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Interview: Susan Palwick on “Hideous Flowerpots”

flower potTell us a bit about “Hideous Flowerpots.”

I started writing this story over ten years ago, but the previous version — which didn’t include the scene in the gallery — couldn’t find a home anywhere.  Editors told me they didn’t know what it was about, but the story kept pulling at me. It finally clicked when I added that first scene last year.


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

The story was partly sparked by two events:  1) an observation of Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s that all five year olds know they’re artists, and all fifteen year olds know they aren’t, and 2) a conversation years ago with a gallery owner who, when I mentioned some art projects of my own, looked down her nose at me and said, “Many people believe they’re artists who aren’t.”  (I hadn’t even pulled any unfortunate macrame out of a B. Kliban bag when she said that.)


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

I’ve suffered from more than my share of writer’s block, which is almost always a function of the Inner Gallery Owner, all those voices telling us we aren’t real writers/artists/seamstresses/whatever and shouldn’t even bother.  I also have an ambivalent relationship with visual art; my grandparents were successful commercial artists, and although I had some ability when I was younger — one high-school art teacher wanted me to go to art school — I shied away because I was intimidated by the family legacy. No one else in my family was writing, so going into English felt safer.  Now I regret not doing more to develop that side of myself. In the past ten years I’ve started weaving, and I enjoy the design aspects of that very much; it gives me real joy.  But I’ve met too many people who won’t let themselves create because they feel that nothing they make will be good enough, and that makes me very sad.


Was there any aspect of this story that you found difficult to write?

The group-therapy scene was hard to write, because I wasn’t sure how to make it convincing. I was afraid it would come across as too sentimental or old-fashioned (that seventies encounter-group vibe!) or be dismissed for being too feminine.  This is obviously a very gendered story.  At the same time, it’s not just Lauren’s story; Elena and the others are conducting a kind of cultural guerilla warfare, one person at a time.  They’re trying to undo the pervasive sense of inadequacy that comes from living in a consumer culture where every billboard tells you that you aren’t good enough unless you buy Product X.  I’m still not sure that worked; I’m afraid readers will think the story’s simply and only about Lauren, even though Elena explicitly says otherwise.


What would you want a reader to take away from “Hideous Flowerpots?”

I hope it will make readers ask questions. What would it be like to live in a society where everyone felt good enough, where we put more energy into making things of our own than buying stuff?  What would it be like not to have to be fascinated by celebrities because we found ourselves and each other fascinating?  But on the most basic level, I hope the story will spur some readers to do whatever they’ve had trouble giving themselves permission to do. Write your own story.  Paint something.  Decorate a hideous flowerpot.


What are you working on now?

I’m working on a Master of Social Work degree (I retired from twenty years as an English professor last May), and that’s keeping me from getting much writing done!  But I have a lot of projects in progress, including two stories I hope to finish by next autumn. I’m a very slow writer at the best of times, so we’ll see.


“Hideous Flowerpots” appears in the March/April 2018 issue of F&SF.

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