Caitlin R. Kiernan
Pain, Wonder and Really Old Things
Walk into your local megabookstore, and tucked somewhere in the back, once you bypass the diet books and Hollywood tell-alls, lurks the horror section. Generally the section will consist of 47 assorted Stephen King and Dean Kootnz titles, but if you’re lucky, hovering nearby will be the work of dark fantasist and paleontologist, Caitlin R. Kiernan. Her first published novel, Silk — a haunting, edgy look at youth and the power of mystery — was nominated for a Bram Stroker award and awarded “Best First Novel” accolades by the International Horror Guild. Her second, the recently released Threshold, incorporates the Birmingham water works, trilobites and deep time — really, really deep time — to create a book that is unnerving without being “scary,” one that moves the author past whatever label (or bookstore section) marketers would want to pigeon hole her into.
Along the way Kiernan has fronted a goth band, Death’s Little Sister, written story arcs for Neil Gaiman’s The Dreaming and The Girl Who Would Be Death, and is presently at work on another title for DC Comics. She has several collections of shorter works available, as well as appearances in anthologies such as Poppy Z. Brite’s Love In Vein 2. At the same time, she has continued her studies in the field of paleontology, with an upcoming paper to published in March. Having two such interests would be exhausting for anyone. Thankfully Caitlin Kiernan has been able to combine them into great art.
One aspect of your life, your writing, could be considered a short-lived event, when compared to your other passion, paleontology, which deals in the thousands of years. Is it a challenge to balance both in your life? Does one effect the other?
It is a challenge, trying to balance the two. It’s become much more of a challenge the last few years, as I’ve become increasingly involved in various research projects. The way things stand right now, I write during the day and do paleontology at night, occasionally reversing that order when I have to do field work or visit museum collections. But it’s wearing me down, doing what amounts to working two full-time jobs. Sometimes I find myself too exhausted from a night of paleontology to write, or too weary from a long day of writing to wrap my brain around whichever paleontological problem I’m trying to deal with at the moment, and something gets ignored. Usually that means the paleontology gets ignored, as it isn’t currently paying the bills. But I continue to make progress in both, so I probably shouldn’t complain so much.
What sort of research are you currently involved in?
At the moment, I have too many irons in the fire. I have a paper on mosasaur biostratigraphy which will be published in the March 2002 Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the culmination of more than 15 years worth of research. I’m also putting the finishing touches on reports of a dromaeosaurid dinosaur (think Velociraptor and its kin) and a hatchling pterosaur, both from Alabama. I’m trying to finish a much longer manuscript describing a new species of mosasaur, and have at least two other mosasaur projects waiting in the wings. Plus, when I have time for fieldwork, I’m working on an exciting new Upper Cretaceous locality in Sumter County, Alabama.
You’ve resisted calling your work “horror,” preferring the term “goth noir.” Do you consider yourself a member of what Stephen King calls “the scream factory”?
I’m unfamiliar with King’s quote, but no, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself part of that or any other “factory.” I don’t like the label “horror” for two reasons. First, it’s simply, literally, inaccurate. My writing deals with a broad range of emotions, of which horror is only one. This is true, of course, for virtually all good, or even bad, fiction, and “horror” is simply a poor choice of words to describe stories where death, the supernatural, depravity, crime, or monstrosity are the primary focus. Secondly, I do what I can to stay free of what amount to literary ghettoes. I have no problem with labeling, per se, if the labeling is reasonably accurate, but being tagged as a “horror writer” can prove extremely limiting. After a book or two that’s been labeled “horror,” publishers and readers get to where they want nothing else from you. Witness what happened to Robert McCammon, for example. As for “goth noir,” I’d originally intended that label to be applied only to a few of my stories, such as “Breakfast in the House of the Rising Sun” and “Lafayette,” where I was experimenting with a combination of Gothic and film noir tropes. It was never meant as a blanket description of everything I write. If such a label is necessary, I prefer to say that, usually, but not always, I write dark fantasy.
You have collaborated with writers such as Poppy Z. Brite and Christa Faust. Does a shared writing project allow both authors a sense of completion? Is it difficult to write in tandem?
Collaborating is a strange affair. And it’s hard to answer this sort of question. Generally speaking, I prefer to write alone. But, it was a joy to do the two stories I’ve just done with Poppy. Christa and I had more trouble, I think. We were a bit more prone to stepping on one another’s toes.
You have written novels, comics, short stories and fronted a band. In which form of expression do you find your clearest voice, or is it all part and parcel of the same thing?
