Author Kij Johnson of Lawrence, Kansas, is truly a Science Fiction and Fantasy superstar. She has won nearly every major award in her genre including the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards.
I first encountered her work while reading my way through the library’s Nebula Awards Showcase collections. Johnson’s work is included in a number of these collections and she edited the 2014 collection. After reading the startling and unforgettable stories “Ponies” and “Spar,” I was hooked. I devoured her first short story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees and it’s still one of my favorite books of all time, as is her novel The Fox Woman.
Johnson has been teaching summer science fiction workshops at the University of Kansas since 2005. Her workshops are highly sought after, and writers must submit work and be chosen to attend. (Another reason this opportunity to work with Johnson at the library is so incredible!) Johnson notes there are as many ways writers benefit from workshops as there are types of writers. We all have room to learn and grow, and listening to someone else’s tips and perspectives gives us information we can incorporate into our process as we write or edit.
Johnson’s resume is diverse and impressive including work with Tor, Dark Horse Comics and Wizards of the Coast, along with her publication credits and teaching experience. I have no doubt she will have plenty of good information to impart, that we writers will feel motivated to make use of it, and readers will walk away feeling inspired to learn and read more.
“As a writer … your job is to integrate what [the instructor] say[s] with what you already know or believe, look for the friction-points and then reconcile,” said Johnson.
Johnson is currently working on a sequel to The River Bank, which picked up the story of The Wind in the Willows. She also plans to spend more time with the novella length that she writes so very well. Johnson wants to continue to connect with more readers, but is unwilling to write a book just to make her name bigger.
“I would like to work with Gollancz [publishing] in the UK,” she said. “I realized this year that I have been sending everything short I write to Clarkesworld, who I love; but I should diversify. I would like to write a truly SF story.”
Whatever Johnson pursues next, readers will be eagerly waiting, and cheering her on.
Read on for book recommendations and an interview with the author.
An Interview with Kij Johnson
You lead a highly regarded workshop at KU’s Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In what ways do writers benefit from attending workshops with established writers?
I think there are a lot of reasons, perhaps as many reasons as there are writers. Just because a writer is good at something doesn’t necessarily mean she’s good at teaching it: in fact, that writer may not even be able to analyze what exactly they do. Most of what I teach in the summer novel workshop for the Center is plot because I really struggle with plot. I have to think about it for my own writing, so I have lots of ideas for other people, as well. Something that comes easily for me, such as how I craft sentences and paragraphs, is actually harder to teach, because I don’t know how to describe what I do.
That said, there are people who can verbalize what they do well in a way that other people can learn from it. Even if they can’t, listening to them talk over a day or a week or a month will give you lots of information, not just about what they do well, and what they do poorly, but what they notice, what they prioritize, what they care about. As a writer, then, your job is to integrate what they say with what you already know or believe, look for the friction-points, and then reconcile.
There’s yet another category of writers where it’s great just to be near them. They created the work that changed your life, or they are disarmingly honest about their own struggles, or they have the gift of candy-coating every lesson so that you are always greedy for more.
You’ve won so many major awards: Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, World Fantasy, and more. As we’ve just turned the corner on a new year, what are your writing goals for 2019? Is there a publisher you’d like to work with, a challenging concept you’d like to tackle, an award you hope to someday win?
I have been thinking a lot about this! I do need goals, but I am weirdly without them right now. I have won most of the awards in my field, so Achievement Unlocked. I am unwilling to write a book just because I think it might be the break-out book that will make me the next big thing — which means if I ever do make it to the next level (whatever that is), it will be based on publishers, marketing, and readers, not on anything I have aimed toward. Hollywood gets hinted at from time to time, but Hollywood is utterly out of my control, so it’s not a goal so much as a wish. A possible goal would be to make it out into the mainstream world, as Kelly Link has, but as long as I have a full-time job, I will not be writing enough or sending things out enough to do so.
So what is my next goal? I would like to work with Gollancz in the UK. I realized this year that I have been sending everything short I write to Clarkesworld, who I love; but I should diversify. I would like to write a truly SF story.
What are some of the best books that you read in 2018?
I returned to the classics: old mysteries. I hadn’t read Josephine Tey since I was a kid and much too young to understand them, ditto the brilliant Art of Detection series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö — the prototype for the Scandinavian noir genre, but written in the 1960s and 1970s.
Give us a sneak peek. What’s next from Kij Johnson?
I am working on a sequel to The River Bank, called The American Tour, but I am finding it rough going! After that, I want to finish some more short stories. I love the novella length and want to spend more time there.