#79 = Volume 26, Part 3 = November 1999
Closed Systems Kill: An Interview with Suzy McKee Charnas
The first half of Suzy McKee Charnas’s life (so far) has provided rich material
for the life of writing that began in 1969. Born in New York City in 1939, she
graduated from the New York High School of Music and Art, majored in economics
and history at Barnard College, and received a Master’s degree in education from
New York University. She taught English and History, first with the Peace Corps,
then in Nigeria at a high school for girls and at the University of Ife, then in
New York City. In 1967 she left teaching to work with a community mental health
organization for two years. She married in 1968 and in 1969 began her career as
a freelance writer when she moved to New Mexico.
Since 1969 Charnas has been very successful at writing mysteries, fantasy,
horror, and science fiction, including one novel, The Ruby Tear (1997), written
under the pen name Rebecca Brand. Her vampire novella, “The Unicorn Tapestry”
(which became part of the perenially popular novel, The Vampire Tapestry), won
the 1980 Nebula award. “Boobs,” about an angry teenage female werewolf, won the
1989 Hugo award. In 1997, she received a retrospective Tiptree award for the
first two volumes of her HOLDFAST series,
Walk to the End of the World (1974)
and Motherlines (1978). The series begins in a dystopic post holocaust America
where men keep women as slaves, following the women’s rebellion through the
actions of one woman, Alldera. By the second volume Alldera has joined a culture
of free women who live a nomadic life and reproduce without men. These novels
have become canonical texts of feminist science fiction because of the strength
and complexity with which they explore gender relationships and behaviors—their
combined emphasis on condemnation of male domination and fair-minded examination
of the difficulties of a separatist solution.
Alldera reappeared, after a hiatus of sixteen years, in The Furies (1994), in
which the women take back the male ruled Holdfast and turn men into slaves. Now Charnas has made the series a tetrology: in
The Conqueror’s Child (1999), Alldera’s daughter seeks her out and the women begin a cautious detente with the
Between February and July 1999, I conducted an e-mail interview with Suzy McKee
Charnas, asking her questions about her development as a writer, about her short
stories—which, although very fine, receive relatively little attention—and most
particularly, about her newest novel, The Conqueror’s Child. Her generous and
thoughtful answers to my questions reflect how her life experiences have led to
the writer she has become. As well, her answers resonate with her writing, and
readers will see many connections between Charnas’s responses and her work.
JG: How and when did you know you were a writer?
SMC: When I was a little kid, my dad was an illustrator for Wonder Books
[picture books for children], and he used to stalk around the house asking where
his “dummies” were—the blank books, maybe eight folded pages sewn together, that
he used to lay out his preliminary sketches for a story—because I’d snagged them
and was drawing my own pictures and stories into them. The book I have on my
shelf that he did pictures for, The Shy Little Horse, was published in 1947, and
it was, I believe, the last one he did. That would make me six to eight years
old when I wrote in his dummies.
JG: What made you become a writer?
SMC: I was a latchkey kid at a time when this was uncommon, with no siblings for
company or playmates until I was six—and you don’t get much play mileage from an
infant sister until she racks up a few years of her own. My parents were both
professional artists and my dad was a self made intellectual (the only person I
ever knew to have read not only Finnegans Wake but The Skeleton Key to Finnegans
Wake), and they both set great store by reading to me (and later to my sisters)
at bedtime. My mom taught me to read when I was four or five, to give me
something else to do that would keep me relatively safe and out from underfoot
(my first grade teacher was not delighted to find that I was restless in class
because I already knew more than she was prepared to teach us over the whole
So there I was with time on my hands, essentially alone—my parents worked at
home, at their drafting tables, but with necessary absorption in kid book
illustration and textile design respectively—so once I caught on that stories
were made out of words, and that words on a page were a way of storing up a
story so that you could unfold it again in your head any time you chose, I
started writing down my own stories (with pictures; I learned to draw horses
pretty early, from comic books). They were westerns, featuring a virtuous cowboy
named the Black Lash or something. Even then, there was this gothic tinge.
It wasn’t much of a step from that to making up and writing down stories
intended for unfolding in other people’s heads—the first true magic I can
remember encountering in my life. What an extraordinary, elegant little machine
a book is!
JG: Do you have a writing routine or ritual?
SMC: I don’t have one, maybe because I grew up with adults doing creative work
at their desks in the living room (decorated screens hid the mess when they had
company in) and it was very matter of fact. You just sat down and went to work,
and that’s what I do. My natural clock wants me up late at night, when there’s a
minimum of interruption and distraction, but being married for thirty years to a
guy I want to spend time with and who has always had to work long and intense
hours himself, has made me retrain myself to do my work daytimes. I didn’t, at
first: Motherlines was written mostly at midnight, in a separate little cabin
from our old house, to avoid disturbing Steve, with no company but big old
George Dog, who slept nights on the couch in my studio.
JG: What do you want your writing to do?
SMC: Generally I mean it to translate some ideas/pictures/emotions from my
brain to yours. Often I want the work to crack the frame you’ve customarily used
to see through when viewing a certain clutch of concepts, so that you can see
them differently and have the pleasure of reconsidering something previously
settled in your own mind. I’ve had that same pleasure and excitement in making
the story, and I want to share it with you because it’s a kind of pleasure that
I’ve learned to value very highly; and if you customarily read sf and fantasy,
the chances are pretty good (although by no means certain) that you have learned
to value it too. I feel that the work offers some new or different slant that
you might get a jolt or a thrill from, even if later you end up rejecting the
alteration, or just forgetting about it.
JG: How do you know when it’s working?
SMC: First it works on me, and I don’t need evidence beyond the eagerness to do
the work itself (and to let everything else go to hell in a handbasket
meanwhile). But as for whether it works for you the reader, I don’t know, not
until I give late draft material to pre-submission readers to read and give me
critical responses indicating where good stuff is happening for them and where
it’s not. There’s no way short of real discussion to know for sure whether
what’s actually been communicated is in fact what I meant to communicate or not,
of course. Even then, what’s been translated into a reader’s head by the words
is not the same as the original template in my head that I meant to translate
(which is likewise different from what it was when I started the work). The best
to hope for is a creative reassembly of something like my original inside the
reader’s head. That’s a reward in itself: the creative act has been sparked, in
some form, in another person’s mind.
When people get back to me with a reasonably accurate response to the book, I
know it’s working. When people start finding things in the book that I didn’t
realize I had put there but which ring true when pointed out to me, then I know
the work has gone beyond “working” (carrying out my conscious plan for it) to
acquire a kind of life of its own, which is chancy but very gratifying. It means
I have managed to hook into something vital in the Zeitgeist that is giving more
power to the work than I could give it as an individual.
JG: How did your degree in economics and history from Barnard influence your
SMC: That was all about being a writer. I figured out in freshman year that it
was tales of postcolonial adventure and intrigue in fictional African
ex-colonies and Caribbean islands that I wanted to write. To do that decently
I’d have to know how to design and present convincing fictional societies. I
took geology to get some feel for landscape formation, and anthropology for a
sense of the range of cultural diversity and where and how it shows itself. And
then I figured I would have to be able to give a reader a realistic sense of how
my characters functioned in their world—what they did for a living, and where
their attitudes and beliefs came from.
