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Kit Reed

interviewed by Gwyneth Jones

INTRODUCTION

The prolific and distinguished US writer Kit Reed was born in San Diego CA, took a BA at Notre Dame, Baltimore, and started Kit Reedher career as a reporter with the St Petersburg (Florida) Times. Her first novel (Mother Isn't Dead She's Only Sleeping) came out in 1961. Since then she's published over twenty novels, both mainstream and in various genres, (sometimes under the pseudonyms Kit Craig and Shelley Hyde), including juveniles; plus several highly regarded collections of short stories (notably, for sf & f readers Weird Women, Wired Women and the recent Seven For The Apocalypse). Her short stories have appeared in The Yale Review, Transatlantic Review, Cosmopolitan, The Journal, Missouri Review, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Redbook, Tampa Review, Texas Review, Voice Literary Supplement, Omni, and in Nova, Argosy, Town and She. Several dozen of her stories have been anthologized in the US, Paris, Milan, Tokyo and the UK, including Winter's Tales (London: Macmillan) and the 1987 edition of the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction.

Among many awards she's been New England Newspaperwoman of the year (twice), she won the Best Catholic Short story of the year in 1967, and was honoured on the 1998 Tiptree Award short list both for the collection Weird Women, Wired Women, and for the story "Bride of Bigfoot". One of the Tiptree judges of that year (Candace Jane Dorsey) said: "I found this book almost unbearable to read, not because it was bad but quite the opposite, rather because it was such a relentless indictment of a certain era of social prejudices that reading one story after another in chronological order was like watching a torture session, hearing scream after scream ... " She has won a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship, and a five year literary grant from the Abraham Woursell Foundation (first US recipient). In 1990 she was the American Co-ordinator for an Indo-US Writing Exchange, sponsored by the Indo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture - an experience of which she says "never again"!

Allergic to meetings, full of enthusiasm, and a long-time member of the best online communities: Vanity Fair calls her work "Eerily comic", The New York Times Book Review says she's a "visionary", and Brian Aldiss says her pen is tipped with curare -- but Kit Reed's laconic style has to be experienced to be appreciated. In her speculative fiction (the term sf really doesn't apply) she's maybe best characterised as an ambiguous chronicler of the psychology of US womanhood: social roles come under the microscope, and rocketships will not be found. Currently she teaches Creative Writing at Wesleyan University. For further information see: Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the East, Who's Who in Entertainment, Dictionary of Biography, International Who's Who of Authors and Writers, Dictionary of Literary Biography (forthcoming volume on American Short story writers) and visit her home page www.kitreed.net


THE INTERVIEW

I'd like to start by asking about your background, and I mean literally. Where were you brought up? You often seem to write about being on the road, on that endless indentical strip-mall highway of the modern US. Is there a childhood landscape you regret?

Um, San Diego, Honolulu, New London CT, Honolulu, New London, Washington DC, New London, Panama, New London, St Petersburg, FL, Beaufort, SC, Washington, DC, St Petersburg, FL, where I started at the St Petersburg Times when I finished college. My father was a Naval officer, which accounts for all the moves. Actually I don't miss a thing about past landscapes, although I strip mine them. America's both beautiful and ugly; American schlock is essential to the landscape and I love the look of it.

How did you get into writing?

Some writers were born, I guess I was one of them-- I dictated my first 'novel' to my mother when I was five and corrected firmly when she stuck in one of my off-the-cuff comments, which I found out when she read it back to me -- like, you think this belongs in the story?

When you were a child did you tell stories, or make up imaginary scenarios?

I told myself bedtime stories until I was ten or so -- most of it was a sort of running miniseries about two pairs of kids -- nine and twelve, I think, who lived on a ranch and had their own horses.

You write over a spread of genres: thrillers (as Kit Craig), speculative fiction, topical issues, and pseudonymous horror (as Shelley Hyde). How did that come about?

I'm easily bored. But I should point out that I've published more mainstream novels than genre novels -- eight, I think, as well as a collection with The University of Missouri Press-- and that the grants I've gotten I've gotten as a mainstream writer.

Is there a core area, something that's always important to you?

Brian Aldiss said I was a "psychological novelist," if that helps ... As in, my central concern is why and how we are the way we are.

