By Maggie Slater
Kij Johnson’s fantastic imagination and thoughtful prose has garnered her recognition in nearly every corner of the science fiction and fantasy community. Her fiction appears regularly on the Hugo Award final ballots, and she’s received three Nebula Awards and brought home an equal number of World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent novel, Fudoki, was highly praised by Publisher’s Weekly, and received nominations for the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the World Fantasy Award. Her short work has appeared in Analog, Realms of Fantasy, Clarkesworld Magazine, Asimov’s, and many other top-of-the-line publications.
Ms. Johnson served as the managing editor of Tor Books, and has worked also at Dark Horse Comics and Wizards of the Coast. She is an active instructor of writing, and taught at the 2011 Clarion Writer’s Workshop. She is a judge for the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and currently teaches as an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas English Department.
APEX MAGAZINE: You’re very involved in teaching, and have taught writing at both Louisiana State University and the University of Kansas, as well as at the 2011 Clarion Writer’s Workshop. What was your own personal education background like? Do you feel that your fields of study had a major impact in how or why you write about the subject matter you do?
KIJ JOHNSON: [I’ve also taught at North Carolina State University. :-)]
I was well-read as a child and young adult, but as an undergraduate I never had it in mind to become a lit major and I didn’t start writing until I was 25. My undergraduate degree was in pre-Norman English history with a lot of emphasis on sub-Roman archeology and early Anglo-Saxon language and literature. This was in St. Olaf College’s Paracollege, now passed into the mists of history, alas: a program that allowed students to develop their own majors in a manner somewhat similar to Evergreen or Hampshire Colleges. The only traditional courses I took were Latin classes, and everything else was tutorials and directed readings.
This was very nearly the perfect training for someone who wants to write historical fiction. I learned to move seamlessly from idle interest in a topic to obsessive research. This affects everything I write, most obviously in things like the Japan books, The Fox Woman and Fudoki, and “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” but also in less obvious places. When I wrote the 1200-word “Ponies,” I spent a week watching My Little Pony videos. I have spent the past two months researching an even shorter piece that may be called “Mantis Wives.”
AM: Both of your novels, The Fox Woman and Fudoki, take place in medieval Japan and undoubtedly required a lot of research! Two questions here: First, what drew you to the historical landscape of medieval Japan, and second, what was your research process like?
KJ: I went through a period in my twenties when I was obsessively (see: answer above) reading historical women’s letters, diaries, and memoirs: Fanny Burney, Harriet Wilson, Lady Mary Wortley Montago, Mary Kingsley, on and on. One of those women was The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a witty, snarky attendant at the court of the Japanese Emperor in the Heian period (in about 1000 A.D.). Ivan Morris’s footnotes to his translation were astonishingly good, but I knew nothing at all about the period, so I read Morris’s companion book, The World of the Shining Prince.
And I was off. I moved from that to the many other women’s diaries of the Heian and other periods, and into other Japanese literature and into secondary works etc. etc. etc. A couple of years back, I sold much of my research library for the Japan books, which still left me with three hundred books or so, the ones I need for the last Japan book.
My research process is probably similar to everyone else’s: as many primary sources as I can find and then backtracking along citations, reading scholarly journals and books, and consulting specialists when I can.
AM: Continuing on that train-of-thought: how did you approach accurately portraying the characters from that time period and in that cultural context? Have you found that there’s less concern about Americans writing fiction based on Japanese myths and fairy tales because Japanese culture is more popular in America than other less-represented cultures?
KJ: When I write fiction set in a historical period or a place that isn’t the United States, I am pulled between opposing stresses: the universality of the human condition; the distinctive worldviews attending any culture (including my own); and the questions I am using fiction to ask myself. The issues confronted by the characters in The Fox Woman—midlife crises, boredom and dissatisfaction with one’s role, depression, the craving for an actualized life, “true love conquers all”—manifest in particular ways in modern American culture and would have showed up differently or not at all in Heian Japan. The characters’ questions reflect mine more than Sei Shonagon’s, though I worked for seven years to make the characters as real and appropriate to their time and place as I could.
I love the tension between universal human questions and the particular ways they manifest in cultures. Relevant to The Fox Woman: what does true love look like to a medieval Japanese woman? To me? Is there a universal “true love”? Does the idea turn up in every culture? Almost every culture has some tradition of women pining to death for love of a man, no matter how they seem to define love.
I am not a woman living in Heian Japan. I bridge the gap as best I can by feeling my way into the lives of the women I read, researching the world they lived in, staying careful and respectful, and recognizing that whatever else they are, they are women like me.
I don’t know whether there is less pushback about European writers writing Japanese-influenced literature than writing into other time/places or why that would be. Orientalism has been popular in Europe for a lot of centuries.
