Emshwiller, Carol (Fries) 1921-
EMSHWILLER, Carol (Fries) 1921-
PERSONAL: Born April 12, 1921, in Ann Arbor, MI; daughter of Charles Carpenter (a professor) and Agnes (Carswell) Fries; married Edmund Emshwiller (a film maker and video artist), August 30, 1949; children: Eve, Susan, Peter. Education: University of Michigan, B.A., 1945, B. Design, 1949; attended École Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, 1949-50.
CAREER: Clarion Science-Fiction Writing Workshop, East Lansing, MI, teacher, 1972-73; New York University, New York, NY, adjunct associate professor in continuing education, 1974-2004. Organized workshops for Science Fiction Bookstore, New York, NY, 1975-76, and Clarion Science-Fiction Writing Workshop, 1978-79. Guest member of faculty, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, 1982.
MEMBER: Science Fiction Writers of America, Authors Guild of Authors League of America, PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1973; New York State Creative Artist Public Service grant, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1979; New York State Foundation for the Arts grant, 1988; New York University Award for Teaching Excellence, 1989; World Fantasy Award, 1991, for The Start of the End of It All; Gallun Award, 1999; Icon Award, 1999; Philip K. Dick Award, Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, 2002, for The Mount, and nominee for Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories; Nebula Award in short-story category, Science Fiction Writers of America, 2002, for "Creature"; Nebula nominations, Science Fiction Writers of America, 2003, for The Mount and "Grandma."
Joy in Our Cause (short stories), Harper (New York, NY), 1974.
Pilobolus and Joan (television play), WNET, New York, NY, 1974.
Family Focus (television play), 1977.
Verging on the Pertinent (short stories), Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1989.
The Start of the End of It All (short stories), Women's Press (London, England), 1990, revised edition, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1991.
Carmen Dog (novel), Mercury House (St. Paul, MN), 1990, Peapod Classics (Northampton, MA), 2004.
Venus Rising (novella), Edgewood Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
Ledoyt (novel), Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1995.
Leaping Man Hill (novel), Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1999.
The Mount, Small Beer Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2002.
Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories, Small Beer Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2002.
Mr. Boots (young adult), Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
I Live with You, Tachyon (San Francisco, CA), 2005.
Contributor to books, including Pushcart Prize XXI, Pushcart Press, 1989; Love Stories for the Rest of Us, Pushcart Press, 1995; The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women, edited by Richard Glyn Jones and A. Susan Williams, Viking, 1996; Wild Women; Women of Wonder; and Nebula Awards Showcase 2005, edited by Jack Dann, ROC (New York, NY), 2005. Contributor of short stories to literary and science fiction magazines, including Alchemy, Polyphony, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, TriQuarterly, Croton Review, Omni, and Epoch.
SIDELIGHTS: Carol Emshwiller's feminist science-fiction and fantasy stories began appearing in science-fiction magazines in the 1950s, but it was not until 1974, with her story collection Joy in Our Cause, that Emshwiller gained critical acclaim. Influenced by the New Wave science fiction of the 1960s, her often Kafkaesque short stories explore the female psyche and male-female relationships through experimental use of language and character. In Feminist Writers, Denise Wiloch described Emshwiller's style as "fantastical, quirky and individualistic . . . granting insights that might have been less obvious in a story following a traditional narrative form. In all her fiction, Emshwiller's biting wit and ability to turn a phrase have drawn critical acclaim from both genre and mainstream critics alike." In a review of her short-story collection Report to the Men's Club, James Sallis of Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy proclaimed Emshwiller as "one of the finest and most original writers in the United States. . . . Her work is undefinable. She's a feminist writer who adores men, a literary artist who often prefers to work in or springboard off fantastic literature, an experimentalist anchored firmly to plot and character interaction."
According to a critic for Publishers Weekly, Emshwiller's short stories are "like carnival mirrors that distort our perceptions, letting us see ourselves in new, wise ways." In her stories, which borrow elements from the science fiction and fantasy genres and are told from a feminist perspective, Emshwiller creates allegorical lessons about the condition of women in society. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Deborah Stead explained that Emshwiller gets "at the truth of things by rendering them strange," while Kimberly G. Allen in Library Journal found that "Emshwiller explores the feminine psyche in an otherworldly way."
Emshwiller's stories often make use of characters and situations found in science fiction and fantasy. In the story "The Start of the End of It All," for example, aliens bent on conquering Earth collaborate with divorced women against the ruling male establishment. Another story tells of a highly evolved alien woman who, upon her arrival among contemporary Americans, becomes relegated to the inglorious role of housewife. In "Yukon," a woman leaves her husband in favor of living with a bear in the forest. Emshwiller's fiction, wrote Peter Bricklebank in Library Journal, "is inventive, whimsical, outrageous, and wise." Critics also pointed to Emshwiller's prose style. According to a Los Angeles Times Book Review critic, Emshwiller's stories are told in "a nervous, edgy, witty style all her own." "It would not be misleading," claimed Edward Bryant in Locus, "to think of Carol Emshwiller as a cleverer, frequently more subtle, John Irving."
The stories featured in Report to the Men's Club, include tales of true love—in "Nose"—faith—in "Modillion"—and abandoned children—"Mother" and the Nebula Award-winning"Creature."The title story is framed as a speech given by a new member of a men's club who has been initiated even though, by genetic mistake, she was born female. A critic for Kirkus Reviews noted, "A daring, eccentric, and welcome observer of darkly human ways emerges" from the stories in the collection. "What makes them satisfying," wrote Regina Schroeder in Booklist, "is the personalities of their characters." Susanna J. Sturgis in her review for Women's Review of Books called the characters in the stories complex, and mused, "Given time and necessity, most of us are capable of accepting the unusual, the outrageous, and even the appalling as downright normal. So these characters and situations insinuate themselves into our lives, questioning, enhancing, and contradicting everything we thought we knew."
Emshwiller explained in St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers: "Formal/structural concerns have always interested me the most, so once I had learned to plot and had published numerous science-fiction stories (and a few mystery stories), I decided to learn how not to plot. My concerns were for the various ways of formatting a story and keeping forward movement without plotting. This was as hard to learn as plotting (harder, because I had no models in those days) and had to be learned slowly. Looking back, I see that I did away with plot elements one at a time. I was unable to let go of them by twos or threes. . . . Why might one bother doing this? Well, like most science-fiction writers, my study was 'what-would-happen-if,' but not what-would-happen-if the ice age returned, or if apes began teaching each other to talk, but what-would-happen-if, for instance, a story had only a single bit of action? or none? What could hold the interest? What could move it forward?. . . Of course there's that other thing: that when your conscious mind is kept busy with forms, the subconscious mind can be freed to work on all those underground things that are, perhaps, mor important to a story." Emshwiller later expanded on this point, noting: "It does explain how I used to write my more 'experimental' stories, but for a long time I've been only writing stories (and novels) with plots—standard plots. I can't imagine writing without that now."
