Meet CL Hellisen

Every Friday, we meet a member of the BFS and peer deep into their soul (or, at least, a form they filled out). Want to be featured? Email us: online@britishfantasysociety.org

Name, including preferred pronouns:
CL Hellisen (they/them)

Which region are you based in?
Scotland

If you write, which genre: 
Fantasy

Are you drawn to any specific SFFH sub-genres?
I’m drawn most to mythopoeic fantasy with touches of horror. I prefer work that straddles genre – where poetry meets horror, or SF is more concerned with myth than machines.

Your influences

Tell us about the book/film/thing that got you into SFFH: What was it? How old were you? What impact did it have on you?

I credit StoryTelller magazines and tapes for my love of reading, my mother sitting with me and reading nursery rhymes from a huge illustrated book that we had in our family for years, my Danish granny giving me a cloth-bound collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. 

But the first time I remember wanting to *write* was after reading Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody. I must have been about 11 or 12 at the time, and I read that book over and over. I may have also been reading Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs at the same time because I distinctly remember the story I wrote was about a dog that escaped from a testing facility to join the Wild Hunt…

My next Big Influence was Le Guin’s Tombs of Atuan, which spoke to me in a way a book hadn’t before. Then I discovered Tanith Lee and Clive Barker, and I became what I am.

My books tend to have a lot of mythology and folk tales in them, be quite lush, and often queer.

How does that early influence show up in your work now?

The book currently out on sub is my love song to fairy tales, which, considering my reading start with StoryTellers and Andersen, is unsurprising. Add in the Jones and Le Guin influence of the powerful outsider in a world they don’t completely understand or that understands them, the beautiful and twisted queerity of the Lee and Barker threads, and you end up with a novel that turns fairy land into a hellscape, time fluid, and recasts people in the shapes of their traumas and desires. 

Where do you draw your creative inspiration from?

Everywhere. I have a joke that I am the writerly equivalent of a sea-cucumber, just lying there on the seabed, sucking in everything and uh…expelling the waste. I could be as easily influenced by a line in a song as I could be by a historical documentary, a painting in a local gallery, or a chat with friends. All my stories are conversations with other stories in some way, even if I can’t always see which ones at first.

But the biggest influence is water. I need to live near oceans or rivers, and water seeps into all my stories.

(Photo is CL’s own)

Who do you look to as a genre hero? Why?

Every writer who is making beautiful, clever work, and being ignored by publishing because of their gender, race, neurodiversity, disability, social status, age, etc. Publishing, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, is about money. The books that will sell to the widest audience are going to get the nod first—that’s just reality. And that perceived audience in SFFH is often white, cishet, neurotypical, and male.

So my respect goes to all those ‘others’ who grit their teeth and keep making art despite the odds.

But if we’re talking a published writer, probably Kathe Koja. She writes with a fierce glee that assumes the reader is smart enough to keep up, and if not, that’s *their* problem. She’s written horror, SF, YA, and alternative histories, and her work is ugly-beautiful. If you haven’t read her, then I’d point to The Cipher for those who like modern horror, and The Under The Poppy books for queer historical.

(Photo of Kathe Koja taken from her website.)

Your work

You’re stuck in an elevator for 60 seconds with that hero, and they want you to describe your work. Give us the pitch.

Ooft.

I hate pitching things. I would tell her: ‘hey I write stories that make you want to take hallucinogens and fall in painful love, then cut your heart out and eat it yourself because that’s still safer than giving it to someone else.’

While she tried to escape, I would start singing Johnny Calls the Chemist, but only the bits I know (the chorus) until the fire department managed to free us.

What are you working on right now?

I’m taking a year to work on shorts and poems, so my contrary brain will probably go back to novels soon in an act of revolt. 

I’m in the middle of a short story about eating the god of fucks, but the novel WiP is about trickster gods and ugly girls and making magic out of feathers and lies. I’m not a hundred percent sure where it’s headed as I like to write quite organically and see what my underbrain vomits up.

Thinking about all the stories/work you’ve done, what sticks out most in your mind? Why?

Hmmm. I tend to forget what I’ve written a lot of the time, to the point where I sometimes find bits of abandoned stories in my files and go ‘who wrote this, I love it nngghh—oh shit maybe I should finish it, naaaah’.

But the book on sub right now is my hideous beast-child, and it’s the book I began writing long before I realised I was non-binary. In retrospect, I am clearly very, very slow. My underbrain at least knew what was up.

Where and when do you create/are you at your most creative?

Usually on a deadline, because ADHD. But also when I’m alone, and maybe hitting the very edge of hypomania. But that’s very tiring so I try and set myself writing goals of a hundred words a day to keep things level and the story wheels turning.

(Artwork by CL Hellisen)

What’s the best advice you’ve received about creativity?

Ignore everyone who tells you there’s only one way to be creative. Use all the tools at least once, and see which ones work for you; revisit the toolbox when you need to.

Actually, that’s my own advice. I really hate listening to other people, clearly.

What’s your writing soundtrack?

It depends on the book, but it’s currently a mix of Soap&Skin, Tricky, I Don’t Know How But They Found Me, and Placebo.

It’s always Placebo. 

Artwork by CL Hellisen

The quickfire round

Sci-fi, fantasy or horror?
All of them, in varying degrees

Quiet or loud?
Both

Dark or light?
Chiaroscuro

Strict lines or genre blend?
Put everything in a blender always

Awards or bestseller?
Neither

Fiction or non-fiction?
Both

Poetry or prose?
Prosetry

Plotter or pantser?
Neither. Organic with a list of ideas and plot threads for when I get stuck.

Reading or listening?
Can’t do audio books unless I’m trapped in a car, so reading.

Notebook or computer?
PC, though I’ve taken to writing on my phone while commuting to work

Favourite SFFH book of all time?

OOFT WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?

Imajica, by Clive Barker

Last book you read?

  • Fiction – The Queen of the High Fields, by Rhiannon A. Grist
  • Non-fiction – OutOfShapeWorthlessLoser, by Gracie Gold

Any SFFH author on auto-buy?
Weirdly, not really. Whatever piques my interest gets on the list.

Favourite podcast?
None. I find podcasts hard to listen to because my mind starts to wander, but I I’ve enjoyed Publishing Rodeo.

The home stretch

What’s the best thing about being in SFFH?

Meeting other creative people.

Time to plug your stuff! Where can we find you and your work? What have you got coming up? Consider this your advertising space.

I’m online at clhellisen.com, or on Bluesky, Patreon, or Substack.

Most of my books are available at the usual online retailers—Amazon, Kobo, Blackwell’s etc—but you can also buy certain books direct from Luna Press, Ghost Moth Press and NewCon Press.

If you’re interested in reading my very slantwise, queer, disabled retelling of the Tinderbox, and you like magic and drugs and dragons and trickster thieves and mages, then get Thief Mage, Beggar Mage.

If you prefer a story about fierce sisters, wives, daughters and friends, and you want a Snow White that’s more blood than snow, then Cast Long Shadows is probably more your thing.

(I don’t only do retellings, but for some reason both these sprang from fairy tales—though perhaps retelling is a misnomer. More like I stole a story and ran away with it and now it bears zero resemblance to the original, unless you squint.)

You can read some of my short stories online, and I have more coming out hopefully in 2024/25

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