Kij Johnson is the author of the novels The Fox Woman and Fudoki, as well as the short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees. She’s worked at Tor Books, Wizards of the Coast, Dark Horse Comics, and Microsoft, and is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Kansas. We spoke with her about her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, a feminist take on H. P. Lovecraft.
This interview first appeared in August 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
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Your new book is called The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. What’s that about?
That’s complicated, because there’s the metafictional answer, which is that it’s a sort of commentary on and response to H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which is one of his better known works. The other answer is that it’s the story of a woman of a certain age who goes out on a quest, which makes her a very unusual character, in the middle of a strange and very bizarre world.
For people who aren’t that familiar with Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stories, do you want to say a little bit about the background of those?
Sure. H.P. Lovecraft was writing a lot in the early twentieth century. I don’t remember the exact dates, and he wrote a series of stories called “The Dreamlands” stories. The idea is that there is a dreamland that certain master dreamers, all male, can get to. It’s a world ruled by these whimsical, cosmological horrors and petty, immensely powered gods. The stories are usually very vividly imagined. There are certain characters who turn up again and again. Randolph Carter is one of his basic characters, who he frames the entire Dream-Quest cycle around. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is Randolph Carter’s primary story, in which he sees a mystical city when he is dreaming. He lives in Boston, and he wants to get there, but when he goes to the Dreamlands, and he’s a master there, he finds the gods will not permit him to see it, and so he quests across the Dreamlands to get somebody who will let him go to this mystical city that he’s seen.
My understanding is that Randolph Carter is sort of a self-insert for Lovecraft himself, who suffered from very vivid nightmares throughout his life.
That’s my understanding as well. Randolph Carter turns up a number of times, and also turns up in stories that are not exactly Dreamlands stories. There’s one story where—I think it’s the first time we meet him—he’s just essentially telling the cops about something horrible that’s happened. But, yeah, he seems like a very central character to Lovecraft.
There’s about twenty or so of these Dream-Cycle stories. How many of them did you reference or use in your book?
I read all of them many times. First off because I’d read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath when I was a little girl, and it was the only one of the Lovecraft stories that didn’t scare the absolute daylights out of me. So, I kept reading it again and again, and it always disturbed me a little. It bothered me, and I couldn’t identify at that point why, but I read the other Dream-Quest stories just in that childhood obsessive way that we track down everything that we think we might possibly like. When I went back to start writing this, I re-read all of the Dream stories again and again. There was one poem that I was not able to track down, so there’s one piece that I didn’t actually get to read.
What is it about these Dream stories you think appeals to you?
The Protean nature of the world. The way things shift. They were full of great wonders.
I grew up a little girl in Iowa, and we didn’t have great wonders, really. We had a lot of pigs and soybeans, which are kind of great, but not wonders, and something about this magical place that he went to, and it was all very encompassable by a little girl. You didn’t have to be sophisticated to understand Lovecraft. You just had to have a good vocabulary. I was able to read them and internalize them in a way that even books like Tolkien—I read The Lord of the Rings at about the same stage, and I couldn’t always follow the bigger emotional movements, whereas there are no big emotional movements, generally, in Lovecraft.
In the acknowledgements for this book, you say that you read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath at ten, and you said that you were “thrilled and terrified and uncomfortable with the racism, but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic.”
This is something that I didn’t notice. I think most of us didn’t at that age. All of the stories that I read when I was younger, there were so few insertion points for girls. We’re stuck having to take our choice between the four girls in Little Women or having to take our choice between Eowyn and Galadriel, which is improbable when you’re growing up in Iowa, or Arwen. It’s interesting how they all have vowel names.
There really were never that many choices, and when I was a little girl reading science fiction and fantasy, I didn’t have anything much. I would read all of them, even stories like Andre Norton’s, and it was always guys, guys, guys. I was as tomboyish as I could be, because it that was the only way I could see being part of these worlds.
I didn’t notice until rereading it as an adult that the Dream-Quest mentions one human woman, and only one, and it’s a farmer’s wife. That’s all they say. “The farmer’s wife was scared.” The end. I started noticing that the only time Lovecraft ever uses women, they tend to be very negative, very stereotypical. They’re evil old grannies or they’re the scared farmer’s wife, but even those are so minor. It’s as though he existed in a world without women at all, and that’s one of the things I was doing in Vellitt Boe, because this Dreamland is empty of women, almost. There’s so few of them, and so the women kind of have to band together, understand each other, and support each other, but there just aren’t that many.
What was the specific impetus to write this? Did you just happen to go back and reread the Dream Cycle stories and then you got the idea? Or did you get the idea and then you went back and read the stories? What prompted it?
The proximate cause was that Jonathan Strahan asked me if I wanted to write something, and I had been chewing over an idea before this that wasn’t Lovecraft. There’s a book by John Myers Myers called Silverlock, which was written in the ’40s, and the conceit is that the Commonwealth of Letters is an actual country, and so in all of those great classics, those characters all live on the same terrain, and they all interact. It was sort of a big, exciting adventure novel about a guy who ends up in a place where he’s fighting Brian Boru, and he ends up meeting Beowulf, and he meets Manon Lescaut, and people like that. But, when I read it, I realized that the only females in that were either women of unsteady virtue and innocent girls for whom either good or bad things happened. There just weren’t any other types in that story. Of course, that’s because in the literature there really aren’t that many types.
So, I had started thinking before Vellitt Boe about what would be in my Commonwealth. If I were adventuring in a land full of literatures, what would my adventures be? I had started thinking, well, where do you insert yourself as a woman? Especially now that I’m an adult, where do I insert myself as an adult woman who’s not preoccupied with the things of a twenty-year-old. I found that there really weren’t that many people I wanted to be, in literature. Most of the women were boring, or I just didn’t see the point. They didn’t aspire for big things. There was a real preoccupation with things that just don’t interest me that much: family and home. There were not enough women going out and doing things. I started thinking, “Why? Why are these classics so dominated by this?” Not because of the histories and conventions of their times or their authors, but more what happens when you insert a mature woman into a science fiction or fantasy world? What do you get?
