Carol Emshwiller Interview
Robert Freeman Wexler
Carol Emshwiller was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1921, and began publishing short fiction in 1955. Much of her early fiction appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies. She won the World Fantasy award in 1991 for her collection, The Start of the End of it All. Other collections include collections Joy in Our Cause (1974) and Verging on the Pertinent (1989). Novels are Carmen Dog (1988), Ledoyt (1995), and Leaping Man Hill (1999). Small Beer press recently published her new novel, The Mount and a new collection, Report to the Men’s Club. Carol lives about half the year in New York City and half in Eastern California, between the Sierra and Inyo Mountains. She was married to the late Ed Emshwiller, science fiction illustrator, painter, and experimental film-maker.
Robert Freeman Wexler: The Mount is more explicitly science fiction than much of your work. It’s an alien invasion story, though you deal more with relationships than battles. Not at all like the way Hollywood portrays anything with aliens. I’m wondering how the novel took shape. For example, did you have the idea of these aliens using people as horses, and work out some of the historical details later, such as how the situation started, how the aliens got there, etc.?
Carol Emshwiller: I had just taken a class in the psychology of prey animals vs. predators.
It was supposed to be about the psychology of horses, but it contrasted all prey with all kinds of predators — about how we are predators riding a prey. I think the first thing I wanted to do with The Mount was to reverse that — to put a prey animal riding a predator. And I thought how interesting it would be if the prey animal had all the acute senses that we don’t have. Then I started, right in the middle, with the first chapter which is in the point of view of one of the hoots. In the beginning I thought it was a short story, but I got so interested (in chapter 2) in Charley’s desire to be a good slave that it just went on. I fell in love with Little Master as much as I fell in love with Charley.
I actually wanted the reader to feel torn about what was best, being looked after or having the hardships of being “free.” I thought, just because I like camping out and hardships and getting along with less, doesn’t mean that everybody would like it or is suited to that life. I still don’t know for sure what I think about that. It’s such a cliché to say and so easy to say, “Of course freedom is best.” Maybe eating regularly and staying warm is just as good.
I never work out the plot or “historical” details except as I go along. I just jump right in. I got the story going and then figured out how the hoots got there, etc., once I was pretty far in and once the characters and scenes were pretty much set.
Robert Freeman Wexler: With Charley/Smiley, and his reactions to his life as a mount and being freed from it (he wants to go back to being a mount, living in a stall), I found myself wanting to yell, “Don’t you know what’s happening to you? To everyone? You think life is better being a slave!” I found his behavior totally believable. For a writer, it seems like a delicate and difficult task, establishing his relationship to his life as a mount/slave and carrying him beyond it, to accepting a free life. And, of course, it was complicated by his relationship with Little Master. Because nothing real is ever so simple as “all humans good — all aliens bad.” How did that develop? Was it obvious at which point you needed to have him progress from one condition to another?
Carol Emshwiller: Oh dear, that’s a hard question. I just get the personalities going. I get to know Charley and Little Master. I got to know them so well (and quite early in the novel) that they moved on their own. As when Charley sees the guards marching by. I… the author… didn’t realize that of course he would want to be one. He acted like himself and surprised me. When I saw him want to go off and want to join them, I knew he was right and he was more in character than the author had realized. Actually to me that’s the fun of writing. I think my mind is mostly deeply inside the characters. I remember a friend asking me if Charley’s father really did start the landslide and come down in it. I told her I only know what Charley knows. I only think what Charley thinks.
I would never write a story where humans were all good and aliens all bad. In fact I think villains are too easy. I mean really bad villains. I think it’s harder to have the conflict be about people.
I couldn’t even manage to make the Hoots villains. They just wouldn’t fight and I couldn’t make them. They won (when they won) by giving in. Fights mostly bore me. I go pee when watching TV and the car chases and fights come on. Unless there’s something else peoplish going on in the fight.
Robert Freeman Wexler: The Mount and many of the stories in Report to the Men’s Club are set in the mountains, similar, I assume, to the area where you spend the summer. Do you write different kinds of things depending on where you are? Do you feel more drawn to mountain/desert settings than cities? There’s so much great detail about rattlesnakes and such in The Mount, which you probably never would have thought about if you spent all your time in New York.
