From her first fiction publication in 1995 (her SF short story “Persephone” in Aberrations (#27)) to her latest book, Blood Oranges (coming out February 5, 2013 under her Kathleen Tierney pseudonym), Caitlín R. Kiernan (b.1964) has written the dark and the weird in multiple genres and formats: fantasy, science fiction, erotica, graphic novels, and a screenplay novelization. Her creativity and vision has been recognized with numerous awards (four International Horror Guild Awards, James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honoree, and Barnes and Noble Maiden Voyage Award), praised, inter alia, by Gaiman (“a gift for language that borders on the scary”), and The New York Times (“one of our essential writers of dark fiction”), and translated into ten languages. She has worked as a vertebrate paleontologist and has published in numerous scientific journals. She fronted the band “Death’s Little Sister” and currently makes her home in Providence, RI.
Your new book is called Blood Oranges. You’ve said that the “point of the book is, largely, to lampoon and undermine the tropes and clichés of ‘paranormal romance’ and what readers and publishers have allowed urban fantasy to become.” Why was this important for you to do?
I’ve been watching, over the last decade or so, as dark fantasy became supplanted by these idiotic books with their ubiquitous “tramp-stamp” covers: usually, a woman in some supposedly sexy pose, usually holding a weapon, often standing near a motorcycle or the like, often sporting tattoos. And the books are almost always as formulaic as the covers. In that sense, those horrid covers do the books justice. Only, my books began getting slapped with the same sort of covers, and some were truly awful and bore little relation to the text. This got much better with The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, a cover I actually like. And part of this is that people would go into a bookstore and pick up the novels without first even bothering to see what the books were like, buying them because they like the sorts of “ParaRom” and “shifter” stuff that those covers signify. And then they grouse on Amazon or Goodreads or in blogs, whatever, because the covers were misleading, or because I failed them by not including romance. Worse still, this whole mess has appropriated the phrase “urban fantasy.” Which is beyond dreadful. Those of us who recall what genuine urban fantasy was, this has been a hard pill to swallow. With Blood Oranges, I wanted a book that took the formula and tropes of “ParaRom” and inverted them. For that matter, going all the way back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s gritty, nasty. Wicked. There’s no romance, and nothing like what most “ParaRom” readers would consider a sympathetic character. It doesn’t fetishize or romanticize. I thought someone needed to do that, and I’ve been so pissed about being shoved into that category, I thought it might as well be me. But, you know what? I think people are making too much out of Blood Oranges as a response to “ParaRom.” As if that’s all it is. As though I was driven by an overwhelming agenda to do the book, which I wasn’t. In some respects, it was just a lighthearted bit of popcorn to let my brain rest after doing The Drowning Girl: A Memoir.
One of the things that jumped out at me in Blood Oranges is that Quinn is rarely depicted as clean, both figuratively and literally. Can you talk about that?
Siobhan Quinn is a junky. First heroin, now blood. She lived on the street for years. She exists as a predator, beneath the underbelly of human society, within a world of monstrosity. She eats people. She’s a serial killer, as are all vampires. Again, turning the clichés of “ParaRom” upside down. And she’s a character. She’s possessed of a personality which is her own, which I discovered as I wrote the book. I certainly had no concern for her hygienic habits. But dirtying up the squeaky cleanness of “ParaRom,” that’s only a good thing, and in keeping with my intent. And it’s hard for me to imagine a person who has become both a vampire and a werewolf, and who was a former street kid, that they’d be clean. Do people actually imagine violently killing someone—and Quinn is violent—would be clean? Have they ever seen photos of murder scenes? I don’t think so. And one thing I was going for, that was important, was that the story would be a neo-noir, supernatural noir. I went in thinking, “how would Quentin Tarantino do this?” Well, for one thing, he certainly wouldn’t give you clean vampires and werewolves.
The scene where the Bride of Quiet starts singing is really chilling—what makes this scene so effective?
