K.J. Bishop is an Australian writer and artist. In 2004, her neo-Decadent novel The Etched City was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and she won the William L. Crawford Award, the Ditmar Award for Best Novel and the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. Her work has appeared in several publications including Leviathan 4, Fantasy Magazine, and Subterranean. Most infamously, her novella “Maldoror Abroad” appeared in Album Zutique; the story riffed off of the original Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) by Isidore Lucien Ducasse under the pen name “Comte de Lautréamont.” Her tale “Saving the Gleeful Horse” (2010) was recently reprinted in The Weird. “Gleeful Horse” and many other stories and poems of Bishop’s can also be found in her new collection, That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, available as an e‑book via the Amazon Kindle Store and now in trade paperback form via CreateSpace. More can be found from the author at her personal website.
I recently interviewed Bishop via email about her new collection, her own writing and art (much of which adorns this interview), and her feelings on weird fiction, among other things…
Slider and subsequent art © K.J. Bishop
WFR.com: What kinds of fiction or stories did you read growing up? What were the first writers with weird sensibilities that sort of lured you under their spell, and why?
K.J. Bishop: Just about everything I can remember reading as a young kid was strange or fantastical. Maybe the strange stuff stuck in my mind. My mother had hung onto books from her childhood, and some of those were trippy. I remember one with a cover picture of bubbles with legs, and another with a giant cloud man.
I was mad keen on Star Wars, which got me into reading science fiction. The first “grown up” book I read was the Star Wars novelisation. I can still remember learning the words “gargantuan” and “obsidian” and wondering who the hell Deak and Windy were.
People gave me a lot of classic fantasy. I particularly liked Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and I loved Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, which left me with an abiding love of dragons that I’ve never been able to turn into writing. One of my favourite books was (and is) The Compleet Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. It was my vade mecum through school.
I guess the first writer who really seduced me with weirdness was Dr Seuss. What Was I Scared Of? – the story about the pale green pants with nobody inside them – frightened the pants off me, so to speak, but I still couldn’t stop re-reading it. The cliff with the snide field turned into the cliff that became the basis for the geography of The Etched City. So I owe a lot to those green pants.
As a teen I read pretty much anything on the F & SF shelves. Neuromancer cast a spell on me through its style and the sense of intense strangeness and hauntedness in a world that seemed just around the corner.
WFR.com: What are your favorite weird stories?
Bishop: Aside from the green pants? I was moved by Sarban’s “A Christmas Story”, which I read here on Weird Fiction Review. M. John Harrison’s “In Viriconium” and “Viriconium Knights”, Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl”, Borges’s “The House of Asterion”. Richard Calder’s Dead Girls, Dead Boys and Dead Things.
WFR.com: How would trace the lineage of your own work, in the greater scope of literature? Where do you see the most notable or important influences informing you and your writing? I’ve noticed what seems to be strong influence of the Decadents and Surrealists in your writing, for instance.
Bishop: Tracing inspirations is tricky because there are thousands of them. Definitely Decadents. J.K. Huysmans’ A Rebours, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus and Beardsley’s Under the Hill are my main Decadent influences. The Surrealist influence comes mainly from Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, which is a treasure trove, and Rikki Ducornet. I admire the way Ducornet combines surrealism with enchanting narrative. Her The Fountains of Neptune is one of my very favourite books, truly magical.
I owe a great deal to Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison. Richard Calder’s gorgeous baroque language knocked my socks off and inspired me to attempt ornate writing. The surreal secondary world in Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy was a big influence. I feel like I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, in terms of the gritty kind of fantastic world and (a)moral tone.
Who else? Milton. The Bible. Myths, Grail literature. Stories deriving from oral tradition. I find myself drawing elements of myth, fairytale and folktale into my writing, in the hope that the things I transplant will kind of bring their own roots and shoots with them. Maybe I’m just making fake antiques. And of course there are influences outside literature – movies, music, travel, my family’s after-dinner yarns.
WFR.com: What is it about the Decadents and Surrealists that make them so alluring to you and your personal aesthetic?