Well, singing was certainly far more satisfying, in the short run. I opened my mouth and the words came out and people heard them and responded. No middlemen. No editors. No waiting months or years for a reaction or feedback. Singing has always been a wonderful emotional release for me, as well. Unfortunately, almost every other aspect of fronting the band was a nightmare. Partly, that gets back to the collaboration question. Being in the band, I had to cope, on a daily basis, not only with two egos, as has been the case in my literary collaborations, but with four egos, and sometimes it really wasn’t worth it. Anyway, I suppose there is some overlap in my performing and writing, but they seem to me two very distinct enterprises, just as my work as a paleontology seems distinct from my work as a writer.
Is there something you have always wanted to write about, and don’t know if you ever will?
Of course. There are lots of those things. I expect almost every writer has lots of those things. The subjects you’re afraid to write about, or that you’re afraid no one will want to read about, or you don’t believe yourself equal to the challenge, or whatever. For instance, I’d love to write an historical novel, and my agent has encouraged me to, but having put in a tremendous amount of research just to do short stories that are period pieces — “To This Water,” for example, which is about the Johnstown Flood — it’s entirely too intimidating to imagine doing that at novel length.
You are more active on the Internet than many authors, writing an online journal and participating in a Horrornet message board concerning your work. Does this increased interaction with fans present any problems concerning distance issues? Put another way, have you ever been influenced in what you write because of their input?
Well, I’m sure that everything I hear about my work affects me on some level. It all goes into the stew, so to speak. But I can’t think of an example where contact with readers online has had a direct influence, where I’ve not written something or written something differently because of comments that people might have made online. In general, I think the net has benefited me as an author, that any drawbacks have been outweighed by those benefits. It has definitely increased my audience and made what is really a very lonely vocation a little less so. That said, there are times I get entirely fed up with the Web, with particularly idiotic things like Amazon’s customer “reviews” or trolls on Usenet or whatever. Times like that, I wish I’d never heard of the Internet.
How, if at all, do you think the events of 9/11 might manifest themselves in your writing? Has this changed any notions you might have held on what is “scary”?
I don’t know if it’s possible for me to give a satisfactory answer to that question. That day, I watched what was happening on television, on CNN, and at some point I realized I was crying. Part of it was fear, but a larger part of it was sadness, because I realized we were seeing the death of something, not only of the people who died, but of yet another scrap of our innocence, and we don’t have much left to lose. I won’t say that is has changed my notions of what is “scary,” because I don’t set out to write stories that are scary, that’s not what I’m trying to do, and I’ve always been so afraid of war that I don’t think September 11th came as much of a surprise to me. But it has made it harder for me to write, because it’s harder to take my little stories seriously after having found myself face to face with the enormity of something like that day and everything that’s happened since. That afternoon I left Atlanta, because I wanted to get as far away from the Center for Disease Control as I could, and because no one had any idea what was coming next. I decided I’d drive back to Birmingham, to be close to my family, just in case. Leaving Atlanta was very surreal. The interstates were deserted. There was a sign, one of the digital traffic signs, blinking a message about the “national state of emergency” and Hartsfield International Airport being closed. Then, the nights without planes in the skies. I was born in 1964, and that was the first night of my entire life when the sky was not filled with planes. And it was a couple of weeks, I guess, before I knew if everyone I work with and care about in Manhattan was safe. Is it harder to scare people now? I don’t know. But I think it sure as hell ought to be.
When you write, do you have any mental image of who might read what you have created? Do you think you have a typical fan?
Not really, not anymore. To start with, I honestly was writing only for myself. I was my audience and I never thought that would change. But these days, I attend a con or have a signing somewhere and I’m always amazed at the variety of people who’ve read my work. Of course there are goths and punks and such, which is wonderful, but, more and more, there’s no one group of people who define my readership. And that’s a good thing.
What is the most difficult part of the writing business for you?
Writing. Almost all of it’s unpleasant, but the actual act of writing is probably the worst. Having to make something out of nothing, day after day, whether you feel like it or not. Sometimes, it seems as though I did a parlor trick at someone’s party one night and now I’ve been sentenced to do it over and over again for the rest of my life — if I’m lucky! A lot of people seem to be shocked when they learn I really don’t like writing. Obviously, they’ve never had to depend on it for their livelihoods. But I can always think of at least a dozen things I’d rather be doing, which I suppose makes it no different from any other job. It is different, of course, but I get very frustrated with people who are disappointed to learn that I didn’t enjoy writing the book they’ve just enjoyed reading. That’s just the way it is. Writing is absolutely the hardest, most maddening thing I’ve ever done, even before you factor in all the myriad horrors of publishing, the interminable waiting games, the constant worries about sales, the reviewers, the politics, all that shit. Most times, I hate it. I just can’t seem to stop.
In closing, would you rather write a book that will sell a million copies now, or still be in print in 50 years?
If I ever had to make such a choice, I think I’d probably choose the million copies. Immortality is nice, and I do yearn for it with all my heart and soul, but I have an elderly cat to feed.