Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: Sumiko Saulson (ze/hir or they/them) is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural horror and speculative poetry, and a comic zine maker. Author of The Rat King: A Book of Dark Poetry (Dooky Zines, 2022) Happiness and Other Diseases (Mocha Memoirs Press 2022), and the LOHR Reader’s Choice Award-winning collection Within Me Without Me (Dooky Zines, 2022), and the novel. Winner of the HWA Scholarship from Hell (2016) BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest (2017), Mixy Award (2017), Afrosurrealist Writer Award (2018), HWA Diversity Grant (2020), LOHR Fiction Grant (2021), and the HWA Richard Laymon President’s Award (2021). They have an AA in English from Berkeley City College, write a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView is the host of the SOMA Leather & LGBT Cultural District’s “Erotic Storytelling Hour,” and teach courses at the Speculative Fiction Academy.
Thanks so much, Sumiko Saulson, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: What do you do when you get writer’s block?
Sumiko Saulson: The first time I got a serious case of writer’s block was in late 2012/early 2013 when my father, Robert Saulson, was dying of cancer. My mom was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in August 2009, and my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer the following year. They removed it surgically, and we thought it was fine, but at his six months follow-up appointment, they found out he had liver cancer which had metastasized, and they gave him three months to live. I was hit with an overwhelming sense of anticipatory grief, and could not write. So I decided to illustrate my short story Agrippa as a comic book. It helped to refocus my creative energies into something less verbal, so I sat drawing, painting, and inking artwork. I sat by my father’s bed drawing. If you see Agrippa there are certain panels of artwork that depict my father, where I sketched him while sitting on the side of the bed.
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
SS: Oh yes, definitely. I am an African American biracial person who is also of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, and my works tend to either center African American people or be multicultural and center People of Color. I am also queer, being pansexual or bisexual (either works for me) and am a nonbinary person. So I often write stories that center people who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community as well. For example, over the past year. I have bipolar disorder with psychotic features and PTSD, and a lot of my stories have people with mental health issues as well.
I have released Within Me Without Me: A Book of Dark Poetry and Prose, which has poetry and prose. All seven of the stories in that collection center on African American protagonists, and the three-story arch The WeNess Trilogy centers queer characters. The Hills Bled Gold (which you can also hear on the Nightlight Podcast) and the WeNess Trilogy also deeply feature system psychology, that is, people who have alternate personalities or systems, in a positive light. My novel on Mocha Memoirs Press Happiness and Other Disease centers on a protagonist who has bipolar disorder and also is a mixed-race Asian and Polynesian person. I have had stories in E.F. Schraeder and Elaine Schlieffer’s ethnology In Trouble, an anthology raising money and awareness for reproductive rights, the story “The Ballad of Faerie Garcia” centers on a pregnant Mexican American transgender man whose partner is a Black transgender woman.
My short story in Penelope Flynn and Cranston Hughe’s Blerdrotica 2: Couple’s Therapy, “Dwayne’s Baby Daddy” is about an African American werewolf love triangle between Jamal, a bisexual cisgender werewolf, his wife Mariah, and his boyfriend, Dwayne, a transman who is pregnant. It’s horror erotica, so naturally, they’re all very sexy people who are headed towards becoming a thruple, such is the genre, and I’m not mad at that. And on the non-fiction front, my essay “Centered and Seen” is part of Joe Valese’s remarkable It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror. I have been working on 150 Black Women in Horror, a new edition of the popular Black Women in Horrorseries, and working on the Black Women in Horror website and magazine with Kenya Moss-Dyme of Colors in Darkness. And I’ve put out three courses with my sweetie Emily Flummox on the Speculative Fiction Academy, Queerness in Horror dealing specifically with marginalized people. So indeed, the majority of my works deal with marginalized people, and The Rat King is certainly no exception.
JSC: What’s the funniest or creepiest thing you’ve come across while researching for one of your stories?
