In this week’s PW, Alana Joli Abbott interviews Kij Johnson about her debut collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. Kij gave delightfully lengthy answers that won’t fit in the magazine, so we’re glad to reproduce them here.
AJA: You’ve had a varied career, working in academia, in bookstores, in editorial departments, and in comics and game design. What aspects of those jobs continue to be relevant in your writing career? And, given your prior work at Wizards of the Coast, do you play role playing games?
KJ: Each narrative mode—text, image or both, open-ended story or closed arc, face to face, on the page, on the screen—has a specific approach to the creating of speculative fiction, but they all draw from the same metatexts about science, myth and the historical development of these genres. My poison remains the Dungeons & Dragons Greyhawk setting, though I haven’t been able to play lately!
AJA: What keeps you returning to the setting of mythical Japan?
KJ: Every time I think I am done with a setting, a theme, or a mode—the human/animal interface, for instance, or the deconstruction of story, or what it takes to gaze into the abyss and then step back—I find that there’s something else I can to say within that framework, digging deeper into increasingly familiar strangeness. Heian Japan has been like that. It started with The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, the diaries of a noblewoman at the Japanese Imperial court in about the year 1000 A.D. The first time I read it (in Ivan Morris’s translation), I fell in love with Sei Shonagon’s witty, opinionated voice. My fascination led me to other primary sources from the Heian period, and I discovered a lovely body of women’s writing in the form of diaries and monogatari (such as The Tale of Genji)—perhaps the only time and place where the great literature of a culture was defined and dominated by women.
AJA: How is traffic to your website and your free online fiction affecting the popularity of your print titles?
KJ: Mileage varies for many writers, but I like the way my online publications have supported my print books. My two novels came out in 1999 and 2003, yet they continue to sell. Online word of mouth is part of that.
AJA: In tales like “Ponies” and “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles,” you feature animals that are very human. What do you think these anthropomorphic animals tell readers about human nature?
KJ: Many stories in this collection have animals in them and most of the animals exhibit some level of humanity, which is not always the same as anthropomorphism. Some animals turn into humans, if imperfectly, as in “Fox Magic.” Some are uplifted, a science-fictional term for animals that attain human levels of intelligence (though not always human types of intelligence), as with “The Evolution of Trickster Stories.” Some remain basically animals with intent ascribed to them (“The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”), and others are never anything but animals (“Wolf Trapping,” “The Horse Raiders,” and the title story). “Ponies” is a parable; the monkeys in “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” are a metaphor; “The Bitey Cat” is… a bitey cat, maybe.
A few years back I challenged myself to write stories that did not depend on the human/animal interface; “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and “Story Kit” were two of those works.
AJA: “Spar” is one of the most graphic, violent, and sexual tales in the collection. It could be read as an allegory to an abusive relationship, but there seems to be more beneath the surface as well. For you, what is this story about?
KJ: Despite the graphic horror of it, the story is about the much subtler and yet utterly destructive breakdown that happens in so many relationships. He’s not listening, she’s not listening; or maybe they are and they still don’t care; or maybe no one’s even trying to communicate; or maybe the cruelty is botched attempts at connection; or maybe they’re both just inhabiting the same space at the same time and all that pain is pointless. It’s a story that could be told in the modernist/reportorial tradition, but I didn’t want readers to have an easy out of what the story is saying. There’s no way to say, “It sucked but she moved on, and her second husband was much nicer.” It’s a grim statement, and a grim way to say it.
AJA: Congratulations on the Nebula win and the Hugo nomination for “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”! The novella is the longest piece in your collection, and is a powerful tale about loss, technological change, and those who must change or be left behind. Who do you view as bridge-builders in the current technological scene?
KJ: Thank you! This answer is so five years ago, but the interconnectedness of the Internet is the most obvious example. We bridge the gap between people using our computers and phones, but it can mean we lose immediacy and the random delights of accidental, incidental friendships. I have moved more than twenty times in the past few decades, and my friends are everywhere now, in nine time zones. I would lose many people I care about if it weren’t for email, messaging, and Facebook; but I don’t have the same incentive to explore new friends when I move somewhere new. Something is lost; something is gained. Ultimately the gain is greater than the loss, I think.
AJA: The main characters of “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” and of “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” are both named Linna, and they share other qualities. Are they the same person in different realities?
KJ: The stories are different, but Linna serves the same purpose in each—a woman stepping into strangeness because of the dying dog(s) at her side. Each Linna is at the moment isolated from the rest of humanity, and has instead enlisted herself to the animals’ agenda. Each Linna moves through her environment with her senses alive and open. And the Linna stories are both interested in considering the sorts of stories animals would tell. So Linna is not the same person, but she fills the same role in each story. I can see that I could write other Linna stories, about other Linnas facing loss and wonder.
AJA: How did you (or your editors) choose “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” as the title story for the collection?
KJ: Titles are hard! We discussed this a bit, my publisher and I, but we both love this story, and Linna and her dog and the strangeness of a river of bees are all specific examples of general things I always write about, aloneness and the Other and strangeness.
See this week’s issue for the rest of the Q&A, including Kij’s passionate support for self-publishing authors! (And if you’re not a subscriber, just be patient; it’ll be out from behind the paywall after a week.)