An Interview with Kathe Koja
Below, Kathe Koja talks about taking writing seriously and its importance to her as the only thing she had ever wanted to do. And she finishes that answer with the sentence, “Now go write.” It’s clear who she’s talking to. It’s the hypothetical young writer who she’s offering encouragement to, but it’s also clear that she’s speaking for and to herself.
An FSG promotional brochure for educator book fairs from 2005, with her big smile and sparkling eyes on its cover, says something similar with, “I’ve been writing since I was a very young girl -- it’s not just what I do, it’s who I am, the way I see the world, and the way I try to make sense of what I see.”
She’s not just turning in pretty copy when she says that. They’re the sentiments of a writer who -- despite talking about how she came to accept her potential and abilities gradually or how attending Clarion in 1984 completely changed her life because she learned that she had value as a writer and qualified to sit at the table -- was going to be a writer no matter what.
Let’s not fool ourselves. Some writers’ biggest claim to fame will eventually be that they cut a wonderful silhouette at fundraising dinners or that they dated eight to ten better-known writers who got progressively younger even as the hanger-on aged. Koja’s the other kind. She writes. Then she writes some more. There’s little point in focusing on details like how she was the second of two sisters, born in Detroit and raised in an east-side suburb or that she loves her husband and children and animals. It’s, of course, wonderful that she’s a woman of redeeming and admirable traits and it might say a lot that she’s willing to try a corset on for the sake of research -- but those kind of details offer little in terms of describing the drug-induced Tilt-A-Whirl her horror novels can induce or how the YA novels show left-of-center kids learning brutal and hard-won lessons about exactly how mean the world can be. In their way, her books are about transformation and catharsis, how seeing the scarier parts of humanity, in total, can make every moment precious and force us to cling closer to the things we believe are important… but, whether aimed at kids or adults, they don’t hold back from the febrile and painful parts.
Koja’s the kind of writer where everything she’s got is on the page, even if it’s self-incriminating, loathsome, haunted or some indescribable form of verbal self-immolation with an accelerant of jet fuel. As this interview proves, it’s because she writes because she has to and it’s the only thing in the world that she’s ever wanted to do.
You write in a small office in your home. What books are within reach at the moment?
Roget's Thesaurus, Puppetry: a World History by Eileen Blumenthal, and Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, by Richard Thomson, Phillip Dennis Cate, and Mary Weaver Chapin. There's also the ARC of Headlong, my novel due out in the fall from Foster/FSG, but I can't technically reach it from here. All the rest is on shelves, or buried.
So, dripping sarcasm intended because none of this question is accurate, your book, Under the Poppy is going to be your triumphant return to dark literature for adults, right? You’ve been secretly planning a triumphant return to splatterpunk for years, haven’t you?
"Triumphant return" sounds like something with a chariot involved, or at least one of those giant '60s Buick convertibles. The sash, the beauty-queen wave... The truth is, I don't ever plan in advance the things that I want to write. I never know the end of any book when I start writing it, and I never know from year to year what I'll be working on next. I need to have fun with my books, and a big part of that fun is just following my nose. I don't even read much historical fiction, but here we are, with Under
Could you please describe Under the Poppy? With puppets, putting on a corset as research and a post-fin-de-siecle attitude, it's going to be quite creepy, isn't it?
Here's the nutshell description I have on the book's site:
Under the Poppy is the story of an orphaned brother and sister, Istvan and Decca, and their childhood friend, Rupert, set in a Victorian-era brothel called Under the Poppy. The brothel is owned by Decca, who’s in love with co-owner Rupert, who’s in love with Istvan, who comes to town, louche puppet troupe in tow, and takes up residence there.
The lines of their desires intersect against a backdrop of approaching war, as old betrayals and new alliances - not only their own - take shape, hearts are broken, and the townsmen seek refuge from it all by watching the girls of the Poppy cavort onstage with Istvan’s naughty puppets... It’s a love story.
