“Percipient,” like most of my stories, is indebted to multiple influences. One night last year, I took my first ghost tour in the French Quarter and found myself as interested in the role of the tour guide as the ghost stories themselves. Here this guide was, in a top hat and cape, hands resting on the head of an old-fashioned cane, telling us, the tour-goers, story after story about New Orleans’s haunted history. And I kept thinking, what a weird job. Part actor, part historian, part ghost-hunter. Did he actually believe in ghosts? Did the job even require him to?
I guess it was at some point on that tour that I realized I wanted to write about a ghost tour guide. But the story has an older history, as well, because it’s also a part of a larger work, a collection of linked pieces, a novel in stories. Georgia, the protagonist, is the younger sister of the main character in two of these stories. What she deals with—her missing mother—is a shared experience with her older sister.
But the story stems also from my own conflicted relationship with the supernatural. I have always been drawn to the gothic, the grotesque, the ghostly. As a child of eight or nine, I brought home books of ghost stories from my elementary school’s library. I watched horror films on the sly. I adored (still do) Halloween. My younger sister is convinced that our mother’s house, the house we grew up in, is haunted. She claims a ghost-lady walked on her back as she lay on the floor of our playroom. She claims too that a face once hovered outside her bedroom window. She suffered from night terrors, and she would wake up terrified, sure that someone was in the room. In this way, she is like Georgia. But so am I, even though I’ve never experienced anything supernatural. Because I’d like to, I’d like to believe. And this is what the story, finally, is about. I wanted to capture the tenuous nature of belief. Not belief in God, exactly, or even ghosts. But belief itself, conviction, and how difficult it is to ever really grasp, how easily it slips away.
My influences as a writer change according to what I’m reading at the time. I just finished Dan Chaon’s new story collection, Stay Awake—which I adored—and find myself writing, for the first time, from the point-of-view of a male character. Currently, I’m reading Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, as well as an older collection by Joyce Carol Oates, Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque. There are also those authors whose work I love so much, I visit it again and again. Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Edith Wharton, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner.
I’m attracted to atmospheric fiction, writing that relies heavily on mood and place. Perhaps it’s because of this that I’m so drawn to William Gay’s writing. His recent death was an enormous loss for readers, writers, and fiction itself. I can only hope that his newest novel, The Lost Country, will actually get released, that it won’t be consigned to the realm of publishing oblivion. Sometimes, a story or novel will stick with me, will linger long after I have put it away. Gay’s “The Paperhanger” is one of those stories. Its atmosphere, its undercurrent of threat, its dark, ominous prose, stay with me, haunt me. And, it seems to me, that’s about the highest compliment you can pay a piece of fiction.
Katherine Conner's stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Copper Nickel, Blackbird, Fugue, Surreal South, the Chattahoochee Review, The Portland Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the doctoral creative writing program at Florida State University, she also holds a Master of Arts from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Currently, she lives in New Orleans and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Nicholls State University. She is at work on a first novel.