In her published novels, Emshwiller has taken two different approaches. Her first novel, Carmen Dog, takes the same fantastical approach found in her short stories, presenting a world in which human women have become animals, and animals have evolved into human women. Although the critic for Publishers Weekly believed Emshwiller "stretches a conceit past the breaking point in this uneven allegory," Charlotte Innes in the New York Times Book Review dubbed Carmen Dog "a gentle exposition of human folly that nevertheless makes some tough points about the inequalities between the sexes." Katherine Dieckmann, writing in the Voice Literary Supplement, celebrated "Emshwiller's hilariously dead-on radical vision." Although Emshwiller writes from a feminist point of view, some critics have problems with her portrayals. In St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, Liz Holliday observed that "her fiction tends to assert that some traits—such as loyalty and nurturing—are intrinsically female, and therefore immutable. . . . Animals that are turning into humans retain the qualities traditionally associated with them; meanwhile, women turn into the animals that best embody their personalities. The underlying assumption seems to be that personalities and talents are inborn—that they cannot be changed simply by breaking social condition." Pointing out the writer's efforts to deal fairly with both sexes, Wiloch observed that "despite some uneven moments, Emshwiller's allegory succeeds in whimsically scoring points about sexual inequalities and commenting on the destructive behavioral tendencies of both women and men. Women who seek to be pampered and men who try to dominate others are both satirized in Emshwiller's animal tale."
Marking a major shift from her usual fantastic fiction, Emshwiller's second novel, Ledoyt, employs a more conventional narrative style. A realistic story set in the American west of the early twentieth century, Ledoyt concerns Oriana Cochran and Beal Ledoyt, two wildly different characters who nonetheless fall in love and marry. The story focuses on the couple's stubborn and jealous daughter, Lotti, who tries to destroy their marriage. A Publishers Weekly critic praised Emshwiller's "verbal portrait of Lotti . . . and of adolescent resentment and angst." Emshwiller tells the story in a "spare but lyrical prose and [with] a fine attention to detail," wrote Walter Satterthwait in the New York Times Book Review. Oriana and Beal "are endearing and admirable characters," Satterthwait concluded, and the novel contains moments "that are remarkably moving; there are scenes of great power." Wiloch stated that Ledoyt, "although far different from the kind of fiction for which Emshwiller is best known, is perhaps her most successful work in terms of examining the fundamental relationship between the sexes she has always explored in her writing."
Commenting about her novels to Feminist Writers, Emshwiller stated, "I've always hoped my stories and books (such as Carmen Dog) make fun of women's ways as much as of men's. With the novel Ledoyt my writing changed completely—no longer satire and humor. After my husband's death I felt I'd lost my material for the battle between the sexes. Also writing served a different purpose for me. I needed a family to live with since my children were grown and scattered all over. . . . And mostly I wanted to write from the omniscient point of view for a change. I did get some omnicient in, but mostly I lapsed into one person's point of view, sequentially."
In her third novel, Leaping Man Hill, Emshwiller continues the drama of the Ledoyt family portrayed in Ledoyt. She tells the story of the healing power of love through the protagonist, Mary Catherine, who comes to the farm to teach Abel, mute son of Oriana and Ledoyt. A romance develops between Mary and Henny, Abel's angry, bitter cousin, who has lost an arm in World War I. Faye A. Chadwell in Library Journal praised Emshwiller's descriptions as "keen and vivid" and the dialogue as "robust yet sensitive." A Publishers Weekly critic said Leaping Man Hill "marks Emshwiller as a writer of distinctive talent."
Emshwiller's fourth novel, The Mount, turned back to fantastic fiction, but not with the focus on the battle of the sexes contained in Carmen Dog, and many of her earlier short stories. Instead, Emshwiller's focus is on the psychology of slavery or servitude. The story takes place in a future where, for several generations, humans have been enslaved by an alien race referred to as the Hoots. Humans are bred to be the mounts for Hoot riders; some are bred for their strength, others for their speed. Charley, who is called Smiley by his Hoot masters, wants to be the best racer among the Mounts, and trains with his Hoot rider, Little Master—who will one day be the ruler of the Hoots—to win them both prestige. When Charley is "rescued" by humans living in the wilds who have rebelled from their Hoot masters, Charley must decide if he wants a freedom that means the hard labor of forming and supporting a new society, or the comforts of life he has always known."Emshwiller's peculiar, touching tale becomes a meditation on the virtues of civilization . . . versus freedom and democracy," noted a critic for Kirkus Reviews. Robert K. J. Killheffer commented in the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy that though the scenario may seem almost absurd, "Emshwiller balances delicately on the beam, carrying the tale straight-faced with a combination of precise language, gentle humor, a near-perfectly pitched voice, and a tenderness toward her characters that draws us in and beguiles us." Regina Schroeder in Booklist wrote called the novel "a memorable alien-invasion scenario, a wild adventure, and a reflection on the dynamics of freedom and slavery." In Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted that"this poetic, funny, and above all humane novel deserves to be read and cherished as a fundamental fable for our material-minded times." Susanna J. Sturgis in Women's Review of Books proclaimed, "There's no doubt in my mind: The Mount is a brillian book."
On her Web site, Emshwiller wrote: "About my writing, a lot of people don't seem to understand how planned and plotted even the most experimental of my stories are. I'm not interested in stories where anything can happen at any time. I set up clues to foreshadow what will happen and what is foreshadowed does hapen." In St. James Guide to Science-Fiction Writers, the essayist noted, "It is possible to misunderstand Emshwiller. If one reads a single purpose into the multilayered allusions, one can be taken aback by the bald, almost gallows humor which cuts to the core of the ambiguities that make up women's attitudes toward themselves and the cultures which encase them. One can never quite determine which of the speaker's statements should be taken ironically and which are authoritative. Emshwiller's grace, technical virtuosity, insight, humor, and depth rest in the narrators who never settle on a single or simple political position and therefore reflect this ambiguity of intent. It is one that we shall perhaps not escape until the culture is organized along another matrix from that of sex. The stories are delightful for their artistry on all levels and examples of the best that the short story as an art form has to offer. You owe it to yourself to read and reread this author."
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Carol Emshwiller contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1921. The name on my birth certificate is Agnes Carolyn Fries, but so as not to be confused with my mother, I was never called Agnes. (When I started college I changed my name from Carolyn to Carol so as to be more like a boy . . . more like my brothers. I don't feel that way anymore but it's too late to change back and I'm used to being Carol now.) My father was a professor at the University of Michigan. I was the oldest of my mother's children but I had an older half sister. Though she lived with us, I was hardly aware of her until I was two or three. But I was aware of my two-years-younger brother. I was jealous from the first. My two younger brothers were born much later. One is seven years younger than I and the other is twelve years younger.
