From the Wellspring: John Kenny talks to James Patrick Kelly
Originally appeared in Albedo One #40 (2011)
James Patrick Kelly has written novels, short stories, essays, reviews, poetry, plays and planetarium shows. His fiction has been translated into sixteen languages. In 2007 he won the Nebula Award for his novella ‘Burn’ and the Hugo Award twice: in 1996, for his novelette ‘Think Like A Dinosaur’ and in 2000, for his novelette, ‘Ten to the Sixteenth to One’. Each award-winning story has headed up the superb short story collections Think Like a Dinosaur, Strange But Not a Stranger and Wreck of the Godspeed (all published by Golden Gryphon).
He is a member of the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. He is the Vice Chair of the Clarion Foundation, which oversees the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop at the The University of California at San Diego. He served two terms as a councillor on the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and was Chair of the Council from 2003-2006. He has also served on the New England Foundation for the Arts.
John Kenny: What was it that first attracted you to science fiction?
James Patrick Kelly: As a kid, it was the Oz books, comics (Marvel, yes, DC, feh), Tom Swift (American YA series), Creature Features and Star Trek. Later, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Herbert. In college I got massive doses of Theater of the Absurd and marijuana, which did some significant shaping. When I started writing seriously, I think it was that the material appealed to my sensibility: I wanted to entertain and deconstruct weird ideas. I wanted to go on adventures and write about grownups who had the same everyday problems that I had. I liked it a lot that the SF and fantasy universe was expanding. Also the genre was very welcoming to new writers in general and this writer in particular.
JK: The genre still seems to be very welcoming to new writers. Even given the mushrooming of the genre with the advent of the internet and the blogosphere, there is still a sense of community. Why do you think this is so?
JPK: I don’t have a certain answer to this one. I know that I was welcomed and I feel as though I owe it to the generous souls who helped me to help those who want to play the game too. Back when I was a new writer, it was a commonplace observation that 90% of everyone who ever wrote science fiction was still alive and most of those were still working. That percentage, alas, has dropped since, but perhaps the reason the welcome mat was out then and is still out now has something to do with the notion that the neighborhood was new and the neighbors were still interested in meeting one another.
JK: Do you think there’s still an element of ghettoisation of the genre, despite the domination of SF of various media these days, which encourages us still to stick together, so to speak?
JPK: I do think that, especially on this side of the pond; there is still an element of ghettoisation for traditional forms of the genre: hard science fiction, especially set in space, sword and sorcery and blood and guts horror. However, at the edges, where mainstream touches genre, there is more and more crossover, very near future SF, slipstream, zombies and vampires as metaphor.
JK: Slipstream’s been around for some time now. You’ve edited a slipstream anthology yourself called Feeling Very Strange. What were the criteria you used in picking stories for your anthology?
JPK: Well, if you want to consider the formal criteria we used to pick the stories, maybe you should buy the book and read our introduction where we explain our thinking about this not-quite genre. Of course, we realize that not everyone who reads slipstream agrees with our ideas. Boy-oh-boy, do we realize it! But actually, before we picked stories we picked a roster of writers whom we thought had written a significant body of slipstream work, both in and out of genre. Then it became a question of picking the best story by each of those writers. This process was certainly imperfect. For example, we deliberately excluded writers who, while they had done some wonderful slipstream work, were not primarily known as slipstream writers. My co-editor, John Kessel, for example has written several stories that we might have included, but he is not widely seen as a slipstream writer.
JK: I note that your own work is predominately in the short form. What is it about the form that you prefer over novels?