SS: The Rat King is a book of poetry whose title poem is a ghost story about the ghost of a homeless man who died frozen together with a group of other homeless people who tried unsuccessfully to stave off the winter cold, a poem whose narrative relies heavily on the image of the Rattenkönig or Rat King, a fictional character based on a real-life phenomenon. If you’ve ever seen Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is this very powerful scene where Dracula (played by Gary Oldman) turns into a batlike creature who subsequently disperses into a massive wave of black rats while Mina (played by Winona Ryder) mutters “unclean” under her breath. I absolutely adore rats, have had pet rats, and know they can be sweet and affectionate creatures despite their reputation. Throughout the course of history, they’ve been both feared and revered.
I became fascinated with the image of a rat king. A literal rat king is a group of rodents whose tails have become locked together, preventing them from moving individually, so they travel in a large mass. Although they can be any breed of rat, and have even at times been mice, most commonly, they are rattus rattus, or the black rat, a breed that has particularly long tails that are generally a few inches longer than the rest of their total body length, so more than half of their length is composed of tail. Naturally, there was a period of time when rat kings were thought to be imaginary, but one caught in live in 1963 was subsequently killed and examined. They found fractures in the tails, and calluses on the tails, which verified that they had existed for a long period of time in this state.
So I became a little bit fixated on survival while stuck together, and death while thus trapped, and the analogies that could be made between innocent rats feared for a painful condition they were trapped in that hindered and harmed them and did nothing whatsoever to the superstitious humans that feared them.
When I did research about the term Rat King, I learned that it did not originally refer to a group of rats attached at the tail, but to people who live off of other people, and Martin Luther had used the term regarding the pope. Over time, the two images merged, so there was a rat riding on the backs of other downtrodden rats, who were attached at the tail. Some of the imagery came from the tendency of rats, when in overcrowded settings, to eat their young.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for The Rat King?
SS: Due to gentrification, the house next door was sold to house flippers, who gutted it, causing a wave of roof rats, also known as black rats, to flee into neighboring homes. So last year, there was a big storm in winter, and the rats all ran under my house, ate through the walls, and got into my unit. As much as I do love rats as pets, I had to set out traps for them. They were growing quite bold, and ran over to eat food out of my cat’s dishes a couple of times. And of course my landlord had to get them out because they were literally deconstructing the building.
So I had a lot of things ratting through my head about rats, and rat kings which are particularly associated with that kind of rat. Black rats will move into basements and attics of homes, and tear apart all kinds of internal structures. They’re even known to tear into pipes to get at water. And at some point during my landlord’s fight to eradicate them, there was flooding in the basement below my unit. Meanwhile, Oakland has a lot of homeless people, and in the part of town where I live in, there are also a bunch of illegal dumpers. Black rats and other kinds of rats live within the illegal dump sites and in the shanty towns where the homeless live. I have been homeless before, and I thought about how privilge interacts with the particular relationship one has to keeping not only the elements, but creatures such as rodents and insects out of where one lives. We call rats “vermin” and our pets – I had two cats at the time, and they both tried to hunt the rats, and at one point presented me with a half-eaten carcass – were invited into our homes partically to keep other animals out.
So it all came together as a poem about displacement and privilege, It was about how people treated the homeless man when he was living, and aboout how he and hsi friends died out in the cold, and he lived on as a spirit to haunt those who refused to help prevent his fate.
I had been trying to put together a book of poetry, as there was more interest in my poetry since the ealease of Within Me, Without Me (which combined prose and poetry) and I wanted to make a book of just poetrt. A lot of the poetry deals with both supernatural and human monsters, and in the case of the Rat King, we’re also dealing with how the privilege system treats the downtrodden as monstrous when in reality, it’s the villianous system that holds them in a state of oppression.
JSC: Who did your cover, and what was the design process like?
