Kij Johnson’s collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees brings her trademark thoughtful, unsettling touch to a wide variety of speculative genres and unusual topics, from ethereal fantasy to hard SF.
How did you select these stories, and how are they tied together?
I love the flexibility of trying new genres and voices, but I stay close to certain core questions and themes. Who or what is the Other? Can we understand each other? Is that even possible? I often write about characters who are deeply alone, for whom the gap between the Self and the Other feels (or is) unbridgeable. Except for my earliest stories, my fiction is usually engaged consciously with narrative as a way to potentially bridge that gap. When I play around with mode or voice, I am experimenting. Will this communicate what I need to say? What about this?
Why feature very human animals in tales like “Ponies” and “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”?
Animals operate on the human psyche at so many levels: as exemplars of the Other, as useful allies or intimate friends or unthinking tools, as representatives of a hostile or nurturing Nature, as sexual or social displacement strategies, as sustenance or devourers, as totems or metaphors or allegorical figures. They give me a chance to push certain questions out to their logical—or illogical—extremes using icons that are both familiar and alien.
“My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” has a distinct comic tone. What was the impulse behind that choice?
I am sort of a style wonk. Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is on my phone so that I can read it when I am stuck in lines. I walk around the house reciting it; I diagram the sentences for fun; I force copies on my eye-rolling friends. Quite apart from being hilarious, the book is structurally interesting, experimental as hell, and it has some important things to say to a modern writer about voice, dramatic tension, and the metafictional and storytelling impulses. “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” was an attempt to get a grip on how exactly Sterne manages to do all this. Also, my friends challenged me to get the following things into a single story: “a garrulous fool,” The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and flightless fowl. Really, it wrote itself.
Many of your works can be read online for free. What are your thoughts on the digital publishing revolution?
I love what’s happening to fiction right now. I love that people—people with day jobs, people without training, people writing while their toddler’s asleep or they’re riding the train home from work—feel they can write. It doesn’t have to be performed by holy practitioners somehow set apart by their genius. There’s always room for artists, but there’s also a place for everyone else to write things that entertain themselves and their friends. Jane Austen wrote for the amusement of her family; why shouldn’t the rest of us?