A secret attraction of thriller-reading (it works for me, anyway) is the intriguing technical know-how the writer often imparts, (in Kit Craig's Short Fuse, which starts with that great line about chopping a building off at the knees, we get to find out how to make Short Fuse by Kit Reeda big building go down without wrecking the surrounding neighbourhood, eg). Are you drawn to research by a plot, or do you think to yourself, that's a great topic, I'll research it and a plot will come to me?

Neither, really. I'm drawn to research by the story I'm telling, otherwise I'd never check anything out. In fact, I prefer work that's imagined or remembered. I get an idea of who a thing's about and what's going to be in it and then let the characters discover the story.

Many people have commented on the part fear plays in all your work. How do you feel about that?

I'm cool with it. The best of us are paranoid in the extreme. Most writers invent out of a kind of protective paranoia -- worst case scenarios. If X happens, I can always do Y. You can imagine a dozen horrible outcomes just waiting for the person you love who went into the store to come out of the store

And by a natural association ... How did you get into Creative Writing teaching?

I prefer to think of it as working with writers who want to write fiction. Creative Writing is a phrase that makes me want to throw up. As if writing is like playschool finger painting or sandbox stuff. Creative is, I think, a loose and loathsome word for what is, essentially, a demanding obsession. Or an exacting discipline. How did I get into teaching? Most writers, unless they're earning in six figures, need day jobs. Somebody at Wesleyan asked, and I said, sure.

How do you find it combines with being a working writer?

I'm forced to examine how I do what I do, which isn't such a bad thing. And like the kids here, I learn a lot from other people's mistakes and helping them discover how to fix them.

I can imagine pitfalls ...

That would be the time commitment, and that teaching takes the same kind of energy. I only do the one fiction workshop a year. And I've had successes. Lemony Snicket, for one, and for another Suzanne Berne, who won your Orange Award for women's fiction; among others, Stephen Alter, Peter Blauner, Kurt Pitzer, Matthew Tyrnauer, you can google any of them...

As an online teacher, and an online writer yourself, what effect, if any, do you think writing in the online world has had on your style, or on your students' style?

Absolutely none. When I'm online I'm in conversation, and conversation is nothing like fiction. My writers compose offline, the work's duplicated and put into their snailmail boxes so they are holding hard copy when we discuss it. I don't want them to confuse MOOing with writing fiction. I don't think much of hypertext. If I write a story I design it so that the only possible ending is the one I've designed. The story makes it inevitable. I expect people who work with me to do the same.

You teach, and you write books, and I would bet you have an administrative role associated with the teaching?

Nope. I don't do meetings. I don't do things that involve meetings. I once ran a writers' workshop in New Delhi with four American writers, two of whom went into deep, obnoxious culture shock, and I vowed NEVER to run anything again.

Anything else?

I do a fair amount of book reviewing -- mainstream fiction only.

If you had to give something up -- or if you had the chance to give something up -- which would it be?

The day job, naturally. Teaching fiction writing would be the day job.

Well, that's what I thought but I was prepared to be surprised. I'm in awe of teachers, I think it's a very honourable profession. But although you can't give up the day job, you have been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which is pretty prestigious. Can you tell us something about that?

The Guggenheim pays you some portion of a year's pay to free your time, I don't know what they're at now, the amounts, I mean, although Stephen Alter just had one and could probably tell you. You apply, having collected people willing to referee you, and it goes through a first screening and then to a committee, if your application makes it that far. Much sought after by American writers -- even more for the cachet than the money.

Your most recent novel (before we get to the new one) @expectations is about a woman who discovers a virtual world, and falls in love with a man she's never seen but talks to every day.@expectations by Kit Reed I believe you're a veteran of the MUDs and MOOs scene, could you tell us something about them?

A MOO is a complex virtual community in which there are text-based spaces, there's a community history, everybody has a (pseudonymous) identity and there's a communal ethos that has nothing to do with chat rooms. Imagine you could walk into the pages of a novel and talk to everybody there. Imagine they're connecting from all over the world and you're all in the same place through a miracle of spontaneity. The granddaddy of them all is LambdaMOO (5000 people from all over the world, close to 200 connected at all times, it's an enormous virtual mansion where I've made several close friends, of whom some have moved out of the box and into real life). It's the prototype for StoryMOO, where I run my fiction workshop for Wesleyan University.

But what happens in these text-based worlds? This would be something completely different from an internet chatroom?

