Susan Palwick’s short story “Gestella,” which appears in her 2007 book The Fate of Mice, is one of the most heartbreaking fantasy stories ever written.
“People either say ‘This story ripped my heart out and I love you,’ or ‘This story ripped my heart out and I hate you,’” Palwick says in Episode 548 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I had somebody on Twitter say, ‘How dare you do this to me? I hate you. You’re a horrible, horrible person.’”
The story concerns a beautiful female werewolf who marries an older man. Unfortunately, the fact that she ages in dog years—seven times faster than normal—soon causes friction in their relationship. Palwick says, “One of the sparking moments for ‘Gestella’ was, I had just turned 39, and I was in an internet chat with a bunch of people and mentioned this, and some guy was like, ‘You know your husband will never find you attractive again, even if he lies and says he does?’ and I’m like, ‘What in the world?’”
The idea of a werewolf story in which the werewolf is a victim was also inspired by a visit to the local animal shelter, where Palwick saw a man discard a healthy young dog. “He’s like, ‘I wanted a hunting dog, and this isn’t a hunting dog,’” Palwick says. “And the shelter staff said, ‘You understand that the dog will probably have to be put down, because it’s hard to adopt out grown animals?’ And he said, ‘Well I don’t want this dog.’ And meanwhile his little boy, who was 6 or 7 or 8, was sitting on the ground with his arms around the dog, looking up at passersby and saying, ‘He’s a good dog.’”
Palwick’s often bleak and uncomfortable fiction has never found a mass audience, but her work is highly admired by other fantasy writers such as Carrie Vaughn. “We were doing a joint signing at a Worldcon,” Palwick says, “and she had a line five blocks long and I had like three people, and in one of her few pauses—I was sitting there knitting—she turned to me and said, ‘I just want to tell you that I love “Gestella” and I tell people that it’s absolutely foundational to the field,’ and I was floating on air for the rest of the day.”
Listen to the complete interview with Susan Palwick in Episode 548 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Susan Palwick on academia:
Students would come to me sometimes and say, “I want to be you when I grow up. I want to be an English professor. I want to teach writing.” And I’d always sit them down and say, “OK, English professors are people who love language and love good writing, and if you are teaching writing you are going to be plowing through an immense amount of really bad writing. And you’re going to be helping the writers make it better, but it may still not be good, and just think about whether you want to do that.” Because in a stack of 20 manuscripts, there would be one or two that were great, and a bunch that were OK, and then some that were just really challenging.
Susan Palwick on self-promotion:
I’m very bad at PR. I hate self-publicizing, I don’t do it well. I try not to do it at all. I have this utopian belief that the work should be able to speak for itself, and that in fact if there’s a good story out in the world it shouldn’t matter who wrote it, because what matters is the relationship between the reader and the text. Which is a lovely idea, but doesn’t work in the real world, because you’ve got to get your stuff out there somehow, which means you need a certain amount of self-promotion. People have suggested that I self-publish, and I’m like, “No. It would die on the vine. I would never be able to get enough copies out there.”
Susan Palwick on The Last Unicorn:
I read it when I was young—10, 12, something like that—and really liked it. I reread it a bunch of times, and every time I reread it I found more … The thing I loved about that book, even as a kid, and appreciated even more as an adult, was that the happy ending was very qualified. There was a happy ending, but there was also real loss and sacrifice, so in that sense it was a very realistic story about a unicorn. There was a tremendous amount of feeling in it, and just a lot of wisdom and people struggling with feelings, and people trying to make sense of who they are and how they fit into the world.
Susan Palwick on Star Trek:
Nichelle Nichols spoke at the convention, and she looked out over us, and if you’ve seen Galaxy Quest, it was just like that—I love that movie. It was the sea of pimples and fake Spock ears and all the rest of it, all these geeky adolescents. And she looked out over this crowd and said, “People make fun of you because you love Star Trek. They think Star Trek is only about bad acting and cheesy special effects, and you know that Star Trek is about more than that. You know that Star Trek is about love and peace and justice, and that’s why it’s your job to go out and save the world.” It was like being in a tent revival. We were all in tears. That was the year I decided to become a writer.