Monday, June 11, 2007

Sunday Interview: James Patrick Kelly

I know it's been a few weeks since I last posted an interview, but I took a little time off from this because I wanted to focus on other things. However, you are in for a treat because today's guest is science fiction writer James Patrick Kelly. The author of many, many, many sci-fi short stories, Jim is a master of the form and could go toe-to-toe with any other short story writer out there. Check out both of his story collections, THINK LIKE A DINOSAUR and STRANGE BUT NOT A STRANGER. He has also written a number of novels, including INTO THE SUN, PLANET OF WHISPERS and WILDFIRE. Jim was recently awarded his first Nebula Award for his novella BURN, ending his always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride streak with the Nebula, for which he was nominated nine times before BURN. As for the Hugo Awards, the other graddaddy of sci-fi awards, Jim has two.

But Jim has also gone beyond the medium of the printed book, writing radio plays, planetarium shows and stage plays; as well as being a pioneer in Podcasting. But that's still isn't the end of Jim's work. He is a columnist with Asimov's magazine, where he has published a short story in every June issue since the beginning of time, I think. He is also a brilliant writing instructor, having taught at the Clarion workshop, Viable Paradise and the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. And finally, but far from the least of his achievements, he was mentor to one of the greatest literary minds of the new Century.

And without further delay, I give you James Patrick Kelly, one of the few men outside of my family I'm on a hugging basis with...outside of any money changing hands.

Noir Writer: What are the differences between the themes of crime fiction and science fiction? Are there any differences?

Jim: If it were possible to circumscribe the themes in any genre, it would reduce that genre to formula and we could outsource the writing of it to our robot colony on Altair IV. It seems to me that crime fiction is the literature of transgression. Science fiction is a little more slippery. I heard a colleague opine recently that it is the literature of unlikely juxtaposition. I'm not sure I agree, but I've been processing that.

Noir Writer: How much do you expect readers to bring to a story? In other words, what do you trust they will be able to comprehend without coming right out and explaining everything?

Jim: There's one of the big differences between crime fiction and science fiction: the world building. It's a difficult problem, because we sf practitioners have to explain what is different in a strange environment without clotting the narrative with lectures, whereas crime writers more often than not operate against a backdrop that their readers are familiar with. Science fiction has been undergoing a kind of crisis of confidence. Some have worried that our stories are too often pitched at that narrowest of science fiction audiences, those who have spent lifetimes reading the stuff. The world building had gotten so complex that readers who are new to the genre get confused, then frustrated and then many give up. There has been a call for a more accessible science fiction, which still maintains the virtues of the genre. I was hoping to answer that call with BURN the novella that recently broke my lifelong Nebula Award jinx.

Noir Writer: You've written elsewhere that characterization should come from some part of the writer, especially when developing antagonists. Do you think this affects the writer, at least mentally, when they need to accept their own wickedness in fully realizing their villains? Do you think writers in general examine themselves more than other people?

Jim: I think writers can delude themselves as well as any profession -- with the possible exception of politicians. However, I do believe that writers must be willing to put themselves on the line to expose facsimiles of their own wickedness through their fictional surrogates. It is sometimes uncomfortable when someone you know well turns the last page of your story and then gives you an that uncertain stare. You know that they're wondering what color your soul is. But if you want to be comfortable in your work, take up accounting.

Noir Writer: Let's discuss one of the big daddies of American fiction, Kurt Vonnegut. Is Vonnegut sci-fi, or is it only Kilgore Trout? If Vonnegut can be placed in the literature section of the bookstore, why can't Octavia Butler or Kelly Link?

Jim: Good question. I recently co-edited a book called FEELING VERY STRANGE, The Slipstream Anthology, which attempted to make this very point. The ToC includes literary fiction luminaries like Michael Chabon, Karen Joy Fowler and George Saunders along side of genre stalwarts like Mary Rickert, Bruce Sterling and Ted Chiang. If we decide that a story is in genre because of content, then Aimee Bender writes fantasy and Kurt Vonnegut is sf. If we decide that a story that is acutely observed and superbly crafted is literary, then Kelly Link belongs on the shelf next to Jonathan Lethem, even if she writes about zombies.

Noir Writer: Do you think the really shitty books in popular fiction bring down the rest of the genres? Is everyone branded by the lowest common denominator?

Jim: Are you talking about those who actually read in genre or those who have already decided that crime/sf/romance stories are beneath notice? Yes for the latter, no for the former. I've been reading Raymond Chandler's intro to the collection The Simple Art of Murder. He writes, ""I have been fortunate to escape what has been called that form of snobbery which can accept the Literature of Entertainment in the Past but only the Literature of Enlightenment in the Present."

Noir Writer: How much do you think the lack of genre texts in high school and college literature classes effect the attitudes toward genre fiction? Does it create an artificial hierarchy?

Jim: It did, but I think there are more genre texts showing up in lit classes as teachers realize that plot and character drive the interest of younger readers more than decorative prose.

Noir Writer: Along the lines of litfic v. popfic, what do you think of literary critics who credit Phillip Roth for inventing the alternate history genre with The Plot Against America?

Jim: These would-be critics have no excuse for being poorly read.

