Interview With Courtenay Heilman, Runner Up in the Summer 2023 Flash Fiction Contest

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Today I'm excited to interview Courtenay Heilman, runner up in the Summer 2023 WOW! Flash Fiction Contest. Before we get to our interview, make sure you check out her story, Safe Keeping, first. Then come on back!

But first, here's a bit about Courtenay Heilman:

Courtenay Heilman is a content creator and short fiction author. Originally from Kansas but took a hop, skip, and a jump to Northwest Arkansas in 2017 where she resides with her partner Timothy and their pets—a dog named Arya and a cat named Athena.

She can usually be found at her desk, bingeing the latest horror podcast while she whips up copy. Courtenay’s aspirations for the future include living in a hut in the forest and dancing under the moon more frequently, ultimately rising enough in notoriety to be known as the local witch woman.

--- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: You wrote such an emotionally moving story. Can you tell me about what inspired you to write this?

Courtenay: The idea for Barbara, the main character of the story, actually came to me before the story she's in did. I wrote a pretty nitty-gritty character sketch about her that I ended up building "Safe Keeping" around. In my mind, Barbara is a young hippie who feels backed into a corner by the life she was born into - so, her troubles didn't necessarily start with the wolf in sheep's clothing from the story. To her, getting mixed up with this guy and his community then having to give up her baby because of the situational circumstances, just feels like another par for the course.

WOW: Wow, I love how much insight you have about this character and her journey. You managed to capture the story of a woman giving up her child for adoption in the midst of some tremendously difficult circumstances. How did you capture that so well?

Courtenay: I think as people we've all had to make extremely difficult decisions in our lives during some not so great circumstances. But that's basically what life is, right? Making decisions, then dealing with the following repercussions and anxiety surrounding whether you made the "right" one. Or at least now you have a little more insight into my own human experience - haha - because I'm constantly riddled with anxiety. I drew on that anxiety and tried to imagine what it would be like on an entirely new level. I cranked that feeling up to 10 and put myself in the mind space of a person trying to make, most likely, the hardest decision of their life up to that point.

WOW: Oh I love how you used your own anxiety! I think the underlying issue of her living in a dangerous situation (that sounded like to me, a cult) was really interesting. Did you know that would be part of the story before you wrote it?

Courtenay: I did! I've always been deeply fascinated by cults and the role that women play in cult dynamics. Around the time that the idea for the character of Barbara came to me, I was watching films like "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "The Other Lamb," and "Charlie Says" - all of which center around women in different stages of cult involvement or rebound. I became engulfed getting into the mindset of what it'd be like to be pulled into that world and what sort of circumstances someone might be facing that would make the idea of cult life seem enticing or better than the options they were already living with. And that's how I wrote my character sketch of Barbara that transformed into "Safe Keeping."

WOW: That must have been such a fascinating journey to explore through your writing. Do you plan out your stories before you start them? If so, how?

Courtenay: My best answer to this is... somewhat. The stories I write come to me in flashes, sparked by things happening around me in my daily life that I'll quickly jot down in a note to dig into later (lest I completely forget and lose the thread). Usually, I know how I want a story to end before I even start writing. So, most of my process is about building a congruent story to get to the desired ending. But I almost always start with character development. I want to feel like I know the characters I'm writing about intimately and understand their motivations before inserting them into different scenarios. I want my characters to really resonate with the reader, whether that be positively or negatively, and I feel like the best way to do that is to flesh them out as deeply as possible for myself beforehand.

WOW: That's a great balance! I had to smile at your current aspirations of living in the hut in the forest! I can understand the pull to live with nature. How does that inspire your work?

Courtenay: I'm originally from a rural area where we had quite a bit of land to explore, so I've always had a connection to nature and being in the great outdoors. Now that I've moved away from my hometown, I find myself thinking back on how precious having that solitude is, because you can't find it as easily in a bigger city. I think because I find myself pining for that so often, the nature imagery just finds itself creeping into my work whether I intend for it to or not. But mark my words, I'll be the witch woman of the woods with a hut and questionable jars filled with preservatives someday!

WOW: That's an awesome goal! I know you'll do it. What lasting thoughts do you have for writers who are uncertain about sharing their voice through their stories?

Courtenay: Just do it! It can be absolutely nerve-racking to put yourself out there as a creative soul, but you've just got to remember that no one has your voice or your stories to share. So, if you don't put yourself out there, you'll never know how your writing could make an impact. Even though it can feel scary or overwhelming, the first time that you experience sharing something you've written and find that it resonates with even just one person, it makes it all worth it.

WOW: What inspirational lasting thoughts! Thank you for joining us today! Best of luck on your stories!


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