No idea. That is, I don’t set out to write frightening or creepy fiction. If it strikes a reader that way, fine. Though I do see that everyone who has read the manuscript has that reaction to the Bride. I love the character myself. The perfected wrongness of her. An unspeakably monstrous monster. I borrowed that name, by the way, “The Bride of Quiet,” from a Decemberists song I love, “Why We Fight.” I hope Colin Meloy doesn’t slaughter me for that. One day, I was writing the book, listening to the song—I always write to music—and I thought, “Damn, that’s what she’s called.”
Quinn notes for the reader along the way which of the various myths about werewolves, vampires, and other nasties are true and which are not true. How did you decide which myths to keep and which to discredit?
Mostly, I kept the ones I liked and tossed out the ones I didn’t. There was no plan I worked out beforehand, no real logic to it. It was rather arbitrary. Though, in a few places, I’m clearly harking back to older myths, instead of the post-Stoker, post-Anne Rice inventions.
Continuing on the thread of narrative voice, Quinn frequently comments on tropes and what writers do—a storytelling approach you’ve employed before in both novels and short stories—what are the challenges of balancing narrative pace with metafictional observations?
See, I don’t know. That is, I don’t sit down and think, “What will the challenges here be?” I write the book the way it feels natural to write the book. I don’t spend time worrying about narrative pace. The story unfolds at the pace it needs to unfold, and I don’t try to second-guess readers or cater to expectations. This is the story. This is how it’s being told. It wouldn’t be right any other way. As for metafiction, I think that’s a grossly over-used term. As with The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl: A Memoir—and almost all my other first-person narratives—I’ve written a story that consists of a story being told by a character. And when we do that, when we keep a journal, or whatever, we are aware we do so. I almost always loathe first-person narratives in which the speaker, the narrator, seems to be speaking to some unseen audience, that relies on that sort of assumption. It’s one reason I refused to write first person for the first thirteen or fourteen years of my career. I had to find a way to do it right. What feels right to me. And that led me to a sort of epistolary form, tales told via journals and the like, wherein we know who the speaker is speaking to, even if that’s just her- or himself. This adds a greater sense of realism. People complain it “pulls them out of the story,” and that baffles me. For me, it usually works the other way around. I sit there asking, “Who the hell are you talking to?” There are very skillful exceptions, of course. Moby Dick and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But they’re rare.
Of all the paranormal romances that you read as background or that served as provocation for Blood Oranges, were there any that you really enjoyed? That you felt didn’t debase your vision for urban fantasy?
I didn’t read any “paranormal romance” as background. Well, a few pages here and there, but I genuinely can’t stomach the stuff. So, obviously, no, none I enjoyed. So, none I felt didn’t debase my vision of urban fantasy. Oh, wait. There was a Jim Butcher novel I tried to read back in 2005 or so. It was awful. Oh, and I read Holly Black’s Tithe books, and maybe some people would count those as “ParaRom.” I don’t. There’s a grittiness, a coloring outside the lines of expectation, and I loved those books. Especially Valiant.
You wrote “Goggles (c.1910)” as a reaction against “the paradisal and revisionist Victorian Era” theme so prevalent in steampunk; Blood Oranges as “a loud ‘fuck you’ to the ‘romantic urban fantasy’ or ParaRom or what the fuck ever you might call it or have heard that crap called;” and recently wrote a blistering takedown of Geoff Ryman’s mundane SF—will mundane SF be your next literary target?
Honestly, I do not go out looking for “targets.” Frankly, I’m not a confrontational person. But I’m also not a person who has an easy time looking the other way when something that seems to me inherently foolish or harmful is in my face. I’ve never written SF that, I suspect, conforms to Ryman’s criteria. I likely never will. I’m too concerned with wonder. I have no interest in mundane fiction. I feel like that’s some weird inversion of Oscar Wilde’s quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Gutters are mundane. I’d much rather write about stars, if I’m writing SF. I don’t care if it isn’t realistic, or predictive, or whatever. I don’t care if it conforms to someone’s current—and inevitably mistaken—view of what is technologically feasible ten or fifty or a hundred years down the line. I want “Wow.” I don’t want, “Hmm. Yeah. That’s very possible. Dull, but possible.” I wish more SF writers understood that what they’re writing is fantasy, that the distinction between SF and fantasy is mostly wishful thinking.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer describe you as “one of the most original and audacious weird writers of [your] generation,” choosing “A Redress for Andromeda” to include in their anthology The Weird: would you have chosen the same story of yours, and how do you see your work in the context of the other stories and authors chosen to define weird fiction?
