It’s excerpt time! In honor of our #NewBooksNewVoices celebration, Helena Fox, author of How It Feels to Float is answering our questions and sharing some insider info on her publishing journey! Read her interview below and scroll down to read an excerpt of her debut novel.
What are your top three absolute FAVORITE reads?
An impossible question! J I’ve loved books since I was little, and have been studying literature and writing for ages, so I genuinely have dozens of great book loves. But these are the three (incredible) books I thought of first:
LANNY by Max Porter: A story about a lost boy, a small British town, and a bogeyman called Dead Papa Toothwort, this book is astonishing in its originality and glorious in its compassion.
TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan: A complex, dark retelling of the Grimm brothers’ Snow-white and Rose-red, this book dazzles you with its language and completely shatters your heart.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders: This phenomenal book, about Abraham Lincoln and his young son, is set in a graveyard during the American Civil War, and is told mostly by ghosts. It’s just brilliant.
What was the most challenging part of your publishing journey?
The most challenging part of my writing life has been the anxiety that comes with wanting to get published. I have never been great with the ‘rejection’ part of being a writer, which means in the past I rarely sent things out! I remember feeling quite sick with nerves when I queried agents for HOW IT FEELS TO FLOAT. But I did it anyway, because I believed deeply in Biz’s story and wanted very much for this book to become a Book. So I took a chance, and sent my queries out. And now we are here, so I’m very glad I did!
Did you always want to be an author?
I have been writing since I was little and I think I always wanted to be a writer. But when I was younger, I didn’t know how to articulate that. It was almost too precious a dream to share with anyone. Also, many adults around me used words like ‘career’ and ‘stability’ and ‘job’ when they talked about the future, so I went and did a law degree instead. It was a terrible fit for me. When I was twenty four and about to become a lawyer I thought: HOLD UP. I really don’t want this! So I ran away to the US to study writing. And my life as a Writer began.
Read the excerpt below!
At three in the morning when I can’t sleep, the room ticks over in the dark and all I have for company is the rush of words coming up fast like those racehorses you see on television, poor things, and when their hearts give out they are laid on the ground and shot dead behind a blue sheet.
At three a.m., I think of hearts. I think of candy hearts and carved-tree hearts and hummingbird hearts. I think of hearts in bodies and the rhythm inside us we don’t get to choose.
I lay my hand over mine. There it is.
It beatbeats beatbeatbeats skipsabeatbeatbeat
A heart is a mystery and not a mystery. It hides under ribs, pumping blood. You can pull it out, hold it in your hand.Squeeze. It wants what it wants. It can be made of gold, glass, stone. It can stop anytime.
People scratch hearts into benches, draw them onto fogged windows, tattoo them on their skin. Believe the story they tell themselves: that hearts are somehow bigger than muscle, that we are something more than an accidental arrangement of molecules, that we are pulled by a force greater than gravity, that love is anything more than a mess of nerve and impulse—
In the dark.
In my room.
I open my eyes, and Dad’s sitting on the edge of the bed.
“You need to stop,” he says.
What? I squint at him. He’s blurry.
“The thinking. I can hear it when you breathe.”
Dad’s wearing a gray sweatshirt. His hands are folded in his lap. He looks tired.
“You should sleep like you did when you were small,” he says. He looks away, smiles. “Your tiny fingers, tucked under your chin. There’s a photo . . .” Dad trails off.
Yeah, Dad. I’ve seen it.
“The one of us in hospital, after you were born—”
Yeah. The one just after Mum got her new blood and you fainted and they gave you orange juice. The one where Mum’s laughing up at the camera as I sleep in her arms. Yeah. I’ve seen it.
Dad smiles again. He reaches across to touch me, but of course he can’t.
That photo has been on every fridge door in every house I’ve ever lived in. It sits under a plumbing company magnet and beside a clip holding year-old receipts Mum can’t seem to throw away.
The photo was taken an hour after I came bulleting out of Mum so fast she had to have a transfusion. In the picture, I look like a slug and Dad looks flattened, like he’s seen a car accident. But Mum’s face is bright, open, happy.
All the other photos are in albums on our living room bookshelf, next to the non-working fireplace. The albums hold every picture of me Dad ever took until he died, and all the ones of me Mum took until smartphones came along and she stopped printing me onto paper. I’m now partly inside a frozen computer Mum keeps meaning to get fixed, and on an overcrowded iPhone she keeps meaning to download.
And I’m in the photos friends have taken when I’ve let them and the ones the twins have taken with their eyes since they were babies. I’m in the ocean I walk beside when I skip school and in the clouds where I imagine myself sometimes. And I’m in the look on my friend Grace’s face, a second after I kissed her, five seconds before she said she thought of me as a friend.
