Interview: James Patrick Kelley & John Kessel
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu.com Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTJPK_JK
Date: July 2006 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: We've just finished reading Feeling Very Strange, and yes we are, thank you. Can you tell us how the book came about? How did you two decide to co-edit it?
James Patrick Kelley: Jacob Weisman at Tachyon Publications and I were talking shortly after I turned in Burn and he mentioned that he had been thinking of publishing an anthology of slipstream stories that might begin to establish a canon of this kind of story. He wanted to know if I thought such a project was feasible. I told him I had to think about it but the longer we tossed ideas and authors back and forth, the more enthusiastic I became, although I knew I certainly didn't want to attempt such a project on my own. But we both agreed that I should ask John to be co-editor.
John Kessel: Jim came to me to ask me to co-edit after he was approached by Jacob at Tachyon. I was excited to be asked and very interested in trying to figure out what might be in the book.
SFRevu: How hard was it to find stories to put in the book? What would you have liked to include that space or availability precluded? Why no Swanwick?
James: Good question. For that matter, why no Kessel and Kelly? In order to keep the book to a size Jacob was willing to print we decided on some very arbitrary boundaries to the universe of stories we would consider. The stories would come from American writers who primarily practiced or were best known for what we considered to be slipstream. We thought about including some slipstream antecedent authors but that also promised to make the book unwieldy. We regard Feeling Very Strange as the beginning of a critical conversation about slipstream and not the final word.
John: It was very easy to find lots of stories we wanted to include in the book. The problem was that we had limited space, and so we were forced to make certain hard decisions about what to include and what to leave out. We've joked about editing "Feeling Very Stranger" to include another batch of stories. Swanwick, for instance, was on our list of writers we considered. Along with many many others including Terry Bisson, Eliot Fintushel, Rikki Ducornet, Doug Lain, Jim Shepard, Lucius Shepard, Jay Lake, Ray Vukevich, Leslie What, and a lot more I can't recall off the top of my head.
SFRevu: Do you each have a short description of what slipstream is? You know - an elevator pitch to describe the whole thing on the way up to a meeting?
James: In our introduction we make no claim that slipstream is a genre with discrete rules. Rather it is a literary effect that many different kinds of writing can create, in the same way that many different kinds of writing can create the effect of humor, or horror. We borrowed the concept of cognitive dissonance from the psychologists, who tell us when we are confronted by opposing cognitions, feelings or even facts we feel uneasy. Our natural tendency is to privilege one or the other of these cognitions as "real" or "true" and discard the other. But this may not always be the best course, especially in these modern times. We believe that the best slipstream stories allow us to hold opposing notions at the same time, which makes us feel very strange indeed. If slipstream is the literature of cognitive dissonance, then it doesn't matter if it's fantasy, science fiction, alternate history or mainstream. What matters in slipstream is not necessarily what the story is about, but what effect the story has on the reader.
John: The only thing I might add to this cognitive dissonance theory is the idea that slipstream stories often break the rules of genre, or have a kind of ironic or postmodern attitude toward narrative.
SFRevu: Do either of you have a seminal slipstream moment? A story you read that made you suddenly consider this as a genre?
James: My introduction to slipstream did not necessarily come from a book but from attending the Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop, which is where I am as I type this. But in the eighties, I had to workshop stories by Carol Emshwiller and Karen Joy Fowler and later Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem. Trying to find something interesting and useful to say about the stories they showed us was the beginning of my effort to understand slipstream. Not only that, but Bruce Sterling was a Sycamore Hill attendee when he was first coming up with the term and he tried it out on us.
John: Bruce's essay came out of a discussion we had at Sycamore Hill in the late 1980s. I remember him asking for suggested titles and authors to add to the list he eventually included with the essay. I guess he was talking to many people at that time. But I would say is that I wondered what to do with certain stories that have been around for a long time and have fit very uncomfortably into sf and fantasy, even before Bruce came up with the term. I mean stories like Shirley Jackson's "One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts" or Damon Knight's "The Handler" which appeared in sf publications but were not by any stretch sf. More and more writers since the 80s have been writing these things, and a lot have fallen through the cracks.
