We’ve all wondered what it would be like if we could change shape like Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Loki in the Marvel movies. But in the following email interview with author Suzan Palumbo about her new short story collection, Skin Thief (paperback), she confesses that her writing so much about “…queer women who were shapeshifters…” made her think she might be, “…working out some unresolved issues.”
First off, is there a theme that connects the stories in Skin Thief?
There are many themes that are interwoven throughout the stories in intersectional ways. I like to think of all of them being in conversation with each other like a matrix or net. But, yes there is a larger theme of transformation throughout. It is a collection of dark fantasy and horror stories so those transformations take place within the aesthetics of those genres.
So, did you start with the theme or did the theme emerge as you were putting this collection together?
In 2020 I noticed a pattern emerging in the stories I was writing. I kept writing about queer women who were shapeshifters and I had a moment where I thought: Huh, you must be working out some unresolved issues? Are you okay? I had a few stories in draft stages at the time in addition to the ones I’d already had published. By August 2021 I had enough material to put together a Trinidadian Canadian Gothic Shapeshifter collection that interrogated identity, queerness, race, monstrosity in what I thought was / is a weighty, multifaceted way.
And why did you decide to run with it as opposed to away from it?
I went with it because I believe in leaning into our weird hyperfixations and what fascinates us. I wanted to push my writing past what I’d seen and read before and that meant not running away from what was coming together in front of me. It meant confronting the almost obsession I had / have with queerness and shapeshifting and interrogating why I have this fascination and what it meant or symbolized.
I am weird. There’s no sense in pretending I’m not or trying to deny it. It keeps surfacing no matter what I do, so I embrace it.
Moving on to the always beloved questions about influences, are there any writers who you feel influenced many, if not all, of the stories in Skin Thief?
I spent most of my teenaged years reading classic Gothic romances and horror. A lot of my tastes and aesthetics were shaped by those texts. Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Bronte, Bram Stoker, and their contemporaries’ works are part of the fabric of my brain. I am also a huge fan of Angela Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber. Her writing is so precise and sharp. I love the way she broke down fairy tales into their components and turned them inside out so readers could see the beating heart at their cores. Angela Carter is goals.
In terms of contemporary work, my writing style is heavily influenced by the voice, mood, and tone of the shuttered magazine Shimmer. I read slush for Shimmer for several years under E. Catherine Tobler’s editorship, and I like to believe a part of the spirit of that magazine lives a little in my writing.
Departing from text-based storytelling; I would be remiss if I did not mention the fundamental role Trinidadian oral folktales play in the collection. Several of the stories towards the end of the book are based on figures from the tales my mother told me as a child. La Diablesses, Soucouyants, Mermaids, and Douens are all part of my culture and history. I probably wouldn’t have become the writer I am today or a writer at all, without my mother terrifying me with these stories. I’m very lucky she did.
What about writers who influenced a story or stories in Skin Thief, but are not ones you’d consider an influence on your style as a whole?
So, this isn’t the answer to your question because I’m going to use this space to talk about A.C. Wise, who has had a huge influence on me. She deserves the space for an answer all to herself and I didn’t want to include her in the previous answer because her influence has been more pointed. The idea for my nebula award nominated short story “Laughter Among The Trees,” came after I read, “The Stories We Tell About Ghosts,” by A.C. Wise in The Dark Magazine. The relationship between the brothers in that story, the love, resentment, trust, and guilt all slurried together blew my mind and it was the seed for the very antagonistic relationship dynamic between Anna and Sab in my story. I adore A.C. Wise’s work generally. I think she is our contemporary Shirley Jackson in many ways. I also admire her professionalism, her commitment to community and how much she gives back. I admire her so much that I asked her to write the introduction to the collection and she said, “Yes.” I can’t explain what it’s like to have the person who has been your personal role model introduce your work. I remember when I was just beginning to write. I discovered her stories and thought: wow. I wish I could write like that.
And now, somehow, she and I are peers? Dare I even say that?
