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An Interview with John Kessel

Petrol Queen

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.

Comments

( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
birdhousefrog
Nov. 24th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
Well, I would certainly have to agree with John (Dr. Kessel) about Clarion and about what it tries to do and about how hard it is for some of us to figure it out. It can take years. That second paragraph about being individual but still reaching an audience pretty much matches what I've struggled with over the years since Clarion as well. I can remember being confused about it at Clarion, about how the paragraphs I wrote came together to make a story that was properly rounded, not a bunch of vignettes. I worked on my best Clarion story for more than 10 years, with various gaps for other work or other life events. I just couldn't figure out that final jump.

Some folks are natural storytellers. I'm not. At least, not to a wider audience than to myself.

Oz
marshallpayne1
Nov. 24th, 2009 05:40 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you brought this up, Oz. I was thinking that next week, after everyone is past Thanksgiving weekend, I might make a blog post about this so writers here could share their experiences. I had trouble with this too. My first story was a real story because I had a story I wanted to tell, but after that I got "ideas." SF ideas! And that led to a series of bewildered protags wandering about the fictional landscape looking at my "ideas." Took me awhile to overcome that. So I think John really hit on something important with his answer.
jongibbs
Nov. 24th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
Nice interview. I've a feeling he won't have too much problem finding a home for those two stories :)
marshallpayne1
Nov. 24th, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading, Jon!
birdhousefrog
Nov. 24th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
Actually, there's a rumor that magazines fold after accepting one of his stories! Happened to two of 'em. Maybe editors are superstitious.
jongibbs
Nov. 24th, 2009 10:21 pm (UTC)
Oh hello :) You moderated a panel I watched at PhilCon on Saturday morning. It was about writing groups. My friend Gary Frank, from the Garden State Horror Writers was on the panel too.
birdhousefrog
Nov. 24th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC)
Hello! Gary's a nice dude. My friend Greg Frost has known him for years and luckily introduced us on Friday night. Thanks for coming to the panel.

Oz
jongibbs
Nov. 24th, 2009 11:04 pm (UTC)
I didn't get to many. Spent most of the weekend on the GSHW table, but I had a great time :)
asakiyume
Nov. 24th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
Wow, this has really, really, REALLY made me want to read Pride and Prometheus. Curse my long To-Be-Read list! I might have to move this right up to the top. How cool!

And what an interesting person John seems to be! I loved this interview; it was just great. Thanks very much, Marshall.
marshallpayne1
Nov. 24th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Francesca! Glad you enjoyed it.

Yes, I really enjoyed John's "Pride and Prometheus." I've read Austen's Pride and Prejudice twice and was instantly struck with how well he blended her style into something of his own. It really leaps off the page. It's in this collection, along with several other of John's fine stories, for those who are interested.

http://www.amazon.com/Baum-Plan-Financial-Independence-Stories/dp/193152050X
asakiyume
Nov. 24th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
A purchase isn't the offing at this point (empty wallet...) but I've already put in an order through interlibrary loan to get it from a nearby library. I can't wait. I think it's fascinating what he says about the two works (Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice).
marshallpayne1
Nov. 24th, 2009 06:20 pm (UTC)
Coolness! :D
kijjohnson
Nov. 24th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC)
Actually, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, which contains "P&P," is available for free Creative Commons download from the Small Beer Press website, if you want to read it on your computer or other device.

asakiyume
Nov. 24th, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC)
Oh!

Well thanks! yes, I'll do that, then. Thank you!

marshallpayne1
Nov. 24th, 2009 10:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks for dropping by!

That's how I first read it before my paperback copy arrived. I checked that this morning and the link to it is currently not working but hopefully they'll get it fixed.

http://www.lcrw.net/cc/
stillnotbored
Nov. 24th, 2009 06:22 pm (UTC)
This was interesting, very interesting. There are about five different topics here that would be cool to discuss in depth, but I'll only mention two.

His contrasting Austin and Shelley I found very interesting. That Shelley, the SF novelist, is the romantic fits a lot of things I see in genre. And while I did always see the Frankenstein monster as going mad from loneliness, I never would have connected that to the theme of marriage and finding a mate. That is another interesting idea for me to keep thinking about. Lots of ideas pinging around my head from that little insight.

And this: 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.

Yes, yes and yes. This was probably the hardest thing for me to learn as a writer, how to take the stories in my head and put them into a structure that others could follow and identify with. I've got that down for novels, but I'm still struggling with short stories.

Very cool stuff, Marshall, and lots of food for thought.

marshallpayne1
Nov. 24th, 2009 06:28 pm (UTC)
Yes, John has this clever way of opening up the discussion, doesn't he? Great stuff!

This was probably the hardest thing for me to learn as a writer, how to take the stories in my head and put them into a structure that others could follow and identify with.

Me too. Short stories are especially tricky as the writer has so little space to do so much.

Thanks for your thoughts, Jaime!
asakiyume
Nov. 24th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC)
how to take the stories in my head and put them into a structure that others could follow and identify with. --me three on that :-)
justin_pilon
Nov. 27th, 2009 02:21 am (UTC)
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.

This segment particualrly stuck out to me as well. And it's popped back into my head over the last few days. Thanks for the interview, Marshall!
marshallpayne1
Nov. 27th, 2009 02:32 am (UTC)
Yes, I've been thinking about that as well. Thanks for reading, Justin!
isaiah13
Nov. 24th, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC)
Hard to picture Austen and Shelley on the bookshelf together. :-) Great interview, Marshall!
marshallpayne1
Nov. 24th, 2009 11:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading, Kurt!
alaneer
Nov. 25th, 2009 01:04 am (UTC)
Interesting interview, Marshall. I'm been eying "Pride and Prometheus" for a Christmas present.
marshallpayne1
Nov. 25th, 2009 01:11 am (UTC)
Thanks, Sophy. Yes, P&P would fit nicely under your tree, I think. ;-)
isleburroughs
Nov. 25th, 2009 04:54 am (UTC)
Awesome interview. Awesome story!
marshallpayne1
Nov. 25th, 2009 05:00 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading, Ruthie!
(Anonymous)
Nov. 25th, 2009 04:40 pm (UTC)
Great interview, Marshall.

Sorry about the broken link to John's collection (will fix the redirect soon). It can be downloaded from here:

http://smallbeerpress.com/creative-commons/

Cheers,

Gavin Grant
smallbeerpress.com
marshallpayne1
Nov. 25th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading, Gavin! And thanks for the link and the great collection!
asakiyume
Nov. 25th, 2009 10:25 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this! Lovely PDF!
parttimedriver
Nov. 25th, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC)
Excellent interview. Please note that "Pride and Prometheus" also won the Shirley Jackson Award.
marshallpayne1
Nov. 25th, 2009 07:16 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Yes, it did!
catephoenix
Nov. 26th, 2009 01:36 pm (UTC)
Great interview (as always), Marshall.
marshallpayne1
Nov. 26th, 2009 01:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Cate!
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )

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