The Writer’s Hot Seat: James Patrick Kelly

18 November 2020 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags:

James Patrick Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. His newest project is King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats, a short novel from Subterranean Press. His second most recent publication is the collection, The Promise of Space, published in 2018 from Prime Books. His novel Mother Go was an Audible Original in 2017. In 2016, Centipede Press published a career retrospective in its Masters of Science Fiction series entitled James Patrick Kelly, Master of Science Fiction. He has published over a hundred stories and his fiction has been translated into eighteen languages. With John Kessel he is co-editor of Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology, Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, The Secret History Of Science Fiction, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology and Rewired: The Post Cyberpunk Anthology. He writes a column on the internet for Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and recently retired from faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine where he taught for fifteen years.

Photo by Bill Clemente

One of our fiction readers, Jess Flarity, had the chance to ask him some questions over Zoom about his process, the pandemic, and other topics. The interview took place on October 25, 2020. This interview has been transcribed and edited.

Flarity: How has the pandemic affected your daily or weekly writing routines? Do you feel like you're producing more or less content since March?

Kelly: There are two answers to that. As the pandemic started to rage I was very put off my game. I continue to still watch too much CNN and read The New York Times too assiduously. In the immediate aftermath I was like many of my friends who were saying, “Oh my god, I can’t write,” but then... there was nothing else to do. There were no trips to take or other distractions. I had been putting off working on a novel that I’d been working on for over a decade... and kicking off since April until now I’m fairly satisfied with my production. I’ve certainly hit my average production over the last four or five months.

Flarity: What are you reading at the moment (fiction, nonfiction)? Do you find it influencing your own work, or do you keep your personal reading and professional writing separate?

Kelly: I don’t usually read in the traditional sense as much as I used to, which is to say, look at a bunch of marks on a bunch of molecules and read them with my eyes. Most of my pleasure reading is now audio. I listen to books. I was an early adopter and investor in Audible.com, and one of the best things that ever happened to me is when Amazon bought Audible and changed all of my stock over, but I’m still in a very sweet grandfather deal with two books a month. Recently, my friends were recommending me this book called Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. One of the downsides of being a professional writer is that it’s really hard to read in your genre and not critique as you read—it’s more difficult to enter the “dream” of the story... so I’ve been reading a lot of mystery lately. Thursday Murder Club is a “cozy,” a story in which amateurs solve a murder and they’re often quirky, and because the Brits were the originators of this genre, often the characters are British, and so this book is about a bunch of people in a retirement home who solve murders. It’s well-written, but some parts are a little “twee” for me.

I’m reading a lot of detective stuff because my current work-in-progress is a science fiction detective novel. I’ve written two novellas set in this world (the Fay Hardaway sequence)... and I’m not embarrassed to say this whole project in some ways is an homage to Raymond Chandler. I’m pretty complete on Chandler, all the books, all the stories, several biographies and essays, and I was looking for pleasure reading in the Chandler-esque style, so I picked up Ross Macdonald, who was hailed as “the next Chandler”... and now I’m pretty complete on early to middle Macdonald, at least listening to it. The one thing I read recently that took me totally by surprise and is one of my favorite books in the last six months was True Grit by Charles Portis. What a wonderful book... it really is an American classic—charming, gritty, and realistic.

Flarity: More process questions: what does your writing desk look like? And what's your go-to writing drink and snack?

(Kelly pulls his camera off of his computer screen and points it at his desk, revealing a rather Spartan set-up with a wireless keyboard and mouse, a “banker’s lamp,” a modest monitor and set of speakers, and a couple of plain white coffee mugs, one of which sits on a warming disc. The background wall is painted in a shade of soft green like forest undergrowth. A window above the desk lets in natural light.)

Kelly: A desk is where you look while you’re thinking... you can see all the coffee mugs, which answers one of your questions—I caffeinate regularly. The rest of my office here is way neater than normal only because I’ve been teaching an online class, so I had to make my office look like a professional person’s office. I have the great fortune to have my office in a separate building from my house. I have a detached garage and my office is in the attic there, so when I leave the house in the morning, my wife, who is retired, lives in the house while I live up here. We have lunch together and then I come down at the end of the day, but unless her hair is on fire, we don’t get together. Sometimes we’ll just text each other rather than trying to talk to each other. Before we moved here, I just had a room in the house where we lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and that was fine, but it was too... accessible.

