Página Axxón Axxón 167

Interview with
Kit Reed

por Equipo Axxón



Axxón: In all your stories published in our language, which are fewer than we would have liked to read, highlights of strangeness, distorted realities and a certain link to speculative forms in which you have pioneered are perceived. But although you have been pubished in SF magazines, it is not safe to say that you are a "genre writer". How do you see this situation? Do you feel SF is a restriction or, on the contrary, that it provides extra freedom of speech?

Kit Reed: You're right. I'm definitely not a genre writer. Much of my work is published outside the field. Although none of my so-called "mainstream" work has been translated into Spanish, most of my novels and many of the stories are reality-based psychological fiction. I am interested in what makes my characters do the things they do, and like most writers, I'm writing to make sense out of the mysteries and confusion of ordinary life. The short fiction has appeared in American literary magazines like The Tampa Review and The Yale Review. One story was selected for The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

With that said, I should add that I've published five SF novels in my time: Armed Camps, Magic Time, Fort Privilege, Thinner Than Thou and the new one, The Baby Merchant, which is more reality-based. My short fiction also appears, as you know, in many SF publications: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, SciFiction at scifi.com, Asimov's SF and dozens of SF anthologies. SF editors will take work many editors are too timid or conventional to accept. As I am primarily interested in people and what they do under pressure, and I write from character, but some of the characters can get pretty weird. This means that the stories may not appeal to mainstream editors, who don't have SF editors' sense of adventure. SF editors are delighted by imaginative work, and they've always been good to me.

As you've gathered, I've never really written classic science fiction, rockets, alien cultures, all that. The work is by no means science-based. I'm more interested in society, and what it all means. What people do when society pushes them to the limits. As a writer, I've always been interested in the "possible improbable," things that might happen, but usually don't. American SF has developed a new buzzword: "slipstream." It applies to writers who do not write realistic or naturalistic fiction but whose work takes off from known literary conventions to explore the unknown. It's the right word for me.

Axxón: I really like that a new buzzword has appeared to refer to fiction which is neither realistic nor naturalistic. I assume that, in those terms, a writer we have never been able to classify like Kurt Vonnegut would also be a "slipstream" author. You speak about "exploring the unknown", about your interest in finding out why your characters do what they do, about people´s behavior when society pushes them to the limit.

Kit Reed: Yes, I have no interest in things that could never happen. Like the dragon/castle/faerie series that are so popular. I can't write anything I'm not interested in reading, even though I am aware that there is a huge genre market. This may be why I slip in and out of what might be called genre.

Axxón: But that confronts with a kind of speculative fiction that seems contrary to what the readers ask for: dragons, invincible heroes, magical solutions. It won´t matter how we name it if we can´t keep it alive. Will we be able to sustain this adventure or are we doomed to succumb to a more digestive, less involved kind of fiction?

Kit Reed: There will always, always be sword and sorcery fans, and given that this is what Tolkien was doing, some of the writing will be quite good, but to survive, the best of this kind of writing (Tolkien, some C. S. Lewis, T.H. White) has to speak to the universal.

As for what I do, for "slipstream" writing in general: there will always be intelligent readers. And you'll note that Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme and others have done quite well. I'll never be rich but I expect to be around as long as there are adventuresome editors who like what I do.

Axxón: In the story we are publishing in Axxón, "Family Bed", you push a mother´s care to a sickening limit. Do you generally get your ideas from your own experience, from observation or just from your imagination with no reference to real life events?

Kit Reed: Everything I write comes from me pushing everything I've seen just a little harder —sometimes to or beyond the limit. As for "Family Bed"... In the States right now, there is a certain kind of evangelistic mother who turns having children into a career, or tries to make it her claim to fame. I've had three children of my own, and I know parenthood is perfectly natural, and rather ordinary. The new fad in the States at the moment-- and in the UK, according to newspaper stories I've seen-- seems to be communal sleeping, not because the family can't afford separate beds and bedrooms for their children, but because they believe it brings a new opportunity for family bonding. I know people who do it. Now, children are active, noisy sleepers, and they need their privacy. As for when the parents with a "family bed" have the privacy for sex.... or whether they do... It's not something I can think about without a shudder. I suspect that in many cases it's not about love, it's about control, and I think that's extremely creepy. Which is where the story came from. The most recent novels, Thinner Than Thou, in which body image is the new religion, and The Baby Merchant, in which babies have become a hard-to-get commodity for the status-conscious, are definitely reality-based. Our magazine Publishers Weekly calls me "one of our brightest cultural commentators," which is kind of what I am.

Axxón: You´ve just said that everything you write comes from you pushing things you´ve seen to or beyond the limit.

