interviews Kij Johnson
Kij Johnson is a Hugo
winner, and a three-time Nebula winner (in consecutive years, yet!) and is acknowledged
as one of the field’s leading short fiction writers.
How did you get into writing?
Kij Johnson: It took me seven years to write my first book. It took
fourteen months to write the second and it took twelve years to write the third
and then I just Ashcanned it. The book is broken and I can't figure out how to
fix it. I realized I could spend the next ten years endlessly tweaking
something that is fundamentally flawed and not do any new work or I could put
it aside and write three new works in a twelve-month period, which is basically
what happened. So it was a good decision but it was also one of the more
painful decisions and it wasn't until I made that decision I made the decision
to step away from the giant book that I started to say, yes, I am a writer. So
it took that. The awards didn't do it. Nothing else did it. It was the moment
that I said that. Sometimes you just throw it away; that made me realize that
this is what a writer does.
I think it is recognizing that I have many stories to tell and that if I want
to tell them in my lifetime I'm going to have to tell them. You start to say if
I have twenty more writing years and I just spent twelve years on a broken
novel do I really want to spend another ten years of those last twenty years
working on the same goddamn novel, and the answer is No! No, I don't! I want to
write new things that make me excited now instead of things that made me
excited at forty.
When I walked away from it I realized I don't want to write something for an
audience. I want to write it for love. So I wrote a book in a two-month period,
which is coming out next year from Small Bear. I wrote that for my friend
Elizabeth. It was something she and I both loved and it was pure joy to pour it
on the page. I never had that experience with fiction before but it was like
this is what everybody is always talking about! I get it now. I had never
gotten it before. I never had flow. I would talk about it when I taught. You
don't need it. “Flow is for sissies,” is what I would say. People who write,
they are getting it done even if there is no flow. I was saying that partially
because I had never had the experience of flow.
So the first one just poured out of me and the second one poured out of me and
the third one was slower because I was starting to write for an audience again.
I noticed more tension as I was thinking, oh, yeah it's going to be read by a
lot of people and I'm not writing it for an individual as sort of a gift. Now
I'm writing it for an audience. It was slower and was harder than a's Velvet
Bow. Now the next project is slower still because I told my workshop about
it. So I have twelve people who think they know what the story is going to be.
I don't know if it’s going to be that or not.
The blinding insight I had about Kylen, which changed everything (Kylen is the
giant novel), was when I was able to just put it aside was so what do you love
in the stuff you read, the media you take in? What is it you cannot get enough
of? I wrote a list and none of those things were in the book I had just spent
ten years writing. So I said, "Fuck that!" I am going to write a book
that has all the things I want. I want buddies. I want humor. I want linguistic
playfulness. I want the stakes to be high for the characters but not
necessarily high for, not real-time high but funny stakes where everybody gets
all in a kerfuffle about something ridiculous cause all the great comedies,
that is what they are about. I want to write a comedy because the stories I
like to read the most were romantic comedies. The movies I liked the most are
generally just witty, crisp dialogue. I had strayed from all of that. At that
moment I said, I'm just going to write for fun. Writing for fun is the best
It was so cool! I was like bubbles all the time and even now the honeymoon
period of me writing just for joy is kind of over so now it’s kind of like I'm
back to the hard work of writing stories requiring a lot of research...it was
just a different level of research and a different level of engagement with
that research. It was so different to only do the parts that were fun and find
out you could write an entire book and have it be a really good book just by
writing only the parts that are fun. So I am remembering that. I am trying to
tattoo that on my forebrain so that as I move into books that are more driven
by other motives I can remember just only write the fun parts and you'll
probably be right.
While I was working on Kylen I really had my eyes opened because it started out
as, it started out in London and due to a series of machinations which are too
complicated to go into, essentially 250 Londoners from 1778 find themselves
teleported into Tashkent which is now Uzbekistan. Originally when I first
started to talk about this story it was going to be this big adventure, like
good-looking people in exotic clothes doing exciting things is how I saw it.
But the more I looked at it, the more I realized I couldn't do that. Central
Asia has its own history and it's a very complicated history. The more I read
about it the more I realized I couldn't just write about white people having
fun in a brown people land. Part of why I put the book aside in the end is I
realized I can't do it justice. It really is too big. I started thinking much
more about race. I started thinking much more about gender, and not just as it
applied to me. So when I walked away from Kylen I had this newly sort of
opened-up sense of experience and I found I couldn't go back into the box.