JPK: The short form is the wellspring from which most of the genre emerged. Short fiction provides the ability to sustain a mood and not be tied down. I have nothing against trilogies, quadrilogies and the like, and I enjoy any number of them, but it’s not for me. I’m very satisfied with where I am and where I’m going. A novel needs an outline, whereas a short story is an exploration. One of the cool things about writing a short story is how you may be thinking ahead in one direction but a story can reveal itself to you halfway through and surprise the hell out of you. For me, that’s always been gold. When stories take turns that you didn’t expect, those are the ones you see in Best of the Year anthologies or on award ballots. It doesn’t happen every time, but when I sit down to write I’m hoping that will happen, that the story will speak to me or surprise me and show me something about itself or myself that I didn’t know. When I see it, I have to follow that wherever it leads. Sometimes it takes me someplace scary, or neat, or that makes me very happy, and sometimes it takes me someplace very sad, but I’m always on the lookout for those turns.
JK: I guess short stories are also more immediate, both in terms of the writer being able to complete them quicker than novels and for the reader.
JPK: Yes, and I think that writers who fail to exploit that immediacy miss a trick. The dream which is a short story is usually uninterrupted, whereas a novel must recreate the dream again and again, and at unpredictable starting points. A novel may be a more persuasive dream, but it must continually compromise with waking reality.
JK: Commercially, short fiction is difficult to sell in book form. The positive of being able to immerse yourself in a brand new world for a brief time every time seems to be off-putting to some readers and most publishers. Does this continue to be the case?
JPK: I recently wrote a column for Asimov’s that considered a book called The Shallows by one Nicholas Carr, who argues, persuasively, in my opinion, that the internet is reprogramming our brains. The science he cites is solid; his conclusions about whether this is a good thing or not are his opinion only. But it is clear that the novel is headed for rough waters as the multitasking Google generation comes of age. I think that short fiction may not suffer quite the same impact. And of course, other technologies may intervene to change our digital sensoria, so that long attention span becomes an advantage.
JK: It seems attention spans are shortening as a result of the way the internet works. Does this worry you? Will future generations display almost semi-autistic tendencies?
JPK: Well, in The Shallows, Nicholas Carr’s thesis is that the internet is reprogramming our brains so that we can access the kinds of information it can present us with. He believes that this is Not Good and predicts that one of the casualties of the digital revolutions will be long books. The longer the book, the less likely it will appeal to the readers of the future. While the science on brain plasticity is solid, Carr’s futurism is debatable. Nonetheless, I do think that we as a thinking species are migrating away from deep thinking and headed toward multitasking. Will this be a tragedy? The advent of printed books sent the scholars of Gutenberg’s day into a tizzy about information overload and eroding standards. Is our culture tragic? Depends on your point of view.
JK: Publishers still seem to be keen on big novels and down on short stories. Could eReaders revitalise the short form?
JPK: When the hardware reaches a certain price point, and it is getting closer every year, eReading will be the mode of choice for the vast majority of the science fiction audience. Scoff if you like, and then see me in ten years. I think, however, that a huge fraction of that audience will be dividing their attention between reading and other eExpressions, some of which haven’t yet been invented. Novels and short stories will suffer a decline in audience, but I think short fiction may suffer less.
JK: You recently attended Podcamp New Hampshire. Can you tell us a bit about that and what was your involvement?
JPK: Podcamp billed itself as an un-conference; the idea was to break down the division between presenters and audience, so that any attendee can propose to give a talk. It mostly focused on social media. I sat in on a panel on how writers use social media and gave a talk entitled “The End of Publishing as We Know It and Other Diversions”. Here’s my description: “More people are reading more words off more screens every day. Fewer people are reading fewer words off fewer pages every day. Do the math! How will writers survive in the brave new world where books are made of ones and zeroes instead of molecules? How will readers find the information that they need and the stories they can cherish? Can publishing really be unmediated? If nobody pays to read, will writing become a hobby instead of a profession? We’ve got many more questions than answers, but come help your neighborhood science fiction writer and web pundit work out strategies for aspiring and established scribes.”
JK: Certainly the days of just writing your stories or novels and sending them out there are long gone. These days the writer has to be more involved in marketing themselves and networking. Is there any room for shrinking violets?
