Making the Unreal Real: An Interview With Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson
Photo by Marziah Karch

Remember how I said that Lawrence, Kansas is a secret hub of science fiction and fantasy awesome? Meet Kij Johnson, KU’s new fantasy professor, an award-winning writer of fantastic things, and one of the people that make the city such a great place for us geeks. She’ll also be at Oxford this January for the inaugural Pembroke Lecture in Fantasy Literature. I sat down with her to chat about her work, her books, grad school, and life in general.

She’s got a new book out, a collection of short stories called At the Mouth of the River of Bees, and I’d recommend you buy it even if she weren’t a friend of mine. But since she is a friend, I recommend you buy two copies. Just a note of caution. This is fiction intended for adults.  Adult language and adult situations. Three words: alien tentacle sex. You read that right. And it’s a story you’ll want to read, or as she put it, “Want is such a subjective term — and by want you mean find yourself unable not to.”  She’s not wrong there.

I asked her about the odd angle her stories take. She has a knack for adding something to a story that just sounds preposterous if you try to describe it, yet it’s something that totally works – monkeys from bathtubs, rivers that really flow with bees, and every little girl is born with a magical flying pony.

I’ve said this before, but I really believe a writer’s strength comes from her ability to take people down paths they would not normally go down. Regardless of how it starts. So some stories, I love the way that they start some way that it seems normal and then you realize at some point that we’ve taken an abrupt turn into a place that is not like our place, but I also love stories that start out in place that is not like our place but, once you accept that, everything makes sense. And that’s probably where I do most of my writing.

One of the interesting ways Kij works is by crowdsourcing. She’ll ask for a few writing prompts and use the responses to make a story that ends up going in unexpected directions:

Some years ago I wrote this short story in this collection with this really long title but the start of it is My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitair and it’s written like it’s late 18th century, and that was entirely crowdsourced because I gave them selections, maybe 12 or 15 elements and I said vote on these, and I’ll put the first two into the story. In fact, I put the first four into the story and was incredibly happy with it in a way I wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t had other people throwing ideas into the mix, so that story idea was entirely crowdsourced, but I’ve done other things where I’ve asked people, “Ok — suggest something.”

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss [in the anthology] was also crowdsourced. “Quick — pick two things.”  And I’ve always really liked the work I got from that…  I love that just because it shakes you out of your brain – otherwise it becomes too easy. All your names sound the same, or all your topics are the same topic.

We also discussed her new position as a creative writing professor at KU, specializing in fantasy literature. She was really excited about a graduate level class she hoped to be teaching soon. She referred to it as a “tent pole” class for fantasy literature with an ambitious reading list. I asked what they’d read, and she said, “Oh, everything. Those poor bastards.” She’d likely start them with The Golden Ass, but also read a dizzying list from medieval poems and Arthurian legends to modern works like Interview with the Vampire Some works would be selected more for their historical context than their literary quality. Anne Rice  “gelled the modern sexy vampire, but also gelled urban fantasy as a subgenre.”

I asked what she recommended we add to our own reading list. She said she was just starting on a Geoff Ryman book, Was, and that she considered him to be an amazing writer, but then she recommended we check out a rediscovered legend and famous Mary Sue: Margaret Cavendish The Blazing World 

She wrote it 1666 and it is a book where a woman is kidnapped by a man who is courting her. He is immediately killed in a shipwreck, and she finds herself on a new planet where the emporer loves her says she’s awesome, hands her the kingdom.

She gets to the point where she’s curious about Kabalah. “You need this woman from Earth named Margaret Cavendish, and she can explain Kabalah to you.”  So she writes herself into her own book, and the two of them talk about the men in their lives, and women are moving things around changing things, and the men are building stables. So, it’s so strongly feminist. And it never got the attention it deserves.

She also took an interesting approach when it came to recommending books for our kids, especially the girls. She recommended Tamora Pierce, but  said that when she was young and didn’t have a lot of female protagonists in fiction, (a problem that is only slightly better today) she’d just imagine them to be female. In her mind Merry in the Lord of the Rings was always a girl.

Aside from teaching classes and lecturing at Oxford, Kij is writing again. Among her many projects, we may see a small self-published print run using Kickstarter. The Internet had opened up new possibilities, “I want to do this book for my own entertainment, and what’s cool about self-publishing is that I really can do that.”  It’s called The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary, and if she raises enough money, she’s looking at the possibility of doing a letterpress edition or hiring an artist to make engraved etchings. It sounds like a really fun book.


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