Caitlín R. Kiernan is a critically acclaimed, award-winning author of science fiction and dark fantasy works, including ten novels, the latest of which is The Drowning Girl, many comic books, and more than two hundred published short stories, novellas, and vignettes. She is also the author of scientific papers in the field of paleontology.
What role or roles do your nightmares and dreams play in your fiction? And what’s the process of “cooking” autobiography into fiction for you?
Two questions here. Two very different questions.
It’s very rare that I literally incorporate a dream or nightmare into a story or novel. Oh, and I don’t actually draw a distinction between “nightmares” and “dreams.” That seems like a silly sort of arbitrary unconscious typology to me. Anyway, I think my persistent and disturbingly vivid dreams – for which I am medicated, by the way, even if the meds don’t make much difference – affect my writing by putting me in a certain headspace. By setting a mood for the day. And it’s that mood that often shapes what I’m writing. Offhand, I can think of a single story that was an attempt to literally interpret or “write out” one of my dreams, “In View of Nothing.” It was a recurring dream I was having during the winter of 2006.
The phrase “cooking autobiography” has never occurred to me. But the autobiographical element has always been there in my fiction, usually consciously, starting with Silk. But it was usually diluted, spread out over several characters in a novel. I wouldn’t call those books fictionalized autobiography. But then I wrote The Red Tree, at novel length, that I chose to write, essentially, a protagonist that was a fictional version of me. In that novel, Sarah Crowe is working through many of my own deepest problems – a lover’s suicide, a seizure disorder, a feeling that nowhere is home, and etcetera. And I realized this is what I should have been doing all along. In terms of my writing’s value to me. So for the next book, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, I went back to that same very personal well. Its protagonist, Imp, on the surface she’s very different than Sarah. But, deep down, they’re two sides of the same coin. Two sides of me. I see I haven’t addressed how I do this, which was your question, but I find it almost impossible to explain how I do anything when I’m writing. I just do it.
You basically do one draft, but that means you perfect each paragraph or section as you go along, from what I understand of your process. How different is, say, a paragraph, from the moment it’s in your head to the final version on the page?
I don’t generally visualize, or whatever, a sentence of a paragraph before I write it. It occurs as I write it. It happens in the moment that I’m typing it. Oh, I may know where the text is headed, in a very generalized, broad sense. But I truly do not know what the words will be until I’ve set them down. Then they’ve become solid, part of the world. I get the impression that some people believe I only do a single draft because I’m lazy. But the truth is it takes me a very long time to write my sentences and my paragraphs and my chapters. Talking to other authors, or reading about their process, I realize it all balances out. It takes me as long to do my one draft as it does for them to do two, three, or four. The hard part of my system is that, working without an outline, I have to keep all the story that has come before the present sentence in my head, and so continuity can be the most difficult aspect. I have a horrible problem with characters’ eyes changing color in novels.
What’s the worst type of writing advice, about the art of it, that you’ve seen, and why?
The worst? The very worst? Write for an audience. Write with readers in mind. Try to study the likes and dislikes of whatever demographic you imagine is your potential audience and attempt to second guess those people. That’s the worst. To begin with, it’s impossible. Truly impossible. But even if it were not, it turns the author into a trained monkey, performing tricks for the mob outside its cage. Toss me a few peanuts, and I’ll tell you what you want to hear. Taking advice like that, you’re killing your art. You might as well be working at Burger King, trying to get customers orders right. I write for myself, and if it resonates with others, if people like it, then I’m fortunate. If they hate it, then at least I’ve still remained true to myself and have a story I’m not ashamed of having done.
How does the inexplicable inform your fiction?
An author of the weird, of science fiction, of fantasy, the worst thing they can do is to offer readers cut and dried explanations of everything. Especially if you’re writing weird fiction, ghost stories, then the inexplicable lies at the heart of your story. If you tie it all up, all neat and tidy, in hopes of satisfying someone, you’ve defeated the purpose of writing the story. The inexplicable explained is no longer inexplicable. Now, if you want to write genre mystery, the whodunit stuff, fine. Give the reader an answer if you want. But that sort of thing is anathema to weird fiction. Look at Mark Z. Danielewski’s brilliant House of Leaves or Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. If we’d been given all the answers, the books would be failures. It sounds cliché, but a single mystery is worth innumerable solutions. Do not follow what is sometimes – absurdly – called the “Female Gothic” tradition, wherein seemingly supernatural events are set up, only to prove to have a perfectly rational explanation. Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest is a good example of this error. I usually call this approach “Scooby Doo” storytelling.