SFRevu: In some ways, it seems to me that what we're calling slipstream is really storytelling unchained from trying to not look like a story, which allows it to address the way things seem rather than the way the "are". So, isn't slipstream really the meta-genre and everything else the special case?
James: Once again, I don't think slipstream is a genre because there are no hard and fast rules that define what a slipstream story is. Does it make you feel strange? Does it seem to contradict itself while remaining comprehensible? Does it defy easy description and resist summary? These are attributes that I look for when I'm asked if a story is slipstream.
John: This is a tricky question. I like to think about the basic slipstream issue in two ways, the writing style and the content. A lot of slipstream stories, consciously or not, present a vision of the world as a place that is not explicable in rational terms. And they just as often violate the expectations of readers who have been, consciously or not, schooled in reading well established genres like mainstream literature, science fiction, and fantasy. So they are transgressive in more than one way.
I don't know if this leads to a more accurate vision of the way things are, but I do think that for more and more people, the traditional ways of understanding the world don't seem adequate.
SFRevu: What was wrong with just calling this stuff Magical Realism? If this isn't Magical Realism...what is?
James: If you look at the range of stories in our book, you see that we think some stories are slipstream that are clearly not what most people think of as "Magic Realism." For example, Jeff Ford's "Bright Morning" or Karen Fowler's "Lieserl" or Ted Chiang's "Hell Is The Absence Of God."
John: I'm not against using that term, but I think "Magical Realism" has come to be associated with Latin American or at least non-English origins and culture. The term is applied more commonly to fiction from South America or Eastern Europe than it is to U.S. or British fiction.
SFRevu: Does slipstream take genre fiction into the suburban land of literature and out of the pulp ghetto?
James: If you think that, you haven't read Benjamin Rosenbaum's story, which is far to long to reproduce here. And yet it is perhaps the one of the most slippery stories in the book.
John: It has that potential. That's why we wanted to include at least some writers, like Aimee Bender and George Saunders, who are not associated with genre fiction.
SFRevu: How come every time a new genre gets created Bruce Sterling winds up in the forefront? Who else pioneered this stuff?
James: Bruce may have been the first to apply the term slipstream to this kind of writing, although I don't think he coined the term. However, he was no practitioner of the stuff. It was only later that he dipped his toe into the slipstream. In our book, some of the earliest stories are by Carol Emshwiller, Howard Waldrop and Karen Fowler.
John: Bruce is a superior propagandist, and he likes to float theories. He did by no means invent this sort of fiction, but by coming up with a new name for it and an argument about what it was, he gave others the chance to have a debate about the place of fantastic fiction that is not traditional sf or fantasy.
SFRevu: Is there a "Still Feeling Very Strange" anthology in the works? A "Year's Best Slipstream?" What are you working on currently, together or independently.
James: I'm working on new stories and now that I committed a near novel with Burn, I'm hoping to get to my long delayed novel later this summer.
John: I'm working on various new stories, including the series of lunar sf stories I started with "The Juniper Tree" and continued with "Stories for Men" and some others. I expect there will be a book in this. But I'm also writing some other sorts of stories, including some that might be called slipstream. And Jim and I were just talking this week about floating the idea for a reprint anthology of stories from the Sycamore Hill Writers' Conference.
SFRevu: What else should I be asking you?
James: One reason why there isn't going to be as much JPK fiction this year as in a typical year is that I spent the fall and early winter of last year writing a full length play called "The Duel," which was produced in January. I had another one act play go up in March.
John: Ask me about the new sf TV series Masters Of Science Fiction, which will have an episode based on my story "A Clean Escape" starring Judy Davis and Sam Waterston. On ABC sometime next year.
SFRevu: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.