Dependable Erection

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

John Kessel at Quail Ridge Books tonight

I've been a fan of John Kessel's science fiction since i found his story "The Lecturer" in Michael Bishop's essential mid-80s anthology Light Years and Dark. Kessel doesn't publish a lot of fiction. A few stories a year, perhaps, and a novel, it seems, every decade or so. But as Spencer Tracy is supposed to have once remarked of Katherine Hepburn, "what there is, is cherce." His work almost always appears on the Nebula Awards ballot, and in the best of the year anthologies. He won a Nebula for his story "Another Orphan," in which a Chicago commodities trader awakes one morning and discovers he's become a minor character in the novel Moby Dick.

Kessel's new book, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories has just been published. He'll be reading from it tonight at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, and on Tuesday, April 22 at the Regulator, on Ninth St. A review/interview with MetroNC is available here. Another, in ForeWord magazine, is here.

John has graciously taken time out of his schedule to answer a few of my questions, as well, and i'm sharing that conversation here. With luck, part 2 will appear next Tuesday.
DE: By my count, this is your second story collection since your last novel, "Corrupting Dr. Nice." What is it about the story format that appeals to you so much? Do any of these pieces fit into a larger work that we haven't seen yet?

JK: I have always liked the short story a lot. I grew up reading classic sf stories in anthologies and magazines of the 1950s and 60s. I like the compression of the short story, the way it can produce strong effects in a small space. The intensity and clarity, yet allusiveness, of a good short story is something unavailable to the novel. When a story is done right, it is a complete and perfect work of art. Though I’d hesitate to claim that for my own work, I do aspire to produce such stories.

Not to say I do not also admire novels and aspire to write them. Just as my short time travel stories featuring the cynical Detlev Gruber are set against the same background as my novel Corrupting Dr. Nice, so the lunar stories in The Baum Plan for Financial Independence are related to a novel I have worked on set in this world of lunar colonies, including the Society of Cousins. “Sunlight or Rock” is actually the first chapter of that book. But it‘s far from being a book yet.

DE: At least two of these stories (Baum Plan, and It's All True) were originally published online. We've seen the hysteria in the music business over the failure to figure out a business model for the 21st century. How do you think digital distribution is affecting/will affect the fiction publishing business? For myself, I still prefer the bookstore and the serendipity of finding something on the shelf that I can pick up and hold in my hands. We're losing that with music (in many towns, we've already lost that.) Will fiction go the same way?

JK: I love books as physical objects, and I think I always will. I think we have a ways to go before digital books or alternatives replace them. But it’s clear that the status quo is not going to persist indefinitely. I do think something will be lost when readers can no longer, for instance, wander through the stacks of a great library looking at the books ranked on the shelves. Many times in doing research I would go to a section of the library looking for a particular book from the catalog, and end up checking out a book that sat next to it on the shelf. I don’t think digital indexing yet allows that easily if at all.

I was happy to see those stories published online (at SciFiction, edited by Ellen Datlow) but that website, though it paid well, was pretty much a PR arm of the SciFi channel, and thus never was expected to earn money. So when the channel retrenched, the web magazine ended. Until someone figures out a good business plan to make a profit publishing fiction online (such as Fictionwise, which has a dozen of my stories available, and which will offer The Baum Plan for download) I do wonder how this will play out.

As a story writer and reader, I just want there to be a market enabling such work to reach an audience. It would be nice if that market paid well enough for everyone to make a profit. I’m prepared to move to new platforms if that’s necessary.

DE: The stories that make up The Lunar Quartet (I believe this is the first time they're published together?), make up the heart of the book. I think they're your most direct exploration of gender issues to date. I've just finished reading the Alice Sheldon biography "James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon." What are some of your thoughts on how the role of gender in science fiction has changed over the 40 years since the first Tiptree stories appeared in print?

JK: I read Tiptree in the 1970s before he was revealed to be Alice Sheldon. Along with Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, and later writers like Karen Joy Fowler and Maureen McHugh, Sheldon has been a great influence on me. Add in Octavia Butler, Nancy Kress, Gwyneth Jones, Kelly Link, and a dozen others, and you realize how much the sf field has been changed by women writers and the exploration of gender issues. Along with my becoming the father of a daughter, this has caused me to think a lot about gender and male/female relations over the last fifteen years or so.

I think this exploration has been one of the most exciting things to happen to SF in my lifetime. Not all the stories that have come out of that have been great, but that’s true of any movement. By this point, it’s not exactly a movement anyway—I don’t see many writers attempting to write to a program or ideology. That’s what makes this work so interesting. It would be hard to write a serious sf or fantasy story today without thinking at least a little about gender issues.

DE:The underlying question of all SF is, I think, "what if?" It's why, even though much of your work doesn't have a lot of science fiction elements in it, it’s definitely SF. I'm thinking about a story like "The Franchise," which asks the question, "what if George H.W. Bush and Fidel Castro had been better baseball players, and pursued their careers in the big leagues rather than their respective capitols. When did you realize that you were asking these "what ifs" that could only be answered in using the language of science fiction? Or, in layman's terms, "where do you get your ideas?"

JK: Since as far back as the 1970s, I’ve thought that much of my fiction is as much fantasy as it is sf. But the term “fantasy” has come to be owned over that period by Tolkienesque “secondary universe” or medieval fantasy. I don’t write that. So I suppose I’d call my own work in the non-technological mode “speculative fiction” or “slipstream.”

You are right that I generally start with some “what if” speculation, and I proceed as rigorously as I can from that initial idea. The way that a sf writer, if he were writing about a Mars colony, would do tons of research on the Martian environment and the technologies that would be necessary to live there, so I, in writing a story like “Pride and Prometheus,” (which conflates Frankenstein with Pride and Prejudice) did a lot of research on life in the early 19th century England, and carefully fit my story into the actual narratives of Shelley and Austen, making it work as much as possible into the received framework of those tales, and using details of that actual language, social environment, and science of the times.

This is another way of saying, I think, that even when I’m writing literary fantasies, I still think like a science fiction writer. Kim Stanley Robinson has said that the closest genre to science fiction is historical fiction. I think he’s got a point. I am always concerned with grounding my speculations in the real world. To my mind, that makes them more interesting. The juxtaposition of the strange with the mundane is what gives sf much of its force.

And these speculations are irresistible to me. A story about the imaginary baseball careers of Bush and Castro offers great opportunity to explore politics and history and the American mythology of the hero, just as crashing together the husband-seeking heroines of Jane Austen with the bride-seeking Frankenstein’s monster offers an opportunity to think about men and women, what they want from one another, what they expect from marriage. When I come up with something like that, I can’t help but write about it.

John's at Quail Ridge Books tonight, reading from The Baum Plan. By the way, the book is available as a free download from Small Beer Press. But support a local author and buy a damn copy, OK?



Post a Comment

<< Home