Kit Reed: No, it's just what happens when I start thinking about things.

Axxón: Is it enough for you to see a fat person and imagine how his or her life would be if, all of a sudden, he or she could be thin by purchasing some sort of substitute body, or to see two children playing and assume that one of them is the other one´s imaginary friend, or do you just think about loneliness and then come up with a story like "On the Orphans´ Colony"?

Kit Reed: I don't believe in "themes," I believe in people, and what happens to them, what makes them do the things they do and what comes of their actions. This means usually I hear a character's voice, sometimes before I see them; I listen to what they're saying and their stories grow from that.

Axxón: Is that a technique?

Kit Reed: "Technique" is a term I don't think much about because for me, writing fiction is not a technical thing involving use of different narrative tools according to a diagram. It's not mechanical, as in, insert Tab A into Slot B, etc. until you have whatever you think you are making. I believe in story. The characters create the story and in finding the right words to say exactly what I mean, I figure the story out. I know that isn't a very precise answer in technical terms, but it's the way these things happen for me.

I mean, does a "simple" element from reality unleash a whole fictional sequence in you, or do you have several themes and approaches already "fermenting" and you choose from there when you feel like writing?

As for when I "feel" like writing: I go to work every day, five days a week. If I waited until I "felt" like it, I probably wouldn't write anything at all. It's hard, it's demanding. It may be fun sometimes, especially when things are going well, but it's definitely work.

Axxón: Not every author agrees to speak about their fellow writers, so I´ll accept your refusal if you don´t want to. But if you let me ask you a question on this matter, I´d like to know if you have any favorite writer, if there´s any work that has impressed you vividly, books you love or you hate, both inside and outside speculative fiction.

Kit Reed: I read and review too much fiction to be able to go on about any of them at length, either pro or con. I take them in like air and, I guess, assimilate them. Something I loved recently was The People's Act of Love by James Meek, takes place in a gulag, it's astounding and too hard to describe here.

I have too many favorite writers to name online or off, but this is a start, more or less chronologically: F.Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, some C.S. Lewis and some Tolkien, Muriel Spark, Norman Mailer, John Collier and John Cheever, some Margaret Atwood and some Joyce Carol Oates, on up to Geoff Ryman and Tom Disch, on through to David Foster Wallace, some Rick Moody and some Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler, on and on, there really are too many to list, and specifically within S.F. too many favorites many of whom are friends I won't name because I don't want to leave anybody out. I just plowed through collections by Alice Munro and Mary Gordon and have Atwood's new collection lined up next. Right now I'm loving The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian, a slipstream novel out next month. Honestly, it depends on what I'm reading at the time.

Axxón: As far as I´ve been able to find out, The Baby Merchant (2006) is your first novel published in Spanish. Although it is preceded by other twelve, we have only read some of your stories, spreaded across magazines and anthologies. What are we going to see now? What differences and similarities are there between this novel and your short fiction? And, in case the question is suitable, what differences and similarities are there between this novel and the other novels you´ve written?

Kit Reed: As you'll discover, although I stay the same, nothing I write is like anything else I write. There is a near-future element in The Baby Merchant, in that the government has extended surveillance techniques to implanting microchips in the skulls of newborns; the same (U.S.) government Center for Disease Control has closed the borders to people in what they call Third World countries to prevent epidemics like SARS and avian flu, but given that Americans can already microchip their pets to prevent theft, and there's a high level of national anxiety over epidemics, the near future seems pretty close. Beyond that, a story about a guy who steals babies for sale to childless rich people is pretty reality-based. Tom Starbird is real, and certainly the unmarried girl who wants the baby he's trying to kidnap is real and what happens when they come into collision is by no means fantastic. It's inevitable. But when the translation is available, you'll see.

How is this different from my other novels? Well, three are comic novels, five are SF, there are some pseudonymous psychothrillers, and the others are what Brian Aldiss called "psycholological fiction." Each one is different. The only thing they have in common is that they are character based.

The comic novels are just that. Not SF, and not like any SF writer I can name; they're mainstream. The English speaking comic novelist who probably taught me comic timing was Evelyn Waugh; I read all his comic novels when I was 18. He's best known for Brideshead Revisited, but the satires, like Vile Bodies and The Loved One, are funny as hell. Joseph Heller had great comic timing in Catch -22. I watch a lot of sketch comedy on TV. My suspicion is that comedy translates less well than any other form, which is why you won't see mine translated into Spanish. As to what my comic novels are like? It's one of those things where, as Americans say, "I guess you hadda be there."

