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Interview: Susan Emshwiller on “Suicide Watch”

Susan EmshwillerTell us a bit about “Suicide Watch.”

This is the story of a young man who signs up at Death Tours for a Suicide Watch. For a fee, he becomes the exclusive viewer of a person committing suicide. It’s horrifying, revolting, and thrilling. So he signs up for another tour. With each subsequent “host” he witnesses, he gets more hooked.

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

The idea started as the title. What if the phrase’s meaning was twisted so it became about watching people commit suicide? That immediately conjured up the kind of society that would have such a service available and monetized.

Because of today’s prevalence of social media and people filming all their experiences, making selfies, there seems to be a need to prove participation and show “Look where I was! I was here and saw this!” (Implying—“and you didn’t!”)

There may come a time when exclusivity and having private experiences becomes the thing of value and watching someone’s extreme emotions is the only way to feel. I pushed a trend of today to see where it lead me.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing “Suicide Watch,” and what was the most fun?

Because it is first person, I had to be in the head of this young man who is quite despicable. It was a tough place to be. What was fun was taking the present and augmenting it just a bit. It is still our world— still full of grime, subways, television, alienation and personal anxiety—but it has this new element of Death Tours.

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

First would be to have a visceral reaction, to experience the narrator’s excitement, and horror, and thrills. Then as the reader, to have revulsion at that character. Beyond that, maybe prompting some thinking about social media as a drug that initiates behavior for “likes.”

You’ve had a long career in artistic fields — what drives you to create, and why turn to short fiction?

I went to college for printmaking and painting, then grad school for film, and worked in “The Industry” in Hollywood as a set decorator for many years, happily with Robert Altman four times. While doing that I wrote screenplays for myself to film, and others for hire, including “Pollock.” Did some shorts and the feature “In the Land of Milk and Money.” I wrote and directed plays, the first of which, Defrosting Popsicles,was about my father, Ed Emshwiller’s, death. It came about, as much of my work does, from having an experience or thought, and feeling I need to express it because I’ve not seen it in any art form before. When Dad died, there were so many surreal and funny things that happened around that and I felt the need to show these.

After doing a lot of screenplays and plays, a few years ago I had an idea for a short story and started writing it. OH MY! It was so fun to be inside someone’s head! In writing for the stage and screen you can’t say what people are thinking, you can only show actions and have dialogue. It was so incredibly thrilling to write inner thoughts and sometimes inhabit an unreliable narrator. So I’ve been focusing more on prose—novels and short stories—and having a great time in that playground.

Who do you consider to be your influences?

I’ve got to mention both my parents first. Ed Emshwiller was very influential in his moving from one medium to another— illustrating covers for F&SF, making experimental avant-garde films, video art, and finally computer generated pieces. He loved exploring new techniques and pushing the boundaries of an art form. I’m thrilled that he’s going to have a retrospective in late 2019. https://www.pewcenterarts.org/grant/dream-dance-art-ed-emshwiller

My mother, Carol Emshwiller, managed to write an amazing amount while raising three kids, contributing many stories to F&SF. I’m sure some of her techniques and “drothers” have influenced me.

Other influences include Samuel Beckett, Jean Rhys, Edward Albee, Kelly Link, Diablo Cody, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Wassily Kandinski, John Baldessari, Jerome Witkin, Ed and Nancy Kienholz

What are you working on now?

I have two novels that are with my agent and will hopefully find a home. Several short stories are being revised. My screenwriting partner and I have just finished a new screenplay for a French actor. Still working to get my play “Waiting Two Point Oh” into the world. It’s a sequel to “Waiting for Godot” so may never see the light of day because of rights.

I’m percolating a lot underground right now. I can feel the seeds in the dirt of my mind, cracking their shells, sending down tendrils. There’s movement under there. Any minute a bent back of pale green may push through the surface, show itself, and invite me to work.

“Suicide Watch” appears in the September/October 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1809.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Clicking on Ms. Emshwiller’s picture will take you to her website: www.susanemshwiller.com

Interview: Harry Turtledove on “Powerless”

Harry TurtledoveTell us a bit about “Powerless.”

It’s the story of a guy in Southern California who’s living in a Communist country that makes up the U.S. West Coast.  He gets fed up with the absurdities of the system and decides to buck it as best he can.

 

You’re known for writing alternate history epics, often focusing on major historical figures and events.  What was the inspiration for “Powerless,” and why did you decide to tell a story about the little guy?

The inspiration was Vaclav Havel’s great essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”  To make the story more immediate, I set it in my part of the USA in some indeterminate time rather than in an Eastern European country in the 1970s.  Havel was talking about how the superficially powerless aren’t powerless at all if they set their minds not to be, so I took one of those superficially powerless people, fed him a little more bullshit than he could swallow even if he’d already swallowed a lot, and turned him loose to see what he would do and what he could do.  It’s not a story of miracles; it’s a story of possibilities even within a repressive framework.

 

Can you tell us about any research you may have done for this story?

I am old enough so that I was on the edge of middle age when the Cold War ended as the 1990s began.  The way the USSR treated its satellites and the way the satellites treated their people were something I grew up with.  I went to junior high with two people whose parents escaped with them from East Germany.  A college roommate got out of Hungary during the 1956 uprising that ultimately failed.  So I grew up with this stuff.  And I’ve written about Communism before in several books.  So I have the material in my head and on my bookshelves.