So it's absolutely a love story, of Rupert and Istvan as boys, then men, who need, desire, flee and find each other. And of other loves too, like the primitive, competitive love between siblings; the devotion that grows when people struggle together under awful circumstances; the passion of an artist for his craft. And it's set in an imaginative variant of the Victorian era, so that makes it historical fiction.
The puppet/theatre setting and device are, to me, not only a fantastic way to play -- what could be more fictional than made-up people who themselves are made-up people? -- but a perfect way to illustrate the deep artifice of personality, of the roles we assume day in and day out; and how what we really want, what we desire, will keep bursting through, like weeds in concrete, whatever social constraints and personality constructs we build to contain or deny it. Some people may be freaked out by the puppet aspect -- some people are scared of puppets, reacting maybe to the inherent lawlessness of the thing, the mysterious simulacra who's apt to break out and transgress: steal the show, your seat, your soul, you never know....Want to find out what someone really thinks? Give him/her a hand puppet, and start asking it questions.
And the corset thing was actually pretty sexy, and improved my posture no end.
When does it come out? Has the book trailer helped it get attention?
Lots of good attention, in and out of publishing -- and the process of making the trailer was, in itself, an amazing experience. Watching very talented people put those talents to use making something of mine come alive in a totally different, tactile, visual way, was a huge thrill -- I would love to see the whole Under the Poppy story on stage. And it was great to collaborate in a group like that, and get out of my little paper-filled cave for once.
As for when it comes out, the novel is being shopped at this very moment, so more news as it happens.
Does it make you nutty that you’ve written so much and people still bring up your early work as if they haven’t paid attention to your last six books?
It is kind of disappointing to learn that some people shut themselves off from YA work -- mine or anyone's -- in the belief that there's nothing there for an adult reader, could by definition be nothing there. We all need a nudge out of our readerly comfort zones and I would love to be the gateway drug for people who haven't read any YA before. First taste is free, folks.
There was a neat essay in the NYTBR a little while ago, called "I'm Y.A., and I'm O.K.", talking about the increasingly permeable lines between adult and YA fiction, which has been my experience for sure.
Does that mean an indie horror press should reissue Skin and The Cipher in signed, numbered editions because fans who first found you through straydog are almost grown up enough to finally read and cherish them?
I'd be delighted if they were reissued in mass market editions that those readers could cheaply buy, read, and pass around to their pals. And we can do the gorgeous signed-and-numbered ones for the collectors, too. And webisodes of The Cipher....
A bit more seriously, your website doesn’t list your first five novels. As you were writing straydog, did it feel like it was bringing a significant change in direction? Or is that unfair because you simply write whatever you want to write and books just happened to tumble out that were easily marketed to teenagers but still about animals, love, power in relationships, and how incredibly crazy life can get?
It's significant in that it's a different genre and you have to respect the conditions of the world in which you choose to work, while writing the books you want to write. But again, no plan -- if it wasn't for my genius agent, Chris Schelling (who reads and loves YA), I wouldn't have written a word of "straydog," the short story that became straydog the book, that begat Buddha Boy, Talk, Kissing the Bee, all the other YAs... So if anyone has a master plan for me, it's Chris.
With the site, I started fresh with www.kathekoja.com for readers who had no experience with my byline or my work, so as not to confuse anybody -- is she Skin, or straydog, or what? -- though I am in the midst of a redesign that will incorporate all the books. I've also done some animal-related writing and I hope to do lots more -- I'm an animal rights advocate and volunteer for the Michigan Humane Society -- so there needs to be a place for that, too. Kojakats.com?
That said, it could be argued that the sentence structure of your earlier out-of-print horror novels is denser or more impressionistic than your recent books for teens, though the argument could also be easily undercut by saying that shorter works have more room to be subtly weird without calling as much attention to their structure. Do you think you’ve done an intentional or unintentional shift or something organic that happened over time or, like the previous question, do you just write whatever’s best for the book?
