From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Carol Emshwiller

Could you tell us what inspired your story “Above it All,” and a little about the process of writing it?

I always have a hard time answering this sort of question. After I’ve been working on newer stories I often forget how I worked on an earlier one. And they’re all a little different.

Your work frequently features mountains, which you have said you equate “with excitement, danger, joy, beauty.” In “Above it All,” Birdie is from the mountains, and her presence evokes love, anxiety, and joy in her mom. When writing, did you know immediately that “Above it All” would be partially set in the mountains? Did Birdie develop out of your love for the mountains, or once formed, did you know that she belonged within that setting?

I wasn’t thinking about mountains at the beginning of the story but since Birdie was always rising that gave me the idea of going off into the mountains. I never know where a story is going but I like mountains so much they pop up lots of times. At that point in the story where the characters have to DO something, (make a move) that’s when I first thought: Go to the mountains. Then I go back to the beginning of the story and insert mountains at the start.

In “Above it All” the protagonist is addressed solely as “Mom.” How do you feel about people, women or men, being defined by their relationships?

I don’t see where, in the story, I could have put in her name or more about her. The story involves just those two people. My first person characters often don’t have names. You don’t think of your own name very often. And, actually you’re right, “mom” did define her. . . she was mom to all creatures so your question is the right one. That’s who she is. I’m always so inside my story that I hardly ever think of meanings of smaller questions within the story that are beyond what the characters are thinking.

The trip with Birdie up to the mountain, for me, echoed Abraham’s ascent with Isaac. By staying away from the heights of the mountain, Birdie’s mom kept her daughter safe but separated herself from the mountains she loved and knew. By returning Birdie to the mountains, both reconnected with their roots. As a mother of three children, how did you find the process of your children growing up and leaving the nest? As an author, how do you handle letting characters act in manners you had not anticipated? How does it feel to submit a story to the world?

As a mother, I was sad to see them go, and I miss them a lot now, too, but it’s exciting to see them going off into the world doing their own things. But as a writer, I was glad to see them go so I could write. I started writing when they were little. . . out of loneliness. You may wonder how somebody with three little kids can be lonely or even has time to feel lonely but. . . now I need loneliness for writing. Actually, I’m never lonely when I write and I always do write.

I love when my characters act in unanticipated ways. When that happens, they always and only do exactly what they would do, but I was way behind them and didn’t anticipate it. In Leaping Man Hill, my character said exactly what she would say, trying to get her mother off her back. I knew she was exactly right to say that, but I had to stop writing for a week and regroup. Regroup my subconscious, that is. I never know where my story is going but I do know on some level or I’d not have had to regroup.

Submitting a story to the world? I haven’t thought about that for a long time. I used to get a sort of stage fright. And I do know some people don’t like my stories and some people misinterpret what I’m saying. There’s a danger, too, in writing first person unreliable narrator. People think what your characters think is what you think but their thoughts are part of how I characterize them. I think I must have courage. . . I hadn’t thought of it till right now. . . in writing from points of view that aren’t mine. Not so much in this story though. It’s when I’m in the point of view (for instance) of my warlike colonels that I get in trouble with some readers.

You say on your website that you were passionately involved with the avant-garde movement in the ’60s and currently are passionate about postmodern work. Your own writing traverses science fiction, magical realism, anti-war, and westerns. Do you find it easy to transition between different movements and genres? Are there other genres you would like to work in? Do you feel that categories are useful or restrictive?

I’m not interested in the avant-garde anymore. There are lots of reasons I only do science fiction now. For one thing, I do like plot. (Just because I start out not knowing where I’m going doesn’t mean I don’t end up with a plot.) Also science fiction is a place where you get an answer within a reasonable time. I got tired of waiting a year or more for a rejection slip from a literary magazine. I got too old for that. I also like the science fiction world. I’ve known it since my husband was an illustrator. You get to know a whole batch of nice people.

Could you tell us what you are working on now?

I’m only doing short stories lately. I’m thinking I’m a little old for starting a novel, but I suppose if I found a good idea for one, I’d start it. Many of my recent novels started as short stories that I wanted to continue. For the last couple of years all my short stories have such definite endings there’s no possible way to go on.

konieczny bio pic1Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.

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