It’s an honor today to welcome Sumiko Saulson to the blog. Sumiko’s novel, Solitude, is a fascinating examination of the lives of diverse individuals isolated in a San Francisco seemingly void of all other human life. In the absence of others, each journeys into personal web of beliefs and perceptions as they try to determine what happened to them, and the world around them. I’m happy to have Sumiko here as we delve into some of the concepts and personal histories behind her novel.
Gwen: You open this story with a powerful scene–that of young Margo folding a paper crane with the knowledge that “only a few, martyred youngsters were able to have their stories told.” She folds the crane not because she believes that she’ll save a life but because she empathizes with the Sadako story and the rough life that the girl had. What inspired you to begin here?
Sumiko: Originally, the story didn’t start with that scene, but with the next scene, which establishes another character Angela’s extreme and catalytic resentment towards her ex-husband. I have a tendency to imagine my books as a movie: I blame film school for that, because I spent a year at Film Arts Foundation’s “STAND” program for first time directors learning about story arch and character development. In the little movie “Solitude” I was imagining in my head, where Gerry is being played by a 1990s version of Bruce Willis, the story needed to begin with a lot more character connectedness than Angela’s two-dimensional hatred. Her pain was a bit too forcefully expressed to allow the reader to relate to her very well. I needed a softer touch at the beginning.
I went back and inserted the prologue about half way through the story, when I was in the middle of explaining Margo’s relationship to Josette and her Chihuahua, Crazy. I realized that because she was written as an agoraphobic shut in, Margo was a character with whom people would relate primarily through her internal life. Giving her rich and interesting internal dialog would make her interesting. That was important because she refuses to leave the house: she is a character for whom a decision to go outside is a tremendously big deal. I was a very introverted child, but I became a lot more outgoing as I matured. That is why I decided to make the reader’s connection to Margo begin in her childhood. You could say that Margo is a character with whom I have certain things in common but whose life takes a divergent course from my own. I felt I could write a more convincing narrative by starting at the period in life when Margo and I would have been the most alike. I used books I read as a child to make this connection.
Gwen: There are a number of perspectives that you use to tell this story which makes the world of Solitude incredibly rich with diversity, both in terms of your cast and the scope of the novel. Did you find it challenging to weave a narrative with so many voices? How did you select the voices that you finally used?
Sumiko: The greatest difficulty was in keeping the timeline consistent, because when the narrative switches from one character point of view to another, especially at the beginning of the book, it is talking about something that happens in more or less the same period of time. In the first draft of the book, I switched from perspective to perspective too quickly for some readers to follow. They found it confusing. I was writing these quick-switch edits as an almost reflexive response to my history as a video editor. When you want to show action and excitement in a video or a film, you go back and forth fast, like in a music video. That doesn’t work as well in a novel. The other reason I kept changing points of view quickly was because I hadn’t mastered a way to keep time moving forward when these incidents were occurring at or near the same time. That issue was eventually resolved with the help of the book’s editor, Stephen Douglas.
We worked together to identify a few pieces of writing that would be more effective put together. He had me do a series of re-writes connecting the action during the initial event. For instance, the scene where Shane is on the Bay Bridge when people start disappearing is considerably more action packed than it was the first time around. The same can be said with the scene involving Gerry and the newly feral dogs circling him at Safeway. By the time we were finished with re-writes, the book was 50-pages longer, and the timeline was consistent. Switching character voices in the middle of a major catastrophe such as the event these individuals experience does require a lot of attention to detail with regards to the consistent movement of time. The character voices themselves were not difficult for me: I have been good with characters for quite some time now, but I spent over a decade with great characters that had no story to tell.
Having a story was the hard part.
I’d written a number of shorter works prior to writing Solitude, my first novel. I also attempted to write a novel many years ago, and found myself “stuck” in the middle of it. To avoid getting “stuck” in the middle of Solitude, I developed a rough mental map of where I was going, and how to get to the end. This was my substitute for an outline. It was a notebook filled with character sketches, and I used the traits of any given character to determine how she or he would react in a given situation. That made it easier for me, because when the story wasn’t moving forward, I could switch to a character that would be most likely to react in a way that would cause things to progress and keep me on course.
Gwen: As I was reading, I felt a connection with Margo almost immediately, one that deepened as we progressed into the novel and saw her at an older age. There’s a couple lines that just really hit home for me in particular: “None of these challenges stopped her from making something of her life. In a way, they formed her, created for her a sense of direction.” When I read that, it just resonated. Are there characters that you discovered you had more affinity with as Solitude unfolded?
Sumiko: I am happy to hear that. Margo is a character with whom I have a personal connection due to my own anxiety issues. In a way, I used the character to process a lot of feelings I’ve had related to my disability, and while we are definitely not the same person, we have some challenges in common. I think that my own history deepened my understanding of the character’s challenges. I am not agoraphobic but I do have post traumatic stress disorder and I suffer from social anxiety in crowded places, sort of a lesser version of what she’s dealing with. I wrote her as someone I could relate to, with the hope that the reader might feel the same way. She is not me, but there is enough of me in her for me to feel happy when a reader likes her.
