Strange fiction

Susan Palwick

Photo By David Robert

A talking mouse and a scientist, a half woman-half wolf, and a plucky heroine with a strange vision in her belly are some of the characters in award-winning author Susan Palwick’s The Fate of Mice. Palwick, an English professor at UNR, creates science fiction and fantasy tales. This latest release is a collection of short stories spanning her 20-year writing career. A new novel, Shelter, comes out this June. Palwick gives a book signing on March 10, 3 p.m. at Sundance Bookstore, 1155 W. Fourth St., and again March 12, 5 p.m. at UNR’s Jot Student Travis Union.

Many of your stories seem to involve a vulnerable character and a powerful character, and sometimes the powerful aren’t necessarily bad guys—they think they’re doing the right thing, often to disastrous or humorous results. Is this intentional?

Nobody’s ever asked me that before, and thinking about it, it’s true. … My general take on vulnerability in this culture is that vulnerability is a great cultural taboo. Especially here in Nevada, where we have this ethic of rugged individualism, and a lot of times people are ashamed to ask for help. … So I think one of the things my fiction is very often about is interdependence, and some characters realize that, and some don’t.

Do you have favorite authors? There’re a lot of different voices in here.

Thank you. I consciously work on varying my style. … Some writing teachers say each person should have one voice, and you need to find your voice and only write in that voice. I think that’s a limitation of the craft of fiction because good writing should be able to open up those different voices. Some of my favorite writers are John Crowley, Geoff Ryman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Rafael Carter …

What are the hardest things to learn and to teach about writing?

Of course, the famous bromide is “writing can’t be taught.” Well, certain elements of it can be taught. But there really is this mysterious, almost spiritual element to it, as if voices are coming to you from somewhere else. … There are people who want to believe it’s all the mysterious process and that they don’t have to focus on craft. Both are necessary. You have to refine your craft and your technical skills as much as you can so that when the mysterious thing descends on you, you’re ready for it.

Your work is quite literary. Do you mind being defined as a science fiction and fantasy writer?

We could take up the whole 15 minutes just talking about that question. … There’s a story I really wanted to include in this volume, which is set in the Nevada desert in Gerlach, and it’s about this guy who sort of runs this hostel for space aliens. … I personally love that story, which I describe as C.S. Lewis meets the Coen brothers in the Nevada desert, and I really wanted to include it in the book. One of the editors said, “It’s too science fiction. We can’t have space aliens.” And I said, “Well, I’m a science fiction writer, and you’re a science fiction press, and this is a science fiction collection.” And they said, “No, no. We’re marketing it as literary fantasy.” So I don’t have trouble being defined as a science fiction writer. In fact, throughout my life from high school onward, I’ve been an advocate for science fiction and the fact that it can be literary, and that these aren’t oxymorons. My father read one of my stories once, and he said, “Susan! This isn’t science fiction! It’s good!” … I absolutely don’t have a problem with it. One of the drawbacks is when you define yourself that way, there will be people who say, “Oh, I don’t like that,” and they won’t give it the chance to read it. … I’m definitely someone who, if you think you don’t like science fiction or fantasy, you should give my work a chance. I can’t count how many people have said to me, “Oh, I don’t like science fiction or fantasy, but I really love your work.”