I blink. Dad’s gone again. The room is empty but for me, my bed, my walls, my thoughts, my things.
It’s what—four in the morning?
I have a physics test at eight.
My ribs hurt. Behind them, my heart beatbeats beatbeatbeats beatskipsabeat
My name is Elizabeth Martin Grey, but no one I love calls me that.
The Martin is for Dad’s dad who died in a farm accident when he was thirty and Dad was ten.
I was seven when Dad died. Which means I had less time with Dad alive than Dad had with his.
There’s never enough time. Actually, there’s too much and too little, in unequal parts. More than enough of time passing but not enough of the time passed.
Ratio of the time you want versus the time you get (a rough estimate)—
1 : 20,000.
Ratio of Dad’s time as the son of Martin : as the living father of Biz : as my dead dad, sitting on the edge of my bed telling me stories—
1 : 0.7 : ∞.
Monday morning, 7:30, and it’s so hot the house feels like it’s melting. Cicadas scream through the windows. The dog pants on the kitchen floor. I had a shower five minutes ago and already I’m sweating through my shirt.
“Ugh,” I say, flopping over the kitchen counter, crumpled uniform on, shoes untied.
Mum reads my face and sighs. She’s making breakfast for the twins. “Be grateful you get to have an education, Biz.” She waggles a spatula. “Not everyone’s as lucky.”
I peer at her. “You might have read me wrong, Mum. Maybe I meant, ‘Ugh. How I wish school lasted all weekend, I have missed it so very much.’ ”
I’m a month into Year 11, which is ridiculous because I am nano and unformed but I’m still supposed to write essays about Lenin and Richard III and urban sprawl. Year 11 is a big deal. We are only seconds away, the teachers say, from our final exams. The teachers can’t stop revving us up about our impending future.
This is a big deal! say the teachers of English, science, art, maths, music, geography, and Other Important Subjects in Which We Are Not Remotely Interested But Are Taking So We Can Get a Good Mark.
You need to take it seriously!
You need to be prepared!
You need to not freak out, then have to go to the counselor because we’ve freaked you out!
I open the fridge. “I’m going to sit in here, okay? Just for a minute. Let me squat next to the broccoli.”
Mum laughs. She’s making banana pancakes. Billie and Dart drool over their waiting plates. The twins have the morning off school. They’re going to the dentist! They love the dentist—it’s where Mum works, so they get extra toothbrushes, and as many little packs of floss and toothpaste as they can carry in their hands.
“Are they ready yet?” says my brother, Dart, six years old.
“Come on, Mum! I’m starving todeath,” says my sister, Billie, nineteen minutes younger than Dart.
“Give me a second,” says Mum. “A watched pancake never boils.”
She flips one over. It looks scorched. Mum doesn’t love cooking.
I can’t see how she can be anywhere near a stove in this heat. I grab some coconut yogurt and grapes out of the fridge.
“Did you study for your test?” Mum says.
“Absolutely,” I say, and it’s true, if you count watching YouTube videos and listening to music while reading the textbook studying. I don’t know if I’m ready—there’s the lack of sleep thing, and the not-having-spoken-properly-to-Grace-since-I-kissed-her thing, which makes today impossible and complicated before it even begins.
I hug Mum goodbye and smooch the twins’ cheeks as they squirm.
I grab my bike from the shed, ride it for thirty seconds before I realize the front tire is flat.
Ah, that’s right.
When did the tire go? Friday? No, Thursday.
Shit, Biz! You had one job.
A magpie laughs from a nearby tree. His magpie friend looks down, then joins in.
I could ask Mum to drive me but I know what she’d say: “Do I look like a taxi, Biz?”
I could skip school, but then I’d miss my test and ruin my impending future.
I shove the bike back in the shed. And start walking.
I live with Mum and the twins in Wollongong, in a blue-clad house on a street wallpapered with trees.
We moved here a couple of years ago, after moving to a lot of other places. We’re one and a half hours south of Sydney. The city is not too big, not too small; it’s just right for now, says Mum. The city sits beside the sea, under an escarpment. The sea pushes at the shore, shoving under rocks and dunes and lovers. Craggy cliffs lean over us, trying to read what we’ve written. The city is long like a finger. It was a steel town once.
There, that’s the tour.
When I was seven, Mum, Dad, and I lived up north, near Queensland—in the Australian jungle, Mum likes to say. She says the mosquitoes were full on, but I don’t remember them.
