November 2004

Geoffrey H. Goodwin

features

An Interview with Caitlin R. Kiernan

Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Murder of Angels is earning great reviews. Entertainment Weekly just gave it an A-, praising the book as a “brutally realistic portrayal of addiction and mental illness.” Murder of Angels is a harrowing novel of love and transcendence that takes place in two worlds: one somewhat like our own and the other a world of mystery traditions and fantastic landscapes.

Since selling her first short story eleven years ago, Kiernan has had six novels published, with her fiction earning acclaim on all fronts. Her first novel Silk (1998) won the International Horror Guild’s award for First Novel and Barnes and Noble’s Maiden Voyage award. Silk was followed by Threshold, Low Red Moon and the release of her long-delayed first novel The Five of Cups.

Along with the novels, Kiernan wrote for DC Vertigo’s The Dreaming from 1997 to the series conclusion in 2001 and her short fiction has been collected in Tales of Pain and Wonder, From Weird and Distant Shores, and Wrong Things (written with Poppy Z. Brite). Upcoming projects include a short story collection called To Charles Fort, With Love, and the soon-to-be-released dark science fiction novella The Dry Salvages.

A vertebrate paleontologist, Caitlin R. Kiernan uses that training to render the worlds, deep time and vast cosmos of her work with scientific precision. The clarity, intelligence and insistent pull of her words and characters have been praised by Peter Straub, Charles de Lint, Poppy Z. Brite and many others, with Neil Gaiman calling her “the poet and bard of the wasted and the lost.” Her website is Caitlinrkiernan.com.

You've been talking about a sort-of-sequel to Silk for at least four years. Was Murder of Angels a tough book to write?

Yes, it was an extraordinarily tough book to write. I've never written a book that was easy to write, and I doubt I ever shall. Silk took me more than three years, though it wasn't particularly difficult. But then Threshold was a nightmare, and I was sick, physically ill, most of the time I was writing it. Then I started Murder of Angels in the summer of 2000, got two chapters in, and it just completely stalled out on me. I fought with it until the following spring, when I finally gave up. I shelved it, and in 2002, in only about eight months, I did Low Red Moon. That's the closest I've come to doing an "easy" novel. It wasn't easy. It was difficult as hell, but it just kept coming, and suddenly it was done. And I think it fooled me into thinking I could do that again, write a novel in only eight months. So I signed a two-book deal with Penguin, for Low Red Moon and Murder of Angels. In September 2002, I pulled Murder down off the shelf, dusted it off, read through the hundred or so pages I'd done, tossed out a chapter I couldn't use, and figured I'd have it finished by the end of June, at the latest. Wrong.

Right from the start, I was back into all the old problems I'd had with the book: writing a sequel that simultaneously was and wasn't a sequel, that could stand on its own but connect with the people who'd liked Silk; allowing the book to go into more fantastic territory, which I'd always planned for it to do; working through a lot of very, very personal problems that I try to deal with in the book. The last was the worst problem. Murder was more than a year of intense self analysis, I think. Me as Niki. Me as Daria. Me as Spyder. Having to be these three women, all broken bits of me, and face them every day. I was not a nice person to be around. The summer of 2003 was a very dark time around here. I almost gave up on the book more than once that summer. I threatened to burn the print-outs and erase all the files on my hard drive. I fucking hated that goddamn book. It was like having to spend every day sitting in front of a mirror, vivisecting my own brain. And all the time I'm thinking, no one's going to get this book. They're going to hate it. It's too weird. It's going to get awful reviews. I didn't finish it until December 2003. It took just a little longer to write than Silk, which I guess is appropriate.

How do you think Murder of Angels compares to your other novels?

I can't really answer that question. I still think that Low Red Moon is my best book so far, at least it's my favorite. But lots of people disagree with me, and some of them are a bit brighter than me. I'd say, Murder of Angels is probably my most ambitious book so far, and it's some of my most honest writing, and it might serve to give readers a fair idea of where I'm headed as a writer.

For the unaware, as Caitlin, could you please describe Nar'eth.

Let's see. Nar'eth is the person I sometimes wish that I were. Or she's the person I really am inside. She's a rouge Nebari bounty hunter and arms smuggler, outwardly amoral, inwardly anything but. She's a full-fledged alter-ego that started out as a costume, a costume that came about because I fell in love with the TV series Farscape and then let a friend dare me I wouldn't do something as unprofessional as show up in full Nebari make-up at an SF convention where I was a guest. But now she's become this whole other thing. I think there are people who know who Nar'eth is, but have no idea who Caitlín R. Kiernan is, which is actually kind of cool. She's a practice in pop-culture shamanism. She's a way of stepping almost entirely out of myself and letting go for a day or so. It's not easy, which is probably a good thing. I spend four hours in a make-up chair, wear uncomfortable black contact lenses that severely impair my vision, ten-pound leg shields, a steel-boned leather corset that restricts my breathing. The airbrushed make-up is completely sweat-proof and has to be removed with isopropyl alcohol. When the whole process is done, there's no exposed skin anywhere on me, and it's hot as hell in there. But, regardless of all this, here's this new being looking back at me, and it's one of the few things I do these days that I could describe as fun. I think there might be more than a handful of my peers who see me doing this and look at me even more askance than they did before, but they can get over it. Or not. Whatever. Anyone who wants to know more about Nar'eth should visit Nebari.net.

