Sunday, October 29, 2006

Life Imitates Art

I'm halfway through the Shelter copyedits and two-thirds of the way through the freshman-comp papers, and I've even done some prep for my fiction workshop on Tuesday. So I won't be spending tomorrow frantically trying to catch up on heaps of grading I didn't do over the weekend: this is A Good Thing, especially since I'm always tired after my Sunday-night hospital shift, which means that Monday is rarely my most productive day.

Today I'm not even attempting to get grading done. Sundays are reserved for church, swimming, and the volunteer shift -- oh, and blogging, of course! If I try to do more than that, I'll be too tired at the hospital, and that's very definitely Not A Good Thing, either for me or for the patients I'm visiting. If I ever get back on a Monday-Wednesday teaching schedule, I'll reclaim my Thursday evening volunteer shift (that is, if the person who inherited it from me is willing to switch). That worked much better all the way around.

In the meantime, I'm happy to report that I like Shelter, or at least the parts I've reread so far. It's not a perfect book by any means, but I'm not ashamed of it. I'd do some things differently if I were writing it now, but I'm not, and that's fine. The whole project's been surrounded by so much dread and loathing for so many years now that I'm deeply relieved to discover that there's a credible novel in there.

Gary pointed out yesterday that reviewers will inevitably try to trace a progression from Flying in Place to The Necessary Beggar to Shelter, when in fact Shelter came before TNB (and parts of it were written even before FliP). It's certainly a characteristic Palwick novel, containing all my usual obsessions: trauma, secrecy, family, grief, homelessness, social justice. (Now that description just makes you want to rush out and read it, huh?) A few months ago, I was talking about it to Jacob Weisman, my editor at Tachyon, and he laughed and said, "So does this book contain Rickety Contrivances of Doing Good?"

Yep. You betcha. Big time. John Clute will not be amused.

Oh well.

Or, actually, maybe John Clute will be amused, because one of the SFnal ideas in the book is that self-sacrificing compassion has been labeled "excessive altruism" and declared a mental illness, and is now treated with gene therapy. One of the main characters is desperately trying to avoid this treatment, and goes through all kinds of contortions trying to convince her parole officer that she's acting from self-interest, rather than inappropriate selflessness.

There's also some new, more unusual stuff in the book, like an AI based on Mister Rogers (who used to be considered too geeky for words, but is newly cool now that he's dead and an object of nostalgia).

What fascinates me is how the book reflects my present interests in ways I couldn't have predicted when I was writing it ten years ago. There's a big plot piece in which another character's struggling with how to practice ministry. This isn't Christian ministry per se; I wouldn't have called myself Christian yet when I wrote those chapters. Those parts of the book were, however, very heavily influenced by my reading of Matthew Fox, which is what got me started on the path that ultimately led me to church. But a lot of the book takes place in hospitals and other healthcare settings, and an important minor character shows up in one scene as -- you guessed it -- a hospital chaplain. When I wrote that stuff, I never dreamed that I'd ever be a chaplain myself.

Jacob, intrigued by this, said, "So do you think you got the chaplain stuff right? Would you write it the same way now?" For the most part, yes, I would. There are a few incorrect details that I'll revise on the copyedited manuscript, but I think I got the gist of the pastoral visit right.

So is this life imitating art, or what? The easiest explanation is that I was expressing interests I wasn't fully aware I had, and that writing about them primed me to become involved in them in real life. But the book also contains a very traumatic terrorist incident, and I wrote it before 9/11, even though everyone who reads it now will think it's a post-9/11 book.


Likewise, I wrote TNB in 2002, when the immigration debate hadn't yet heated up to anything like its current levels. That book now seems prophetic in ways I really wish it weren't.

I was chatting about all this to a colleague at work, and she laughed and said, "Well, isn't that what science fiction is supposed to do? You're clearly in the right field."

Actually, no; science fiction is always really about the present, not about predicting the future, but that's a more complicated argument than I was going to get into with her. So I said, "I guess so. But from now on, I'm only writing happy books."

As if! If it doesn't contain grim stretches of gloom and depression, along with those signature Rickety Contrivances, it's not Palwick.


  1.'s probably a very good thing that you wrote this post. Having been a student in a Lit. class, where we were analyzing passages and playing guessing games with the character names looking for symbolism, I'm thinking that, a few years down the road, when your books become part of some course on Current American Authors this blog will no doubt be referred to. You didn't put in any spoilers, for which I thank you. But you probably took some of the fun out of playing guessing games about an author's intent. (g) Do authors roll over in their graves when that kind of thing happens?

    Way to go! on getting so much accomplished. I wrote up 5 tutorial plans and 4 reflections yesterday. Now I've just one more reflection, a lesson plan, and a thematic unit to write. Eek!


  2. Hi, Lee! I doubt I'll be taught in any contemporary lit classes anytime soon (although my first book has been taught in at least one psychology class), but yes, authors frequently wince when people analyze their work.

    Which doesn't mean that readers shouldn't analyze. There's always more in books than the people who wrote them can see for themselves -- and sometimes, readers point out things authors need to know.

    Once the work is published, it's out of its creator's hands and has to make its own way in the world. Some people will do things with it that the author never intended. This can be an awful and astonishing process ("what book did you read?"), but it comes with the territory.

    Good luck with your work!

  3. Deborah Roggie12:43 PM

    Susan, I just finished The Necessary Beggar this morning, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Having read your blog for the past couple of months, it strikes me how much of you is in the book. Your voice, your concerns, your way of approaching a story (your blog is full of stories)....

    Thank you for all of it.

    --Deborah Roggie

  4. Thanks for the comment, Deborah! I'm so glad you enjoyed TNB!


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