The first thing that Carol Emshwiller said to us when she began teaching in the final week of the 2000 Clarion West Writers Workshop was, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent." This was the first clue I had to the importance Carol places on precision and refinement. Her award-winning novels and short story collections have been lauded as both experimental and focused, free-flowing but carefully plotted. Her latest novel, Leaping Man Hill, came out in 1999, and is a sequel to Ledoyt, which came out in 1995.
Carol also spends a good deal of her time teaching. Students of the courses she teaches at New York University or the Clarion workshops have been impressed by her keen eye, her self-deprecating wit, and her deep and subtle understanding of human nature -- characteristics that have also come through in her writing. She lives in New York in the winter and California in the summer.
Patrick Weekes: First and foremost, could you tell us about yourself, anything that I didn't mention?
Carol Emshwiller: Whew, that first question seems hard. I know I shouldn't say anything that was already in the SFWA home page. Hmmm. I have three brothers and that has had a big (!) influence on my life. I always thought of myself as one of the boys, though a defective one.
PW: What was it that finally made you start writing? You said that you didn't start until after your first child was born, and you mentioned on the SFWA web page that you'd always hated writing.
CE: It was the science fiction people that Ed got to know when he started illustrating. They talked about writing as though somebody who wasn't particularly talented could actually do it. There were rules and techniques and you didn't have to be a genius and maybe even sell to SF mags. Just tell a story. I liked the SF world that Ed began to be in and I wanted to be in it, too. That's how I started.
PW: Who was your first favorite SF author? And any thoughts on what it is about the SF community that makes it easier to "join" than the literary mainstream community?
CE: Favorite SF author? Lots. Barry Malzburg, Fritz Leiber, Tom Disch, Damon Knight. . . . Lots more I can't think of now.
As to the SF community. . . it was such a. . .sort of cozy place (though I know a lot of people don't think so). Everybody knows everybody. People help each other. It's smaller than the mainstream, therefore more wieldy.
PW: You've been described as part of the new wave of science fiction. Could you describe what that means to you? Is there a particular theme or style or message that you're trying to get across?
CE: The new wave is the experimental stuff. The sticking-your-neck-out stuff. The structurally playful stuff. At the same time as I was doing that, Ed began to do it, too, as an abstract expressionist painter and in his movies. We influenced each other. And he also tried to do SF covers that way, too, though he found the SF world very conservative. Odd (he said so all the time) that they were cutting edge as to science and old fashioned as to art.
I guess being new wave means a lot to me. By then I was considering my stuff on the literary side.
PW: Of the things being produced today, what do you find the most daring, the most experimental? Is there an area where you think the envelope still needs to be pushed?
CE: It's done. Nothing is new wave anymore that I can think of. Name something far out and it's been done. To be daring is old hat. Everything I can think of seems ordinary now. That doesn't mean I don't like it. David Foster Wallace, for instance. I like him a lot, but what he does was done by Gogol.
PW: If this isn't too nebulous, I have a question about how you write. You've said that you write by keeping the meaning of your story always in mind. Do you have the meaning first, and develop the story from that, or do you let the meaning guide the plot as you write? "Carmen Dog" is one of my favorite stories, so I'm particularly curious about that one.
CE: As to any "meaning" I'm trying to get across, there isn't any. It's just that I've somehow ended up with a "meaning" in most of what I write, though I never think about meanings. I never knew what "theme" meant either until I had students that didn't seem to have a point to their stories. I would wonder why in the world they'd bothered to write that story? Did they care? I don't know where my "meanings" come from. I just try to write a good well formed story.
I guess the meaning is just part of me and pops out by itself.
PW: So does that mean that you have a meaning from the start?
CE: No, I don't start my stories with anything. I just improvise until I see a promising line and direction and follow it. (Not true with my western novels. They started with characters and with the desire to write a western that had no Indians and few guns.) I like to link everything so my stories are tightly woven. And, I hope, all of a piece.
PW: It sounds a lot like what most of the writing teachers were trying to talk about when they described themes, but I've never heard it described that way.
CE: Nobody talks about "linking" but me as far as I know. I never talk about "meanings" or "themes."
I find linking hard to explain. For instance, if you have a half human/half bird character. She should do bird things wherever possible. If prey type bird, she should cock her head to see. Her favorite food would be granola (or crumb cake?). If she's a raptor she'll like rare steak and be very unlike a prey sort of bird. The author should keep this going all through. And birdness should have something to do with the plot and the end.
Here's a better example: Lottie in Ledoyt is an artist first, therefore later there are painters in the mountains and therefore later she steals a painting.
PW: So linking is less about big messages and more about actual plot elements, then. And it's definitely something important to you. Any particular reason for that?
CE: I find many SF stories (though particularly novels) don't follow through with their ideas/objects/beings. . . . Those examples above are not good examples of what I mean, but at least it'll get "linking" away from "theme" and "meaning " and "message" and that's the point of it. Don't put anything important in your stories you don't use all through. To me, this is what's fun for the writer and fun, too, in reading. I think most good writers do it naturally, but I'm also surprised at how often it's not done.
PW: That also has to do with foreshadowing, then. Following through on what you hinted at?
