Surreal tale of professor and disembodied head a call to embrace the mess

Paranormal element of new novella clashes with logic of the university

“I have always liked surreal stories and ones that are just beyond my own understanding,” says Edmonton author Robyn Braun. In fact, her penchant for these types of stories served as the inspiration for her new novella, The Head. Suspenseful, urgent, and thought-provoking, the tale centres on Trish, a 30-year-old math professor who finds a live disembodied head crying in her apartment.

At the outset of the story, the presence of the head confounds Trish; however, she soon feels responsible for its care. When she takes the head with her to work, it wreaks havoc with her colleagues and students, plunging her world into chaos. Trish must then confront some neglected issues in her life and make some important decisions.

“The idea of a woman bringing a disembodied head to work came to me and then sat in a drawer for several years,” Braun says. She thought it would be interesting and funny to set the story at the university: “What happens when you bring an inarticulate, sobbing blob of messy upset to the university? It ain’t pretty.”

Braun, a scientist and a writer, has the background to provide insight into academic life. She holds a PhD from Carleton University and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and she currently teaches in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta.

The university setting works thematically as well. “Universities are unique in their focus on reason, rationality, and rigorous thought, while simultaneously holding space for new and different ideas, which often defy logic,” Braun says. “Trish embodies that tension in the book.”

She adds, “The commitment to the life of the mind has a kind of sheltering effect, which is both wonderful and a pitfall.”

Robyn Braun
Robyn Braun

Braun’s use of a paranormal element is equally purposeful. “I think that the weird things in stories speak to a less articulate but important part of our imagination and understanding,” she asserts. “When the idea of the paranormal came to me, I felt really lucky because I recognized it as one of those weird things that was going to affect readers beyond their articulate understanding.”

Braun became quite attached to the head, this book’s specific weird thing. “I feel quite a lot of sympathy for it. It has a kind of innocence to it and at the same time, it’s sort of hilariously awful, but it doesn’t mean to be,” she explains. “It’s not the head’s fault it doesn’t have a body. I imagine it bouncing around in Trish’s purse, poor thing. I guess I feel protective of it.”

And writing fiction, even when it involves the surreal, is not so very different from scientific work. “I’m always surprised by all the problem solving required to write a story – figuring out the timeline, the characters in a workplace, or the right piece of equipment for some character to fix. In a published book, these problems are already solved,” says Braun.

On a final note, Braun hopes the book speaks to anybody carrying around a messy blob of inarticulate upset. She declares, “The message of the book is to love yourself and the mess!”