I find I can't because I was trained as a historian first and my world
building, I'm a very impeccable world builder but that's because I actually
can't do anything but history and I have to be really careful about my history.
Somebody noticed something wrong with one of my books; it was like a vocabulary
thing. I used one anachronistic Japanese word and it was like oh, I’ll never
forgive myself for that! For heaven's sake, one person noticed it. Probably
forty people have noticed it in the twenty-some-year history of that book. So it's
like you can stand down, Kij, it's okay.
In the background was always this sense that people who like me critically, I
have to satisfy them because I don't ever want anyone to ever read something I
said and say, "She used to be a very good writer." Nobody ever wants
that moment. So I was trying really hard not to write to them critically but I
was also trying to write something that was for an audience and I couldn't do
When I won the Nebula, and I won the Nebula for a story that I didn't expect. I
was so excited, so gobsmacked that I hadn't really prepared anything. There are
two strategies, it turns out, for winning awards. One is you have your notes.
The other is you didn't expect to win it so you didn't prepare for it. I guess
the third strategy is you've gotten so many of them you can just do it off the
cuff. I had nothing so I just got up and gibbered helplessly for like two
minutes. That was a huge moment for me because that was a story that I wrote
from a position of absolute authenticity without thinking in terms of how it
was going to be received. Again, I wrote it for someone who was reading it.
That was the first time that I said don't worry about what people are going to
think. Just write this story and if they don't like it or they don't read it or
it gets totally ignored you can deal with that later. Just get it done and then
move on. That's your best strategy.
I remember the very first award I won, which was the Sturgeon. I had been lured
under false pretenses to the University of Kansas. I was just sitting in the
writing workshop, which the Campbell Conference ends that workshop. So we
finished the workshop and I was going to stay for the Campbell Conference and
leave early. I was going to leave on Saturday morning and they said don't
leave. Jim Gunn invited me to his office and sat me down. He said we weren't
going to tell you until the award. I was sitting in James Gunn's office, the
first grown up I'd ever met really, and I didn't realize you could feel faint
when you're seated but it turns out, yes, you can be light headed just sitting
without doing anything. So I ended up just rolling forward and Jim said,
"Are you okay?" Yes, I'm fine. But it was dizzying, that very,
very first award.
It was a real validation. It really was. We all use that language, validation,
because the real sensation under it is the classis Sally Fields. Oh my God,
they like me! They liked it! For a lot of writers what drives them, and one of
the things that drives me, is that this is a way to control people's
understanding of me but also a way to put parts of myself out there. So I can
be both completely sincere and authentic and real and show people fundamental
parts of my soul and my heart but I'm doing it in ways they aren't going to see
the other parts.
I'm perfectly happy with that. We have a duty as a human being to be as much
ourselves as we can be but also to be healthy about it. So fiction is one way
I'm both able to communicate with people but also control the interaction. I
think there is an awful lot of false intimacy in the world. Fiction is a false
intimacy but it is a false intimacy based on a very, very careful attempt at
honesty. It's the same thing that drives you sometimes to write a letter to say
something hard to someone instead of face to face. Not because you're trying to
distance yourself but because you want to be accurate and if you can't be
accurate in real time then writing the letter is the right way to be accurate.
Precision. So to my mind that's exactly how I feel. I try to be very honest but
there's a lot of stuff that people don't need about me. Stuff that would be
unhealthy for me to share, so I don't.
I started out teaching writing workshops, professional workshops, dealing with
really motivated adults who were very interested in being better writers. So I
started out being a very tactical instructor. I still am. I'm mostly a
structuralist. That's why I write so much experimental fiction. I loved it. It
played to my passion for standing in front of people and talking and having
them listen, which is always fun. Showing off when I was in third grade; that's
what they called it. I also found that it's something exciting when I say
something that changes something fundamental. Teaching and changing a writer,
showing her something she's never seen before so she picks up the pen in the
middle of class and starts scribbling, she doesn't look up for the rest of the
hour. That's an exhilarating moment! That is the exact same moment as when I
write a story and I know somebody is walking down the street, bumping into
things because she is reading my story on Kindle. It is the exact same thing. I
am changing those people and changing how they think by the things I do or
things I say.
I have an uncomfortable relationship with that. Of course it's showing off.
