Written In Flesh- How "Helotry" Was Born by Suzanne van Rooyen
Tattoos have always fascinated me. I grew up in South Africa, where the attitude towards tattoos was oftentimes rather negative. Although some, especially the older generations, think tattoos only belong on sailors, convicts, and women with 'loose morals', I've always seen tattoos as a form of art, using the body as a canvas and ink like paint. I've always been drawn to skin art and wanted a tattoo of my own. It took me until I was 21 to work up the courage to get inked. I wasn't afraid of the rumoured pain, but rather the permanence. Tattoos take commitment and shouldn't just be daubed on for the hell of it. I'm also a firm believer that tattoos should mean something, not just look good, and that custom designs are always better than generic ones.
A few years ago, I watched this New Zealand film called The Tattooist. While much of the film is rather uninspiring B-grade horror, there is one scene that I'll never forget. The hero of the story takes off his shirt, and numerous tattoos ripple across his chiseled physique. His love interest then trails her fingers across his ink while he tells her the story behind each tattoo, where in the world he had them done and why. It was one of the most sensual and poignant scenes. After that, I knew I wanted my own tattoos to mean something beyond aesthetics. I've since had 4 tattoos done on three continents and plan to add to my ink collection as I move around the globe – this is also my way of rationing myself, else I'd run out of skin!
When I first read the descriptions for the SMP anthologies, Written in Flesh immediately caught my attention. That sensual movie scene kept playing in my head as I thought about the kind of story I could write involving tattoos. As a teenager, I devoured the Celtic fantasies written by Juliet Marillier. In her book Son of the Shadows, the male lead is covered head to toe in tattoos but only down one side of his body. Most consider him terrifying and ugly except the heroine of the story who, of course, falls in love with him. While I can appreciate ink just about anywhere on the body, facial tattoos remain my own personal taboo so I tend to be drawn to the idea, exploring what it might be like to have your face permanently marked vicariously through fiction. I knew then that at least one of my characters would be heavily inked and that their face would not be excluded.
My genre of choice is science fiction, and even when I try not to write SF, elements tend to sneak in, so I gave in to my muse and ran with a science fiction theme involving tattoos. Being a pantser, I started with a singular image – an arid planet and magnetic storm – and just started to write.
While writing this story, I read an interesting article about UV ink and the popularity of these 'invisible' tattoos emerging in certain subcultures. At the time, only one of my male leads had ink. Having read the article though, I wanted to incorporate the UV element and the idea of hidden identity, but didn't want to alter my tattooed character. So my other male lead got inked, and I'm so glad he did, because it opened up more sensual possibilities and added another dimension to the guy's already complicated character. The fact that he's a photographer was inspired by my fiancee, who never goes anywhere without his camera and at least four different lenses. I've done some amateur modeling myself, so I'm used to being on the other side of the lens, hence making one of my characters the model. Photographers always seem to be fascinated by my ink, and so this personal experience was incorporated into my story. There's also a huge amount of vulnerability, of feeling naked even if clothed in front of a camera. I wanted to explore that in my story as well, how the experience of being photographed can change the dynamic between two people.
The title of my story is perhaps a little obscure as it's a rather archaic word for slavery. I never intended to take such a literal approach to the slave and master theme, but that's just where my story needed to go, and I followed where my muse led. In the end, the various themes came together in a way I didn't expect. It's an odd feeling for the writer to realise they are no longer in control of the story, and that they are merely a conduit for the characters they've created. It feels like the story writes itself at times, which can be both wonderful and terrifying. In many ways, Helotry wrote itself while I just helped smooth the rough edges without altering the story's shape.
I loved writing this story, immersing myself in the futuristic world, and getting to know characters that are quite different from the many others I've written. Perhaps I'll revisit these characters in another story, as their journey together is far from over. I can only hope that readers will enjoy reading my story as much as I did writing it.
Suzanne van Rooyen grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, but now lives in Finland. After studying for seven years and attaining a Master's in music, mind, and technology, she decided to start writing instead. She is the author of the cyberpunk novel Dragon's Teeth (Divertir Publishing, 2011) and numerous short stories including Helotry in Storm Moon Press' Written in Flesh anthology.
Written In Flesh- Now Available at Storm Moon Press for $4.99