Wonderbook Interview with James Patrick Kelly

James Patrick Kelly has had an eclectic writing career. He has written novels, short stories, essays, reviews, poetry, plays and planetarium shows. His most recent book, a collection of stories, entitled The Wreck Of The Godspeed, was published in the summer of 2008.  His short novel Burn won the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award in 2007. He has won the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award twice: in 1996, for his novelette “Think Like A Dinosaur” and in 2000, for his novelette, “Ten to the Sixteenth to One.” His fiction has been translated into eighteen languages. He writes a column on the internet for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern.

Do nightmares and dreams play any role in your fiction?

I have had several dream stories although no originally-a-nightmare stories come to mind – although there were certainly stories that were nightmares to write! In a related development, it often happens that just as I am drifting off to sleep, my subconscious Plot Elves will solve a story problem, and I’ll have to haul myself out of bed in search of a piece of scrap paper to record it. These late night inspirations … er … visitations almost always find their way into the stories. Trust your drowsy time ideas!

To what extent is your work autobiographical, and what’s the process of “cooking” autobiography into fiction for you?

I have written many stories in which the setting arises from personal experience. For example, I worked in a drycleaners when I was a teenager, so all the store scenes in my story “Monsters” are based on my vivid sense impressions of that time. I’ve have written hiking stories and running stories. These are two of my lifelong hobbies. My most autobiographical story is probably “10 to the sixteenth power to 1” which won a Hugo back in its day and which captures what I felt as a kid during the Cuban Missile Crisis, although the protagonist’s family is nothing like my actual family. This was in part a protection – for them and for me. So that worked … Why not write more autobiographical fiction? I confess to being very skeptical about these kinds of stories.

When I was an aspiring writer I wrote a lot of bad fiction based on romantic breakups I had experienced or featuring a frustrated young man who had yet to find his way in the world. What I learned from these is that real life rarely has a plot. If I am going to draw from my own life, I usually choose just a snippet of a memory and then change everything around. One of my most successful strategies is to change my sex and try to imagine how what happened would have felt if I had been a woman.

Another successful strategy is to take a bit of autobiography and kick it into the future. After all, isn’t that what science fiction is supposed to be about?

Of course, the other problem, as least for me, is that when I use an autobiographical moment in my fiction, I can never use it again. Which means I must go out and get some more – and maybe better – autobiography. My friend James Morrow once said something very wise on this score. “Writing is not a full time job,” was more or less the quote. I took him to mean: “Unless you have something else going on in your life beside the work, eventually you are going to be writing stories about writers writing about writing.”

Can you describe your writing process—what’s usually in the rough draft and what’s not?

WARNING: My writing process is career poison. Under no circumstances should any aspiring writer adopt it.

I start each day by rewriting what I did the day before, sometimes stuff I did several days before. I love rewriting. If I could entice First Draft Elves to come and write every night while I sleep, I’d be the happiest writer in the world. At some point in the day, I come to the end of what has already been written and so try to write new stuff, very carefully. Later on the in the day, I write the new stuff less carefully and then sloppily sometimes just phrases and ideas. Then the next day I start again by rewriting. This means that I don’t really have drafts but that when I finish a story all the way through, it is usually close to what I think it should be.

But I still try to workshop my stuff, and I take workshop comments very seriously. After a workshop, I master all the comments onto either one of two manuscripts: either that of the workshopper who gave me the most sympathetic reading or the one who gave me the harshest critique. Then I do a final edit and submit. One advantage of putting my stuff through a workshop is that it gives me a cooling off period between the time I finish a draft and the time I sort through the workshop comments. I am something of an anomaly among my writer friends in that I think everything I write is destined to be one of my Greatest Hits while I am working on it. I don’t think I could curl my fingers over the keyboard if I didn’t convince myself of this. Clearly every story I write is not going to be collected in a Best of the Year, so I really need the distancing my workshop provides. Unfortunately, as I have gotten older, it has proved harder and harder to psych myself into writing, so what has happened is that I don’t really get serious about a project until a deadline looms. Then I write in a panic. This forces me to turn off my inner critic and get my creator working overtime, but it also means that I tend to blow through deadlines and thus miss the opportunity to workshop some overdue projects. Like I said, you do not want to fall into my writing process if you can help it.

