(For my latest interview here in the Clubhouse, we have Jim Kelly, one of the leading writers of short fiction in our field and one of my favorite authors. Special thanks to Oz Drummond (birdhousefrog) for arranging this. MP)
Since selling his first story in 1975, James Patrick Kelly has been a major force in the science fiction field. He was won the Hugo Award twice, the Nebula Award for his novella Burn. He frequently teaches and participates in science fiction workshops, such as Clarion and the Sycamore Hill Writer's Workshop. He has recently turned his hand to editing (with friend and writer John Kessel) with three reprint anthologies: Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology and Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, and just released this week, The Secret History of Science Fiction. He is currently on the Popular Fiction faculty for the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine. I am pleased that Jim was kind enough to answer a few questions for my ongoing interview series.
You seem to be inherently a short story writer by nature. If short stories paid as well as novels, would you write anything else? And what is it about the form that is so potent for you?
Well, since I really haven’t been writing anything else but short fiction for lo, these many years, it seems that money isn’t that important a factor when it comes to deciding on my next project. I find short fiction to be a manageable challenge. The form is as exacting as the novel, or at least that’s what I tell myself, and yet the rewards, while smaller, are more various. And they do add up, in my experience.
Of course, I have often wondered if I have developed a kind of artistic ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Have I lost the ability to concentrate long enough to finish a novel? Perhaps, but it is still my intention to write at least two more before I finish.
You're a big believer in workshops I understand. What do you find most useful about them? Do you prefer to take a polished piece to a workshop, or do you workshop a draft with perceived problems?
Clarion hooked me on the workshop habit, so maybe my lifelong reliance on workshops is merely a result of early career imprinting. But I think not. Although it is not universally the case, many editors find it hard to find the time to edit these days, and prefer to buy stories that are more or less publishable, rather than those which show a kind of wild promise, but are technically flawed. So workshops serve an editorial function for the new writer. For the established writer, a good workshop can challenge his artistic assumptions and prod him not to repeat himself by relying on his strengths rather than working at correcting his weaknesses.
Since I bring most everything I write to workshop, I have put both flawed stories and stories which were pretty much ready to publish through the process.
You're the only person to attend the original Clarion twice. Could you tell us about that?
I think quite a few people go to Clarion too early, and I count myself as having been one of them. After my first Clarion, I sold one really bad story and sent out rafts of other mss. without much success. This was pretty damn depressing. Also, in order to go to Clarion, I had to postpone all kinds of projects at my day job, and when I got back from the workshop, the stack of paper in my inbox was truly monumental. I lost all the career momentum I had gathered at the workshop trying to catch up in its aftermath. When I went the second time, I effectively put my boss on notice that my career as a writer was more important to me than my career in business. Since I had burned my bridges at work, I had to become a writer.
Given that slots at Clarion are a scarce resource, I absolutely agree with our policy of “one and done.” However, I have to acknowledge that you probably wouldn’t be reading these comments on writing, workshops and my career had I not been the last exception to the rule.
You've been an instructor at Clarion several time. Have you noticed any difference in young writers today compared to when you were starting out? In the fiction they're writing? In how they perceive the career they hope to make for themselves?
Students at Clarion these days have had a different experience of the genre than I had. It is not only that they haven’t read as many of the writers from sf’s Golden Age, it is also that media has played a more important role in shaping their perceptions. This is probably all to the good, since I think that the importance of traditional print will continue to decline relative to the new forms of digital media to come.
Also, when I was starting out, it was much easier to have a career than it is now. With the proliferation of wonderful sites on the net, it is easier to place stories, but harder to earn a living.
I do see a swing toward fantasy, slipstream, and interstitial writing at Clarion, and a shift away from science fiction. This follows market and aesthetic trends in the genres of the fantastic as a whole. There is still plenty of science fiction at Clarion, but the mix between sf and fantasy has changed.
Collaborations are a long-standing tradition in SF, and you've done a lot of collaborations with John Kessel. What's that experience like for you? How do you approach collaboration?
