Eccentric Relatives and Raw Grief: A Conversation with Susan Palwick
In the opening moments of Susan Palwick’s Mending the Moon, four-year-old Melinda Soto looks up at the moon and notices the “pits and shadows” for the first time. The moon doesn't look like she was told it should look. It is not “purely white, as spotless and serene as a newly peeled egg.”
She wants to scrub the moon clean, to fill in the craters, to fix it.
“ ‘It’s too far away for mending,’ ” Melinda’s mother tells her.
“ ‘I want to anyway. I’m going to. Will you help me?’ ” Melinda responds.
If you never meet Melinda again, you will still know her well—the first three pages of Mending the Moon make sure of that. If she fixes the moon, you will cheer her. If she is murdered, you will mourn her.
This is what Palwick does—she gives us a character to love and she takes that character away and in the process she thrusts us into the lives of the characters who also loved the deceased. There is death, but there is a beautiful sense of community, too, even when the mourners don’t necessarily get along. There is loss, but connection. In other words, Palwick gives us a family.
Why, if so much of Susan Palwick’s fiction is about grief and loss, does it seem like such a gift to read it?
“I try to write clearly,” said Palwick of her writing style. “I’m not interested in confusing readers unnecessarily, although I suppose I do sometimes anyway! I’m very interested in poetics and prose rhythm, although there’s much less of that in Mending than in The Necessary Beggar. I guess the style I aim for is ‘sophisticated transparence,’ if there is such a thing.”
Palwick doesn’t publish a lot of fiction. By her own account, she writes slowly, edits heavily, and has a bad habit of starting drafts without finishing them. She made her first professional sale (to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) in 1985. She has one collection of stories, The Fate of Mice, and four novels, including, Flying in Place, The Necessary Beggar, Shelter, and Mending the Moon. Her first and most recent novels were published twenty years apart, give or take a year.
Palwick is a speculative fiction writer, a columnist, licensed lay preacher, and an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. Below, Palwick and I talk about writing and life and a few other things here and there.
In what ways is writing a gift—to you, to readers, etc.—and in what ways does writing require faith—in yourself, in the craft, in God?
It’s certainly a gift to me, although it’s one I’ve worked very hard to develop. I think sometimes people think that “gifts” are presented on platters, rather than representing a lot of sweat and study. Writing’s a gift, but it’s also a discipline; maybe the gift is the desire to do it, while discipline is what confers the ability to do it well. But it’s a gift because it gives me a way to speak to people I’ll never meet, and because my characters (well, most of them, anyway) become friends I worry about, people whose stories I want to learn and follow. I don’t think readers can be curious about a character’s story if the writer isn’t curious, too.
In any case, I certainly hope my writing is a gift to my readers. Some readers feel that way and some don’t, and some feel that way about some of my books but not others. Writers are a little like eccentric relatives with hit-or-miss taste in Christmas gifts. One year they’ll bake you the most delicious cookies you’ve ever tasted, and the next year you’ll open the box to find a pair of socks, handknit in colors never found in nature, that don’t seem designed to fit human feet.
As far as faith goes . . . well, I think you have to have faith in your own ability to put a sentence together, and to tell a story other people want to hear. That doesn’t come right away, and it can vanish pretty easily. I think we all second-guess ourselves and our work. My most trusted first reader is my husband, who’s always honest and who has an uncanny ability to predict what other people will or won’t like; if he says a story won’t sell, it doesn’t, even if I love it. But conversely, if he says a story’s good, I’ve learned to believe him, even if I’m unhappy with the piece.
I do have faith in my ability to craft readable, engaging prose. I think I’m a pretty good stylist. I have faith in my characterization, too. That’s what interests me most about fiction, and it’s where many of my stories start, and I’ve gotten enough positive feedback to know that other people see it as one of my strengths. (I agree with my critics that plot is my weakness.)
As for how writing connects with my religious faith, I firmly share the belief—best articulated by J.R.R. Tolkien in “On Fairy-stories” and by Dorothy Sayers in Mind of the Maker—that humans were created by a Creator to create. Any act of making things, rather than destroying them, is holy work, whether one’s making books or bread.
Where did you start Mending the Moon?
I started Mending the Moon because Tor told my agent they’d like me to write a mainstream novel, and my agent—who never pressures me—said, “They came to us, and that doesn’t happen in this market, and you will get me a proposal in a week.” She and I kicked some ideas around over dinner, and I got her the proposal, and they accepted it. That meant, of course, that I had to write the book.
I’d written a not-very-good draft of a novella about three older women trying to help a young man through a supernatural crisis, so I took those characters and made them mainstream. Most of my work is somehow about loss or grief, so it’s no surprise that Mending the Moon is, too. I’ve always been interested in how people navigate their lives after tragedy. In Mending the Moon, that factor was heightened because my father died three months before Tor approached my agent, and my mother died while I was writing the book, so I was living in the raw grief my characters inhabit (although my parents, both in their eighties, died of natural causes, not foul play).
This was the first book I wrote entirely in response to a publisher’s request. I wrote Flying in Place and The Necessary Beggar without contracts (and I prefer to work that way, because there’s much less pressure). I wrote Shelter under contract, but had already started it when I sold it. But all of my books have started, in one way or another, with character.
How does a novel work on the reader? What should it do? And in what ways does Mending the Moon succeed or veer from that?
