By L.S. Johnson (https://traversingz.com/)
Nancy Etchemendy’s novels, short fiction, and poetry have appeared regularly for the past 40 years, both in the US and abroad. Her work has earned a number of awards, including three Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award. Cat in Glass and Other Tales of the Unnatural, her collection of short dark fantasy, was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.
Tell us a little about your story, “Cooking with Rodents.”
There are a few life forms on our planet that almost universally elicit a response of horror in humans. Some people can keep their cool in the presence of spiders, scorpions, and snakes, though it takes an effort. Rats, though—I’ve seen even exterminators shiver at the prospect of entering a dark crawlspace that smells like rats. It’s an unsurprising fact about horror writers that we sometimes sit around thinking about the most disgusting things imaginable, and often stories come out of this process. Eating a rat is about the most disgusting thing I can think of doing. I wrote this story 25 years ago, and it still makes me feel like throwing up (in a good way) every time I read it. Heh heh ... maybe that means it’s a classic.
Even for a horror story, the premise is unusual. What inspired you to write the story?
I can’t take much credit for inspiration on this one, because I wrote it on assignment for an obscure anthology, “Rat Tales,” edited by Jon Gustafson, rest his soul. Each story in the anthology had to begin with the sentence, “There were rats in the soufflé again.” A story that starts with a line like that could go in a lot of different directions. But it seemed to me that anyone who’s using rat meat in a soufflé must be trying hard to keep up appearances in a pretty desperate situation. I decided on the Julia Child approach because ... well, people use French cuisine to keep up appearances even in normal circumstances. Plus, I like to cook, and I wanted to see if I could make a rat soufflé sound delicious. I got permission from Jon to change the first sentence to present tense because the story is a recipe, and recipes are traditionally written in present tense. And off I went.
What is your relationship to California, and does California influence your work?
In 1976, when my husband and I were still in our twenties, we moved to California from our hometown (Reno, Nevada) so he could do graduate work at Stanford. I wasn’t happy about the move; I had a lot of preconceived ideas about California and Californians, most of them negative. But before the first winter was over, I was in love with my new life. I remember driving down Highway 1 in a convertible with the top down on a February day (with a goat and a three-legged dog in the backseat, but that’s another story). We stopped for artichoke soup in Pescadero, then headed to the beach, where we went tidepooling and got sunburned. All the while, I knew that back in Reno there was a foot of snow on the ground. I was sure I must be dreaming or had died and gone to heaven.
All of the places where I’ve spent time influence my work, including California, where I’ve now spent most of my life. For me, setting is one of the most powerful elements of any story. It molds the characters and the nature of their lives. It dictates what you can and can’t do with the plot, and it heavily influences the tone and voice of a piece. Painting a setting with authenticity and confidence is all about getting the details right. So the most convincing fiction is set in places the writer knows well. Given this, it’s unsurprising that a good many of my stories are set in Northern California, where the details come naturally to me from long experience. Because the geography and even the weather of Northern California is so rich and varied, it’s a large and flexible sandbox for a writer to work in. It doesn’t matter what kind of story I want to write. There’s a California setting that will suit it.
The location for “Cooking with Rodents” is unnamed. We know only that it’s a place where there is (and probably has been for some time) broad economic inequality and a tacit class system. It’s a place where there are rats and the vestiges of a farm-to-table culture. It’s set in a near future transformed by climate change and social upheaval, where the vestigial wealthy cling desperately to remnants of their old way of life. I was living in and thinking of California when I wrote it.
As writers, we constantly use our imaginations, sometimes in terrifying ways. But can you imagine a hopeful future for California? What might that future look like?
I’ve just finished reading The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, a slim but terrifying piece of nonfiction by David Wallace-Wells, a respected American journalist. He has compiled and analyzed an enormous amount of scientific work and extrapolative analyses by various corporations, non-profits, and government agencies from local to federal. Wallace-Wells does the best job so far of making a compelling case for immediate action. The book spells out clearly the ways in which climate change is already affecting our lives and the increasingly disruptive ways in which it will affect us going forward. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I first picked up the book.
The best science predicts that we are on the cusp of a time in which “weather patterns” will be an oxymoron. If we do nothing to cut the amount of greenhouse gas we are dumping into the atmosphere, we can throw the old term “normal” out the window. In California, each new year will bring higher tides, more flooding, and more wildfires like the Camp Fire. With each slight increase in the temperature, more species will go extinct, and those that survive will move further north. This includes humans, and it goes a long way toward explaining the number of refugees we’re seeing almost everywhere on the planet.
So, can I imagine a hopeful future for California? Yes, I can. In fact, I can imagine a pleasing future for California. Even Wallace-Wells thinks we can still pull ourselves out of the fire. The catch is that we have to start immediately. “We have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all,” he says. “A carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy, a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture.” In other words, a hopeful future for California—and the world—hinges on our ability to change the way we’ve been doing things. All we have to do is pull together, reach consensus about what needs to be done, and then find leaders who can help us make it happen. That may be hard to imagine (which might be why we see so many people writing dystopias). But stranger acts of public will have come to pass, especially when people have felt their lives and their children’s lives are at stake, as is now the case.
Where can readers find more of your work?
A complete list of my publications is available at www.etchemendy.com.