SS: Gabrielle Faust, a talented author and artist, graced me with the amzing cover of The Rat King. Gabrielle is an author, editor and entertainment journalist, she writes these wonderful vampire stories, and not everyone knows that she’s also a very talented artist and artisan. She makes terrific gothic jewelry as well. She’s a friend of mine, in fact she does all of the art and upkeep for the StokerCon website and we’ve been working together on the Horror Writers Association Social Media Team. She created the logo for the 2023 StokerCon in Philadelphia. And when I told her what the title of my book was, she said she’d been having dreams about Rat Kings and that she really wanted to do some artwork for the cover. So it really felt like fate, in a way. That we were both thinking of Rat Kings at the same time. And the cover is glorious, it is perfect. So it was just this very kismet thing.
JSC: What was the first book that made you cry?
SS: Charlotte’s Web.is the first book that made me cry, when I was in fifth grade. When I first learned to read, I was a huge fan of Pippi Longstocking. I’d been picking the books up at the Book Mobile since around third grade, and becamse an avid reader because we had access to a Book Mobile and books we could check out from a portable library. I believe its so important for kids, and particularly innercity kids as I was, an African American student at a school that had a large number of African American and Mexican American students (Wilson Place in Los Angeles). So I learned how to check books out from the library as a result of that. And by the fifth grade, I was an advanced reader and was reading books for adults, and had developed a love for mythologies. But I fell down and injured my knee that summer, and my grandfather and his wife Ruby (a nurse) were taking care of me for a few days. And I loved to read, and what she had in the house was Charlotte’s Web. So I read it, and became very attached to the characters, and was so caught up in Wilbur’s fate that it hit me for a loop when Charlotte died. I just bawled my eyes out.
JSC: What other artistic pursuits (it any) do you indulge in apart from writing?
SS: I love to dance, sing, draw, and paint. I’m working on a comic book called “And They Lived Long Enoguh To Bury Their Dead,” which is about a Gen Xer (African American and non-binary) who is dealing with things a lot of members of my age cohort are facing right now – the loss of parents, and the loss of members of the social circle.. This particular character happens to have the psychic ability to see, hear, and otherwise interact with the spirits of the dead. As a matter of fact, right now as I type this interview, I’m in the middle of a huge blackout here in the City of Oakland, California and have not had power for the past 24 hours. So I have been spending a lot of time working on the comic, which is hand drawn, inked, and colored with markers and colored pencils. In the past, for my comic Agrippa, which is a sci-fi dystopian tale I put together back in 2013 (as I mentioned above), I also used acrylic paints and digital tools to create the color and look.
JSC: Which of your own characters would you Kill? Fuck? Marry? And why?
SS: I would marry Nomi Barr, this really sweet but at the same time, totally scandalous werepig from Insatiable.Insatiable is the third book in the Metaphorphoses of Flynn Keahi, so most of you won’t get to meet Nomi for a while. When you do meet her, you’ll soon see why I’d want her to be my ride or die She’s tough, resilient, and very affectionate but at the same time, if you were in trouble and needed someone to create a false identity for you to flee the counry with, she’d be your go to.Loves hard and plays hard. Plus, she’s polyamorous, so we’d be compatible in that way as well.
I would have sex with Angelo, the sensitve cybernetic humanoid from the We-Ness trilogy. He’s just such a sensitive, thoughtful and giving being I know I would walk away satistifed. Not to mention, smoking hot. And since Nomi and Angelo are both non-mongamous I wouldn’t have to break up with him just because I waa dating her, so I think it would all work out. Of course. I’d need the consent of Sheila, Angelo’s host body, since we’d have a really compicated metamour relationship. I mean Angelo can have sex with his full body prothesis, so I guess we could do it that way as well. Or maybe I could be Angelo’s host body in some freaky fanfic in my head cannon.
I wouild definitely kill Lizbet, the villian from “Warmth.” She’s a particularly loathsome character, and I remember at one point, my father was reading the book and he called me on the phone after reading a scene where she was acting paricularularly badly and said “she’s terrible when are you going to kill her?” He’d gotten sucked into the story and was just reading it waiting to see when she would die. I will tell you that just because I think she could die, well, that does not necessarily mean she necessarily dies in the book. Read it and find out!
JSC: Star Trek or Star Wars? Why?