AM: You take some wonderful (and effective) risks in your storytelling which pay off in satisfying ways for your readers. There may not be a conscious answer for this, but how do you approach writing on that cutting edge for yourself? What sparks the drive for you to try something utterly unfamiliar in style?
KJ: In recent years, I found that some of the things I wanted to say could not be addressed elegantly. The voice, form and style of a story can drive the content, themes, and sub-text in surprising and satisfying ways. I would love to see more writers of speculative fiction experiment with these things.
Sometimes what drives me into a new voice is boredom with the old voices. When I started “Spar” I felt I had been writing too much pretty fiction, and I wanted to reconfront the way words work. It is a consciously ugly narrative that reflects the grim story and the desperate subtext, that men and women can do great damage to one another through a failure to relate as complete human beings.
AM: You’ve taught at a number of workshops and universities about writing and the creative process, been an editor for Tor Books, and you’ve also been on the judging panel for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Evaluating fiction as regularly as you do for strengths and weaknesses, is there any particular element of a short story that makes you sit up and take notice if done well? Are there any particular problems that stand out and scream “amateur”?
KJ: A bad beginning is fatal. Workshopping often doesn’t solve this because your fellow workshoppers are going to read your story through no matter what, which alters their relationship with the words on the page. This is also why a story from a well-known writer that starts poorly will be read anyway. But even if you can get away with weak beginnings, why would you want to?
As a reader and teacher, I long for freshness and originality. When we write genre literature, we sometimes restrict ourselves to plots driven by causality; we tidy away all our loose ends; we stay within guidelines shaped by the genre’s past or its readership. Literary and mainstream fiction has comparable (or narrower) guidelines. I love stories that manage to give me a clear narrative arc and yet surprise me. I guess a lot of what I write is about trying to surprise myself, which once in a while even works!
I also think it’s a lot more fun to write surprising fiction. Get a good grasp of character and story arc (and this is like learning figure drawing before moving to abstraction; don’t be lazy and write absurdism before you know how to tell a rational story. But once that’s done, it’s more fun to push out into topics or forms or elements that we don’t see all the time. Right now I have a complete lock on the “monkeys in a bathtub” story type.
AM: Your drafting process for your novels seems to involve a lot of outlining and lots of additional pieces that don’t often end up in the final draft. What is your editing process like? Does it differ between short fiction and novels, or is it essentially the same, just on a different scale?
KJ: The same, only so much, much more of it. I am obsessive and groom things, sometimes until all their hair falls out.
AM: In your interview with Philip Martin at FantasyLit.com, you mentioned that the book Watership Down had made a big impression on you when you were growing up. What other books or authors inspire you? What are you currently reading?
KJ: Until I was in my twenties I loved pretty much everything I read, and my only criteria were: Can I understand all the words? and: Am I bored? I read and adored all the Usual Suspects: Tolkien, Carroll, Lewis, Poe (ah, Poe!), Verne, Haggard, Joan Aiken, Jane Austen. I was also blown away by Boccaccio and Chaucer – all those ideas tossed about! – and by golden-age SF (loved A. E. Van Vogt), and many mystery writers. None of these people were inspirations, really, because I didn’t start writing until I was 25.
Current loves are Patrick O’Brian and Tristram Shandy (two perennials) 19th-century British fantasists, Nabokov and Moby Dick. My guilty secret is that I don’t read much contemporary fiction, in any genre.
AM: The ever-anonymous “They” always say that rejections are part of the writing game, no matter what stage of growth an author may have achieved. How do you (or do you have to) cope with rejections? Does it differ now than it did when you were first starting out?
KJ: I am thinking a lot about rejections right now! What I write is often in the gap between speculative fiction and literary irrealism, so I’ve been thinking I’d like to publish in a literary magazine, so I am sending stories out to see what happens. Rejection times range from five days to half a year.
When I started writing, the best advice I got was: Always have two or more stories out at once. If someone sends “Turtle Ears of Neptune” back, you can think, “Screw ‘em; at least I still have ‘Dognoses of Mars’ out, and I know that one will sell.” Send “Turtle Ears” out again immediately, so that when “Dog Noses” comes back you can think, “Screw ‘em; at least I still have ‘Turtle Ears’ out,” and so on. The disappointment is never as bad if you still have one plate in the air.
At some point you might want to consider looking at the story again and figuring out why no one wants it, but don’t do that every single time it’s rejected.
AM: What (if you’re at liberty to discuss!) can we look forward to seeing from you in the next year or so?
KJ: I have a few short stories underway that I am happy with, and it’s rare for me to have more than one or two on my desktop at a time. And I will be working on a book starting in the fall, once I get my desk set up in my new office at the University of Kansas.
Thank you so much for this interview, Ms. Johnson, and congratulations on your recent Nebula award for “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”!