Perfectly Herself: A discussion of the work of Carol Emshwiller

By Ursula K. Le Guin, Helen Merrick, Pat Murphy, and Gary K. Wolfe

Carol Emshwiller was born in 1921, and published her first SF story, "This Thing Called Love," in 1955. In the decades since then, she has published hundreds of stories, some of which are collected in Joy in Our Cause (1974), Verging on the Pertinent (1989), The Start of the End of It All (1990), Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories (2002), I Live With You (2005), and In The Time of War & Master of the Road to Nowhere (2011). The first volume of her Collected Stories was also published this year. Her novels include the satiric fable Carmen Dog (1988), Westerns Ledoyt (1995) and Leaping Man Hill (1999), SF The Mount (2002), and young adult novel Mister Boots (2005). Bibliographies of her work can be found at the ISFDB and on her website. She is the winner of a World Fantasy Life Achievement Award, and a separate World Fantasy Award for The Start of the End of It All; the Philip K. Dick Award for The Mount; Nebula Awards for "Creature" (2001) and "I Live With You" (2006); and a retro James Tiptree Jr. Award for Carmen Dog. The following discussion about Emshwiller's work was carried out by email with Ursula K. Le Guin, Helen Merrick, Pat Murphy, and Gary K. Wolfe in May 2011.

Niall Harrison: I'm a reader who discovered Carol Emshwiller in the past decade; I don't know if her 2003 Nebula winner "Creature" was the first of her stories that I read, but I'm pretty sure it was the first I noticed reading, as a Carol Emshwiller story. And I've read a lot of what she's published since then. But I haven't read much of what she published before then. So the first thing I'm interested in, I think, is how you all see the shape of her career. Where did you start? And how does her work seem to you to have evolved over the years?

Ursula K Le Guin: My 2001 review of Ledoyt answers this, in part, better than I could do now:

Emshwiller's readers know her to be a major fabulist, a marvelous magical realist, one of the strongest, most complex, most consistently feminist voices in fiction. But her books, mostly published by a good small press in San Francisco, Mercury House, don't get wide attention. Part of the problem may well be her calm originality. Most reviewers prefer pigeons that fit in holes and rabbits that redux. Emshwiller's like a wild mixture of Italo Calvino (intellectual games) and Grace Paley (perfect honesty) and Fay Weldon (outrageous wit) and Jorge Luis Borges (pure luminosity), but no—her voice is perfectly her own. She isn't like anybody. She's different. Before I get to Ledoyt (which is different) I want to talk a little about the other Emshwiller books (which are all different).

All but one of them came out within the last seven years, and her reputation may be just beginning to grow. Before 1990 I knew her work only from science fiction publications. She isn't categorizable as a SF writer, but she knows how to play brilliant games with SF themes.

Gary K Wolfe: Like Ursula, I remember coming across Carol Emshwiller's name in the SF magazines I read as a kid, and I'm also tempted to refer to the review of the first volume of her Collected Stories that I did for Locus recently, since part of it involved this very question of the shape of her career.

Viewed from Emshwiller's own perspective, then, The Collected Stories can be read as a kind of intensive course in the possibilities and techniques of story writing and construction, and could be valuable to young writers for that alone. But viewed from the perspective of an SF reader, the phases of Emshwiller's career might fall out a bit differently. The earliest stories here may well have been shaped for the conventions of the post-pulp marketplace, but in dealing consistently with marriages and families they contrast markedly with the conventional SF of the time, and sometimes reveal a prescient feminist sensibility, not only in the tales of robot-wives ("Built for Pleasure," "Love Me Again") but in stories which adopt viewpoints such as that of an alien seeking its mother ("The Piece Thing"). We can begin to see Emshwiller freeing herself from some of these early constraints when she begins appearing in F&SF with stories like the Sturgeonesque "The Coming," in which a troubled girl identifies with a despised, scarecrow-like tramp, and freeing herself even further as the New Wave settles in, such as in her Dangerous Visions story "Sex and/or Mr. Morrison," whose aging unmarried narrator hides out in the room of her fat upstairs neighbor to find out if he's "one of the Normals or one of the Others." This liberation from traditional form leads to a long series of increasingly unconventional fictions, often published in non-genre venues and perhaps best represented by her 1974 collection Joy in Our Cause, which is generously represented here. Some of these fictions clearly reflect Emshwiller's deepening involvement with the arts and filmmaking communities, such as "Biography of an Uncircumcised Man (Including Interview)", with its direct allusions to her husband Ed, other filmmakers and poets, and literary friends like Tom Disch (probably one of the few figures from this era who moved as easily between the SF and avant-garde literary worlds).

