Interview with Kathleen A. Goonan

Kathleen Goonan’s style is very dense and textured ...passages of great descriptive power and beauty…

Kathleen Goonan is the author of four major SF novels: The Bones of Time, Queen City Jazz, Mississipi Blues, Crescent City Rapsody. Her fifth book Light Music is scheduled for release in June 2002. Kathleen Goonan's style is very dense and textured: she is not the easiest author to read, and going rapidly through the pages to see what happens with the story does not work. Reading carefully, on the contrary, is rewarded by passages of great descriptive power and beauty. In this, she provides one of the best examples of the literary value of modern science fiction. Three of her four novels give snapshots taken at different times of a world where nano and biotechnologies ("bionan") produce deep changes in humans and their habitat. Cultural and social changes, including some triggered by catastrophic failures, are explored in detail.

This interview is "work in progress": Kathleen agreed to receiving more questions from editors and readers and doing her best to reply. So, if you wish to comment or ask a new question, you can do so by clicking the "View/post comment" link above.

Q - Pheromone based chemical communications are used in three of your novels instead of electronic communications, world-wide. To make this believable, you had to imagine a catastrophic failure of all electronic communications caused by unexplained episodic electromagnetic pulse phenomena in the atmosphere. If, as I would hope, nothing of this sort happens, do you think there may still be a rationale for using chemical communications together with electronic means?

A - Chemical communication, like all things biological, is very precise. That is why I believe that if it could be controlled, modulated, and somehow translated to be not as overwhelming as the result I postulate in my books, it would be very useful.

Q - You argue, quite rightly in my opinion, that good science fiction is mainstream literature that should be "shelved with the other books". Please give some examples besides your own work. Who is on your "buy everything" list?

A - Karen Joy Fowler, Maureen McHugh, Jonathan Lethem, Molly Gloss, Greg Bear, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Hand, Greg Egan.

Q - Is this confluence of science fiction into mainstream literature a new trend, or was it already the case in the past? For example what do you think of "golden age" writers?

A - In many instances, the "golden age" writers had much more leeway, scientifically, than we have today. They could postulate all kinds of weird and wonderful possibilities which, today, we know are impossible. Actually, the public consciousness that SF is a "pulp" literature rather than "literary" stems directly from its roots in pulp magazines, filled by stories written by "golden age" writers.

Q - Some science fiction classics may appear naive to the modern reader in terms of character development or technological/social background. Suppose you had the chance to rewrite a classic, which one would you choose?

A - This is a great question, but I'm going to leave it blank for now (smile).

Q - You seem quite fond of jazz...

A - I am beginning to think that I have a much richer musical background than most people, and I'm not sure why. My head is stuffed with broadway tunes, popular music, folk music, the "underground" music of the late sixties and early seventies, and children's songs. My father played jazz saxophone for a long time and he is extremely knowledgeable about jazz. It is the only music that I heard until I was about ten, when I got a transistor radio, and I think that it was deeply imprinted on me. It has been my music of choice for some time now. It is inexhaustible, complex, interesting, and beautiful, composed and played by musicians rather than technicians.

Q - You published your first major novel in 1994. Did you publish less known works before, or perhaps you started writing after having done other things?

A - Before 1994, I published about twenty short stories. My work appeared in all the major sf venues except Analog, including OMNI. I also published quite a few travel pieces in the Washington Post, a few of which are on my web page at

In high school, though I wrote constantly and filled notebooks with poems and observations, I was drawn to the idea of a visual career, as an architect or interior designer, and took all kinds of technical drawing classes to that end. However, when I got to college at Virginia Tech, which has a very good architecture school, I found that I wanted to take literature and philosophy classes exclusively. Once I began reading, whenever that happened when I was a child, it was really just about all I did; however, I didn't think that one could make a career of reading, which would have been optimal. When you begin working around books, in bookstores and libraries, as I did, you quickly find that although you are constantly in contact with books, you don't really have time to read them.

In the early seventies, there were not as many MFA writing programs as there are today. Certainly, I had no idea that such things existed; they did not exist at VPI. I decided--or, rather, observed--that I was a writer, since I spent all day reading and writing rather than attending classes. But again, I had no connection with the real world concerning such matters. I sent out poems twice. Once, I sent some poems to the Hollins College Poetry contest. Months later, I got a letter from the head of the English Department at VPI congratulating me on being a runner-up in the contest, which is the only notification that I received about the results. I also sent a package of poems to Northwest Review, and got a letter back saying that their board was evenly divided about using them and could I tell them something about myself. When they found that "K.Goonan" was a twenty-year-old female (they couldn't tell my gender from the poems) without a visible Mentor, they voted in a close decision not to use the poems, but encouraged me to send more when I had them. Rather than thinking of these two instances as indicators of my possible future success as a poet, I regarded them as evidence of failure, since I had no idea how much rejection is involved in the process of getting one's writing published.