When I was a little tiny girl growing up in a very small town I was smart. My
brother and I were both really smart. We both read encyclopedias and we were
both pains in the ass in class. We were both the third graders who raise their
hands and say, "Actually…" So it was always gratifying to be in
situations where people actually did want to hear what I had to say instead of
teachers being like, we need to hear from somebody beside Kij in this class or
Kij, put your hand down or even Kij, that's not a real word depending on the
One of the most important things I ever say to my students is, everything else
I teach them is just tactics, but the thing that I am always proudest of
bringing up is: figure out why you're writing. Really why you're writing. Not,
oh I have things worth saying or oh, I want to make a living or whatever it is.
But really if you go all the way down deeper and deeper and deeper, like spend
two years in therapy with a therapist every single Tuesday. So why do you
write? Usually the answer is somewhere in early childhood. So it's a little kid
response. I'm not ascribing any value judgment to that. Because mine, when you
get right down to it, is parents were sort of emotionally absent and when I
wrote I didn't get praised for my writing very much but I didn't get praised
for anything else. So my writing ultimately was a way of saying I'm not my
mother and look at me to my parents. I also did a lot of art for the same
reasons. That's mine. We all have one, ultimately, underneath it all. Whatever
we say in interviews usually is the cover up. It's the pat response we use to
cover up the sincere response. I do it because the only time anybody took me
seriously as a 5'10" Amazon blonde was when I wrote and they didn't know
what I looked like. Because they stopped staring at my chest long enough it
took to read my story. So there are so many responses and so many of them sound
venal or petty or small or something like that. Those responses are not any of
those things. Those responses are the heart that when we understand it gives us
the spines that we build adulthood on. That's what I always think of, so to me
knowing that is the most important part of your writing cause if you know your
reason for writing is because you're competing with your dad and you didn't
know it. It's like, as soon as you know that, now you can get away from writing
your dad's story or the stories that are going to school your dad about you and
now you're going to be able to tell the stories you want to tell. If you are
doing it because you are insecure and you want people to look at you, that
you're smart or clever or cute or whatever it is, as soon as you know that, you
are in control. Until you know it you don't. So I'm always telling undergrads
but especially adults because we get those super complicated defense mechanisms
that allow us to never, ever look at ourselves. That's fundamental. That's my
answer really. It's fundamental that we understand who we are and our smallest,
pettiest, most selfish or narcissistic or greedy, envious little pieces. We can
either counter or use to our advantage and make them work.
JW: How do you want to be remembered?
KJ: I would like to be seen as one of the bridges between mainstream
literary and fantasy, speculative fiction. I think there are a handful of us
and we're coming all at it. I'm over here and David Mitchell is over here and
he's coming in. Sherman Alexie is over here and he's coming in and all these
people are coming in. We're all sort of staking out a place where high
literary, experimental fictions, are engaging in intelligent ways with science
fiction, not just using it like a punch line. You can write something that is
both high literary and true science fiction or true fantasy or true slipstream.
I'm coming at it differently from most of the others because I do these
experimental works but we are all pointing at the same thing. What I would love
to see but probably won't happen is that sixty years from now there will be an
understanding that modernist fiction and post-modernist fiction, that have been
off here for quite a while now as we all fold back into the notion that
everything is literature. That's a new invention, being a subcategory that's a
new invention. There's been a lot of writing about why science fiction and
fantasy got split out, what does it mean and what disadvantages were attached
to that? Marketing was an advantage but there were a lot of disadvantages
including the escalating marginalization of genre literature and escalating
contempt for it. But I do feel like sixty years from now there won't be that.
Part of what I like to do is I like to feel that I'm part of that movement
towards bringing it all back together.
I will have changed things. But I will have changed things on a different
level, a bigger level. I didn't have children. I had no interest in children. I
also didn't really believe that writing lasts forever. There are so many works
that, as an Anglo-Saxonist, there are so many works that all that exist is one
fragment. Which means how many works don't exist anymore but did? Some
poet wrote a 4,000-word poem about something that mattered like crazy to him or
her and it's gone. That's pretty much before printing and after that's pretty
much the way it is. All those women on the shelves who wrote a book in 1960 and
they're gone. We don't even know their names anymore. So I never felt like you
get immortal by being a great writer. There are a lot of the best-selling
writers of the nineteenth century that are not read anymore. Ideally, will I be
remembered as a writer sixty years from now? That would be awesome! It
seems unlikely but that's awesome! But if I am part of the movement to bring
science fiction and mainstream back together that's good too.
I'm part of a larger thing. Science fiction is a literature of the species and
as soon as we start thinking species wide, and right now I'm thinking about the
species. I care about this literature and people are always going to care about
this literature and being part of this literature and knowing that I may be
part of the reconciliation of this literature makes me feel great.