In my family my older half sister was one of those old-fashioned Victorian secrets. I didn't find out she was my half sister until I was thirteen. I was sitting in front of her and overheard a friend say that, for sisters, we didn't look anything alike. My sister replied that we'd had different mothers but she didn't know if I was supposed to know. I never dared mention that I knew. My father, whose first wife died when my half sister was seven years old, had told her never to mention her mother's name again, and she didn't—except to me much later. My brothers found out our father had been married before from looking up his biography in Who's Who. Even after we had all found out, we never spoke of it among ourselves until we were grown up.
Mother was young, twenty-one, when I was born, and she didn't know anything about kids. Both my parents believed that if you praised children they would get swelled heads. My mother kept telling me how cute my little brother was. She thought that would make me love him. I kept wondering: Why wasn't I cute, too? Still, I've always been close to that brother, partly because later, as small children, we were thrown together alone several times in France when my parents went to England. Also we were close enough in age to be playmates.
My maiden name, Fries, was Frisian Dutch from northern Holland. Somewhere way back, here in America, a Dutch reform protestant married a French Huguenot. Later there was English mixed in, too. Both sides of my father's people came to America in the 1700s, but my mother's family came from Scotland more recently.
My mother's father was a country fiddler, first in Scotland and then over here. His day job in America was as a carpenter. In Scotland he was a shepherd. I've heard that he bought his violin from a door-to-door peddler and learned to play it out on the moors as he looked after the sheep. He came over to America all by himself at age twenty-six with nothing but one small round-top trunk about the size of a medium suitcase. He drowned when my mother was seven years old. She watched from the bank as he tried to rescue her niece. Mother watched them both go down and never come up. He was a Mason and they had a large Masonic funeral for him.
There was no insurance in those days so Mother and Grandma were shunted off from relative to relative where Grandma had different jobs. In one place Grandma worked at a boarding house. One of the boarders taught Mother piano for nothing. When she was about fourteen or fifteen that teacher wanted to take her to New York as a prodigy, but Grandma didn't want her to go. I don't think Mother wanted to go either.
Mother never performed for anybody, but she played for us and herself all the time. All kinds of music. And she was into folk music before anybody else that I know of. Wherever she lived as my dad traveled, a year here and there, in England, France, Germany, or Mexico, she picked up more folk songs. (Dad played the mandolin and fife and one piece on the piano: "All through the Night." Sort of the same way he had one single dish he could cook: oyster stew.)
Mother would put us to bed and then play the piano. We went to sleep to Chopin, old fashioned "gallops," the Moonlight Sonata, etc. It would never have occurred to her to give a recital. Most women of her generation didn't, and Mother wouldn't have ventured such a thing. But she accompanied me as I learned to play the violin and later my brother as he played the French horn. And we were one of those old-fashioned families who stand around the piano and sing songs, with everybody playing some instrument or other.
Dad never was interested in money. Neither of my parents was. (And I'm not either.) During the depression we were poor—poorer than those around us. I could tell because I had fewer clothes and phonograph records and such than the other kids at school. When my kids were growing up, we lived in Levittown, Long Island. Many of the people there were less well off than we were. I'm glad that my kids didn't have the problem of having less than their neighbors even though I don't regret that experience myself.
Linguistics was Dad's passion: the science of how languages are put together. (Also, while it has nothing to do with what linguistics is about—though people seem to think so—he could read several languages, but it was my mother who was good at speaking them and learning them quickly.) He was known for setting up schools and devising methods for teaching English as a foreign language. During the war he worked on ways of teaching Japanese, and at about the same time he founded the English house where Latin Americans could come and be completely immersed in English. (These were in Ann Arbor.) All kinds of people came there. I remember dancing with Baby Doc and thinking what an impressive man he was.
I did a similar language immersion myself for the one summer I spent in Freiberg, Germany, when my dad was studying there. I was fifteen at the time. I talked nothing but German all day, sang German songs in the evening. It didn't do much good. I've forgotten most of it. I might be able to ask for a cup of coffee but not much more.
In linguistics, my father was especially known as one of the professors who described English in its own terms, not using Latin as a basis for his description. I barely know the meaning of subject and predicate (well, I do), but I know "word order," "function words," and, "two word verbs" (as: Come and come to. Run and run out. Call and call up. Fed and fed up. Give and give up. I've seen linguists get into trouble when they didn't have that "two word verb" concept.) I know his terms much better than I know our Latin terms for languages.
Mine was an arguing family. Dad always used the Socratic method when trying to convince us of anything. I remember wanting to take dance so badly. He sat me down and must have talked with me for an hour, asking questions. At the end he finally asked, "So do you still want to take dance?" I said, "No," but even as I said it, I still wanted to (and I still wish I had). Then I read I. F. Stone's book The Trial of Socrates. In it he says Socrates was a bully. When I read that, I shouted, YES!
Mother said she never won an argument with Dad, but she couldn't believe she was always wrong. Mother said, "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." She didn't take part in the family arguments. I don't think she liked them. Now I feel as she did, though I know it was Dad's way of telling us he loved us . . . taking all that time with us, arguing deep into the night, but did he always have to win?
My father was originally going to be a Baptist minister but he lost his religion at the Chicago Divinity School and went into linguistics instead. (Which doesn't mean he lost his morality at the same time. That, he kept.)
He was also very much into sports. He made sure even I, a mere girl, knew the rules of football and baseball. Later he was into swimming in particular. Mother never protested—not a single time, all through my brother's scuba diving and such, even though she'd watched her own father drown.
My youngest brother learned to swim before he could walk. (It's easier to balance in the water than on land.) This was a slow process. Breath control came first and easily. Dad did this "scientifically," keeping notes, photographs and movies as he went along. He wrote a book on swimming with the Michigan swimming coach. The chapter on teaching babies to swim was all his own.
Dad quoted old poems constantly. I especially remember the first section of Chaucer's "Than langen folk to gang on pilgrimages." Lots of Latin, too, as, "De gustabus non disputandum est." But Mother was the one who played with words. She always noticed the rhythms of what you said as, "Bob'll be back." (Say these fast.) "Ed edited it," "Look at the catalpa tree," (I'm too old to say that fast now) and, "I need something to hitch it to.'" She said that was an old Indian name and we should name our island "Hitch-it-to island." (Dad had bought a small island in Georgian Bay in Canada. This sounds as if we were rich, but it cost ten thousand dollars a long time ago, and included a house and two cabins, all furnished and with Hudson bay blankets for every bed, a boat house and several boats. Dad thought this would be a place for all of us to gather every summer long after he had died. I never go there. I'm in love with mountains.)