It depends on the novel. It depends on the reader. No novel will hit two different people exactly alike; it won’t even be the same book if the same person goes back to it at different stages in life. Some books grievously disappoint on a later reading, especially if we loved them in childhood. Others withstand the test of two or three re-readings. The best books are inexhaustible. You can reread them endlessly, and they always show you something new. The Lord of the Rings does that for me; so does The Last Unicorn. I have no idea if Mending the Moon will do that for anyone, although I certainly hope so. I’ve already been told by a friend that the book helped her through a time of grief, which moves me very much.
I do think—and this is a somewhat didactic stance, and decidedly a minority opinion—that the work of all good fiction is to increase the amount of imaginative empathy in the world, to take us into experiences we haven’t had firsthand and show us new opportunities for compassion. Several other writers, people I respect deeply, have made rather loud fun of me for saying this, but I really believe it: not, necessarily, that all books have to do this, but that books that do are the ones people will still be reading after the author’s dead. I hope that Mending the Moon does this in even a small way, in showing a response to violence that isn’t vengeful or obsessed with police procedure, and particularly in attempting to represent the experience of a murderer’s family.
In what ways did the writing of Mending the Moon challenge you as a writer? What were some of the surprises for you?
Well, it challenged me because Tor asked for a mainstream novel, and I don’t write mainstream. That just isn’t how my writing brain works. I got around that problem by creating Comrade Cosmos, so while the book itself isn’t genre, it’s about genre, about how fandoms and popular culture help people negotiate real-world loss and horror.
Technically, it was a challenge because the narrative’s so fragmented. I’m very keenly aware of structure, and I decide what the structure of a book will be ahead of time; this helps me write it by providing a framework. Mending has three sections of seven chapters each; in each section, the second, fourth, and sixth chapters are about Comrade Cosmos (comic relief, literally!), while the others deal with the real-world narrative. Each of the real-world chapters, though, has five sections, of different lengths and in different orders from one chapter to the next, from the POV of five characters: Jeremy, Melinda (in flashback), Rosemary, Veronique, and Anna. Putting all this together became like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, especially since I cannibalized a previous version of the book to construct this one. So far, what’s surrpised me most about reader response is that nobody’s said the book feels scattered; readers seem to think it flows okay, which means the structure is doing its work and functioning quietly in the background.
Thematically, it was a challenge because the material’s so emotionally difficult, and also because it’s about seven months in the lives of a group of people who are all grieving very deeply. That early phase of grief tends, in my experience, to be fairly static. It wouldn’t have been very interesting to have them all just sitting at home—although Anna does a lot of that—but car chases wouldn’t have been realistic. So I had to balance paralysis with action, and I’m still not sure how well it came off.
I love your characters! Will you talk a little bit about where the characters in Mending the Moon came from? What inspired Melinda Soto, Jeremy, Veronique, Rosemary, and Henrietta? What goes into the character creation process?
Well, I’m a college English professor; I hope I’m not too much like Veronique, but there are definite autobiographical echoes there (I gave her my own dissertation topic, for instance). I also volunteered for seven years as a lay chaplain in a local emergency room, work I loved and stopped doing only because the hospital was sold to a secular for-profit that axed the Spiritual Care Department. So that part of Rosemary’s experience is very directly autobiographical. I wanted to give each of them a pre-existing problem that would be complicated and deepened by Melinda’s death, which is where Veronique’s career angst and Rosemary’s husband’s Alzheimer’s came from. As for Melinda and Jeremy, although I’m childless by choice, I’m fascinated by unusual family structures. That shows up in all of my novels, I think, especially Shelter. I’m very interested in families created by forces other than biology.
Hen’s an interesting case. People keep talking about her as if she’s a major character, one of the POV characters, and she’s not. She’s there to facilitate movement and reconciliation, in various ways, among the other characters, which is one of the things good clergy do. I wanted her to be sympathetic, and I tried to make her realistic; she’s a combination of various Episcopal priests I’ve known. I wanted to write a book that showed church communities as groups of ordinary people, and that showed church functioning the way it really does, or can, in times of great pain: not as a source of answers, but as a focal point and gathering place.
The POV character people tend not to mention is Anna, which is ironic since her sections of the book are about being shunned as a result of her son’s horrific crime and subsequent suicide. Anna’s situation is very loosely based on that of someone I know. Loving someone whose terrible actions you don’t understand, and who’s being reviled by the rest of the world, is a very lonely place to be.
How do your experiences in academia and as a writer overlap, interact, and/or clash?
The university-writing-church triangle is interesting; they all feed each other, but the interactions can get gnarly. There’s a fair amount of faith-bashing in the academy—one of my grad students once said, “Smart people don’t go to church,” and too many people believe that, especially if the church in question is a Christian one—and the faith elements in my fiction have definitely alienated some readers. I completely understand why this happens; organized religion has a lot to answer for, and many people have been so deeply hurt by faith communities that they can’t see anything but what they expect to see. This is definitely the land of confirmation bias. I know I’ve done something right when people squint at me and say, “You’re not like all those other Christians.” My father, a raging atheist who reacted with horror to my midlife conversion, once said that I was someone who gave the church a good name. That’s one of the highest compliments I’ve ever gotten.
As an academic, I think and talk about writing and narrative a lot, which helps my own writing. On the other hand, I have very little time to read for pleasure, and grading student papers means that when I do have free time, the last thing I want to do is look at text. I get most of my narrative fix from audiobooks and TV, at this point. And like many academics, I do most of my own writing during summers and breaks.
What’s next for you?
I have two new stories forthcoming, one currently scheduled to appear on Tor.com on July 10, and one in F&SF, which I hope will be out this autumn. My work in progress includes three (count ‘em three) partial novels, with inception dates ranging from ten years ago to, uh, this morning. I’m very good at starting things and much less good at finishing them. I’m trying to be better about that part.