KJ Bishop's first novel, The Etched City
(Prime Books) has received high praise 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
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 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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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 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 Amazon.com
...The Etched City (Tor UK) from Amazon.com
...The Etched City (Spectra Books) from Amazon.com
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