So I cobbled up a joint degree in economics and history. I loved it, and I’ve
read in both fields ever since and consider some grounding in these arts (they
are certainly not sciences!) my basic tool for writing fiction of any kind, and
indeed for thinking about any world, real or imagined. Work is part of what we
do or think we’re doing, history is part of what we are or think we are, and the
appearance of these elements in fictional people is what grounds them for a
Being at a school which was at that time for women only was also important, and
not living there but living at home and commuting (I attended Barnard on partial
scholarship and couldn’t afford dorm space). I never got shoved into the
background by teachers favoring male students in my classes, and was not
distracted from my education by heavy socializing with dormmates or with boys
(for whom I was in no way ready to deal at that stage anyhow—I was a very late
bloomer, socially). The encouragement I got from my teachers was always focused,
critical, and serious.
I’d had that kind of encouragement in high school too—I went to unusual public
schools in New York, starting at Hunter Model School, an experimental school
attached to Hunter College’s teacher training program, and then the High School
of Music and Art, where I was admitted as a student in Fine Arts. At both I had
what I remember as very high quality attention and instruction, and exacting
standards and strong competition. In educational terms I had what I regard as
extreme privilege, although my family was pretty poor—my father left when I was
eight, and my mother had to raise two daughters on what she made as a freelance
textile designer. No doubt she had some financial help from her extended family
(her mother was a Jewish immigrant from Vienna around the turn of the century,
and a self supporting mother who had raised four kids of her own). Because of
all this, I suppose, I am deeply enraged by the shameful neglect, if not virtual
abandonment, of public education as a serious investment in the U.S. these days;
but that’s another story.
JG: How did your experience in the Peace Corps in Nigeria influence your
SMC: Oh, it was crucial. I went in the first place because I knew all along that
I meant to write stories set in “exotic” places, and I’d never been to any.
Being in Africa busted my tiny little mind wide open in ways that changed my
For one thing, I came home and had to leave Manhattan, where I had lived all my
life until then, because I couldn’t stand the deep, sunless canyons of the
streets any more (in Nigeria I’d lived on a high, exposed plain where you could
see the weather coming for hours); and I ended up moving to the southwest, where
I’ve lived ever since.
And the contrast between what I’d heard and read and thought about “Africa” and
what I saw of life in one small portion of it blew up all my glib and facile
preconceptions about writing about “other cultures.” It was the beginning of the
sixties, Nigeria had just become independent from Great Britain, and gifted
Nigerians were writing their own books about themselves and redefining their own
culture and what had been and was happening to it, thank you very much. And the
richness of everyday experience, plus all the depths of which I could catch only
the barest hints at best, were obviously far beyond anything I could hope to
convey to even more naive (naive about Africa, anyway) readers back home. Having
tasted the intense immensity of “other” lives and ways, I could never again take
my own home culture, or the fragments of it that “belonged” to me, as the
natural measure of life in the world. I still think every child of U.S.
privilege should be posted off to another part of the world—any part, it doesn’t
really matter, so long as it’s not in some carefully shielded and neutralized
military or missionary-type compound—to have their vision of life and its
At the same time, I got a sampling of the kinds of things that make experience
feel “foreign” or “alien,” and for somebody interested in writing about made up
alien places and peoples, that was very important. I came away with some sense
of how you could write fictional presentations of experiences of being
helplessly marginal or a detached outsider or buffeted by alienness or
competently dealing with something you had no understanding of, etc. The
variations are as endless as the numbers of individuals experiencing them. In a
way those two years gave me confidence to create my own “alien” contexts in
fiction: I really did know how it felt on our planet at least, and what kinds of
things you noticed, missed, ignored, denied, or came up hard against, in that
kind of situation.
Eventually, when asked to produce a story for George R.R. Martin’s volume of New
Voices (stories by John W. Campbell Award nominees), I wrote my first short
story in the form of a miniature space opera set on a world settled by the
descendants of Nigerian market women [“Scorched Supper on New Niger,” 1980]. So
you could say that Africa equipped me, as a white American woman, to write about
space and the future as inhabited by more kinds of people than just smart white
guys doing imaginary techno speak at each other. In fact, after Africa, there
was no way I could even read that kind of thing with a straight face, so for a
longish spell I stopped reading sf altogether because so much of it seemed so
incredibly narrow that way (and other ways, too).
JG: Music plays a crucial role in several of your most important works, notably
in Vampire Tapestry, “Listening to Brahms” (1975), and “Beauty and the Opéra or
the Phantom Beast” (1996). What is your relationship to music—have you had
training, for instance?
SMC: I’ve taken piano lessons a couple of times in my life but never have stuck
with it, for various reasons. I have never done any formal study of music, but I
do tend to acquire instruments from time to time and to doodle about on them
until the sounds I want to hear come up against my capacity to produce anything
coherent, and my natural impatience does the rest: I quit.
My relationship to music, however, is another matter entirely. I grew up
listening to classical music. My parents had, for a relatively poor, Bohemian
household of the forties, an extensive record collection, and they went to
concerts and came home and talked excitedly about the music. We also listened to
the radio a lot (all those Toscanini concerts). In addition, one of my aunts and
her husband used to have some friends in of an evening to play chamber
music—these were mostly European refugees from Hitler—and “in” for a while was
my aunt’s apartment across the hallway.
Mind you, I had no use for chamber music then; I thought it was thin stuff, too
rarefied and tweedly for me, but that’s because I was a not happy kid with a lot
of angry and desperate feelings roiling around inside, and what I wanted from
music was something relating to those feelings, and that kind of passion was not
perceptible to me, as a child, in chamber music. Yet the idea of “serious” music
as integral to an intelligent and worthwhile life grew from the actions of the
I had a cheesy little phonograph early on and I gathered some records of my
own—mostly very heavy symphonic pieces, Beethoven, Liszt, Sibelius,
Tchaikovsky, Rimsky Korsakov—maybe what I mean is loud, as much as heavy. When
I listened to this music in the sanctum of my own bedroom (which I shared with
my younger sister, but her hours and her interests were not mine), I could
connect with my own feelings and validate them, which was very important because
adults kept telling me not to look so serious, to smile and look pretty, that I
wasn’t really angry or sad. It was crucial to me to be able to withdraw to a
space where I could reaffirm the reality of my own feelings regardless of how
much I pleased, displeased, scared, or created guilt feelings in the adults
For a long time I was the only kid I knew whose parents were divorced. I had a
major share of the responsibility of taking care of my kid sister (my mother was
off peddling her designs) and I resented it. I resented the whole set up, and I
resented my mother having to struggle so hard and worry so much, not to mention
her desperate efforts to “find” another man to marry who would help her with the
financial burden of raising two children in Manhattan, never a cheap place to
live. I remember being trotted down to a department store called Ohrbach’s every
autumn for their fall sales so she could buy me a sale price winter coat.