Bishop: Um, because I’m a weirdo and a pervert? On the Decadent side, I like the decorative style of writing. Sumptuousness seduces me. I like the exploration of eccentric and neurotic personalities. And Decadence in a spirit of play can be an utter delight, as in Under the Hill. I also enjoy the playfulness of Surrealism. There’s a satisfying kind of rebellion in absurdity, as well as sheer joy. Surrealism brings unfiltered material to the table, and I tend to get a sense of relief from that, even if the images are dark or tense. There’s the charm of novelty and surprise, and sometimes a deep experience of wonder. That said, there are Surrealist works that I find repugnant or uninteresting. But I can appreciate their honesty.
WFR.com: Your own story “Saving the Gleeful Horse,” included in your recent collection That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, is also the bookending story in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. How do you feel, seeing your story as a part of that anthology, collected among the other stories in there?
Bishop: Honoured, for sure! To be included with so many great writers is really awesome. It’s like being in a big, strange bus. A tentacly cousin of Totoro’s Catbus, maybe.
WFR.com: Your 2003 novel The Etched City is held in such high regard as a work of urban fantasy and weird writing. What I found interesting was how stories from Mad Ancestor like “The Art of Dying” and “The Love of Beauty” actually predate it by a few years; in fact, in your afterword you mark them as “seeds” for your novel. How and why did these stories ultimately spur you into writing The Etched City?
Bishop: I’d fiddled with trying to write a book before, but finishing a couple of stories made me think I could do it if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
The character who became Gwynn had been in my mind for years, in various guises. I wanted to learn more about him. If I want to find out what happens with a character I can seldom just dream it all up. I have to write, and things come out in the writing. The three characters from “The Love of Beauty” – Seaming the artist, Beauty, and the beast – all merged into Beth. Maldoror-related material got in the mix too.
The city had also been in my mind a long time, changing as well. It was the place I would go to when I closed my eyes, and I wanted to keep going there. It actually started off as a more magical place when I was younger. But the influence of Harrison and the Decadents – Mervyn Peake, too – had got me interested in settings that weren’t magical, but were strange, with the magic in the strangeness.
WFR.com: What are some of your favorite fictional cities, then? It’s probably safe to assume Gormenghast is in there somewhere!
Bishop: It is, and Viriconium of course. The city in Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward is probably my favourite – very odd and very entertaining. I also like the city in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled for the way it functions as a dreamlike, absurd, anxious space. Armada in Miéville’s The Scar – it’s very cool.
WFR.com: Your story “Between the Covers” touches on your difficulty in completing a second novel after The Etched City, albeit in an obviously fabulist manner. Are the difficulties of the writer in that story exactly the same as those you encountered in real life? And have you made any headway on a follow-up novel since?
Bishop: Not exactly the same, but the gist is the same. I’d shot my wad. I didn’t have anything else in the pipeline, and got pretty stressed and unhappy when I couldn’t come up with a new book quickly. I wrote the first book out of passion, with a strong sense of muse – or something – on board, and had no idea how to write without that. So I had to build up some new skills and learn a new attitude.
I’ve been making headway on a few things. I’m writing a strange kind of science fantasy book called The Floating World with Preston Grassmann, who I met in Bangkok a few years ago. I’m working on a novella-ish thing, “Gunpowder Tea”, which takes place in the world of The Etched City. I recently posted the first draft of a novella in installments on my blog. It’s set in Ashamoil before The Etched City and I’m thinking about how to turn it into a novel. And there are a few other items in the pipeline. It’s nice to have a pipeline now.
WFR.com: In addition to your writing, you also paint, draw, and sculpt, oftentimes sharing your work on your website. Do you see yourself as an artist first and foremost, with your writing as an extension or tool of expression for something larger? Does your other artistic work help you with your writing sometimes?
Bishop: I don’t see myself as one thing or the other. They’re both expressions of me and my tastes and obsessions and whims. I get a lot more ideas for art, but lack the skills to realise most of them. My own art rarely helps with writing, but other people’s art is often inspiring.
WFR.com: Finally – and I’m very much looking forward to your answer here – what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever read, and why?
Bishop: The newspaper! Nothing beats reality for sheer batshit craziness and the sense of looking into an abyss. Seriously, it’s hard to answer this one. Most of my books are in boxes in another country, so there’s nothing to jog my memory. But Michael Cisco’s The Tyrant has always stayed in my mind for its eerie, menacing strangeness.