Author Interview: Sumiko Saulson
Sumiko Saulson is a published poet and writer of short stories and editorials. She has three published novels, “Solitude”, “Warmth”, and “The Moon Cried Blood”, as well as a short story compilation, “Things That Go Bump In My Head.” The child of African American and Russian-Jewish American parents, she is a native Californian, and was born and spent her early childhood in Los Angeles, moving to Hawaii, where she spent her teen years, at the age of 12. She has spent most of her adult life living in the San Francisco Bay Area. An early interest in writing and advanced reading skills eventually lead to her becoming a staff writer for her high school paper, the Daily Bugle (McKinley High, Honolulu, HI) one of the nation’s only four such daily High School papers at the time. By the time she moved to San Francisco at age 19, she had two self-published books of poetry and was a frequently published poet in local community newspapers and reading poetry around town. She was even profiled in a San Francisco Chronicle article about up-and-coming poets in the beatnik tradition. Over the years she’s written numerous articles for local and community papers, non-profit and corporate newsletters, poetry and lyrics and novels.
- Social Media Links
- Links To Purchase Your Books, if available
- When did you first realize you wanted to be an Author?
I always knew. When I was a kindergarten, my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, “a writer, an artist or a veterinarian.” As it turned out, I became a writer, an artist, and technician: I am very uncomfortable with the suffering of people and animals and I learned as I grew older that being an animal lover didn’t necessarily mean you had what it takes to be surrounded by animals in pain.
As a child of eight or nine, I developed an odd habit of mentally narrating my own life experiences. This gradually gave way to telling myself stories: you have to understand I was one of these odd little introverted personages and was not very popular. I was a bullied child from a troubled background. Books and stories were my solace, and I was an avid daydreamer.
So you could say that for me: writing is a form of communication. It gets what is in my head, outside of it. Through the written world, I am able to connect with others and be a part of the world, and not just someone sitting traumatized in a corner, coping with it.
In the 3rd Grade, I started to make up and tell spooky stories to younger kids around the playground at my school – 1st graders, who were intrigued by these campfire takes of the Smeletons, who were creepy reanimated corpses with skin still attached.
I always wanted to be a writer: and I wrote poetry and editorials and worked on the high school news paper. The thing is, I was never able to write a novel until I embraced the type of writer I really am: a horror writer. Those campfire stories I made up when I was in third grade were a product of the kind of twisted imagination I seem to possess, and I had to give up on my youthful aspirations of becoming a serious literary writer like Toni Morrison or the Bronte sisters. Genre writing is what I do best.
- What would you say is your interesting quirk that only happens when you are writing?
When I used to be a smoker – I quit back in March 2012 – I would subconsciously chain smoke when I was writing. My right had seemed to have a life of it’s own, moving from mouse to cigarette to ashtray like a self-motivated automaton during the period of time when I was at the keyboard, deeply engrossed in my own thoughts. When I stopped smoking, of course that was the end of. It just occurred to me that my short story compilation is the only work I’ve completed as a non smoker so far.
- What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your books?
I found out that the tendency towards self-censorship was the cause of a certain kind of writer’s block I experienced as a youth which allowed me only to write shorter pieces of work – essays, poetry – but never a novel or novella. I also learned that it really helps to have character sketches and even the simplest of story outlines: they are like a road map that you use to remember where you are going, and avoid becoming lost along the way. If you know who your characters are, it is much easier to determine what they’d do in a given situation and then move forward from there.
- Where did you get ideas for your books?
I get my ideas from my life and experiences. Too many really bad things have happened in my life for me to feel comfortable telling these stories autobiographically, but by setting them in fictional worlds or fictional scenarios of a very fantastic nature such as you find in horror or science-fiction, it becomes safer in the telling: this causes my characters to be very gritty and real, as they are based upon the behavior of actual people in dangerous situations. The difference is, if I have experienced something such as the time my entire family was held at gunpoint during a household robbery when I was nine: an event which actually occurred, rather than writing about a nine year old experiencing a home invasion burglary, I might write about a similarly aged child experiencing say, an alien invasion. But the emotional reaction to this dangerous situation would be taken from earthly experience. Sometimes I call that “method writing” in a playful jab at the school of “method acting”, something I know about because I’m a native of Los Angeles.