I was a smart kid. My mom managed to get me a private-school education while
staying within the free public system by getting me into that special elementary
school where many of the students came from wealthier families. Most of them
lived on the East Side, not the West Side, and went to Europe for their
vacations (or anyway that’s how I remember it), whereas I took a bus to school
every day and my mom broke her neck financially to send me away to a summer camp
with horses to ride (I was horse crazy as a girl) for two weeks in the summer. I
could kick myself now for having put pressure on her (as I’m sure I did) to pay
for this indulgence, but at the time I just wanted what I thought was every
bright, able kid’s due, whether the parents could easily afford it or not. The
sense of entitlement is by no means a boomer invention. I felt deprived of the
things those East Side kids had that I couldn’t have.
So I was a grouchy kid, at a time when a girl (of any age) who was not smiling
was perceived to be frowning, angry, ugly, etc. (Really, I can remember being
rebuked on the street by total strangers for not smiling on my way to the
grocery store.) Music helped me hold my own against the well intentioned mind
fucking games that went on over this, and I suspect that music was the key to my
continued mental health, such as it is. It helped me to keep in focus what was
really going on inside me, rather than what people wanted a little girl to be
feeling and expressing.
Also, I read that Thomas Edison in his later years grew deaf and used to stand
at his phonograph and sink his teeth into the wood of the cabinet so that he
could feel the vibrations of loudly played music through his skull bones. I
tried that, not that I was going deaf—far from it, my hearing was and remains
acute—but I had bad and rapidly worsening eyesight, and thought for some years
that I would live most of my adult life in a state of blindness. I think that
translated in my mind somehow into something akin to Edison’s deafness, and
found that the effect of the music was greatly augmented this way for me. I
guess there were tooth marks on the phonograph cabinet at home.
Music—listening to it, not making it, unfortunately—was a lifeline to the truth
of my emotions.
I tend to write about characters who respond to music, probably because as music
connects me with my own feelings, it can connect me with the feelings of my
fictional people as well and gives me a way into them as emotional constructs,
and into the emotional tone of a piece of fiction as a whole. I don’t write with
music on in my office, though; if I do put music on, I find that I simply tune
it out of my head because it interferes with the work process.
JG: Tell me about “Listening to Brahms.” How does music operate in that piece as
a mediating force between the cultures of the human beings and the aliens who
take them in and adopt human ways?
SMC: That’s a very special case. The conversation that ends that story [in which
two alien doctors discuss the dreadful slow death by cancer of one of their
grandsons] is, more or less verbatim, something I overheard at a concert some
two or three years before “Brahms” was written. I knew immediately that there
was a story in that conversation—so I wrote down what I had heard but had to put
it aside because I couldn’t imagine what the story was. I knew that conversation
was the ending. I tried to “set it” a couple of times, with no luck.
Then I woke up one morning from a dream in which a human sized, upright walking
lizard sat me down at a sort of café table outside somewhere and told me a long
story in which I was very interested but of which I remembered not one word when
I awoke. A week later I sat down and typed out “Brahms” in one sitting, and
found that the concert conversation was the ending of that story, at long last.
In “Brahms,” in my opinion, music is the ultimate medium of expression in which
(in this case) the tragic nature of the human predicament—the all seeing,
essentially boundless and immortal soul willingly and unwillingly stuck in the
vulnerable, fearful flesh—is made manifest as emotion. When Flynn overhears the
exchange between the two aliens at the concert, he can no longer maintain the
defensive self deception that they are just lizards imitating human beings.
Human music speaks to them, too, of the great and miserable mystery of being
fleshly creatures with souls, or divine creatures struggling with brute
materiality, which means that they are legitimate heirs of humanity after all.
In fact, a mass transmigration of souls from one species to another has been
completed by agreement as per Kondran theory [one of the alien Kondrans
proselytizes this vaguely Hindu philosophy], or at least that is the
understandŽing Flynn comes to, and with it an acceptance that “humanity,” in
some form, is not lost after all. He can relax and stop trying to put up a last
stand defense of humanity all by himself, and give up his horrible, soul
freezing loneliness as well.
Of course, first he has to be made, by frightful circumstances, to find his own
connection to the core experience of humanity in great music, so that he can
recognize that truthful attachment among the Kondrai.
Hmm. So that’s where that story came from. Now that I look at it in the light of
my answer to your first question about music, I see my damn teethmarks all over
JG: What is the function of music in Vampire Tapestry?
SMC: In Tapestry, I also use music as a sort of universal solvent, psychically
speaking: music dissolves the vampire’s necessary self control and discipline
and renders him prey to his own buried savagery, his deep past. The primal power
of music forces him to his own primal levels, stripping away the protective
coloration of humanity that he has made into his first rule of adaptation and
survival. The scene at the opera [in Tapestry] also gave me the chance to
juxtapose the vampire—a creature of art, after all, a figment of our collective
imagination—with the arts of music and drama. Kind of like Roger Rabbit being
reduced to tears by the Mona Lisa.
JG: “Brahms” also deals with the situation of the émigré, with cultural
borrowing and appropriation, passing (as in passing as another race), and other
kinds of postcolonial concerns. Would you discuss those issues as they pertain
to your work?
SMC: Well, a formative influence was those two years in Nigeria, of course. And
precisely these sorts of questions are at the core of sf in its more
sociological, anthropological (rather than technological) mode, so I guess it’s
no wonder. Sf has been the place where such issues have been thrashed through
most boldly, I think, in the past thirty years. Unfortunately, nobody powerful
pays any attention, since this is supposed to be a juvenile or escapist and
hence trivial subgenre of fiction. Ha.
JG: As in much Holocaust literature, the problems of the survivor are a crucial
element in “Brahms”; the toll it takes on the psyche, the relationships between
those who have been through it and those who haven’t, the guilt, the anger, and
the isolation. This story deals with the issue without dealing with genocide, of
course, but in “Brahms”—and in Vampire Tapestry and The Furies as well— you
explore the psyche of the survivor.
SMC: All true; I’m a reactive writer, I guess, and a lot of what I do is an
instinctive response to what I see as the simplification of complex matters. I
remember how disgusted I felt when I saw Star Wars, and so called Princess Leya
(or however you spell her non name), who was supposed to be this devoted leader
of a whole planetful of people, watched the planet get vaporized with never so
much as a batted eyelash, whereupon she turned with zest to fresh matters in
hand, that is, flirting with Han Solo. I don’t know, maybe I just have a really
inflated devotion to words, to their meanings: if you are a Princess, goddamn
it, and supposedly a democratically-inclined Princess (for modern audience
identification), then blast it all to hell, when the people of whom you are
supposedly the leader get all minced to bits you should show some signs of being
bereaved of the reason for your exalted existence. Cry. Throw up. Go into a deep
depression. Kill somebody, or yourself. Something.
That’s the kind of stimulus to which my work responds: when I see something deep
and powerful trivialized through oversimplification, I want to rescue it, and
also have the experience of trying to plumb the depths for the real riches lying
ignored down there, even the darkest riches. Otherwise we are selling human
experience, and the human soul and character, so short, just for a giggle, you
know, a hop and a skip over the surface. That can be great and it can be all you
want sometimes, but that deeper stuff is still there, and it needs to be
honored, it wants to be honored, it offers immense rewards to the artist who
takes the plunge and to the audience that plunges with her.
