An Interview with
Pacific Northwest-based novelist Kay Kenyon
has published six books, beginning with The Seeds of Time and
continuing with Leap Point, Rift, Tropic of Creation,
Maximum Ice (a 2003 nominee for the Philip K. Dick Award), and
The Braided World (a finalist for the 2004 Campbell Award). Her
elegant, unsparing, high-energy works have won her a devoted audience.
Here she talks about her approach, the four-book
series she's developing, and the things she considers most important
Karen Fishler: You've
published half a dozen novels and seem to be hitting your stride, what
with the Philip K. Dick nomination for Maximum Ice and Campbell
Award finalist status for The Braided World. You're working now
on a larger canvas, with your upcoming quartet The Entire and the
Rose. Yet even your first novels, Leap Point and
The Seeds of Time, were complex and had enormous energy, something
critics took note of. When a writer starts out as well as you did, what
do you think distinguishes his or her later work?
Kay Kenyon: Novels are the devil to
write. Things go wrong, sometimes things only the author knows about.
Often this is simply the failure to achieve the vision you had in the
beginning. The audience may love the story, but the author is aware
that it wasn't all she'd hoped. So in later work you are still trying
to get it right. You are always learning to write the novel from scratch,
without guideposts, or so it seems to me. One challenge is, how writers
of speculative fiction can keep the intense plotting expected in our
genre while preserving the messiness of character? There is tension
between ambivalent, uncertain humanity and the protagonist who takes
the action needed to solve the problem. Plot demands a tidy ordering
of the universe. Character demands competing desires, confusion, and
sometimes failure. Even fine novels sacrifice one or the other. Look
at Dune. Are you as interested in the hero at the end of the
book as at the beginning? Nah, by the end he's too much in service of
his destiny (the plot).
My later work, like Maximum Ice and The Braided World,
are more nuanced books than, say, my first book, The Seeds of Time.
The main characters don't achieve everything they hoped for. They give
things up and reconcile to it, especially in The Braided World.
However, it's interesting to note that Seeds has outsold my other
KF: Your books tend
to focus on a planet with a huge problem, a troubled main character,
and a large cast of difficult people. Mayhem and massive complications
ensue. How do you decide when a problem is at the right scale for you
to work with it?
KK: I want my plots to reverberate through
the culture. Physical mayhem is needed so that there are tangible problems
to overcome, thus feeding the appetite of plot. But cultural issues
add a more profound sense of scale. What are people afraid of learning?
What institutions or belief systems are in jeopardy? For example, in
The Braided World, we encounter a society where incest is practiced
on well-intentioned grounds. Do human values require us to condemn their
society? What cherished notions do we have to set aside to survive?
I like cultural problems because with physical problems, what's at stake
is death, and death isn't very significant, at least fictionally. Even
when we read about it in the newspaper, it never much matters. But belief
systems and cultural prejudices -- put those at stake and a story heats
up. Other than that, I just try for a story with the highest level of
stakes that I can justify in a character-based plot.
KF: Much of your work
focuses on the consequences of environmental degradation on Earth. You
don't seem optimistic. Is that true, and if so, what experiences have
shaped that attitude?
KK: Plotting science fiction stories
requires writers to embrace pessimism. Plot centers around bad things
happening. Unless you're writing basic space opera where the problem
lies outside your world or your species -- and your job is to clean
up others -- then you have to posit that technology or civilization
has caused a problem. That would be us. We caused this (insert story
problem) to happen, or were so clueless we let it happen. This may look
pessimistic, but since my story endings are upbeat, you could say I'm
an optimistic storyteller. The truly pessimistic stories are the ones
where the viewpoint character fails physically or morally. An example
is Morgan's Market Forces. A fine story, but so dark.
KF: One of the things
that characterizes your novels is that they're written in clear, dramatic
scenes filled with conflict. There's also lots of physical action. Your
style is rich and at a high level, but it's obvious that story is your
main interest. How did you develop this approach?
KK: Since I have a penchant for the internal
story, I balance the depth of the story with pacing and plot. A writer
like myself has to be careful not to go too far in one direction. Science
fiction contains such weird and remarkable places, it's a shame not
to engage them fully with plot. I should probably mention, too, that
I had an early teacher, Robert Ray, who wrote The Weekend Novelist.
He had a big influence on my approach to novel writing that featured
working in scenes. I was drawn to his approach initially because I was,
literally, writing on the weekends.
KF: Your books come
across as the products of intense focus -- there is no point at which
the plot is absent or in the background. The novels seem to have the
power of complete commitment. Is your work on plot a product of inspiration,
perspiration, or both?