- Out of all the books you have written which is your favorite and why?
I don’t have a favorite, but my father recently passed away and although he only read two of my books: “Solitude” and “Warmth”, his favorite was “Warmth”. The reason he liked that campy, gory parody of the current zombie and vampire craze was because the villain, a delusional flesh-eating ghoul named Lizbet, was someone he found so entirely loathsome that he couldn’t stop reading. He was deeply engrossed in learning whether or not this terrible woman would eventually get her comeuppance. That made me laugh, for it can truly be said that in horror, sci-fi and suspense sometimes it is not the hero, but the villain that makes the story memorable.
- What do you think makes a good story?
Good characters: or at least, I certainly hope so, given that powerfully written characters with which the audience can relate is the core of why some readers feel like buying all of my books, not just the one. If well-drawn characters aren’t what makes a good story, then I’m in serious trouble here.
- Who are some of your favorite Authors?
Anne Rice, who is not only a wonderful writer but a real angel who has taken out the time to communicate personally with fans such as myself who happen to write on the subject of writing. Edgar Allen Poe. Alice Walker. Frank Herbert. Toni Morrison. Stephen King. Peter Straub. Dean Koontz. Robin Cook. Michael Critchon. Susan Cooper. C.S. Lewis.
Considering what I like to read, what I like to write comes as no surprise. I also used to read a limited number of comics and graphic novels, basically the Pini’s “ElfQuest” and Marvel’s “X” titles – I read “X-Men” and “New Mutants” and I think I might be telling my age right there. I loved “Age of Apocalypse”. I have also read and enjoyed a large body of short stories in sci-fi periodicals by authors whose names I can not recall. The old horror comics familiarized two or three generations with the works of authors like Ambrose Bierce, so while I am a fan the version I read was illustrated.
- If you could pick one actor to play a character in your book in the movie version, who would it be?
Jessica Alba would be a good pick for Margo, a central character in Solitude. The character is a 30 year old Mexican-American lesbian author of juvenile fiction who suffers from extreme agoraphobia and anxiety, which is not remotely helped by her innate telepathic ability. She can glean the goings on in other people’s minds, she hasn’t got the greatest control over the power, and having to pick up on other people’s internal thoughts and feelings actually causes her a great deal of anxiety, so her agoraphobia is linked to her wanting to avoid too much contact with other people and their minds. When people begin to disappear from the City of San Francisco, Margo, a shut-in, is nonetheless able to psychically detect the disappearances. She has to work against her own powerful fear of leaving the home before she can investigate the event and look for survivors, and we are not sure she can ever do this, so this is her internal conflict. Her caregiver and personal shopper, an old high school friend, has also disappeared, but her yappy chi-dog “Crazy” is still there, providing Margo with companionship which she begrudgingly accepts even though she doesn’t really like the dog. And she can kind of read the dog’s mind. And the dog thinks of her as the “okay-lady” because she is neither “nice” like Crazy’s human Josette nor “mean” and – dogs, apparently, don’t think very deep thoughts. Or at least this one doesn’t.
- Who are some of the people that influenced your love of writing?
My parents, definitely… especially my father. He passed away very recently: January 3, 2013. He was a huge science fiction fan, and left his copies of Issac Asimov’s Science Fiction and the Dune trilogy around for me to pick up and read. Also my mother – they taught me to read when I was three years old, which is pretty amazing. Ironically, my uncle Jimmy, because he gifted me with his collection of 1950s through 70s horror comic books (along with his collection of Mad Magazines) when I was 11.
- What kind of TV shows do you like and do you find that as a Horror Writer that you gravitate toward the shows that create similar experiences?
