Interview with John Kessel

"I think the world is absurd, funny when it is not heartbreaking."

Photo © Roger Winstead

Photo © Roger Winstead

John Kessel (1950 — ) is an American writer of science fiction and fantasy who has won multiple awards for his short stories and novellas, including the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the Nebula Award. Kessel has also written several novels, including Good News From Outer Space (1989) and Corrupting Dr. Nice (1997), as well as Freedom Beach (1985), which he co-wrote with James Patrick Kelly. Alongside Kelly, Kessel has co-edited several notable anthologies of stories devoted to exploring different facets of science fiction and fantasy, most recently Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology (Tachyon Publications, 2012), which features fiction and nonfiction oriented around posthumanism and the use and meaning of the technological singularity in literature. Kessel is currently a professor of creative writing and literature at NC State University, where he has taught since 1982. His story “Buddha Nostril Bird” is this week’s featured story. I recently interviewed Kessel via email to talk about his writing, his thoughts on science fiction, and other things… What kinds of stories did you read growing up? What do you recall standing out as particularly unusual, weird, or out of the ordinary?

 John Kessel: I loved science fiction most of all. I read other kinds of fiction as well — I loved reading. But outer space, the future, technology, change, and progress — all of those things attracted me immensely. Who and what are your favorite writers and stories, the touchstones you find yourself returning to again and again?

Kessel: There are some classic writers who I come back to thinking about over and over, though I may go for some years without obsessing about them, and my ideas about them have changed over time. Herman Melville. Flannery O’Connor, Jane Austen. From the world of science fiction and fantasy: Philip K. Dick. Ursula Le Guin. Gene Wolfe. And some lesser-known favorites: John Collier, Nathanael West, Karel Capek. Contemporaries: Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, Don De Lillo. My own contemporaries Karen Joy Fowler, James Patrick Kelly, Bruce Sterling, Kij Johnson, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link. Lots of others if I were to think about it. How would you define or describe your personal aesthetic as a writer, in your own words?

Kessel: That’s an interesting question, one that I don’t think I’ve ever been asked in so many words. Here are some things I think about:

  • I like clean prose. I wish I could write more poetically, but it’s not something that I concentrate on when I work. To some degree I do adapt my voice to the kind of story I am telling.
  • I want to make the reader think, and I want to move the reader emotionally. I want the end of the story or novel to linger in the reader’s mind for as long as possible after he or she puts down the book. I want to change your life, make you see the world differently in the end, or at the very least make you cry or laugh.
  • I like paradox, contradiction, complication, and human mystery. I think the world is hard to grasp completely, and I am intrigued at the various ways people try to make it mean something, often contradictory things.
  • I like humor and satire. I think the world is absurd, funny when it is not heartbreaking.
  • I care about right and wrong, and I think that they exist, but I also think that nailing them down permanently is next to impossible, and seeking to do so is probably destructive.

I don’t know if these things add up to a coherent aesthetic, but I do deal in them in almost all of my fiction. Would it be safe to assume you carry over these preferences into your editorial work when reading and considering stories? On the flipside of that, what would ruin a story for you, if you encountered it as a reader or editor? Any particular pet peeves?

Kessel: Well, I tend to like stories that deal with some of these things, but I think my appreciation of style and types of stories is broader than my own practice. I can like things that are quite different from my own sort of work.

I don’t know if I have any particular deal breakers in reading stories except I hate to be bored and I don’t like bad writing. But those are subjective standards, aren’t they?

Pet peeves? Black and white morality. Bad faith. Sentimentality. Shoddy construction. Slipstream stories that are thrown together from random elements and have no backbone. Too much violence. You mentioned that your original frame of reference to literature was science fiction. How do you think you’ve branched out from that point since your initial interest in writing and editing, and why? Do you ever find science fiction, or perhaps people’s conceptions of it, too limiting or constraining?

Kessel: I still love science fiction but I also love other kinds of fiction and see strengths outside the genre that seldom show up within it (though they may be more common than I think since I am not as well read in contemporary sf as I should be). I’ve learned as much from Melville and O’Connor as I have from Wells or Dick.

I think people’s conceptions of sf are more limiting than the genre itself has proved to be. Some of those conceptions come from people within the genre, but most of them it seems to me come from without. What people think they know about science fiction is more confining than what they don’t know.

I don’t feel very constricted in writing sf. I find it stimulating, like writing in a particular historical form like the sonnet or the epic, or some other genre like the mystery or western. The challenge is in what you can do within the form: how can you make it universal? How can you use the conventions of the genre to explore things that are not bound to the genre? This is fascinating enough for anyone to make a career out of.