I think it’s probably poor form to question what story editors have chosen for a retrospective anthology, what they consider your best work. Sure, I’d have chosen a different story. Actually, at one point Jeff wanted to include the entire three-story “Dandridge Cycle,” which would have worked much, much better than only including “A Redress for Andromeda,” the first story. But using all three, that ultimately didn’t work with their allotted word count. Anyway, the point is, Ann and Jeff are wonderful editors, and I trust them. How do I see my work in the context of other weird fiction authors? Well, first we’d need to define weird fiction, which, frankly, I think is impossible. I don’t think in genre categories. But, that said, what I’m after, usually, is writing the inexplicable and allowing it to remain inexplicable. I’d far rather have a mystery than a solution. A solution destroys the whole purpose of building a mystery. I’d rather leave as many questions as possible unanswered and let the reader consider the possibilities. Of course, a lot of readers hate being expected to do such a thing. I have received a lot of reviews and email to that effect over the years.
You’ve said that horror is an emotion that writers may try to evoke, but is “indefensible” as a genre category—who’s done the best job of evoking horror for you recently?
It was likely a filmmaker, not a writer. I don’t read a lot of fiction, and most of the fiction I do read, I’m not necessarily trying for something that will specifically evoke horror. If that happens, cool, but I’m rarely seeking it. So, it’s very rare that an author simultaneously hits all those many buttons that come together to create a sense of horror. Which is distinct from terror. I’m trying to think of an author who’s done it recently. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, that’s one, and certainly not what people think of as a “horror” novel. Also Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. It’s easier if I turn back to film. For example, Antti-Jussi Annila’s Sauna. Which brilliantly does in film what Danielewski’s House of Leaves brilliantly did in a novel. For something more recent, I’d say Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which I adored, but the emotions it evoked in me were far too complex to be reduced to “horror,” though there was real horror there in the mix.
You have a deep and rich body of work in multiple formats (short stories, novels, graphic novels) in multiple genres (fantasy, science fiction, erotica, dashes of mystery, noir): what have been your most important lessons in making a living and making a life as a writer?
As a lot—I’d hope most—of my readers ought to know, I’m no fan of the “literary life.” For me, speaking for myself, it’s hardscrabble. It’s a bitch. Usually, a thankless bitch. It’s a job, not a calling. I don’t have ink in my blood, or muses, or some burning desire to tell stories that have to be told lest I perish. No. I’m good at this, and I can—just barely—make a living doing this. Now, I try to do it very well, as well as I can do it. There’s no point doing anything unless you bring your best to the effort, and I care very deeply about literature. So, I’m not cranking out crap for a paycheck. I’m bashing my head against a keyboard for a paycheck. I’m scraping out my brain and soul for a paycheck, and I don’t care who finds that analogy overwrought or melodramatic. Writing The Red Tree and, especially, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir—both of which I have called “fictionalized autobiographies”—it’s hard for me to imagine anything more emotionally grueling that someone could choose to do than I did when I chose to write those novels. For me, writing is psychologically and physically exhausting. Sometimes even self-destructive. And I live with the facts of a career as a “cult” writer. I don’t know who called me that, damning me with faint praise, but someone recently did. Virtually no vacations. Virtually no financial security. No healthcare. Constant stress that creates health problems I generally can’t afford to seek treatment for and that makes me an unbearable bitch. So, strained personal relationships. Accepting that writing or seeing the finished book, that it rarely ever brings to me anything but the most fleeting sense of accomplishment. I could go on, but I won’t. I have spent twenty years learning to live with this, and I do. Because this is what I do. When someone asks me how to get published, how to go pro, whatever, my answer is almost invariably, “Surely you have some better option.”
Has personal experience or reading been more useful to you in your career as a writer, and why?