As for your mention of the Holocaust—I did a lot of reading about it when I was
a kid. My maternal grandmother was a Jew from Pressburg (now Bratislava, I
believe), via Vienna. She had a collection of Life magazine from the war years
gathering dust in a closet. I used to pore over the pictures and the text trying
to make sense of the enormity of it all, and wondering how a person could
survive all that, as victim or perpetrator or both, and still stay recognizably, functionally human. And I guess a good deal of what I write is
still related to those questions. I grew up in and have not yet outlived an era
of extreme behavior and experience, so I guess my work necessarily tries to deal
with at least some aspects of that, and to find some way to understand and cope
Also, in “Brahms” I really wanted to try us getting wiped out for a change,
instead of the classic sf paradigm of the white guys realizing too late the
chaos they have wrought on some miserable alien (or terrestrial) species: Suzy’s
Revenge for some of the monstrousness of Imperialism in all its forms at home
and abroad, I guess. I figured it was our turn to be under the boot rather than
wearing it, damn it, and long past time. As a writer I can do that stuff and get
away with it, and I do: I like to turn our cultural icons on their heads and
shake treasures of reality (or anyway my version of reality) out of their
JG: If “Brahms” deals with Suzy’s Revenge on Imperialism, what about Suzy’s
Revenge on the powers that be in “Boobs”? How angry is that story?
SMC: Very. I was drawing on that well of hurt and rage that all of us carry from
the time when we were young and at the mercy (which rarely existed) of those
older, stronger, or better connected than ourselves. That well is, at the time
of its formation, bottomless, because of the relative hugeness of each event
taking place in a span of only six years, or ten years, or twelve or sixteen.
When you get to be fifty, say, you look back and see those events as much
smaller, because so many other years of events have intervened, so that the
early ones lose their pride of place to more momentous happenings later
on—“perspective,” they call it.
But when you really put yourself back there (as an author, or a reader, does
using a story like “Boobs”), you get the full brunt of that earlier estimation
again: that this is the worst thing that could ever happen, and it’s happening
to you. So the anger has all the power and immediacy of that childhood moment,
which is what gives the story its bite (as it were).
JG: The protagonist of “Boobs” says, “There are people who just plain do not
deserve to live.” Do you yourself believe this?
SMC: Well. Milosevic? Karadjic? The brutes who set off the Rwanda genocide?
Those are the people the Billy Lindens of childhood can become if they grow up
unchecked and untrammeled, or if the restraints are suddenly lifted later on in
life so they can do as they choose. Of course, Kelsey herself could also become
such a monster, so....
Look, I’m in no better position to say a given person doesn’t deserve to live
than you are, but when I see someone acting out particularly selfish, empathy
blind, cruel impulses I know I see someone who needs to be convinced that this
or that sort of deeply destructive behavior is not allowed. “If you do this,
then our human society will do that to you.” So, quit filling mass graves with
murdered women, kids, and unarmed old men or we will (at long bloody last) Take
But the story is written from the point of view of a girl in junior high school,
and she doesn’t have that perspective. She’s pretty selfish and empathy blind
herself, isn’t she? It tends to come with her age and will, if all goes well,
depart as she matures.
JG: This is a story about transformation into an animal. In a way, Vampire
Tapestry is about an animal transforming into a human. There is a fair bit of
identification between people and animals in your fiction. Would you talk about
SMC: Hmm. Let’s just say that I’m interested in the boundaries between human
society and pretty much everything else, an interest that is standard equipment
for sf/fantasy writers. Beyond that, I’ve always had pets in my house and the
ways in which people and animals interact have fascinated me, so I tend to play
on that borderline in my fiction. There also seems to be a cultural push in that
direction (see Lives of the Monster Dogs [Kirsten Bakis, 1997], for example, or
Adam’s Task [Vickie Hearne, 1986], or any of the recent books about higher
primates learning languages devised for them by humans, etc.), so in artist
fashion I am winnowing from the cultural stream nuggets of interest, playing
creatively with them, and returning the results for the perusal and play of
JG: The tension in Vampire Tapestry between seeing someone romantically/ideally/metaphorically and seeing someone realistically exists not
only for the characters (both vampire and human) and for the reader, but maybe
for the writer, too. What can you tell me about that tension?
SMC: It’s a personal matter, although all artists in every field deal with the
various veils of perception, the supposed “reality” (or lack of same) ultimately
behind each, and the fruitful tensions between differing levels.
One result of my childhood fear of blindness was that my legitimately inherited
impulse toward introversion was heightened (it expressed itself mainly through
obsessive reading—very good for the myopia, of course). I realized in my mid
teens that I was messing up my own chances to be a decent writer, because I
spent too damned much time in my own head and was neglecting the efforts and
rewards of paying close attention to what was going on outside myself. So I
started to remind myself to try to focus my vision, such as it was, outward—and
all my other senses as well—so that in writing I might be able to describe
something other than the inside of my own head. (I know there’s a philosophical
argument about whether that is in fact possible, but the question here is one of
being able to communicate effectively as a fiction writer.)
At some point I began to identify paying close attention to another person with
respecting their reality and existence outside my ideas about them. Only on that
basis, I now believe, does real intimacy become a possibility, and I understand
intimacy (not necessarily sexual, although it occasionally happens in that
context) to be the chief goal of living in the world. Judging by my own
experiences of it, and all our stories about struggling to achieve it (under the
guise of “love,” usually presented as romantic love), that seems to be true.
So it’s not surprising that Tapestry, like much of my fiction (and that of many
other writers), is largely “about” the seduction of an essentially solitary
creature by the delights of intimacy, which can only be created when the
metaphors, ideals, and other distortions (no matter how compelling) are put
aside (this is why so much sexual activity does not involve true intimacy—we
don’t dare put aside the pretenses in which we have learned to armor ourselves).
JG: How did that story arise?
SMC: Oh, it was—as so often with me—a kind of stunt, for starters. That is, I
meant to do something that I saw others were neglecting, to trump the silly
stuff they were doing instead of this snazzy thing that I had noticed going
begging. But since these stunts always start in the form of questions, not
answers, in Tapestry the question is: “What would a vampire produced by
evolution rather than superstition be like?” And the stunts immediately get past
being barrel rolls done mainly for the pleasure of shocking the bourgeoisie and
become explorations on their own terms.
In this case, I had been in New York, fleeing from the work on Motherlines,
which had come to a standstill. To entertain myself, I went to see Dracula (the
old stage version that later became the movie with Bela Lugosi), a silly script
rescued (to the degree that it was rescuable) by sets designed by Edward Gorey
and the sexy langour of Frank Langella in the title role. Then I went to see The
Passion of Dracula, a clever little play made from similar material by a couple
of comic book guys down at a vest pocket theatre in Greenwich Village called the
Cherry Lane: that one was much better, full of style and wit, and energized by
fighting the constraints of budget, space, and so on.