Mother was funny all the time. She could make a joke out of anything. I guess in spite of your baby brother dying of diphtheria, your father drowning right before your eyes, growing up in poverty, being shunted around from relative to relative, you can still have a sense of humor and enjoy life.
Besides being into music and argument, mine was a swimming and boating family and all my brothers still are. But I had to be about sixty or so before I realized I don't like swimming (I was always too cold and my sinuses always hurt) and I don't like the beach (sitting on a beach or riding around in boats bores me though I do like paddling a canoe). I was late in discovering my love of mountains and hiking up them but that's why I bought my little mobile home in the mountains of California. What I like about hiking and paddling is moving your body. Anything to do with sitting I can't stand. But most of all I love the beauty of the mountains. Since I've spent my summers there, fourteen years now, they've played a big part in my writing.
On my sixteenth birthday my father told me no woman had ever done anything significant. A woman could be the inspiration for deeds by men, she could be the woman behind the throne, but women weren't capable of doing anything original themselves. I'm sure he thought he was doing me a favor telling me this so I wouldn't waste my time trying to be something.
But, on the other hand, I was freer than my brothers because I didn't matter. The boys had three choices. They could become lawyers, doctors, or professors. (So my musician brother is the black sheep of the family.) But it didn't matter what I did.
We traveled quite a bit because Dad took year-long sabbaticals at various places. I guess they couldn't have all been sabbaticals because we traveled more often than every seven years.
He took a year off to study in Freiberg, Germany. Before that there were a couple of years he worked at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, but he wanted us two older children to learn French. At the age of eight I was dumped into a two-room country school where nobody talked English except me and my brother. I was not aware of learning French. I was not aware of not being understood. I think I just talked and gradually it must have become French. (My daughter saw the same thing when she took my ten-year-old grandchild to Peru. There was a boy his age next door and they played together, one speaking Spanish and the other English. They didn't seem to be aware that they weren't speaking the same language or not understanding each other.)
So, going back and forth to and from France—I was eight years old in France, nine and ten here, then eleven in France, twelve back here, etc.—I was hopelessly confused. Somehow I missed fractions altogether (when I try to do them I have to draw pies), and I still can't spell much of anything. I remember the exact words that made me decide I couldn't learn and give up: address/adresse, and syrup/sirop. I thought, well, if that's how you spell "address" then obviously I can't learn anything so why try. I quit. I think I was eleven. It was as if a curtain came down and I didn't bother anymore. I did managed to squeak through with Cs and a few Ds. At the University of Michigan I failed freshman English and had to take it over and almost failed again. I wonder if I'd have gotten into the University without being the daughter of a professor there.
Once, in France, I found out I really was an American with American attitudes. It was the time I was fourteen and Liline, the French lady who looked after me and my brother, had a girl not much older than I was who helped with the cleaning now and then. Once I heard Liline talking about how intelligent and clever that girl was and how she should . . . , and my mind went right away to "get a good education—go to college," but Liline said, "She'll make a good little maid for somebody one of these days."
In France my brother and I stayed a year each time, usually in different places, but always with the same Frenchwoman. My parents and little brothers stayed in Oxford, England, and later in Freiberg, Germany, so I and my brother were alone, but that Frenchwoman was a much better mother than my mother was. My mother visited now and then and watched her in action and learned how to be a good mother from imitating her. Liline made life a game. Even chores were fun. I had wet my bed when living with my mother and even when I went to camp, which I loved, but I never did when living with Liline.
One year my brother and I lived in a chateau that had an indoor outhouse, a two-holer, the only bathroom for a house with several bedrooms. It was downstairs next to the front door. That didn't matter because the Brittany maid emptied the chamber pots every morning. There was a large living room full of marble statues but they couldn't use it through the winter because they couldn't heat it. The only heated parts of the house were the small dining room (as opposed to the large one), a small playroom for my brother and me, and the kitchen. They had little stoves that the maid carried from room to room.
At a different place (a small house this time) you went up a bank outside and peed into a hole that went down into a vat. When it was full they hauled the vat out to spray on the fields.
Being alone with my brother those years made us very close. He's the only one with all those same experiences. And, though the Frenchwoman was a terrific mother, he was family. He was my main playmate each time we were in France. People lived behind walls there. Kids didn't visit from house to house. There was one school for boys and one for girls. In one place the boys called my brother, "Americain, tête de chien," and threw stones at him. Luckily they didn't play baseball and were terrible throwers. My brother did play baseball and when he threw back he usually hit. Neither of us had any good friends from our schools. When I was eight, I had a girl I walked home with everyday, but we never visited each other's houses. Cousins was the French thing then. We knew our French mother Liline's nieces and nephews. They were the only visitors we had.
In 1939 we left France and Germany just as the war was starting. We were on the last civilian ship to sail to the United States. It was so crowded they had the swimming pool full of cots. There was a blackout so, on the way to Le Havre, Dad drove all night with no lights and several cans of gas in the trunk of the car. Every town along the way was completely dark. I wasn't at all worried. I thought: Dad will take care of everything. That was the attitude he had about himself, too.
All my life I was a bad student and I hated writing most of all. It was too hard. But I always drew. Even in first grade, the teacher hung my drawings all along the wall above the blackboards. Nobody else's, just mine. I'm not sure I'd go along with that idea now even if I was the featured one. There must have been other kids' drawings teachers should have put up, too.
But now studying and researching are my favorite things to do . . . after writing. Now writing is my favorite because it's the hardest thing I know. That's why I love plots and structured stories. I love the skill it takes to get everything together. Also I love how you dredge things up from inside yourself and find out things about yourself you never knew. Also bring up memories you'd never think of without writing fiction. And it's a secret, but I think short-story writing is harder than poetry. Even harder than sonnets.
Though I didn't pay any attention in school, I did read a lot. Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, but especially books by Zane Gray and Will James. Will James was my absolute favorite. I can still read him and Zane Gray, but I can't get through more than a page or two of Edgar Rice Burroughs. My parents and brothers would go off for a Saturday or Sunday trip but I'd stay home and read. I didn't read any "girl" books. I always wanted to be a boy. (There was no doubt in my family which sex was the important one.) And I wasn't brought up as a girl, I was brought up as a defective boy.
I wouldn't have stooped to reading a book like Little Women. (All that was just as I was growing up. Not now. I've changed.) But I haven't changed my mind about preferring to be a cowboy instead of a princess. I hate the idea of being a princess, always have and still do.
I was a daydreamer, but what kid isn't? My parents let me alone. They didn't worry about my bad grades or whether my homework was done. They let me be. That wasn't just because I was a mere girl. They didn't worry about the boys either. They always thought we'd wise up one of these days all by ourselves and everybody did, but with me, it took a long, long time.