I’m not sure I can say that one of these has been more important than the other. If I had to say, I’d likely say personal experience. Very little that I write isn’t drawn directly from personal experience, to one degree or another. This is, I believe, how good literature is born. We have to live in order to write. This is one reason that younger authors usually aren’t ready. It takes more, I think, than twenty or twenty-five years. My first five novels, they’re all but juvenilia. They seem that way to me. I feel like it wasn’t until The Red Tree until I’d learned how to write a novel. I was forty-four at the time. Which, actually, seems rather young now that I’m forty-eight. There are exceptions, because there are always exceptions. Occasionally a younger author writes something excellent. But, still, I believe life experience is the key. The more you have seen and the more you have lived through, the more you have to draw from that is genuine. Imagination is not enough. As for the usefulness of reading, well, it often inspires me, and it more often shows me what I do and don’t want to write. It teaches me what can and cannot be done.
Can you discuss some of the main influences on your work beside other writers?
Well, setting aside the importance of life experience, I’d say mostly nonfiction works. These are invaluable to me. Also, my time as a paleontologist. That taught me to see the world in a different light. To regard time and space and man’s place therein, and within biology, in a much different and far more accurate perspective. One that, I believe, is necessary in order to write good weird fiction. Our ultimate insignificance in the cosmos, but also our ability to perceive and wonder at and question the cosmos. Music, too. Huge influence. I can point to bands like REM and Radiohead, performers like David Bowie, Tori Amos, and PJ Harvey whose poetry set to music have taught me at least as much as has prose. All this comes together in a tapestry. The tapestry is a foundation for everything I write, that warp and weft, the image threads come together to reveal.
This past summer, China Mieville proposed the idea of salaries for poets and writers as an antidote to the “philistine thuggery of the market”—could it happen? Should it happen?
I love China’s work, but it’s a pretty bizarre idea, I think. It won’t happen. And I don’t think it should happen. Who would choose who gets to be salaried? Because surely all people who call themselves poets—and are we only speaking of poets, sensu stricto, here? If so, why only poets? Yes, “philistine thuggery” is a very accurate way to describe the marketplace. But I cannot begin to imagine this would ever work, and I say that as someone who considers herself to have socialist leanings. In the real world, few governments would pony up, or be able to pony up, funds for such programs. It’s a pleasant pipe dream, but it’s only a pipe dream.
You wrote that you hate doing interviews and don’t want to be asked about how you write or why you write or what it means (forgive us). If you were interviewing yourself for this feature, what would you ask instead?
Well, I wouldn’t interview myself. So, I’d ask myself nothing. I didn’t always hate doing interviews, but after, hell if I know, a hundred of the things, there’s very little to say I haven’t said dozens of time. And the web has many of those readily available online. So why keep it up? I rarely say anything new. Moreover, my online journal is a far better source if you’re interested in how and why I write. There are millions of words there, between Blogger and LiveJournal, spanning eleven years. Far more satisfying, I would think.
You’ve committed to writing no more dark fantasy short stories or novellas until your science fiction is taken seriously by the “Big Boys of the genre.” What’s behind this declaration? Is there a future for Dr. Audrey Cather?
On the one hand, that comment is me in a moment of frustration and anger. I likely overstated my case, or, rather, my position and intentions. On the other hand, yes, it does seem like I’ve encountered resistance moving into SF—which I’ve been trying to do since 2003 or so. And it’s not because I don’t write good SF. I may not write fashionable SF, and SF seems especially concerned with fashion, the myth of unique ideas, and the myth of progressive art. Probably, my SF is considered “old school.” I’m most concerned with the idea of the alien, which does not necessarily mean extraterrestrials. Loss of self, mutability of identity, insanity, etc. Which is really no different than my chief concerns in fantasy, in weird fiction. That said, it often does seem that SF readers and markets and editors, that there is a resistance to female authors, and that there does exist a sort of “Old Boy’s Club.” Yeah, saying that’s going to make me popular among the very people I’m struggling to convince I can write good SF and ought to be recognized for my efforts. I have spoken to other prominent women writers who feel the same way, so at least I know it isn’t only me. I sense this “women write fantasy, men write SF” attitude. There are people, I must fairly admit, like Jonathan Strahan, who are willing to take me seriously as an SF author. I was very grateful when Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press asked me to compile a collection of my SF short stories, A is for Alien. Of all my collections, it’s one of the very best. As for Audrey Cather, the narrator and protagonist of “The Dry Salvages,” no. No more of her. Her story has been told.