Despite this fun streak (and your ritual of Friday Night Kid Night which involves B-movies, videogames and comfort food), your work embodies a fierce responsibility to the reader and characters who often face difficult personal transformations. How did you acquire such perseverance and passion? Have you always been an intense and disciplined person or was there a turning point where the life you were living and, in effect, your writing became more serious?

I wasn't such a dire child. That didn't begin until high school, when I started having serious issues with things like faith, popularity, and gender identity. That was where things began to slip, I suspect. But I've always been very passionate, something of a perfectionist, and I think all the years I spent working as a paleontologist, especially the time doing fossil excavation in the field and preparation in the lab, helped nurture that. Doing such precise, difficult, demanding work. If you're preparing a seventy million year old bone and screw up, that's it. That thing survived for fucking eons and can be destroyed by a second's carelessness.

It never even occurred to me not to approach writing with the same intensity and focus. There's very little I don't approach with intensity. I mean, if it's worth noticing at all, it's probably worth taking seriously. I'm sick of watching dispassionate people who may as well be zombies, shuffling indifferently from Point A to Point B, consuming crap and producing crap. I think my writing is a fairly accurate reflection of who I am, what I've lived through, of who I want to be. I've survived things that I shouldn't have, that no one should have to survive: divorces, a lover's suicide, discrimination so pernicious and inescapable that it entirely altered the course of my life, gender dysphoria and gender reassignment, an alcoholic stepfather, physical and psychological abuse, drug addiction, life in the South, and eight years of college. But, understand, I'm emphatically not saying, "Oh, please pity me for my difficulties and misfortune. I've been victimized." Not in my fiction or in real life. Instead, I'm saying, "This is what I've seen out there. This is what I've experienced. This is how bad it can get, and as a writer it is my responsibility to try and relate these experiences." I don't know. No, I was not always so disciplined or serious, intense or passionate, but now I am. It's what has come of being alive, which, I should point out, wasn't my idea in the first place, so it's how I approach writing.

Allen Ginsberg believed that, while touching himself and reading "Ah Sunflower" in 1948, the actual William Blake came and spoke to him. If the world is indeed that complex, and H. P. Lovecraft chose to visit you, what would you say to him?

That I was very sorry that he had to live the last part of his life in such absolute, terrible poverty and that he was not truly appreciated until long after his death. Twice now, I've gone to Providence and visited the places where he lived and worked, visited his grave, and there's always such a sense of sadness to these trips. And yet, I read the letters he was writing at the time, towards the end, and Lovecraft seems to have had an ability to carry himself with dignity in the face of very demeaning circumstances and to see silver linings where I'd have only seen doom and futility. So, I would also say to him how much I admire that ability in him and how much I have envied it. But I suspect the best I can do is to continue to draw attention to his influence on my own work and to continue to insist that anyone who wants to seriously approach reading or writing dark fantasy must read Lovecraft repeatedly. Occasionally, I will also leave something on his headstone, usually a small plastic frog.

Memento mori, or at least what Franz Kafka broached when he said, "The meaning of life is that it stops," is present throughout your work. How does this help to tell your stories?

I don't know that it helps me tell my stories. Instead, I'd say it's one of the reasons that I'm telling stories. We seem to be at a point in history where society, at least Western society, is more intent on ignoring the reality of death than ever before. We wage wars, but never see the bodies. Our government doesn't want us to see the bodies. Everyone knows that death is always right here with us, sure as our shadows, but most people seem to exist in a perpetual state of denial. It's as though they believe that it'll never happen to them if only they ignore it hard enough, or maybe they think that acknowledging it as a part of day-to-day existence will somehow devalue their lives. Don't get me wrong. Death scares the piss out of me, which is probably another reason it figures so prominently in what I write. But I've been staring it in the face since I was a kid. Few things terrify me so much as the end of consciousness, which is what I fear that death may be. But I don't know how to stop thinking about death, any more than I know how to stop thinking about life. So, I look for the beauty and the wonder and the horror in it and then try to celebrate those things, which seems a whole lot healthier than cowering in fear or pretending that I'll live forever.

How are the branching outcomes, actions done and not done and their effects on worldlines, integral to Murder of Angels?

