An Interview with Kage Baker
The public personas of some writers cut a wide swath through the publishing world. Think Stephen King. Think Harlan Ellison. Think Neal Pollack. If you simply scan the room, you’ll find them, either by the size of their entourage or the volume of their talk.
But for each of these eye-catching figures, there are at least half-a-dozen equally talented scribes hovering around the margins and taking careful notes about human behavior. Their lack of bombast doesn’t indicate a lack of things to say. For evidence, one need look no further than Kage Baker.
You may not have heard of her. It’s only recently that Baker’s work has bubbled up from being beloved by a few to being enjoyed by many. Her first four novels (In the Garden of Iden, Mendoza in Hollywood, Sky Coyote and The Graveyard Game) fell firmly in the science fiction camp and explored The Company, a collection of cyborgs who mined the past for antiquities. Her next novel, The Anvil of the World, was a fantasy about a Puckish fairy called Ermenwyr. Baker’s longer fiction has floundered for a bit, lost in a sea of publishing woe. Fortunately, this has changed. At the end of 2004, Tor will release the next Company novel, The Life of the World to Come.
While her full-length work is engaging, it’s her short fiction that has gotten the most buzz, turning up in such august publications as Asimov’s. (For a complete list of her 35+ stories, check out www.kagebaker.com) In 2003, Baker picked up inaugural Norton award, given to short works that "extraordinary invention and creativity unhindered by the constraints of paltry reason." This year, her novella The Empress of Mars was up for a Nebula (and lost to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline) and is currently up for a Hugo, which will be announced Labor Day weekend.
Up until now, most of Baker’s short stories have been scattered far and wee. Indie publisher Night Shade Books has rectified this situation. In June, Mother Aegypt, a collection of a dozen previously released shorts and the new title story, will hit the shelves. Without fail, these tales capture Baker’s best and may help push her work even further into the public eye, regardless of whether the author herself is willing to cultivate a colorful public persona.
The individual stories in Mother Aegypt seem to fit together quite well and almost feel like the overlaps were intentional, despite having been published at different times and in different venues. As you were writing the individual stories in that wound up in Mother Aegypt, did you always envision collecting all of them in one place?
Funnily enough, no -- at least, not this particular assortment. But as many of them had been originally published in some obscure places, I thought it might be nice to eventually make these stories a bit more accessible to the reader unwilling to go digging through the stacks at the library to pinch back issues of magazines. Then Night Shade approached me about doing the title novella, and one thing led to another.
The stories were prompted by quite different circumstances over the years: an image glimpsed in a commercial that stuck in my mind, a Jethro Tull song, a game of pinball in the arcade, an interminable nocturnal journey by train, a visit to the Winchester Mystery House. Having said that, I must admit that there seems to be a theme of angry women running through a lot of the stories. And angry little girls. I suspect that if I ever let my inner child out to play, dreadful things would happen.
Which story is based on a Jethro Tull song? My curiosity is more intense than my knowledge of Jethro Tull, I must admit.
That would be “Leaving His Cares Behind.” The average person I guess knows Tull for “Bungle in the Jungle” or “Living in the Past” or “Aqualung,” but they’ve done a lot more than that in the 30-odd years they’ve been recording. Pick up a copy of Songs from the Wood sometime, or Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, or Twelve Dances with God (which is actually by Ian Anderson, their lead singer and composer).
Anyway, when the old Tull album Stand Up was recently re-mastered, I treated myself to a copy. Damn fine album, too. There’s a song called “Back to the Family,” which I interpret as being about a young man finding independent life too much of a struggle -- until he goes back home to the parents, and promptly remembers why he got out on his own in the first place.
Do you have more Ermenwyr stories tucked away? And do you have any thoughts on how you "met" him?
Ermenwyr is a central character in The Anvil of the World, of course. And there will certainly be other stories about him. He has terrific neuroses to explore, all kinds of twists and kinks in his psyche, and he’s quite funny. It will be interesting to trace his growth from the sort of callow and poisonous (if witty) child he starts out as, to someone with perhaps a bit more moral fiber. Or something.
