Interview with Susan Forest, author of Immunity to Strange Tales

Another of the books Five Rivers releases August 1, 2012, and launching at When Words Collide, is Susan Forest’s polished and fascinating collection of short, speculative fiction, Immunity to Strange Tales. We asked Susan to spend some time with us, and what follows is the result of that conversation.

Susan Forest

Lorina: You come at speculative fiction from a literary sensibility. Is that a conscious choice, or does it have more to do with your life view, the subjects about which you choose to write?

Susan: It’s interesting that you say that, because I don’t think of myself as having a marked literary sensibility—if anything, my goal would be to explore that element further—although I do consciously work at simultaneously infusing stories with both action/accessibility and a deep sensory experience. Having said that, there are stories that have come to me with a strong voice, and I think it is important to follow that voice, at least for the initial draft.

Lorina: Which leads me to the next question, why write the stories you do? Why choose those subjects? These are very human stories, from a mother’s difficult decision regarding survival of the species, to an almost David Lynch love story.

Susan: The answer, of course, differs wildly for different projects. Some stories are driven by deeply held convictions because there is something important to me that I want to express. Orange is a good example of that. It kicked around in my head for years as a metaphor for what mankind is doing to our world, and the lack of understanding we seem capable of having about our own effects on the planet, but I couldn’t find the story in it for a long time.

Others, though, came as stories first, and I had to find the meaning in them, such as The Right Chemistry. I loved playing with the puns, but in itself, the cocktail party with the joke ending wasn’t enough. I was really pleased when I realized that the free-choice/determinism theme was hiding under there all along and only needed a few words—the right few words—to bring it out.

The underlying theme for Paid in Full just popped out as I was writing it: I neither crafted the story around that theme, nor did I have to hunt for it in revision. I started that story knowing only a little bit about the setting and characters and let themselves play out. I became aware of the metaphorical image at the end—that sums up the whole story—about the time it was coming out of my fingertips onto the screen.

Lorina: Tell us a little about your writing process? Do you write daily, at a certain hour, with any expectation or discipline?

Susan: My process has changed as my circumstances allowed. When I was working full time, I had a lot of difficulty—even though I tried—writing either in the early morning hours as some authors do, or after the kids were in bed (though I wrote my first novel each evening after the kids were in bed). Most of that time I was a weekend writer, and I had to consciously set aside time or too many other things would crowd in. I used to tell my family, “I’m going to Red Deer for the day” (which was just my office in the house) to indicate they couldn’t get in touch with me. And sometimes, my kids would give me coupons for Christmas: “a day of writing,” during which they would do my chores for me! Best Christmas present ever! Now that I have no competing work commitments, I exercise in the morning to get my blood moving through my brain and write in the afternoons. But regardless of which discipline I exercise, I need to be regular, for two reasons: First, because I feel a real lack—hunger—in my life when I am away from writing for too long, and second, because I need a certain momentum to keep the story going, or I lose threads of ideas.

Lorina: You’ve written a few YA novels. Is there an adult novel in the works? Or where do you see your writing heading from here?

Susan: I only have the one published YA fantasy, and a couple of adult fantasies that I am shopping right now. I have just finished my initial research for another YA alternate universe, so that is my current project, but I do need to get some more short fiction going, soon. Several ideas there, and some partially finished stories, but they are on the back burner at the moment because I’m really excited about the current book.

Lorina: I understand you’re also an accomplished artist. Do you find that one artistic discipline feeds the other, or do they operate fairly independently of one another?

Susan: I am always interested in how the arts inform one another. In a past life, I did a lot of community—and some semi-professional—theatre, and I remember a wonderful occasion when I got a chance to talk to my cousin, who is a professional landscape painter, about the similarities. He had just finished a painting that had been commissioned by a patron who really liked another of his paintings that she couldn’t buy because it had already been sold. In some ways, his commission—which might have been a little less creative, perhaps, because it was painted purposely to be similar to his previous painting—was like doing dinner theatre: a project to bring in the income so one can do Shakespeare. I have spoken to writers who say, “I’d really like to do a book on X but my publisher wants another book in my series” so—again—like dinner theatre or a commission. So far, as a writer, I haven’t been subjected to those demands (I have had the luxury to follow my writing passions), but I can see the parallels. 

With my own painting—which is mostly acrylics—I have a tendency to paint with a great deal of structure and control. But I want to learn water colour because of the inherent release of control required: you can’t overwork a watercolour, or you’ll just mess it up. I also want to try to free up my acrylic brush strokes to get more of an impressionistic or even edging-into-abstract feel, along the lines of Tom Thompson, or others in the Group of Seven. I like landscapes, but I like them to be infused with action and drama. So releasing control is a process I am working on. Similarly in my writing, I do tend to be a plotter, but I would like to free myself up to trust my skill and craft, and do more writing by the seat of my pants. So far, when I have tried that, I have had some success, but it is still scary for me.

Lorina: There are some who feel writing is a job, like any other. There is another camp that says being a writer is a sensibility, that even if you earn your living doing something else, you’re always writing. How do you feel about that question?

Susan: No question that I am always writing, and I have a mini-tape recorder to catch ideas on the fly, which has been a life saver. But the question is: do you want writing to be your profession? If not, waiting for your muse is fine. Perhaps you are writing memoirs for yourself or your family, or stories for your writing group—maybe even for an occasional publication. That’s an excellent goal. Do you want the pressure of a book a year?

However, if you want to create a professional career, you need to treat it seriously, including disciplining yourself to produce, to meet deadlines, to improving your craft, and to taking care of the business end of writing (promotions, networking, etc.). I don’t believe that simply because you put in regular hours that the writing becomes mechanical, or that the muse departs. Quite the contrary, I think the more you immerse yourself in writing and ideas, the more alive the muse becomes. In fact, I listened to a wonderful program on Ideas (CBC Radio) about creativity, and apparently there is research to support that: highly creative people (like the Beatles and Mozart) were/are also highly prolific. Bum-in-chair, even on those days when the blank screen makes you think washing the dishes is a better option. It all depends on your goal as a writer.

Lorina: You also work as an editor at Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy. Do you find editing has changed your sensibilities as a writer, caused you to look at your own work differently?

Susan: The opportunity to work for Edge has been wonderful. I’ll brag a little here, and let you know that a novel I edited for them last year is on the Aurora ballot for best novel of 2011: Technicolor Ultramall, by Ryan Oakley, an intense, dystopian future with a dynamic story and a mind-bending idea behind it. I enjoy the opportunity Edge gives me to work with authors to help bring a story to its full potential, for the satisfaction of the author, the excitement of the reader, and the prestige of the company.

At the same time, it is certainly a learning opportunity for me, as I re-think all the editors I have worked with, their expectations and communication style, my responses, and the resulting stories. The variety—in all these factors—is interesting. As a writer I have had editors who asked for no changes, to complete re-thinks, or to picky line-edit changes. As a writer, I need to adapt to each. In one instance, I resisted changes (to the story Orange) because I thought those changes went against what I was trying to say with that story. The result was, I lost the sale. You have to be prepared for that. As it turned out, I did sell the story later, intact, which made me happy. As an editor, I have worked with authors who are very protective of their writing, right through to authors who almost give me carte-blanche. I still have lots of thinking to do about writing from many different viewpoints—creator, editor, teacher, learner.

Immunity to Strange Tales
Available August, 1, 2012
ISBN 9781927400142
eISBN 9781927400159