Then I went to Grand Central Station to wait for one of my sisters to come into
town, and while there into my head there crept a conjunction of two threads. One
was my basic dissatisfaction with the rampant Romanticism of both the plays I
had seen about this vicious bloodsucker, and the other was the memory of a
little item from a recent issue of Omni about the testing of a new form of
artificial blood. So I thought: I’ll write about a vampire who’s a natural
predator, like a saber toothed tiger, very old and cruel the way animals can be
impersonally cruel, and I’ll use the artificial blood idea to spin a plot from.
So my setting will be a university hospital, where such a substance might be
developed and tested; and maybe there’s a sub theme of racial purity becoming a
moot point when blood is made artificial.
The artificial blood notion soon vanished, thank goodness, but the racial purity
notion survived in the character of Katje, a Boer from South Africa making her
way in a very different culture. And the university background remained, giving
me my opening setting (the faculty club, modeled on one I had just stayed in
while giving a lecture at an eastern school) and my vampire’s professorial
JG: How is Vampire Tapestry continuing to live on stage?
SMC: Oh, that’s been a blast! There have been three productions of Vampire
Dreams so far, if you count the truncated sketch first presented at La Mama in
New York as a half-hour showcase. After each production (and in fact during
rehearsals for the second), I’ve done thorough revisions of the script to make
it more stageworthy. The next incarnation is due in December, 1999, in New
York. The play is well enough along and tested enough by now so that I don’t
expect to rework it this time.
The main changes from the novella—the play is based on the third chapter of the
novel, which was published separately as a novella, “Unicorn Tapestry”—are that
I’ve conflated that chapter with the final one to provide a satisfying ending.
Some additional scenes had to be written for the stage that did not appear in
the story. Notably, something had to happen onstage to show that the therapist
is convinced that her client really is a vampire, or she just comes off as a
manipulable fool because the audience thinks for most of the first act that he’s
not really a vampire but just a highly imaginative psychopath.
Their sparring sessions had to branch out a bit to reflect more of the real
world; and I found that onstage, you needed the payoff of a post coital
confrontation between the two main characters, which became (with the ending
that grows out of it) the climax (oh, drat) of the play. This wasn’t necessary
or desirable in the story because of the interiority of fiction, but onstage it
became a major gap, and filling that gap took the story further than it had gone
in novella form and also made the graft of elements from the ending of the final
chapter become an organic join.
Weyland and Floria and the others have all gone through a number of physical
incarnations now, and it’s always a joy to see how the different actors embody
these characters, not only from production to production but sometimes from
night to night. In that sense, if the play is published and goes on being
performed, the story may continue to evolve, within limits, for some time yet.
JG: Your new book, The Conqueror’s Child, offers both an exciting narrative and
an exploration of cultural difference, as well as the connections among memory,
myth, and literacy. Why has the transformation of culture been so crucial in
recent sf, and why did you explore it in The Conqueror’s Child?
SMC: It’s crucial because we either transform or die, or maybe we transform and
die; it’s too soon to tell. Meanwhile, cultures of ancient lineage are being
transformed in the blink of an eye by the overpowering steamroller of consumer
culture as it comes out of America via TV and film. So this process and its
costs and implications are on people’s minds.
My own interest in these books lies in the story of a culture (the Holdfast as
we originally meet it) being changed, and the fems’ subculture also being
changed—all of this in the lurching, half assed way that such things happen
despite people’s plans and intentions (when they have them). The last book,
though, is precisely about attempts by people to master that stumbling,
undirected process made up of a million tiny decisions made by individuals out
of mixed motives and incomplete information and gods know what else, and make it
come out somewhere in the vicinity of what they want to have happen.
I’m thinking here about the limits on the effectiveness of individual or even
group will—directed, mindful will with constructive goals in mind—and on the
persistence of individual decency that’s required to make the lurchings tend
more toward “better” than toward “worse.” Which is why you want a culture that
encourages decency, if you can get it.
And I also wanted to make it very clear that neither I nor my more mindful
characters believe in cures. They have lived long enough, as I have, to
understand that the best you can do is to try to ride the reeling beast and
steer it a little toward the “better”; but even if you get there, change will
continue, maybe in the direction of “even better” or maybe in the direction of
“worse”—or in some direction nobody foresaw at all and that defies judgment for
a long time to come.
And despite all that, people of good will try, anyway; that’s what good will is
JG: Several passages from the novel make me think of the situation in Serbia
during the 1990s: “Destroying old ways is easier for us than creating better
ones” (258); “Must we take on our enemies’ burden of madness as we assume their
power and authority?”(94); “Why does no battle stay won?” (369). How and to what
extent did current events shape The Conqueror’s Child?
SMC: I have followed the Balkan mess since the horrors of Sarajevo, which
demonstrates the kind of brutality and hatred bred by brutality and hatred, and
how extremely difficult it is to deal with such interfaces without simply
exacerbating frictions. At the time the novel was actually written, the Irish
civil war seemed to be at last winding down, and South Africa was dealing with
its legacy of bitterness by means of the Truth Commission (which I actually
borrowed, if you’ll recall—it’s only glancingly alluded to, as I did not want
to rub readers’ faces in it).
JG: Given your focus on the bitterness of social divisions, to what extent do
you think gender attributes are innate, culturally shaped, performed, and/or
chosen by the individual?
SMC: My opinion wavers with the weather, the impact of the latest research on
such matters, what I’ve been reading, and so on. This is one of the big, big
questions we’re all hacking away at, and I’ve no more solved that big, big
question than anybody else has.
I’m inclined to think that what you have here is a transcendent spirit housed in
an animal body. The body is wired, like all animal bodies, with instincts meant
to protect it and its progeny, but the spirit sees choices where the body only
jumps in response to stimuli. If you are scared enough, you tend to rely on the
body system, which is selfish, mindless, brutal, and most effective in terms of
physical survival. If you are brave or secure enough, you have the option of
operating at least part of the time in the spirit’s gear, where you can look
beyond your own physical survival and maybe even that of your own personal
child/gene-carrier, and choose to do something for abstract reasons, usually
“good” but not always.
The male/female body systems carry certain kinds of responses wired in, but it
is always possible for a person’s spirit to override them and make other
choices. That is the kind of action we are going to need to get us out of the
environmental disaster we have been making for ourselves out of mindless over
breeding (letting the animal body and its fears run the show in a way
appropriate to a bunch of weak little mammals struggling to survive, but not to
a dominant species with our strength multiplied a thousand times by
JG: What does it take for male/female bonding, unity, peace?
SMC: More love, less fear. More spirit, less instinct (instinct runs on fear a
lot of the time, as a survival mechanism). Certainly that is the central
question for the men and women of the New Holdfast: how to draw love out of the
stew of fear, rage, and hatred, so that something better can be created for the
children to come. Maybe having grandkids now has something to do with this
preoccupation—what do you think?
But it means that those promoting love must sometimes destroy the ones trying to
reinstate the rule of fear—the religious fanatics, the mindless destroyers on
both sides. Sometimes they destroy themselves, but not often enough (see
Milosevic and his crew of killers, still free, still in power—though it may not
last). It’s not an easy path, or we’d already be there, wouldn’t we?