I’d just done this exploration with Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows where I had just written a sequel, which will be out from Small Beer next year, where I inserted two female animals to say, “What happens to the world if we put females in?” Does it break the world? Does it break the relationships of the male characters? In what ways does it affect the world? Then, after that, when Jonathan Strahan asked me if I wanted to write something, I’d been kind of chewing over what’s wrong with Lovecraft, and that’s what I decided was going to be my next project. I didn’t realize just how absorbing it would become or how much time it would take me, because I ended up really researching it heavily. I ended up doing tons of research into completely unrelated topics like lateen-rigged boats and things like that.
I know you do a lot of research for your stories, and I was curious, you said you read all these Lovecraft stories many times. Did you make some sort of atlas or compendium of names? What sort of background worldbuilding stuff did you create?
Usually my memory is not good enough to just remember it, but because I had read these as a child, that helped a lot, and this time I did have a gazetteer, and I did have a list of characters, but mostly I just read them so much that I’d say, “Oh, oh, wait, Pickering, where’s Pickering? He’s the ghoul, right? He’s three-quarters of the way through. Let me find him.” And then I would go find that section of the book and reread, and I would just use that. Actually, there are places in this book that are direct chimes with Lovecraft’s language, although I didn’t try to simulate it, but I’m directly pointing to certain things that he did.
I saw in an interview that you said, when you went back to these stories, that he was maddeningly vague, and that you had to do a lot of your own invention.
Right. He describes towns, and he will tend to describe them all using the exact same language so that every town feels like it’s a sort of mix of medieval towers made out of some strange stone combined with quaint little New England gabled things. And that’s really all the descriptions he gives. He’ll use a lot of Latinate, multi-syllabic adjectives. They tend to be charged with emotion, not with detail, so he’ll talk about ichorous, the gooey stuff, right? But he doesn’t really tell you what the ichor looks like or what it smells like or is it sticky to the fingers or is it slippery to the fingers? And that’s just one tiny detail. When he talks about geography, people go across pasturelands, but there’s a lot of pasturelands in the world, and they all look different. He’s somewhat restricted by his geography. He’s seeing his pastures, but I decided I might as well see other pastures. So within everything he said, I made a lot of tweaks, and when he didn’t describe something . . . Like, he mentions a number of stars in the night sky, but he doesn’t mention how many stars. His assumption, I assume, is that the night sky looks exactly like our night sky, but that’s not written down, so I was able to play around with the sky and make it do different things than his sky does.
In your book, the sky has exactly ninety-seven stars. I was curious, does that number have any significance? Where did that idea come from?
It would be really funny to say yes, because then years after I’m gone, perhaps people would be trying to figure it out. Maybe she had ninety-seven books about Lovecraft or something? But no, in fact, I picked it because I wanted it to be under a hundred. He actually cites about twenty space objects, including planets, and so these people, to my mind, they’re thinking Mars and Venus are also stars, and perhaps Saturn as well, so they’re not necessarily making a distinction between Algol and Venus. But, I just wanted it to be few enough that the sky would be very, very dark, and to make the contrast with our sky so much different.
I saw that on Tor.com they posted a map of this dreamworld. Did you draw that map and then they professionalized it or did someone collaborate with you on that?
I did draw the map. My brother is a cartographer, so I grew up drawing maps. Like any good fantasist, one of the great delights of writing fantasy is making up your own maps, so I really enjoyed putting that map together. There is one classic map that shows up online a lot, and I used that as a starting point for some thinking I was doing, partly because I wanted it to fit into a vertical layout, and most of the maps are usually landscape oriented. I wanted something you could actually read on one page of a paperback.
You mentioned the language in this and that you weren’t really trying to imitate Lovecraft’s style. I mean, the style in this is unbelievably gorgeous.
Could you talk about what approach you took to crafting the specific style in this book?
When I started it, I was going to try for Lovecraft’s voice, but the more I read it, the less I liked it, and the more I realized that I wanted something that was lush, but I wanted it to be lush and precise. That’s what I aimed for. I usually try to experiment with style when I’m writing, so I’ll try something in a very austere style, or a very florid style, but at some point during the early stages of drafting this, I realized I just wanted it to be my voice, so it ends up being probably the closest to an unaltered voice for me that I’ve written, except possibly for “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” which I wrote a few years back. I guess that’s sort of my natural voice when I’m not trying other things.
There were a lot of words in this that I did not know. Are those words you know? I thought maybe you were intentionally trying to mimic that aspect of Lovecraft. Sort of the unfamiliar words.
I wouldn’t necessarily have added all that. I do know all that vocabulary. I was a precocious child, and I was bored growing up in a small town, so I read dictionaries and encyclopedias, but I would not have used all of that vocabulary for writing, let’s say, an adventure novel set in the 1930s, but I did enjoy being able to use some of that vocabulary. It was trying to chime with the fact that he would have words that when I was a girl I would look up, and I wouldn’t find them in any dictionary. Not even the Oxford English Dictionary, that gargantuan tome. It wouldn’t even be in that. I was always a little bit in awe of that. In fact, there are, I think, two made up words in this, which is sort of my tribute to the fact that I’m not one hundred percent sure that he didn’t just make those things up.
Is there anything in this that actively contradicts anything in Lovecraft that you’re like, “Nah, this just doesn’t work. I’ve got to completely change that.”
That’s a really good question, and I haven’t thought about it that way. The biggest thing is that in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, I changed the geography just a little bit. When Randolph Carter crosses to visit his friend Kuranes, it takes him three days, and I didn’t want this to be a three-day trip. I wanted this to be an immense blue sea trip. I didn’t want to change the geography, but that’s why I put in the thing about the mutable geography. Sometimes a thing takes three days, sometimes a thing takes three weeks. You can’t trust it. That’s, I think, very appropriate to a world that’s being constantly reshaped and redriven by these whimsical, selfish gods.
