An Interview with Kij Johnson
Kij Johnson, who describes herself as “a writer of short stories, novels and occasional other things,” has garnered numerous literary awards, including the Nebula Award (three times), the World Fantasy Award (also thrice), the Hugo Award, and the French Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. Recent books include The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, The River Bank, and At the Mouth of the River of Bees, a collection which has gone through multiple printings with Small Beer Press. The following stems from an interview conducted via email and largely focuses on the collection of science fiction and fantasy stories.
It seems that the stories originally appeared over the course of about eighteen years. What was it like putting together a collection that spanned such a large section of your writing life?
As you know, I am not a prolific writer, but my career has been going on for a while. I look back at some of my earliest stories, and I am grateful that they were published before the internet made everything universally available. Some are banal or heavy-handed, or based on a not-very-interesting twist ending. Some never quite gelled because I lacked the skills to make them work properly. On the other hand, those stories — dumb or not, shallow or not — made me who I am now as a writer, so I did want to represent them somehow. I ended up proposing several to my editor, Gavin Grant, with the assumption that I would totally rewrite them for the collection. In the end, Gavin liked “Wolf Trapping.” In its original published version (in Twilight Zone Magazine in 1989), it was some beautiful nature writing wrapped around a polemical brick, but I knew it could be better than that. Even now it feels heavy-handed to me; but it is what it needed to be at the time. I was young and thinking things through, and this is what that looked like.
The other stories were pretty easy to choose, though I rewrote all of them at least a little. I didn’t include a couple that I liked personally, because I felt that they just couldn’t be rewritten up to a level where I would be proud of them in 2012.
What does your perfect writing day look like?
Coffee and cream, squirrels on my back deck, a project that I am happy with that is well underway, and a full day to drift between writing and reading and walking and making lunch and writing again. Whenever I have a month or two to dedicate to work, I am happy and productive and centered.
I really enjoy your use of places, like Japan, and world detail to imply a setting. Are you at liberty to discuss your worldbuilding secrets?
I don’t know that I have secrets. My undergraduate degree was history, and as an obsessive sort of person, when I get interested in a topic, I tend to go crazy about it. I didn’t research Japan to write books; I became obsessive about Heian Japan, and after years and years in which I read literally hundreds of books on it and adjacent topics, I realized I needed to use all that research in a story before I lost interest and moved on to the next topic. Initially, the obsession came first and then the story, but in more recent years, it’s the story idea that comes first, and then the deep research.
One thing that is helpful, and I feel people don’t do as much of as they might, is reading contemporary lit from whatever period it is. And not just the great literature: I am finishing a book set in a 1913ish sort of time (The American Tour), and in the last year or two, I have read more than a hundred light novels and memoirs from the period. The Motor Boys, or: Chums through Thick and Thin, The Erie Train Boy, The Amateur Gentleman; By Motor to the Golden Gate — none of these are great books (or even good books) — but they are great insights into the world they were written in.
I enjoyed “Schrodinger’s Cathouse” immensely. Do you want to talk about what part ideas about gender play in your writing?
This is one of the older stories in the collection, and the world has moved along from where it was when I wrote it. But I always found the notion of genders demarked by clear margins inaccurate and annoying. Inside my family, I was raised with as few gender expectations as possible, but of course every bit of the world outside my family was pushing me toward a particular performance of heterosexual femininity, one that I didn’t like or trust — and yet I found myself having to engage with it. By college, I publicly self-identified as bisexual, as being the most accurate of the few options the world seemed to offer. Now I would identify differently, given so many additional possibilities.
This is why gender is dominant in my fiction. It’s not always obvious — “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” is actually an experiment in building a gender-neutral society, though it’s not foregrounded; and of course, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe and other work of mine is all about interrogating how gender constrains storytelling. “Schrodinger’s Cathouse” was almost the first time I engaged directly with gender in a story.
I also adored “The Bitey Cat.” I feel animals are everywhere in this collection. Can you talk a bit about animals in your work?
I do seem to write about animals all the time! There are several answers to why, and depending on my mood, I can give any of them with complete conviction. The answer is all of them. Here’s today’s: I grew up in a family with at least one autistic parent, largely isolated from my peers. I didn’t understand people at all well, and by the time I was ten or so, I decided that I would only be able to have friends and relationships by studying people, as though from the outside, and learning to pass as human (as my brother and I described this later). But studying people from the outside like that showed me that we don’t actually ever understand other people, even if we may all subscribe to the same model of reality. This led me into observing animals with the same outsider curiosity, the same desire to bridge the gap between intelligences. We can’t bridge these gaps, but trying to do so is essential to being compassionate, I think.
My favorite story in this collection was “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” and, honestly, I want to send this story to literally every pet owner I know. Can you talk a bit about this story?
I always tell people it’s a three-handkerchief story! I actually used to have a lot of trouble do it in public readings, because it was a struggle not to collapse in tears. I think I could get through it now, but … maybe not. It was, as you would expect, a love story to a specific dog, a German shepherd named Sid. He had been an adult-dog rescue, and we didn’t have him for more than a couple of years, but he is still my One True Dog. So much of it takes place in Montana, because I had made the drive between Minnesota and the PNW so many times, and I had fallen in love with that country. The rivers all had extraordinary names — Powder Creek, Snake River — and I got to thinking about what it would mean if the names of such things were accurate. The ideas came together in some sort of strange cataclysm.
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Asha Vose’s short fiction and journalism have appeared in Harpur Palate, Quiddity, Knoxville Voice, and elsewhere.