Even in a world driven by reader trends, and fuelled by the instant availability of e-books, there is still nothing that can quite compare to wandering the dusty shelves of a secondhand bookstore and discovering a hidden gem, wedged deep within a stack of well-read paperbacks. With that in mind, welcome to Secondhand Sundays, an occasional feature here in the ruins that celebrates the old-fashioned joy of hunting down those tattered-and-torn titles we've heard of, but never seen; and of discovering bent-and-broken books we never knew we wanted, but suddenly knew we had to have.
As I'm able to reconnect with those authors who continue to stock my shelves, I'd like to use this opportunity to celebrate those books that first kindled my love of books, and those experiences that remind me of why that love has never faded.
Dusting off the shelves this weekend is Peter “Stoney” Emshwiller, an award-winning artist, novelist, actor, and filmmaker who has touched many of the genres and mediums that define pop-culture.Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Peter. During the early 90s, you published a pair of science fiction novels centered around the character of Watly Caiper and the idea of body-swapping. How did that story first come about?
Thanks for having me! And thanks for caring about these ancient, dusty tomes!
The Host” and it’s sequel “Short Blade,” the premise actually came to me pretty quickly. I lived in Manhattan throughout the eighties and was often taken with how, unlike in some other cities, the rich and the poor regularly “rubbed elbows” with each other (on subways, buses, sidewalks, movie theatres, etc). Of course, at the end of the day, these “castes” parted way as the rich zipped up to their penthouses and the poor shuffled home to their dank tenements.
One day I was staring off down a New York street, sipping a beer at a sidewalk tavern, when I had one of those “What If” moments science fiction writers sometimes talk about. I started sketching the avenue before me on my napkin but then slowly, deliberately added a second street level five stories above the first. My “What If” was: “What if there was a LITERAL division between the classes? What if, in the future, a second street level of Manhattan was constructed high above the first for the rich and powerful, trapping the poor down on the lower, original streets?”
The idea intrigued me. Not just as a possible book, but visually. The image was compelling. In my head it was almost like a movie I wanted to see. (I tend to be way more visual than verbal. I know – why the heck am I a writer then??)
And like many fun and/or wacky thoughts, this split-level Manhattan spawned other ideas. As I continued to ponder this concept, I began to wonder what those bored, pampered, isolated rich people in the clean, opulent, sun-dappled land up above might do for recreation? For kicks? In their privileged, safe, dull world, how would they have a thrilling vacation? That’s when the idea of “Hosting” came to me. So the next “What If” was: “What if the rich could project themselves, temporarily, down below into the body of an unfortunate, well-paid volunteer – AKA a ‘Host’?”
And then the last “What If” hit me, the one that got me finally pulling out a pen and a yellow legal pad and starting to write. “What if, while one of the idle rich above was controlling one of those bodies below, they somehow removed all the safety-measures and identification devices and used this poor Host to commit a horrible assassination? Would it be the perfect murder?”
Q: The Host and Short Blade offer a significant level of world-building, social commentary, and gender exploration. What was the original ‘hook’ for you in coming up with the concept, and how did the rest of the elements come to shape themselves around that.
So in my writing I enjoy playing with gender bias and sexual preconceptions. For example, the lead character in my first novel is male, but wants desperately to be a “mother,” which in my version of the future isn’t a gender-specific title. It only means “primary caregiver.” And in this made-up world of mine, “fathering” a child can refer to either gender as well -- it means being party to biologically creating the kid but having nothing to do with raising it.
In these books I also toy a lot with sexual behaviours and customs that, in our current culture, would be considered completely unacceptable. But, for the most part, it seems to me that many of these behaviours are, when you really think about it, taboo for no particular, logical reasons.
I created a dystopian (yet kinda semi-utopian?) society which is mostly much more free and open gender-wise and sexuality-wise than ours, yet much more repressive and fascist when it comes to class, race, and politics.
And speaking of politics, there’s no question that my own left-of-center views come through throughout these two novels. I didn’t necessarily do it on purpose (I honestly just wanted to tell an exciting adventure story) but I suppose I couldn’t help it. In fact someone recently shocked me by announcing that my second book, Short Blade, felt like a primer for today’s “occupy” movement. Hmmm.
