infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

KJ Bishop

interviewed by Forrest Aguirre

KJ Bishop's first novel, The Etched City (Prime Books) has received high praise The Etched City (Tor UK)from all corners of the speculative fields. The seemingly sudden arrival of this novel, with its unique mixture of wild west attitude, surreal motifs, and decadent splendor, sent a shockwave through the small press and, subsequently, garnered the attention of Bantam Spectra US and Tor UK, who have also published the work in subsequent editions. Bishop's work has been praised by James Sallis, who stated that her work "cries out for a new nomenclature", and Michael Moorcock, who claimed that portions of Bishop's first novel were "among the most mystifying and astonishing I have found in a fantasy." High praise from two of speculative fiction's most respected figures.

I interviewed her via email in the Spring of 2004.

FA: You've burst on the scene with The Etched City, and rightfully so. But how long now have you been writing? You've had a couple of short pieces published before your novel came out -- how would you describe your early work?

KJB: I guess I have to describe The Etched City (Prime)my early work as minimal--though not minimalist. I had only written three stories before I started on the novel--with no idea of what I was getting into! All three were quite similar, with urban settings, a somewhat decadent flavour, troubled people doing strange things, and art as a theme in the story. Then I just kept going along those lines in The Etched City.

FA: Why did you start writing in the first place?

KJB: For various reasons, I had stopped doing other things. I was working at a fairly dull job. The writing came as a reaction to that boredom and to the feeling of having taken a wrong turn somewhere. The inner world that I'd pretty much abandoned somewhere in my teens reasserted itself and said, "Look! The door's still open!"

FA: Cledonomancy--divination by interpreting chance events or remarks--shows up in both your novel The Etched City and in your story "We the Enclosed" (to appear in Leviathan 4). It figures prominently in the latter, driving the plot to a great extent. Are you a believer or a practitioner of cledonomancy? Or neither?

KJB: Both, though generally only a practitioner when it comes to my writing. With real-world things--relationships, business--I prefer to rely on my conscious mind, but I'm always alert for signals that might connect with what I'm writing about. I believe our subconscious can pick up on certain things that register in the conscious mind as signs. I pay attention to coincidences. When my subconscious doesn't seem very active, I get worried about my writing. I actually need to have those little moments of synchronicity; they're like reassurances that I'm on the right track.

FA: One of the subtexts in "We the Enclosed" is the labyrinthine nature of the city. Do these underpinings arise from personal observations and if so, what is to be learned from the connection between labyrinths and urban environments? Are you giving a nod to Borges, or is that just wishful thinking on my part?

KJB: It was more about personal observation--though how we observe things is influenced by what we read, so my reading of Borges may have influenced the way I look at cities. When I wrote the story I'd recently been to Cairo, where I'd done the tourist thing of getting happily lost in the bazaar at night, so the idea of the city as a labyrinth was on my mind.

For me, the lesson is in the differences between the labyrinth and the city. In the archetypal labyrinth, be it an actual one or the narrative labyrinth of a quest story, there's generally one way in and one way out; the goal is defined, and the seeker is equipped to find it--or becomes equipped during the quest. In cities one can have the feeling of being in a labyrinth with infinite apertures, where goals are numerous and mirage-like. After one success comes the next challenge, or some crisis that throws everything into a spin. This is the disorganised and frustrating nature of real life. Thinking about that, I wonder whether the typical quest myth is at all a helpful one. It encourages us to be goal-oriented rather than process-oriented, and in so doing I suspect it keeps a lot of therapists in business. The city may function as a concretisation of the impossible labyrinth of real life, and observation of it may encourage a reappraisal of certain cultural myths. I think a lot of urban fantasy writing does just that.