JPK: You probably need to be as talented as a Greg Egan or Alice Sheldon if you’re going to follow a hermit strategy. I would like to think that there were enough thoughtful bloggers who might come to a consensus and “discover” a major talent who wasn’t comfortable with the realities of digital promotion. However, thus far, many of our smartest citizen critics have shown more interest in pointing out flaws than in praising virtue. The culture of discourse we have created on the web all too often tolerates snarkiness and rewards hyperbole.
JK: I’ve also noticed a phenomenon on Facebook of complete beginners launching themselves on an unsuspecting public, asking people to be their fans when they haven’t done the groundwork and paid their dues. Is this the cult of celebrity gone mad?
JPK: It is not so much about celebrity as it is about the scramble for attention. Imagine you are a short story writer at the start of your career. You want to be published, but you also want to maximize your audience. Savvy young writers who get social media can jumpstart their careers. There is nothing at all wrong with making this move. But talent still counts; readers – and editors – can spot a pretender who is all face and no book.
JK: How do you go about putting together a collection and selling it?
JPK: Ha! Well, if it just so happens that I have an award-winning story sitting on my shelf doing nothing special, of course it makes sense to pull it down and place it prominently in a table of contents. Let’s see now, I’ve won exactly three major awards and I’ve published what? Just three short story collections. Coincidence? You be the judge! As it so happens the three collections include pretty much everything I’ve written that’s any good (we won’t mention the stories that somehow got published that, well, suck) so that in order for me to have a new one I have to write enough new stories to fill it. That was the case with my last collection, The Wreck of the Godspeed, which basically includes everything I wrote between 2002 and 2007. At the rate I’m going I might have enough for a new one in 2017, assuming, that is, that I somehow stumble into another award between now and then.
JK: Which neatly brings me to: how do you make a living then? I know you do a fair bit of teaching for a start.
JPK: I teach, yes. But only in the past decade has it been a significant part of my income. I have been fortunate in being married to a woman of means who supported my work in the years when my income would have put me looking way, way down at the poverty level. But I think it is a fact of life for many of the writers whose work you know and love that the writing does not pay the bills. Not even close. Writing for most writers is part-time work, and I see it becoming even more difficult to make money at this profession in the years to come. Will that stop people? I think not.
JK: Your name is very much associated with John Kessel. You’ve collaborated on a number of short stories and co-edited several anthologies, including the slipstream title mentioned above. How did this come about?
JPK: I met John at the WorldCon in 1980 when he and I were pretty much at the same stage in our careers: lightly-published but ferociously-ambitious. We corresponded for a while, roomed together at another con and then John hit a creative wall. In part to shake him out of it, I asked if he’d take a look at an old manuscript of mine that I had workshopped but didn’t know quite what to do about. He took it in hand and fixed it with an inspired rewrite and that was our first collaboration. Made the cover of F&SF! At that point he seemed like an excellent candidate to be my best friend. We subsequently co-wrote an entirely new story and then hit upon a scheme to expand it into a mosaic novel, bits of which we would publish under our own names as short stories. This worked, amazingly! Freedom Beach was John’s first and my second novel. Or maybe it was his first half novel and my second novel and a half… no, no, that can’t be right. My half and a first… er… second half… um, never mind.
JK: You’ve also published quite a bit with Tachyon Publications. They seem to be flying the flag for quality work that big publishers probably wouldn’t champion.
JPK: The first thing I published with Jacob [Weisman] was an intro to a chapbook: Nancy Kress’s Dancing on Air. Several years later he approached me at a convention and asked if I would write a novella for him. He was damn persistent and I agreed, although I had my doubts I would ever go through with it. But soon thereafter a contract showed up in the mail and I was stuck! I turned in Burn very late, but Jacob was ever patient and persistent (did I mention that he was persistent?) and the book ultimately did very well for both of us. More time passes. I write a column on the internet for Asimov’s and do one on slipstream. A couple of months later I get a call from Jacob and he’s pitching the idea that I edit an anthology that showcased and “explained” slipstream. I was very tempted to don the editorial hat (The power! The glory!), but I knew that I couldn’t do it by myself. So I said I’d do it if we could get John Kessel as co-editor. Four anthologies later (and with another one in development) Kessel and Kelly and Tachyon have become a going concern. The thing about Jacob and Tachyon that attracted us is that he has a vision, not only for his company, but for the genre. That’s not quite the same as a plan. A plan is all sorted out; a vision has room for discovery and innovation. I may be biased, but serious readers of the fantastic are lucky that Jacob Weisman is looking out for us.