That’s really interesting. That makes sense, because it is a dream world. I guess that’s sort of a double-edged sword, because a lot of the times in stories about dreams, there’s so much of this sense that anything could happen that you lose interest as a reader because there’s no rules, and it starts to feel arbitrary. Was that a concern you had at all when writing about this sort of dream world?
Absolutely. One of my other favorite books is Alice in Wonderland, and I’ve thought sometimes about how it would be fun to readdress that as an adult. The thing about dreams is that, my dreams, at least, make no sense. I know people who are lucid dreamers or people who have those long, dramatic dreams. But my dreams tend to be a fragment of this attached randomly by one ligament to a fragment of that. Sometimes there are no ligaments at all attaching them. Fiction that’s based on dreams often feels artificial because their dreams are too narrative. Or it feels incoherent because they have no narrative and story requires that. I was very aware of that, and that’s why there’s a lot more identifying of the number of days things happen in than I would have put into a story set on our planet. I would not have said, “Well, it took them five days to get there, but it might have taken nine or it could have taken three.” That was because I was constantly trying to reanchor the reader into the fact that not everything is steady, but this is a fact.
I actually heard you say in an interview that you don’t dream much.
I don’t. For a lot of years, I was on a medication that pretty much prevented my dreaming, and I didn’t even realize it until I went off that medication and found that all of a sudden I was having dreams again, and they were pretty great. Just seeing things at night. I had forgotten that when I was a little girl, sleeping was about my favorite thing to do, because dreams were so interesting.
I interviewed John Cleese and he told this story that Thomas Edison thought that he got all his best ideas just as he was drifting off to sleep, so he would sit in a chair holding ball bearings, and then when he fell asleep, he would drop them, and he would wake up. So he would constantly be falling asleep and waking up over and over again.
I understand that A. E. van Vogt would set an alarm all night. Jim Gunn tells this story, I don’t remember whether it was every hour, every twenty minutes, or every two hours, but he would set alarms all night long, and he would write down whatever he had thought, and then he would go back to sleep. I have to say, that kind of makes sense with the way van Vogt writes because it really does feel like every seven hundred words he’s forgotten which book he’s writing, and he’s just writing another one.
I thought he had a rule for himself that every seven hundred words he had to introduce some completely unrelated concept.
Right, the van Vogtian scene where you always bring something new in. You can really see at the end when he strains to pull it all together, or he just sins boldly and refuses to. It’s always very entertaining watching the last chapter of a van Vogt novel.
Did anything in this book come out of your dreams or did dreaming play a role in writing this at all?
I think so. I think that the landscape in the very last parts when she’s in our plane, a lot of those landscapes, while they’re real landscapes, at night I have recollections of dreams where I would be walking in yellow cornfields, and the sky would be very dark overhead, and I was very aware of that when I was writing this. There are other things, I think the way the deep sea feels, that’s based in dreams for me, but at no point is there something that I would say, “Well, when I was sixteen, I had this dream and it changed me forever.” Although, now that you mention it, I do remember dreaming about giant spiders biting my shoulders off and surely if you can’t fit that into a Lovecraft story, there’s no place for it. I should have put that in.
Speaking of the deep sea, just the part where Vellitt is looking into the ocean and sees the lights. I thought that was a stunning sequence in this story.
Thank you. I was swept away by it as well. I had this sense of immense mass. A lot of times, it’s hard to tell in places like planes and on the sea. I take a lot of cruises with my mother, and it’s really hard to tell if something is small or far away, and you’ll see a boat, and it’s like it’s either a very small fishing boat not too far away or it’s a cargo ship a very long distance away, and I cannot tell right away. We go to Alaska and the glaciers, you’ll come up to them, and either that glacier is forty-eight-feet-high or that glacier is a mile-and-a-half-high, and there is nothing to give you a sense of scale unless there’s a smaller boat in front of it. And even then, you can’t tell, because you don’t know how big the boat is. I was thinking about that, just the incomprehensibility of scale that happens when something is outside of our experience.
We’ve talked about Vellitt, your protagonist; do you want to say more about her?
One thing that always annoys me about older characters in television, movies, and she’s fifty-five, so I’d say she’s not older, because I’m fifty-six, so she’s really the age of sense, I’d like to say. But, one thing that’s always irritating is there’s a real assumption that you can only do and be certain things.
Five years ago, I was a rock climber, and I was bouldering V4s and V5s, which is a very high level. None of the people who write about grandmothers making cookies ever imagine someone who is a grandmother’s age could do something like that. It’s not to say that all grandmothers can, but there are grandmothers who can, and it would be nice to see those people represented.
I wanted to write something about a character who had a complicated and rich past, and I wanted to write about an intellectual who had not always been in an intellectual, because I find as a new college professor, I’m pushing a lot against people who have never done anything but be college professors and college students. There’s so much out there that they could have done but they didn’t do, and that’s what I wanted to talk about, was a woman who had done all these interesting things, made some decisions to do the right thing, the sensible thing, but still retained many of those skills, and also some of the nostalgia for that. When I had to stop climbing, it kind of broke my heart a little bit because I was never going to be the person who climbed mountains the same way again. I wanted Vellitt to be that. I did not write her to be autobiographical, but of course she turned out to be more autobiographical than any of my other characters have ever been.
Like you, she’s a college professor, which is kind of what kicks off the plot of the story. Do you want to say a little bit about what the setup is that sets off the story?
Vellitt Boe is a professor of mathematics at Ulthar Women’s College. Ulthar is a town in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, and that’s where Randolph Carter meets lots and lots of cats. There’s in fact a short story called “The Cats of Ulthar.” So, Ulthar is packed full of sort of untamed and also domesticated cats.
