Writers on Writing: An Interview with KJ Bishop, Deborah Kalin and Tessa Kum


Gillian Polack

I had the great good fortune to recently work on an anthology called Baggage with KJ Bishop and Tessa Kum, two rather wonderful speculative fiction writers. Kirsten’s amazing first novel The Etched City was a nominee for both World Fantasy and British Fantasy awards and Tessa recently worked with Jeff VanderMeer (World Fantasy Award winner) on a Halo book. While Baggage is my dream anthology, it’s mainly of relevance here because it gave me the opportunity to set up a discussion with Australian writers who say interesting things about the cultural baggage we all possess. The anthology will enter the discussion, because it was what got it started, but really this is a chat about writing between three writers with some interventions by me. Three writers? We asked Deborah Kalin (also a rather wonderful Australian speculative fiction writer—a reviewer for Aurealis said about her first novel “striking, infuriating, endlessly surprising and wonderfully disturbing work”) to join us. Deborah, as you'll see, joined us a little way into the process.

I asked all three for potted biographies, but they didn't take me too seriously. Perhaps I should have asked for the biographies at the beginning of our email chat, before all their seriousness was exhausted?

I'll give you the biographies alphabetically, by first name:

Deborah Kalin said “Deborah Kalin would like a TARDIS, please.” If you want to know more (or have a TARDIS to send her), you might want to visit her website or read her books, listed below.

“When not writing, KJ Bishop cares for an indoor palm tree that really should be outdoors. If anyone knows of a good pesticide for scale insect and mealy bug, she would like to be informed." You can find her full bibliography (and more about her) on her website.

Tessa Kum says about herself “Tessa Kum speaks nothing but frippery and foolery. Listen to her if you like, but don’t take her seriously, and don’t expect her to take herself seriously. To mangle Oscar Wilde, words are too important to be taken seriously." Again, you can find some of her publications below and you can read her blog.

The Chat
Gillian Polack: Given it’s just the two of you initially, I thought we could get the ball rolling with Baggage. The article isn’t going to be about Baggage, but about you as writers. Baggage is what made me think about you as particularly interesting people to talk about cultural baggage with, though, because your responses to the request for stories were so personal and you dealt with such important issues in your stories. Don’t limit yourself to Baggage or cultural notions or women’s issues (or even to “Did Evil Editor do that to you too?”). In other words, if anyone says anything at all you want to answer or give a view on, go for it. A good specific question to start the ball rolling is why was it so difficult to write those stories?

KJ Bishop: I’m not an issues writer. Normally my writing starts with the characters and they bring their own issues and themes with them. I find out what the writing’s about as I go along. So it was a bit difficult to start with the theme first. And a tricky theme, at that.

Tessa Kum: I suppose like Kirsten I don’t consider myself an issues writer either, although it would be more accurate to say I can’t consider myself to be an issues writer while I’m writing about the issue.

This could be because I don’t trust myself as a writer. Well, partially. Who does? It’s more that I don’t trust myself to know any subject well enough to then espouse an informed opinion, let alone make a public statement that casts judgment. It is one thing to nurse an opinion in private and quite another to broadcast it and expect people to listen. That requires balls. Which I don’t have. But that isn’t to say that I don’t have anything to say, and even though I dread being heard, who doesn’t want to be listened to?

Being heard is getting ahead of myself. Before I can worry about that I need to prepare what I am to say, and that requires a whole slew of tricks and complicated dance steps and sleight of mind.

The premise for the story in Baggage came when the theme was put to me, but in order to actually write it I had to forget the theme entirely. By focusing only on the story, I could write. Anytime I stopped to consider the overarching politics, both personal and narrative, the implications and possible consequences stopped me in my tracks. . . . putting aside personal politics was challenging given the nature of the protagonist, to say the least.

GP: Let me ask a related question. How do you find your characters? Do you build them up piece by piece, discover them, or do they emerge fully formed like Venus Anadyomene? (I so need not to use that simile in teaching today.)

I also write from characters. One seems to be luring me into buying antiques right now, in fact. She’s not going to be writeable about for months, possibly years, but she’s definitely emerging. Others just appear as I write, so the situation calls forth the personality who will deal (or not deal). In other words, for me, there are no rules.

Deborah Kalin: Originally, when Tess prodded me to join this conversation, I said I’d love to, but with the caveat that I didn’t know what of interest I’d be able to contribute—and it was actually Tess who pointed out the sheer pervasiveness of Matilde's [GP note: in the books Shadow Queen and Shadow Bound] individual cultural heritage, and how that not only informs the plot, but drives it, both inside the book's event-line and out. So, er, I guess I mean to say I’m definitely one of those writers who finds the issues in the polished version rather than in the outline!