CE: Linking isn't foreshadowing, it's just making sure everything hangs together, but I do want to say something about foreshadowing. Foreshadowing isn't following through, it's dropping first shoes. And there can be lots. (More on that in a minute.)
That's the most important of anything. Planting in the reader the idea that something is going to happen. Can be done many ways. Even when things happen, a story without the idea that something will happen has no tension. Bombs can go off, but without the anticipation of a bomb, there's no tension. Things happening out of the blue (well, of course you can have that, too) but usually you have to let the reader know.
Damon Knight wrote about the old dropping the second shoe joke. . . . A man is sleeping in a hotel and somebody above him, getting ready for bed, drops his shoe and wakes up the man below, but then remembers there are people sleeping who might be bothered, so he puts the second shoe down quietly. A half hour later the man from below knocks on his door and says, "I've been waiting and waiting, for God's sake please drop the other shoe!" But it's also and maybe more important to drop the first shoe!
PW: So is this an idea that you start out with -- "I'm going to make this bird-woman thing go all the way through the story?"
CE: No. I'm a firm believer that your ideas come from the writing itself. I never have any until I start to write. And my mind is on structure most of the time (and on linking). I used to say that kept my conscious mind busy so my subconscious mind could work on more important things.
Also, though it's gotten to be a reflex, my mind is on contrast. If I write a character of one sort, then when I come to the other character he/she will be very different. Or, if the setting is one way, then the weather or the danger will be the other.
PW: You've written about how important workshops were for you. In fact, you said that the most you learned about writing was from the Milford workshops. What do you think makes workshopping so valuable for a writer, as opposed to personal rewrites or critiques by family and friends?
CE: Aaargh! Not criticism from family! Friends, yes. I've belonged to a peer writing group just about all my writing life. When I go to CA for the summer, I collect a writing group to be in. I find it hard to do without a place to take my writing. There's always something I was utterly blind to or took for granted everybody knew. I probably would have seen that problem a month or two later but I hate to wait that long.
PW: Is there a particular way you rewrite? Do you find yourself more often adding to or taking things out of your first draft?
CE: I both add and subtract when I rewrite, though probably more often cut.
PW: So there's no particular process to it for you?
CE: No, there's no process. I just add and subtract. There's always anomalies left in, or stuff left out I took for granted was in and I don't see those till later. There's always things to clarify. And as I walk down the street I often think of things I can add to make the story better.
PW: You've written some fascinating experimental fiction. What if anything has that taught you?
CE: I learned a lot from all my writing. At first I was learning to plot and form my stories in conservative ways. Then, with my more experimental things, I had to learn not to plot, but one thing at a time because I don't like unstructured things. I had to find new structures before I could let go of the old. I learned from just about everything I wrote. I didn't know how to write a "real" novel until I spent a year reading novels and analyzing them. Carmen Dog isn't a "real" novel in the sense that it's picaresque. It's hurdles instead of dominos.
CE: Picaresque, to me, is a series of adventures stuck together. As if short stories in a row, except the stories don't end. I had no idea how to write a novel when I wrote Carmen Dog. I spent a whole year studying novels before I wrote Ledoyt. I wanted a plot that went all through. Of course in Carmen there was a thread carrying Pooch all the way through, from one adventure to another, but a plot is connected. One scene launches the next scene. That's dominoes. Picaresque is hurdles.
PW: How do you know when something picaresque is over?
CE: Not hard. You can always have a wrapping-up last scene. I knew Carmen Dog was over when Pooch finds her man and happiness. I think most picaresque things do have a definite last adventure.
PW: Your most recent novel, Leaping Man Hill, is a sequel to Ledoyt. Did you always imagine Ledoyt as having the potential for a sequel, or was it a case where something in the first story made you want to go back?
CE: No, no, I had no idea I'd want to go on with Leaping Man Hill after Ledoyt. I just found I couldn't let go of the setting. I kept writing bits that fit with that older novel. I wrote the first part of Leaping as a short story. It sold as a short story to Century Magazine. So then I took the end off the short story and went on with it as a novel. As a short story it's a "biter bit" structure.
PW: A "biter bit" structure?
CE: Oh, "biter bit" is a story where the "bad" character who seems to be winning, gets her comeuppance in the end. In the short story version Leaping ends with the main character not being able to say anything but "Caw." She brought it on herself.
So, as a short story it has a "biter bit" structure. As a novel it's about a character who needs to change. In case there are writers reading this: In Ledoyt the character changes all at once from one experience. In Leaping the character changes little by little. I didn't plan this. I felt my way into it. I came to know it as I wrote. I plot and replot as I go along.
PW: You've also been described as a feminist writer. What does that mean to you? Have you consciously tried to write literature with a feminist approach, or did it just come about naturally?
CE: I've never exactly considered myself a feminist writer. I do know I was very frustrated back when I had three kids and wished Ed would help out more. I got a lot of that out of my system through stories. But, for instance, Carmen Dog, I always hoped I made as much fun of women in that novel as of men. Then there's my three brothers! I'm nuts about them and about men in general. I hope Ledoyt shows that.
PW: Carol, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us.
Patrick Weekes is a technical writer and web designer. He lives in the Silicon Valley with his wife and three cats, all of whom help edit his work. He attended the Clarion West workshop in the summer of 2000, and his fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy and Science Fiction Age. He also has a web site.