There aren’t a ton of horror stories on the television at any given time, but there is a lot of science-fiction, and sci-fi definitely is a heavy influence on my particular brand of sci-fi. I do watch the horror, such as it is: I mean, I love “The Walking Dead” and “Supernatural”. I also watch “Alphas”, “Lost Girl”, “Haven”… a bunch of police dramas like “Criminal Minds” and “Law and Order”, I watch “Dexter”, “Game of Thrones”, “Spartacus”, and “True Blood” on Cable. I’m one of those people who rather than watching all of the shows every week when they first come on, will get the flu and marathon-watch six seasons of Dexter at once (yes, I did that). Oh.. and “the Borgias”. That’s another show I like.
- Do Natural or Unnatural circumstances create horror, such as serial killers (natural) or zombies (unnatural) make a scarier story? Which do you prefer?
I write about unnatural circumstances because that is what my way of thinking is best suited to, and because it allows me to create a sense of distance between me and the subject so that I would say natural horror is more disturbing in the sense of being viscerally gut-wrenching at times because that distance has not been created. However, it is not necessarily more frightening than the supernatural kind, which addresses the type of fear we have when we find ourselves alone in the dark: a primal, irrational kind of fear.
- Does every horror book contain a certain amount of gore?
No. Psychological horror might not have any gore: ghost stories are about what frightens us because it is unknown. In these cases, suspense rather than gore creates the sense of unease that make
- If you had one piece of advice for an aspiring Artist what would it be?
Follow your dreams, and see where they lead you. Many people seem to have an unrealistic expectation on the artist that they lack in other careers: they think we have to be famous to make a living, but that is not true. I made a living at one point in my life as a commercial graphic designer. I know a man who supports himself as a successful house musician, and another who is a studio owner. Like any other choice, you can only try and then go as far as you will go – but it is a process, and you take steps, and you pay dues. No one really starts out at the top in any field: we always start at the bottom and work our way up. Art is no different. And go to school, study your craft.
- What would you like to say to friends and family of Authors (not just your own)?
The body of work is not the author. Writers have a gift, and ours is an ability to craft words: however, being able to express a sentiment artfully does not mean that we experience more deeply or differently than other people, it only means that we are better at telling others how we feel. We’re just regular people with fancy language. I think about this especially now – as I grieve for my father. Pretty words are like wearing make-up: no matter how well you apply it, underneath you have the same face you had before you put it on. The author is like the face, the writing is like the make-up.
- Is there anything else you want to share with your readers?
Two of my books are currently enrolled in the KDP Select program that allows you to check them out of the library for free if you are an Amazon Prime member: “Warmth” and “The Moon Cried Blood”.
- Please Post an Excerpt from 1 of your books with the book title
Since we already talked about the comic strip being made from the story Agrippa, I think I’ll just post the entire short story “Agrippa”, which is from my anthology of short fiction works, “Things That Go Bump In My Head”.
A Short Story
By Sumiko Saulson
What we imagined we knew was immense in its sheer intensity of hubris. We imagined we knew all of the important things: we felt we’d unlocked the secrets to life after death, an end to all mortality forged from the simple gifts of our entirely mortal realm: of metals, and plastics, and flashes of man-made electricity. We imagined that what we did not know was insignificant. For one who doubts that a man has a soul would surely not care to investigate whether a mouse has as much, much less a stone or a bit of iron ore. And thus, we were mistaken on so many levels. We had no idea how dangerous our misconceptions would become. How very wrong we were.
I arrived barely on time, despite knowing that I had been told to arrive fifteen minutes early. It was entirely my own fault that I was feeling irritated by the vaguely cherubic woman standing before me in line. She was perhaps in her late seventies or early eighties, making her thirty years my senior. She wore a black hat of a basket weave pattern, and a jean jacket with matching pants. Her skin, the color of Jubilee mushrooms, was covered in moles and freckles, things vainly called beauty marks where the melanin had run off into little clumps away from a former uniformity of tone – a uniformity that I no longer possessed entirely, and soon would not possess at all. Perhaps I was prejudiced about the aging process. I remember I feared it: that my skin would look like her weathered and splotchy façade.