In college, I took as many hours of philosophy and religion as I did literature courses--enough to get a double major, if I had wanted, at the last minute, to go back and take an intro philosophy course which I had skipped--not for the hours, but just Because It Was There. I didn't want to do this; I wasn't sure how valuable such a double major would be. It does reveal a certain amount about one's interests. I simply wanted to know What Was Going On. I thought that philosophy had the answers.

When graduation began looming (they pretty much kick you out at VPI if you take too many literature courses) I realized that I needed to think of some way to make money. A Profession. Why I hit on the idea of becoming a Montessori teacher I will never know. But once I knew that such a profession existed, it seemed attractive. One could work with children all day, which, although this might be some people's idea of a living hell, sounded like (and is) a lot of fun. Best of all, I could work five hours a day, nine months a year, have my own business, and write the rest of the time. I already knew that I did not make a very good employee, except in a bookstore, though during college I worked as a packer at a moving company, did much temporary secretarial work, and even worked at McDonald's briefly. So, after getting my English degree (one must have an undergraduate degree of some sort, preferably not education, to attend the Association Montessori Internationale course), I attended the Montessori Institute in Washington, D.C. I was the only person in a class of seventy who had never worked with children before. After that, in short order, I worked in several Montessori schools, got married, moved to Knoxville Tennessee for my husband's education (he was a Family Practice resident at the University of TN), and opened a school with a partner. It was year round, full day, and we soon had a hundred students, two locations, an elementary school, and many employees. I worked about sixty hours a week; after two years, we bought a house and converted it into a school. I enjoyed all of this tremendously, was making money, and kind of decided that perhaps writing had just been some kind of pipe dream. I did write and illustrate several children's books while in college and shortly afterwards, one of which was to be published by a press in Hawaii before we had contractual disagreements.

However, the month I turned thirty-three, I suddenly began writing a science fantasy novel. I wrote in the mornings before going to work, came home from lunch to write, and wrote on the weekends. I finished this book in nine months and began writing novellas and short stories. The novel, and two subsequent novels, have never been published. Some of the short stories, with reworking, were eventually published; one of them appeared in Interzone under the title of "Daydots, Inc." I began writing full time in 1987, when my husband was offered a job in Hawaii. Before that, I did not want to leave my school; however, by that time, it began to seem as if I ought to take the leap and see what happened. I immediately began selling travel stories and short stories (one to Read Magazine, a Scholastic publication, and another to a literary magazine), but for some reason was fixated on getting into the science fiction field. I thought of SF as a medium in which one could be very experimental--when actually, it is a very conservative literary field in terms of literary experimentation. I attended Clarion West, where I found, to my surprise, that there was a whole SF community. Before that I was not in touch with the field, particularly, though I did subscribe to all of the magazines. I knew, for instance, that science fiction conventions existed, but I had never attended one.

I grew up reading eclectically and catholically. My father bought books by the bushel, so there were always a lot of books in the house--the popular literature of the day like Updike and Heller, and SF and mystery books. I was not particularly attracted to the SF books, though I know that I tried reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and The Sheep Look Up. I was much more drawn, at that time, to the fantastic in literature. I had to learn the protocols of reading SF as an adult, as well as the protocols of writing it.

Q - Politics? Religion?

A - My politics are liberal, and although I have spent years both as an Episcopalian and as a practitioner of Zen meditation, I can't say that I have any particular religious affiliation, presently.

Q - Do you think technology will permit either postponing biological death indefinitely, or achieving indefinite survival of the self after biological death?

A - At the present time we live much longer than our ancestors lived, because of advances in science, technology, and hygiene. As for postponing biological death indefinitely, I think that it will become technologically possible, eventually, if civilization remains stable.

I am fascinated with the field of consciousness studies, and have been invited to write an article for the Journal of Consciousness Studies, which will be in their Literature and Consciousness issue. Since humans are pretty much fixated on the survival of consciousness after biological death--as is postulated in most religions--I think that eventually we will find a way to make this viable. This would certainly save a lot of space and resources, and makes a lot more sense than the biological survival of everyone who is born, since we seem to be approaching the limit of our ability to use the environment for our own survival without destroying it. However, "we" have already been extensively edited, regarding what works and what does not work. We are the inheritors of uncountable biological programs, which all work together in a way which seems so miraculous that it has taken us a long time to realize that we can descipher it, to some extent.

Q - What about the timeline? Do you consider cryonics as a useful means to preserve ourselves until that time comes?

A - This might happen relatively quickly, or it might never happen. Nothing is guaranteed. I think cryonics is silly, but I guess if you can afford it it's worth a try. It would preserve your DNA, but I think that the preservation of memory and consciousness and identity would be impossible.

I hope I'm wrong.

Q - Your literary models?

A - Depends on the book. One of my constant touchstones, however, has been the book HOPSCOTCH, written by Julio Cortazar. For CRESCENT CITY RHAPSODY, I used a thriller-type framework, and was reading a lot of Ross Thomas at the time. Just before I wrote QUEEN CITY JAZZ, I had read an astounding amount of literary theory, so it is perhaps more deliberately postmodern than my other books. MISSISSIPPI BLUES, of course, uses HUCKLEBERRY FINN and the darker, more cynical sensibilties of Mark Twain.

