Thursday, September 16, 2010
Kij Johnson - author, teacher and rock climber
(photo by Beth Gwinn)
Kij Johnson is one busy author. Busy following her passions. I'm so thrilled that she took the time to talk to me (and by extension, all of you). She's an award winning spec-fic author, writing teacher, rock climber and student. Her thesis, of course, is a novel.
AW: I'm guessing you have been writing since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Has it always been science fiction?
KJ: Nope. I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 25, when I took a Continuing Ed class to fill some free time. I did read with the obsessive focus only young people can have, a book or more a day for years that led into decades. I read every genre (except mundane realism, which I could never see the appeal of), but my first stories were mostly horror. Who knew? I kept diaries with the same obsessiveness, but they really were mundane, mostly pining over boys.
AW: Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you won your first award?
KJ: That would be the Theodore Sturgeon Award, from the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 1994. The award is given at the Campbell Conference, held at the University of Kansas each July. Winners are brought in for the Conference, so they – almost -- always know ahead of time. I was in Lawrence in 1994, sitting in for the first time on James Gunn’s science fiction workshop as suggested by someone I had worked with at Tor. My plan was to fly out on Friday night, after the workshop ended and just as the conference started. I mentioned this after one of the classes to Jim, who was also the award administrator. He invited me to his office and urged me to stay, making a convincing pitch for how good the conference would be, but I stayed firm: I already had the plane tickets and couldn’t afford to change them. After half an hour, he sighed slightly and said, “Well, I was hoping not to tell you until the banquet Friday night. I would like you to stay because you have won this year’s Sturgeon Award.”
I stayed. It’s a good thing that I heard about it ahead of time in any case. I had very low blood pressure, and if they had surprised me, I would have leapt up and in all likelihood fallen over in a dead faint.
AW: You write, teach and have been in various editing positions. How does each of those jobs compliment one another and what do you enjoy most about each?
KJ: At their best: Writing is being clever in front of a page. Teaching is being clever in front of people. Editing is helping other people look clever. I teeter between extrovert and introvert, and teaching and writing teeter there with me. If I can’t teach, I find it harder to write.
AW: What was the most serendipitous thing that's happened to you in your writing career?
KJ: At Clarion West in 1987, I struck up a friendship with one of the other students, Gordon Van Gelder, at that point a mere undergraduate student. I called Gordon when I moved to New York City a few years later and asked if he knew of any jobs in publishing. He was at St. Martin’s Press by then: yes, there was a position as assistant managing editor at Tor Books. A month later, after a series of unlikely events, I was managing editor for one of the major science-fiction houses. I had already sold a fair number of short stories, so I presume I would have had a writing career anyway, but Tor led to my jobs at Dark Horse Comics and Wizards of the Coast/TSR, and my work on the Microsoft Reader. It also led to my meeting James Gunn, which led to my teaching and many other wonderful things in my life.
Hanging out with a soon-to-be-important editor when he’s just a fellow student at your Clarion West is not a universally applicable strategy.
AW: How does your writing career differ from what you imagined it to be ten years ago?
KJ: That would be 2000. The Fox Woman had just come out, and it had just won the IAFA’s Crawford Award for best first fantasy novel. I was in transition from full-time jobs that I loved (and which therefore took all my time) to taking some time off to write. I thought then that writing full-time was worth exploring, and in the long run I suppose it was, since that’s how I finished Fudoki.
I didn’t have a strategic plan, except to write more short stories, and to finish three books set in Heian Japan (or thereabouts). Like everyone, I wanted to be critically acclaimed and win awards and get rich, but that’s not exactly a plan, to my mind.
At that point, I had no idea that teaching would become as important to me as it is. I had taught a couple of writing classes at Louisiana State University in 1994-1995, but the novel workshop, my teaching at KU, and grad school were all unimagined then.
AW: Do deadlines energize you or fill you with dread?
KJ: Deadlines are a spur if they’re attainable, but so much depends on my state at the moment. If I have energy, I love them because they keep me writing instead of doing all the other cool things that having energy permits.
AW: What are you working on now?
KJ: I am now in grad school, so I am working on all sorts of very quirky things. At the moment? A blank-verse Canterbury Tale, more or less in a medieval voice. This is kicking my butt and it will never, ever sell, but I can’t stop working on it. I’ll have to put it up on my webpage, next to the equally pointless but fun-to-write Tristram Shandy story I did a few years ago. Some day I will have an entire collection of pointless period pieces.
More generally, a novel and a couple of short stories.
vote it up!