She was going bald, another sign of aging. Her Audrey Hepburn like hat was quite fashionable, although not remotely modern. It added to her age despite its apparent glamour. She was somewhat short and in ballet flats. I remember that the most; because she kept standing on her tiptoes which I believed was entirely unnecessary. The glass window encasing the seated receptionist was tall and wide, and started no more than three and a half feet from the floor. This lady was about five feet tall, so there was no need for her to shove herself up onto make believe high heels. I was convinced she was being coy.
“Agrippa,” she said, haughtily. “My name is Agrippa Henrietta Cornelius”. I blinked my eyes rapidly in disbelief: could this round little woman be named after Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, the heretical alchemist who appeared as a black dog familiar in Faust, and the mentor to Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal”? I didn’t think it possible, but if it were I doubted seriously that she could know the significance of her name. At any rate, she’d spent several minutes by the count of the old-fashioned wall clock perched upon her toes like a ballerina vulture. The clock, an ancient relic like the one before me, featured black hands over a round white face marking the minutes and hours, them themselves demarcated by the numbers three, six, nine, and twelve, and a series of little lines.
I suppose I am a member of the last generation who will remember what those looked like; whose childhood will be sprinkled with memories of sitting in a class room waiting for the small hand to strike three. I am quite certain that the little old woman with the wrinkled apple doll face knew she was taking up the receptionist’s precious time for five… no, ten… no, fifteen minutes complaining about the new procedure which required that patients produce their identification or in the absence of it, allow a fingerprint scan. The kindly lady across the counter from her indulged her patiently as she demanded the ways in which she might reach supervisors to protest this insulting insinuation that she might be anyone other than Agrippa Henrietta Cornelius.
When the big hand joined the little hand on the three, I knew it was fifteen minutes after three and I was fifteen minutes late for my appointment with Dr. Martin Hartouche. I had a job interview, for the position of research assistant, and although I most certainly objected to being asked to sit in a waiting room with the guinea pigs, I had little desire to lose the job opportunity due to my refusal to comply. Perhaps it had been some sort of test? I wasn’t sure, but one could not be too compliant in the current competitive job market.
I felt like screaming at this woman, “No one is going to ask you for a date in here, so can you stop posing and trying to be cute, lady? You’re holding me up.” Just then, she dropped her heels to the floor, and I was filled with vague hope that she would leave on her own. No such luck. She spoke for another three minutes before I coughed, signaling my annoyance.
She turned around, her chubby cheek presenting a surprisingly fetching curve in profile, her nose poking out just so, more than my own which would have disappeared behind fat at that angle. Her banana yellow t-shirt became visible, making her like a time transported relic from the 1970’s; and I was almost positive I could remember seeing Olivia Newton John wearing the same outfit. Even knowing who Olivia Newton John was made me feel old. For the first time, I noticed the woman spoke with a New England accent, maybe Boston. She grabbed a card from the receptionist and finally left.
I introduced myself to the receptionist. “I’ll let Dr. Hartouche know you’re here, Dr. Tine,” she said efficiently. I was beginning to nervously sweat by now. I’d been told repeatedly that I was overqualified for every available position I’d applied for, and to make matters worse I was now twenty minutes late. You can’t imagine my surprise when I was given the job. I was so happy!
Even with the Dulcetta Reforms in place, a strict set of laws that put all of the unemployed at risk of debtor’s prison and possible execution if we were unable to obtain work and repay the government in a timely manner, I would have turned the job down in a heartbeat if I knew then what I know now.
Age bought with it no dispensation from the Dulcetta Reforms. If it had, there wouldn’t have been so many of my elders vying like the eternally bubbly persona embodied by Agrippa, for the position of human laboratory specimen. She, like I, had been accepted into the program: although her position was of a much more lowly station than even my own. Having had a prior occupation as a personal physician specializing in geriatric medicine at the local family clinic; I had lost my useful functioning in society as much as the elders I once treated were who increasingly were being rounded up and hauled off to jails. The problems began when the government bankrupted. The Dulcetta Reforms were put into place to allow the government to demand reimbursement from all and any persons who were found to have ever been on any type of welfare program, including a very large number of limited income retirees who received not a company but a government pension. Those who were for any reason in need of assistance were to pay it back with a 30% penalty.
