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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.

Interview: James Sallis on “Bedtime Story”

What was the inspiration for “Bedtime Story,” or what prompted you to write it?

As with many of my stories, the first lines dropped onto me out of the blue; the story came as I went about finding out what those lines meant.

 

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

That the world does not belong, has never belonged, to any single group, race, religion, nation — or even species, including mankind.  Others will have their turn.

 

Why do you write?

One of my poems pretty much covers that: “Find beauty, try to understand, survive.”

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

That would be a very long list.  One of the first who made me want to do this myself was Theodore Sturgeon.  I go back to him again and again, still astonished every time.

 

How does your book reviewing inform your fiction writing, if at all?

It reminds me how many fine writers and how much fine writing is out there.  It keeps me honest.

 

“Bedtime Story” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1807.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

Interview: Ashley Blooms on “Hainted”

Ashley BloomsTell us a bit about “Hainted.”

“Hainted” is a story that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I grew up in a very small Appalachian town that was dominated by the coal industry. My entire childhood and my whole family were shaped by the mines. I knew that I wanted, and needed, to reckon with the impact of that in my fiction, but I wasn’t sure how to begin until I found Dallas and Johnny.

 

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

This story actually came out of Clarion UCSD in 2017. Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon guided us through a lot of generative exercises during week one and the two characters from this story—a little girl and her best friend’s father—emerged from one of those exercises. So Dallas and Johnny started out as two very poorly drawn doodles in a composition notebook. 

 

Was there any aspect of “Hainted” that you found difficult to write?

Emotionally, I found the writing of the haints themselves to be difficult. For many Americans, coal mines are a distant concept or talking point in recent news cycles, but for me, the mines were always both tangible and inescapable. My dad was an electrician in the mines so there were always rolls of electrical tape all over the house that we’d use to patch leaky sinks or spliced wires or cut fingers. Coal dust from his coveralls swirled along the kitchen floor and the mines were evident in how stiffly he walked or how much he slept on his days off, his constant aches and pains. So the haints became a representation of many of those things, including what the miners lost physically and emotionally due to chronic pain. The haints are also cobbled together with pieces of coal, which speaks, I think, to the reality of black lung. Miners work so long and so closely with this substance that it literally becomes a part of them, but a part that doesn’t belong. I wanted to explore the connection that’s forged between miner and mine, which meant making the physicality of the work very present in this story. But as true as it felt to do that, it was also hard to occupy that space at times.

 

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

This is a hard question, because I can never know what the reader is bringing to the story or how much of themselves they’ll find within it. So I guess that’s part of what I want from every story I write—a moment of recognition or connection, the feeling of being seen or understood. I hope for any stranger to coal mining or southeastern Kentucky that they can see part of themselves reflected here, and in seeing that, come to know Appalachia as something not separate from the rest of the world, not isolated in time or space. I hope that anyone back home who reads this story feels within it the deep love and concern that I have for our home and that they see themselves portrayed with tenderness and with honesty. And I hope that readers enjoy the story as a story, as something that is entertaining and pleasurable that transports them someplace new for a little while.

 

Why do you write?

I write because I need help understanding myself and the world around me, but also because I need an escape from those things. I write because I get so grumpy when I don’t, and because stories give me a kind of joy that nothing else can. I write because I was a lonely kid and a lonely adult who believes stories are bridges to other people as much as they’re bridges to other places. 

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

I have so many! Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love had a very particular impact on me as a young writer, especially in giving me permission to write about things that I may have considered out of bounds before reading that book. Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, Kelly Link, Daniel Woodrell, Lewis Nordan, Dorothy Allison, Stephen King, and many others.

 

What are you working on now?

For most of this year I was hard at work revising a novel, which I’ve recently begun submitting to agents. So now that the book is out of my hands, I’ve split my time between revising short stories that have been neglected for too long and toying with a new novel idea, because I’m a glutton for punishment.

 

“Hainted” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1807.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 Ashley Blooms’ picture will take you to her website.

Interview: Cassandra Rose Clarke on “The Adjunct”

Tell us a bit about “The Adjunct.”

The Adjunct is my take on H. P. Lovecraft and teaching freshman composition for less than minimum wage.

 

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

I wrote this story during my last semester as an adjunct English instructor. At the time, I was teaching six classes for two different colleges. I had over 100 students (which meant I was grading over 100 papers at any given time.) I loved teaching, but I was also frustrated with it—including my students’ inability to learn any kind of citation system. The very concept seemed to drive them to unspeakable madness. It seemed only natural to explore these frustrations in a Lovecraftian milieu.

 

Cassandra Rose ClarkeWhat was the most difficult aspect of writing “The Adjunct,” and what was the most fun?

The most difficult aspect was taking the basic idea (evil citation system!) and turning it into an actual story with a plot arc and such. The most fun was definitely creating said evil citation system and trying to make it as confusing and opaque as possible.

 

Why do you write?

I’ve always loved stories in all their various forms—not just books, but movies, TV shows, even music and art. I love how we can use stories to explore complex ideas that might be difficult or boring to talk about otherwise. I also love playing with language.

 

Who do you consider to be your influences?

My biggest influence is definitely Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The first time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude it absolutely blew my mind. I’ve also been influenced by Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, and Charles Baudelaire.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on the sequel to my forthcoming Halo book, a new fantasy novel, and a poetic sequence about ballet and black metal.

 

“The Adjunct” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1807.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. Clarke’s photo will take you to her website.

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