Monday, October 26, 2015

Small masterpieces: The stories of Kij Johnson

At the Mouth of the River of Bees is an astounding collection of stories. I rarely read short stories, preferring novels, and although I have loved some shorts, I have never read an entire collection that took my legs from under me like this did. Kij Johnson is without doubt a master of this form.

 Even more surprising is how different all the stories are and how each has a resonance felt after the last sentence. She never loses the thread of what the story is truly about. The emotional payoff of The Man Who Bridged the Mist is a thing of beauty. 26 Monkeys is clever, yes, but not a gimmick--it is deeply satisfying. The stories are so powerful I remember each one just looking at the titles.

Warning: one story, Spar, is definitely way too much for children or prudish adults, but if you are neither of those it is a brave piece of writing, going beyond inhibition into pure being/surviving.

Johnson puts her characters in strange, alien, off-kilter places but never loses the core of what it means to be human, to navigate the waters of life.

Disclaimer: I recently took a Clarion workshop with Kij Johnson, which was a day well spent. I had already read most of these stories and formed an opinion of her powerful skill. Meeting her did not change this review, it just made me admire her more. And, for the record, she brought up 26 Monkeys, saying she wrote it disjointed like grief is, a string of momentary details adding up to something bigger.

A writing snippet from Monkeys: No one seems to know how the monkeys vanish or where they go. Sometimes they return holding foreign coins or durian fruit, or wearing pointed Moroccan slippers. Every so often one returns pregnant or leading an unfamiliar monkey by the hand. The number of monkeys is not constant.

From Wolf Trapping: It was after midnight and nearly pitch dark. There was a full moon somewhere overhead, but heavy clouds concealed most of the sky. The wind was stronger, pushing loose snow along the ground in needling waves. There would be no way to follow her tonight. She would have to find her own way home.

For my writing friends here are a few nuggets Kij offered in that workshop:

Her goals--To change how people see something. Make it immersive enough they are carrying it with them, so they lose track of time and reality and the story comes out into the real world with them.

How weird can something be and still be accessible?
Understanding the mechanics of real life fiction is essential to understanding speculative fiction.
In an estranged, alienated experience, we are playing with the fact the readers know what we are writing is not true. We should start out slow, gathering information. She gave an example of Hunger Games--"We don’t start with Panem, we start with being hungry."

She noted that mainstream fiction also gets the need for setting. The first thing the reader is going, 'oh my god where am I and what do I need to do?'

And that needs hyper-precise focus--for instance, the character isn't seeing the whole spaceship but this moment, this room.

She discussed novum--the new thing that changes things. And that isn't one thing that's different but lots of things. "You have to bring something else, something they haven't seen before or a deeper place they haven't been before."


Liza said...

Sounds like a great workshop!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi Liza. It was such a great day. I love a good workshop. :)
I hope you're finding time for such treats, too.

Sarah Laurence said...

Sounds like good advice.