Q: In terms of reader reactions, what is the strangest or most surprising reaction to those novels that you can remember?
As a straight white male, I was particularly delighted to see my books regularly listed among pro LGBT and pro minority works, and to hear people say repeatedly that my novels provide positive, strong role models for those communities. How awesome is that?
Another nifty (yet weird) thing: years after these books were published, I was informed by three completely different, random sources – two different NYC doormen and a cop – that The Host somehow became a popular “pass around” book among Manhattan’s homeless population. Very flattering I suppose, yet also poignant. The idea of people living on the street reading and sharing my novel was both wonderful and very, very sad to me.
On the other hand, I was absolutely shocked and dismayed when one early reviewer insisted my books had “Objectivist” (Ayn Rand-ian) overtones (apparently simply because I had one character speak about how certain kinds of “selfishness” can be positive – like when you give a gift to someone not just to be nice, but also because it makes YOU feel good inside to do it.)
Yikes. Personally I’d rather not be associated with any of Rand’s views, thank you very much.
Q: At the time, you were coming off a successful stint as Managing Editor of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine. How much did your years managing short fiction there have to do with you making the move to a novel-length story arc.
I can honestly say that, though I’d been trying to write fiction for as long as I can remember (short stories, screenplays, teleplays, and an early, aborted novel attempt), I didn't really, truly learn how to write until two things happened…
One was spending all those years as an editor at TZ. (I was distinctly under-qualified for the job at the start, and am very grateful I had the opportunity. From carefully sifting through my fellow wannabees work in the “slush pile,” to proofreading and copyediting stories by the masters, to trying my hand at writing nonfiction articles, it taught me sooooo much.)
The second pivotal thing was: actually WRITING that first novel from beginning to end. Nothing teaches you more about writing a novel than actually completing a novel. Best training ever. Anyone out there who wants advice about learning how to write a novel? Here’s my advice: Write a novel. I’m just super lucky I actually sold what was really a learning process. In the end I was fortunate enough to get paid for my education. “On the job training” at its best.
Q: The Twilight Zone, for many readers, represents an early milestone in the speculative fiction genre. How did it feel to be a part of that legacy?
It was HUGE for me when I snagged the job as Managing Editor of The Twilight Zone magazine. I grew up glued to reruns of the original show on late night TV (and later became a fan of the magazine, as well), and the thought of being even remotely connected to all that brilliance was a really big deal for me. So being even a teensy part of this great legacy was a terrific honour I didn’t take lightly. Not for a minute. Frankly, from the start I felt WAY out of my league.
I still suspect they only hired me because I underbid everyone else vying for the position. In my job interview, TZ’s editor-in-chief, Tappan King, asked me what the absolute lowest salary I could possibly take and still survive. No joke. He liked me and we seemed to click so he wanted to hire me, but I was unproven and he had to sell me to the muckety-mucks who held the purse strings.
Well, back then I was living around the corner from CBGB’s in the crack-ridden East Village – a pretty dicey neighbourhood in those days. Great for punk rock music, but not so great if your grandma wanted to visit for tea. And my one-room apartment was incredibly cheap and incredibly tiny. (As the old joke goes: It was so small that when I put the key in the front door I broke the back window.) So my expenses were so damned low ($150 a month for rent) that I offered to do the Managing Editor job for, brace yourselves, $12,000 a year. Yup. Even in the mid eighties that was crazy low.
So they hired me.
I’m very glad they did. Not just because of my love of The Twilight Zone (and of all Serling’s work) and the opportunities and training and connections and life-long friendships it afforded me… and not just because my salary (thank God!) eventually grew… but also because, during my tenure there, I myself eventually interviewed and hired an incredibly talented associate editor who was, unlike me, OVER-qualified for the gig. She was very smart. Very well educated. Very sharp. Very experienced. And also super hot. SUPER hot. Hawt!! DAMN!!