Carol Emshwiller: Ever since I came out here and discovered the mountains I’ve been in love with them. Mountains are exciting. More than once I’ve come around a rocky corner and shouted without meaning to, at the sudden view of snow caps beyond. Nothing else has ever made me do that but mountains. I write about the mountains when I’m in NY. If I can put mountains in a story I will. I think the rattlesnakes come in because certain summers they seem to be all over. Remember Emily Dickinson’s line, “zero at the bone?” It doesn’t matter how far away the rattlesnake is, you get a chill along your spine when you see one. They’re not up in the mountains, but down here were I live, in the lower hills and desert. One summer I had two living in my carport. I learned to watch where I stepped.
Besides loving mountains, I also learned to love the desert. I never knew it well before. It’s an acquired taste, like lobster. Once you learn to like it, it becomes one of your favorites.
Robert Freeman Wexler: Mountains seem to represent freedom. In “The Project,” Harrier feels disdain for the big, clumsy people of the valley, who can’t even climb up to where the mountain people live without throwing up from the altitude. People are always going to the mountains to escape something in their lives, the artists in “It Comes from Deep Inside,” Ben in “Creature.” In The Mount, the Hoots and their tame people live in the valley and the free humans live in the mountains. Of course, geographically it makes sense, since the Hoots can’t walk. And it makes sense in places like Afghanistan, Kashmir, and lots of other mountainous regions. You didn’t grow up in the mountains. What drew you there originally? And is there a place in your writing you can point to and say “That’s where it happened”?
Carol Emshwiller: I don’t equate the mountains with freedom — more with excitement, danger, joy, beauty… And they’re often frightening. There are avalanches, they have scarier weather. There are often hail storms when it’s sunny down in the valley. I love the landscape up high where things are stunted and facing hardships. I love the Bristle Cone pines the best of any trees because they have to go through so much. I love that they lasted as they have because of hardships.
Maybe I love mountains all the more because I didn’t grow up in them. But the people who did seem to love them just as much. Lots of people living all their lives right here are as passionate about them as I am. The whole town empties out every weekend. I meet my dentist, my optometrist, and the clerks in the shops out on the trails.
I’ve always loved mountains but I didn’t know much about them until my husband moved out here to teach at Cal Arts. Then I understood what being in them really meant… how exciting it could be. When I moved here for the summers after Ed died, I knew even more about how to be in them and I loved them all the more. I miss them when I’m back in NY City. It’s hard not to have them crop up in every story. I don’t think… at least not right now… I can point to a specific place where they started to show up. Hmmm, they’re in Ledoyt, but mostly it was a ranch that was in that. I love ranches and the desert almost as much as the mountains.
Robert Freeman Wexler: A lot of your fiction over the years has dealt with feminist issues, women fighting for their voice, for control (and though The Mount doesn’t deal explicitly with this, one could say the Hoots represent the dominance of men and the Mounts of both sexes represent the women, being ridden and subjugated. Though maybe that’s stretching it. How have your attitudes toward this changed over the years? It still seems to be a subject you cover, for example in the title story from Report to the Men’s Club, which takes the form of an address by a woman (or former woman?) to a men’s-only organization.
Carol Emshwiller: Aargh. I don’t like (at all) the idea of both sexes of the mounts representing women. That certainly wasn’t in my mind at all. And since Little master was the hoot most often on stage, I think hoots are very nice. Obviously I felt humans and hoots were equals. In fact Little Master understands everything way before Charley does. He knows what freedom means before Charley. Little Master always knows what’s going on. He saves Charley when Charley wants to go join the guards. I felt that their closeness made them both better than they would be by themselves.
I wrote “Report to the Men’s Club” a long time ago. Ed would have been alive then so that would make it 15 or so years old. A couple of the stories in that collection are older. Things that Kelly and Gavin liked. Actually I do still like “Report to the Men’s Club” though it seems old fashioned. When Ed was alive I was often frustrated what with three children at home and not much help from him. He always said his work was more important than mine because it made more money. (It still would now, too.) But since his death I felt I lost that part of my writing. I used to feel I was writing about the battle of the sexes, not “just feminism.” As in Carmen Dog I wanted to make fun of both men and women. I mean Carmen Dog slept on the doormat on purpose. It was her idea in the first place. She thought she belonged there. Now I have my three brothers whom I adore, and they don’t frustrate me at all. And “Report to the Men’s Club” was suggested to me by Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy.” In that story an ape joins the academy. Kafka is my favorite writer and a lot of my stuff is, to varying degrees, influenced by him.