But one thing I couldn't reasonably fit into the review was the second part of Niall's question, which is how and when I became aware of her as a writer I wanted to keep reading. For some reason I have a fairly clear memory of the first story of hers that I read, back when I was 13 or 14. It was "A Day at the Beach," which appeared in F&SF in 1959 and was reprinted by Judith Merril in her Year's Best the following year (OK, I had to look up those dates). It was a fairly quiet postapocalyptic tale, with a couple of moments of surprising violence, concerning a family taking their son to the beach on a Saturday afternoon. Rereading it earlier this year, I think I caught a glimpse of what had made it so memorable to me as a kid. The details of the backstory are never made quite explicit, but we gradually begin to learn how much has been lost, and the story's final line, the mother saying "'I wonder if it really was Saturday,'" just seemed devastating to me. What could happen to the world that causes you to lose the days of the week?

Looking at it again in the context of her career, it now seems to represent an important transition point between those earlier stories she'd started writing—probably because of Ed and his circle of SF friends—for minor markets like Future Science Fiction or Original Science Fiction, and the later more ambitious and experimental fictions, as she moved into more literary markets like F&SF. She may have been lucky to have good editors championing her work back then—Merril included her in a number of year's bests, and soon she was appearing in Damon Knight's Orbit series and Moorcock's New Worlds. Still later, she shifted more into literary journals or stories that appeared as originals in her collections, and I rather lost track of her work.

Then a few years ago I reviewed I Live with You and Mister Boots. The stories were wonderful—better than most of the earlier ones I'd remembered—but I also learned I'd almost entirely missed her late-blooming career as a novelist. I went back and picked up Carmen Dog, but never caught up with the Western novels. I'm just about to begin In the Time of War and Master of the Road to Nowhere, and am interested to see if it reinforces the idea I had in reading her collected stories—that after a career of many phases, she's found a comfortable way to synthesize all of them, making her all over again the proverbial writer to watch. I don't know if there's another 90 year old author anywhere about whom that could be said.

Pat Murphy: I met Carol back in 1978, when she taught at the Clarion workshop that I attended. I had read some of her short fiction, and I remember being struck by her critiques—very kind, very honest, very astute. But the first work of hers that really fully captured my attention was her novel, Carmen Dog, which I read when it came out in 1990. I was teaching a science fiction lecture course at University of California Santa Cruz at the time, and my first lecture was on "What is Science Fiction?" A tricky question, to be sure—and I encouraged students to come to grips with it by reading excerpts of various texts and asking students to vote on whether a particular passage was science fiction or not. Excerpts included passages that almost anyone would identify as science fiction (these included rayguns, rocket ships, and aliens with multiple eyes) and ones that made the students stop and scratch their heads (like quotes from Kafka's Metamorphosis, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). One of my favorite student reactions was to the opening passage of Carmen Dog, a novel in which women are becoming animals and animals are becoming women. Students listened and were baffled. They didn't have a clue about what literary category would accommodate this work. It had strange events and elements of experimental fiction—but unlike Kafka's Metamorphosis, it wasn't something they recognized. They didn't know how to categorize it, but they knew they wanted to read more. I was certainly with them on that.

Helen Merrick: I am not totally clear on when I first read Emshwiller. After reading Gary's comments, I realise that I may well have read "A Day at The Beach" (and perhaps others) when I was much much younger. I certainly remember that story vividly. My first conscious memory is reading Carmen Dog in the mid-1990s, when I had begun my PhD thesis-driven campaign to read every femininst SF book I could get my hands on. One of my guides in this journey was the wonderful UK publisher series, The Women's Press republications of classic feminist SF and new authors edited by the brilliant Sarah Lefanu. I read all of these books, including their reprint of Carmen Dog (which incidentally gave one a very interesting perspective on feminist SF, putting together authors like Emshwiller, with Josephine Saxton, Rosaleen Love and Joanna Russ). So, having "marked" Emshwiller as a feminist SF author who had an absolutely unique take on gender, I went looking for other work. I read her short story collection The Start of the End of it All (also from Women's Press) where I would have learnt that she had published more than 100 short stories. As I did more research I worked out her involvement in the new wave, and with Emsh, and that, like a few other authors like Kathleen MacLean she had been around and writing in the 1950s. One of the other impressions I remember getting very clearly from Emshwiller in various bios and interviews was that, like many other women SF writers who started in the 50s/60s (Kate Wilhelm springs to mind), she talked a lot about how hard it was to write as a mother, when her children were still young.