I’ve collaborated with John Kessel, Jonathan Lethem and the poet and writer Robert Frazier on fiction. For me, the lure of collaboration is learning from my collaborator by seeing story through his eyes. I think I have collaborated in all the ways it is possible. I have written to a certain point in a ms and sent it on to my friend, I have written discreet and self-contained chunks of a collaboration, and I have revised drafts that someone else has written.
I should also mention that I have written several plays and particularly enjoy collaborating with directors and actors. With the majority of my dramatic work, I have worked closely on the original productions and did some rewrites during rehearsal at the suggestion of the director and the cast.
Back in the '80s the Humanist and the Cyberpunk factions held various opposing views on speculative fiction. You started out as a Humanist but went on to write cyberpunk fiction. How did that come about? Looking back, are there any thoughts you'd like to share on the two camps and the debates?
I went to Clarion with Bruce Sterling and closely followed his career as he developed into (and out of) cyberpunk. When Cheap Truth, the cyberpunk propaganda organ, started lumping me in with my friends John Kessel, Connie Willis, and Stan Robinson as literary reactionaries, while claiming the bleeding edge for the cyberpunks, I was at once flattered and annoyed. I did have more in common with the folks some were calling the humanists, but I wasn’t at all ready to cede the future of the genre to Messrs. Gibson and Sterling. I thought then that cyberpunk was more an attitude than a revolution.
But at the same time I started writing satirical cyberpunk stories, I was in my first flush of infatuation with personal computers. I remember buying three or four computer magazines every month and reading them more closely than I read some of the sf magazines. Becoming familiar with this technology made me realize that I had been lazy in imagining my futures. I didn’t necessarily think that the cyberpunks had all the answers, but I came to admire the rigor of some of their extrapolation, especially Bruce’s.
When Editor David Hartwell told Anthologist Bruce Sterling that he didn’t have quite enough writers to make a “Movement” – or at least to get Mirrorshades published – Bruce cast around for some new recruits. Since my story “Solstice” was at least encroaching on cyberpunk territory, even though with dubious intent, he invited me to be in the definitive c-punk anthology. I have to say I was thrilled. I doubt, however, whether anyone still includes me as a core cyberpunk.
Is there one story of yours that stands out as the most technically difficult to pull off. If so, why?
Without doubt, it was the novelette “Undone” which is about a revolutionary in the future who has the ability to travel back five minutes into the past to correct her miscues. In the story, whenever she does this trick, the text splits into two columns. The one on the left repeats the paragraphs immediately preceding, only backwards. Meanwhile the column on the right continues the story of what my character is thinking and doing in “real time” as she travels backward to the point she wants to do over. This story was reprinted in three different Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies and in each the typesetting of these sections was different! And as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge for the reader, this story also has two different endings.
You're an instructor at the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. Please tell us about that. What is the most rewarding aspect of this part of your professional life?
Since I got so much out of my Clarion experience and am unable to pay my instructors there back, I see my teaching at Stonecoast as a way to pay forward. Several of my Stonecoast students have placed novels and stories in professional markets and I have high hopes for those who continue to pursue their writing. Although I firmly believe that all of my students are masters of their own destinies, I do feel a twinge of personal pride when one of them makes it as a writer. I like to think that they owe between .001% and .002% (depending on the student) of their success to me.
I am also very proud of Stonecoast as an institution of higher learning. It is one of the vanishingly few MFA programs in the country where writers of genre and popular fiction get a fair shake. It is a brief residency program, which means that our students don’t pack up and leave their lives to get our degree. Instead, twice a year they gather in Maine for ten days to workshop and write and think and then they go home and spend the rest of the semester studying at a distance with teachers like me. It’s a different demographic from most graduate schools and one I am particularly comfortable with.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a sequel to a novelette I wrote several years ago, set in a world in which all the men have been “disappeared” by aliens intent on improving the human condition. The working title is “The Last Judgment.” I am also doing research for a play I hope to write later this fall about the Booth brothers, Junius, Edwin and John Wilkes.