Emily C. Skaftun is joining us today to talk about her short story collection, Living Forever & Other Terrible Ideas. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Think you want to live forever? Think again. You may wake up as a zombie tourist, doomed to shamble the sights of Los Angeles. Or you could be a clone, body and memories intact but lacking something you can’t quite name. Your frozen head might linger for centuries in a museum while other souls gallivant about the universe. You might be reincarnated as a plastic lawn flamingo or seated Buddha or garden gnome. Or into an unbreakable cycle of servitude. Or you may just outlive the people and things that gave life its flavor.
Emily C. Skaftun’s debut collection brings you flippant wish-granting fish, flying tigers, foul-mouthed fairies, rogue robots, vengeful trees, medical dreams, interstellar squirrels, murderous teddy bears, magic-helmet-wearing rollergirls, rampaging aliens, a dash of eldritch horror, and a sprinkle of ghosts.
These 18 stories, spanning a decade, balance on the knife-edge between whimsical and poignant, exploring fates far weirder than death.
What’s Emily’s favorite bit?
EMILY C. SKAFTUN
They also poop, but that’s a different story. (I did once pitch the idea of a picture book called “Every Monster Poops” to an artist friend as a collaboration, but we never got past cracking ourselves up brainstorming what zombie poop would look like… but I digress).
My favorite thing about writing nonhuman characters is the challenge and opportunity of imagining how they inhabit their alien bodies.
Body language is, of course, a rich way to bring a character to life. And yet, even among human beings, whose bodies are all largely similar (though obviously also diverse in countless amazing ways!), we don’t always agree on body language. Is pointing rude or helpful? Which finger do you use for it? Be careful!
But some gestures are universal.
Everybody shrugs. And in my stories, that means everybody.
A pink plastic flamingo doesn’t have the shoulders for shrugging, but a human reincarnated into one will still try it.
When a shapeshifting alien in a form resembling an eight-legged cat shrugs, she uses two sets of furry limbs to perform the maneuver.
It’s hard to tell when a naked fairy caught in a mayonnaise jar shrugs, because the movement is so tiny—but helpfully her delicate greenish wings move too.
Some aliens substitute complicated twinings of their tentacles for a shrug, some use their metachrosis, and some flutter their fluffy tails.
And a magic fish? “I don’t know if fish can shrug, but if they can that’s what he did. He waved one pectoral fin at me dismissively.”
I love living inside my nonhuman characters, reimagining my own gestures to fit the sometimes bizarre anatomy I’ve saddled them with. I have just way too much fun imagining how, for example, a clockwork horse with no mouth might manage to scream.
(Things without mouths have to scream just as much as we do; they scream inside their hearts.)
But all that’s just the crunchy shell covering the melt-in-your-mind-not-in-your-eyes-or-ears chocolate center of a character’s emotional inner life. Which leads me to a much more rewarding authorial joy:
If I’ve done my job right, I’ve led you to empathize with a space squid, a teddy bear, a pink plastic lawn flamingo, and maybe even a vengeful tree. That is hands-down—tentacles-, paws-, wings-, fins-, or branches-down—my favorite bit.
A lot of writers manage to pull off inhuman characters that feel legitimately alien, robotic, fey, or other. That’s one choice (and often a brilliant choice!), but I like to go the other way. I like to make the fantastical mundane, and inhabit every stone squirrel, rogue AI, retired monster, and wind-up toy with as much humanity as I can cram in.
For my money, all stories are about humanity. Maybe that’s speciesist of me, but until we meet or learn to communicate with some non-human sentiences, it seems to me that humanity is all we’ve got—a thought both reassuring and terrifying.
Because on the one hand, if we humans can’t even agree on whether eye contact is friendly or threatening, what hope do we have of agreeing on the really big, important challenges we face?
But on the other hand, we’re champs at anthropomorphizing literally everything around us, which shows a staggering capacity for empathy that I find fascinating. If we can root for an interstellar squirrel, understanding and embracing our fellow humans ought to be a piece of cake.
And on the third hand, at least we don’t have a third hand to worry about!
Emily C. Skaftun’s tales of flying tigers, space squids, and evil garden gnomes have appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and more. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2009.
Emily lives just north of Seattle with a mad scientist and their Cat, Astrophe. She is the former editor of a Norwegian newspaper and practices bokmål by translating comic strips. She’s co-founded two online magazines, edited a tie-in anthology, and judged a Scandinavian haiku contest (haikuff-da!).
An avid traveler, Emily has cuddled a crocodile in Cuba, attended Elf School in Reykjavík, frightened fish in a Yucatán cenote, and flown over an active volcano.
Emily doesn’t want to live forever, but wouldn’t object to being reincarnated on a sunny, wise planet.