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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.

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.

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