I married her. We’ve now been married going on 22 years now.
A marriage made in the Twilight Zone.
Q: Is there a story from Twilight Zone Magazine that stands out in your mind, or a contributor you are particularly proud (or pleased) to have had the opportunity to work with?
Wow, that’s a very hard one. There were so many amazing writers we published over the years that I was almost always star struck. From “celebrities” like Steven King and Dean Koontz to “literary masters” like John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, it was a great honour to play even a small part in bringing their words to print. (Not to mention all the many brilliant lesser-known writers -- as well as those who got their very first start in our pages and then went on to have terrific careers in the biz.)
I also remember the flip side of being star struck: when I was intimidated and scared by the greats. Hearing commands from my editor-in-chief like, “Hey – go give Harlan Ellison a call and find out why the heck he hasn’t signed our contract yet,” would always bring a pit-bull-sized lump into my throat.
Q: Following your time on Twilight Zone Magazine, you shifted shelves and slipped behind the cellophane wrap, taking on Managing Editor duties at Gallery and Fox. How did that transition come about?
Yeah, weird times. In the end rumour had it that Twilight Zone Magazine was never actually a money maker for the company, which raked in its real cash off “men’s magazines.” Word was that TZ was only kept up-and-running because it gave them “legitimacy” and was a nice tax write off, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. But the bottom line is, one day they had their fill of us and pulled the plug on Twilight Zone Magazine. They fired every single one on the staff except me, who they instead offered a job working as managing editor on their “gentlemen’s sophisticates” (aka, um, “stroke rags”). Not sure why I was the one they singled out to stay. It may have been largely due to the creepy “70s porn star” moustache I sported in those days.
Since I didn't have another job waiting, I decided to stay and give it a shot. Plus, being a straight male, my inner 13-year-old was super curious about working in porn. Would the offices be full of naked women? Could I sit in on the photo shoots? Would I be paid in sexual favours? Sadly: No, no, and no.
Q: While some readers tend to look down on that genre of magazine, there’s a natural connection there to your time with Twilight Zone Magazine, with Stephen King just one of the authors to appear in Gallery more than once. Are there any stories from your years there that stick with you?
Yeah, we actually published a lot of great fiction as well as non-fiction and investigative journalism. But there’s no denying the main focus was on displaying (exploiting?) naked women. I’m not ashamed to have worked in that field for a time, but to be honest my heart wasn’t in it so those years are pretty much a blur. None of the work I did there really stuck in my head. I do remember that our two publishers, who were the sons of the owner, were named Brian and Russell. This eventually led me to refer to them both affectionately as Brussel, which then eventually led me to refer to them both not-so-affectionately as the Sprout Brothers, which then eventually led to me to getting my ass fired. (In fairness, I’m pretty sure the fact I spent more time at my desk working on my second novel than on doing my actual job as a pornographer may have been a factor as well.)
Q: Given that both magazines are known more for their picture spreads than their stories, I have to ask, was there a sustained ‘fun’ element there, or was it just business?
Truth is I didn’t take the porn business very seriously (unlike most others working there) so my days working for the “gentleman’s sophisticates” were strange indeed. The environment was actually very corporate, non-sexual, and strangely cold and prudish, and no one but me seemed to realize how weird that was.
So, for those instances when I didn’t want to be bothered in my office, I scotch-taped an enlarged copy of this ad, with the added words “Please do not disturb” above it, on my door. “Please do not disturb: ****ing my own ****.”
The powers-that-be were not amused.
At another point I got into a heated argument with the publishers about our monthly “Girl Next Door” photo spread feature. I honestly, genuinely wanted to know why we couldn’t just call her a “Woman Next Door” so that at least we acknowledged she was an adult. Calling a naked woman in a sex magazine a “girl” was kinda creepy, no?
Again, they were not amused.
Q: Getting back to the novels, The Host has been optioned for film several times. Do you foresee a day when a film might see the light of day?
I sure hope so. I think it’d make an awesome movie in the right hands. I’ve been super lucky in that, over the years, the book has been optioned by a veritable “Who’s Who” of Hollywood powerhouse producers, studios, and directors, but so far nothing’s ever come of it in the end.