And the stories, while short, were dense as hell too, so you can tweak the argument back and forth. I do always try to serve the piece of work that's under construction -- I had an op-ed thing in the Times that wasn't a bit impressionistic! But fiction, yes, is different.
What I know from the inside is that writing YA has made me a better writer across the board. My voice is still my voice; it always will be. But the economy of writing as a first-person 15-year-old, say, when much is known, intuited, but the vehicle for expression is still finding its way -- that's a lovely discipline. I have learned a lot, and I hope it will show in Under the Poppy and everything that comes after.
Embracing creativity and the act of creation is a recurring trait in your characters. Does this bleed into your personal life? Are you constantly surrounded by creative types, or do you occasionally spend time with people who just drink cheap beer and do Sudoku all day?
Well, last night I was at a garden party where we spent many happy minutes imagining the Kool-Aid guy -- you know, the ad cartoon who's a giant pitcher of Kool-Aid -- filled to the brim with margarita mix and lurching around drunk, breaking down walls, freaking out the kids -- "Oh yeah!" So the answer is yes.
In the '90s, you co-wrote over a dozen short stories with Barry Malzberg when the two of you met at a bookstore. What is it like -- considering that some would say that your sentences are recognizable or distinct -- to share the page?
We had a lot of fun. I knew and admired Barry's work, of course, and having the chance to collaborate with him was a joy. It was really amazingly easy to work together, and our styles meshed pretty seamlessly -- there are almost no places in the stories where one can say, oh I wrote that or s/he wrote that. I had a similar experience with Carter Scholz, another writer I very much admire, when we wrote "The Doctrine of Color" together.
Now where exactly did you learn the strange expression, “Pushing a peanut through sharp gravel with my nose?” What was the origin or context of such an expression? Or should it be forgotten and remain anonymous?
If it wasn't Basho's favorite nut vendor, it should have been... Let it remain written in the peanut-dust of the ages.
Even School Library Journal said that your most recent book, Kissing the Bee, had a “creative, ‘emo’ slant,” in a context that implied that your book could turn emo kids on to reading because of its special voice. Are you fed up with how many reviewers discuss your offbeat, innovative, poetic or avant-garde voice?
No, I'm pleased that they see my voice as an asset. When I read, that's the first thing that draws me in, the strong voice of a Shirley Jackson or Cormac McCarthy or Sylvia Plath -- in music, art, wherever, it's the individual voice that sucks me in, above and past all content. I could listen to Rufus Wainwright sing the phone book or watch Francis Bacon paint a glass of water: just for the way they do it.
You've said that it wasn't until you got the Susan C. Petrey scholarship and attended the Clarion Writer’s Workshop that you got serious about writing. Do you still feel that way?
I definitely feel that way, and I tell young writers that all the time in the workshops I do: Begin by taking your work seriously! Not yourself, not as An Author (whatever that is), but your work.
Clarion put me into a setting where people whose work and opinions I respected (and, in some cases, revered) took me seriously AS a writer; they confirmed my own wildest dream, they said, Yes, of course you can sit at this table, yes, of course this is what you are. Not that my stuff didn't need tons of work (the slaved-over novel I brought to show people never even got out from under the dorm room bed), but that I had stuff, that I could do this thing that was the only thing I had ever wanted to do; that I had the right to be there. That was huge. That changed my life.
So when I talk to young writers, I implore them to give themselves a head start now, today, by taking their talent seriously, by acknowledging that yes, they have this talent, they have the right and the responsibility to make the most, and the best, of it. All the rest comes from that. All the gerunds and queries and publication and reviews and whatever flows from that acceptance: I'm a writer, what I do on earth is write. OK. Now go write.
If you could have a long and chatty dinner with one of the following, who would it be (feel free to give a long answer explaining how you can’t choose just one or justifying your choice): Shirley Jackson, M. R. James, John Malkovich, Stephen Merrit or Flannery O’Connor?
I would gladly serve the food and clean up afterwards just to be in the room at such a dinner. Ain't no way I'm going to reduce that guest list.