Axxón: Your novel Thinner Than Thou is a satire on diets, in The Last Big Sin food is mentioned as a subsitute of sex, in The New You the main character is an overweighed housewife with low self-esteem. I read on the papers and see on TV that obesity is a serious problem in the USA and is on its way to being the same in other places. People feed awfully. Does this subject have any special meaning to you?

Kit Reed: I got interested in the subject probably because I used to weigh 20 pounds more than I do now. I got the weight off and believe me, once you have thought of yourself of fat, you will do anything to keep from being a fat person. It makes you careful of what you eat and in my case, made me happy to go swimming and walking to stay in shape. So that's where the interest comes from.

As for what happens in Thinner Than Thou, it became obvious to me that with people more and more body-conscious, diet and exercise and fitness had become a kind of religion.

For many in the American society, it has replaced religion. It supplies them with a guilt-and-atonement component that may be missing from their lives. Fitness is equated with virtue, at least for body-image snobs.

Axxón: Do you see something else in obesity, something that explains individual or social behaviors beyond fatness itself?

Kit Reed: Some of it is psychological. People eat to feel better, to ease depression, to cheer themselves up. At a deeper level, for some of them, eating supplies something important that they think is missing in their lives. It may be love, it may be accomplishment; for stressed college students, sometimes food is a substitute for sleep.

But they don't all get fat. Obesity has many causes, from psychological to genetic to how people's parents fed them when they were small. Now one branch of science thinks it's virally caused. But of course there ARE fast food restaurants, huge hamburgers, oversized portions in almost every restaurant. If we let ourselves, we can be fattened up rather like cows.

Axxón: This is a little more personal, but your answer will be interesting for our readers. When do you write? Where do you write? What motivates or distracts you while you write?

Kit Reed: I work in my office on the second floor of our house in a big bay window; I have a computer on one side and an old fashioned typewriter (a souvenir) on the other. I work every morning Mon-Friday and often into the afternoon; I also work on trains on my little VAIO notebook, which is a computer the size of a magazine. I think when you go to work at the same time every day, sooner or later something interesting will happen.

Of course the most distracting thing is the Internet; if you go to my page and click on the links for StoryMOO you'll discover that not only do I surf and talk to friends on LambdaMOO, I teach a class in writing online for Wesleyan University students.

Axxón: What you have just mentioned sounds particularly interesting. What are the writing lessons online you teach like? What sort of corrections do you make to your students? Style? Conceptual? Both? Is there anything you don´t dare say to a prospect writer with a lot of enthusiasm but little talent? And while we are at it, do you think talent is something unrelenting or, on the contrary, that one´s writing can be improved by working a lot?

Kit Reed: What I do online is teach a writing workshop exactly like the workshops American writers teach in person. We all read all the stories every week and we talk about them in a real-time online space called StoryMOO. The issue is to help writers figure out what they are trying to do, and through discussion, close the distance between what they have in their heads and what's on the page. This means clarifying what readers don't understand in a first draft, learning to dramatize instead of describing at length, and finding new ways to bring their stories to life. Since in the best fiction, form and content are inseparable, I am looking at EVERYTHING, from what they do to the way they're doing it. I've known a lot of naturally talented student writers and some who will never be any good no matter what they do, but I thing real writers are people with that gift--- who are willing to spend the rest of their lives getting better at what they do.

Axxón: What´s your view about SF written by women? Do you think it has any special characteristics that we usually don´t see in male writers? Which ones?

Kit Reed: Now the terrible truth; I don't read genre fiction; I don't really read SF, unless it's something by a good friend, which means I can't even begin to answer that question. As for women mainstream writers who deviate from "fact," Shirley Jackson, Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates are interesting, and Iris Murdoch played with reality in her own way; there are hundreds more, but at the moment, these are the names that come to mind. In any field, men seem more inclined to take risks. As a group, women writers are less inclined to experiment; the best of them work from within character, and they work close to home. Gay writers like Geoff Ryman and Samuel R. Delany combine some of the same sensibility-- close attention to emotional landscapes-- with a higher level of invention; men just do.

Axxón: The Axxón team thanks you very much for having agreed to answer our questions, and for having done so with great generosity and intelligence, and finally asks you to say whatever you wish about yourself, about literature or about the readers.

Kit Reed: As for a last answer, or last thoughts; I'll focus on the readers. Without them, we wouldn't exist! Thanks to all, and thanks for some great questions.

Entrevista de "Equipo Axxón": Claudia De Bella, Eduardo J. Carletti y Sergio Gaut vel Hartman.

Ilustrado por Valeria Uccelli
Axxón 167 - octubre de 2006

Página Axxón Axxón 167