What he says is quite minimal, it’s a town with a tower in the middle of a hill, and there’s a priest up there, and he plies the priest with alcohol to get some information out of him, but I thought, there have to be schools in this place, so I decided there’s an Oxford-style university in Ulthar that’s like Oxford in the ’30s, which is within a decade of when Lovecraft was writing his books. There were women’s colleges, but there were very few of them, and they were walking on thin ice. People recognized in the abstract that women could be educated and some of them should be educated, but that women had to be held to a different standard.
Vellitt is a college professor teaching maths to the women in the only women’s college in Ulthar, the Ulthar Women’s College, which means she’s also kind of the keeper of the morals of the girls. One of the girls, her best student in twenty years of teaching, elopes, and she leaves a letter saying she’s going to be with Stephan. Beautiful Stephan. And Vellitt decides that they need to retrieve her. The problem being that the man that Clarie Jurat, the student, has run away with is not actually a man of their country. He’s a man from The Waking World, so he’s taking Clarie back to The Waking World where nobody from Dreamland has ever been, and in fact, nobody is entirely sure you can go. But Vellitt, with her past, was a far traveler when she was a young woman, and she volunteers to go, and that’s the start of the quest.
One of the reviews I read describes this as a road trip story. Would you call this a road trip?
Every story that moves across space is a road trip. All road trip stories have picaresque elements, because you have episodes based on geography or based on author’s whim. That’s one of the things I love about road trip stories. Yeah, it’s absolutely a road trip. I think you could argue in a very strange way that it’s sort of a buddy movie because she has a cat with her, even though the cat is nothing but an ordinary cat. It doesn’t speak. It doesn’t say funny things. It doesn’t do things cats don’t do. But, she’s not travelling alone. She’s travelling with something that is always with her for reasons that are very confusing to everybody, including me. It’s also a quest, because quests always take place across geography as well, and you see this if you read really anything, but if you read Lord of the Rings, you see the episodic nature of certain things that are happening.
I thought it was really interesting that you chose to have Vellitt not have a companion that she talks to in this story. I think most stories, the first thing they would do is introduce a companion for Vellitt to talk to, so this story is much more about what’s going on in her head and what she’s seeing and feeling. What was your thought process behind that decision?
I’ve written a lot of stories about isolated characters moving through space where they encounter others and then they part ways, but when I’m teaching writing, as a joke, I used to say everybody should put a dog in a story because a dog randomizes things. If you are a writer, and you are marching your characters through a plot, it can feel like they’re being marched through a plot. Here’s a point, here’s a point, and now we have to get to here. When you add any kind of a randomizer, like a dog which needs to be walked, or a baby which needs to be nursed, or anything like that, you shake things up a little bit because there’s always the chance that something else will happen, and with this cat, it doesn’t really do anything that cats don’t do. She does, rarely, talk to it. But it gives me a place where she’s looking up at the stars, something warm can curl up next to her, and that gives her something she can do besides just look at the stars. It gives me a sort of tactile, interactive, organic mover through the story.
You mentioned earlier that in Lovecraft stories, all the dreamers are men, and you carry that through into this. That there’s almost this cosmic sexism at work. Could you talk about that?
All the dreamers are men. All of the gods are men. All of the characters who are mentioned are men. I don’t know what people from the Dreamlands spring from except the minds of the dreamers, so my assumption is that’s some of what’s happening, but also, they have their own lives. Ulthar goes on even when there’s no master dreamer there. Ulthar is still changing in its own slow way. It’s behind the curve of our world. It’s always behind us, because of course in dreams we tend to be nostalgic. You point backwards, not into the future, in most dreams.
I really wanted to think about that. What does it mean to have a world where everything is male? I didn’t realize until after I had written it that these whimsical gods that change things all the time almost exactly map onto the way it would have been for women in the ’30s. They can shut down your college. They can beat you to death and not get arrested for it. They can do all of these terrible things. They can take your goods and leave you destitute. They can lie to you. All of the different practical ways that men would rule women’s lives, it all is mapped into the Dreamlands, where whimsical gods make things happen and everybody else has to just cope, has to work around their bad days, or their need for rest, or their petty rivalries.
There’s a part in the book where Vellitt meets Randolph Carter, and he tells her, “Women don’t dream large dreams. It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.”
I think that’s the way certainly back in the ’30s, but I would say even now, there’s a sense, sometimes I’ll read critiques of or reviews of women’s novels, and it will feel like there’s a sense that, well, this is kind of a big topic. This is a big story or a big novel, and this is something that is changing all the time, and it’s so much better than it was twenty years ago, but I feel as though this is the air that is changing is that sense that women want to stay home. I read a lot of 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s magazines as research for something else I’m doing, and a lot of those, women didn’t really have big dreams. If you read Little Women, the woman who wants to be a novelist gives it all up to marry an older man and raise children. Amy is the only one who doesn’t, and her fallback position is that if she doesn’t—sorry to spoil Little Women for you people—but her fallback position if she doesn’t make it as an artist in Paris is to come home and marry a rich man. That’s the world that it used to be, and that’s the world that Vellitt lives in. That’s the world that Vellitt, in the end, is escaping from.
A big theme in this book, speaking of the ending, well, maybe not to spoil it, but a big theme is to mention that the gods are so capricious in this world, and Lovecraft is famous for transitioning horror away from Christian notions of Heaven and Hell and damnation being what scares you to more atheistic notions of the vastness of the cosmos and human insignificance as what’s scary.
Right, yeah, the cold cosmological horror of deep space.
Is that something you were thinking of with this theme of the evil gods and that they’re capricious like the universe is capricious?
Definitely. And, yeah, petty. Because by the end, a world without gods has its problems, but a world without gods also does not have the moon being pulled this way and that by whim. So, the rules apply. There are rules in a world that is not dominated by whimsical gods, and rules give people structure. Give you the chance to make predictions about the future, make predictions about possibilities.