Dad never thought the purpose of going to college was to get a better job, or earn more money, or get a degree, or even get good grades; he just believed in getting an education and in learning and keeping on learning all your life. Except for my youngest brother, he couldn't control what classes the boys took. One was taking pre-med and the other went away to the Curtis Institute for Music. But he could control me. He had me take political science, aesthetics, Aristotelian logic, the Bible as literature, a couple of premed courses, behaviorist psychology (he hated anything Freudian and it was only later that I got into that on my own), his own class in linguistics. . . . I had to take all the things he was interested in or had taken himself.
Right out of high school, I went to the University of Michigan Music School. I was a typical music-school student in that I practiced violin about four hours a day, played three hours in orchestra Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and in a quartet class Tuesdays and Thursdays. I played in another quartet once a week in the evenings for fun. I sang in the huge (I think it was 200 voices, maybe more) Ann Arbor Choral Union chorus. (I did The Messiah four times and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony twice. For the Ninth, we were conducted by Eugene Ormandy and accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Ormandy had tears rolling down his face through almost all of the performance.) But I was not a good violinist, mainly because I have slow fingers. I could play everything up to Paganini. Paganini changed everything. I couldn't play anything fast or virtuosic after he came along.
I also went to Interlochen Music Camp back when it was only a summer camp, not an all-year school as it is now. I worked on the dishwashing machine there and on the cafeteria line. (As a kid I had worked in record shops, music stores, book stores, and as a soda jerk, also in an ice-cream factory unfolding boxes to put the ice cream in.)
I think I was dyslexic before anybody knew about it. I'm such a slow reader, in reading both music and prose. I had proof of that when I tried to read when a group of us were seated in a row passing pages. I began to realize I had to skip whole paragraphs to keep up with the others. Even so I was holding things up. They finally made me go to the end of the line. Sometimes I wonder how I got myself into a teaching and writing job. I'm so unsuited for it.
After music school, I went to war. Just as I started at Michigan, the men had started being drafted for World War II. We'd look in the newspaper every day to see which of our professors had been called up. Pretty soon most of the men were gone. (They were either in Canada, or 4F, or in jail for conscientious objecting, or in the war. My future husband and my brothers went, though later my husband marched against the Vietnam War.) Though I was and am, more or less, a pacifist, I wanted to see what was going on. I wanted to experience what my generation was experiencing, so I joined the Red Cross.
I spoke French so they sent me to Italy. I handed out coffee and doughnuts, ran a club, recruited girls for dances, and supervised a little library of paperbacks—this was when paperbacks first came out. (We weren't supposed to worry if they were stolen.)
By the time I sailed into Naples on a troop ship, the war had just ended so I saw a lot of devastation (the whole waterfront was completely bombed out) but I didn't see any actual war. First I was stationed on the Isle of Capri at an R & R (rest and relaxation) place. I can't remember doing a single lick of work. I played pinochle with the guys and took groups hiking on the cliffs. My love of mountains and cliffs was there before the Sierras. Later I was stationed in Tarcento near the Yugoslavian boarder. In neither of these places did I wear my Red Cross uniform. I learned a lot about how gross some (not many) American soldiers could be with the Italians. I was cursed at and spit on by some of our guys when they thought I was Italian. They called me words I'd never heard until then and have never heard since. On Capri four or five men would get together and push down the thick mud walls surrounding the houses just for the fun of it. In Tarcento I do remember working. I drove a truck into Udine to pick up donuts. I loved doing that.
When I returned from Italy I went to art school. I was a good artist. I was dexterous in a different way than is required by music.
It was in art school that I met Ed Emshwiller. Actually we met in front of a naked lady—in life-drawing class. I overheard him talking about having been stationed in Tarvesio, Italy, during the war so, shy as I was in those days, I spoke up anyway and said I'd been stationed just south of that.
Right after finishing art school and marrying, we went to France for a year and studied art at the Beaux Arts. I had a Fulbright. We went to England to buy a motorcycle, a BSA, one of the first springers. During the summer, we camped and rode all over Europe.
When I finally decided writing was what I wanted to do I was thirty and had had my first child. (I have three, so I had to struggle to get any writing time at all. Most of the time I went around feeling as if I couldn't breathe.) I never really had writing time until my children were grown and my husband had moved to California to teach at Cal Arts. Both of us got a lot more work done that way.
I don't think I ever would have written if I hadn't gotten married and gotten lonely. You have to have quiet in order to write. I came from a big, bouncy, noisy family. As I said, always laughing and talking and arguing. I remember getting up, throwing on clothes, not combing my hair or brushing my teeth, and rushing downstairs because I heard people laughing in the kitchen. I still have that feeling when I first get up—that I must rush to see what's happening in the world. It might be something funny. I was so lonely when I first got married with just the two of us, I didn't know what to do with myself. I kept on with art work for a while, and played in the Hofstra University orchestra, but after meeting science-fiction writers through my husband, I wanted to join them. Science-fiction people are a small cozy group who all know each other through conferences and workshops.
Ed started out as an science-fiction illustrator (using the name Emsh), but then went into abstract expressionist painting and experimental film making, and then experimental video. We influenced each other. I started writing science fiction and then went into more experimental writing and became more literary and also part of what others called the new wave in science fiction. That was a long time ago. Now I call it the Old Wave and I'm no longer interested in that kind of experimental writing.
I hated anything to do with writing until I met science-fiction people through my husband. Freshman English—and spelling—had scared me off. The science-fiction writers talked about writing as if it could be learned and as if a normal human being could do it. You didn't have to be Shakespeare to try it. I began to sell stories right away—first to the pulpiest of the pulps. My first story appeared in 1955. Later on I took classes at the New School in New York with Anatole Broyard and Kay Boyle, but I learned the most from the class with the poet Kenneth Koch.
I've only been blocked when I've learned a lot. After my class with Kenneth Koch, I couldn't write for six months. I had learned so much I had to take time to absorb it. And yet I couldn't tell anybody what I'd learned. I tried to, even right after the class, but what you learn is a secret. It's an experience you have to go through.
I also learned a lot from the various science-fiction workshops I attended off and on soon after I sold my first stories. (As I said, science fiction is a small world. You get noticed right away.) I especially learned from the science-fiction writer Damon Knight, who co-ran the first several workshops I went to. Also it's from those workshops that I learned to teach.
But soon after those New School classes, I didn't want to have anything to do with science fiction. For several years I wanted to be only a "literary" writer and I only wanted to sell to literary magazines. I went out for grants. I was successful in both of these. I received a National Endowment and two New York State Arts Council grants. But much later I decided I wanted to carve out a niche for myself and decided to go back to science fiction. I was never interested in sciency stories, I wanted to do people stories and stories that showed our life as it is in a new light.