What kind of life do your characters have beyond the page? Nabokov used to say something to the effect that the idea of a character coming to life would be as ridiculous as saying a potted plant in the setting had come to life. Do you think that the construct built by a writer to talk about characterization actually has much to do with what they put on the page?

I am a headlight writer, which is to say I have only a general notion of my final destination when I start a project and my imagination usually illuminates the plot just a few pages ahead of where I am. Thus my characters often react to twists in the road in ways that surprise me. I try to inhabit them while I am writing by putting myself in their places, and I certainly think about them while I am away from my desk. Sometimes in thinking about them, I discover things about them – and myself – that I didn’t know before. Not all of this stuff gets on the page, however, so in that sense they do have an external life. Normally when I finish a project I sweep all my notes and research into a hanging folder. Should I pull these folders out again long after the story gets published, I am inevitably surprised by some of the stuff I find in them that didn’t make the cut.

How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?

Some writers are planners; I am not one of them. In fact, the outline is probably the rustiest tool in my kit. In general, my approach to plotting is to procrastinate. I don’t necessarily want to work out everything that’s going to happen ahead of time. Whenever possible, I prefer to wait until I can collaborate with my characters. Maybe this isn’t the most efficient way to write, but it’s what works for me. Procrastination serves two purposes. First, by keeping myself in the dark as long as possible, I’m better able to maintain my own interest in the story. The reader can sense when a writer is bored, so I try never to be. And without doubt, the most exhilarating moment in the creation of any story is when what I see on the screen surprises me. Second, I think that developing plot and character without knowing how everything will turn out adds verisimilitude. Characters who navigate precisely through a storyline to some well known destination all too often turn out to be plot robots who never come alive on the page. Even if they do, I worry what they are missing along the way. I prefer to send my people out to discover the story. If, on the road to denouement, they chance across a cave which leads to a secret empire, I let them climb down for a look.

For your stories, do you outline at all, and if so, what is an outline to you in terms of your process?

I don’t really outline (see above), but I do take notes about things that might happen in a story and store them at the end of the manuscript so that when I get to the end of a day’s work, they point (cryptically, for the most part) toward what I need to do next.

On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?

This is my own opinion only, and I realize that others will discount it, but passages of writerly writing make me want to put a story away or at least shuffle pages to get past them. Now, I enjoy a gorgeous turn of phrase as well as the next reader, and I certainly strive for them in my own work. But let me offer my Raisin Bran theory of writing style. I like Raisin Bran; it is one of my favorite breakfast cereals. However, I’d rather eat cardboard than a bowl of plain bran flakes, and nobody I know is interested in a mouthful of sugar-coated raisins. Overwrought styles have the wrong proportion of literary raisins to bran for my tastes. Too much flash awakens me from the dream of story and makes me realize a writer is trying to get inside my head.

What’s the worst type of writing advice, about the art of it, that you’ve seen, and why?

I suppose it is “Show, don’t tell.” This pernicious commandment charges you always to dramatize the personalities of your characters rather than to explain or comment on them. But a story is not a play. The playwright can enter the consciousness of his characters only with great difficulty, through awkward devices like the soliloquy or the aside. Almost all fiction, how­ever, starts inside someone’s head; readers expect to have complete access to the thoughts and feelings of at least one character. And that character can dramatize himself when he describes what he thinks and feels or when he interprets the actions of other people. There is also the problem of limited re­sources. You would be squandering precious story time if you let every minor character act out in the interests of verisimilitude. Showing should be reserved only for a few very important persons. Feel free to tell readers exactly why your spear-carriers are restless.