How do you feel like this book is going to fit in? There’s this whole industry of Lovecraftian fiction. There’s whole presses that publish nothing but Lovecraftian fiction. What do you make of that?
That’s always been the case, because Arkham House is always doing that, and August Derleth, I think he was doing it, but certainly a lot of people were playing around with Lovecraftian horror or Lovecraft pastiches and tributes and sequels and things like that. I didn’t realize just how prevalent the Lovecraft thing was until after I was almost finished with this book, and then I thought, “I don’t know if I want to play in this field,” but I’m happy I did, actually. I think Lovecraft has come to the foreground because there’s been so much discussion about the World Fantasy Award, which was a bust of Lovecraft, and a lot of questions about why is fantasy being represented by someone who is better known for his horror, who is also a racist in writing. A lot of discussion within the field of science fiction and fantasy about this. Does he deserve the attention he gets? If so, why? If not, why not? Right now I think that a lot of people are pointing back to Lovecraft and saying, “I loved him, but now I see the reasons why I was always uncomfortable.” Or, “I love him, and I feel like he merits a second look.”
I’m seeing so many different approaches now to readdressing Lovecraft. I’m sure it will go away. It’s a trend, and five years from now we’ll be done with Lovecraft, and we’ll be on to something, I hope, like Shirley Jackson. In the meantime, there was so much going on with Lovecraft that can be explored or can be countered. You can reply to Lovecraft in so many ways.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the anthology called She Walks in Shadows, which is all explicitly feminist Lovecraftian fiction.
I’ve heard of it, but I made a decision not to read anybody else’s Lovecraft while I was working on mine.
One thing I wanted to ask you about is that this is a novella, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which is sort of a very difficult story to publish. Could you talk about why you chose to write it as a novella and what sort of market there was for it?
I know that Tor.com has been doing these standalone published novellas now for a little while. I might very well have written a novella anyway, but knowing that it could be a novella was really nice. The book was originally much longer. This is about 40,000 words, but at one point it was almost 60,000 words. That was 20,000 words of gorgeous language and static scenery, which somebody recommended I take out, and, feeling as though I was gutting myself, I did. But it did make the book better.
The novella length, it has some really amazing gifts. There’s no need for massive subplots. You can stay true to your theme, true to your topic, without unnecessarily complicating it, if that is the kind of story you’re telling. I do feel it’s almost a perfect length for quest stories, because it doesn’t get so long that you start to see churn and repetition. You can advance a quest across 40,000 words without padding or putting in extra points of view or anything like that. So I do think it’s a marvelous length. It’s really underutilized because nobody has been doing it.
P.S. Publishing also publishes standalone novellas. P.S. is in the UK, I believe. There are a couple of people who have experimented with it. But I do think that ebooks are why we are able to write them now, because people are a lot more patient. You don’t have to hit a length. It doesn’t have to be a thirty-two-page break and the reader has to feel like he’s getting his money’s worth when he picks up the book. He has to say, “This book is worth eighteen dollars because it’s this many pages.” I think things have changed a lot, and I think there’s going to be more room for novelettes, even, and novellas.
I’m really excited about this. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, most science fiction novels were 60,000 words. Novels have basically gotten to be twice as long these days, almost entirely, as I understand it, for economic reasons, rather than artistic ones. People haven’t learned to read any faster than they ever did.
Right, exactly. There were a lot of reasons why books had to be long, or they had to be short stories. When I worked at Tor, which was twenty-five years ago, we didn’t publish novellas because nobody wanted to buy them. It didn’t seem like they were getting enough value for their dollar. Now we read ebooks and the value for dollar isn’t defined by the number of pages so much as it is on how long it takes you to get through it and whether you like it. But it’s wonderful now that we can write this length. It was a perfect length for science fiction, and for fantasy, and so much science fiction and fantasy feels unnecessarily labored. I know a lot of people talk about how science fiction is hard to read. It’s less accessible than it used to be, and there are content reasons, but also, I think just the format reason, that a 60,000-word book is just easier.
Whenever I talk to any of my friends who aren’t involved in writing and publishing, they always say, “Oh, I don’t really read much anymore.” I ask them why, and they always say, “Oh, well I got such and such book, and I made it halfway through it, and I just didn’t have time to keep reading it. I’m not going to buy any more books if I didn’t finish that one.”
Exactly. Whereas they’d be done with it if it was Mission of Gravity.
I wanted to talk to you about some of your actual short stories though. One of my favorite stories of yours is “Spar.” We can’t talk to you without mentioning “Spar,” right?
You also can’t recite any of “Spar.”
I just added an explicit content warning to this podcast, so we’re all good.
Oh, sweet. That’s good. “Spar” was really, I’m not sure what you wanted to ask about it, but “Spar” was a really interesting story for me to write because it was the first time I ever wrote a story where I just said, “Fuck it. I don’t care what people think of me or my story. This is the story it has to be.” I was really uncomfortable writing it. I showed it to one person. I was like, “I don’t even know what I’m doing here.” I had trouble rewriting it. I couldn’t read the whole thing in a row. I had to read the individual sections piece by piece and craft each one, and then go read another one out of order. Since the story is told out of order, it actually works really well. I wasn’t able to read the whole thing until after it had been bought by Clarkesworld, because by that time it had been read by enough other people that I was like, “Okay, now I’m seeing it through other eyes instead of through my own eyes, and now I can judge it with different standards.” So it was a very difficult story for me to write, even though the words were not hard, since it’s only about twelve words in the whole thing, but it was a very ambitious story for me. It kind of changed everything for me, because then I realized that I was better off sinning boldly, better off writing the hard stuff that satisfied me, even if people didn’t like it, than trying to write something that was maybe more conformable.
For people who haven’t read it, can you just say what the premise is?