JG: Would you talk about the challenges of writing a lively and entertaining
novel (which you did) that nevertheless explores complex questions?
SMC: Oh, that’s not hard. You just set things up so that the characters can’t
avoid dealing with those questions, and then turn them loose and let them run
The tough part is to make sure you are traveling with enough of them to get a
good wide view of the goings on, and that, I admit, was challenging. It was easy
to pick up the threads on the central cluster of people, harder to decide who
else to travel in, and then it was just trial and error to figure out who was
going to stick with which thread of the tapestry for us, to show it unwind. The
logistics got pretty complicated sometimes.
One reviewer complained that the characters tend to blend together and become
indistinguishable. That’s a risk you run when you deal with large casts and big
ideas. An author can neglect to explore the uniqueness of her char-acters
because the ideas require so much space and time to deploy. Then you can end up
writing propaganda, than which there is nothing duller. I think I’ve mostly kept
my balance here, but probably only for readers already familiar enough with the
kinds of ideas in the books not to be overwhelmed by them.
JG: How optimistic are you that gender or racial freedom is possible? Will the
Holdfast world eventually achieve freedom for all?
SMC: I like to think they’ve got a chance. In fact I more or less pushed them
through about six generations’ worth of change in two, just to get an idea of
how they’d manage. They’re tougher than we are, and they’ve had to be more
realistic. I think they’ll be okay.
JG: You connect the ideas of literacy, history, and myth. Would you talk about
how you see these connections, the importance of literacy in shaping the
individual and the culture, in the book and out here, and whether you see
significant changes in how literacy is working here that you might be exploring
in the book?
SMC: Literacy is vital to complex societies. That’s how we store extended
memory, our way of being able to think about things beyond the immediate moment,
our major time binding tool. When we lose that, we lose the possibility of
widespread, informed critical judgment (which is rare enough even with
literacy). Because when we lose the experience of the past, its lessons melt
away (this is a sore point in a country like the U.S., where the past is
actively viewed as an enemy to be subdued, if not killed and left behind
forever). We’re left neophytes again, every time. Not a good position from which
to deal with the blinding storms of information and disinformation that afflict
us daily and with increasing density and power, here in the “real” world.
Every time there’s a new upsurge of feminism, for example, we rediscover that
it’s all been thought of, talked over, and pursued in the past, but that the
next generation of women failed to stick with the facts (in addition to pushing
ahead through the doors that had been opened for them, a truth that they choose
to forget as fast as they can, so as not to be in any way constrained by it) and
the memories of what has just been achieved. This means that they are unprepared
to hold on to what has been given to them when the backlash rolls in to take it
all away again.
That’s happening now in the U.S. as the self styled “religious” Right chips away
at abortion rights and the self styled Republican Party chips away at everything
else that women have won, while many young women recoil from the term “feminist”
and from the very idea of collective action because it might interfere with
winning the limited races for the spoils that are now open to them as
individuals thanks to—well, to feminism, as it happens. When these women’s
granddaughters wake up to find themselves stripped of their civil rights again
and realize the need for collective action, it’s in the books and memoirs about
my generation’s times and those of the waves of feminist women before us that
they will find the knowledge they need (if those books and records survive), not
in music videos of writhing girls in leather and plastic or in glamour magazines
called things like Self.
Without history you are not only reduced to political infancy, you are reduced
to victimhood, because you don’t know any better than to submit, one by one, or,
when that becomes intolerable, to reinvent the wheel of collective action yet
So it’s important to me that my Holdfast people regain their grip on the written
word, the witness of the inscribed or printed page, for the sake of their own
future. In fact I had meant, at one point, to have the travelers at the end
stumble upon Elnoa’s cave and find her books there, full of detailed accounts of
slavery days; but it would have added another fifty pages at least to an already
long book, so I had to give that up.
Literacy also kills memory, in a way. Traditional societies worked by memorized
recitations of stories, lineages, poetry, etc. The ability to memorize at length
falls by the wayside when we come to rely on the written word. So the Free have
already begun to discard the self songs that are the memory preservation tool of
the Riding Women, and there is far less poetry spoken and sung in the last book
than in Motherlines. But complex societies need detail and accuracy, such as it
is, so much that I am prepared to see these people lose spoken memory for
written words, compromised as both may be as carriers of truth (and there’s
discussion of that problem as well in The Conqueror’s Child).
When there are different and competing versions within that society of what a
society is and ought to be (which is part of what I mean by “complexity” in this
context), then spoken memory is not enough.
JG: The novel has two religious movements and both raise questions about the
role of religion. What do you see as the purpose of religious faith?
SMC: If you are speaking of organized religion, its role seems to me to be that
of any other social institution: to control people and to perpetuate itself and
JG: Do you see it as a necessary evil? A step toward something else?
SMC: Its explicit intent is to be a necessary aid to leading an ethical life,
with or without a specific reward at the end, and sometimes, for some people, it
seems to operate that way. The other side of that coin, of course, is that it
creates an out group of people whom one can look down on and pity or maybe put
to the sword if they don’t accept a forcible draft into the in group. We are
always looking for ways to cut the vast world of people into smaller and smaller
groupings to which we can feel we “belong,” so as not to feel so alone and
exposed as individuals in the mass.
Religion’s implicit purpose, as I see it, is always to divert energy and
attention away from the search for true human intimacy, person to person, and to
substitute the promise of intimacy with a non being (God) or a kind of mass
intimacy with other believers in various forms of reassuring group highs
attained by prayer, ritual, sacrifice, etc. I guess it’s because interpersonal
intimacy is so powerful that it scares people.
The religion in these books is not yet institutionalized (except for the men’s
version of Christianity in the Old Holdfast, where drug dreams reinforce the
system). It’s much more a desperate conjuring up of some source of power,
sustenance, and justification for people caught up in terrible times. When
people need such support so badly, they will find a way to devise such a system
of beliefs, like the women who perpetuate the worship of Moonwoman after the
Free have been victorious.
They are beginning to turn it into an institution. Even Fedeka, in spite of
herself—look how her wanderings get translated into an “institution” of
pilgrimage—is a party to this. This is why Moonwoman’s followers, at the end of
the book, are already coming into conflict with the fourth religion in the
story, the worship of the sea god Sallah brought from the north by Salalli and
her people. Only the Riding Women have no system of religious belief; their
society and their biology place each person so securely in relations to
everybody else that they don’t need to appeal to an outside force. The solidity
of the clone heritage, reaching forward and back with basically unvarying
consistency, seems to provide the same psychological security against death as
religion sometimes provides.
For the rest of us, I guess I see religion as a necessary evil, by and large,
because it does seem so necessary to large numbers of people, and there are
always self righteous, ambitious, or corrupt individuals willing to use religion
to justify some outrage or other that shames us all. Now spirituality is another
matter. I have great respect for those who can step outside the rigid boundaries
of institutional religion and seek the sources, nature, and destiny of the
spiritual self that animates the physical body. But then, I have always
preferred questions to answers.