I remember frogs click-clacking at night in the creek at the bottom of the hill. The house was wooden; it had stilts. The backyard was a steep tangle of eucalypts and ferns and figs and shrubs.
You could see hills like women’s boobs all around. I’d wake up and hear kookaburras. Light would come in through my curtainless windows and lift me out of bed. I’d run in to Mum and Dad’s room and jump on them to wake them up.
I had a puppy. I called him Bumpy.
Our street is flat now. It goes past a park where I walk the dog and he sniffs the shit left by other dogs. I can walk to school in fifteen minutes or I can walk straight past it and go to the sea. Or, if I want to be a total rebel, I can go the opposite direction and in fifteen minutes end up in a rainforest, under a mountain, gathering leeches for my leech army.
On the walk to school, the cicadas keep me company. They scream from one huge gum tree to another. I pass the community center. I pass the park. I get to the end of the cul-de-sac and wait under the bleaching sun to cross the freeway.
Traffic bawls past. I can feel my skin frying. I can feel cancer pooling in my freckles. I can feel the road tar melting under my feet as I scurry across the road.
Past the freeway there’s a vet, a pub, and a train station. Every day I have to cross the train tracks to get to school. Every time I think,What if the signals are wrong, and a train comes out of the blue and hits me as I cross?
A woman walked against the signal once. Not here, but close enough it might as well be here. She was in a rush, they said; she ignored the ringing bells, the dropping barrier. She got halfway and thought better of it. She turned back. The train came.
Every time I cross the tracks, I think of her and try not to think of her.
I’ve traced and retraced her last moments in my head. I have googled her and I know the names of her family, the job she had, the music she listened to, and the last concert she saw before she died. I can feel the tightness of her skin when she saw the train, and how sweat sprang up a moment before the train hit—
and how our pupils widened
and turned my eyes to black
and in that infinite, molecular moment, I can’t remember if I meant to cross, or have paused on the tracks and am waiting here—
I turn my head. Dad’s walking beside me, barefoot, in his running shorts and KISS T-shirt.
“Do you remember your first train ride?”
No. I don’t remember that, Dad.
“It was a steam train. You were four. We went through a rainforest! We went really high up a mountain, and visited a butterfly sanctuary. And you flapped around like a monarch. You were beautiful.”
Is that right, Dad?
“You should flap around. Try it, Biz; it’ll shake off the frets.”
I look down. I’m over the train tracks and past the station. I’m on the path; it opens in front of me, green grass on both sides, the sun beaming.
I think of butterflies. I think of flying.
He’s gone by the time I reach the school gate.
I walk into physics just as Ms. Hastings is handing out our tests. Ms. Hastings gives me ayoung lady, you’re late look. I give her a tell me about it and have you noticed I’m swimming in a pool of sweat look. Ms. Hastings raises an eyebrow. I sit at my desk.
Ms. Hastings lays our tests facedown. She does the regular threats: “You must not look at anyone’s work!” and “Put away your phones!” and “Your time starts now.”
We flip our pages over.
Turns out, I am ready for the test. My brain fires up and the neurons make my hand move and the formulas come out like good little ponies at a show.
Most of my tests are fairly easy, which isn’t me boasting; it’s just a statement of fact. Mum says I might have a photographic memory, which is good for Mum because she often forgets her PIN numbers and passwords.
Mum could be right. All I have to do is look at something and it sticks. Sometimes, the image repeatrepeatrepeatrepeats, like a GIF I can’t turn off.
The room fills with the buzz of numbers.Pi scuttles over our papers, theorems talk to themselves. Ms. Hastings looks at her phone—probably at some friend skydiving or snorkeling in the Bahamas, while she’s trapped in here with us.
The bell rings.
“Time’s up!” calls Ms. Hastings. We hand in our tests. Next class is English.
I don’t chat or dawdle in the corridors; I slip between the crowds, a fish weaving. In fifty-five minutes I’ll have to speak to Grace.Just keep swimming, Biz.
Mr. Birch stands like a flamingo in front of the class, one foot scratching the back of his leg.
“Okay, everyone,” he says, “today we’ll be writing about the ego. That is, your alter ego. Consider your readings over the weekend, and the work of Plath in this context.”
A collective groan from all of us. We’ve done Plath now for three long weeks and no one is a fan. I mean, we all “feel” for her, but at this point we’ve read her and analyzed her and discussed her and it’s like peeling an onion until there’s no onion left.
“I want you to write a description of your alter ego, due at the end of the day,” Mr. Birch says, ignoring our protests. In case we don’t remember what he’s just said, he writes it on the whiteboard, his blue pen squeaking. He then sits at his chipped desk behind his PC, doing paperwork.