Flarity: Your column in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine covers a wide range of topics, with last month's focusing on subliminal (click the link) messages and the unconscious. Do you come up with a few different ideas before finally deciding what to write about? What's your strategy here?

Kelly: My strategy changed over time. When I started writing this column, I did not take it over—I actually proposed it to the editors of Asimov’s in an online forum. I suggested that they hire my friend Bruce Sterling as a columnist to cover the internet, and a couple of days later Sheila Williams called up and said, “We want you to do it,” and I hadn’t been thinking of myself. So, when I started, one of the main topics was looking at the internet as a shiny new gadget we could play with. Many of my early columns were about subjects like, “well, there’s a really interesting website about robots over here...” but in the same column I’d be linking to a website about the greatest fantasy novels and space pictures from NASA, so the column would end up being a mish-mash of links.

I thought that I would end up running out of things to write about (I’ve been at it for fifteen years), but I ended up settling on more focused columns about Mars or the moon, and later on I started talking about the trends... and thinking about the last five columns, I wrote one about science fiction mysteries that is going to come out very shortly. Before that I was focused on copyright—or copy-left, or copy-wrong, however you want to talk about it—since I’ve been a creative commons advocate from very early on, so I wrote a column about that and how copyright has changed. I wrote a column about theories of humor... then I did one on using the suffix “-punk” as a means for discussing new movements in the field—and ended up talking about hope-punk, which meant the next column was going to be about apocalyptic science fiction. Sometimes one column points to the next column, and sometimes it’s about stuff from the news. It’s often about the way technology will change our world and it’s sometimes connected to the stories I’m writing. I wrote a joke column about comparing pictures of dogs and cats on the internet, and that gave me the idea for the novella I published in February, King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats.

Flarity: Which story of yours would you like to see made into a feature-length film? Animated, or live-action? Any dream directors or actors in mind?

Kelly: This is a thing that my fellow writers and I talk about sometimes in workshops. To some extent it’s a way of talking about what a story is about—is this a Spielberg or a Fincher or what is it? But to me this is kind of a mug's game: there’s a vanishingly small chance that these dreams or aspirations will happen. I have been at this (Jim’s voice changes sinisterly and includes an echo) many decades, many decades... and I have one IMDB credit for “Think Like a Dinosaur.” That was a total coincidence, basically, that it got made into an episode of The Outer Limits, and my experience there was about what I expected. It was some very nice money—but not life-changing money. There was a chance I could have written the script but I thought they might make me change the ending, so I took the money and ran.

I think it’s crazy to write a screenplay—a crazy waste of time. It would be helpful if it was trying to improve the fiction, but your chances of selling a feature-length screenplay are about the same as getting hit by a meteor. If you have a burning chance to see your work dramatized, write a play! You can probably get a play produced, but a screenplay? Your chances are less than zero. Having said all that, I think my novella Burn would make a good movie only because it could be shot mostly on Earth in a bucolic country setting. Similarly, I wrote this long novelette called “The Rose Witch,” which is set in Hungary, but it could be shot anywhere. It’s a medieval setting, so you’d need to build some carts and find a ruined castle, but it could be done relatively on the cheap. But a book set in space? The set design and cost of everything is astonishing... if you could imagine somebody ponying up $150,000, maybe an indie producer could get one of those made, but my novel Mother Go is set across the solar system and couldn’t be made for less than tens of millions of dollars, which is very difficult money to come by.

Flarity: Did you happen to see the Chinese blockbuster, The Wandering Earth? What is it about Chinese science fiction in particular that gives it appeal to an audience here in the U.S.?

Kelly: The Wandering Earth ranks up there as one of the most profitable movies of all time, so the fact that people don’t know about it is interesting. On the other hand, I found it beautiful to look at but pretty ridiculous. It’s eye candy. It’s no worse than the big-budget blockbusters that come out from the United States, like Interstellar or Ad Astra, which are huge disappointments once you sit through them, even if you’re thinking in the moment, “Wow, that’s really what a black hole would look like!” The problem is that when you have a hundred million dollar budget, they have to spend a lot of money on CGI and also play it conservatively and not make the movie too hard to grasp so they can make their money back. In The Wandering Earth, it teeters on the edge of sentimentality and falls over the edge again and again... and there are some oddball problems of physics and technology that make it so that it doesn’t bear close scrutiny... but the Chinese are very proud of this movie.

