to answer that question. In writing that, I mean, was that worth the pain I went through in writing that? I’m curious what your thoughts on that are.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (01:02:24):
Hmm. Yeah, I think…well it first makes me think of memoir, which is not a genre that I write in very much, but it feels important to say that I’ve known people for whom that’s been really helpful and cathartic in processing PTSD and their traumatic experiences. That’s not a world that I know that much about. It’s not a way that I have yet used writing. When I think about the way that I write, I have always been a fiction writer first and foremost, and the reason I write about stuff is because of either systemic, cyclical trauma or personal trauma that…Right now, I’m more interested in personalizing on the page through fiction, systemic cyclical trauma. Having, through my writing, a conversation with readers and other people around what is happening in the world and what can we do to shift those cycles. I think there’s a point at which I go, ‘okay, which memories am I going to use in this novel? Which memories am I going to use in this short story’? Then turning them from memory into a fictionalized story, sometimes out of respect for the privacy of real people, sometimes out of a need to take it out of a place where it would trigger me and it would make it a really hard story just to get through the writing of it. I think there’s sort of a process in my mind…I’m trying to think if I’ve ever written a story where I then went back and said, ‘wow, was that worth it?’ I think knowing myself and knowing what my younger self was like, probably, yeah. I used to do things to be really thorough, and I was like, ‘you will have processed this emotionally when you have done it the most grueling way’. Which makes, scientifically [laughs] and energetically, very little sense. It was a process that I developed for myself. So probably, yes, I’ve probably written pieces like that. At this point, I think…the thing that got me inspired to start the thing that I’m working on now was the movie “Promising Young Woman”, which is a very dark movie. It’s a revenge fantasy.

Matthew Maichen (01:05:14):

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (01:05:15):
And it is this really interesting balance of incredibly dark and then comic book visuals and candy colors. I watched it and was like, ‘oh my God, this is it. I have touched the electric current of what I’m gonna do next’. In part because it brought up a lot of really intense and challenging stuff for me that weridly got me really excited to write about it because it meant so much to me, and it means so much to me. I love “Promising Young Woman”. I think it’s an amazing movie. I also think that the revenge fantasy in the way that the ending of the movie—spoilers—skip the next 15 seconds for everyone who hasn’t seen it but wants to. It ends with a police arrest. [It] felt really uncomfortable to me, and it felt like it just kind of chopped off a conversation of…I think it’s a great revenge fantasy, and I wanted to write something that was like, ‘cool, what if we talked about punishment as a concept’? That conversation between violation and how horrific that is, and then what role punishment plays in coping with that. I think that really brought me to this place of, like, ‘this is gonna be really dark and hard to write’. But also, the higher the excitement is that I have around the conversation that it will start, the more bandwidth I have. That excitement gives me bandwidth to then deal with the hard stuff. Then, you know, scene to scene is when it gets really challenging. When you have to write a scene that is really upsetting. I think I approach that in a more methodical way than I used to, which is like, ‘well, I’ll probably get through’… if I could write a whole scene that’s not intense, when I get to that really intense scene…I think for this short story, I probably spent a lot of time in that stabbing moment, just taking it slower, and I do that more intentionally now.

Matthew Maichen (01:07:30):
Yeah. I don’t know if this matches up with your experience at all, but sometimes I feel like I just have this urge to poke the thing that other people don’t wanna poke. There’s this thing that people don’t wanna touch, and that makes me wanna touch it more when I’m writing. I don’t know if that’s you…

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (01:07:56):
Yeah. I mean, I definitely feel kind of, like, ‘ha ha ha, that made you uncomfortable? We’re gonna look right at it’ approach to writing a lot of the time. For me, it’s usually inspired by anger. It’s usually like, ‘I can’t believe we’re not talking about this. No one else is gonna poke this?’ Usually with the stuff that I’m writing about, there are other wonderful, incredible writers out there poking it, too.

Matthew Maichen (01:08:21):
Mm-hmm. Yeah. I appreciate them a lot and I appreciate you a lot, doing that because like I said, I didn’t even know that this song existed. This is going to be quite a long episode. I think we should start winding it down just a little bit. Traditionally, one of our last questions is: do you have any shout-outs for other authors or people in the literary community? Otherwise, any recommendations, things you read that just jumped out to you as something that you think more people should read?

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (01:09:05):
I love this question, and I also have that thing where if someone asks you a question on the spot, your brain goes totally blank. So, I’m just gonna start talking and hope that the right words come out. I have recently read and talked to some students [about] Tommy Orange’s “There There”. I think it’s an incredible novel. I think it really gets to this sort of like, ‘Hey, what’s something no one’s talking about? Let’s poke that and talk about it’. It’s a novel about being an urban Native person in Oakland and what that existence is like. It’s just structured so beautifully. It’s conceptually and in execution a total masterpiece. Helen Oyeyemi is a writer who I often suggest and folks haven’t heard of. She wrote a book called “White is for Witching”. That’s my personal favorite of hers. It’s a haunted house ghosty kind of story, but it is also really dealing…it uses this traditional haunted house trope to deal with colonialism. It makes the haunting into something that is a deep systemic and historical harm in a way that I find really badass and cool and powerful, totally relevant in terms of the racial dynamics in it. I think those are my two…I’ve got my bookshelves behind me. That’s what I’m looking at. Those are my two that I’m all over and really excited about right now. I do teach fiction writing and if you are a workshoper and you are listening to this or you lead a workshop, a book called “The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop” has completely changed my way of workshopping and I think it’s important for workshop leaders and people participating to read.

Matthew Maichen (01:11:17):
Is that by Felicia Rose Chavez?

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (01:11:20):
It is, yeah.

Matthew Maichen (01:11:21):

Elena L. Perez (01:11:22):
I have heard amazing things about that.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (01:11:24):
It’s really cool. And you don’t even have…I mean, definitely I encourage…read the whole thing, it’s great. But there are a few chapters that…when I first got it, it was recommended to me by a student and I was like, ‘oh, I should do this post-haste’. And so I just read three really important chapters and was able to change the workshop style that I was doing to be, I think, harm reductive and much more enlightened.

Matthew Maichen (01:11:49):
Thank you.

Elena L. Perez (01:11:51):
I love that. Yeah.

Matthew Maichen (01:11:53):
Yeah. That is a good thing to put out there. I think, with that, I wanna say that this has been such a great conversation and I’m super happy that you came to talk to us today. There was a lot to talk about.

Elena L. Perez (01:12:13):
Yeah. Thank you, Isabel. It was wonderful talking with you and discussing your piece and thanks for being here with us today.

Isabel O’Hara Walsh (01:12:19):
Thank you guys so much for having me and for making space for this conversation. I really appreciate it and I really enjoyed it.

Cerid Jones (01:12:26):
I felt like we could have all chatted for another two hours, easily. That was phenomenal. What a great way to start my day. Thank you so much and, and thank you for the amazing work that you’re doing and writing and sharing. It’s really awesome. Hats off.

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