This has been a recurring theme throughout my work, probably from the very start. History is this amazingly strange thing. And the more physicists learn about space and time, the stranger history becomes. I'm obsessed with "the road not taken," as Frost said. Change just one little thing, and it all comes out differently. History is so unfathomably complex that we can hardly begin to grasp the importance of our least significant actions upon the whole. Nothing anyone ever does is negligible. In the case of Silk and Murder of Angels, I'm always asking myself questions like, what if Niki hadn't dealt so poorly with the news that Danny Boudreaux was a transsexual? What if she'd never gone to Birmingham? What if her car hadn't broken down there? What if Daria had never picked up her boyfriend's bass? What if Spyder's father hadn't been a lunatic? What if Scarborough Pentecost hadn't died in Spyder's house [in Low Red Moon]. What would have happened in that other world, if that other world actually exists? What if Niki had been better at committing suicide? What if Daria had never become a successful musician? Reshuffle the cards and you'll deal a different hand. The multiverse contains an infinite number of recombinations. And it's this fact that underlies much of Murder of Angels. From the beginning, I refused to allow myself to know how the book would end. That would be determined by each and every decision I made through the proxy of the characters, another act of shamanism. It all could have gone another way. In other worldlines, I'm sure it did. There are universes where I wrote books wherein Niki fought the Dragon or where the Dragon reached our world or where Niki and Daria never became lovers, books wherein Spyder never went insane. But here, now, this is what happened. I never cease to find that fascinating, that the end result is never inevitable.

In a previous interview, you said that you think people can consciously lead themselves to moments of awe and that reality may be, at best, an illusion -- even implying that chaos theory and quantum physics are scarier than the things you dream up. Is your work an intentional attempt to challenge and explore comfortable assumptions of reality?

Oh, I think it's absolutely true that chaos theory and quantum physics are scarier, and weirder, things than anything I could ever dream up. This is the fact that lies at the root of all good dark fiction, that fiction that often gets labeled Lovecraftian because Lovecraft kept pointing this out. We are brilliant, fleeting dust specks adrift in an incomprehensible and probably indifferent matrix of subatomic particles and atoms and organisms and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes and timelines. But yes, I would say that a lot of what I'm doing is trying to get people to at least question their perceptions of "reality." I'm not so ambitious as to think I can lead anyone to expand his or her consciousness, and consciousness is the fundamental unit of individual reality. But I can at least try to instill a little doubt.

I'm annoyed at how many people read Murder of Angels and quickly draw conclusions about the relationship between Spyder's insanity and the existence of the world of the Dragon and the red witches. Did Spyder create it from her own psychocosm? Was it there all along and somehow she became conscious of it as a child? Is this really somehow the result of Niki's schizophrenia? Was Spyder right about the Nephilim, even without knowing it? These are all perfectly good questions that the book may be asking, but if you allow yourself to settle on one then I'm afraid you've missed the point. People hate uncertainty. They want to know "what happened." But for me it's always the questions, and the act of asking the questions, of figuring out how to formulate the questions, that's really interesting. Truth, if such a thing actually exists, strikes me as a dead end. That all sounds very arrogant, I know, but it's meant just the opposite. All I'm saying is that I don't know anything.

On August 3rd of this year (at http://www.livejournal.com/users/greygirlbeast/) you discussed why your novels, chapbooks and collections have been dedicated to Elizabeth Tillman Aldridge. Her suicide was obviously a great personal loss and something you waited nine years to discuss publicly. What has it been like to unearth this secret and how does this tie in to her influence on your work?

I've never talked about this in an interview before. I hadn't planned on ever talking about it publicly, not beyond the dedications in my books. Then, a day or two before this most recent anniversary of her death, I decided I'd talk about it in the blog. And I didn't let myself talk myself out of doing it. Her death in 1995, just as I was beginning to be recognized as an author, changed everything about my life. Everything. When I found out what had happened, that she was gone, that was one of my first thoughts — Everything is changed forever. Whatever was going to happen, her decision made this happen, instead. Sometimes that has made me very angry. And yes, I wish she were here. But I won't condemn her for making the choice she made. I know it's all far too complicated to allow myself to think like that.

As for my work, I think it's fairly evident that she's one of the things I've been writing about over and over for years. Her death determined the ending of Silk, and she's the reason I needed to create Salmagundi Desvernine, and the reason that Jimmy DeSade became such a bastard, and the reason Low Red Moon is such a unrelentingly harsh novel. I think Low Red Moon was an attempt to deal with her death, once and for all and be done with it. I'd heard a line from Poe's song "Haunted" — "Time to gather up the splinters, Build a casket for my tears" — and it was always at the heart of that book. And I did work through a lot of my grief in Low Red Moon, but it's not a casket. I know now that there's never going to be a casket. Murder of Angels is, in part, my acknowledgement that memory, not forgetting, is the way I'll deal with Elizabeth's death. There. That's the hardest question I've ever had to answer in an interview. You better print every word.

Having written six novels, forty-eight comic scripts, at least sixty short stories -- even singing for a goth band at one point -- what would you say to someone who is just discovering your work?

Well, it's probably not what you're expecting. I'd say that. And I'd say please, please, please give it a chance, work with me. I don't write books or stories that are meant to be passively consumed. And if you keep coming back, I'd say thank you.

Finally, all else being equal, how would Nar'eth see Caitlin?

I think Nar'eth would find Caitlín utterly perplexing, frustrating, occasionally infuriating. She wouldn't ever have the patience for Caitlín. Nar'eth acts, and Caitlín dithers. Nar'eth would think I waste too damn much time on foolishness and propriety. She'd be furious at the amount of crap I take off people, and she'd definitely be of the opinion that I ought to write less and get out more often. That's how Nar'eth would see Caitlín, I think.