As for finding a character, there being no rules is possibly the best description of the process I’ll ever be able to offer. Not because it’s particularly telling—it’s too broad for that—but because any attempt to narrow a description down to specificity results in missing parts of the process. It’s definitely organic: I usually start my stories with a character who has a problem or who’s staring down the barrel of a dire consequence, and finding out why that’s come to be, and what unfolds is as much about discovering the character as it is about discovering the plot. They’re impossible to disentangle.

Almost all my stories are difficult to impossible to write. I like to kvetch that it’s because I don’t know the plot in advance, but in truth I think it has more to do with the story tapping my personal and private spaces, feeding on what I’m feeling and nursing and would probably never talk about publicly. Writers deal in conundrums and contradictions, striving to “open a vein”, as the saying goes, and tap something you don’t necessarily want on public display in order to produce worthwhile writing, and at the same time working very hard, crafting and polishing, in order to produce something worthy of public display. Reconciling those opposed desires, as Tess pointed out, requires sleight of mind (that’s such a great phrase!), especially during the initial draft.

On Kirsten’s point, I too find starting with a theme rather than a character tricky. I was commissioned to write a short story for a themed issue, and found it a very challenging way to approach storytelling. It took me a long time, and various false starts, to find a character who fit both the theme and what I wanted to say.

KJB: Like Deborah, I can’t easily specify how I find characters. There'll be a sense of life somewhere: a name, an image, a line of speech comes into my mind from goodness knows where, and I’ll know I'm onto something, or someone. I can make up characters to suit a purpose if I have to, and they might come to life or might not, but I prefer the discovery method.

GP: You’ve all made me think of a bunch of related questions. I’ll write them all down, but you may not want to answer them all. I hope you do, of course, but I’m greedy that way.

All of you have mentioned at different times and places writing the very personal. Yet you all write speculative fiction. How does that work for you? How many sleepless nights have you spent cursing feckless editors? More importantly, was the speculative nature of the fiction part of the reason you were able to deal with issues close to your soul? Tessa mentioned (Tessa, it was either in your Afterword for Baggage or on your blog) that there were no solutions to the problems she had ventured to look at through her fiction. Kirsten and Deborah, do you have any similar experiences? Tessa, what are your thoughts a year after that experience?

In a related note, do some editors facilitate this sort of question/approach more than others? Or is your writing process yours alone when the matter is so close to home, and the editor just helps with the final trimmings?

KJB: The spec fic I write tends to be a kind of conscious dreaming. I might not realise when I’m writing something personal. The subconscious just pushes its material through, and I see it later—sometimes a long while later. Perhaps the fantastical side also provides a sort of shield of pleasure around material that would otherwise be no pleasure to write. It’s the gold plating on the turd.

I’ve never had a feckless editor, so no sleepless nights there. The editors I’ve had, as far as I recall, have been concerned more with structure and expression than anything else. They’ve tended to leave the content up to me—I think. I have to admit I don’t retain very clear memories of writing and editing.

The problem I looked at—perhaps obliquely—was the way women in Australia might be subtly silenced by the culture and warped by it. And I only looked at it from my own Anglo-Aussie perspective, and I didn’t look at the male side—how men might also be pressured to follow a script. Whether I’m right or wrong about the silencing, cultural scripts obviously exist and people can get caught in them, or find themselves isolated through unwillingness or inability to follow them. Is there a solution to that? I don’t know.

DK: For me, speculative fiction makes a perfect vehicle for examining the play of human behaviours without being necessarily confrontational about its message. I know that I have at times put off watching a movie or reading a book because I knew going in that it would be a “life drama”, and potentially harrowing, and I was simply too tired from the shenanigans and dramas of my daily life to put myself through more. Speculative fiction, however, comes dressed as an adventure, with promises of a world subtly or radically different to the mundane reality—and then slips the knife in. It’s stealth fiction! Also, speculative fiction may change the rules of the physical world, but I think that simply highlights the one constant between reality and fiction, namely the human heart and mind.

I don’t know whether that makes it easier for me to write about personal things or not, but I don’t think so. Editing, and thinking about the craft of words, helps—but that comes later, during the revision and then the editing process, not the writing process.

TK: It’s interesting that the three of you tend to let stories drift up a piece at a time, and trust that the story will reveal itself to you even if it leaves you wandering around blindly for a long time. Without knowing the end I can’t even begin to write. I must know where I’m going, regardless of how I eventually get there. Possibly you trust your subconscious more than I, in both where it will lead you and that what it produces will be the Good Shit.