After we had three kids, I didn't travel much. Ed still did, and when they were grown I usually went with him. We went to avant-garde film festivals and art installations all around the world. Japan was the most amazing. I found it more science fictionish than science fiction. We went three times, twice for a week and once for two weeks. I studied up on it and took a course in Japanese, thinking we'd go again and often, but my husband died soon after so I never had the opportunity to use the little Japanese I'd learned.
Once the kids were grown, Ed took a job at the California Institute of the Arts, teaching video art and as the dean of the video and film department. He said he'd just go try it out. He hated California and would be right back. Meanwhile I got my first real job at New York University School of Continuing Education. That's not the real part of the university, that's adult ed. (I'd only given short workshops up till then.) So Ed and I started a bicoastal relationship that lasted ten or so years. He found he loved California. I went to stay with him that summer and I fell in love with it, too, but I also loved my new job at NYU. Luckily our vacations didn't come at the same times. He'd come to New York for his spring break and I'd go to California for mine. Then I always spent the summer out there. We learned to love the mountains and the desert. We roamed all over the Sierra Nevada, mostly camping. We also went north beyond Banff and south to Mexico. Our favorite town was Bishop, California, on the eastern, high side of the Sierras. Less touristy than some. Everybody there describes it as a town of cowboys and Indians and retired intellectuals. Of course mostly retired geologists, but I met some retired linguists there who knew my father.
My husband had always wanted to learn to fly but didn't because he had a family with young children. Now that all the kids were grown he did learn to fly . . . at the age of sixty-two. The scariest thing I ever did in my life (!) was to go up with him in a tiny little plane. I knew how klutzy he was and how often he forgot things, but I did it anyway, several times. None of our kids would go up with him. They always managed to have a previous engagement.
After Ed died my writing changed completely for a while, as well as my reasons for doing it. My children were scattered all over the place, my husband gone. . . . I needed a family. I created kids, teenagers, and a husband to live with. I lived in my two westerns, Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill, in a way I never had lived in my writing before. At that time those characters were much more real to me than my friends. I didn't go anywhere. I just stayed home and wrote.
Another big change in my life back then pertains to my novels Ledoyt, Leaping Man Hill, and also The Mount. One of my daughters said something important right after my husband died. She said go and do something you never did before. She couldn't come with me but she sent me to a dude ranch.
She also sent me on a walking tour of the Lake Country in England, but that didn't have the same effect on my life and writing as the ranch did. I've not been the same after my several visits to that ranch. It influenced not only my western novels but several short stories.
At first I kept telling my daughter: "But I don't like horses anymore. That was back when I was twelve." After I'd been at the ranch I kept saying: "It's the lore I like. All the stuff those ranchers know. How they go out as if ships, with everything to repair anything tied on their saddles." And I had never lived on a farm/ranch before. I had no idea. I guess by now I finally should say I do like horses.
But at first, I couldn't write at all after Ed died. (It's a good thing I had to teach or I'd not have done anything.) It took about a year before I could write. Right after I came back from the ranch and back to New York, I sat in front of the TV set watching westerns because I wanted to see the desert and the mountains. I thought I'd not only lost a person, but the mountains, too. After a while I thought, these movies are all wrong. My grandma dressed and undressed under her nightgown, and the folks at the dude ranch I went to were just regular people. They'd been on that ranch for seven generations. (Without us guests, it would have died long ago.)
I had been saving the names of my great, great, great—I don't know how many greats (besides there were two or three with the same name)—grandfathers for something special. There was Abiel Ledoyt and Biel Ledoyt. So then, when I started writing Ledoyt and began to fall in love with my made-up character, I decided to use that old Huguenot family name.
I'm sorry now that in the first book I used the first name Beal instead of Biel. I got worried since I couldn't find the name anywhere but in my family tree. Then, just when the novel was about to come out and it was too late to change anything, I heard of a Cajun fiddler called Abiel so in the second book I went back to Biel and Abiel.
I was enjoying writing my Western novels in several ways. I could go back to being the cowboy I'd always wanted to be when I was twelve, and I could be a man. (As Flaubert said of Madame Bovary, I can say of Ledoyt, "Ledroit, c'est moi." But also I was madly in love with him, too. He keeps reappearing in various short stories I wrote later on as a different person, but similar. He's in Water Master and in My General.) The teenage girl in that book draws. I drew the drawings for her. They're not illustrations, they're an integral part of the book. And I could do drawings for the book exactly as I drew when I was in high school. All those side views!
The whole purpose in writing it was to get over my homesickness for my family. I was much more into characterization than I'd ever been before. (For satire, humor and adventure, you don't need to go quite that deeply into characters.) I used much from my own life. All the characters are made up, but many of the things they do I used from my own relatives, such as my grandma never being naked and always undressing and dressing under her nightgown. Also, as I had Ledoyt do, my father broke his toes and jammed his shoe on right away before they swelled up and didn't take his shoe off until his toes were healed.
With Ledoyt I loved the research so much I couldn't leave it out . . . so the recipes, and medical advice of the times, etc. are in it.
That was my first real novel. My earlier novel Carmen Dog is like a series of short stories except, like the Perils of Pauline, each short story gets her in more trouble. I was so confused about writing a real novel when writing Ledoyt, I remember lining up all the scenes and sections in a long row across the floor trying to decide the order. But after Ledoyt, Leaping Man Hill just went zipping along. (Some people like the mess of Ledoyt better.)
My three kids—one scientist and two who write and paint (the scientist could spell better than I could when she was eleven and the two artists don't spell much better than I do)—were born in 1955, 1957, and 1959. We didn't mean to have them so close together. I was frequently left alone with them. My husband took long trips in order to make films. He felt he could make money much more easily than I could and so why did I need him to give me time for my writing? And he was right. When I sold a story I only made a penny a word (at the beginning) if it was science fiction, and two copies if a literary magazine. Actually, I still make very little. Twice my husband was away making movies for over a month. It's the money from those two movies that, much later, put my kids through college. I guess my trouble at the time (alone with little children and with an old car that didn't work well) was worth it.
I wondered what my kids felt like with a mother struggling to write all the time, so I asked them.
One daughter wrote back: "Having a Mom and Dad who were doing their art in the house (when Ed was painting his covers, he worked in the attic. It was his movies that took him away) made making art normal and casual and an integral part of life. It made us kids do art also."
Another daughter wrote: "Getting put to bed and hearing the sound of the typewriter and knowing your mom was right there was reassuring." (She said, "We didn't know till later Mom was putting us to bed earlier than other kids our age.")
My son wrote: "I remember being proud and inspired by my mother. I would never have tried to write if it hadn't been for her." His note was full of how unfair it was that my husband got to do his art with no hassle and that I had to struggle for every minute. But, of course, it was Ed's work that made the money that kept us going, so I guess it was fair.