One of the things that strikes me is that Chinese science fiction started around the same time as Western science fiction, around the year 1900. Lao She wrote a book about a cat planet, for example. Before the cultural revolution, a lot of science fiction was state-sponsored, so a lot of what got printed celebrated state values, but after the revolution there was a real flourishing of science fiction writers who found clever and interesting ways of saying what they wanted to say without offending any authorities. The 500-lb gorilla of Chinese science fiction is Liu Cixin, who wrote the script for The Wandering Earth (no offense, but I just didn’t like it), and also The Three-Body Problem, which comments on the cultural revolution in a negative way. There’s a story I’ve heard that the American translator, Ken Liu, moved the cultural critique from the middle of the book to the very beginning, which made it very attractive to the American culture because we’re trying to understand the world and other dominant cultures. China is a dominant culture, and so they have a different way to look at the world that we live in.

I went to a Chinese science fiction convention in Beijing last year as a guest, and unlike American conventions, where writers and publishers talk about their works, in this convention, state officials got up and talked about the science fiction economy. How much money the gaming aspect is making, movies, television, and publishing—as if they were manufacturing science fiction and reporting on how that sector of the economy was doing. It was a totally different kind of look and feel. In the U.S., science fiction is a very, very small part of the economy, and while it is the same in China, it’s looked on as being more prestigious, and I think that’s a big difference.

Flarity: You mention in your afternote in The Promise of Space that your stories are featuring more heroine protagonists, and you stated in your first short story collection in 1990 that feminism might be the most important contribution of the 20th century to the future—more so than any technological achievement. What do you think has been a major victory in the field of science fiction for women in the past thirty years, and where are women still "losing the battle," so to speak?

Kelly: I don’t know if women are losing the battle anymore. There are two ways to look at this: who’s getting the honor, and who’s getting paid? In both cases, women are doing very well. If you look at the last couple of Nebula ballots, every category was won by women. When I was coming up, I was in a generation with wonderful writers like Karen Joy Fowler, Connie Willis, and Nancy Kress, and there was this idea among the men like, “they’re just as good as us,” even if it was very much dominated by men. In later generations there’s Nalo Hopkinson, Jo Walton, Kij Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders... and not only are they winning awards, they’re racking up pretty amazing sales. I have a lot of contact with up-and-coming writers, and when I look at writers like Sarah Pinsker and A. T. Greenblatt, both of whom just recently won Nebulas... there are more fine women writers than there are men. The other part of that is the editorial class now being more than half women, so they’ve been doing very well.

For me, I can now write about women. If you can imagine this, back in the day, it was sort of a problem to have a female protagonist. Guys in the fifties didn’t want to read about women space captains. But now we can write about women or all kinds of different people and have the science fiction writers view this as a plus, which is a big change over the last fifty years or so.

Flarity: Ending on a pandemic note—you attend at least a couple of science fiction and writing conferences every year, Readercon, Boskone, ICFA, etc. Do you find the fact that we all have to attend virtually a little bittersweet as a science fiction writer? Have you Zoomed into a conference yet, or does becoming a digital apparition simply not have the same appeal?

Kelly: I have mixed feelings about this. Personally, I would have loved going to the Nebulas and I’m going to miss Boskone and Readercon. I’m not sure I would have gone to Worldcon in New Zealand—it’s a far trip—but there’s a point to be made there: a lot of people couldn’t afford to go to the Worldcon in New Zealand. For better or worse, these window-based or Zoom-based interactions are science fiction becoming reality, in the same way that people thought, “Oh no, should I write an email or send a letter through the post?” There’s a question of accessibility here. I feel for the fact that I can’t drive an hour to see a convention, but I don’t necessarily regret the idea that people from all over the world can now go to Worldcon.

About a month ago, a friend of mine, an Italian science fiction writer, created a Worldcon that was really a Worldcon: it had people from thirty-five different countries and it was not totally dominated by Americans. There was equal representation across many different countries. There were panels about Latin-American science fiction writers and Southeast Asian science fiction writers who could possibly have never made it to Worldcon. There’s a thing you do lose—the casual conversation—but I’m hoping there’s a technological solution. The price we’re paying for the safety of Zooming is not a total negative, it has its pluses. It’s one of those things where in twenty years people might be saying, “I can’t believe people used to get on a plane just to go to Los Angeles for the weekend. Didn’t they realize how wasteful that is? My god, the pollution, and the new Zoom+Zoom is so much better than actually being there in person…”

I think we will look back as these old habits as not only being quaint, but part of the destructive ethos of our generation.

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