Your quest for recognition as a writer of serious science fiction by the “Big Boys,” your observation that the “Big Boys . . . have let a few girls in” reminded me of Joanna Russ’s Glotolog. Is recognition and being “let in” worth the cost of entry?
Damn, I love Joanna Russ. But that’s a damn hard question, and one that I think each author must ask her- or himself. There’s no correct answer. There’s no responsibility for anyone to try. Others would disagree, probably. I do this because I want to write a lot more SF, which means I need to enter the market, to be accepted into that market, and, while I’m at it, it would be nice if the SF—which takes me longer to write, because it always involves a lot more technical research than does my fantasy and weird fiction—got a just bit of recognition. And we’re back to the belief, my belief, that this is held back, partly, on the basis of gender, not the quality of the works. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like active discrimination. More like I simply cannot get on the radar, no matter how much I write or how much positive attention my writing receives.
You’ve said that you don’t read much fiction anymore because you struggle to find “new fiction that’s all those good things fiction ought to be.” What are all those good things?
First and foremost, characterization. Characters that are true, that are real people. Fantasy and SF is too often obsessed with plot and world-building and that myth of “originality” I’ve already mentioned. But good fiction is about people. The story is the people. The second element I’m often seeking is writers who are willing to violate, even discard, traditional storytelling. Who set aside, for example, the shackles of linear narrative. In college, the Modernists made a huge impact on me. Here were writers who were not afraid of bucking literary conventions. So, now, that’s one thing that often intrigues and sometimes impresses me. I’ve already mentioned House of Leaves. I should also mention David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence. All brilliant, and they teach me, encourage me. They say, “You can do this. You actually can do this.” I guess this comes down to stories that are not hidebound to simplistic modes of storytelling. A guiding principle when I was writing The Drowning Girl: A Memoir was something from Kelly Link: “Stories shift their shape.” Yes. A thousand times yes. I don’t conceive of a story from beginning to end and map it all out. I start here, and then I move to there, but only discovering the story as it happens. I’d never write if I knew the ending beforehand. Stories need to be organic, and they need to be allowed to grow as they are created. To mutate from whatever initial conception you start off with. To surprise the author—and then the reader—at every turn. I pretty much never use outlines. My publishers, the publishers of my novels, usually require outlines, so I cobble something together, a proposal to sell the book, then proceed to disregard it entirely.
Your short story “Emptiness Spoke Eloquent” imagines an alternate life for Dracula’s Mina Harker—have you ever had anyone rewrite one of your stories or imagine a different life for one of your characters? What do you think about fan fiction?
No, no one, to my knowledge, has ever done that. Frankly, I hope they never do. As for fan fiction, that’s a sticky problem. I’ve played in the sandboxes of many other authors. I wrote The Dreaming, based on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I did a story based on James O’Barr’s The Crow. One based on Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time. One based on Robert Silverberg’s Night Wings. There’s no way to say that these stories are quantitatively different from people writing what is traditionally considered fanfic. Qualitatively, probably. Usually. Sure, I had permission and wasn’t violating copyright—usually—but that’s a pretty subjective criterion. I was still, essentially, writing fanfic. I will say, in my opinion, the stories I’ve written set in other authors’ world have never aged well. “Emptiness Spoke Eloquent” is a good example. I’ve actually heavily revised that story about five times now, but it doesn’t really ever get any better. It has the inherent flaw of not being mine. But, no, I can’t fairly condemn fan fiction—not on principle and not without being a hypocrite.
You talked about how the vision for The Drowning Girl book trailer almost seemed to grow into a very short film instead—did the experience plant any seeds for you to explore transmedia storytelling?