JK: I like their motto: ‘Saving the world… one good book at a time’. On the subject of Burn, it was picked a few years back for Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction. How did that impact on Tachyon’s sales of the book?
JPK: Jacob already had signed on to take a “hit” on the sales of Burn when he agreed to let me podcast it. On the day it became available in bookstores, I podcast chapter one. Each week thereafter I podcast another chapter, until eventually, the whole book was available in audio. Granted, you had to go through sixteen different downloads, but nonetheless, there was an online free audiobook version in competition with Tachyon’s print edition. I think there is no question whatever that the awards attention my little book got – a Hugo nomination and a Nebula win – was due to the easy availability of the podcast. Ultimately, Tachyon’s Burn sold out, so it seems to me that it was a win-win situation.
JK: Given the pressures on bigger publishers to produce bestsellers and their relative lack of interest in nurturing new talent or supporting mid-list writers, do you think small presses are the saviours of many writers?
JPK: My impression, which is innocent of actual facts, is that bigger publishers are just as much on the lookout for new talent as they ever were. Where they fall down is in supporting mid-list writers, or to put it another way, in helping to nurture writers through a long career. When you are only as good as your last Bookscan numbers, you are liable to be kicked to the curb at any moment. Small presses back their writers creatively and financially in ways that big presses can no longer afford to do. Just as an example, it seems to me that at the time there would have been no major publisher who would have let me try the podcast experiment that Tachyon agreed to on Burn. Had I published it with a bigger house, today I would have several boxes of remainders in my basement and no award on my shelf to show for what I consider to be one of my best efforts.
JK: And given the explosion of new delivery mechanisms for books and new scales of economy available, do you think small presses can potentially survive better than the bigger publishers?
JPK: This is a difficult question, because I think that small presses often as not are not particularly lucrative enterprises, and their survival may depend on the perseverance of one or two dedicated people. If the principals leave or burn out, the imprint is vulnerable. Another problem with small presses is that they may nurture a writer part way through a career, but if she “finds her voice” or “has a breakthrough” then the big publishers (abetted by the writer’s agent!) will swoop down and poach her, making it harder for the small press to enjoy the financial rewards of a best seller. Having said that, I do think that small presses can afford to be more innovative and entrepreneurial, and thus are more responsive to a publishing environment that is still undergoing radical change. The technologies you refer to are evolving, and it seems to me that there is no real way to tell whether they will ultimately favour big fish or little ones.
JK: Finally, what have you got coming up (you mentioned two more anthologies from Tachyon, for example) and what are you working on at the moment?
JPK: I have a bunch of stories out this year in addition to ‘Painting the Air’. ‘Happy Ending 2.0’ was in the March/April issue of F&SF. ‘Crazy Me’ came out in May on the website Tor.com. Also in May, the anthology Eclipse 4 edited by Jonathan Strahan included my novelette ‘Tourists’, which continues the story of young Mariska Volochkova, a teenager who has been genetically modified to hibernate for travel to the stars. Two other Mariska stories have already appeared, and one, ‘Plus or Minus’, was nominated for the Nebula (lost), the Locus Award (lost) and the Hugo (see me in August). And I have started my own personal ezine James Patrick Kelly’s Strangeways, which features two of my best stories and two of my essays in each edition. I’m publishing Strangeways myself on ebook platforms, like the Kindle and Nook.
Visit James Patrick Kelly’s website here.