Noir Writer: You've embraced many different media in telling stories, most notably podcasting your entire novella Burn. Do you think more writers will need to embrace such innovations in the future if fiction is to survive? Is the traditional book doomed?

Jim: Yes and yes. We are at the end of the age where writers can make a living purely on writing traditional books. They are going to have to diversify in order to have careers. Some will teach, some will perform. Podcasting is a way I have decided to branch out from dead tree publishing. I started Free Reads a couple of years ago as a way to grow my readership by giving my stories away. Currently on Free Reads I'm halfway through my novel LOOK INTO THE SUN. But Free Reads paid off beyond my wildest expectations when, the largest online seller of audiobooks, approached me with an offer to podcast my work for pay. Over on James Patrick Kelly's StoryPod ( I'm reading fifty-two of my previously-published stories over the next year. This audio collection represents almost all of the short fiction I've published to date. I do all the production myself. In effect, I have become my own publisher of audiobooks. The idea behind StoryPod is to mashup the traditional audiobook and the new form of podcasting. I introduce each story, read it and then in an afterword I discuss some of the ideas behind the story, or talk about how it came to be written.

Noir Writer: You've had the privilege to collaborate with the Literati's golden child of transcending genre, Jonathan Lethem. Did he get any MacArthur genius on you? And if so, did you get any of the money?

Jim: I visited with Jonathan a couple of days after he won the MacArthur and he seemed fine. A little stunned. Maybe an inch and a half taller. But he was enjoying his new status as a resident of Maine. Wait, are you saying I'm not a genious … genus … not that smart?

Noir Writer: Let's talk about your time with the Buffalo Bills. You led your team to the Superbowl four years in a row, but never managed to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy. How does that feel?

Jim: Oh, of course it was frustrating. A real disappointment. Then my knees went I had to retire and fall back on my science fiction hobby, except then I lost nine Nebulas, which is almost as bad. I was going to have my pal O.J. Simpson stop by and break some of Connie Willis's fingers, but he was busy that night. Something about trying on gloves.

Noir Writer: OK, let's focus on your career in martial art films. You worked with Bruce Lee on Enter the Dragon. (I have to admit I didn't recognize you with the afro.) What was Lee like? Do you still miss him?

Jim: Bruce was way into Georgette Heyer and Regency romances so our tastes in literature were totally different. But he did come up to the house one fall weekend and split three cords of firewood with his bare hands. Now that he's gone, we heat with propane.

Noir Writer: Let's talk about your first triumvirate of Stonecoast mentees. Suppose Sandra, Lyman and I were drowning in a lake and you could only save one of us; what would you say at Lyman's and my funerals?

Jim: Umm, where are you boys going to be planted? You're way the hell up there in Maine, aren't you? Stonecoast pays my miles, you know.



Noir Writer: As you know, there is a secret pop fiction cabal of alumni and current students of Stonecoast. Do your ears burn when we talk about you?

Jim: I'm sure you're all saying nice things. You'd better be saying nice things. Do you want me to post ~those~ pictures on my Flickr account?

Noir Writer: You were my mentor and were forced …er… I mean had the privilege to read a lot of my writing. Would you say I was a great writer, or the greatest writer?

Jim: You are, without doubt, the greatest writer I ever … hey, your check bounced!

I want to thank Jim for taking his time in getting back to mean taking the time to answer some questions. I hope you enjoyed the interview and will go out and read or listen to Jim's work - you won't be disappointed. Until next time, have a great week.


Gonzalo B said...

Although I rarely read SF, there’s one short story by James Patrick Kelly that happens to be among my all-time favorites. It’s called “Dancing With the Chairs” and even though it has a fantastic element to it, I seem to remember it was published in Asimov’s. It’s been ages since I read it and I don’t know if it was ever anthologized but I’ll look it up.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I have something to point to when my old profs scoff at my gleeful pilgrimage to Maine for my PopFic MFA...JPK is so erudite when discussing the whole "genre" issue, I'm looking forward to working with him. But he really should have known better than to hang out with the "groovy" chicks in Enter the Dragon, as they were obviously both dated and evil. Shame.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I can't help but notice you completely avoided any mention of Mr. Kelly's career as a CIA operative (1979-1985), particularly his assignment as "advisor" to the Nicaraguan rebels and his infamous appearance during the Iran-Contra hearings, when pointed at Senator George Mitchell and said, "I'm taking the Fifth and you can kiss my ass."

Erin Underwood said...

Jim "Story Man" Kelly has what can only be called a gift for seeing into the heart of a narrative. With the aid of his magic story-decoder ring, he helps you to chip away all of the crud until the essence of your story comes shining through.

Rumor has it that he acquired said magic decorder ring during a mysterious midnight rendezvous in the heart of the secret underground tunnels of Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec Capitol. Clearly, the Aztecs had more than gold hidden in their empire.

Other rumors even name JPK as Tezcatlipoca reborn, which would explain how he got the ring. But what do I know? I'm just an MFA student, not an Aztec historian.

Lyman Feero said...

Jim Who?

Oh Jim Kelly... Thanks for letting me drown. I should of known when he read that cheery holiday piece at his first residency. I said I liked the guy in the ice not that I wanted to be the guy in the ice.

Great interview, Steve.

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