Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards and author of several novels and a short-story collection, At the Mouth of the River of Bees. She teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas, where she is also the associate director for Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
Geosi Gyasi: At what stage in your life did you become a full time writer?
Kij Johnson: I am still not a full-time writer! Over the years I have been in situations where I did not have a day job for months or even years, and I could concentrate on writing and other things; but I found I didn’t write more (or better) when I was “full-time” than when I had a day job.
Geosi Gyasi: What does it take to be a full time writer?
Kij Johnson: It’s very difficult to make a living as a writer of fiction. There are people who grow rich at it, but their situation is a perfect synchronization of concept, craft, discipline, timing, and circumstance. As a writer you can control some of these but not all of them, and you will be bitterly unhappy if you can’t see this. A lot of writers of fiction make some money (even quite decent amounts of money) with their books, and then support their fiction careers in other ways: with day jobs as teachers or professors, as novel doctors or editors, as writers in other forms, such as technical writing or ghost writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn enough as a full time writer?
Kij Johnson: I do not. Just to spell out the numbers, the most I ever made in a year was something like $22,000, and the years before and after I didn’t make it over $10,000. I did the math a few years ago, and then again two years ago (to reflect the changes in the field), and realized that it was impossible for me to write fast enough to support myself that way. I write carefully and slowly; it sometimes takes me a full day to write a few hundred words. I have no interest in writing shoddy fiction.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific genre of writing you write best in?
Kij Johnson: I love writing fiction that explores the nature of words and sentences, form, and narrative. It’s really interesting to me that the mind can take abstract symbols on a flat surface and convert them to immersive mental environments. How does that happen? How little does a reader need to understand a narrative? How do we understand an unfamiliar (or made-up) word in context? Science fiction and fantasy are really just the same thing: how does a writer make me see a dragon or a black hole, when there’s no way I can fall back on familiarity?
Geosi Gyasi: Were you an avid reader as a child?
Kij Johnson: Always. My mom says that I became an avid reader because she did NOT read to me as a child. She was a librarian and brought armloads of books home every week, but she didn’t help us with them.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspires you to write?
Kij Johnson: Usually an image or a voice I want to explore.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me a brief summary of your novelette, “Fox Magic”?
Kij Johnson: A young vixen in ancient Japan has been living with her family under the storehouse of a nobleman who has been recently sent away from the capital in disgrace. She falls in love with him, and uses all her resources to trick him into seeing her as a human ans win him for herself.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve won a number of prizes for your writing including Nebula and Hugo prizes. Which of the prizes do you feel most proud of?
Kij Johnson: I was very proud of the Nebula for “Spar,” which was a very disturbing short story I was leery about publishing in the first place. I’m also thrilled about the awards for “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” which was a long, ambitious story for me.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your time as managing editor at Tor Books?
Kij Johnson: Managing editor was a production position at Tor, so I didn’t edit books (though I sometimes copy edited and proofread them): I was responsible for the stages between a manuscript being accepted by an actual editor and seeing the printed book out the door. The job was never boring, and was the start of a fascinating career in comic books and games.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it always possible for a writer to double up as an editor?
Kij Johnson: For some people it is; I wouldn’t want to do it!
Geosi Gyasi: Which of your books do you feel most proud of?
Kij Johnson: I always love the book I’ve written most recently, which means at the moment that I love THE RIVER BANK most, the short novel that’s coming out next year from Small Beer Press. If you had asked me six months ago or two years ago, I would have given you another answer. I can still go back and reread THE FOX WOMAN with real pleasure.
Geosi Gyasi: How long, roughly, does it take you to complete a book?
Kij Johnson: It varies a lot: seven years, fourteen months, twelve years, two months, one year, six months….
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a special place you write?
Kij Johnson: I write in coffee shops, but for the last three years, I have also hosted a morning Write Group: people come to my house and write for something between forty-five minutes and three hours, depending on our schedule. I go through a lot of coffee this way!
Geosi Gyasi: Are you still with the University of Kansas English Department?
Kij Johnson: I am currently assistant professor in the English Department, and Associate Director for the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new stories?
Kij Johnson: I’m trying to finish something right now! A very dark novelette called “Wastoures.”