There's also the spiritual labyrinth, the path of self-transformation, which has as its goal transcendence or enlightenment. (Possibly the material quest story is a metaphor for the metaphysical one, and some of the later ones clearly are, but I'm inclined to believe that stories of hunting and seeking for material gain came first.) Humankind is always looking for ways to reach the transcendent, and I think the commodity has now come to be the principal means through which we make the attempt. Art has for the most part given up the struggle. It has stopped making grand claims for itself, but the commodity has no such modesty. Advertisers succeed very well in convincing us that this brand of cola or that brand of training shoe has the power to transform our being. And with the importance of the commodity, shopping becomes the modern version of the quest. And, you know what, I don't think it's entirely in vain. There may be no magic swords or holy grails in our department stores, but we do endow objects with the power to transform our state of mind. We've entered into a remarkable relationship with the goods we consume (as opposed to the goods we produce, since almost all production is now depersonalised). In a certain sense we've come full circle, to a state where manufactured objects are now as magical to us, as imbued with significance and presence, as the parts of the natural world were to our ancestors. I should add that I'm not advocating materialism or the pursuit of status through conspicuous consumption. I'm just interested in the relationships between people and things, particularly the relationship between self-image and the image of the object.

FA: "We the Enclosed" seems like a bit of a sea-change for you both stylistically and in terms of content. The story has strong echoes of Italo Calvino, rather than a sense of Huysman's decadence, as in The Etched City. Is this an intentional change, a reinvention, or simply a part of a continuum of progression as a writer?

KJB: I think it was mostly that the style just came with the story. It wasn't intentional. I think decadence is something I can do, but don't always want to do; I really have to be in the mood. There's also the fact that I tend to be heavily influenced, stylewise, by what I'm reading at the time, to the point where there are certain writers who I can't read while I'm working or I end up doing a pastiche of them. I'm like the white clothes in the washing machine. I hadn't read any decadent writing for a while, so my own writing wasn't picking up that particular dye. In terms of content, I can see connections. Both the story and the novel address the idea of trying to escape from entrapment and search for something that seems worthwhile to the searcher. But that aside, yes, "We the Enclosed" is quite different. I seem more inclined to experiment with shorter fiction. I would like to write a more experimental novel one day, but I want to get a better grip on certain technical aspects of novels before I try to write a really odd one.

FA: The Etched City, despite its many turns and surreal moments, seems almost tame in comparison with the experimentalism of "We the Enclosed". Tell me about the act of composing each. Was either one calculated or were both a self-contained excercise in cledonomancy? How did the idea for each one start and how did their evolutions differ?

KJB: The Etched City began with the antihero character of Gwynn, who was in two of the three stories I'd written and was a The Etched City (Spectra)strong character in my mind. The writing was quite uncalculated. I had a sense of invisible people telling me a story, and I just tried to listen and not get too many things wrong. That gave me the basic thing, then I did a lot of rewriting...

"We the Enclosed" began with an image of an ape in a red room, the "Ape of Reason," who came out of a fragment of something else I'd been writing. Then, I think, I happened to see a Piranesi etching, one of the "Carceri d'Invenzione" series. That was when I knew the story would be about this sort of motion around an urban environment that was like a puzzle or an elaborate trap. I think it's the first piece I've written that is more about the situation and the ideas than the characters. Since I had the theme of cities to think of, and a deadline, it was quite a calculated piece for me to write. And I had to write it fairly quickly, because I'd used up most of my time with writing another story that I ended up not being able to knock into shape.

FA: We first met in person in Washington DC at the World Fantasy Convention. You had mentioned, at that time, that during your primary schooling in Australia, an emphasis was placed on speaking with the "proper" (ie British English) accent and emulating "proper" behavior. I'm curious, in what ways does your knowledge of these subtle cultural divergences inform the way you view your own characters? Is there an "Australian-ness" or a "British-ness" or even an "American-ness" that you can clearly see in certain of your own characters, or does your experience with cultural tendencies affect them at all?

KJB: I'm conscious of a character's casualness or formality. Like real people, some characters go predominantly one way or the other, while other characters move between modes. I can imagine that those modes could come across as flavours of culture or nationality to a reader. They do to me too, sometimes, but it's a sense that can change from scene to scene. I might feel that a character is being quite British in one scene, then in another scene they'll speak in a way that seems French. This is where the white-clothes-in-the-laundry thing comes in again, too; books and films I've been taking in will often colour the lens through which I view my characters day by day. One thing that seems quite consistent is that my characters are usually travellers or migrants, and I'm sure that comes from my belonging to a migrant culture.