SS: Definitely Star Trek. It’s a lot more progressive than Star Wars, and so is its fandom. Star Trek aired the first interracial kiss on television. Meanwhile, Star Wars fans sent racist death threats to John Bodega and Kelly Marie Tran. It’s not that I am not a Star Wars fan, it’s just that Star Trek seems so much more advanced to me that I don’t feel Star Trek can compete.
The entire Star Wars universe seems to center around two opposint religious crusades, one of which seems to be constantly blowing up planets and stuff. At least half of the fans seem more interested in Kylo Ren, Darth Maul and Lord Vader than they do in any of the heroes. That, in and of itself, would not be a probken since its a space fantasy, and hell, I have a Darth Vader coffee mug and a Darth Vader t-shirt so I am not immune. It’s just that so much of the fandom seems to have picked up and adopted the fascist views of the Empire along with their cosplays, with the death threats and the writers generally giving into fan whims as a result.
Star Trek, on the other hand, created idealistic worlds where issues like sexism, racism, and ableism were challenged, worked on, and very often remedied. When characters like Catpain Kirk started to seem dated and dusty, dating the known galaxy as his way of beign liberal, for instance (not to slut shame Kirk or anythung) they kept adding new characters, like The New Generation, and later Voyager, Deep Space Nine and so many other parts of the franchise and of course this continues to this day. I have many, many pleasant memories of watching Star Trek with my parents.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
SS: My most recent book is The Rat King: A Book of Dark Poetty. Although Edgar Allen Poe, the father of horror poetry, is well known to most genre fans, I think many fans of horror are not as familar with horror poetry. I started out as poet, years before I wrote my first short story and decades before I wrote my first novel. As a matter of fact, when I was twenty years old, I was profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the up and coming poets on the neo-Beat poetry scene. This would have been back in 1988. I’d already been on the spoken word poetry scene for about four years at that point, having started out in Hawaii when I was a teenager. I put out my first poetry chapbook when I was still a teenager, listening to Lydia Lunch and William Burroughs spit poetry on vinyl I was 17 or 18 at that time. I put my second one out when I was 19 or 20, after I moved to San Francisco. So for me, The Rat King is like a homecoming: it’s me returning in earnest to a genre I have been a part of for decades. I have continued to write poetry, essentially all of my life, but between 2011 and 2021, I published it as a part of books of prose and never seperately.
And now for Sumiko’s latest book: The Rat King:
Freely mixing light-hearted horror about zombies and vampires with more serious topics such as homelessness, mental health, racism, death, and polyamory, each poem in this anthology will confront you with the very things society prefers to ignore. Always grounded in speculative fiction, they nonetheless remark upon our real world with a comfortable and revealing familiarity.
On Darkest Night of Faerie Bright
In an anxious child’s maw wiggles a single tooth
When he bites on a carrot, it comes hastily loose
Sell it off late at night for the price of two quarters
To the grim faeries famously known as tooth hoarders
Ignorant parents open windowpanes wide
To invite all the night’s hungry faeries inside
Little thieves glimmer bright stealing teeth in the night
Shining like fireflies in the low firelight
Faerie flight enters tiny, aloft glowing sprite
But they stretch and they grow to an enormous height
Talon-like fingerclaws drag on the ground
On the floorboards they scrape, such a nail-biting sound
Sunken eyes of deep red glowing like a hellhound
Rows of sharp shark-like fangs gracing sardonic grin
Three inch denticles stretching from nostril to chin
These can easily slice through a soft human’s skin
How the bright faerie drools, all its hunger to sate
Inhaled lovely aromas arouse its palate
For the teeth of a child aren’t it’s only cuisine
Nor the only ones that it enjoys loosening
Upstairs yon tot’s grandmother restlessly sleeps
In her nightmares preparing, she quietly weeps
For a long finger prying most gently in mouth
As it loosens her teeth to the north, east and south
It inhales her last breath ‘til there’s nothing to save
For she won’t need to take all her teeth to the grave
When the morning arrives, see her grizzly demise
Cold coins lying on each of her dead, sunken eyes