Yes. A MOO is a community with a history, in which characters have a history, and are held accountable for their acts. LambdaMOO includes several denizens who've been around from the beginning, in the early '90s. I can't tell you what goes on in chatrooms because I've never been in one. 

Or a singles bar for online sex?

Oh, on Lambda there's that too; the community includes geeks and politicos and socials like me ... then there are the sex trollers, and in some cases, the roles overlap. In virtual space it's very easy to sort out the solid citizens from the sex trollers -- with them, the best weapon is laughter. Sex online? A contradiction in terms, I think. Some manage sexual fantasy, I suppose, because people are always prettier if you can't see them. Those players are just a little weird -- describing themselves as running around in diaphonous robes or all black or heavy leather. I always imagine a 300 pound guy in a torn Metallica T-shirt, typing. There is indeed romance on a MOO, as @expectations demonstrates, and that's quite another thing. Women I know there do fantasize because as a MOOfriend pointed out in quite another context, "everybody is beautiful here." One of the things that fascinated me was the fact that people could fall in love online sight unseen, and that when you can't see the OTHER, romanticism goes a little crazy.

Have you ever fallen for anyone?

No. Life's too short and I am terminally pair bonded with a real person (www.josephreed.net). I have, however, fallen into like. When all you know about people is what they have to say, you get to know them pretty well, and over time you know whether you'd want them in your living room. My radar is extremely good. I find smart, funny people who are good to talk to and I've brought home a few. I made at least three offline friends-for-life on LambdaMOO. They've become friends RL -- and interestingly, Joe likes them just as much as I do.

Do you think the text-based online culture will survive? Or will it be wiped out by more futuristic developments?

My guess is, it will always be there, although the population may be shrinking. CGI games are out there and there are CGI societies but the societies are very limited by clearly unreal avatars and in some cases, talk balloons. You can't have a serious conversation with somebody who's chosen to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Pamela Lee Anderson.

Surprisingly (for Kit Reed) what actually happens in this novel isn't terrifying. We hear so much about the dangers of internet-dating. What made you choose not to write @expectations as a thriller?

I guess who characters are dictates not only what I have to say, but the way I say it. Also since I hew to life, pretty much, life and character, it would have been unrealistic.

Jenny has an unsatisfactory marriage, she falls in love with someone who seems wonderful as long as they're in the shared fantasy world ... but he's a big disappointment when she needs real support. In ways, it could be a novel about a romance by correspondence, set a hundred years ago. What's different?

Probably the speed at which these romances blossom. No stamps, no envelopes, the conversation is essentially immediate, like you and me talking except we can't see each other.

Moving back a little, your speculative fiction, especially your short fiction in the Weird Women, Wired Women by Kit Reedcollections Weird Women, Wired Women, and Seven For The Apocalypse, has been described as feminist, but I think you prefer the term "womanist". Could you explain what that means?

Yeah it means not the soapbox, tub-thumping political aspect, which doesn't interest me. That I write about women, but from the psychological dimension, not the political one.

Is there anything that would get you thumping your tub for women's rights?

I don't hit the barricades, a novelist's business is to be a novelist; we reflect the times, it takes more than 24/7 barricade-mounting to change them, so it's probably an either/or situation. In the States you have to consider what Bush is doing on all gender-related issues and go out and vote against him, but then you go home and work. I 'm not about to start pamphleteering in an editorial way or editorializing in fiction.

One of the first of your stories "about women" was the "The Wait", in which a young girl and her mother are on a journey together. Everything starts off normal, but by the end the girl is trapped in a very strange small town where they don't "do" doctors, and young girls are left out in a field at night, to have their virginity taken, anonymously, by one or other of their male neighbours. It's very atmospheric, with a dreamlike inevitability. It's also very easy to read as a story about "fear of turning into my mother, fear of suffering the same fate as my mother". Do you agree? How do you feel about that reading? And was that what was in your mind at the time?

A friend of mine who managed to off himself on his second try wrote from the institution, "You're very brave to write about your mother like that." At the time, I was astounded. Does he really think that's what I was doing? I make it all up as I go along, or I think I do, and that particular story came about because, at tremendous speeds, I fused two incidents in Herodotus.

Then in your recent collection Seven For The Apocalypse, there's "Voyager", about the disintegration of a beloved elderly woman, introduced by an account of the relationship between your writing and your own, long-drawn out loss of your mother to senility. I immediately thought of "The Wait", and it seemed that these two bleak stories faced each other, commenting on each other, and saying how personal your speculative fiction is. How important is autobiography in writing? 

