Exclusive Interview: “No One Will Come Back For Us” Author Premee Mohamed
When talking about whether the idea for a book is good or not, we usually lay all the blame at the feet of the writer. But like movies, cakes, and cars, books aren’t just made by one person. It’s something I thought about while doing the following email interview with writer Premee Mohamed about her first short story collection, No One Will Come Back For Us And Other Stories (paperback, Kindle), in which she credits the book’s editor and publisher with making it good as well as possible.
To start, is there a theme that connects the stories in No One Will Come Back For Us?
Maybe a very loose theme? Michael Kelly, the editor, approached me and my agent asking if he could have a short story collection with a focus on horror, dark fantasy, and weird, and that sci-fi would also be considered if it had a clear horror element. He also wasn’t interested in sort of whimsical, lighthearted stories, which I totally understand; they would stick out in a collection like he was thinking of. So I went through my existing stories and sent him my picks basically in order of publication, and kind of asked him to choose from those. He ended up keeping all of them except for one, so that’s the “theme” of the collection.
What was it about Michael’s idea that excited you or interested you enough to say “yes”?
A large part of it was knowing that it was Michael and Undertow Publications, period. I’m actually not sure how enthused I would have been for any other small press. I also knew that Michael had edited my agent-mate Cassandra Khaw’s recent collection, Breakable Things, which is very good and has deservedly gotten a lot of attention and award nominations. So partly I felt confident I would be in good hands, and partly I thought it was an experiment that it couldn’t hurt to try? After all, I had novellas, novelettes, novels, short stories, and flash published by that point, why not a collection, too? And I didn’t have to produce any new work for it, which was great, because I was also drowning in deadlines at that point. And finally, I thought it might be cool to have kind of a sample of my stories that fit together, so that if people were like, “Which of your short stories should I read?” I could be like “Well you can start with the collection as a representative cross-section of the stuff I like to write.”
So, is there a reason why this collection is called No One Will Come Back For Us And Other Stories and not At The Hand Of Every Beast And Other Stories or Everything As Part Of Its Infinite Place And Other Stories or named for some other story in No One?
That was the placeholder title actually; we ended up keeping it because I couldn’t think of anything better, and both my agent and editor liked it. I have a very hard time with titles honestly (see also my stories “The Last,” “Willing,” etc.,) but with that story, it felt right and I genuinely liked it. So it wasn’t so much the significance of the story itself as that I for once had a title I enjoyed.
Aside from that though, looking back, I think it also helps encapsulate the overarching emotional vibes of the collection. Something pretty terrible is happening to the characters, they’re hoping for help, but help is not coming, and no one will come back for them. Not that I think all the stories have a sense of complete hopelessness or abandonment, but those themes are prominent in many of the stories, this idea that no outside savior is coming. There’s a constant drumbeat of reversal of fortunes. In “No One” itself, the medical team is supposed to be the heroes, but they become victims; in “Fortunato,” the marines are supposed to be on a rescue mission but end up in serious trouble from the people they rescue; in “The Evaluator,” Sheffield is part of this organization that helps people with magic problems, and at the end he sort of ambiguously is hinted to be beyond any help. And of course, the gods aren’t necessarily out to help anybody no matter how hard they pray or what offerings they leave.
No One Will Come Back For Us is your eighth book after your novellas And What Can We Offer You Tonight, These Lifeless Things, The Annual Migration Of Clouds, and The Apple-Tree Throne, and the three novels in your Beneath The Rising trilogy: Beneath The Rising, A Broken Darkness, and The Void Ascendant. First off, are any of the stories in Us connected to any of your novels or novellas?
There are a few explicit connections and a few hinted ones, I think. There are certainly several stories in here written or published in that gap between Beneath The Rising going on sub and being published (which was about three years). I didn’t know if my debut novel was ever going to be acquired or published, so I thought there would be no harm if I hinted at things in some short stories. It’s most explicit in “No One Will Come Back For Us” because Severs mentioned that, as a journalist, he covered the event that happens at the end of Beneath The Rising. But basically, any story that mentions “Chambers Labs” has a connection to my novels, though of course most of those stories didn’t make it into this collection. I think I was vaguely imagining a story world in which Johnny Chambers from Beneath The Rising lives, grows up, and continues to do science and invent new things. I also had one of my favorite stories, “And Sneer Of Cold Command,” in my initial picks, which of course is the sidequel to my novella These Lifeless Things, but that was the one story my editor booted from the collection.
