‘Hare’s Breath‘, now available in Shimmer, was a difficult story to write. All stories are difficult to write on some level, but this one was hard for me to get a grip on, partly because I couldn’t figure out the point of view I needed to tell it from.
Spoiler alert / trigger warning: This story deals with compulsory sterilization.
I first heard of the Swedish policy of compulsory sterilization (originally put in place in the 1930s with the openly stated purpose of eugenics, i.e. weeding out undesirable traits in the population) in the early 1990s. Listening to Bosse Lundquist’s documentary on this subject (‘Förädlade svenskar’ on Swedish Radio) shocked me to my core. The compulsory sterilizations began in the 1930s, and while few of them were taking place when the policy was eventually scrapped in the 1970s, the policy did not truly end until 2013, when sterilization was no longer mandatory for transgendered individuals, who previously had to undergo the procedure if they wanted to transition.
Starting in the 1930s, individuals could face compulsory sterilization for a number of reasons, such as petty crime, teenage pregnancy, being in foster care, learning disabilities, “bad morals”, trouble in school, running away from home, and so on. Sometimes the procedure was done without the young person actually being told in so many words what had been done to them. Sometimes there was intense pressure from doctors and others to not let someone leave a care facility unless the procedure was performed. The stated objective of this in the 1930s was to “improve the population stock”.
It is worth noting that 93% (ninety three percent) of the total number of individuals (63,000 or thereabouts) subjected to compulsory sterilization were female.
And yes, this happened in Sweden and it was inspired by the same ideas that fuelled Nazi policies in Germany around the same time. Similar policies were put in place in other countries, too, and even just writing this post, just thinking about this, my hands start to shake because it makes me so angry. I won’t rant more about it here, but anyone who wants to read more about this issue can check out Wikipedia, The Independent, The Economist and Bosse Lundquist’s Swedish radio documentary.
The idea to turn this into a short story emerged in 2015, when I started writing fiction again after many years away from writing. However, I struggled with how to capture and channel my feelings of anger and outrage into prose. The story existed in several different incarnations before its final version, and for a long time, I wasn’t able to really pull it all together.
I realized eventually that I could not write about this “head on”, but had to look at it “sideways”, through a bystander’s eyes, in order to find the tone and voice I needed.
At the same time as I was struggling with this story, I was also working on a story that would incorporate Swedish folklore (näcken, trolls, vittra…). This story was nebulous and hard to pin down (it had no plot, just a sense of place, a vibe, a feeling), and it wasn’t until I finally put these two story ideas together, that I felt that I might be on the right track.
As a writer, I always want to find the right “voice” for a story, but I also want to find the right “pair of eyes” to see a story through. With ‘Hare’s Breath’, I found that pair of eyes when the scene with the two girls sitting on the fence one Midsummer’s Eve watching a hare popped into my head. After that there was nothing to it at all, except endless rewrites and revisions, of course….
The title was a struggle as well. It didn’t come until after the story had been accepted by Shimmer. I knew my working title, A Swedish Horror Story, was pretty crap, but I could not for the life of me come up with a better one. That is, until E. Catherine Tobler, Shimmer’s awesome Senior Editor Badger, gave me a nudge in edits… and all of a sudden I had it. Hare’s Breath. And once I had it, it was like it had always been there.
Shimmer did not ask for a lot of edits when we went through the story, but I want to mention one specific editing moment that was an epiphany for me.
In her editing notes, towards the end of the story, Senior Editor Badger Tobler added a note saying something like “I really want to see the hare here”, or something to that effect. It was just a short, simple comment. And yet, as soon as I read it, something clicked into place in my brain: that was the moment when I thought of the title, and it was also the moment when I realized that the hare was the heart of the story. I also understood exactly WHY she had mentioned it, because it was like a beat missing, a skip in the rhythm of the story, and once the hare appeared in that paragraph towards the end, the story gained a new lustre.
In short: E. Catherine Tobler is one hell of an editor.
I am eternally grateful to the team at Shimmer for their support and love and input: I think Shimmer is the perfect home for ‘Hare’s Breath’, and I am still sort of incredulous that one of my stories is now in one of my favourite zines.