What kind of life do your characters have beyond the page? Nabokov used to say the idea of a character coming to life would be as ridiculous as saying a potted plant in the setting had come to life.
I’m pretty much with Nabokov here. Well, excepting all that stuff I’ve said about fictionalized autobiography, wherein the character is derived from actual events in my life, which I may or may not succeed in working through in those stories. Yes, a work of fiction may have positive and negative effects on readers and societies, so, maybe, in that respect you could say characters take on a life of their own. Except, no, they don’t. They merely influence the minds of the readers. The characters themselves remain imaginary entities. Perhaps Nabokov and I both are approaching the problem too literally.
How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?
There’s this thing that happens sometimes, and I call it the “broken shopping cart” syndrome. You know, those shopping carts with one busted wheel that keeps pulling you in a direction you had no intention of going that can send you careening into a shelf or another shopper? That can happen to me and does, frequently. I’ll set out with the broad strokes of a tale in mind. X will occur, resulting in Y, and we’ll wind up at Z. But then that shopping cart, the act of creating the story, has that lousy wheel, and X occurs, sure, but it takes me to Q, and I end up at G. But I think this is an extremely important and valuable phenomenon. This, I believe strongly, is the unconscious of the author expressing itself, and there is no truer way than this to write. The unexpected turns, they’re fortunate accidents. I can’t cause them. I always must proceed with that arrogant notion that my conscious mind can lead me where I want a story to go. But when the wheel goes wonky, I let it crash into that display of canned asparagus and am amazed at the meaningful asymmetry that ensues.
For novels, do you outline, and if so, to what extent? What is an outline to you in terms of your process?
No outlines, ever. Well, except for that synopsis my publisher always insists on. But I consider those necessary evils, and when I begin writing I’ve usually forgotten whatever was in them. Hardly ever does a novel of mine turn out bearing any real semblance to those synopses. That’s part of the business of publishing, not a part of the process of writing. But why do I avoid outlines, well that gets back to writing at a sentence level. The story has not occurred until I write it. Only those broad strokes can exist in my mind and possess any inherent validity. “This will be a story set on Mars, and it’s about a woman looking for her lost lover.” That’s the best I can ever hope for, and I’ve learned that, and I don’t try to force anything more detailed.
On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?
Here I have to loop back to writing for others and not yourself. Well, maybe you could say, I have this one person in mind, or my children, or something, and I’m going to write them a story. But that’s not the same thing as trying to write to a market. Forget about the markets. Forget about the expectations of genre readers. Okay, there’s something more here. Forget about most of the “rules” you’ve allowed yourself to be taught. Nothing is more damaging than writing classes. There’s only one path to being a better author, and that path is reading the best literature – studying it, dissecting it without ever losing sight of the whole – and that path writing is writing, writing, writing. The rest is a waste of time. If you have talent, it’ll emerge eventually. If you don’t, no one on Earth can teach you to be a good writer. Competent, maybe. But we don’t need competent writers. So, stop thinking about the marketplace and don’t believe anyone can teach you a formula or set of rules that will be your path to writing a good book. All that craft nonsense, toss it. Building birdhouses and attaching sequins to sweatshirts, that’s crafting. I’ll never understand why so many writers and would-be writers are terrified of the word “art.”
Why do you write?
Honestly? I can’t answer this. No one wants to hear the answer, the most comprehensive answer. I’ve tried that before, and it just pisses readers off. Instead, here’s an answer readers seem a bit more comfortable with. Except for those people who like to scream about pretentiousness. I write because it’s cheaper than psychoanalysis. It took me years to learn that, and a lot of money I couldn’t afford to be spending on psychologists, but I finally realized that talking to myself on the page was no more and no less effective than therapy. Plus, I get paid for it, instead of the other way round. So, I write as a form of exorcism. I find my demons and throttle them and pin them to the page, and, since all writers are exhibitionists, I put those demons on display for all the world to see.