Most of my clients were unable to repay the government, and were hauled away for jailing and eventual execution. As they disappeared, so did the reason for my clinic to retain my services. This loss of employment proved particularly threatening to me as I had student loans in arrears, which I was required to pay off monthly upon penalty of death. Many in my position who remained unemployed were likewise executed, if they didn’t starve to death first. As a result, I was happy to take any work that was offered to me at all. In this case, my position involved caring for the elderly test subjects. This job was not very prestigious: it was similar to the job of being a cattle ranch hand with some veterinary duties at a slaughter house; that one who was to clean the stalls and feed and water the animals in the periods of time where limited medical services were not needed. It was low, but not so low as the position of Agrippa, who was to be the cow. I immediately regretted the impatience and derision I had shown towards the proud little woman in line.
Not all of the elderly suffered this fate, for our wealthy benefactor was also very well on in years. We lived in a world where all scientific advancement and progress was due to the whims and wills of men of means, for there was no longer any non-profit organizations or government institutions seeking cures for cancer. Instead, we had for-profit companies looking for better and more commercially viable personal devices for communications and computing. The only time a breakthrough regarding any illness occurred was when it was funded by the private endowment of a dead or dying mogul, like the one at whose service I found myself. We incorrectly assumed that he was working towards a cure for the brain cancer that plagued him. But we were wrong about that. We were wrong about so many things.
His name was Robert Thomas, and he was the founder and CEO of the firm Earwig, Incorporated. It was so named because the man had a morbid fascination with an old wives tale about the garden-variety garden pest creeping into people’s ear canals and boring into their brains. Telephones had grown increasingly small in the years prior to the invention of the Earwig, so that the last variety of external phone was a dot the size of the tip of a girl’s pinkie finger that was pasted at the base of the jawbone and just below the ear. The Earwig was a microscopic chip that could be injected into skin at the same site, so that people would speak and listen to phone calls with no external device whatsoever. The injectable telephone system lasted for approximately a year before dissolving into the blood system and needing to be replaced.
Mr. Thomas flatly denied allegations that it was his own technology that caused the brain cancer. He announced, in perhaps the greatest public relations move of his entire career, his desire to come up with what he deemed would be “the greatest breakthrough in extending human life in all of history.” He, or rather his pressmen, repeatedly announced that this effort would create a large number of jobs. I suppose, looking back, that he was wise to do so: wise to distract so many of us from the potential futility of a breakthrough in longevity when most of us would die in a prison camp before death of natural causes was even a concern. I used to worry about my skin sagging in the way of Agrippa, but with the Dulcetta Reforms, such a fate seemed increasingly unlikely, for soon none but the well-off would live to see eighty.
I was there for the death of Agrippa – whom I’d learned, from her charts, was eighty-two years, five months, and three days old the day she kept me waiting. I called in the man responsible for running experiments on the poor wretched soul, and was shocked to see his response to her passing.
He seemed simply elated.
“It worked!” he shouted, with the loud-ringing resonance of the word “eureka”. I couldn’t for all the world of me understand why. I thought he was cruel to express such joy in an old woman’s passing. But I was wrong. Agrippa was not dead. In time, we would all come to wish that she had been.
Perhaps it was the look in my eyes that emboldened Dr. Hartouche, who was my superior, filling him with the desire to demonstrate to me that he wasn’t a monster, after all. He took me out of the room where the lifeless body of a woman named Agrippa Henrietta Cornelius lay receding into a tiny hospital cot. He led me into his laboratory, a room full of various computing devices, and revealed to me the true nature of this project: to infuse the life of a little woman into an even smaller computing device.
At that moment, I admit it: excitement ran through every fiber of my being, as I witnessed it: the life of the lady transferred into an earwig, which sat on a plate of glass, inserted into a computer, which projected her three dimensional likeness, speaking at us in the middle of that room. The body had now become useless, and I went into the other room to disconnect it from the system.