There's a story about how I wrote in a playpen with the children outside it. People write about this, but nobody seems to understand it. What you do is, you put your desk in the corner of a room. You take apart one corner of a playpen and open it out. Remove the floor. Attach the corners to the walls on each side of the desk. The area will be three times as big as a playpen. The kids are fenced out and can't reach your papers. Mostly my kids were hanging over the fence talking to me. My kids did not yell and rage outside it, as has been written recently. After all, I had learned to mother from that Frenchwoman who looked after us. I wasn't quite as good as she was, but almost. The kids came first. They were happy. I was the one who wasn't. But now I have all the time to write I want.
I should mention that I went for psychoanalysis for over twenty years. I wish I had done that first, before I went to college. I'd have done everything better and smarter and as a happier person.
One of the things my shrink told me has been important to me. He said, anybody can behave themselves when things go well, it's when things go badly that you see who a person really is. That's important to me as I think about myself and as I watch other people in action.
Kafka is my favorite writer. I love his short stories better than his novels. My favorites are The Hunger Artist, Josephine the Mouse Singer, and Report to anAcademy, which I imitated in my Report to the Men's Club. I like Kafka because his stories resonate beyond the story. And I like that you can't quite put your finger on the meanings. It's merely a feeling that it's telling you more than is on the page. I recently heard a writer on the radio say that stories should be like icebergs, most of them underwater.
I've done many a story without resonance. (All my early work, in fact.) But I don't care for those stories of mine as much as my later ones.
Now I've discovered Coetzee. A different kind of strange. Also Saramago. I have three favorites now.
Actually, though I'm mostly a science-fiction writer, I read very little science fiction. Right now I'm reading Faulkner's short stories. And finding a whole new appreciation for him.
People are always asking me, isn't all this knowledge I've learned from writing and teaching getting in the way of appreciating reading? It's just the opposite. I get so excited seeing something new or great technical prowess that I can hardly contain myself. I can't think of anything more thrilling than seeing new things or old things well done. I'm much more ready to yell out loud, jump up and down, for that than for any football goal my alma mater might make.
The nicest thing that was ever said about my science-fiction writing was in a review by Jim Gunn, a science-fiction critic and writer. He wrote that my science-fiction stories "Estranged the everyday." That's what I like best about science fiction. Or magic realism. You can make the everyday seem strange. You can see ordinary things with new eyes. You can write about the here and now and have the reader see us as odd. Which we are. That's what I like the best to do though I don't manage it with everything I write.
As I watch myself write I see that "estranging the everyday" is often why I work on a story in the first place. (I have several beginnings hanging around that I never went on with because they were simply "telling the story," so why bother?) Also I think it's science fiction's best reason for being. I like the other stuff, too. Some of it I like a lot, just not quite as much.
I'm finding, in my new war stories, that I can make anti-war comments through science fiction in a way I wouldn't be able to if I couldn't place the stories in a sort of limbo. My story "Repository" (in the July 2003 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction) would have been impossible without a science-fiction premise that had wiped out the soldiers' memories so they weren't sure anymore which side they were on.
Also I don't like to write about a specific war or place or time. I prefer to universalize it. Put it in a limbo and make it stand for all wars. Science fiction is the only place I know where that can be done.
A lot of people like science fiction because they're fascinated with gadgets and inventions and odd doo-dads and all different kinds of aliens, and that's fun (I guess—though not to me) and takes a lot of imagination (I suppose), but I prefer stories with few science-fiction elements. I may have been brainwashed in this—that is in having as few elements and doo-dads as possible—by Damon Knight. I obey that rule of his but not his other rule, which was that if a story can be told in a non-science-fiction way, then do it that way. He forgot that if you want to be a science-fiction/fantasy writer then everything goes into that mold. I always break Damon's second rule. But I do try to keep any science-fiction or fantasy elements to a minimum.
I also have a problem with those stories where strange things, not foreshadowed, keep popping up. If anything can happen at any time, where's the suspense? (That's the main reason I don't care much for magic or for "dragons and dungeons" kinds of fantasy.) As Damon Knight wrote, it's like that old joke about waiting for the second shoe to drop. (Somebody living above somebody else is going to bed and takes of his shoe and drops it on the floor. Then he realizes he's made a big thump for the guy below him so he very carefully puts down the second shoe. Pretty soon the guy below him knocks on the door and says, "For God's sake drop the other shoe.") In my classes I always say: Be sure to drop the first shoe so the reader can be waiting for the second. First shoes are as important as second shoes. I consider writing to be dropping a lot of first shoes and following through with the seconds.
First I learned to plot and sold to science-fiction magazines. Then for a long time my writing was a search for ways of structuring that wasn't a plot. Plot pulls the reader along and when it's not there something else must pull the reader. A sort of illusion of plot. But then I went back to plot. I find it more difficult and therefore much more fun.
Though I love plots and plotting, I never know where my stories are going when I start to write, but I always end up with something plotted. Partly I think it depends on when you do your thinking: as you go along or before you start. If I knew my story before I wrote it, I wouldn't bother writing it. Also I have plotted so many stories now that plot just comes naturally. When I come to a fork in the story I usually take the path that will be the worst for the protagonist. I try to foreshadow possible bad things as I go along, though if I don't use those, I have to go back and take them out. I like people stories. I think time limits (that's not a plot) and evil people are too easy, but good people in conflict innocently are what I like best to write about.
At my summer place in California, I took several classes in prey animal psychology, which actually were classes on the psychology of everything. About how we, being predators and having predators such as cats and dogs around us all the time, understand predators, but know very little about prey animals.
I used what I learned in this class for writing Ledoyt, but also in my novel The Mount. Especially the differences between prey and predator. I thought it would be fun to write about a prey animal riding on a predator instead of the other way around. We, who can't smell very well and can't hear very well and can only see straight out in front, being ridden by a creature who can see almost in a circle and hear and smell better than we can.
Another fun thing about those classes was that only the ranchers came to them. People with lots of horses and lots of cows and big hats that they never took off. (There was even a lot of cow psychology.)
When I was a literary writer I used to write very slowly, but now I write fast. (I like to call what I do magic realism though I know a lot of it actually is just plain fantasy.) I decided to do this a few years ago when I sent out five short stories, multiple submissions, each to five different literary magazines. I sent them in September when the literary magazines read. A year later the rejections started to trickle in. They were all rejected and it took over a year and a half for all of them to come back. If I were twenty years younger—as I was back when I placed most of my stories in literary magazines—I'd go on sending to those mags, but I'm too old now. I decided to stick where I was known, so now everything I write has, if sometimes only slightly, a science fiction/fantasy slant. After I decided this, I sold everything I wrote quite quickly and my reputation in the field took off. I write the first idea that comes to mind. I can't say that those first ideas come out any worse than ideas I slave and puzzle over a long time.