I can just read you the first sentence of it? That’s always a good start. I have the book right here because I thought if we were going to talk about my fiction, it would be good. “Spar” is page 199. I see they buried it towards the end of the book so that the people who never finish a book, they wouldn’t get to it.
They should just put it first just to throw down the gauntlet. If you can’t make it through this, you’re not even worthy to read the rest of this book.
You don’t even get to read the rest. The first sentence is: “In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.” That sets the tone for the whole thing. The story is about, insofar as there is a story, what happens in a lifeboat when you have two spaceships that have collided, and the only survivors are this sort of weird cilia, tentacle-thing, and this human whose point of view we’re in, and her attempts to establish communication, or not, and there’s lots of sexual activity, which may or may not be communication. She has no idea. It was actually not at all about a deep space ship collision, but that was the metaphor I was using. It was a very powerful metaphor, I found. It was powerful imagery, but it was also just a super powerful metaphor. It was everything I wanted it to do. Every piece of discomfort of what relationships are like, I was able to put into it.
I’ve heard you say that there was a great deal of variability in people’s interpretations of the story.
[Laughter] Yeah. To my mind, it seems very obvious, but a lot of people . . . feedback has ranged from: “This is just tentacle porn, plain and simple,” to: “This is about a marriage gone wrong.” People have thought of alternate endings, ways they wanted it to end that were different, but a lot of people have seen different things in it. Some people think she’s the aggressor. Some people think it’s the alien that’s the aggressor. This one doesn’t get as much variability as “Ponies” does, but it does get very strong reactions.
I want to get to “Ponies” next, but first I want to ask, you mentioned that you had a great deal of apprehension about showing the story to anyone. Has it turned out that your fears were overblown, or was it about what you thought it was going to be?
My fears were pretty overblown, but Neil Clarke insulated me from that. There was a certain amount of slagging that went on in the comments, and if it was just personal abuse, he cut it. He deleted it from the comments, which was fantastic. If it was critiques of the story, he left it, and that was fine. I’m always very comfortable with people’s critiques of a story. Once it is out of my hands, it’s not my story anymore. That’s part of why it’s hard for me not to keep fiddling, because I keep wanting to address something, but it’s not my story, and if somebody wants to read it and read it as a light-hearted sex comedy, I’m not the person who can tell them no. That’s the situation I found myself in with that. Every so often, somebody writes me and either says it’s brilliant or says it’s a really messed up story. Both of which are true. Things can be both good and bad. I’m okay with that. Pretty much that’s what they say about all my stories now, one way or another. So I’m okay with that, too.
Do you remember, at this point, what the initial spark for that story was? Like, what the first image, or character, or mood was?
Well, the first sentence was the one I just read. But the first inspiration was, I’d been working on this long, intellectual novel that I eventually shelved, and at some point I said to somebody, “You know, I am just so damn tired of writing this book. I’m going to write something that is about two people in a lifeboat fucking, because that’s simple, right? That’ll be easy.” And then it transmuted in conversation to, “Okay, a human and an alien in a lifeboat fucking.” But then I couldn’t figure out how to get an alien in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean. So then I thought, well, what about space? Then that first line came in, and it stopped being funny. It started to be deadly serious. Because once you have a first sentence like that, you have to pay off. You don’t get to back off. You don’t get to change your mind about your language. You don’t get to change your mind about your content. That is a first sentence that demands a difficult story. If I didn’t want to write the story that first line needed, then I needed a different first line.
It’s interesting that it kind of started out as a joke, because some of my stories have started out as jokes and then turned into serious stories. I’ve heard Stephen King say someone asked him, “If you have an idea, how do you know if it’s good or not?” He said, “If it makes me laugh, I know it’s a good idea.”
Right, I think that’s true. I’m working on something right now where it started as a joke, just a phrase that I use all the time. I’m always talking about seething swarms of this or that animal. I was talking about chickens, and I started thinking about seething swarms of chickens covering the landscape, and that was the start of this, and it was all very funny, and then I realized, “Oh, wait, if your chickens are raptors, and if your raptors are like fire ants, there’s nothing funny about this story.” I’m in the middle of maybe the darkest story I’ve ever written, and the bar is pretty high for that.
Something that is a joke, I think, is the bacon remix of “Spar”?
Oh yeah. Bacon remix was one hundred percent a joke. It was for a fundraiser. John Ordover was doing a fundraiser for a Brooklyn school, and he did something that he called the Baconthology. He asked us to reimagine fiction through a bacon filter, so I changed everything to bacon. So, in the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien eat bacon endlessly, relentlessly. I found that it didn’t change anything in the story. It says the exact same things about relationships and communication. It says the exact same thing, except it says it all with bacon instead of with sex.
Well, pretty much the same thing, right?
Let’s get on to “Ponies.” Do you want to say what that’s about?
“Ponies” is a really, really short story. I think it may be the shortest story to ever win the Nebula. The theory is that little girls, they always have a Pony with a capital P. Ponies look a lot like My Little Pony. I did extensive research for this by watching every single episode of My Little Pony. My eyes were bleeding by the end. But everybody has a Pony and the Pony has a horn like a unicorn and little wings like a Pegasus, and they all can talk because every little girl wants her Pony to talk to her. There is a party that happens when you are of a certain age, like nine or ten, when other little girls are very important to you, when you bring your Pony to this party, and some terrible things happen. The Pony has to give up two of its three special characteristics in order to fit in. In order for you to be one of the girls. And that’s what this story is about. Barbara and her Pony, Sunny, go to what’s called “The Cutting-Out” party.
I heard in an interview, the way you said it made it sound like there’s an actual type of party that this is based on.