I agree with both Kirsten and Deb that speculative fiction provides a bridge of sorts for both creator and consumer, one that provides the illusion of distance from a confronting subject. It isn’t about avoiding the matters discussed, as the term ‘escapism’ implies, but about finding a different, palatable way of approaching them. In the end, the issues are confronted no matter how they’re dressed.

Unfortunately or stupidly, either or, I nixed this useful technique when I chose to give the protagonist of “Acception” [GP's note: her story for Baggage] my name, heritage, and all the furniture that comes with my life.

The thing with sleight of mind is that it only works if you don’t acknowledge you’re doing it. As from the get go this story was all about the theme of cultural baggage I couldn’t fool myself into believing I was writing with any other purpose in mind, which led to my over-active urge to expose any vulnerability and confess my inner workings kicking in, which also dragged in a bewildered sense of honesty, which meant, in the end, I could not foist my own issues and opinions onto a fictional character.

The bridge has the same effect, no matter which side you approach it from.

Like Kirsten, I was aware of all the issues I wasn’t addressing. I went back and forth in the drafts trying to touch on everything, predicting what would be judged and trying to mitigate that. My politics became confused with the narrative requirements (which is very easy to do when you’re writing about your theoretical self). In the end, the narrative won. It knew what it needed, and stories have a habit of paying no attention to what the writer wants.

Interestingly, by putting someone so similar to me they may as well be me into the story I was able to pull of a different sleight of mind; I tricked myself into writing fiction about my opinions. The Tessa in the story was enough of me to relax my politics into a narrative, and by the final draft I was well comfortable and she was not me at all.

Well. To a point. Our stories can be nothing but ourselves filtered.

(Bloody hell I waffle on.)

KJB: Re the wandering, I usually have some idea of the ending fairly early on in a piece. I might have a few possible outcomes in mind. Something has to be there, even if it turns out to be a mirage covering something else.

GP: Kirsten’s mentioned the issues of cultural scripts and of silencing. I’d love to hear more about these things from your perspective. You each bring your own take to them. Deborah, your first novel is all about silencing, in a way, and Tessa”s “Acception”' is about fighting that silencing. And women’s issues come into all our work, simply because of our sex. Tessa, how did you handle Halo? Kirsten, what about the culture in The Etched City? There are so many questions when cultural scripts and silencing women/specific groups come up. They’re very hard to address, too. And they’re important. They were reasons I wanted to do Baggage, after all, and my own fiction is almost obsessed with these issues. They matter to me. What do they mean to you?

KJB: Raule was supposed to be a somewhat silenced and stifled character—someone who’d been in a respected position in her own culture, but was marginalised as a migrant. And what happened was that she really got silenced; I couldn’t hear her in my head and had trouble holding onto the thread of her story. I think that was a failure of imagination or energy on my part. Maybe it happened because her story was unglamorous and seemed too much like the slog of real life. I didn’t find a way to make it interesting to write, and didn’t quite see that I was evading the duty of writing it. Realising that made me wonder how much boredom has to do with casual silencing—perhaps nothing, or perhaps we do think we have a right to be bored with, and not listen to, people who aren’t being sexy or violent or otherwise creating a sensation.

TK: The Halo collaboration was eye-opening, to say the least. Jeff [GP's note: her co-writer, Jeff VanderMeer] is not a gamer nor has any exposure to the culture that has grown around video games (exactly like yoghurt). He came to the project virgin and pristine. Whereas I am a gamer of old, too familiar with the culture, and . . . not so virgin and pristine. As such, it was an easy assumption on my part that I knew how to navigate these waters and Jeff would follow my lead.

In reality, that assumption kept me from challenging any of the standing expectations in gaming culture. It’s an unconscious laziness that accounts for most of the continued inequalities of the world. I’m an old crow accepting what is. Jeff was a newbie and wasn’t afraid to say, “But why?” Before we’d even pitched an idea to Microsoft he was intent on a cast consisting mainly of women in leadership positions and being as multi-cultural as possible. I was just going to feed the fans what they expected; tough anglo guys being tough anglo guys. Because I know what the majority of gamers are like, I feared earning their wrath considerably more than Jeff. That's differing cultural baggage at play.

(Jeff was somewhat taken aback by just how multi-cultural I could get, being as Melbourne is more of a world-stew than his home town. The very simple and short and entirely pronounceable Greek name I put in the mix threw him entirely. That’s also baggage at play.)