It made me want to do a lot more of it, but it also made me not want to do a lot more of it. Not go that route ever again. So, the trailer created a paradox. The time we spent shooting it was wonderful, a wonderful experience all round. Working with the actors and Brian Siano, who did the video, and Kyle Cassidy, who pretty much made the whole thing happen. But the editing was as big a nightmare as the filming was enjoyable. We had, I don’t know for sure, but hours worth of film, and originally I’d planned a one minute trailer. That was expanded to two minutes and thirty-one seconds over the several months Brian and I spent editing. There was simply too much good footage, and, still, lots of good stuff wasn’t used. It might easily have gone to five minutes. At the time, during the filming, I was so excited I wanted to do a short film based on one of my short stories, and I even began making plans for it. By the time we’d finished editing—and gotten the damn thing out there two months late—I never wanted to take on anything like that ever again. I’m too much of a control freak. I can’t not micromanage every aspect of a project, even when I don’t know that much about the aspects in question. I should also say that, in the beginning, making the trailer was all about promoting The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. But then it became its own thing. A very expensive thing of its own. Our original projected budget was $1,200. The Kickstarter project to fund the trailer raised an amazing $3,615! And I thought, “How can we possibly go over budget?” But then we went about a thousand dollars over budget, and that was out of pocket expense for me and Kyle. In the end, we had this beautiful trailer. I loathe book trailers, which are usually cheap and artless affairs. At the start, I said something idiotic, something like, “we’re going to make the Citizen Kane of book trailers.” And I’m very proud of what we did do. But as a book trailer, as a means of promoting the novel, near as anyone could tell—and determining the effectiveness of any form of advertising is always a questionable endeavor—the trailer didn’t actually do much to help sales.
Why do you see Blue Canary as the future of your writing?
You keep a blog, and in that blog you say shit, and the shit comes back to haunt you. I don’t recall saying that Blue Canary is the future of my writing. But maybe I did. Whatever. It isn’t. What it is, at this point, is an idea for a YA novel that I very much want to write. Doesn’t mean I’ll ever find time to write it. I’m hardly considered a YA author. Though, my agent recently pointed out that were Silk to be published today, instead of having been published in 1998, it would be considered YA. I’m not going to get into the concept of Blue Canary, because I’m insanely protective of it. My partner knows it, and Neil Gaiman knows it—he encouraged me to write it, that it needed to be written—and my agent, she knows the concept, but that’s pretty much it. I’d love to write YA, because I see YA audiences as, in many ways, smarter and more open-minded than a lot of my potential adult audience. But will it happen? I do not know. Many factors come into play. Whether or not I could sell a YA novel. Whether or not I can find time to do a book I’d almost have to do on spec. All sorts of financial considerations. But, no. Obviously not the future of my writing. I have no goddamn idea what the future of my writing will be, and I’m not sure I want to know.
Of all of your stories, which would you most like to see made for the big screen?
Probably most of what I’ve written would be very difficult to translate into film. There have been a lot of nibbles. Some big nibbles. Threshold was a very big nibble. And “The Dry Salvages,” surprisingly. And my lit and film agent both seem to think Blood Oranges will get attention. I was actually asked by a producer to write a screenplay for my short story “Onion,” but I only made it a few pages in before I decided it was a highly dubious undertaking and abandoned the project. I love film, and I’d love to see this happen. But I also fear the mess that could be made. Hollywood is bloody good at making messes of books, and I say that as a great fan of cinema. Books can make good movies, but they can also be perverted into terrible movies. I’d have to sell the rights, take the money, and probably never look back. That said, right now I think my graphic novel Alabaster: Wolves is probably my most filmable book, and maybe if Tarantino or Robert Rodríguez would take on Blood Oranges, or, as long as we’re dreaming, Lars Von Trier could do an incredible job of adapting The Red Tree. Though he already covered a lot of that same ground in Antichrist.
Do you have any upcoming projects you want to discuss?
I’m working on the next Alabaster graphic novel, Boxcar Tales, which is being serialized this year. My next short story collection, The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories, will be released by Subterranean Press this summer. I’m working with Centipede Press on what are going to be beautiful limited editions of both The Drowning Girl: A Memoir and The Red Tree. There are other projects in the works, but those are the only ones that I bring up.