Saturday, May 8, 2021

Mercedes Helnwein

Mercedes Helnwein is a visual artist and writer. She was born in Vienna, Austria, and grew up in Germany, Ireland, and partially the US and the UK. Instead of going to college she moved to L.A. where she began putting on art shows with her friends and selling her drawings. Her obsession with writing began at age ten when she wrote her first short story for a school assignment – "The Celery Stick Who Became President." She currently lives and works in L.A. and Ireland.

Slingshot is Helnwein's debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

For a very long time the title was The World is A Vampire. This was because of the main character’s love for the Smashing Pumpkins, but also because I felt that that song ("Bullet with Butterfly Wings") summed up so perfectly the main character’s teenage view of existence.

When it came to choosing an actual final title for the book, my editor suggested Slingshot. I loved the idea of a one-word title and that it tells you nothing about the story. It’s a love story, so even better, because I had a natural instinct to want to counter-act the romance aspect of the story, without actually compromising it. I really like how hard-core, over-the-top, helplessly the main character falls in love, but it is happening to a person who didn’t ask for it or want it, and who definitely isn’t the right candidate for it. I felt like the title somehow reflected that.

Also, I promise it’s not a random title at all, because the whole story hinges on an actual scene with a slingshot in the book.

What's in a name?

The name of my main character is Gracie Mae Welles. Grace – Gracie. I was looking for a very simple, traditional American name. Something pretty and innocuous. And most of all, something that would clash with her personality. I like the idea that personalities don’t necessarily match names, and in most cases we don’t even notice when names are mismatched to people because we’ve grown so used to people and their names. I can’t imagine Gracie being called anything else at this point, but at the beginning I had to really get over the fact that that was the name I picked for her.

I called the boy she falls in love with Wade. This was inspired by this old-time banjo player/fiddler called Wade Ward. My banjo teacher gave me a CD of his and the name always stuck in my head as weird – I’d never heard it before. And when I had to give this kid a name it was just instantly Wade.

The biology teacher ended up being Mr. Sorrentino, mainly because I was watching only Mafia movies and shows at the time and wanted him to be Italian.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

I was obsessed with Charles Dickens and 19th century literature in general, so my first question would have been why the hell was I writing a story taking place in modern times? What possessed me not to write a complex Dickensian drama? Secondly, the idea of writing a love story would have seemed preposterous to me, because I considered all love stories unbearable and cheesy. Thirdly, I would have questioned the choice of all the 90s music Gracie listens to, because teenage-me listened to a lot of old blues, folk, Tom Waits and 60s music and I would have thought that would be a better choice.

But I think I would have been drawn into the story pretty quickly and would have had no choice but to share a lot of the main characters’ views on a lot of things, being that teenage-me was good research material for this book.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Endings probably – or basically everything coming after the beginning! I usually only have a fragment of an idea when I start – just a scene or a relationship that seems funny to me. I knew that I wanted Slingshot to be about the gritty details of first heartbreak. The idea of writing a love story was never interesting to me, but the idea of looking at the entire experience of first love and heartbreak through the eyes of a teenage kid with zero experience – all the bad decisions, wrong assumptions, delusions, and scrabbling for sanity – that seemed like it would have enough opportunity for humor to make the subject matter worthwhile. And it was by trying to set up the heartbreak that the love-story part evolved into this very real, emotional situation, and I ended up with a story that is as much a love story as it is a heartbreak story.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think it would have been hard for me to write so intimately about the subject matter of first love without remembering exactly what it was like for me. Same with the subject of coming of age or just being a teenage girl. I have mountains of teenage diaries and camcorder footage. I went through all of that and used whatever experiences were useful to the story, but Gracie was always supposed to be her own character.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music. Florida as a backdrop. Kids I used to know. Schools.

Anything funny/weird/interesting I come across: billboards, dialogues, bad language, idioms, hairstyles. America. I was born in Austria and grew up in Germany, the UK, Ireland and the US …so I’ve never felt like an American (or like any other nationality either actually) but I think because I had this outside view of America it has always been super inspiring to me, even down to the most mundane aspects of its culture and customs, for example strip malls or how big the soft drink cups get at fast food places and movie theatres.
Visit Mercedes Helnwein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue