The Black Aether

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The Black Aether

Kij Johnson – interview

A singular category of early 21st century Lovecraft reception are “discourse writings” that contribute to Lovecraftian terror by emphasizing viewpoints which were marginalized in the author’s oeuvre. Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, earning her the World Fantasy Award for best long fiction is unique not only for enriching the Lovecraftian tradition with a female protagonist and viewpoint—the latter not too markedly emphasized—but also because instead of the Cthulhu Mythos, which is most frequently associated with his name, it concerns the Dreamland, and rethinks Lovecraft’s dream cycle, specifically the summation of the cycle, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in a fantasy novella. We asked the multiple award-winning author about Lovecraft and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

Hello, Kij. Congratulations for winning the World Fantasy Award for The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, and thank you for sparing some time on The Black Aether’s questions.What are you working on these days?

Good question! At the end of last year I finished a couple of stories that took much longer than they should have to complete. One is called “Tool-Using Mimics,” and it’s based on a piece of art by the amazing Laura Christensen (her website’s at https://laurachristensen.wordpress.com/). The other is a long novelette called “Ada’s Tale” (I think? I haven’t ever liked any of my title ideas for it, and I keep hoping they come up with a better one). They will both be published at Clarkesworld in 2018.

Since then, I have been staggering around a little, thinking I need a new book project. I have a number of possibilities, each of which is the best idea I have ever had, up until the moment that I start work on it—and then one of the other ideas is.

How did writing speculative fiction enter your life? Who were your most significant influences?

 I read science fiction and fantasy from the very beginning. It’s a pretty effortless transition from Peter Rabbit to Lloyd Alexander to Ursula Le Guin. I was always less interested in realistic stories like Beverly Cleary or Huckleberry Finn, though murder mysteries were always a favorite—maybe because the world of mysteries seemed as unreal as Earthsea.

I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my twenties, when I took a SF writing class in the local Continuing Education program. If there had been a mystery class, I wonder whether I would be a mystery writer now! In the early days of my writing, I was deeply influenced by Ursula Le Guin, John Varley, and the many women who were writing subversive heroic and quest fantasies in the early 1980s and into the 90s—Phyllis Ann Karr, Joy Chant, Elizabeth Scarborough, Joyce Ballou Gregorian, Kathryn Kurtz, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and so many others. Most of them have been forgotten by now, alas.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a rethinking of Lovecraft’s novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. How did you encounter Lovecraft’s works, and what were your first impressions reading his stories?

I started reading him before my teenage years. Because I read everything, I was familiar with every ghost story out there—this was before Horror was a marketing category—but I was also pretty sensitive, so I would have nightmares. I can’t believe my parents allowed me to buy that first Lovecraft book, just based on the cover. They must have known it would terrify me. Still, they let me and I read it. I loved the lush world of the Dreamlands, and the ultra-creepy horror stories like “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” but I felt uncomfortable with his obsessive racism. He just kept repeating racist phrases and images until it was impossible to ignore them, even young and blithe as I was. I wonder: if he had been a little subtler, would his racism have embedded itself in my psyche? As it was, I knew he was wrong, because (like me lying to my parents about leaving the door open) he went on about it much too long.

Is there any of Lovecraft’s writings that you found especially compelling besides The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, or any that you occasionally reread?

Kadath is still my favorite. I do reread The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness sometimes.

What exactly gave you the idea to write a tale that reflects on The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath? Did you first decide to write a story with the plot of The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, and was the decision to locate it in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands born afterward, or did the opposite occur?

This story was designed as an inversion of Kadath. I decided that everything Lovecraft did I would reverse or invert, and see what happened to the world. As a result, the first level of plotting was easy: Man à woman. Young person à older person. Person who assumes a central location in the system à person who works as a cog inside the system. Earth-dweller visiting the dreamlands à Dreamlander goes to Earth. Jungle-dwellers of Kled are primitive à jungle-dwellers of Kled are the most advanced technologists in the Dreamlands. And so forth.

I sent Vellitt to many of the same places, but sometimes in reversed order, and removing all the times that Carter ended up somewhere because he was an idiot (as when he goes to the Moon). She also ends up not going to Celephaïs, but does go to Ilek-Vad, because I knew that she needed to meet Carter—and that’s where his power lies in the stories, once he becomes King.    

In what aspects do you think The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe resembles The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath most, and in what aspect does it differ the most?

Structurally, it is a very similar story, up til the end. Character wants something that they have to pursue across a largely uncaring environment, against the hostility of the gods. They rely heavily on old relationships for information and support. They do to the mountains to get knowledge from the sages there; they go to a port; they cross water; they meet with a person of great power; they travel through the under-realms; they ultimately confront and escape Nyarlathotep—though Carter escapes by flight (almost literally, falling from a Shantak into the void) and Vellitt escapes by essentially telling Nyarlathotep he is full of it. After this the stories diverge, though Carter and Vellitt both find themselves in the waking world and they both find what they sought. (And, if you consider the larger canon, they both are trapped on this plane.)

The main differences are probably the intent of the story. This is not a story about a privileged, powerful, and magically resourced character demanding a thing he wants.

In the Acknowledgments of the book, you indicated your intent to write an “adult sense” of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. What is it in your opinion that could make such a story more “adult”?

What I meant is that I wanted to make adult sense of it. I wanted to think about the story as an adult and interrogate the things that bothered or delighted me with an adult understanding of race, gender, privilege, power, and various writerly craft elements. Where was Lovecraft lazy or sloppy? Where was he succeeding at creating a mood, and why and how? Where and how was he embedding racism, and were there other, easily discoverable options?

Vellitt Boe, especially its final part, is a really dense story with much to tell. Did you have any deliberate consideration in mind when you chose the form of the novella for your tale instead of, say, the novel, or even a series of novels?

Originally I wanted Vellitt Boe to be the same length as Kadath (43,000 words or thereabouts), though my first draft came in at 55,000 words. One of the problems is that Lovecraft’s story is structurally repetitive—he gets kidnapped three times!—and some plot segments are actually not advancing things, as when he is kidnapped by the traders who take him to the Moon; the cats rescue him and return him to where they found him, but nothing much advances except our sense that cats are allies—which we already knew and will know again. It made me sad, but I cut and cut and cut, and eventually we were down to 35,000 words.

The character of Randolph Carter is famed for being a sort of alter-ego of Lovecraft. Do you think you have anything in common with Vellitt Boe? How much autobiography do you allow to appear in your fiction?

Most people mistakenly assume I am Vellitt! There are some elements of similarity. I am also a college professor after an interesting life doing other things, but I am not nearly as pragmatic or good at going with the flow as she is. I also don’t think I would keep my head if I met Nyarlathotep.

Throughout your career, you’ve earned the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the Crawford Award, the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Is there any of your writings or achievements that you’re especially proud of?

I am especially proud of the Nebula for “Spar,” which was a very challenging story for the reader. I thought everyone would hate it—and so did the publisher, Clarkesworld, who spent a fair amount of time thinking about whether it was publishable. It’s a story that means a thousand things, and I love hearing what people figure out from it.

A single fleeting glance at your website actually settles the question, but perhaps it is worthwhile to read the answer to a crucially Lovecraftian question in your own words: Cats or dogs?

You would think it was an easy answer! But I have had both dogs and cats I loved. Through my twenties and up to about 45, I considered myself a dog person, but the older I get, the more I like cats. They are charming and eccentric, and you can go away for a weekend and only be slightly punished for it.

Thank you very much for your answers.