He has been with me quite a long time. Ermenwyr’s character coalesced out of the narrative voice in a lot of early Jethro Tull songs -- they suggest an image of a young man with a wicked sense of humor, sharp, cynical and intelligent, complicated by some outré tastes and more than a touch of hypochondria. Capable of very bad behavior indeed but unable to free his heart of a certain painful compassion for others.
It must be pointed out that Ermenwyr is not in any way intended as a portrait of Ian Anderson. I know from sad experience what happens when people try to draw conclusions about an artist’s personal life from his or her art. Nonetheless, I do imagine Ermenwyr’s physical appearance greatly resembles Anderson’s as he appears on the back cover of Tull’s Warchild album. That and Jason Isaacs’ portrayal of Captain Hook, in P.J. Hogan’s marvelous Peter Pan!
Is the Amaunet/Golescu/Emil trio in the title piece based in any particular Egyptian story?
No, actually. Mother Aegypt and Little Emil make a brief appearance in The Children of the Company, which is the next Company novel in line after The Life of the World to Come (Tor Books, December 2004). I finished the first draft of Children about three years ago, and it seemed to me Amaunet and Emil were worth taking further as characters.
Of course, neither of them are particularly reactive nor capable of growth, so I had to tell their stories through the device of a third person interacting with them. Initially Golescu was simply a bad man, and I couldn’t make him even remotely interesting. Then somehow the image of a fat man in a clown suit, running for his life across the plains of Romania, came before my eyes… and the story just started to tell itself.
Quite a few of the stories in Mother Aegypt revolve around "invisible" people, those who are either too young, too old or too poor to attract much notice. Why do you think that is? Do you (or did you) feel the same or are you just more attuned to those that have been marginalized?
Yes, I would say I have invisibility issues. When I was two I developed a disfiguring eye condition that required surgery, and it caused a great deal of trauma in my family -- when the bandages came off, my mother screamed, “Oh, my God, she’s Rrrrruined!” -- and I very much wanted to disappear.
And I do seem to have attained a certain transparency through life, what with being a comparatively poor and plain spinster aunt. I blur into the background a lot. But it has been a great deal of help as a writer -- you can observe a lot about human nature when people don’t notice you’re there. And you do develop a lot of empathy with marginalized people.
Children are treated either as property, pets or mirrors by a lot of parents -- not as people. I wouldn’t be a child again for all the tea in China, and I had good parents, mind you. The ill, the elderly, the poor all slog along at the edges of life, unseen. All of them wake one morning to the realization that all the world wants of them is to die and stop taking up space, thank you very much. They’ve dropped out of the pattern of human concern. But they too have voices, have faces and hearts. Someone should speak for them.
Your work has been called "whimsical," a description that, as a reader, I agree with, even though I also think there is more going on than that. Still -- how do you feel about the description? How would you define what it is that you do? Or do you prefer to leave the descriptions up to the folks who write the copy on the backs of your books?
I take the word “whimsical” to refer to stuff like garden gnomes and sweaters on little dogs. There’s certainly humor in my stuff, but if you observe closely, it’s generally laughter in the midst of catastrophe and loss. Sometimes life is just so God-awful you have to laugh, because if you start weeping, you’ll never be able to stop. This is not a philosophy that reads well on book jackets, however, so I tend to leave blurb copy up to the assistant editors. “Wacky romp” is another phrase that turns up quite often. Curious. Mind you, it’s a great honor to be described in terms of a Chuck Jones cartoon.
And I must say, I like making people laugh. It’s one of the kindest things you can do for others. I got a letter from an ER nurse who told me she likes to read my stuff after a day in the trenches; that delighted me, that just about validated my entire life.
Do you have an end already in sight for The Company novels? What I mean is – do you know where these characters end up once they catch up to "their" time? Or are you (metaphorically) just driving as far as you can currently see with your headlights?
I do have an end in sight. I’ve known for years, in a general sort of way, how Mendoza’s story was going to turn out. But there have been some unexpected developments, particularly in the cases of characters who surprised me by taking on lives of their own. I’ve had to revise here and there to work out their destinies.