KK: I hate to admit that I plan extensively.
It's like admitting that you plan what to say at parties. It seems so
methodical and inartistic, but I spend several months working out story
arcs, sub plots, character growth, and reversals. It's all in a big
notebook where I try out plot progressions and work on cultural and
scientific details. As for the plot staying forward -- I'd like to think
so. As I said earlier, it's tough to pull off a clear and forward plot
and also deliver a detailed world with memorable characters.
KF: You've published
more short stories in the last two or three years than ever before.
Did you start out feeling that novels were your natural vehicle? And
has something changed?
KK: No, I still would rather write novels.
just that as your career becomes more visible, you get more invitations
to contribute to anthologies. Mike Resnick introduced me to short story
writing by inviting me (several times) to contribute to his anthologies.
Also, his short stories convinced me that shorter fiction could convey
an emotional dimension, that they weren't just plot and concept. I've
been trying for that ever since. But it's easier in novels.
KF: What has helped
you the most as a writer?
KK: Having someone else pay the mortgage.
KF: And who influenced
you the most? Do you feel you are still being influenced even at this
point in your development?
KK: I began with a high admiration for
C.J. Cherryh's work, and Ursula Le Guin's. That is, writers who build
the internal story along with the external one. I find it harder to
point to current influences. I have found myself in the province of
character-based planetary adventures. It's not the usual sf fare, which
tends to do one or the other, if I can oversimplify for a moment. I
have a loyal fan base, but a particular one.
KF: You moved away
from Seattle several years ago. Has living in a small town been good
for you as an artist? What do you think is good for writers generally?
KK: Moving to a smaller community was
stressful. I found that three hours' drive was a barrier to seeing old
friends often, and that worked both ways, for them and me. Initially,
the solitary needs of writing combined with the move resulted in a rather
pronounced isolation. In the maddening world of book publishing, you
need other people and the real world to put things in perspective. (Maybe
self-evident to non-writers!) Eventually I reached out to others in
the community in ways I managed to avoid in the big city. These days
I have a much wider circle of friends and acquaintances than I used
to. It helps with the natural isolation of writing.
As to what I think is good for writers generally, I would say detachment.
It's a fine thing to remain aloof from the egotism of the work. Awards
and sales numbers and reviews are all cause for a bit of turmoil; in
the end, they are an immense distraction from creative work. In fact,
they can kill creative work. Worry kills it. Pessimism kills it. Belief
in the glory of awards dampens it. For that matter, belief in the supreme
value of writing isn't helpful. It's a fine profession, and a worthy
enterprise. It won't save you, and it is not better than teaching grade
school or running a shrimp boat.
KF: Because you started
your career at an accomplished level, it's natural to wonder how you
developed the ability to write a novel in the first place, and why it
was important to you to do it. What in your life led to this series
KK: I have no idea about this one. I
was always good at writing, writing anything: paragraphs, term papers,
essays, letters. I was an early and voracious reader. When I began to
write novels, they weren't much of a mystery to me. I recognized the
landscape of long stories and it attracted me. Maybe a bit of self-absorption
helps create writers. You are exploring yourself, especially in fiction
-- or where else are you getting all this stuff? Developing the intention
to write is another thing. I came to writing after experimenting with
many careers and feeling dissatisfied with them all. My personality
profiles are extremely lopsided. In a way, a writing career was a last
resort. A muddled start, I guess. Unlike all those writers who claim
"they wanted to write since they were five."
KF: You're preoccupied
right now with finishing The Rose and the Entire, of course.
What do you see beyond that?
KK: The downside of being focused is
the inability to see very far. I really have no idea what's next. I
tend to inhabit my books for the time I'm writing them. I'm impressed
by writers who can work on several projects at once. For myself, I'm
afraid my fictional world will fade if I let it drift off stage for
awhile. Since I don't know (no writers do) where stories come from,
there is no guarantee they'll stick around. This engenders just enough
paranoia to keep me focused until the story is done. But in general,
there are many things I'd like to write. Screenplays, literary fiction,
fantasy perhaps. But I'm by no means done with science fiction.
Karen D Fishler made her short-fiction debut with
"Miko," in the British quarterly The Third Alternative, which
subsequently published her story "Mission Memory." Since then her
short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, the webzine
The Infinite Matrix,
and Interzone. Her most recent story is "Stones in Winter"
(Realms of Fantasy, June 2005). She is a Clarion West graduate
and currently chairs the organization's board of directors.
© Karen D Fishler 2005.
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