The Big Idea: Susan McDonough-Wachtman

They say good things come to those who wait. They also, however, say that waiting is the hardest part. In both cases, Susan McDonough-Wachtman has reason to understand each aphorism, and in this Big Idea for the aptly-named Snail’s Pace, she explains why.


I started writing Snail’s Pace in 1984. 1984!

I typed the first draft on a word processor I bought when I was working at Montgomery Ward — it used thermal paper. I’d like to say I was inspired by Orwell, but I know I wasn’t. I don’t think I had read any Orwell at that time. I had read Heinlein and Asimov and watched classic Star Trek over and over. But my true delights were romantic suspense novels ( I was 24 years old). I was inspired by Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, intrepid Egyptologist, and by Mary Stewart’s The Gabriel Hounds which introduced me to Lady Hester Stanhope, the British “Queen of the Desert.”

I thought: What would happen if one of those fearless, sanctimonious, oblivious British women went to space and met aliens from other galaxies? Wouldn’t she be just as charming and aggravating and self-righteous as ever? And I came up with Susannah McKay, British orphan stranded in Hong Kong and looking for a job.

Susannah jumped at the chance to tutor an alien aboard a ship — she naturally assumed the child was Chinese and that the ship had sails. She considered it a great adventure to take this job — and also her duty as a “civilized” person. She did not anticipate snail aliens on a humid spaceship. The hardest plot problem I had was to come up with a reason for the aliens to want Susannah. This is part of the explanation I created for myself:

“Simtlack admired Queen Victoria. She had longevity —unusual in an Earth ruler. She also had self-discipline and a very strong sense of right and wrong. Just the things his son most needed to learn… Simtlack’s tentacles wove thoughtfully. Yes, she sounded quite smooth. He directed the Captain to set course for Earth, then oozed his way out of the communications center. The slimer had to clean up after him.” …read on for more details!

Source: The Big Idea: Susan McDonough-Wachtman

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