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An Interview with
The Braided World by Kay KenyonKay Kenyon

by Karen D Fishler

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 in writing.

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 Maximum Ice by Kay Kenyonand 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 books.

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. Tropic of Creation by Kay KenyonIt's 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 of accomplishments?

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.

Bright of the Sky by  Kay Kenyon The Braided World by  Kay Kenyon
Maximum Ice by  Kay KenyonTropic of Creation by  Kay Kenyon
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