For any writer who's any good, it's central. For any writer who's any good, so is the ability to TRANSFORM it.

Is "Voyager" a demonstration of that process?

Probably. One of the nurses in the place where my mother ended up told me about the time the whole point had been flooded by a hurricane and they'd had to evacuate all the oldsters to a downtown church. My mind took it from there. I made up the couple and their family life, naturally lifted details from what I saw, which was a lot of old people shuffling into oblivion.

And what about the nuns? Catholic Nuns all over the place, not just riding motorcycles, and always treated with respect. Is this something from life too?

I went to parochial schools, a Catholic college. I know them up close and personal, most of them highly intelligent professional women. They are also the first feminists, or the academics are. A friend had a Radcliffe prof who told her she'd have to choose between career and family. The nuns let me believe the sky was the limit because they were freed from any of those concerns.

Coming to your new book, Thinner Than Thou. What inspired you write what's been billed as "A Satire On The Obese Society"?Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed

Actually, I need to point out that Thinner Than Thou is about body image as the new religion in the States, at least. There's a thread about Annie, the anorectic girl and one about Marg, who's facing her first facelift and another about Gloria and the other oldsters who look unsightly to body-conscious Americans who don't want to see ugly people walking around. Now, about the fat part. I had a brief fat period as a kid, i.e. weighed 20 pounds more than I do now; once you get past it you think about it every day; if you don't, it sneaks back up on you and pounces. WHAM. So there's that, and I'd already written "The Food Farm." Then after 9/11 Jack Womack and I were commiserating by e- like, oy, after this we could never write again etc. Six weeks of that and I emerged with a story called The Last Big Sin, in which the last big sin isn't overeating, it's getting fat. Ergo, voila. I was headed into the novel.

In your book the fatties rise up to fight a "Thinner than Thou" evangelist. What do you think's going to happen in the real world of food addiction?

An alcoholic can quit cold turkey, while compulsive eaters have to face food daily or die. It's a problem.

Do you see the fast food corporations ending up in the dock, like the tobacco companies?

In the states, there are already lawsuits filed against McDonald's and some of the other companies by people who blame them for their own body mass.

And do you think that would be justified?

Frankly, I think girth is directly linked to whether you choose to exercise and exactly what and how much you decide to put into your mouth.

Although in @expectations the online romance doesn't have any fantasy elements (at least, I didn't spot any), and Thinner Than Thou is nominally set in the future, these stories both seem entirely topical, social comment rather than speculation. The twenty-first century is a futuristic place. Do you think this kind of "sf" is now indistinguishable from non-genre fiction?

Frankly, I'm not convinced that Thinner is genre fiction, and I do know that Tor is cross-promoting it. @expectations was marketed and reviewed as mainstream. The future's caught up with us and although Thinner pushes the limits, both it and @expectations are a reflection of what is. I can't speak for other writers but I do think the boundaries have blurred.

The heroines of Thinner than Thou are a pair of adolescent women, one obese and one anorectic. They find common cause in escaping from incarceration, and it seems we're asked to see them as equally "oppressed" by the cult of the body beautiful. About one per cent of young Americans (this is from ANRED Jan2004) are currently affected by anorexia; about sixty per cent of Americans are overweight and about thirty four per cent are clinically obese. Surely obesity and anorexia are NOT the same kind of problem, either socially or in terms of the individual. Isn't it a bit of a cop-out, even tongue-in-cheek, to equate the two conditions?

No. They are mirror images of the same problem. They create different problems for the sufferers but they are all about the body and the victims' (and perpetrators' -- and they are the same person) relationship to it. I think Americans are obsessed with body image -- those are two extremes of the obsession and the third extreme, which is also there, is the emergence of instant plastic surgery to make people think they look better.

And finally ... What are you working on now?

Aha, that I never tell. Bad luck. If I tell, it may never see the light of day. Tor will be following Thinner Than Thou with a short story collection tentatively titled The Dogs of Truth; there'll be a pseudonymous horror novel coming out and then there's what I'm doing now, which I'm just cracking.


© Gwyneth Jones 2004.

Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed
Thinner Than Thou is published by Tor (June 2004, ISBN: 0765307626); an extract is available elsewhere on this site.

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