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Author Spotlight: Susan Palwick

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Susan Palwick to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Cucumber Gravy.”

This is perhaps one of the most original alien contact stories I’ve read yet. What was the inspiration for this? Why cucumbers, and why do they sing?

When I was a child, I had an encounter with sea cucumbers much like the one Welly describes in the story. I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since, and have always wanted to use them in a story. I also wanted to create an alien species that wasn’t stereotypical—no Greys with big eyes, no insectoid creatures—and that wasn’t comprehensible to humans. We don’t even completely understand our dogs and cats, so how would we begin to understand a completely non-terrestrial creature?

I made them sing because I wanted them to have patterns Welly could observe, patterns that would make them a bit more predictable, if not understandable. I was thinking of whale song when I wrote about the singing: A sound humans find beautiful, and believe is language, but that we haven’t yet decoded.

As to why they sing, I suspect it’s part of a farewell ritual for them.

Welly is a delightfully accessible main character for us as readers: Easy to get along with, honest, and doesn’t hide much (except from the government).  He admits he doesn’t have much to do with anyone but his buyers. Do you think that’s part of the reason why the cucumbers chose him?

Welly’s profoundly wounded and lonely—he was probably already somewhat paranoid before the Nancy Ann debacle, but that betrayal pushed him over the edge—and I think the cucumbers sense that. They help him as much as he helps them. They force him to pay attention; they draw him outside himself, and also give him a reason to stay where he is and continue with his life. Although he definitely has rough edges, I see him as a fundamentally decent and generous person. I suspect the cucumbers do, too.

What made you choose this particular occupation for Welly?

Rural isolation lends itself to clandestine activities; so does Nevada’s laissez-faire brand of rugged individualism. Were I writing the story now, I’d have to explain why Welly’s selling pot instead of meth, although I think his comments about not wanting strung-out addicts at his door would answer that question. When I wrote the story ten years ago, meth wasn’t as prominent as pot; tragically, it’s become so since.

I also wanted Welly to be a character some people might initially judge harshly, just as he initially judges Humphreys harshly.  First impressions and stereotypes—and how they change—are one of the things the story is about.

You’re a licensed lay preacher. With that in common with Humphreys, why do you think the Reverend is so quick to accept what he sees, which is really the unbelievable?

Actually, the Reverend is ordained, which I’m not! But as someone who converted late in life, joining the Episcopal Church at the age of thirty-eight, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that the clergy I know are both far less judgmental than many outsiders might expect—clergy are, in fact, spiritual emergency personnel, who’ve seen and heard just about everything—and also, often, much more accepting of unbelievers than unbelievers are of them. (Mind you, I’m in a very liberal denomination. Others’ mileage will vary!)

As for accepting what he sees, Humphreys is simply trusting the evidence of his own senses. But there is a connection here to faith. When I went through my midlife conversion—which deeply alarmed most of my secular-humanist family and friends—I discovered that many people I loved assumed that I’d decided, inexplicably, to start believing impossible stories. From my point of view, though, my faith was a response to lived experience, to real events that I hadn’t imagined, couldn’t dismiss, and could ultimately only explain as the workings of Something Much Bigger Than I Was. My coming to faith was empirical, which is probably the last word most non-religious people would associate with religion!

That may not seem like a very coherent answer, so here’s a slightly simpler one. In my experience, people of faith—along with many scientists, and those two categories overlap quite a bit—know now and accept that they live in a universe that’s much bigger, and infinitely more strange, than anything they could imagine on their own. So when they see something out of the ordinary, they don’t try to rationalize it away. They accept it and ask what it means, but don’t dismiss it as impossible.

Faith and science are both, at a very basic level, about sense of wonder. So’s science fiction, of course. I’m not the first person to make this connection—Joanna Russ and David Hartwell, among others, have described SF as a kind of religious literature—but I enjoy playing with it in my writing.

While Welly may have found a sort of ally in the Reverend, the actual existence and behaviors of these cucumbers never gets explained, and the reader is left wondering what happens next. What do you think happens next?

Many readers have been frustrated that I never explain the cucumbers, but really, they aren’t the point. The fact that Welly’s finally let someone in, even a little bit—and that this person is the last one he’d ever have expected to like or trust!—is much more important. To Welly, Humphreys is an alien initially even more frightening than the cucumbers.

I also think it’s important to let some mysteries remain unsolved. Humans don’t have all the answers. We never will. We still have to figure out how to behave ethically, even as we acknowledge our profound ignorance about many things. As Humphreys says in the story, we just have to do the best we can and hope we aren’t hurting more than helping. I happen to believe that humans do the most damage when we start thinking we know everything.

As for the future of the story, I think Welly keeps on doing what he has been doing. I think the cucumbers keep showing up, and he keeps providing hospice care for them. I suspect he does develop a friendship with Humphreys, although I don’t think he’d ever start going to church. And when he dies himself, or becomes incapable of caring for himself or the cucumbers, Humphreys will care for him (or arrange care for him), and the cucumbers will find someone else who needs them.

What are you working on now? Is there anything coming up in the future we might keep an eye out for?

I’m working on two novels and a poetry chapbook. One novel, Driving to November, is historical fantasy set in central Nevada.  The other, solicited by and under contract to Tor, is a mainstream projected entitled Mending the Moon, about three elderly women trying to heal from, and make sense of, the violent death of a close friend. The poetry chapbook is a series of sonnets about my work as a volunteer lay chaplain in a local emergency room. I hadn’t yet started doing that work when I wrote this story, but in some ways, it’s like what Humphreys does in the story: Trying to help and comfort people who are scared and in pain, whether they believe the same things I do or not.

I have no idea when any of these projects will be completed, let alone in print. I’m a very slow writer, partly because my university teaching job keeps me so busy. But thank you for asking, and for reprinting “Cucumber Gravy.” I’ve always been very fond of this story, and I’m delighted to see it back in print.

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Erin Stocks

Erin Stocks Lightspeed Assistant Editor Erin Stocks’ fiction can be found in the Coeur de Lion anthology Anywhere but EarthFlash Fiction Online, the Hadley Rille anthology Destination: Future, The Colored Lens, and most recently in Polluto Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ErinStocks or at www.erinstocks.com.