 

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

That I wrote an interesting story that maybe made them think a bit.  Past that, I’ll quote Mark Twain in his notice preceding THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN:  “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

 

Why do you write?

Here, I’ll quote L. Sprague de Camp:  “To make a living.”  Also, because I can’t not do it.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

The two biggest ones are undoubtedly L. Sprague de Camp and Poul Anderson.  De Camp’s LEST DARKNESS FALL led me to study Byzantine history and changed my entire life.  Authors are dangerous people; they can mess with your karma without ever meeting you.  I got to tell that to Sprague.  He was pleased and appalled in about equal measure, I think.

 

What are you working on now?

I have a new a-h novel, THROUGH DARKEST EUROPE, coming from Tor on September 18.  It’s set in a world where Islam developed science, technology, and representative government and Western Christendom stagnated in religious fanaticism.  I think I’ve made it interesting and plausible, which is the most one can hope for in such exercises.  And I just got the copyedited manuscript for ALPHA AND OMEGA, a contemporary supernatural thriller coming out from Del Rey next year.  I’m also playing with more short fiction and looking at the possibilities for a historical mystery.

 

“Powerless” appears in the September/October 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1809.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O

Photo of Harry Turtledove by Joan Allen.

Editor’s Note for September-October 2018

Welcome to issue #739 of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a prime number for another prime set of offerings. Our September/October 2018 volume celebrates the magazine’s 69th anniversary with eleven new stories and a poem, plus all our regular columns and features.

Most of our electronic and paper subscribers have already received their issues, but if you’re looking for a copy you can find us in most Barnes & Noble stores, as well as many local independent booksellers. You can also order a single copy from our website or buy an electronic edition from Amazon, AmazonUK, and — now, available worldwide and in every electronic format — through Weightless Books.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2018, cover by Michael GarlandThis month’s cover illustrates “Powerless” by Harry Turtledove. The artwork is by the award-winning artist Michael Garland.

THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS

“While life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom, the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline.”
– Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless”

It’s been more than a decade since Harry Turtledove appeared in our pages, and we’re glad to welcome him back with “Powerless,” a novelet inspired by Vaclav Havel’s famous essay dissecting “government by bureaucracy” and its tools of oppression. This alternate history may be set in Red Southern California instead of Cold War Eastern Europe, but that’s only because, as you’ll see, totalitarian systems can arise anywhere, at anytime… and so can resistance.

MORE GREAT FICTION

Our fantasy this month includes “Shooting Iron,” by Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan Howard, a story that takes everything you think you know about Western tropes and turns them on their heads. We fell in love the gunslinger Jenny Lim, and we think you will too. Yukimi Ogawa returns to our pages with “Taste of Opal,” an adventure story unlike any other we’ve read recently. We also thought it was a great example of the kishōtenketsu plot structure that has been reaching new audiences in recent years. Geoff Ryman brings us “Blessed,” a contemporary fantasy that takes place in Abeokuta, Nigeria, where the Aké Literary Festivals, named for the birthplace of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, are held. And Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, a Tiptree Award Honorable Mention and Nebula Award finalist, makes her F&SF debut with “The Men Who Come From Flowers,” a story that might disturb you but one that will definitely make you think.

This month’s selection of science fiction spans the spectrum of the genre. Regular F&SF contributor Brian Trent takes us to the near future and introduces us to “The Memorybox Vultures,” a twisty thriller that asks who owns our social media identities and what happens to them after we die. Jeremiah Tolbert makes his F&SF debut with “We Mete Justice With Beak and Talon,” another near future story where AI-equipped eagles hunt illegal drones. In “Suicide Watch,” Susan Emshwiller takes us to a future where companies offer Death Tours to profit from despair. And Sarina Dories returns to our pages with “Impossible Male Pregnancy: Click to Read Full Story,” a humorous tale ripped right from the clickbait headlines. But we also head off to outer space. Brenda Kalt shows us “The Gallian Revolt as Seen from the Sama-Sama Laundrobath” – everything you need to know is right there in the title. And Gregor Hartmann returns to the magazine accompanied by “Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven,” a life-spanning story that’s part of his on-going series set around the planet Zephyr.

Poet Jeff Crandall also drops by to describe “What Loves You.”

OUR OTHER COLUMNS AND FEATURES

Charles de Lint recommends some Books to Look For by Juliet E. McKenna, Izzy Robertson, Alex Bledsoe, and Melissa F. Olson, and reviews Barry M. Malzberg’s new essay collection and A.D. Jameson’s I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing, about Star Wars and the triumph of Geek Culture. In her Books column, Elizabeth Hand offers indepth reviews of The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley and Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller. And for our monthly Curiosities column, rediscovering lost writers and books, Mike Ashley visits A Prisoner in Fairyland by Algernon Blackwood, the 1913 novel that introduced the idea of the Starlight Express.

In his latest television column, Tim Pratt reviews the first two seasons of “The Good Place” before Season 3 premieres at the end of September. And in our science column, Jerry Oltion pokes at “The Telltale Vein,” exploring blood tests, how they work, and everything they can reveal. The print version of the magazine also offers up cartoons by Bill Long, Arthur Masear, and Kendra Allenby.

LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

We hope you’ll share your thoughts about the issue with us. We can be found on:

Enjoy!

C.C. Finlay, Editor
Fantasy & Science Fiction
fandsf.com | @fandsf

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