Secondly, are there any writers who had a big influence on any of the stories in No One Will Come Back For Us, but not on any of your other work?
Not that I can think of off the top of my head. I think all my short stories come from the same writerly inspirations as my novels and novellas.
How about non-literary influences? Were any of the stories in No One Will Come Back For Us influenced by any movies, shows, or games?
Definitely a few. I think I mentioned in the story notes that “Fortunato” is blatantly an Aliens rip-off, mostly in the sense of this world of space marines and colonization / colonists, as well as the second Star Trek movie, Wrath Of Khan. And “The Honeymakers” is kind of an amalgam of every folk horror movie I’ve ever seen, as is “Willing.”
Now, unless I’m mistaken, all of the stories in No One Will Come Back For Us were published before, save for the first one, “Quietus.” “Fortunato,” for instance, appeared in the anthology Ride The Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera, And The Cosmic Weird, while “Us And Ours” was included in the anthology A Secret Guide To Fighting Elder Gods. Are the versions of those stories in Us the same as they were in those journals and anthologies, or did you change anything about them, save for typos?
All of these are the previously published versions except for a few minor typo corrections, and even “Quietus” went through some edits with the editor of the anthology it was supposed to be in. There are a few stories I’ve had published where I really did not like the final published version and wanted to keep either the original version or an earlier version (like, round one of the editor’s comments instead of the ones we agreed on in round three). But those weren’t in this collection. In some cases my “author’s preferred text” is pretty similar, and in others it’s big differences in the plot or characters. For instance, “The Honeymakers” used to have a much darker ending, and the editor suggested that we change it to its current one; I was grumpy about that, but the published ending is the one that made it into this collection. I still like the original ending, but in this case, I figured it wasn’t the best policy to change a story that drastically for a collection.
Hollywood loves making movies out of short stories. Are there any stories in No One Will Come Back For Us that you think could work really well as a movie?
I’ve definitely seen the word “cinematic” thrown around in reviews of the collection so far, so I do think there must be a few candidates. I think “At The Hand Of Every Beast” would make a neat little stop-action short film personally (the more unsettling the better), and ditto for “Four Hours Of A Revolution.” I imagine that one filmed in kind of the same style as Wendell & Wild. And maybe “Fortunato” as a shoot-’em-up space horror.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about No One Will Come Back For Us?
I’m mainly very excited to be publishing with Undertow Publications, as I think Michael has a great (and deserved) reputation for choosing really unusual, voicey, weird stories, and creating a clear editorial vision for his publications. You can see it particularly in his selections for Weird Horror Magazine, where you see excellent stories that the big mainstream mags would never buy.
I also loved his selection for our cover. The illustration is by Slug Draws, and art direction is by Vince Haig. I think it encompasses the collection perfectly even though of course it doesn’t “directly” illustrate a story in it. I just love the juxtaposition of the real (the little astronaut) and the unreal (the space monster), the sense of menace, the suggestion of cosmic horror or magic, the tension of not knowing what might happen next. It’s a cover that tells a whole story in its own right.
Finally, it’s been my experience that short story collections are a great way to get to know a writer. Do you think the stories in No One Will Come Back For Us are a good representation of who you are as a writer?
I think it does, honestly. These are some of my strongest stories for sure; I’m much more comfortable working in fantasy and horror and genre-blended stories than pure sci-fi or contemporary. It shows my interest in divinity, monsters, apocalypses, and things that never get explained either by science or magic. (I really love asking questions that deliberately can’t be answered in fiction.) Those are all things that show up again and again in my longer-form fiction.
In that case, if someone enjoys the stories in No One Will Come Back For Us, which of your novels would you suggest they read next?
If someone did like the collection, I would for sure suggest the Beneath The Rising trilogy as it’s done now, as it veers quite happily between sci-fi, fantasy, horror, alternate history, and all the different combinations of all of the above.