We hunker down to do the assignment. That is, some of us do the assignment; some of us daydream. The new boy pulls out a book and reads it behind his laptop screen.
Fans flick-flick above us. A trickle of sweat moves down between my boobs. I stare at my computer.
I don’t much like to write about myself. It’s not my thing, discussing any part of me. Over the years, Mum has suggested we go see people because Dad is dead, but then we put it off. I did sit with a man once, when I was seven and a half, in a room with yellow-painted walls and framed cat pictures. The man had round glasses like Harry Potter. He laid out paper and blunt coloring pencils and said to draw, so I did. Then he hummed and ha-ed and said, “I’ll just speak to your mum now, okay?” and when Mum came back out, her eyes were really red, so I didn’t draw for anyone else after that.
The cursor blinks on, off.
I take a breath, and dive in.
My Alter Ego: A meditation/poem, by Elizabeth Grey
Consider the Ego / The ego is defined as a person’s sense of self / Which includes but is not limited to self-esteem, self-worth, and self-importance / Don’t we all think ourselves important, that we matter? / We are matter, this part is true / But do we? / And / Is it possible to have an alter self / I.e.: an opposite, matterless self?
No / Such a thing cannot exist / The universe is made of matter / And if I am alter or other, then I would be lacking matter or a sense of matter and as such cannot be in the universe / And if I am outside the universe, that makes me a singularity, a concept impossible to imagine / Therefore, my alter ego is beyond my capability for imagining / And thus, cannot be described.
P.S. Some say God is a singularity, but people imagine God all the time / They think he looks like someone’s white grandpa, or Santa Claus / God’s Alter Ego is sometimes called a Dog / (Sorry) / It should be added that Dogs exist and have the potential to exist throughout the known universe / So it is possible that my earlier hypothesis is wrong.
I close my laptop, look up at Mr. Birch, who’ll get to read this masterpiece tonight. What a lucky guy!
The bell rings.
“Please email me your essays by midnight!” calls Mr. Birch over the scrape of chairs, the shoving of laptops into bags, the clatter of our bodies beelining it to the door.
Now it’s break.
At break and lunch, I always sit with Grace—and Evie and Stu and Miff and Rob and Sal. The Posse, they call themselves. I should say: We, as a collective, call ourselves The Posse. I am in The Posse. I am an integral member of The Posse, I think.
Grace and I have sat with The Posse since the first day of Year 9. We were both new. Evie saw us hovering uncertainly in the schoolyard, and decided we belonged to her. She brought us over to the bench under the tree by the fence. There, everyone interviewed us. What bands did we like? Did we prefer a day at the beach or inside? Had we readThe Communist Manifesto? Had we seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Did we like it? Did we have a tattoo? If not, what would we get and where?
The group made the questions sound like conversation. But I could feel everyone marking us invisibly. Tick, tick, cross, tick, tick.
I let Grace answer first and watched everyone’s faces. I crafted my answers the way their smiles went.
In the end it was okay. We could stay. But of course we could stay!The Posse is inclusive! The Posse is Love Incarnate!
We would have more people in The Posse, but most people are stupid, says Miff. We, The Posse, agree.
Before I came to this school, I was never in a group, so being in one—especially one with a name—was quite the novelty. It still is, because, I mean, I belong to six other people and they say they miss me when I’m not there. I’ve sat on the bench under the tree by the fence for just over two years now, laughing and saying things I think I’m supposed to.
And almost every second of every minute I’m with them, I feel like I’m seeing the scene from somewhere else. In front of a screen maybe, watching someone else’s life.
I walk to the lockers. Grace is standing by mine.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” she says. She smells like lavender—it’s from the moisturizer she gave me for my birthday, then borrowed two months ago and forgot to give back.
I open my locker. I put in my books.
“Hey,” I say again. My hands are actually shaking, which is stupid, because this is Grace, my best friend, who lives down the street and one left and two rights away from me. Grace Yu-Harrison, who knows all the songs from the Beatles’ White Album (like me), loves The Great Gatsby(like me), and the art of Alexander Calder, especially his mobiles, which move when you blow on them. (We did this, one Sunday in Sydney, when the guard wasn’t looking. The wires trembled at first, then danced.)
Grace lives with her mum and stepdad, who are workaholics. I’m not exaggerating; they literally can’t seem to stop sitting in their offices, going to meetings and conferences and dinners with other workaholics, and coming home late. Grace has a lot of time to herself. Her dad lives in Wagga Wagga, which is so far from the sea it may as well be fictional. She has a pool and a hammock that fits two—we often swing in it after a swim.