Well, sort of. When I was a little girl, I mean, little girls have little parties all the time, and when they’re in that clique stage, which is sort of nine to eleven, when girls become really cliqueish, really rankist, you’re in, you’re out. There’s a lot of viciousness if you’re one of the outside girls. Those parties, like birthday parties and Halloween parties, and pool parties, and all of those things, who is invited and who is not is very political. So that’s what I was thinking of when I wrote this, was being a little girl and having all of the other little girls be invited to a birthday party and me and one other not. So they don’t really have parties where they cut pieces off horses or anything. Not that I know of, anyway.
What were your impressions when you watched every single episode of My Little Pony?
At that point, Friendship is Magic was just starting, so for you Pony lovers out there, that dates when I was writing that, but I watched some of the old stuff, and then I watched some of the new stuff. The new stuff was working really, really hard to step away from the older stuff. Friendship is Magic is about how we all stand up for each other, we all have each other’s backs, if one of us feels insecure, we all try to band together to help her feel better, and stuff like that. My feeling about that was that it’s a lovely conceit, and if that changed the way that little girls interacted that would be fantastic, but it’s not likely. I watched them and thought, this is so improbable that this is just fantasy land. This doesn’t help anybody except by showing you a fantasy world where things might be better.
Have you followed the Brony phenomenon at all?
I have. In fact, I wrote the introduction to a Brony anthology that was done by Kazka Press in Seattle a few years back. I think it’s really interesting. I think it’s entertaining. I love when people cross into other fandoms in unexpected ways, and I think that the Brony thing, when it first started, was absolutely that. I’m all in favor of people exploring other people’s fandoms.
I found out about it because I just watch lots and lots of documentaries, and there was a documentary about Bronies that I watched because I watch every documentary. I thought it was really interesting, because they were making the point that entertainment that appeals to young boys, like Transformers, we just take it for granted that this should be made into hundred-million-dollar movies that everyone should watch.
But where’s the ponies?
If it’s something that appeals to little girls, there’s just this huge amount of hostility toward people being into it, and how deeply embedded the sexist assumptions are there.
Right, and I think that the Jem movie is an interesting example of that, because Jem is not the favorite IP of little girls, but it’s the IP that adult men look at and think should be the favorite IP of little girls. So, adult men looked at Jem and said, “What do little girls want to be? They want to be rock stars. Let’s do a movie about little girls being rock stars.” Not understanding that things that are happening that are not what they are expecting. Ponies, goodness knows, all of those ponies have very conventional gender roles. None of those ponies wants to be a plumber. None of those ponies is interested in rebuilding old cars. The ponies are all doing what girls are expected to do, but they are trying to do them at the very highest level.
What did you think about the response to your story “Ponies”? Did you ever think it would win the Nebula award?
I really did not. I had no idea. For one thing, I thought it was too short. For another, I thought it was a girls’ story and pretty explicitly a girls’ story, which is not to say the Nebulas aren’t aware of that, but I thought, “This is a story about a specific phenomenon that is specific to one age and one gender, really.” But it does have broader implications and applications, it turned out. It just wasn’t . . . Because it was written in that very plain spoken voice, and I thought, it’s not a voice that people will respond to. So I was very surprised when it was nominated, and delighted, and honored, and then when it won, and it shared the award with Harlan Ellison, of all people, I was staggered by that. I did not actually pass out, which is good. Which was, I think, a major victory, on my part.
What sort of fan mail or other sort of responses have you gotten to it?
It’s taught a lot, it turns out. I get a lot of teachers writing me and telling me things about it. People have had, as I said earlier, very different interpretations of it. Everything from this is a story about female circumcision to this is a story about male circumcision, go figure, to this is a story about the way girls are, or this is a story about how parents force their daughters to conform. So many different interpretations. People have refuted it and said, “That’s not the way my friends were.” Boys who have read it and said, “That’s the way my friends were.” All of these different things. Every so often I get a personal email, this one I don’t get as much as some of my other fiction, but every so often I get a personal email from somebody who tells me a story, and often the story is about what it was like for them to be bullied and about how they totally understood Barbara’s quandary in the story.
You mentioned how often your stories get these vastly different interpretations. Do you think that’s true of all stories, or do you think there’s something particular about the way that you tell stories that lends itself to these vastly differing interpretations?
That’s a good question too. One answer is that it’s always possible to read a story in any of a thousand different ways. I used to get in trouble in college in poetry class because I would invariably argue that every religious poem was a sex poem, and I would point to all of the language and be like, see, see, this is the charged language of sexuality, and eventually the professor and I would end up in a donnybrook, and I would storm out of class, and I’d have to take it again the next semester. I almost didn’t get out of college because of one poetry class.
I know from experience with my friends that we do a lot of that. We say, “What if you read Pride and Prejudice, except you’re thinking about it as if it’s all about the horses. How does that change the story?” I bet you don’t even remember there were horses, and yet horses are pivotal to the plot, so we were always playing these little party tricks of reinterpreting stories according to this filter or that. I think with most stories, that can be done with. You can always say, “Well, I think this is the subversive. I think Tess of the d’Urbervilles has a subversive feminist subtext.” I wouldn’t say that I do more of it than other people, but I do think that, because my language is often so precise, the fact that I leave something purposefully vague makes people crazy. They put their thumb on that spot, and they start pushing at it trying to figure out what exactly it means. Other people who are more diffuse writers, and I’m thinking specifically of “The Hortlak” by Kelly Link, which is a brilliant story, but if you ask somebody what that’s about . . . the interpretations are everywhere, because you really have a hard time telling what it’s about. That’s the gift of that story. It’s so broad, and so strange, and diffuse, and wondrous.
That’s interesting. I’m sure our producer, John Joseph Adams, would also want me to mention your story “The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary,” which he picked for his Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Do you want to tell us about that story?