Then though I'm sure I kept up with some stories as they came out Emshwiller dropped off my radar for a while, until Justine Larbalestier sent me Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill as a birthday present. I'd had no idea that these books existed, and I was, quite frankly, a bit bemused. These were westerns! And yes, I had loved Carol Emshwiller's work, but why on earth was Justine sending me these books when she knew that I only read SF&F? (well, mostly!) I'm ashamed to say it took a while, but finally I did read them, and fell in love and awe all over again and went out looking for Emshwiller again and was surprised at how much I found, and how different it was.

Murphy: Thinking about the shape of anyone's career (including my own) is pretty much beyond me. But I can tell you that I am in awe of Carol's recent work. Always fresh, idiosyncratic, and fearless.

Le Guin: I know her later work, 90s-00s, better than the earlier stories, so I'll talk about that.

It seems to me that with Ledoyt she hit a major new vein. And that she has been mining that vein in both novels and short stories since. Many of them are about a very damaged, vulnerable man and a girl or woman who tries to help him. In the recent "war stories," the figure of "the General" recurs—a man who is or was the leader of an army, hiding in defeat, or in a world so destroyed by war that defeat and victory have no meaning. Was war a major theme in her earlier work. Was male solitude/vulnerability?

Merrick: I'm not quite sure where exactly the war stories come from. I agree that her genius in these stories as elsewhere is how deceptively simple they appear. And how she can keep seeing and saying new things about, in essence, the "war between the sexes" as Russ would have put it. I also adored Mr Boots, which I think forms an interesting answer, or echo of Carmen Dog. A very different working out of similar themes—challenging the impossible inevitability of being either/or instead of both/and—whether this be boy/girl, human/animal.

Harrison: Perhaps here's another way of considering her career. What for you makes a Carol Emshwiller story distinctive, Emshwilleresque? For me, I think the most immediate thing is style: surface simplicity—even spartan, when it comes to description—but cunning in how the sentences build on one another. Carmen Dog, almost the only earlier work I've read, struck me as being a bit more textured, certainly much more explicitly referential, and perhaps more explicit in its intent. But I'd be interested to know whether that's a function of Carmen Dog, or her earlier work in general.

Ursula: I was asked to write the intro for half the forthcoming volume of late short stories, the "war stories" half. They are immensely different from most of the earlier stories—the whole sensibility is different—I think. . . but I don't have any of her older collections here to look at and maybe see parallels and continuities.

Question: Has she always written in the present tense, or did that begin with the "post-Ledoyt" phase? The one-sentence-paragraph present-tense usage in the "war stories" is very insistent.

Wolfe: As far as I could tell from the Collected Stories, the present-tense narration was already common in the mid-1960s—in fact it struck me that it's very common from 1967 on, and rare before that. The shorter paragraphs and sections seem much newer, however. In the war stories, it also struck me how often she uses clueless male narrators, sometimes to hilarious effect, like the Colonel seeking a wife in "A Hello to Arms": "'I will make a study of women. I will go where women go, though at present I don't know where that is.'"

Merrick: As I read her work, and her comments about her life and work it seems to me that we are better off talking about the shape of a life—a long life full of very different experiences, impulses, and freedoms to write, which of necessity impact on what and how Emshwiller has written.

Murphy: In fact I'm just reading the Tachyon collection of Carol's stories, I Live with You. The last piece in the book is Carol's Guest of Honor speech from Wiscon in 2003. In it, she talks a bit about her writing—and how the writing and her reasons for writing changed with Ed's death:

After Ed died my writing changed completely. And my reasons for doing it. My children were scattered all over the place, my husband was dead . . . 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 wrote.

Merrick: Gary's review reminded me that of course the other place I would have encountered Emshwiller was in Dangerous Visions, and so putting Carmen Dog together with "Sex and/or Mrs Morrison" it isn't surprising that I had read her from the start as a feminist writer. From her own words, I don't think she would always (or even now?) necessarily describe herself as a "feminist writer." So I think your comment in the review Gary, about how even her earliest stories exhibit a "prescient feminist sensibility" is very interesting. I certainly look forward very much to reading her stories in order, to see how these themes—and her style of writing—play out. How wonderful to know there will be two volumes.

And yes, the clueless male narrators—as you say Gary, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes chilling. Thinking about Emshwiller's writing style, what makes it so powerful for me is the way she offers such chilling, almost painfully resonant observations about life through the most simple, sometimes almost banal sentences. One that struck me when re-reading "I Live with You" was (paraphrasing) "people never notice when things are cleaner, only when they are dirtier."

