A new collection of short stories by Ramona Depares contains a dark twist. Lara Zammit speaks with the author about the work’s undertones and subtleties.

The Patient in Hospital Zero is a collection of short stories concerned with human nature, particularly its darker undertones. While this human capacity for darkness has been the subject of fascination for writers throughout the centuries, the book’s author, Ramona Depares, noted the nuances characterising most personalities.

“I believe no one’s personality is black or white. There is a duality in all of us, and perfection does not exist. I believe that it is important for each one of us to acknowledge this, instead of being scared of it.

“The dark side of human nature is not something to find alluring or repulsive, but something to understand. We all experience emotions and pulls that are less than noble – envy, perhaps, is the most common. Lust, wrath, greed… the seven deadly sins are part of common lore for a reason.

“The hope, of course, is that one does not succumb to them, or at least that one manages to control the impulse and to channel the negative side of us into something else.

“We all have our ways of doing this. For some, it is by devoting their lives to helping others. For others, it happens through practising sport, in the arts, in a multitude of ways really. For me it happens through writing,” she explained.

Responding to the question of what the presence of this darkness might say about human beings, Depares said that the only thing this darkness within the human psyche says is that we are all human.

The Patient in Hospital Zero by Ramona Depares, published by Merlin Publishers. Cover art by Julian ‘Julinu’ Mallia.The Patient in Hospital Zero by Ramona Depares, published by Merlin Publishers. Cover art by Julian ‘Julinu’ Mallia.

“Of course, it is what we do with this darkness that can potentially say something about us, but what it says I will leave to qualified psychiatrists to decide, and stick to fiction,” she went on.

Depares said she does not believe there is anything specific to be gleaned from her work.

“I am one of those old-fashioned souls who believe that it’s perfectly fine if the only thing you glean from reading a book is a few hours of entertainment and escapism, and I certainly hope that this will be true for at least some of my readers!

“There are no lessons to be learnt though, except for maybe the realisation that perfection is a myth and it’s perfectly fine if you need to work harder on some days to play nice.”

The author made it a point to use women as her main protagonists as a comment on how uncommon it is to portray women as anti-heroes. Commenting on the seeming disparity between what is expected of men and women when it comes to the darker side of human nature, Depares said she does not know why this exists.

It is what we do with this darkness that can potentially say something about us

“I honestly have no idea why, but I still find that the Madonna/whore complex remains common in terms of female characterisation. This is a vast generalisation, of course, and there are many authors who have created amazing three-dimensional female characters – a wide kaleidoscope of flaws, and an equal number of virtues that leave the reader unsure whether they’re dealing with a villain, a heroine, a victim or a plain sociopath.

“Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer is a brilliant example. A more classical example would be Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Do we despise her, do we feel sorry for her, do we admire her, do we root for her? We aren’t sure, because her personality is not clear-cut. And that is the whole point, for me.

“Most women are neither heroes nor villains, but simply human. This is acceptable for a man, but not necessarily so for a woman. You’re either one or the other, and that’s simply not how real life works. So in this, at least, I wanted to make sure that my fiction had a touch of realism.

“Having said all this, it happened pretty organically. The characters kind of wrote themselves, and it was only afterwards that I realised that I had been following a definite path,” she explained.

The American short story writer Eudora Welty once wrote that “a short-story writer can try anything. He has tried anything – but presumably not everything. Variety is, has been, and no doubt will remain endless in possibilities, because the power and stirring of the mind never rests. It is what this power will try that will most pertinently define the short story”.

While The Patient in Hospital Zero is concerned with a defining theme, giving the whole work cohesiveness, each short story explores this theme by employing the power of variety, giving a glimpse of the multitudes and endless forms this theme can take.

Speaking about some of the different ways she explored the theme of human darkness in this set of short stories, Depares noted that the beauty of writing a short story is that one can create as many worlds and invoke as many genres as one likes.

“This is wonderful, especially for someone like me who gets easily bored. And I certainly took advantage of this with this book. As you said, the unifying theme is the darkness of human nature. However, the way in which this manifest differs wildly from one story to the other.

“Some stories are set against a futuristic background, not necessarily on our planet. Others explore an alternate history, taking recent events down a totally different pathway – the infamous ‘what if’. Some stories centre around magical realism, others are straight-up psychological horror, no magic added. Creating them all was super fun.”

The Patient in Hospital Zero: Tales from Between Worlds is published by Merlin Publishers and will be available from all leading bookstores from July 27.

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