A Conversation with K.J. Bishop

K.J. Bishop's debut novel, The Etched City, fascinated me in a way few other recent novels have. The more I thought about the book and my reaction to certain elements of it, the more I wanted to know about the author's ways of thinking and writing. Having corresponded a bit with Kirsten after writing about the book here in March, I asked if she would be willing to answer some questions. She was.

What is the attraction of fiction for you? Is it simply an impulse to tell stories, or is there another reason you write fiction rather than, say, soap operas?
It's a mysterious thing. I didn't start writing fiction till I was about 25. Before then, art and music were my main creative pastimes. I wanted to be a guitar hero, but that was in 1989, when the extinction of the species was imminent! (Music lovers everywhere can thank the heavens.)

I don't think I have an impulse to tell stories so much as an impulse to spend time with characters. I always used to imagine things about my favourite characters from movies and books, and over time those characters would change in my mind, turning into people who were similar to the originals but different enough for me to think of them as separate. When I started writing, I discovered that the process of writing allowed me to get to know them much better than I could by just daydreaming. I also discovered that I liked writing in and of itself -- the pleasure of making things out of words, of finding the way to express something, to define some notion or feeling of mine that previously had been vague.

I know you're kidding about the soap operas, but if you change 'soap opera' to 'long-running quality TV show' -- a program like, say, 'MASH', or 'Buffy' -- then it starts to look attractive to a writer who likes spending a lot of time with characters. But I've got no experience of acting or anything to do with theatre, so I wouldn't feel too confident about writing scripts.

I like that description -- "an impulse to spend time with characters". And then that mixed with the pleasure of words. Do you find that writing is for you an unconscious exploration -- a feeling about characters, words, and how they go together? Is revision the conscious, pragmatic mind taking over?
It really depends on what I'm trying to write. I'm not actually sure how it all works. I do know that when I'm thinking hard about plot, action or emotional nitty-gritties, the part of my mind that thinks about language for its own sake doesn't really fire. Then, in the second draft, I might relax and find some more artistic way to express things. That doesn't always happen, but it can, particularly if I'm writing dialogue for a character who is conscious of him or herself as an orator and values eloquence. If I can get right inside that character, it can be as if the character says things that I'd never have thought up just on my own. I love it when that happens. Sometimes it happens on the first draft, but it's more likely to be during revision. There are other bits of writing where it's much more unconscious, where I'm more interested in creating an atmosphere, but my grip on narrative tends to loosen (or fail completely) when I do that. So I might have to go back with the rational mind and reorganise things, unless the segment is something that can stay in on its own as a sort of lyrical interlude.

Re the conscious and the unconscious: I'd like someone to do an experiment with writers -- say twenty, all with different styles, different strengths and weaknesses -- and do one of those brain mapping things. Sit them down (I'd volunteer to be one!) with electrodes on their heads while they wrote. Get them to write some of their own stuff, and get them to do specific exercises -- writing a plot, a descriptive passage, an action sequence, and so on. I think it'd be interesting to see the similarities and the differences in brain usage.

How much do you pay attention to structure when writing? (For instance, do you just write and see what happens, paying attention to themes and motifs later, or do you plan things out in detail beforehand, or...?) When did the overall structure of The Etched City become clear to you?
I didn't pay much attention to structure when I began writing The Etched City. I was just writing for fun, to amuse myself and to see if I actually could write a novel. The book was actually two stories, or two abortive attempts at a novel, that I munged together. By about the 30,000 word mark I had a fairly good idea of what the characters' fates would be, or had at least narrowed it down to a couple of options. But I didn't know how they were going to arrive at those destinations. I was paying attention to themes and motifs all the time, though; to those, really, more than to plot as such. I'm not good at planning in detail, and I do enjoy just writing and seeing what happens, but I need to be able to see a few things, whether they're certainties or just possibilities, in the future of the story, in order for me to feel that there is actually something there to be written. I doubt that structure is ever going to be one of my strong points; by temperament I'm more of a decorator than a builder.

Did the two original stories have the same setting? Much of the pleasure of the book for me was in the exploration of the physical landscape, and I wondered how it came about. Did you know from the beginning it would be an imaginary place, rather than, for instance, Australia (present or historical)?

