What if being merely good at something wasn’t good enough? What if no matter how talented you were, it wasn’t enough? What if all you needed was Divine Inspiration? That would make everything so much easier, wouldn’t it?
Aimee Ogden’s story “Elena’s Angel” imagines a world in which the lucky few are quite literally divinely inspired. An angel comes into their life as a muse slash guide, and ensures they reach beyond their potential, becoming virtuoso musicians, or ground breaking artists, or amazing novelists, or what have you. The Divinely Inspired are guaranteed success, they will consistently be recognized, their works will always be lauded. Many of the rest of us are jealous of their success. The rest of us are only seeing what we want to see. We see the successes of people like Elena. We see that they have a divine creature who cares for them and ensures they have whatever they need. Many of us wish we had even a tiny portion of what Elena has. If only we saw what was really happening, what she is really going through. And maybe we could see that—if we stopped defining her by her relationship with her angel, if we started seeing her as an individual. Be careful what you wish for, indeed.
I remember when this story came through the slush pile, that I was fascinated by it, I was terrified by it, I was overwhelmed that the story hit so many notes in so many different ways. Perhaps it was because Elena is an artist that a corner of my mind saw the entire story as a gigantic mural filled with hidden details. I could get the gist of the story in a quick glance at the mural, but to understand what was really happening, to see further than what was easy to see, only then would I find the hidden details and the reasons behind Elena’s decisions.
There are many ways a reader can experience and react to “Elena’s Angel,” which makes me impatient to read short fiction reviewers’ responses to this story. One of the reasons this story gave me the shivers is because I saw the relationship between Elena and her angel to be abusive. The angel controls everything about Elena’s life—who she speaks to and when, what she eats, when she sleeps, what kind of artwork she creates, when she can leave her apartment. If that isn’t psychologically abusive, I don’t know what is. Angels sit on the tops of Christmas trees, they are on people’s pendants, they are in beautiful stained glass windows. The idea of an angel is one of helpfulness, watchfulness, love. Is the angel in this story helping? Is it watchful? Is it acting out of love? The angel might think so. Read the story and tell me what you think. You might get something completely different out of the story. Tell me that, too.
Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester who has described herself as a fake geek mom. Now she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Persistent Visions, Baen.com, Helios Quarterly, and The Sockdolager, among other publications. You can learn more about her work at her website, Aimee Ogden Writes, and by following her on Twitter at @Aimee_Ogden. Aimee was kind enough to let me pick her brain about where this story came from and how different readers have reacted to it, getting feedback from her writing group, her fascination with writing about who we want to be and what we’re willing to give up to get there, her current works in progress, and more. She’s a woman overflowing with ideas and prose that take me somewhere. I can’t wait to see where the journey takes me.
APEX MAGAZINE: It’s so easy to say “oh, I’m so jealous of that person’s talent, that artist’s inspiration, I wish my artwork was as good as theirs.” Elena gets exactly what so many of us wish we had: divine inspiration. Her friends and acquaintances are jealous, but Elena has a completely different view on what’s happening to her. What inspired this story? How did you come to tell a story about the torture these artists are enduring for their art?
AIMEE OGDEN: The original inspiration for the story might not be what you would expect: It came from a story seed that someone gave to me of a T-shirt featuring the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The picture on the shirt features the cute fluffy white rabbit on top, and reflected in a mirror image below it is a terrifying shadow-rabbit. Somehow, that clicked in my brain with an ongoing frustration at people talking about depression as if it’s a necessary part of the creative process—as if depression is something that enables the act of creation, rather than deadening it. So those two ideas converged somewhere in the idea of these angel-muses that everyone is jealous of, without really understanding what it is they’re wishing for.
AM: Elena’s friend says in reference to her angel, “without her, where would you be now?” and that line just hit me like a ton of bricks. Elena’s friends are completely blind to what she’s experiencing, they see only what they want to see. Like other art forms, writing is a way of showing people what they haven’t seen before, what they didn’t even of think of seeing before. What do you want readers to get out of this story? What is it that you want them to see?