JG: Setteo is the mystic, insane “cutboy” who first appears in The Furies and
plays an important role in The Conqueror’s Child. He’s a troubled and troubling
character. What can you tell me about his role in the novels?
SMC: Ah, Setteo; he’s my wild card, my crazy Tiresias, my books’ weak and
fallible prophet and spiritual shooting star. What can I tell you about him? I
don’t think I can explain him. He suddenly showed up at the beginning of The
Furies, when I thought he was some kind of mutated Christian, working out into
pretty nutty mental space from the twisted Christianity the men of the Old
Holdfast had devised to justify their own lunatic “civilization.” He simply
presented himself as the first contact the returning women had with men, and as
soon as he showed up, the story, the shape of which had not been at all clear to
me, took off, which was wonderful
I had been cringing at the idea of writing what looked to be nothing but a long
war story—first there was this battle, and then there was that battle—with lots
of plot ploys introduced to provide suspense (Alldera captured, say, the day
nearly lost, a Trojan horse). In this I was shortchanging my characters, who
jumped right in and produced all the plot I could possibly want out of their own
inter relationships; but the fems began by playing off Setteo at first. He was
their jump start in that book, the flint that struck their spark.
It soon became clear that he was not a Christian of any kind at all but a shaman
(not surprising, since I had not long before studied shamanism here in
Albuquerque, out of curiosity). Setteo brought the spark of the unpredictable,
questions with no answers, the immense creativity of mystery and untamed human
Everybody else in these books is “tamed”—constrained, bent, and forced in much
that they do—by their worldly circumstances, their immediate experience of
physical and social life. Setteo has been submitted to terrible constraints of
his own, so terrible that he has leaped, mentally, into another dimension
entirely, where he contends, alone and in secret, with the demons that drive us
to do such terrible things to each other. In that double worldness, he becomes
the wild element that I think of as, in some traditions, the trickster—Coyote,
Raven, Loki—but he’s the trickster in chains, locked into a heroic struggle that
requires of him all of the inventiveness and courage of his radical, not to say
You see? I spill out words about him, but they go around and around; I can’t get
in, except by means of story. His analog in the Riding Women’s world, by the
way, is Grays Omelly in Motherlines; or you could say that she’s an early draft
of him. I knew that I was going to need that kind of completely deviant
energy—something from right outside the systems of interaction I was playing
with—somewhere down the line.
Closed systems (like institutional religions) kill. I can see that I’ve done a
number of things to keep the “system” of these books open: there are loose ends
that are intended to lead the reader’s imagination out into new possibility:
Elnoa’s books; the vanished Riding Women; the Breakaways, making their own way
down to the southwest of the Bayo born; references to events and people we never
see, but that strongly influence the characters before us; the changes, in the
last chapter, already beginning to lead the New Holdfast into an as yet
indistinct, unknowable future. Openness even breaks into the story in the
persons of Salalli and her people, strangers from the north where nobody is
supposed to live; and of course in the character of Setteo himself.
He’s the concrete sign of that openness, that need to keep something alive,
outside the author’s control but inside the book, to prevent the design from
going rigid and cold. You know, when a Navajo woman weaves a woolen blanket,
they say she leaves a little imperfection in the design so that the spirit of
the design doesn’t get trapped in there. I see Setteo functioning as a kind of
spirit door too, but his job is to make sure that life gets in.
There, I told you I couldn’t make much sense about him; he puzzles me, too, so I
just burble on like a dope. But I told you, I like questions better than
answers. Questions are beginnings, but when you have “the answer,” you have
reached the end. It’s our questions that keep us vital.
JG: Let me continue, then, with several more general questions. You’ve been a
teacher in public school, at university, and at Clarion workshops; but writing
teaches as well. Would you compare your teaching style to your writing? What do
you most want to teach?
SMC: Well, I sometimes tell stories, as a teacher; but all speakers do that. And
I used to have kids convert stories into other forms as a way of studying and
learning them (turning the Odyssey into a comic book, for example, in a
ninth-grade core class). I try to make plenty of room for humor in both arenas,
the classroom and the fiction; and most of all, even though a lecture starts
with notes (or a class with a “lesson plan”), a teaching session is basically an
open ended, flexible form exploration, just as a story or a book starts with a
question and some characters but feels its way toward its conclusion as an
I see similarities, but then, I want to see similarities; I like the idea of
coherence, congruity between the one arena and the other. You would have to talk
to readers who had also been my “students” to get a (possibly) more objective
JG: Samuel Delany and Damien Broderick, each both writer and critic, have
developed the idea of the megatext, the body of science fiction that provides
the context in which any one writer writes a work, as if individual sf texts are
in a conversation with one another, each work one reads or writes forming a
voice in the conversation, informing how we read or write the next one. What
works do your works have conversations with? What sf have they been informed by,
influenced by, which do they respond to?
SMC: Ah, ah, duckie, don’t ask me to do the academics’ job! I do the books, you
lot make the connections. I read all the sf I could get my hands on as a kid,
and lots of good sf (feminist or not) since the 1960s, so the field of
possibilities is wide open. Obviously, if Tapestry (for example) started as a
“response” to Dracula on the stage (and, beyond that, as novel and film and
cultural concept in various stages of development), there’s one line of talk
I’ve inserted myself into; same with “Beauty and the Opéra” [which builds upon
Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera]. For works not as direct as that in iden-tifiable antecedents, all I can say is that I read widely in sf and
adventure fiction (and biography and mountain climbing and sailing books) in my
“golden years,” that is in the 1950s and 1960s; less so later on, and then
deeply in the area of gender inquiry particularly in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Lately, because of the particular nature of feminist sf (living out of a core
located in Madison, Wisconsin, and in the Tiptree Award crowd), I am in
electronic conversation with colleagues in the field, and I read here and there
in sf not called feminist but interesting for other reasons, like the enormous
talent or specific interests of a particular author, or a chance recommendation
that sounds intriguing. So those are the “calls” I hear. What response I make in
the work is for others to discern.
JG: What do your works contribute to the conversation? And what responses do you
see in other sf?
SMC: Remember, I am an intuitive writer: outlines kill me, and conscious intent
is kept to a minimum in the course of the work so that I can avoid manipulating
characters and events as much as possible. I try to stay open to the shapes and
directions they have in them, which are generally far more interesting than
anything I could “think up” for them. Besides I’ve occasionally had the
(generally delightful) surprise of being shown something in my work that I had
no idea I had put there, which seems to me to be a pretty good indication that
the book is in that sf conversation and doing work there that others can use in
So I don’t look back much to see what I’ve said or whom I was replying to,
though I now and then pick up a book of mine or a story and read it again, just
for the fun of seeing how my own perceptions about it have changed.
This is flux world. I found my way through it once for each story or book
(although of course sometimes I take another pass with another story at another
time, as with Tapestry and “Beauty and the Opéra,” for example—something about
reworking your central thematic material, I think). After that, it’s other
folks’ turns, if they find the prospect worthwhile. To ask for my interpretation
is a way of asking me to redo the journey myself, re creating the story again;
it’s unfair to the original, seems to me.