About my story "Bountiful City" (in my newest short story collection, to be called I Live with You): I was recently at a meeting that had a few writers and a poet, but was mostly a group of painters. They got to talking about all the things they'd never tell anybody and never did and still wouldn't, all the things that embarrassed them. I said that's what we write with. All the other writers and the poet agreed with me. I said I considered myself nothing but material and that it was an occupational hazard not to know what not to talk about. I said that a frequent exercise writing teachers assign is to write about your most embarrassing moment or to write about the thing you'd never tell anybody. As I walked home from that meeting, I started wondering if that was really true about myself. And what could I write that would embarrass me? So I wrote "Bountiful City." It begins: "I'm walking around New York saying, I love you, I love you, I love you, and I'm not in love with anybody. . . ." That's how I do walk around New York every day and, until then, never thought to ever tell it. I've used myself so mercilessly in my fiction that I still don't know what one shouldn't reveal about oneself. I'll tell anybody anything.
Though I use them as sparingly as possible, I do know what adjectives and adverbs are. (With my kind of a father you had to find this out for yourself even though he knew all that.) Also I avoid similes, though sometimes one of my characters will resort to one. I tell my students to use adjectives and adverbs and similes sparingly . . . if at all! And I tell my students to just use "said." Not to use a lot of fancy ways of saying "said" such as, reiterated, admonished, confirmed, and such.
Many people seem to think it's poetic writing to have a lot of similes and such, but I often find those people don't pay attention to the rhythms of their paragraphs and sentences. I pay a lot of attention to the rhythms and lengths of my sentences. Every now and then, especially in the last paragraph or the first paragraph, I try to write a long, long . . . much too long sentence. When I was teaching, I made a list of other authors who did this, too, and lots do. They always seem to me to be the particularly beautiful parts of a story.
I just read one by Louise Erdrich, "Disaster Stamps of Pluto," in the New Yorker, December 13, 2004: "So why, when I stroke my sister's valentine against the side of my face, and why, when I touch the folded linen of her vest, and when I reach for my brothers' overalls and the apron my mother died in that day, and bundle these things to my stomach together with my father's ancient, laundered, hay-smelling clothes, why, when I gather my family into my arms, do I catch my breath at the wild upsurge, as if a wind had lifted me, a black wing of air?"
I think that's gorgeous and that's what I mean by poetry in fiction.
There's one of mine at the end of my short science-fiction story "Acceptance Speech" in my short-story collection Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories: "And that is how I came to be here before you, making accepting gestures, being the six hundred and twelfth poet to become president and here, my friend and servant, still alive—though in his own mind only half so, having lost all but one way of greeting you, and all but one way of showing pleasure—yet, to me alive and singing, the even humbler master, the poet, Uncertainties, and, as I am also, sure of only a few small things."
I think of writing as play, as trying things, as having fun, as taking risks. Language itself seems to me to be odd and funny.
I like to tell my class what musicians say: Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent, only perfect practice makes perfect." I tell them, don't just go off, as Hemingway said, and write and write and write. That's one of the first things I tell them. I don't believe in "Just keep writing." I've seen too many worthless novels four hundred pages long from people who did this. I think people should learn their craft on short stories. I've taught long enough to know this is absolutely necessary. There's a lot more to learning to write fiction than most people realize and one should learn it on the shorter forms.
I generally put myself inside a first-person character and my character is almost always an unreliable narrator. I don't want people to believe that I think what they think. Their attitudes are part of their characterization. I never know more than they know. People ask about my stories, did such and such really happen? I always say I only know what the first-person character knows.
I find, now, that the worst, most anxious times for me are when I'm between stories. (Another reason why I hurry up and start something. Anything!) I always think I'll never have another story idea. I'm anxious in the middle of stories, too, when I get stuck (and I always do get stuck) and can't seem to get on with it, but that's not as bad as when I have nothing to work on, nothing to stew over or think about except whether I'll ever write again. Which, those times, I'm sure I won't.
I never considered myself a feminist though I'm always called one. How can I be one when I adore my three brothers and my son? (My son is more of a feminist than I am.) I was frustrated in my marriage but mostly because I was trying to find time to write. Good I've lived this long so as to get something done with everybody gone. But I miss them all.
I'm old, my hearing's not so good, and I've lost one eye to macular degeneration, but I'm still writing almost every day. I'll go on as long as I can still see. I may have to give up my mobile home in California. It's outside of town and I have to be able to drive to live there, and every year I hike less and less and more and more slowly. I'll miss hiking, I'll miss driving, but I'll miss writing most of all.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Science-FictionWriters, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
American Book Review, August, 1991, p. 12.
Booklist, November 15, 1989, p. 639; February 1, 1990, p. 1070; May 15, 1991, p. 1779; August, 2002, Regina Schroeder, reviews of The Mount and Report to the Men's Club p. 1936.
Extrapolation, spring, 2004, "Guest of Honor Speech, WisCon 2003," pp. 9-15.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1989, pp. 1421-1422; August 15, 1995, p. 1128; July 1, 2002, review of Report to the Men's Club, p. 901; July 15, 2002, review of The Mount, p. 976.
Library Journal, December, 1989, p. 168; April 15, 1990, p. 122; June 1, 1991, p. 188; November 15, 1991, p. 152; October 1, 1995, p. 119; September 15, 1999, Faye A. Chadwell, review of Leaping Man Hill, p. 111.
Locus, May, 1992, p. 51.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 9, 1991, p. 6.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February, 2003, Robert K. J. Killheffer, review of The Mount, pp. 33-39; May, 2003, review of Report to the Men's Club, pp. 36-41.
New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1990, Deborah Stead, review of Verging on the Pertinent, p. 20; April 29, 1990, Charlotte Innes, review of Carmen Dog, p. 38; October 29, 1995, Walter Satterthwait, "Suspicious of Joy," p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, November 17, 1989, p. 46; January 26, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of Carmen Dog, p. 412; April 26, 1991, p. 54; August 28, 1995, review of Ledoyt, p. 110; August 30, 1999, review of Leaping Man Hill, p. 50; July 8, 2002, review of The Mount, pp. 34-35.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1991, p. 284; spring, 2003, Michael Hemmingson, review of The Mount, p. 158.
Science Fiction Chronicle, June, 1992, p. 35.
Small Press, June, 1990, p. 31; fall, 1991, p. 55.
Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1990, p. 19.
Women's Review of Books, January, 1997, p. 5; May, 2003, Susanna J. Sturgis, "Horse Play," pp. 11-14.
Carol Emshwiller's Home Page,http://www.sfwa.org/members/emshwiller (February 9, 2005).