May 2011

Kathe Koja

features

Joyriding

The view from the road is a real chiaroscuro -- a boy with a shaved head beside teenagers laughing, a woman striking metal with a hammer, two handsome men in dirty top hats, something silver like a sliver flaring as vision flashes by. Each moment, incident, action, encapsulation, could be a story in itself; a novel. In fact it is, they are, they all are, making up a road map of work, 14 books spanning 20 years, the way a road links a city to a town to a forest to the sea. They’re what I see when someone asks me to provide my bibliography, and when that person reads it, s/he says, almost every single time, “You write a lot of different things, don’t you?”

Sometimes the difference is noted with interest, sometimes with bemusement; sometimes the tone of voice says Another new job, huh? (Especially noted is the part about winning a Bram Stoker Award and a Parents’ Choice Award: there’s something about that particular juxtaposition that really piques the eyebrows.) Mostly, though, it’s plain curiosity: Why would a writer choose to hopscotch from SF short stories to horror novels to mainstream fiction to contemporary YA to historical, what’s the throughline, what’s the advantage, if there is one? Is there one? Doesn’t all that motion discourage readers from keeping track of a writer’s byline, and continuing to read the books? Doesn’t it splinter and resplinter the interest that a writer -- OK, say me; I can’t discuss anyone’s track record but my own -- tries to generate and maintain? Why would I want to make it harder for people to find my stuff in the thickets of category, or risk turning off the horror readers with a YA novel, the YA readers with a historical, or each group with all the others?

And don’t even get started on the marketing angle. Let’s see: the last novel was a YA about teenage girls in an exclusive, upscale boarding school, and this new one is a romance with sex puppets in a rundown Victorian brothel… OK. How do you expect -- or why do you expect -- or… You know, listen, thanks for the look, but we don’t really think it’s for us. And P.S., publishing is in a state of enormous flux these days, so now is probably not the best time to do whatever it is you’re doing. Don’t you want people to read what you write?

Of course I do. I want everyone in the world who might have some interest in what I’m doing to know about it, to read it, to engage in an intellectual and emotional conversation through the medium of fiction: absolutely I want that. And the way I mean to initiate that conversation, every time, is through joy: by having the most fun possible with everything I write, following the tug and rush of pleasure, the turning of the worm of interest, in Walker Percy’s indelible phrase, toward whatever character is most interesting now: right now. The clang and crush of metal, of a breaking heart… that’s Tess, and behind her is Bibi; that’s Skin. That kid with the shaved head on the school stairs, who is he, what’s that tie-dyed t-shirt about? He’s Jinsen, Michael Martin, he’s Buddha Boy. And that handsome, disreputable pair in the top hats, heading down the road together with the puppets in tow, they’re Istvan and Rupert, yes, that’s Under the Poppy. Like meeting a gorgeous stranger at a party, at the bus stop, in the co-op produce aisle, what fun would I have missed, what work would not have been created, had I not flung down my drink and the broccoli, and followed each of these characters wherever they were going, before they got away?

I don’t know a better, more joyful way to go about my business -- and it is my business, for sure; I don’t have a day job or other safety net. Though I hasten to add (with bells on) that for the last 10-plus years my work has been accompanied by my supportive genius agent, Christopher Schelling, who saw in the short story “straydog” the germ of the novel straydog, who never once has tried to discourage me from writing what engages and excites me, whatever it might be, leaving till later the worry over what to call it, or where to finally place it in the landscape of fiction.

And that landscape is most capacious: where are we now, where are we headed on this joyride, where will we sleep tonight? Couch-surf in a stranger’s friendly spare room, lie down in a decent hostel, explore a chilly grand hotel, share a wary, one-eye-open doze in a crapulous alley where something in the dumpster is, yes, actually it is moving, so we’d better get the hell out now… To travel this way, to explore and attempt to render the human condition from so many different vantage points and with such varying views, to meet the challenge or totally fail (14 published books; there are a few incomplete manuscripts in the hallway closet…) -- this is tremendous fun that I hope fully communicates itself, translates to interest and pleasure for the reader. And what is genre but a signpost for those accommodations, a handy shorthand way to situate a story on that map of the word?

And as a signpost, it can be a huge help to a writer who’s new in town. A reader may pick up one of my novels without knowing anything about me or my stuff, because s/he enjoys that particular genre. It’s a form of open-mindedness, of readerly generosity, and I’ve been its lucky beneficiary many times, starting with my very first novel, The Cipher.

Though when genre is discussed by writers, there’s sometimes the perception -- not always, but often enough to give one pause -- that sometimes it’s not a signpost but a fence made of rules (YA is this or horror is that), or, worst of all, a commercial panic room that, once safely in, the writer ought not leave. You wrote and sold a well-done, well-regarded mystery novel? Well then, keep writing mysteries! Readers dig your snappy chick lit? You know what to do. Dark and brooding, go brood in the dark… But why enforce such artificial boundaries? How can that help you grow as a writer, or make your books worth reading whatever their genre?

Now, if writing mysteries, or series YA, or books about puppets in brothels is what you want to do, writer, forever, if you are engaged and exhilarated and challenged every time out, then that’s fantastic, what situation could be better for you or your readers? Patrick O’Brian, for one example, rode a ship for a very long time: would anyone dare say he should have stopped at Book 2, or Book 10? Not me, or the billion readers who love Aubrey and Maturin. The story takes precedence always, and the point is growth, not just travel for the mere sake of novelty.

And not every genre is a possible destination for a writer’s particular talent. I would love to collaborate on a picture book, but love’s not enough, and the haiku-like brevity of that form may always be beyond me. I may always be a tourist in that landscape, never a maker. But unless I try, unless I allow my interest to lead my fiction, I can never really know for sure.

So if the journey is the destination… If you know my byline and want to ride along with me, that’s excellent, let’s go. Or maybe we’ll meet fresh somewhere along the road. Either way, every time out, let the joyride commence.

Kathe Koja lives in the Detroit area and is the author of Under the Poppy, Buddha Boy, The Cipher, and Extremities: Stories, among others. She is working to bring Under the Poppy to the stage.