Q - I read "The Bones of Time" and "Crescent City Rhapsody" in a rush: I was not able to put the book down. On the other hand I found it difficult to concentrate on "Mississipi Blues", and something halfway between for "Queen City Jazz". Did other readers have a similar reaction, and what do you think may be the reason?

A - QUEEN CITY JAZZ is my most-read novel, perhaps because it has been around longer. But these books all come from different directions. THE BONES OF TIME and CRESCENT CITY RHAPSODY were written using a spy/thriller framework, whereas QCJ and MISSISSIPPI BLUES are much more deliberately literary, both in conception and in execution. Both of the Verity books are much more open-ended in that they are personal quest novels, of a sort, and anything might happen. BoT and CCR are probably both more plotline-focused.

Q - I am always looking for new or lesser known authors to read, can you recommend some?

A - I'll have to get back to this one.

Q - You are evidently well read in science. Did you have a formal education or did you educate yourself? What do you recommend to non-scientists who want to achieve some familiarity with modern science to better imagine where current developments may lead?

A - I completely avoided science in junior high and high school, taking only mandatory classes. I enjoyed them when I had to take them, but they took away time from reading books. I think that the main thing that was missing from such classes was any sense of amazement. It was as if all science things had happened in the past, and that science was over, and you could learn about it, but I wasn't sure why one would want to. It is the job of the teacher to convey a sense of excitement and immediacy, and perhaps one of the problems was that the teachers were people who weren't sure about what they wanted to do, and so took a few education course which would enable them to teach some subject in high school. They were, of course, not top-ranking scientists. Very few of the wonderful "science philosophers" whom we have now--Dyson, E.O. Wilson, Watson, and a great host of others--were producing the type of books which are so available today. Although there was THE DOUBLE HELIX.

I began subscribing to all of the science magazines I possibly could around 1988. Science News, Scientific American, Nature, etc. I realized that if I wanted to write science fiction, I had to know science. So I began a crash course in the history of science. (A good reason to read even more books!) I am still piecing things together. I realize that I am not truly and deeplyunderstanding various subjects as well as those with a scientific and mathematical background. I am not getting the information and then making conclusions about it--I am getting conclusions filtered through the best minds in the world. Sometimes I read every available book on a particular subject and when I am through, I still do not know the Thing Itself. But I have a better idea of what it is, what it does, how it might function under particular circumstances. It's like taking graduate level courses from someone who invented the subject.

It took me a long time to realize that science is the field which is trying to figure out What Is Going On--although I think that a good many of the philosophers and religious thinkers whom I studied in college were also on the same quest, and that today they would be scientists.

For another non-scientist in a similar situation, I would say that a good place to begin is Science News, which is a weekly digest of newsworthy events in science, plus an in-depth article. And just go to the science section of a large bookstore and start reading.

Q - Should research and development in nanotechnology and "bionan" be strictly regulated by the government?

A - No! I don't believe that anything should be strictly regulated by the government. Well, I have to take that back. I think that codes for certain technologies, like electricity, do protect all of us. But it seems to me that the present restrictions on, say, stem cell research, are completely backwards and stifling. Someone is going to do this work; someone is going to make these discoveries and allow others to benefit from them.

But nanotechnology is such a catch-all and melding of different scientific disciplines that it would seem impossible to head it off at the pass.

Q - What is consciousness? Can it be reproduced in machines?

A - Consciousness is the subject of a great deal of blather, presently. But I would say that, strictly speaking, it is sentience, or self-awareness. Under this definition, consciousness is a property of just about any entity which seems at all self-aware, such as insects. There are some, like Dawkins, who strenuously argue that consciousness is a side effect of a certain degree of complexity, and that when machines gain this degree of complexity they too will be self-aware.

Maybe so.

Q - I have not purchased "Light Music" yet, can you tell me something about it?

LIGHT MUSIC is about consciousness, about storytelling, about the human capacity to replicate our stories, to save them for consumption in a different time and place than that in which they were created. It is about the human use of symbol.

It is a ripping good story about transcendence. And transhumanism.

Q - I would love reading a novel that bridges "Crescent City Rhapsody" to "Queen City Jazz", perhaps one with more on young Abe Durancy and the political debates before the transformation of Cincinnati, an expanded version of the hints that you drop in QCJ. Do you plan writing one?

A - Not at the present time, but nothing that I have written precludes such a venture.

Q - Your novels are very visual, should Hollywood think about them?

A - Definitely!

Q - Any good movie recommendation?

A - I tend to prefer drama to spectacle, which is not easy to find nowadays at the movies.

Q - How familiar are you with the transhumanist movement, for example what do you know of the World Transhumanist Association and the Extropy Institute?

A - I subscribed to an Extropian newsletter, or magazine, years ago. I found it an extremely interesting philosophy.

Posted by Giu1i0 Pri5c0 on 05/12 at 05:18 PM
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