July 2003

Joseph J. Finn


An interview with Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller is this year's recipient of the Philip K. Dick award, sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and given annually to the best paperback original novel. Her novel, The Mount, is a novel set in a far future where humanity has been subjugated by "Hoots" and made into Mounts for transportation (referred to colloquially by the Hoots as "Sams and Sues"). Mrs. Emshwiller was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the work and her writing:

To start with, congratulations on your recent winning of the Philip K. Dick award. Can you tell us a little of how you came to be writing in the field? Thanks for the congratulations. I started writing science fiction when my husband, Ed Emshwiller became a science fiction illustrator and I began to be friends with the SF people. I'd always been terrible at writing but the SF people talked about it as if a normal human being could do it and it could be learned. And I liked the SF people and got to be friends with lots of them and wanted to join them. [Ed Emshwiller, 1925-1990 was a highly respected illustrator in the SF field, winning five Hugos between 1953 and 1964.]

It seems to be a theme in science fiction in the past few years to put humans up against insurmountable odds, or to present them as already conquered (for instance, Robert Silverberg's recent The Alien Years). What made you choose to place The Mount in a time where humans are almost universally conquered?

I had just taken a class in prey animal psychology, which, of course, had to be the psychology of everything in order to compare it with other psychologies. The idea that came first for The Mount was: What if we were ridden by creatures who could smell better, and hear better then we could, and could see almost all the way around in a circle? After that thought, I had to make a conquered world so as to make it come about.

At times, it seems as if The Mount is equally a criticism about how humans treat horses as it as a story of a conquered humanity, what with your descriptions of the human's stables and races and ribbons. How intentional was that?

I didn't want the story to be AT ALL about how humans treat horses! And I didn't want it to be a story specifically about race relations either. I wanted it to be about slavery of all sorts. I'm not sure I can explain this. I used horses as an allegory?...symbol? of all kinds of slavery. But I also found it fun to use horses specifically as a kind of joke. I thought a lot of the horse comparisons were funny. And then Dogs love to go out for a walk in the woods, but horses have to be all strapped up tight no matter how hot, and obviously they hate it or they wouldn't be so happy and in a hurry when we turn around and head for the barn. (Though I do know racehorses love to race. All horses love that.) How intentional? Of course intentional all the time. Some of it, as I mentioned, as a sort of joke. For instance I had wanted the cover of the book to have the character wearing a colorful jockey shirt. I had asked for "racing silks" on the boy but nobody seemed to know what I meant by that. I thought it funny and ironic and exactly right for the point of the story if the boy was partly dressed up as a jockey.

You mention on your web site that you have been writing more war stories lately? Would you consider The Mount to be of that genre?

No, The Mount was written way, way before I got mad at the war. When you think it takes a couple of years to write it and a couple of years to try and sell it... I don't know how far back that was.

I really enjoyed the curiously detached tone of the young protagonist in The Mount. It's interesting in that it's 1st person, but he is almost talking about himself in the third person. Did you encounter any difficulties in using that tone for an entire novel?

No, I generally write first person, unreliable narrator. 90% of my writing is probably from that point of view. (I do feel 3rd person subjective is very similar to first person. Though not third person objective.) I like the reader to read between the lines and know that the character is mistaken. In fact at first I had thought to write a team of two short stories, one from each side, first the Hoots and then the Sams and Sues, but the exact moment when the boy says he wants to be a good mount and wants to be the best there is, is the moment I knew there could be a novel in there. Partly because the boy was so mistaken. (Or was he? Though I'm the type who likes to camp out and make do with less, I'm not against luxury, good food, and heat, and being cared for, for those who like that.)

But there I was with my favorite kind of narrator: completely unreliable. And I knew the novel would move.

Was it always a one-person narrative, or were there times you thought of perhaps showing things from the point of view of his father, or his rider?

I had thought to use other points of view. There's one short section from the father's point of view. I thought there'd be lots more of him. And the beginning from the Hoots POV...I thought that would be, off and on, all through, too. But I found the restriction to just the boy's was more challenging and more fun. And I found that I could imply or suggest everything I needed through the boys "mistaken" thoughts.

Whom would you consider your influences in writing?

Since I'm at my summer place I can't look at my bookshelves and see my favorites. Of course I always say Kafka first. I have a lot of not so well known Latin American writers. Cortazar, Lispecter, and such. And some French. Michiaux is the only one I can think of now. Oh, and there's the new Portugese writer Saramago. There's the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray. In science fiction there's Urlsula LeGuin and Molly Gloss. I love Connie Willis's writing, but I couldn't be influenced by her if I tried though I'd like to be. Also I read all there is of Alice Monroe and Barbara Kingsolver.

Small Beer Press is not the best know publisher, but they put out an intriguing mix of titles. How did you fall in with them?

They came to me. I was having trouble placing both my new books. Also I knew how good their publicity was. I've never had good publicity until Small Beer. And then I like the people, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, a lot.

Do you have any favorite authors for pleasure reading?

Everything I read is for pleasure! Nobody is making me read anything. (Though sometimes some of my student's writing is a chore, though mostly not.) Oh, but maybe Tony Hillerman. I don't like mysteries much, but I like his.

Can you tell us what you're working on now?

The first of my war stories ["The General"] came out in McSweeny's #10. Another ["Boys"] came out in scifi.com and a third ["Repository"] just came out in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I have two not sold yet and then this one I'm trying to finish up now, but when I finish this one, I think that's about enough for the war. I'm going to go back to stories in general.

I'd love to work on a novel again, but, so far, nothing has turned up that I want to go on and on and on with.