“The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary” is, I now know, part of three stories. It’s a collection of somewhere between sixteen and nineteen very, very short stories about the animals that live in your apartment when you’re alone. So they live under your bed, or they live in your oven because you never cook, or they party in your shoes at night, and all the little animals, they’re the company that fills the empty space of the apartment. There are two that I’m working on right after the story I’m finishing right now, there are two other “Apartment Dwellers” compendia which are going to be different stages of adulthood, but the three of them together will be about a 10,000-word super-random thing. So, the bestiary I originally wrote because I wanted it to be a chapbook with illustrations, but I have a full-time job, plus I do a lot of stuff for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, and I just didn’t have time to organize illustrators or anything like that, so if any illustrators are listening to this, you’re certainly welcome to write to me.
To what extent would you say those little sketches are autobiographical? Do you have a lot of experience living by yourself in apartments?
Yeah, yeah, I have. I wrote all of them when I was living in my beautiful apartment, the apartment I just moved out of, which was the third floor in a 1910s apartment building, and there was a crawlspace between the roof and the ceiling, and squirrels lived in there, and birds lived in the bathroom vents, and spiders lived in the ceiling, and at any given time, I’d be reading, or sleeping, or looking out the window, and I’d hear skittering noises that weren’t mine, and they weren’t my cats, and I would think, “Those are the beasts.” You never live alone. You’re always surrounded by the other things that share your space, and so that was the inspiration for it. At that point, I had lived alone for almost a decade, and I’d gotten really used to the weird noises and the sudden discoveries. Obviously, a mouse has been living in my oven kind of discoveries. Memo to self, use oven more often.
In New York, you have to use it for storage.
Right, right. That’s what I always thought. That’s where you put the pots. That’s where you put baked goods if you don’t want the animals to get to them.
In addition to squirrels and things, the story also reminded me a lot about cats and dogs and the way people get attached to them or use them as status symbols or things like that.
Right, or substitutes for company. There’s one called the Orco, where if you fall asleep with a book in bed, and then the Orco is there, and you reach across. It’s almost like all the pieces of someone, I say in the story. So all the ways that they substitute for company, or the ways that they console you for the lack of company, or reward you for the lack of company.
You mentioned the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, which, actually, I first met you at that back in 2003. I took a science fiction writing class there. I was curious, what’s new with the Center for the Study of Science Fiction?
We are in the middle of four new initiatives. Three of them I can’t talk about, curse it. But the one I can talk about is that the University of Kansas, which has always had a lively science fiction degree and program, is starting a vertical column of science fiction courses that are specifically science fiction-colon-something or other. So, Science Fiction: The Canon, Science Fiction: Books That Should Be Canon, Science Fiction: Afro-Futurism, Science Fiction: Slipstream, Science Fiction: Fantasy, because we’re using science fiction inclusively because of tradition, mostly. We’re starting to pull this together, and part of this is because we are well into the process of building a science fiction certificate, which would be independent of a degree. Once we’ve done that, that would allow people to get a degree in anything: English, French, microbiology, and also get a science fiction certificate, which would indicate that they have some knowledge about science fiction, and also some knowledge about extrapolative thinking patterns, because one of our core premises is that science fiction is not so much a literature as it is an intellectual mode of inquiry that allows you to explore things in ways that nothing else does.
You also do these weeklong summer workshops, right? Because that’s what I did.
Yeah, two weeks long. In the summertime, the Center does a two-week residential workshop mostly not for students, but we always end up with a student or two, usually adults of various sorts. One for short fiction and one for novels. They’re both intensive workshops and everybody comes out of it strung out and exhausted. We then have the Campbell conference, which is the conference at which the Sturgeon and Campbell award for best novel are given. There are two Campbell awards, by the way, one is the Campbell award that’s given at the Hugos, and one is the Campbell that we give, which is the best novel of the year. That Campbell conference this year is actually the academic track of Worldcon, which is happening even as this thing has aired. Then, the second two weeks are three courses, and now we’re going to be adding a fourth, which is advanced workshops in novels and short-fiction. We’re starting a young adult workshop, which would be for writers of young adult fiction, and there is a teaching institute, which is actually an excuse to read twenty-six science fiction novels or one hundred science fiction short stories and discuss them in a two-week period. So, the two weeks has now expanded to be four weeks, and by the end of that we are very exhausted, but it’s also the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.
I saw you were going to be teaching at Clarion West next year?
Yes, I’m very excited about that, too. I taught there a couple of years ago, and I absolutely adored it. I’ll be teaching, I believe, week three, which means that I’m the week where I start to put people back together after they realize how much they have to learn. I’m not sure.
Plenty of opportunities to study with Kij, people, if you’re interested.
Yes, yes, come and study with me.
This is kind of a random question, but I was curious, I remember when I met you, you said that you had gotten a tattoo for each of your first two books, I was wondering if you’ve ever gotten any more. How do you celebrate publishing a novella? Do you get half a tattoo?
Just a little tiny tattoo. No, actually, I have not maintained that, and I was just thinking about that the other day. When I was a rock climber, I got climbing tattoos, but I didn’t continue with that, and now I will have had two books come out in a two-year period, so I have to decide, am I going to get a big garland of other animals or what am I going to do here? That would be kind of fun, actually. I could get a little bird, and give each of the birds a name or something.
We’re pretty much out of time. Do you have any other projects you want to mention, or maybe just remind people of the stuff you have coming out?
Sure, of course. I’ve got The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe coming out, in fact, in two days. I finally saw a copy of it, and I could not be happier. You can’t see, but I’m clutching it to myself.
Yeah, they did a wonderful job with it. I have a French edition of The Man Who Bridged the Mist coming out in two months from Le Bélial’, I believe, which I’m very excited for, because French is one of the few languages I can read. I can actually pretend that I’m reading somebody else’s book. Then next year, I’m really excited that The River Bank, which is sort of my retake of The Wind in the Willows, is coming out from Small Beer. That’ll be next summer. In the meantime, I expect I’ll have a bunch of short fiction coming out, because that’s what I’m concentrating on right now.
Great. Everyone go check out The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. The author is Kij Johnson. Kij, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much, David.
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