I was worried that people would take The Mount to be about race relations and mounts would be thought of as blacks. I knew that was true no matter what I wrote, but I tried to undercut that idea when it popped up too clearly. I wanted the mounts to stand for any oppressed group. I didn’t want the parallels with blacks to be too clear but I know they’re there. That’s OK with me as long as readers think of oppression as broader that that.
Robert Freeman Wexler: Your new collection, Report to the Men’s Club, ranges widely from earlier “battle of the sexes” stories to some of your more recent ones, and it’s a mix of genre and non-genre. A couple of stories I’m glad to see reprinted are “Modillion” and “Venus Rising.” It must have been difficult to put together a collection that covers such a broad period, and I’m sure a lot was left out.
Carol Emshwiller: I do have lots of stories that were left out of Report to the Men’s Club, and lots of new ones. I think there’s enough for another collection… or will be in a minute.
Robert Freeman Wexler: You mention Kafka. What other writers would you consider to be influences? And what fiction have you read recently that has impressed you?
Carol Emshwiller: I wish I was back in NY (well, I will be in a month) so I could look at my book shelves and remember the ones I like. I just had to do a review of The Deadly Space Between, a new novel by Patricia Duncker. It was a fantasy though marketed as regular fiction. I loved it and I’ve ordered more of her books. I like Alice Munro and Andrea Barrett. I always learn new things to try from them, (as I did from Andrea Barrett). I like Calvino and Cortázar and Clarice Lispector. Also Henri Michaux and Alasdair Gray (some of his). Oh, and Samuel Becket, especially his early short stories, also parts of his novels. I love the plays but I don’t think they influenced me as much as his short stories.
Robert Freeman Wexler: Do you feel particularly drawn to writing either novels or stories? Early in your career you wrote stories exclusively (or at least published stories only); now you are doing more novels. What are you working on now?
Carol Emshwiller: I’ve enjoyed writing novels since I, more or less, learned how. You don’t have to keep getting new ideas and new characters all the time. But for a novel I do need ideas that have a lot to them. I need to want to say a lot of things. As in The Mount… At first I thought that was a short story and then I thought Charley (the point of view character) was interesting because he wanted to be a good mount, and I began to see I could use Charley to say a lot of things. I started to say that I needed to be madly in love with my characters in a novel, but that’s also true with my short stories. When I first started writing I’d go with most any idea that seemed like a good story, but now I don’t write anything I’m not deeply involved with.
I’m not working on a novel now though I’ve thought a bit about it. I’ve liked writing all these recent short stories because you don’t have to wait for years to see if they’ll sell. One of my recent novels, Mr. Boots, hasn’t sold yet and if it wasn’t for Small Beer Press, The Mount wouldn’t be sold either. We worked hard trying to sell The Mount but no luck until Kelly Link and Gavin Grant came along. I’m not sure about doing more novels. It’s a big investment maybe for nothing. Right now I’m doing a series of war (anti-war!) stories. I don’t know how long I’ll want to do that.
Robert Freeman Wexler: In your essay “Writing Rules I Like to Break,” you say that you used to write “structured but much looser stories.” How would you describe your current style?
Carol Emshwiller: I think my earlier stories were structured in a different way. Maybe a more musical way. Themes and variations sort of things. Or, as they said about some of the new music back then, composed in series. Now all that seems old fashioned to me. Now I write more or less standard plots. I find it much more fun, and much more exciting, and much harder work to use more standard techniques (foreshadowing, timing, rhythms — as pulling back after an exciting section,… ) There’s so much more to know and use. Dozens of different skills. That’s what I love to see in other’s writing. That’s what gives me a big thrill.
I like the idea of plot strings to pull the reader along in a novel or story.
I often get bored in stories where the writing is gorgeous but there’s no direction. (Anybody ever read Ronald Firbank? Great surface.)
If I go for plot and yet don’t plot ahead of time, (which I don’t) I get myself if terrible messes. I always wonder if I’ll ever solve the story in a reasonable way. I like writing on the brink.
I started learning to write by learning to plot. Then, when I decided I wanted to experiment with other structures, I had to unlearn plotting one little bit at a time. To me, most of the writers of non-plot structures now, seem to have jumped right in without learning how to plot first. I think the sense of forward motion is important and can only be learned by knowing something about plots. But I want to say again, I don’t plot ahead of time.
I feel I now have plotting in the tips of my fingers. I know at every turn in a story to take the worst for my characters. Or at least not to be very nice to them.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert Freeman Wexler.