John Kessel has been publishing short fiction since 1978 and since then has gone on to make his mark in the field of SF/F. He won a Nebula Award in 1982 for his novella "Another Orphan," and more recently (2009) for his novelette "Pride and Prometheus," a story melding the tales of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. With friend and writer James Patrick Kelly he has edited three anthologies, included the just released The Secret History of Science Fiction. Since 1982 he has taught American literature, science fiction, fantasy and fiction writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. I'm a pleased to offer this interview with one of the finest writers in the field of spec. fiction today.
The idea for "Pride and Prometheus," the melding of these two works by Austen and Shelley, seems one destined to be discovered and written--but you did it first. Did it come to you recently and beg to be written, or is it one you'd been tossing around for a while?
The idea came to me during a Sycamore Hill critique session in 2005 of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s story “Sense and Sensibility’ (since published in his collection The Ant King and Other Stories). Ben’s story is a bizarre take on Austen, and in speaking of it I realized that Austen and Shelley were more or less contemporaries, that Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice would have been in bookstores at the same time in 1818. But the writers, and stories, are very different, coming out of different sensibilities. It seemed a story that demanded to be written. I set out on it in March of 2006. In figuring out what the story was I discovered a lot of things that helped, such as the fact that the town of Matlock is mentioned in both Frankenstein as a place that Victor and Henry visit, and in Pride and Prejudice as being near Mr. Darcy’s estate of Pemberly.
What were the particular themes and ideas you were trying to bring forth with this story?
Marriage and finding a suitable mate. I realized that Frankenstein’s creature turns savage because he is completely alone, without anyone who loves him. And in Austen of course all the plots turn on the difficulty and dangers of finding a suitable mate. The ironies and cross-fertilizations were irresistible to me.
A second idea I pursued was the difference between the novel of manners and morals, of which Austen is an originator, and the science fiction novel, of which Shelley is an originator. The two traditions have in some sense been at odds since the beginning. Bring an sf author who teaches and loves classic literature, the differences between and potential merging of the two was also of great interest to me.
When crafting "Pride and Prometheus," how did you incorporate the styles of these two authors to make the story your own?
It was hard, since the tone of the two writers is so different. Mary is a Romantic, and Austen is not. Frankenstein is a gothic novel, and Austen mocked the gothic novel in Northanger Abbey (though she could not have mocked it without having read a lot of them). In the end I thought of my story as “Frankenstein takes over Pride and Prejudice,” beginning in Austen’s mode and shifting into the gothic as it goes along, then pulling back in the end. The climax of the story is a discussion about marriage, which ends in a brief scene of physical violence you would never find in Austen.
Any idea what Miss Austen would make of "Pride and Prometheus"? Of the two inches of ivory you brushed beyond?
Well, I have my own small territories I habitually explore, the way she worked over her very small social milieu. But I hope, like her, I can get at some larger things through that. I would hope that Austen would at least see that I meant no disrespect to her great novel and its characters.
Your work often features political themes. In regard to science fiction, why do political themes matter to you?
I think almost all fiction has political implications, even if unintentional. If you have values, you have politics, it seems to me. So it’s natural that my stories reflect the things I care deeply about. In some, such as “The Last American,” my politics are more overt. I’m not sure that’s my strongest work. I suggested a long time ago that all sf writers want to change the world. I’m no exception.
You've taught at Clarion many times. Do you see one reoccurring problem that new writers face that seems the most difficult to overcome?
Learning what makes a story different from a collection of paragraphs, scenes, vigorous but not-meaningful action. You can write, even sell, a lot of fiction without grasping what makes a good story. It took me years before I began to grasp this. I suppose some might say I still haven’t.
Another way to cut it: Figuring out what it is you can write that is not completely derivative, that somehow expresses your individuality but also connects with an audience. It takes time to do this.
With Mark Van Name you founded the Sycamore Hill Writer's Workshop. How did this come about and what makes it different than other workshops?
In 1984, Mark moved into his large house in North Raleigh. Gregory Frost made the idle comment it would make a good place for a workshop. Mark and I took that and ran with it, organizing a four-day workshop mostly for writers living in North Carolina. After that first year it expanded and moved to several other venues.
The workshop really wasn’t any different from the Milford workshops started by Damon Knight back in the 1960s. A group of professional sf writers gather, by invitation, in some place, each bringing the draft of a new unpublished work. They live together for a week, spend days critiquing each other’s stories, eat meals together, hang out in the afternoons and evenings. It’s stimulating and exhausting. With variations, this is the plan for Walter Jon Williams’ Rio Hondo workshops and numerous others in the genre.
Your latest reprint anthology that you co-edited with James Patrick Kelly is The Secret History of Science Fiction, where you explore the convergence of mainstream fiction and literary SF. When choosing stories what were you looking for?
We were looking for stories from the period of 1970 to the present that were real sf, or close enough so that we could make a case. In the event, we purvey a broader definition of sf than what is traditionally published in the sf magazines, but that has some history going back to even before Gernsback and the invention of sf as a separate genre. We wanted stories that were by writers within the genre, by writers who cross over from the genre to the so-called mainstream, and by writers firmly associated with the mainstream and not with genre.
You've spent quite a bit of time looking into slipstream, the edges of the genre. What is it about it that appeals to you?
The edges of genre are often where interesting work is being done. The edges of genre are where definitions and assumptions are regularly challenged.
What are you working on now? What's ahead for you?
I have a couple of new stories on submission but not accepted anywhere. I want to take another run at a lunar novel I started a long time ago. I don’t want to jinx it, but I’ve also worked with my agent of a proposal for an sf TV series. There’s talk about a James Patrick Kelly-John Kessel-Jonathan Lethem hybrid collection.
I just want to keep writing new things that interest me, and that will I hope interest others.