I have said it.
And then, what about non-literary influences; do you think any of the stories in Skin Thief were influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Gosh, I’m going to try to curb this list. I think the idea of influence is an interesting concept because it’s a continuum. Yes, there are things that have a very clear connection and there are others that are foundational but don’t necessarily have a one to one relationship. They are the water my brain swims in.
As a kid, I loved Scooby-Doo, The Addams Family (especially Wednesday Addams), Batman in general, and Batman The Animated Series (Poison Ivy is my fave villain, Harley is my second fave). I watched a lot of classic movies with my mother. I’ve seen a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films. Vertigo is my favorite with Rebecca being a close second. I adore the Universal monsters. I also watched a lot of the original Star Trek.
I also am obsessed with music of all kinds. I can’t write without music. In fact, I have a form of synesthesia where music forms shapes and has a direction and flow in my imagination. I find a song that fits the emotional tone of the story I’m trying to write and I play it over and over until it’s part of the soundscape of my day. Then, I start writing. When I get the flow of the written story to match the architecture and shape the song makes in my imagination, I know I might have a pretty solid draft.
Moving away from media, I grew up in Ontario, Canada, and nature, plants and gardening have had a huge impact on my writing. I love growing vegetables and flowers. Camping is a fun vacation for me. I spend a lot of time at the pond near my house trying to get a glimpse of the heron who lives there, or walking forest trails. Sometimes I find animal bones outdoors and I collect them. I used that interest to help me write “Of Claw And Bone,” a story in the collection that takes place in a culture that practices a type of bone magic.
I have many more hobbies that influence me but I’ll be merciful and end this answer here.
Now, along with Skin Thief, you also have a novella coming out next year called Countess. What is Countess about, and when and where is it set?
Countess is a queer Caribbean Count Of Monte Cristo retelling in space. It’s not my usual fare in that it’s a space opera, set in the far future where humans have colonized space and have rival empires. Virka Sameroo, our protag, comes from a mining planet and rises through the ranks of the military. She gets set on a path of revenge and revolution after she is betrayed. There’s romance, space chases, a prison break, heists, a cursed planet. It’s a very different book in terms of genre but I think my Goth style shines through.
Are there any connections between Countess and any of the stories in Skin Thief?
Countess is a space opera and the stories in Skin Thief are dark fantasy and horror. They’re not the same genre. However, transformation, self-realization, and acceptance are themes in both. I can’t seem to stop writing about self-discovery no matter the genre.
The books also both draw heavily on my Caribbean heritage. Revolution, actual, metaphorical, or figurative happen in both. So, yes. There are broad connections and I think readers will pick up on them.
Going back to Skin Thief, I asked earlier if any of the stories in it had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think any of the stories in Skin Thief could work really well as a movie, TV show, or game?
ALL of them! I would love for the whole book to be adapted into a series with each story being one episode. Something like Del Toro’s Cabinet Of Curiosities or Black Mirror. I have been told that “Laughter Among The Trees” might make a good miniseries, and I think it would because of how the story is framed. I can envision the present and the past threads of the story criss crossing and finally coming together in a tangled tragedy that cannot be undone.
It might be fun to have a role-playing game where the protagonists in the collection can turn into the monsters or alter egos they have in the stories. There are enough of them for an ensemble cast.
You know what would also be fun? A Skin Thief category on Jeopardy A Goth can dream. They’d have to change the backgrounds on my Jeopardy questions from navy blue to black though.
So, is there anything else people need to know about Skin Thief?
It is the book of my heart and intensely personal. I have been yelled at by several people publicly for making them cry. This, they have assured me is a compliment.
Finally, if someone likes Skin Thief, what short story collection of someone else’s would you recommend they check out?
I am a huge fan of Nadia Bulkin and I love her collection She Said Destroy. I would also recommend A.C. Wise’s Ghost Sequence, Eden Royce’s Who Lost, I Found, and of course Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.