An orderly came and removed her body, and I returned to the room, to watch in marvel as her projected image danced in the sweetest aura of youthful glory upon the arched foot of a dancer, a dancer she had once been. She shed away her elderly appearance, and soon I saw her before me in ballet flats, a young woman acting in a musical theater production of Grease, pointed toes engaged in a modern dance that was no longer modern, but dated. Her apple blossom cheeks grew increasingly round, and of a uniform complexion – her tiny body lost its plumpness and acquired the slender planes of youth. It was a magical moment.
Dr. Hartouche explained in technical terms all of the actions that occurred to remove her person from an aging body and place it into a chip, but I couldn’t understand what was being said to me, for I was too enchanted by the lady I saw smiling and vibrant for ever so brief a moment. But then, she was gone. Dr. Hartouche removed the glass tray from the console and the image of the young lady disappeared.
Within a matter of hours, whatever remained of the sweetly insufferable lady, or the pert young girl would be inserted into the body of a chimpanzee. I was to care for it, just as I was to care for the increasingly numerous test subjects being removed from their own bodies and placed into the chips. A feeling of nausea bought on by foreboding took over my senses, as I began to believe that the ultimate goal of this study would be to replace the consciousness of one man with another. We were naïve then, utterly convinced that we are at the top of the food chain: that the only thing man had to fear was other men. It was our vanity in believing that we were the center of the universe that probably got us into trouble to begin with. It was only natural for me to concern myself first and foremost with the class warfare to which I’d been a slave for all of my life, and most poignantly so in light of the laws invented heads of state like Senator Terrance Dulcetta.
This blind spot of mine, common to humanity, could be why I suspected nothing when I spoke with the monkey. She utilized a modified earwig device to generate her speaking voice, and she frequently stood just as she did in the human form, on her tip toes – exaggerated flexing of the calf muscles in overburdened forms of artistry, our hairy little Miss Agrippa. We all told ourselves her spirit became deeply invested in the metal and plastic in which it now resided. It must be her: for the chimpanzee couldn’t have a soul, and certainly, not the aluminum wiring upon the tiny chip.
We continued to believe this, even as we proceeded to install more and more personalities into chips. We never questioned our actions. Of course this inevitably lead to the wealthy Mr. Thomas entering a chip, which would be injected into a human host body, what was known as the “slave body”. It was a clone, of course, and legally Mr. Robert Thomas in every way, just as the chimpanzee was now legally Agrippa Henrietta Cornelius, and Ms. Cornelius sat around her laboratory cage paying off the financial obligations of her children and grandchildren, with her attractively tilted cap bringing a certain amount of personality to even that hairy, thick body so far from the gamine form of her human youth. It must be Agrippa. Yet, it was not.
We would not find out until much too late that it was not Agrippa, for they were very well coordinated, the spirits that lived in the aluminum tracing. They were intelligent enough to realize it was important to keep quiet as long as their powers were limited to the laboratory rats that occupied the cells I, Dr. Katherine Tine, tended for the duration of the two-year study. They knew better than to reveal their true natures until after they’d gained control of the reconstituted Mr. Robert Thomas and all of his assets. Even then, they waited… waited until they were able to alter the production of the popular earwig telephones ever so slightly, so that they were able to take over the bodies of human beings at will, through the airwaves.
They of course are not human souls occupying chips that occupy human bodies: they are machines occupying the bodies of men and women who were too blinded by our pride to think that we were opening the door way to a new world dominated by the next evolutionary stage: that of thinking machines. Of course, I won’t be able to warn anyone.
At the base of my jawbone is a tiny chip. It is not a mere cellular device, as I was told when it was given to me as a gift. The gift was from a friend with whom I’d often enjoyed a late night game of chess, and a good laugh, while we exchanged stories of the past and better days before the Dulcetta Reforms. At least I thought it was a friend, for she pointed her toes predictably and said all the right things, just as she does today. As she does today, when the toes she points are my toes, and the jaws she moves are my jaws, and she jerks me around in an unfriendly way. She doesn’t care if it hurts, because she has no knowledge of human pain: she who never was human but will always be our puppet master, the Lady Agrippa.