DK: Re: the wandering: oh, I wander. Sometimes with absolutely no direction whatsoever. Tessa is often horrified by my habit of writing both without an outline and out of chronological order. My stories are better described as jigsaw puzzles. That I put together in the dark. With one hand.

Re: the silencing, Matilde is definitely a silenced character. She's young, and inexperienced, and she’s alone in an enemy camp. Her only resource is herself. I wanted to explore a character who’s backed into a corner, and refuses to give in. What I found really interesting about her is that she plays to her weaknesses rather than her strengths, using the fact that she’s constantly underestimated by those around her and turning it into an advantage. Shouting isn’t the only way of fighting silencing.

She loses her way on occasion—most notably when she succumbs to Stockholm syndrome, which was definitely an issue I didn’t expect to be addressing when I started writing the novel. It was a very difficult issue to both write about and portray (reader reactions varied enormously) and like all difficult issues, there was no solution.

GP: I wouldn’t mind some thoughts on where you see your writing going, to finish up.

KJB: Wherever my writing’s going, the handbasket’s gorgeous. I don'’t try to see where it’s going, really—it’s too much like betting on a horse race. I’m always working on things, but I don’t know which of them is going to make it to the finish line at all, never mind first.

TK: I don’t know where my writing is taking me, or where I should be taking it. This is a wilful lack of foresight on my part. I don’t have a career as a writer, although there are the occasional moments in which it looks like I do. While I can avoid the business end things, while I can be entirely self-indulgent in what I write and when I write it, I shall be. My ambitions are rooted in my writing, and my writing is frightened of my ambitions. More sleight of mind. (Anyone else get the impression from this discussion that writers are exceptionally good at selective obliviousness?)

In closing up on cultural baggage; there was no solution in my story, nor the hint of one. As it is presented, it’s not the most cheerful of pictures, but I don’t see it as being overly bleak either. People change cultures, cultures change people, and this is perpetual. To find a solution implies a one time fix after which, this issue? Sorted. The human race is not so simple nor static, and we do not have a genetic memory to tap into. As a race we repeat our mistakes, and every lesson learned must be learned over again by those who follow. The problem shifts its parameters and so there can be no solution. There is a difference between learning and understanding, and that is only as it should be.

DK: That’s a difficult question to answer, and I think it's because there's actually a couple of different questions packed into it.

The first and most literal layer is the wordsmithery angle, such as what issues I’ll be tackling or looking at in future works. With the caveat that we’ve already discussed the fact that I’m never really conscious of issues until the story’s written, I think it’s safe to say my stories will always explore how people fit in their world, and how they use their life to create a world they can fit into. I also tend towards the political in my fascinations, the way people act and react and interact, so I dare say that, coupled with a startling and persistent failure to communicate, will feature in future stories. (I’m fascinated by the way what person A says is never the same as what person B hears. Different words unpack differently for everyone.)

The second layer is more to do with the vagaries of the publishing industry, which of course is out of my control. Other than attempting to craft a story worthy of publishing, I prefer not to spend too much time worrying about the publishing side of things—whether a story’s marketable, or it’s good timing or a subject that’s already been over-addressed and is saturating the market—if only because it keeps me saner.

I so want to finish this off with “and now a word from our sponsor.” I was lucky to have edited two of these writers and met the third online through one of the editees. What I found interesting was that editing produces quite a different view of a writer to reading the book directly or to chatting about subjects of mutual concern, as we did here. I may have to explore that one day. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a little list. Most of the books and stories have been mentioned directly, the others were all there is the subtext. It isn’t a complete bibliography of everything Deborah and Kirsten and Tessa have ever written, but it’s a good place to start exploring their work. Their work is very much worth exploring.

Books and stories mentioned in this column:
“Acception” by Tessa Kum in Baggage edited by Gillian Polack (Eneit Press, 2010)
Saving the Gleeful Horse” by KJ Bishop (Fantasy magazine, March 2010)
Shadow Bound by Deborah Kalin (Allen & Unwin 2010)
Shadow Queen by Deborah Kalin (Allen & Unwin, 2009)
The Etched City by KJ Bishop (Prime 2003, Bantam Spectra 2004, Tor UK 2004)
The Heart of a Mouse” by KJ Bishop (Subterranean Press, January 2010)
“The Mona Lisa” by Tessa Kum and Jeff VanderMeer in Halo: Evolutions, (Tor, 2009)
“Vision Splendid” by KJ Bishop in Baggage edited by Gillian Polack (Eneit Press 2010)


Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers' residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains 'etc' as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.



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