Will Joseph revive Budu and raise an army to destroy the Dr. Zeus board of directors? What really did happen to Lewis, and have we seen the last of him? Who are those little stupid people? Where are the immortals who have disappeared? How will Victor regain his personal honor? What about the wicked immortals who have been moving behind the scenes? Will they get what they deserve? It’’s been interesting, chasing after the answers. Let us hope people enjoy the process of finding out as much as I did.
Have the Hugo and Nebula nominations changed anything for you?
Yes, I’d say so. People tend to take you a lot more seriously when you have award nominations, if not outright wins, on your CV. One can spout off all one likes about awards being meaningless, or mere popularity contests, or no reflection of worth, but -- hell yes, it’s grand to get your name on that list.
I think I’m settling into a long career as a perpetual nominee; I’m not sure my stuff appeals enough to the fanboys to ever win. But I’d a damn sight rather have the nominations than nothing! And am very grateful to the judges for those little consolation pins, too. They look spiffy.
How do you think being from California (and currently still living there, yes?) has influenced your work?
Yes, I’m still resident in California. It has golden hills and oak trees and a fine long seacoast, and I will live here as long as I can afford to, even if it means spending my old age in a trailer park. Maybe I can live on frogs, like the Triplets of Belleville.
Having been born in Hollywood, and growing up as I did on the fringes of the movie industry, I did sort of absorb early on the sense of seeing the world from backstage. All my friends’ daddies were stunt men and grips and second unit directors and bit players. Most of them had to scramble to pay the rent. My own mother was a crowd extra and stunt double at RKO in the 1940s. I saw plenty of movie stars; they were usually slouched by the magazine racks in the corner market, reading Variety, with their hair in curlers and despairing expressions on their faces.
Possibly because of this I went out into the world with fewer illusions about glamour. And a certain appreciation of good illusion! My heroes were the guys who could build a complete Roman villa on a studio backlot, or frame a shot so that Bronson Canyon Quarry looked like an alien planet. Some of this has surely seeped into the makeup of the Company immortals, whose whole lives are spent faking mortal identities so they can move through the world unnoticed.
Too, my hometown’s ethic -- just about the only one it has -- is that the most important thing in the world is to be able to grab people’s attention, to entertain them, to delight them. It’s a serviceable creed for a writer too.
Generic writerly question -- where do you write and what does the room look like?
I write at a rolltop desk, which was the first really nice piece of furniture I ever owned. I bought it with the proceeds from In the Garden of Iden, the first novel. It’s cluttered, to put it mildly. The top is lined with reference books, but to get at them I have to move all kinds of good luck gris-gris and pirate stuff, St. Jude candles, and a little figure of Mr. Krabs from Spongebob Squarepants. I have a lot in common with Mr. Krabs. We’re both middle-aged, red-faced people without necks who worry about money.
The desk sits in the middle of what is essentially the only room in my house,
which was built about 70 years ago from wrecked ships and house demolition salvage.
It’s roughly the size and shape of a shoebox, with a lean-to off one side
for the kitchen and a lean-to off the other side for my bedroom. No two windows
match. All level surfaces are covered with stacks of books and DVDs, and a thick
layer of dust sits on anything I’m not immediately using. There is a parrot
perch immediately behind my chair, and my parrot has grown expert at leaning
out to grab my braid and swinging himself across to my shoulder when he thinks
I have something he wants, like M&Ms or coffee.
What has surprised you most about the publishing/professional writer world? Has your opinion of it changed over the last decade or so?
Wow, where does one even start? The biggest surprise is that even successful writers can’t make a living at it. It pays nearly as badly as acting, which is saying something.
In a world where a talented, bestselling author like Charles L. Grant has to literally beg for the air he breathes, because he can’t afford medical coverage -- or an editor has to beg corporate accountants for marketing budgets to promote new talent -- why, the writing is on the wall, isn’t it? But not for the CEOs, you may be sure. They can simply go off and wreck some other art form, as is currently happening at Disney.
There are a few brave souls who are holding their standards high, waiting for
better days -- my current publishers among them -- and I think ultimately the
dinosaurs will die off and the little warm-blooded mammals like Night Shade
Books will grow strong and inherit the earth.