There’s some very exciting movement recently in that department though, but unfortunately I’m not allowed to talk about it at the moment. I’ll keep you posted as soon as I’m free to do so.
Q: Any personal preferences in terms of casting or direction, or would you just be relieved to finally see your work on screen?
After all these years, I’d mostly just be relieved, as you put it. But that’s not to say that I wouldn't squeeeeee with joy if Abrams, Spielberg, or Nolan signed on to direct, with Will Smith, Ryan Gosling, or Jamie Foxx starring, and Michael Giacchino doing the score. But I can’t be picky at this point.
A fascinating part of the film-option process is that, over the years as things went in and out of development, I got to read a whole buncha scripts based on The Host. Quite an interesting experience. It’s very weird to see someone else’s take on your own work. Some of them were both good AND scrupulously faithful to my original story, while others were completely different and yet were not only good but, to be honest, in certain ways BETTER than my book, and still others seemed to have nothing at all to do with my novel and felt a bit more like really bad, feature-length episodes of Mannix.
Q: I know you’ve had significant involvement with Hollywood on the artistic side, working in set dressing, art direction, and special effects. In that respect, how much involvement would you want to have with a movie version of The Host?
Excellent question. I’d certainly love to be in the loop and have some input in those areas, but I know just enough to realize that there are many, many folks out there who are WAY more talented and skilled in those departments than I am. (As an example, during one option period a few years back, an artist was hired by the Bruckheimer team to draw some preliminary concept drawings of this world I had originally created. Wow. They were amazing, and, frankly, way cooler and more detailed than anything I had originally imagined in my head. A humbling moment.)
But, I digress. Back to your question about how I’d like to be involved in a Host film? Truth is, in the years since the books were published I’ve mostly been making my living as an actor. (Writing, art, and acting have all been passions since I was a kid.) So, honestly, the biggest thrill would be if I could arrange to have even a teensy-weenie part in a movie based on my book. Come on -- how cool would that be?!
“Did you notice that funny-looking weird old dude hamming his three lines up in that scene in the sex club? That was the author!”
Q: With so many works from that era being rediscovered digitally, are there any plans in the works to bring back the novels in e-book format, and introduce them to a new generation?
Funny you should ask! Both these books were just recently digitized and I’m currently knee-deep in the tedious process of proofreading and formatting the very-buggy scans. Hopefully they’ll be available as e-books within the year. I’m quite curious how that will work out. E-publishing is a whole new world for me. It’s very, um, science fictiony, if you will.
Q: It’s been twenty years since Short Blade saw print. Is there another novel inside you somewhere, another long-form story waiting to be told?
20 years? Really? No way! Jeeze! (DAMN, I’m getting’ old.)
(Ah, the stories I could tell…. But that‘s for another interview.)
Novel-wise, I recently wrote my very first non-science-fiction book. It’s a smutty, quirky, romantic, deeply-offensive comedic novel called “Privilege and the Hummer Girl.” (Yes, as the title might suggest, I continue to be obsessed with sex, gender, politics, and class.) I’m still shopping for an agent and publisher for this “non genre” piece. Let me know if you have any leads. ;-)
Q: Before we let you go, what’s next for Peter Emshwiller? Is there a project on the horizon that has you excited?
Aside from that stuff (and the wacky, perhaps-unpublishable comedic novel I mentioned earlier), I’ve recently been toying with a couple of fresh ideas for science fiction books. Plus, a part of me STILL wants to write that third novel, since The Host and Short Blade were always intended as part of a trilogy. Maybe if the e-books of the first two do particularly well….
Stay tuned! And thanks!
Oh, and if anyone out there wants to Facebook friend me:
or check out my ancient website (Dang, I really gotta update that ol’ thing):
or my blog
or my overly-flattering Wikipedia page:
or my IMDB page:
please feel free. Put together, they all make me look WAY more successful and cool than I actually am.
Thanks again for joining us, Peter!
It’s been a pleasure! Thanks for inviting me!