It’s a great pleasure this evening to be launching Helen Gildfind’s first book, her
wonderful collection of stories THE WORRY FRONT.
I first met Helen back in March 2013. She was one of a select group of
emerging writers to be awarded an ASA mentorship. I was her mentor. I
accepted her on the basis of her writing, which I saw immediately was very
strong, but as well she demonstrated a highly-developed fictional imagination,
unusual in many new writers – and why so many first books are strongly
Fiction writers imagine, that’s what we do. We make things up. Sure our
imaginings might well be fuelled by ideas, as Helen’s certainly are, but the
characters we create are not pen portraits of ourselves, our families or our soon
to be ex-best friends.
Helen embraces the fiction writer’s imagination. Don’t bother searching for
her in these stories – you’ll not find her. But you will find the ferryman in the first
story, a man filled with grief and anger following a false accusation that has
destroyed his entire existence. You’ll find Solomon Jeremy Rupert Jones,
confused over what makes a satisfying relationship, a man whose story speaks
of sex and yearnings and the sorts of compromise that infuses all significant
relationships. Then there’s the 80-year- old woman in the Worry Front who
discovers what it is that has held her captive throughout her life – it is the worry
front – and her horror when she realises that she has bequeathed it to her
children – her adult children whom she doesn’t much like. This same woman is
planning the most inventive form of suicide imaginable. Then there’s Luke, the
forty-year- old man in Quarry, the longest story in the collection, a wounded man,
isolated, violent, repressed, lonely. And there’s a stray dog in this story, and as
you’re reading you are begging Luke to take the dog home, properly befriend her,
but Luke does not know how to befriend.
You may not like these characters and you may flinch at their situations,
but all good readers of fiction know that often the most interesting characters are
the ones who are not immediately likeable. Take it from me: Mother Teresa
would make an extremely dull and unsuccessful character in a novel.
THE WORRY FRONT is testimony to the depth of Helen’s imagination, the skill of her
writing and the enduring power of the short story. There’s little to equal a good
short story. Little to equal that wonderful sense of being quickly absorbed into the
lives of characters, travelling with them through the past that haunts them (and
there are lots of haunting pasts in Helen’s collection) and the present that
challenges them, and then, a mere 20 or 30 minutes later you’re left with the
satisfaction of knowing, having, something whole and complete. There’s few
pleasures to match it.
Not so long ago there were many publications that included short stories.
These have been replaced by the trivia of facebook, the superficial synopses that
make up Twitter, the MacDonaldisation of intellectual and creative life. Helen
Gildfind’s collection, THE WORRY FRONT, reminds us what we are in danger of
losing. In this collection she reacquaints us with the delights, the punch, the
wonder of the short story. These stories hold you during reading, sometimes
tensely and breathlessly, and they stay with you long after you’ve returned to the
rush and splutter of contemporary life. Buy this book. Give it your friends. These
stories are brimming with ideas. Mobile phones will be forgotten in the hours of
discussion prompted by this collection.
It is with great pleasure that I officially launch THE WORRY FRONT by
Helen Gildfind. May this book have a long and illustrious voyage.
When I first compiled these stories into a collection, what struck me was how, though they’d been written independently over many years, all my characters seemed preoccupied with the idea of nothingness.
People are constantly bombarded by arbitrary ideas of what is and is not valuable. You’re either someone or no one. You either have something or nothing. Despite being coerced into believing that these oppositional ideas define the nature of human experience and aspiration, my characters sense that the relationship between somethingness and nothingness is profoundly paradoxical: they are not oppositional ideas, but mutually defining, and therefore always co-existent.
This is why I have used the symbol of the ‘empty set’ to mark breaks throughout the text. The ‘empty set’ is a mathematical idea. The empty set is not the same thing as nothing—rather, an empty set is something with nothing inside it. This symbol thus alludes to my characters’ ambivalent experience of constantly feeling like they are nothing and something all at once. This is clearly expressed by one character who, reflecting upon her life, sees: ‘What there is. And what there isn’t. Which, after all, is everything.’
The power and purpose of narrative is to explore the abstract through the concrete, and when I arranged the final order of my stories, I noticed the very happy accident that the first story included the refrain, ‘Hold him,’ while the last story included the refrain, ‘Hold her.’ These two gestures signal the ultimate concern and purpose of all writing: the human need for intellectual, physical, and emotional connection.
Even if we feel ourselves to be or to have nothing, we can always be something and someone to each other. That is the power that we all have, no matter what other forces might prey upon us.