One of the reasons I find this aspect of Emshwiller's style so fascinating is the way it hides the hard work of crafting such perfect simplicity. In the Wiscon speech that Pat mentions, she talks of how she now loves writing, for that reason:

All my life a bad student. And I hated writing most of all. It was too hard.[ . . . ]

Now writing is my favourite because it's the hardest thing I know. That's why I love plots and stories. I love the skill it takes to get everything together. Don't tell anybody but I think short-story writing is harder than poetry. Even harder than sonnets.

Harrison: You've identified a few themes or clusters in her work—the war stories, and masculinity, recently, and Helen talked about the "either/or" problematic in a couple of her novels (which it occurs to me is also in The Mount). Are there any other recurring concerns you'd point to? I wonder whether interesting things might be said about the environment in her work; I've had a clear sense from a number of her stories of humanity being part of something, enmeshed in the environment of the planet, but at the same time there's that sparseness we touched on.

Le Guin: When animals are important in a novel something is likely to be going on, something big is being said about our place in the environment, about human beings as one among many creatures—rather than the sole focus of interest as in pyschological novels. Carol took this decentering movement quite far in Carmen Dog, where animals and women join as one in leaving Man to his godly dominion over everybody else. (Not that Carmen Dog lacks psychological subtlety—it is, after all, a painfully sympathetic but unsparing portrait of a loyal wife.) And in The Mount, she nicely reversed the positions, in every sense of the word, beautifully confusing the issues of what is animal/what is human and what is human/what is alien. You can't take de-anthropocentrism much farther than that, unless you turn anti-human—which she never does.

Sparseness? Well she's very terse, and very intense; she doesn't waste any words; but I don't know that I'd call her writing sparse?

Wolfe: I prefer to think of Carol's writing as distilled, with the unnecessary or distracting bits boiled off. If she writes about war, she seldom gives us more than a few clues as to when and where the war takes place—though in a recent story like "Killers" we can vaguely locate it in the American Southwest; when she writes about urban alienation, rarely does she give us details of a particular city or a particular time.

Murphy: I've been thinking more about what makes a Carol Emshwiller story distinctive. I agree with Niall's notion of surface simplicity—but more than that I think her work is characterized by a painfully sharp clarity—a clear-eyed honest view of the world. For me, that clarity and honesty are what gives her work a deep sense of humor—Carmen Dog is painfully funny, I think.

Some of my favorite Emshwiller stories feature protagonists who live in the shadows, outside of society. These are the secret people, living in the cracks, viewing the world from beneath, trying to figure out how things work. Thinking about those stories, I was struck by Gary's comment about her "exploration of the nature of love and alienation." Maybe it's the clear-eyed view these warring impulses that gives these stories the power that brings me back to them again and again.

Harrison: How would you say Emshwiller's career intersects with different parts of the SF field? New Wave SF, feminist SF, slipstream (via the John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly anthology of a few years ago . . . and there are the westerns, of course)—how do you see her importance to each of those traditions? What can we say about her influence?

Le Guin: I guess I see Carol as getting remarkably little recognition from most quarters, in SF or outside of it, until pretty recently. Such deep changes in direction and genre as she has made tend to throw reviewers and readers off. Publishers and booksellers can't pigeonhole her; she gets lost among the big commercial extruded-product books. She could and can be scarily brilliant, yet there is a kind of modesty in her writing, a tendency to play it quietly, in simple language, offhand, as if nothing important were being said. (In the long run, though, the quiet poker player may well take the pot.)

And she has increasingly followed her own obsessions quite fearlessly and without, I think, calling very much on the modes and politics of the time for support, not even feminism.

So I really don't know how much she has been influenced by other writers, or how much influence she has had. I guess I see her as a essentially a loner—like one of the completely intransigeant people in her Western novels—or one of the Generals in her war stories, who have somehow lost their army, but don't really seem to miss it all that much . . . because an army never was what they really wanted. . .

Wolfe: I tend to agree with Ursula that Carol has pretty clearly forged her own career apart from identifying with movements in the history of the field—though no doubt finding receptive editors has sometimes seemed to attach her to certain movements at certain times, such as the New Wave. But her career has been so long—well over a half century—that these seem more like the movements found her, rather than her finding the movements. We can retrospectively see her as a pioneer feminist writer, a New Wave writer, an intersitital writer, or whatever, but I get the strong sense that she would have been writing these stories along her own personal arc, whether the movements had been there or not.


Niall Harrison is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.