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Interview: Susan Palwick on “Ash”

Tell us a bit about “Ash.”

I write a lot about people adjusting to various kinds of loss, so this was an experiment in doing in opposite, in thinking about what it would be like if losses began to be reversed.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I was looking out a window one day and had a funny mental image of a coffee mug hanging from a tree, like fruit.  That was the genesis of the story.


Was “Ash” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I’m a packrat who has real trouble downsizing.  Perhaps in consequence, I’m fascinated by the Tiny House movement.  What would it take to live comfortably in a space like that?  What would one have to discard, and how would one do so?

Unlike Penny, I’m married, and my parents were nothing like hers.  But a lot of her is based on me:  the university career, the love of cats, many of the possessions. The tree’s first fruit, the pair of turquoise earrings, is actual jewelry I inherited from my mother, and Porridge bears more than a passing resemblance to an especially beloved cat named Harley my husband and I lost in 2010.

Writing the story was an interesting thought experiment.  If I lost everything but could magically recover some objects and relationships, which would I be most eager to regain?


What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

I suppose I’d like readers to perform that same thought experiment themselves, and also to ask themselves what they’d do if faced with Penny’s final dilemma.  I’m curious to see if readers find the last line of the story justified or horrific (or both). Is Penny committing a terrible crime, or upholdng the natural order?  Is her unwillingness to tolerate the disruption to her own life monstrous or understandable?

On one level, the story’s pretty obviously a comment on mortality.  If the dead returned, there would very quickly be no space for the living.  We all know that, and setting the story in a tiny house was a way of exaggerating the point.  But the piece is also a comment on increasing surveillance and bureaucracy, which creates complications even with Porridge’s return and would cause much bigger ones if Penny’s parents came back.  Her inability to figure out any simple way to handle those issues is at least part of what informs her final decision.


What are you working on now?

I’ve never been a fast or prolific writer, but I always have at least half a dozen projects simmering on back burners.  I’m trying to find a publisher for a second story collection; I’m puttering with some new stories; I’m thinking about several uncompleted novels.  The one that has my attention at the moment is a kind of alternate family history narrative where hospitals are the branching points, the gateways to other timestreams.  That makes sense, when you think about what happens in hospitals.  People are born and die.  They’re treated for serious conditions and either recover or don’t.  They undergo procedures that change them forever. So hospitals are especially rich focal points of possibility.


“Ash” appears in the May/June 2016 issue of F&SF.

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