AO: I know that for me the story came to be because of how some people talk about depression and creativity, but one of my critique partners saw the story as how abusive relationships look to those on the outside, and that surprised me—and then I was surprised that I was surprised. I suppose what I’d want people to see is a story that lights up that blind spot that they didn’t know was there, or had forgotten. Or for those who’ve never had the privilege of that kind of blind spot, to feel a little less alone with whatever angel is standing behind their shoulder.
AM: As the story progresses, Elena exerts more control over her situation. Are the angels generally drawn towards people who can be easily controlled? What happens to the angels and what they can give us when they are no longer in control of what we create?
AO: I thought of having an angel as an accident of fate, like a rare recessive gene or a chance meeting. I don’t think the people who have angels are more easily controlled than others; I think that living with an angel would make it very hard to think of living another way, with the way they’re cut off from outside contact—“how could I really be miserable if I’m doing great things? If everyone else is jealous of me?” I don’t think an angel who’s been turned away, like Elena’s has, goes anywhere at all. I think the angel is a part of Elena’s life that Elena will always have to deal with, and the angel will always have to deal with that too.
AM: What can you tell us about the mechanics of writing this story? Was it easy to write? Hard to write? Were there characters or scenes that were in an earlier draft that didn’t make to the final draft? What was your process here to get from “idea for a story” to the finished product?
AO: This was an easy story to write and a hard one all at the same time—nothing that hits close to the bone is ever completely easy to write. I wrote the first draft in one sitting, which is not at all how I usually write, and got a lot of thoughtful notes from some other members of the Codex writing group. The most important change they nudged me toward was giving Elena some more agency in this major decision of hers, making it feel less like a last-minute accident and more like the necessary forward momentum she’d been working so hard for.
AM: Your fiction often touches on broken relationships, characters who want to see and hear only what they want to see and hear, and the price we pay to get what we need and want. Why are those themes so fascinating to write about? Why do you feel drawn to them?
AO: Figuring out what we’re willing to pay to be who we want to be and have the things we need to have, and figuring out what we’re able to afford not having—those are the decisions we’re making constantly, every day, consciously or not. I think that’s what makes these stories call to me: trying to understand how to navigate that web of relationships, cognitive biases, desires and fears, what we gain for it, and what we lose along the way.
AM: I hear you have a space opera novella in the works and you are completing your novel Starstruck. What can you tell us about these exciting projects?
AO: Because I hate coming up with titles, I’m currently calling the novella “Much Ado About Space Opera,” and it’s (very) loosely based on Much Ado About Nothing, with the same amount of banter and somewhat more explosions, polyamory, and cybernetic enhancement. Starstruck, in a very different vein, is a road trip YA novel about a boy trying to solve the mystery of where his world’s magical falling stars have gone along with an enchanted anthropomorphic fox, radish, and chunk of slate rock. The full, finished novel is finally out for a first round with beta readers and I’m excited and terrified to see if it makes any sense outside of my own crowded skull.
AM: What’s some of your favorite speculative fiction that you’ve recently read? Why did these novels and stories have such an effect on you?
AO: I just finished tearing through the first two books in Robert Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy and I hope by the time this is published I have a chance to get my hands on the last one! Of course the plots of both the first books are ingeniously built to addict you to flipping through pages. But I also find it strangely comforting right now to read about a world that is as fundamentally broken in certain ways as our own is, where decent people still fight to do what they can to make things right, or at least righter.
As far as short fiction goes, I think the story I’ve read most recently that won’t let me go is A. Merc Rustad’s “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” in the January issue of Uncanny. What a sad, beautiful story about a world that won’t let us see and love ourselves for who we really are.
AM: Why do you describe yourself as a fake geek? You sure seem like a wonderfully real geek to me.
AO: When you express an interest in geeky stuff and get pressed for a shibboleth enough times, it becomes something like a defense mechanism, or maybe a badge of honor. Yup, I’m one of the fake geek girls defiling the comics sandbox with my delight in Squirrel Girl and Hellcat. That’s me! Except maybe not a fake geek girl anymore. Fake geek mom? Fake geek lady? Really I’m looking forward to being able to call myself a fake geek crone.
AM: LOL! Fake geek crone. I need that on a T-shirt!