Kathe Koja is an American writer who first emerged as a novelist during the U.S. horror boom of the early 1990s. Kafkaesque, transgressive novels such as The Cipher (1991), Bad Brains (1992), Skin (1993), and Strange Angels (1994) established her as one of weird fiction’s most innovative practitioners. Story collaborations with science fiction writer Barry Malzberg broadened her oeuvre, and as Koja moved into the realm of young adult novels her work continued to evade easy categorization. In 2010 her first historical novel, Under the Poppy, was published, with the sequel to follow in 2012. Koja’s version of the weird is both claustrophobic and luminous, continually questioning the nature of reality, as demonstrated by “Angels In Love,” her story reprinted in The Weird, and “The Neglected Garden,” previously reprinted on this site. I recently interviewed Koja about weird fiction via email…
Weirdfictionreview.com: What writers were your introduction to “the weird,” whether the Weird Tales kind of weird or something even stranger?
Kathe Koja: Growing up, I read a ton of poetry and ghost stories, but the ones who made a lasting impression were M.R. James, Poe, Stoker; Shirley Jackson came later, as did Angela Carter and Flannery O’Connor. And Wuthering Heights made a *huge* impression on me, too … I gravitate toward intensity.
WFR: What kinds of things did you read and think “this is not for me”?
Koja: To be honest, I can’t remember: that stuff made no lasting impression. Extrapolating backward, I’d imagine it was anything that was too “nice,” too sure of itself, too ready to proffer an explanation for life. Certainly I read my share of crap, which is a good thing — it’s what helps develop your shit detector.
WFR: Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? Can you give a sense of your childhood as it relates to your writing?
Koja: The single greatest contribution to my sense of the mysterious as a matter-of-fact was being brought up Catholic. Cheek-by-jowl since infancy with the spirit world, with miracles and blood.
WFR: Can you give us a sense of what that’s like for a child? Was there a time as a child where you took that all literally to some extent?
Koja: Sure, every day. Grown-ups tell you that the stovetop is hot, you touch it: the stovetop is hot. Grown-ups tell you that a vial of blood liquefies on a certain saint’s day every year; why shouldn’t that be true, too?
I can’t speak to what growing up in a religiously observant household is like to a child, but I can say that for me as a child, Catholicism offered an entry into a repertoire almost unmatched of the grisly, radiant, and strange, a world both within and enclosing the everyday world one glimpsed, well, every day. And so much of the iconography was pretty fucking punk rock, as the late Jim Carroll once observed.
WFR: Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and “the gothic,” and does it matter to you as either a writer or reader?
Koja: Second question first: No, because I don’t read by genre, I read by voice; and when I’m writing, my own voice is always my own: weird stuff, YA stuff, historical, whatever the genre may be.
And first question, yes, there are striations between those genres, or subgenres, but I don’t know that it’s meaningful to me as a reader to parse them. Like the working definition/recognition of art and pornography, I know what I like when I see it, and if I don’t like it I put it away.
WFR: What do you think is the appeal of weird fiction generally? The scare? Catharsis? Something else?
Koja: Perhaps the frisson of confirmation: knowing that other eyes have seen that, yes, all is not what we think it is, all is not as it appears, and is stranger than we can imagine, no matter what the culture at large might pretend. Reading history is good for this too, but you have to be careful about your sources.
WFR: How mysterious can a story remain by the end and keep your attention? If “very mysterious,” what is it you’re enjoying that substitutes for explanation?
Koja: I enjoy the mystery itself: it exercises the sense of awe and the problem-solving beaver that is the brain, both at the same time. And it respects my intelligence, my own ability as a reader to fathom and puzzle stuff out.
WFR: What influences do you think readers might be surprised by?
Koja: Depends on the reader, but maybe Thomas Merton and Louisa May Alcott (not just Little Women, but Eight Cousins, Rose In Bloom, all of it). And Jack London!
WFR: When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?
Koja: Trying too hard. It’s like laughter or desire: the more you try to force it, the less possible it becomes.
WFR: What constitutes “trying too hard”?
Koja: When you can feel the hot breath of the writer on your neck. When capital‑E Effects are forced upon you. When it feels like the guy in the next-to-last booth at Shoney’s trying to explain his dreams, with napkin drawings.
WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?
Koja: It means my stuff is probably not for them. And yes, sure, there’s the “too weird” threshold for any- and everybody. I don’t know that I’ve crossed mine yet as a reader/listener/art-and-movie viewer; the frontier looms ahead.
That said, there is a real difference to me between “weird” and “ugly.” Cruelty to the helpless is irredeemably ugly and I can’t stomach it.
WFR: You mean cruelty to the helpless in fiction? What other things turn you off in fiction?
Koja: In the real world double, triple, a million times yes: the human race’s force majeure vis-à-vis every other species on the planet is ugly to see.
In fiction, if you strip cruelty of its meaning, and use it as a casual effect, I don’t want to read your stuff.
WFR: Is the “reveal” of the other-worldly element in a supernatural story the toughest part for the writer to get right? How do you know how much to reveal and how much to hold back?
Koja: You have to let the story itself guide you, or I do, anyway. I never plan or outline, I follow the text, because the text is always right. The text also sometimes says, “This story is not for you to write, try again later, or never,” so in sorrow I have to obey that, too.
WFR: Once you finish writing a draft of a story, then, to what extent do you “test” your instincts in revision?
Koja: I do very little rewriting. Mostly it’s at the behest of my three first readers: Rick Lieder, Christopher Schelling, and Carter Scholz. Their insights are invaluable to me and I respect what they say. If any or all of them find something unclear in a narrative, or call me out on word usage, or think something is Just No Good, then I listen and go back and look. Sometimes I disagree. Sometimes I change it.
WFR: How often does the real world give you something seemingly inexplicable, something weird, that becomes a spark for a story or novel?
Koja: All the time. A story is an interaction between a being or beings and the surrounding environment, whether that environment is spiritual, internal, emotional, set in the Pleistocene, a haunted house, Marie Antoinette’s last levee, whatever. It’s the playground, the pantry, the backdrop, the dictionary of what story can and does do: it’s the World, however that’s defined for the moment of the narrative.
WFR: Can a story appear to be haunted beyond the intent of the writer?
Koja: Best case scenario!
WFR: What’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?
Koja: M.R. James and that toothed, bearded mouth under the mundane nighttime pillow. “Casting the Runes” — read at your own risk.
WFR: Not the white blob in the slideshow?!
Koja: That was very bad, too. Actually I just saw a puppet performance in which one of the actors dressed as La Llorona and moved amongst the kids in the audience, scaring the shit out of several. Reminded me fondly of that magic lantern slideshow.
WFR: Finally, if you had to pick one weird writer who is overlooked and needs to be resurrected and better appreciated, who would it be and why?
Koja: Angela Carter, Angela Carter, Angela Carter! Because she is brilliant; because her fairy tales casually gut everything else and lesser; because she can do it all in a compact and elegant space and leave you thinking it over for days at a time, and remembering it forever. Because she could write so much so effortlessly; get her essays, too, while you’re assembling the oeuvre.