Let it stand. The thing to remember is, I am not the work and the work is not
me. It’s just the work. It speaks (except for circumstantial detail that I might
or might not feel is relevant or interesting, or just because I have as much
right to contradict myself and go all contrary if I feel like it as anybody
else) for itself. Or anyway it ought to, or what is it doing out there anyway,
taking up valuable shelf space?
JG: Which of your works are you proudest of?
SMC: Oh, the HOLDFAST books, because the story was such a challenge to complete.
JG: What most surprises you in your work?
SMC: What astonishes me is the steady, subtle, sneaky building of coherence in
work that I’m just noodling along with, not paying attention to what’s done. I
mean the way that “The Ancient Mind at Work” [the short story that began Vampire
Tapestry] spun another story out of itself, and then I saw that it was a book
and what the five different “stories” would be and how they developed out of
each other. Then, when Dave Hartwell suggested that I rewrite the ending in a
more traditional way instead of being all “inventive” and original and a
smartass with it, all of a sudden, in a long paragraph on the next to last page,
every piece of that story was yanked into line and given its pedigree, and the
whole thing turned out to be—a novel. Not a series of five stories, but a book,
integrated and loaded with internal consistency from beginning to end.
Same with the HOLDFAST books, on a larger (and longer) scale. I never meant for
there to be two books, let alone four, and I certainly had no intention, at the
beginning, of working on this damned thing for thirty years! But then to get to
the end and look back and see the surfacing of thematic developments from the
first book to the last, and to see that the characters had managed to live the
twenty five years of the entire tale in real (fictional) time just as I had in
the “real” world, just amazed me. I did not plan it (in fact when I tried
to—with the infamous outline—I nearly killed it, although I now think that
outline had a positive function in the process). It happened. It mostly makes
sense. I don’t think about it too much because it gives me vertigo.
Not that other writers haven’t written multi volume works; probably some of them
did it without initial intent to go beyond the first book. But for me to have
personally done that is kind of shocking to me, myself (as opposed to Suzy the
writer who’s just done what a lot of other authors have done, only with a
Big surprise. Still. It makes me grin. I do not ever intend to do anything like
it again (but we know what mere intentions are worth, don’t we? So who knows).
JG: Thanks for all the time you’ve taken with these questions.
SMC: Thanks for giving me this timely and welcome opportunity to look back and
take some stock of what I’ve been doing these past thirty years of my life,
duckie. No kidding. You need to turn around and reflect a bit sometimes, to get
the value from the journey so far, instead of just running ever onward with
never a pause to catch your breath or learn any of the lessons you’ve been so
WORKS BY SUZY MCKEE CHARNAS CITED IN THIS INTERVIEW:
“The Ancient Mind at Work.” Omni Magazine. February 1980: 48-122.
“Beauty and the Opéra, or the Phantom Beast.” Asimov’s Science Fiction #243
(March 1996): 44-84. Rpt. in Modern Classics of Fantasy, ed. Gardner Dozois. New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 602-41.
“Boobs.” Asimov’s Science Fiction #145 (July 1989): 78-94. Rpt. in The Skin of
the Soul, ed. Lisa Tuttle. London: The Women’s Press, 1990. 18-38; rpt. in The
New Hugo Winners, Vol. III, ed. Connie Willis and Martin H. Greenberg. New York:
Baen, 1994. 127-49; rpt. in The Mammoth Book of Werewolves, ed. Stephen Jones.
New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994. 420-38; rpt. in Hugo and Nebula Award Winners
from Asimov’s Science Fiction, ed. Sheila Williams. New York: Random
House/Wings, 1995. 303-20; rpt. in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women,
eds. A. Susan Williams and Richard Glyn Jones. London: Viking UK, 1995. 479-98;
rpt. in Women Who Run With the Werewolves, ed. Pam Keesey. Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis
Press, 1996. 25-42; rpt. in Visions of Wonder: The Science Fiction Research
Association Anthology, eds. David G. Hartwell and Milton T. Wolf. New York: Tor,
The Conqueror’s Child. New York: Tor, 1999.
The Furies. New York: Tor, 1994.
“Listening to Brahms.” Omni magazine 8 (September 1988): 56-110. Rpt. Eugene,
OR: Pulphouse, 1991 (Short Story Paperback #19); rpt. in Nebula Awards 22, ed.
George Zebrowski. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. 133-60; rpt. in
Omni Best Science Fiction One, ed. Ellen Datlow. New York: Omni, 1992. 235-65;
rpt. in Endangered Species, ed. Ellen Datlow, New York: Tor, forthcoming.
Motherlines. New York: Berkley-Putnam, 1978. Rpt. (with Walk to the End of the
World) London: The Women’s Press, 1989; rpt. in The Slave and the Free (with
Walk to the End of the World). New York: Tor, 1999.
“Scorched Supper on New Niger.” New Voices III: The Campbell Award Nominees. Ed.
George R.R. Martin. New York: Berkley, 1980. 81-117. Rpt. in The Best Science
Fiction of the Year #10, ed. Terry Carr. New York: Pocket, 1981. 23-61; rpt. in
Moonstone and Tiger Eye, by Suzy McKee Charnas. Eugene, OR: Pulphouse, 1992
(Author’s Choice Monthly #29). 9-61; rpt. in The Mammoth Book of Modern Science
Fiction: Short Novels of the 1980s, eds. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and
Charles G. Waugh. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1993. 90-125; rpt. in Women of
Wonder, The Contemporary Years: Science Fiction by Women From the 1970s to the
1990s, ed. Pamela Sargent. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995. 47-80.
“The Unicorn Tapesty.” New Dimensions 11, eds. Marta Randall and Robert
Silverberg. New York: Pocket Books, 1980. 11-78. Rpt. in Best Science Fiction
Stories of the Year (1980), ed. Gardner Dozois. New York: Dutton, 1981; rpt.
Fantasy Annual IV, ed. Terry Carr. New York: Pocket, 1981: 139-202; rpt. in
Nebula Award Stories 16, eds. Jerry E. Pournelle and John F. Carr. New York:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982. 85-155; New York: Bantam, 1983. 65-123; rpt.
in Vampires: Two Centuries of Great Vampire Stories, ed. Alan Ryan. New York:
Doubleday, 1987. 505-61; rpt. in Blood Thirst: 100 Years of Vampire Fiction, ed.
Leonard Wolf. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 196-244. Rpt. in The Vampire Tapestry (see below).
The Vampire Tapestry. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. Rpt. New York: Pocket
Books, 1981; rpt. New York: Tor, 1986; rpt. Albuquerque, NM: Living Batch Press
(U of New Mexico P), 1993.
Walk to the End of the World. New York: Ballantine, 1974. Rpt. New York:
Berkley, 1979; rpt. (with Motherlines) London: The Women’s Press, 1989; rpt. in
Radical Utopias (with Joanna Russ, The Female Man and Samuel R. Delany, Triton).
New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1990; rpt. in The Slave and the Free (with Motherlines). New York: Tor, 1999.
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