(By the way, have you read any of David Malouf's books? His Remembering Babylon is a favorite of mine.)
They had different settings; one was the desert, the Copper Country, and the other was the city in the jungle. I realised that the character of Gwynn could move easily from one to the other -- as gunslinger, then as urban dandy. His gangster aspect is the bridge between the two.

I knew it would be in an imaginary world; I wanted to have the freedom that a secondary world gives you. Though at the same time, I didn't want it to be a completely self-contained secondary world, which is why I did things like naming the river in Ashamoil the Skamander, after the corpse-choked river in the Illiad. The world is sort of a munged-together collection of story worlds. I imagined it as a movie studio backlot, with various sets that the characters could move between. I don't know if it comes across like that, but that's what it was like to me.

I've only read one David Malouf book, which was 'Johnno'. I read it at school, and I think I was too young to appreciate it. Rodney Hall writes an interesting take on the discovery of Australia -- and other stuff -- in 'The Island in the Mind', which I think is a terrific book, sumptuously written.

The way violence is used in The Etched City intrigued me -- there's a lot of it, but it's painful, and not merely physically. How did you approach writing the violent scenes?
It depended on the purpose of the scene. In most of the violent scenes I wanted to show something particular about one or more of the characters, so the scene would be geared towards making that point. The only violent scene that was somewhat gratuitous was the battle on the bridge. I felt the story needed some action at that point, so I wrote that scene as a set piece, which is one reason why it's somewhat farcical; it's almost like a floorshow.

I tried to be realistic about how the characters might be feeling when they commit their violent acts -- whether they're reluctant, or enjoying it, or just getting a job done. I did try to make a sort of presentation of our hypocritical relationship with violence -- the perceived glamour, the attraction of it, on one side, and the horror when violence is actually inflicted on us.

When do you know you are writing well?
I don't always know. And it can be such a subjective thing. Writing I've done that has really pleased me hasn't necessarily pleased other people. I did a lot of rewriting of The Etched City; I think I went over some scenes about 50 times. But if I'm doing something more freewheeling and playful -- like 'Maldoror Abroad' in Album Zutique #1, or my story in The Alsiso Project, where I don't have to worry so much about plot, it suddenly gets a lot easier, and I tend then to feel that I'm writing well, just because it feels fun and natural; it's like running through a park as opposed to driving through peak-hour traffic. I'm more confident about judging details -- things on the level of words and sentences, and small bits of plot -- than overall effects.

I've been meaning to ask about "Maldoror Abroad". Was that something you did specifically for Jeff VanderMeer -- it fits the "decadent" theme of Album Zutique so well. I sense from some of your drawings and writings a certain affinity for the art nouveau/decadent/fin de siecle era, no?
'Maldoror Abroad' happened because when I was finishing up Etched City for Prime I got rather sick with sinusitis. I was busy with other work and various things, and just didn't have the time to go to the doctor and get antibiotics. Instead, I kept taking Sudafed, for weeks -- which wasn't the smartest thing to do -- but being sleepless, rather wired and still sick put me in a state where weird writing came to me very easily. That was when I wrote 'Maldoror Abroad' and some other similar material, some of which ended up in Etched City. I really wanted to write a whole surreal novel, but I ran out of steam. I couldn't find a narrative to hang the writing on. Anyway, I sent the Maldoror story to Sean Wallace at Prime, and he sent it to Jeff, who as it happened to be putting together Album Zutique.

I'm interested in the whole period, roughly a century, from Baudelaire to World War Two, but in terms of aesthetics the Art Nouveau style particularly appeals to me, and I'm fascinated by the figure of the dandy. It was Baudelaire writing that 'Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages' that defined the dandy for me and made me interested in the history and literature of that particular decadent age.

What excites you as a reader?
It can be all kinds of things. Most recently it has been 'The Labyrinth' by Catherynne M. Valente, which is a gorgeous, virtuoso surrealist book, and 'The Volcano Lover' by Susan Sontag, which has wonderfully fine depictions of characters. I get excited by writing that does good things with language -- whether it's ornate, laconic, funny, elegant -- anything as long as it isn't pedestrian. I get excited when a book teaches me something. And I love books about tragic antiheroes; I enjoy a good dose of action, romance and angst!

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