Grace is also stunning, the kind of gorgeous most people try their whole lives to be. She has kissed five and a half guys. Half because one guy turned and vomited two seconds after their lips touched.
“It was disgusting,” she said. “He nearly threw up in my mouth!”
I haven’t kissed anyone else but her.
In the four-minute walk from the lockers to our bench by the fence, Grace usually talks. She says we should dye our hair, but not blue because everyone’s doing that, so maybe silver? And she tells me about the drawing she did of her dream last night, and about Suryan in Year 12 sending her a photo of his penis, which she calls a dick, and which I say is unfair to all the people called Richard, and Grace laughs.
At least, that’s what she said on Friday, when I saw her last, before I went over for a swim in her pool and she lay on the grass afterwards—her eyes closed, her hair glassy-smooth—and that’s when something lurched inside me and I leaned over and put my mouth on hers.
“Hey,” says Grace again, and I’m back, by the lockers.
We could do this all day, I think, but then she stands squarely in front of me, so I can’t move. She pins me with her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I begin, which is what I said after I kissed her, and again, when she tried to say how she liked me but notthat way, but I was so mortified I took off. I’m a thousand feet tall and when I run I look like a giraffe, so imagine me, hoofing it down my street in just my swimmers, school bag in one hand, uniform and shoes in the other, the neighbors gawking at me from their front windows. I must have been quite the sight.
“Biz,” says Grace. She puts her hand on my arm. “Seriously, it’s okay. It was nice, you know? I haven’t been kissed in ages and you’re not a bad kisser. I’m just not—” She pauses. And takes a long breath in.
I fix my eyes on the lockers, the floor, anywhere but Grace’s hand on my arm.
She steps closer, so now we are just two pairs of eyes, floating. “So. Here’s the thing, Biz. What I want—ah—what I’m wondering is”—another big breath in—“Biz, areyoubiorallthewaygay?”
I blink. “Sorry?”
“Bi? Or gay?” Grace asks the question like she’s standing with a clipboard in a shopping mall, asking strangers for orphan money.
I gawp at her.
“Because,” she says, “I was thinking over the weekend—whichsucked, by the way—Dad called and I had to fly to Wagga for some great-aunt’s funeral, did you get my text?—and we went to his girlfriend’sfarm for fuckssake—it’s got no Wi-Fi, no signal, how’s that possible?—and we ate lamb, which is seriously disgusting—and he kept saying how I have to get my shit together this year or I won’t get into uni—God, that man’s a nightmare—but anyway—back to you, Biz—I was thinking about who might be good for you instead of me, and whether guys are a no for you or still a possibility, because Evie said Lucas Werry might be keen—but if it’s girls you’re into, we can go in a whole other direction. That’s cool. Like, unless—as long as you’re not hung up on me, in which case”—she pauses—“that could be a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions.”
Grace finally stops talking. She smiles, sort of, and waits for me to answer.
I can’t speak. I can feel the pistons of my heart moving, feel my lungs filling, emptying, my pores clogging. I feel the movement of the stars and I can hear the echo of all the black holes consuming everything—
and then, just like that, my head clears.
It’s Grace. Just Grace. (Look, Biz.)
Here she is, her hand still on my arm. My best friend.
(Come down to earth, Biz. Everything is going to be okay.)
I blink slowly, and feel myself waking.
“No,” I say. “I don’t think I’m hung up on you. As mesmerizingly beautiful as you are, Grace, I actually don’t think you’re my type.” And as I say it, something untangles in my chest. Oh my God. It’strue. I think?
I’m not. She isn’t.
Grace looks hugely relieved. Which makes me laugh. And I keep laughing, and suddenly everything is fine.
“I don’t actually know what I am,” I say, and I think that’s true. Am I bi? Am I gay? Am I something else? It makes my head fog to think about it.
“I mean, I wasn’t planning to kiss you,” I say.
She smiles. “I am pretty irresistible.”
“You’re the only person I’ve ever kissed, Grace. I’m seriously inexperienced. Maybe I should kiss more people to figure it out? Maybe we can line them up. Or lay them out on a tray like a taste test.”
“So we can see if you’re into pepperoni or anchovies,” says Grace.
“Both are animal products, so therefore—” I begin, and then see Grace smirk. “Ah,gross, Grace!”
Grace laughs. She starts walking outside. I walk beside her. We head for the tree, the bench under the tree, The Posse sitting beside the fence. And Grace is already pulling her phone out, already texting Lucas-Werry-who-might-be-keen, and asking him over to her house for a swim.
Which will be good.
Want to know more about How It Feels to Float? Read Helena‘s introduction to the book here!