Interview with Kij Johnson: Dream-Quests, Updating Lovecraft, and Combating Rodents

kij_johnsonKij Johnson (b. 1960) is an American author of several novels and dozens of short stories of fantasy and science fiction. She received a BA from St. Olaf College, an MFA from North Carolina State University, and has taught writing at Louisiana State University and the University of Kansas, where she is associate director at The Center for the Study of Science Fiction. Throughout her career, Johnson has also worked in the publishing industry in roles that include managing editor for Tor and collections editor for Dark Horse Comics.

Since selling her first story in 1987, her works have appeared in numerous noteworthy outlets, such as Amazing Stories, Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and many others.  Johnson has won numerous honors in the genre, including the World Fantasy, Nebula, Hugo, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards.  Her short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees, was a WFR favorite in 2012.   To mark the publication of her new novella, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe—a modern take on a Lovecraft classic—we checked in with the author to get her thoughts on such matters as updating Lovecraft, discovering weird fiction at a young age, and how to combat unusual rodents.  More information about the author can be found at http://www.kijjohnson.com.

vellitt_finalWeird Fiction Review: As mentioned in the Acknowledgements for The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, women are largely absent from H.P. Lovecraft’s work, which forms a major impetus for your novella.  Are there other noteworthy absences that particularly informed your book’s construction?  Are there other places in his work that strike you as still having room for modern writers to find compelling stories that build a more robust experience of his universe?

Kij Johnson: I had a lot of inspirations and starting points for this book. Everything I read drops into a sort of stewpot in my head from which I ladle at will, so the book has little hat-tips to Virgil, Wodehouse, Carrington, Nabokov — dozens of writers, most of whom had nothing whatsoever to do with Lovecraft’s work or genre. I was strongly affected by the other macabre fantasists,  especially Robert Chambers, who I rediscovered recently: he was a better writer than Lovecraft and had more tools to generate his effects. I also looked at Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night, a 1930s mystery about an Oxford women’s college. I always end up doing a lot of research, even if it’s not directly useful: this time I learned much of fungi and architectural ornamentation motifs.

WFR: You also talk about discovering Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle at a young age. Can you summarize that discovery for our readers (how you discovered the stories, your response to it, etc.)?  Was there anything about the Dream Cycle that appealed to you more than Lovecraft’s other stories? 

KJ: I think I was ten(? eleven?), when we drove from the small Iowa town we lived in to Chicago for a vacation. Kroch’s and Brentano’s was (my mother said) a famous bookstore, and part of the trip would be several hours there. My younger brother and I would be allowed to buy (I think it was) $10 worth of books each.

Kroch’s turned out to be the biggest bookstore I had ever seen: floors and floors of books. Mom set us loose at the entrance with a strict injunction to be back in two hours. My little brother and I were both well past children’s books, so Rich beelined for Science to look at all the paleontology books; and I ended up in Science Fiction. The Lovecraft paperback covers were eerie and terrible, but the Kadath one was slightly less so — so that’s the one I bought first. I read the Dream-quest that night, terrified and fascinated.

WRF: Are there other authors working in Lovecraft’s sandbox that have influenced you, both in general terms and with respect to Vellitt Boe specifically?  Were there other works of weird fiction that you discovered at a young age that have remained favorites?

KJ: I wasn’t even aware so many other modern Lovecraftian works were being created! I only noticed when Lovecraft Country came out.

I read everything I could find as a child: mysteries, romances, adventure tales, history. Weird fiction was part of that, so I also read Dunsany, Derleth, Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s uber-creepy “Yellow Wallpaper,” and on and on. These all became went into my internal stewpot.

the-dream-quest-of-unknown-kadathWFR: Your prose style in Vellitt Boe differs considerably from that of Lovecraft’s Unknown Kadath; to what degree was this a conscious choice, if at all?  How do you think style relates to the kind of stories being told in each of the two Dream-Quest stories under discussion?

KJ: I am a stylist and I love to play with other peoples’ voices: in the past I’ve written fiction reminiscent of Kenneth Grahame, Fanny Burney, Laurence Sterne, and Neville Coghill’s Chaucer translation. I did some experiments with Lovecraft’s voice, but as I wrote, it was clear that it wouldn’t work for what I wanted. He is lavish in his piling on of vocabulary, but he tends toward adjectives that offer strong emotional charge but minimal detail; he also uses repetition a lot more than I wanted to, and he tends away from scenic writing and toward narrative. I wanted to tell an immediate story about a realistic woman moving through a realistic(ish) landscape that was nevertheless eldritch and strange, and that meant making different decisions.

WFR: There are a number of inversions of the Lovecraft original in your novella apart from the inclusion of a woman as protagonist, and it seems like cosmic horror as a mode of storytelling is particularly conducive to such experiments.  How would you summarize your aesthetic goals with regard to cosmic horror and fantasy, generally and with regard to Vellitt Boe?

KJ: My initial thought was: how would Lovecraft’s world play out differently if I rethink what he does (or doesn’t do) with gender? If I put a woman in the Dream-lands, what happens? She has different agendas, different concerns. If I swap out a pragmatist for a dreamer? She solves problems differently when it’s her very real world that she might if she could just wake up to get out of it. A pragmatist doesn’t make the same decisions: for instance, she avoids the black triremes instead of drinking with a passenger, getting roofied and hauled off to the Moon.

WFR: One aspect of the two Dream-Quest stories that stands out to me is a difference in terms of motivation.  Randolph Carter’s voyage seems instigated mainly by curiosity, whereas Vellitt’s is primarily constructed as a need to accomplish a particular goal with “concrete,” anticipated consequences for the characters.  Can you describe some of your thought process for arriving at this shift in motivations to form the plot trajectory?

KJ: I was flipping everything I could think of, to see what came of it. What does it mean to live in a world that has perhaps been created only by the whims of gods and dreamers, and is therefore susceptible to change as whimsically? How do you navigate that? It’s interesting to watch a character with an agenda try to navigate a floaty world, just as it is (slightly less) interesting to watch a floaty character try to get through agenda-centered world.

And remember: Carter has a clear and consistent agenda through Kadath: he is driven to find the city he has seen from the balustrades; he hungers for it. All his previous, undocumented, visits are maybe curiosity-driven, but Kadath is not.

WFR: Recently we published a story by early-20th-century writer Karl Hans Strobl. It’s an interesting science fiction tale that was written before the German author later became a member of the Nazi party.  How do you deal with a writer like Strobl or Lovecraft who may have ideas that are morally problematic when you read or teach their works?

The_Street_of_CrocodilesKJ: That is always the question, isn’t it? I am still navigating this, but I have a few strategies I have worked out. One is to teach them but not to shy away from engagement with their bigotries. Part of the discussion has to be about how a creator’s and an audience’s bigotries reinforce one another, sometimes invisibly. This can be incredibly hard, but is necessary.

Another is to pair them: for instance, Strobl wth Bruno Schulz, a brilliant Jewish surrealist who was killed by a Gestapo officer in WW2 — and again, not to shy away.

WFR: Last of all, which would you rather fight if you had to: zoogs or Rodents of Unusual Size?

KJ: Zoogs! Zoogs can be cowed, which ROUSs can’t. Plus, I am pretty sure I was born with a basic zoog vocabulary. Plus, once I have (I hope) convinced them not to eat me, I can snag some of that great wine they make. Plus, I suspect they might make terrible pets, but maybe not? A zoog sidekick?