The character I became increasingly connected to throughout the course of the story was Gerry, the homeless guy. He more than makes the most of a bad situation: he acts like a guy who was born to play this role. He’s already used to facing challenges, and he adapts to this situation heroically. The bad situation just happens to have the proper sort of alchemy to bring out the best of him. He’s a diamond formed under pressure.
I also really, really like Rosalind. She was a character I wrote into the story later for continuity, and to keep things moving forward. She is from my parents’ generation, and she sort of embodies everything I have come to love about Baby Boomer chutzpah. She is protective and maternal, but liberated and vital at the same time.
Gwen: Sumiko, I think as authors, we often incorporate small pieces of our own lives into the stories that we tell but they often appear in unusual or surprising ways that are not obvious to anyone who doesn’t know us. Do you agree with me here? Is there a scene with a connection like this that you’d like to tell us about?
Sumiko: Yes. It’s true. The strangest and certainly least obvious connection is between the Chihuahua, Crazy and my calico cat, Marla. I didn’t write the dog as her own character, but readers related to her as such. The dog ended up with her own kind of little fan club – but the dog is based on my cat, Marla. Margo is also named after Marla, and Margo as seen through the eyes of Crazy is exactly as I imagine my cats view me. The sort of impatient affection she has for the dog is similar to my attitude towards my cat: I love her, but sometimes she gets on my nerves, and she was an especially large pain in the butt during the time I was writing the novel Solitude. She was a nine month old feral who had been abandoned by the previous tenant of my apartment. By the time I convinced her to move in she was a year old, which is the age at which the SPCA will formally consider them feral and spay for the catch-and-release program. They said that cats can usually be redomesticated during the first year of life. Almost a year on the dot, she decided to move in. I got her spayed. That didn’t change the fact that she’d started to mark territory, and especially my things because I was “her” human and there is another cat in the home. I got advice from animal experts and they told me to use a spray bottle, so I did. Marla is probably the inspiration for the number of wild evil animals roaming around the San Francisco of Solitude.
When Crazy calls Margo the “Okay Lady” it’s precisely how I thought that Marla felt about me: I mean, I fed her and petted her, but I also let this other cat live in “her” house, and how dare I? I took her to get surgery, and I sprayed her with the water bottle for trying to pee on my blanket, so she might have had mixed feelings about me. Anyway, I think that’s pretty random, and most people wouldn’t make the Crazy/Marla connection even if they knew me.
Angela’s rage over her childless state is more than a nod to my own struggles with fertility. I noticed infertile women or women who regretted not having children showed up on all three of my novels, so I guess that’s something I’ve tried to process through writing.
Gwen: Science fiction can be a powerful medium with which to examine contemporary issues. What influenced your choice to tell this story in that way rather than going with another genre? Do you think that there were particular strengths and/or weaknesses in this choice? Did you ever consider telling it in a different way?
Sumiko: I didn’t set out to write a science-fiction novel. I intended to write horror, but the novel has been categorized in either genre or more frequently, in both. I agree, science fiction has been a popular platform for issues that people are better equipped to face when they involve alien life or robots. Gene Roddenberry practically made a career out of inserting modern political struggles and wars into “Star Trek”, and a lot of the original series episodes deal with civil rights issues regarding both race and feminism. I take up a lot of these issues, but I would be doing so even if I weren’t writing science fiction because I am a woman of color and we all write what we know.
When I first began to shop it around locally, I found myself in a number of conversations about Octavia Butler, because I’m African American and Russian-Jewish American, and I write multicultural characters. I found the comparison both flattering and intimidating: Ms. Butler is largely responsible for the fact that it is becoming increasingly acceptable for women of color to write genre fiction. For a long time, if you were a black woman, you were expected to only write very serious literary fiction. There was an unspoken rule that we all were going to write like Toni Morrison. It wasn’t okay to write fantasy, or romance.
But the day I decided I was going to write a novel I was reading two books, The California Book of the Dead, by Tim Farrington, an old friend of mine: a work of literary fiction taking place in San Francisco, and Forsaken by L.A. Banks*, an extremely prolific African American paranormal romance writer. The book was number seven in her Vampire Huntress series, so you know: this woman writes a lot. I got about half way through the book before someone stole it off the bar at a karaoke club, but it was one of the two books that inspired me to believe that someone like me could write horror.
And I did. But it looked a lot like science fiction.
Being categorized as science fiction is definitely a boon, horror being a maligned genre. Saying you write horror is almost like saying you write erotica: a bunch of people are going to decide from day one that they are not going to give your work a chance. Anne Rice said that your readers define your genre for you. I think she’s right.
Gwen: If readers want to find out more about you and your work, what’s the best way for them to do so?
Sumiko: I have a website and blog at http://www.sumikosaulson.com. From there, you can learn just about all there is to know about me as an author. I’m also on Facebook, and Twitter, and you can find me there and all other places Internet via my website.
* Editor’s Note: We regret to note that LA Banks has since passed away. Her death is a great loss to the speculative fiction community but she lives on in the wonderful body of literature that she left behind. Sumiko writes of this loss on her blog.