FA: You are a fan of the poet/essayist William Sharp (aka Fiona Macleod), a naturalist with a particularly haunting poetic voice. What other poets influence your work? Are there any contemporary or "classic" poets whose work you particularly enjoy?

KJB: I tend to like narrative poems. Milton's "Paradise Lost" is one of my all-time big influences. Robert Nye's "Merlin," Evan S. Connell's "Notes from a Bottle found on the Beach at Carmel," and Edward Dorn's "Gunslinger" are others I like very much. At the other end of the scale of length, I enjoy haiku and senryu.

Sharp/Macleod is a treasure, not only for his gorgeous writing but for the Gaelic lore he gathered and preserved. He recorded myths and folktales that I've never seen anywhere else.

FA: What kind of non-fiction books do you read?

KJB: It varies. A lot of mythology and mysticism, philosophy, a bit of science, travel writing, and not nearly enough history. I've promised myself that over the next couple of years I'm going to read a lot more history and biography.

FA: Are there particular mythologies to which you find yourself drawn? Does a particular philosopher "speak" to you?

KJB: I go through fads with mythologies. The Wild West is probably my favourite mythos -- followed by the British/Celtic/Gaelic. As for philosophers, William Blake drops by and speaks to me quite often ...

FA: Outside of reading, writing, and hanging out at the mall to observe people, how do you enjoy spending your time? Where does your inspiration come from?

KJB: I like to do some kind of physical activity, something that gets mind and body working together. At the moment it's yoga. And I go through stages where I paint and draw. I paint little masked Venetians; it's almost a kind of therapy, because they're quite simple, and I don't have to think too much about what they're going to look like. To really relax and switch off, I watch TV. My favourite shows lately have been "Lexx", "Firefly," and "Iron Chef."

I also like to travel, and that's where I get a lot of inspiration. Other times the inspiration comes from my past, or it can come from a mysterious goodness-knows-where.

FA: Please tell me about your upcoming projects.

KJB: There are two. One's an embryo, and one's an extremely difficult infant--so difficult, in fact, that I may wrap it up in newspaper and leave it at an orphanage!

FA: Some people might remark that they don't "get" your story "We the Enclosed". What would you say to them? What should a reader be looking for while reading the tale? Did you have a particular goal in mind while writing?

KJB: I commiserate with readers who don't "get" the story. When I write I'm often trying to grasp something that I myself only half understand, and the writing becomes a record of the search. I can't say what a reader should be looking for; either the story will work for readers or it won't--though my rambling reply to your question about labyrinths probably says a fair bit about the story. The idea of "looking for" something in a work of fantasy is perhaps odd, because what should your expectations be? You're going into the subconscious, where anything can happen. I did have a goal while writing. I was hoping that the seeker in the story would win, that there would be a happy ending. But I wasn't going to interfere to make that happen. I wanted to see what would occur if I let the story run its own course. (So, referring to your question about how calculated the story was, the ending wasn't calculated at all.) The fact that the ending turned out to be at best ambiguous got me thinking about the issue of being goal-oriented or process-oriented.

FA: How do you handle all the attention that The Etched City is getting? Has it changed your feelings about the work at all?

KJB: On the one hand it's very flattering and amazing. I mean, you never know what other people will think of your work, and I certainly wasn't imagining such a warm reception as I've been lucky enough to have. The attention has made me feel, if anything, more self-critical; we've re-edited the book for the Bantam Spectra US release, and I was glad to have the opportunity to do that. The main change for me has been that I've decided to write full-time. I'll give it a few years and see how it goes. I feel like a kid again; there's this sense of there being an enormous amount to learn and discover, which is both daunting and exciting.

FA: Thank you for letting us share a bit of that discovery with you!

© Forrest Aguirre 2004.

The Etched City by KJ Bishop (Prime) The Etched City by KJ Bishop (Tor UK)The Etched City by KJ Bishop (Spectra)

The Etched City is published by:
Prime Books (February 2003; ISBN: 189481522X)
Tor UK (January 2004; ISBN: 1405041609)
Spectra Books (November 2004; ISBN: 0553382918)

Order online using these links and infinity plus will benefit:
...The Etched City (Prime Books) from or
...The Etched City (Tor UK) from or
...The Etched City (Spectra Books) from or

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)