What’s frustrating is that so many otherwise intelligent readers are unable to read this work. Or that the publishing world is so constructed that it is invisible to them. They never imagine that it might speak to them, or they can’t be bothered to learn how to read it, or they never even see it at all. That’s sad. How did you originally conceive of “Buddha Nostril Bird”? I imagine it had something to do with the poem by Issa embedded early on in the story (Out from the nostrils of the Great Buddha/Flew a pair of nesting swallows). That said, it’s such a strange, challenging story that I imagine there’s more to the story of this story’s creation than that.

Kessel: I started “Buddha Nostril Bird” as an assault on the philosopher and writer Allen Bloom and his book The Closing of the American Mind. It was a best seller and a cause for commentary back in the 1980s. I hated that book. Something about its tone and its attitudes, even when it was well reasoned, was profoundly antithetical to my own feelings about the world, about right and wrong, about what is positive in life and what is negative. Its rigid and moralistic Platonism offended me. It seemed anti-life in its academic prescriptions and proscriptions.

So I thought I would write a story in which I turned Bloom into my protagonist Blume, put him in a space opera future, and subject him to a world where everything he knows is contradicted and ignored. His every instinct is wrong, and his attempts to make the world fit his platonic vision are comically ineffectual.

I had been reading a lot of Taoist and Buddhist texts at the time, and I borrowed a lot of other stories and images from those texts. I think of the Lao Tsu as the anti-Plato. The quintessential Eastern vs. the quintessential Western mind. The Issa haiku represents a way of seeing that is trivial if not nonsensical to a tough-minded western thinker like Bloom. The poem says something vitally true about the world, but it is not easily translatable into rational terms.

Since I am a Westerner and subject to the same black-and-white thinking as Bloom, I tried to subvert my conscious mind by using the I Ching to plot the story. I started with an initial situation: a prison break of my wrongheaded protagonist. Then I threw the coins to create a hexagram for each scene as I went forward to tell me what would happen next. I borrowed imagery and even language from the oracle, but of course I had to interpret everything it told me, and that tapped into my own imagination. And I had to have it make some kind of sense. Fascinating! Much like how Philip K. Dick used the I Ching while drafting The Man in the High Castle. Was that the first time you had ever tried something like that to subvert or challenge your usual writing process? How do you think your process has changed since then, as a result?

Kessel: Philip K. Dick’s story about plotting The Man in the High Castle was where I got that idea. That was probably the first time I set out to challenge my process. I’ve become a little looser in my practices since then, and will try starting in new ways now and then. For instance, I have written a couple of stories by starting with just the first sentence without any idea what I was writing about or where it went. What are you currently working on now, in terms of both your own writing and new editorial projects?

Kessel: I am working hard on a novel tentatively titled The Moon and the Other, set in the Society of Cousins that I created for some earlier stories including my novella “Stories for Men.” Though the novel is set in the Society and even contains characters from earlier stories, it is a completely new narrative and contains none of those stories. It’s a complicated work with four viewpoint characters, political and gender issues, social speculations and even some thriller elements. It’s my intent to finish it by the end of the year.

I am taking a break from editing and have vowed not to write any short stories until I finish this book. Finally, what do you consider the weirdest story you’ve ever read, and why?

Kessel: How about His Monkey Wife, or Married to a Chimp by John Collier? It’s about a dunderheaded British schoolteacher Mr. Fatigay who has been in Africa teaching the indigenous people, and has a pet female chimp named Emily who, unknown to him, has learned to read. She learns about people through 19th century romances, and as a result has fallen hopelessly in love with Mr. Fatigay. Of course, he knows nothing about this.

Mr. F. comes home to London to marry his fiancé Amy, who has nothing but contempt for him. He gives Emily to Amy as a servant, and through a series of absurd complications, ends up marrying Emily instead of Amy. 

I can’t begin to convey how odd this book is. It’s hilarious, a devastating takedown of British polite society, an assault on the “New Woman,” a mockery of British sexuality, but also a kind of sister novel to Jane Eyre with a chimp in the role of Jane — much of the book is told from Emily’s viewpoint, and she is the most intelligent, humane, and sensible being in the book. And it’s written in an incredibly ornate, allusive Victorian style that is hilarious in its extremes.

Not for every taste. There is no book like it, and it’s one of my favorite stories of all time. You should try it.