Click here to read more at Click here to read more or purchase the book John Kessel &
James Patrick Kelly

conducted May 8, 1997

more writershome page

Jim Freund:  Welcome to OmniVisions. Our guests online tonight are sf writers James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. Welcome, Jim and John! Both of you have just written works with saurian references. Would you each (perhaps Jim first) tell us a bit about them?

John Kessel:  Glad to be here.

Jim Kelly:  Actually, dinosaurs have been such good luck for me, that I have to try to ration my use of them. They're inherently science fictional and they call up my little boy sense of wonder. There's also something about dinosaurs that speaks to something that remains deep in our mammalian brains. Maybe we're still worried that if they ever come back, we're toast.

Kessel:  CORRUPTING DR. NICE has a rich paleontologist in it, who returns from the Cretaceous period with an infant specimen of a new species of apatosaurus. Dinosaurs are of course a staple of time travel stories, so that was one reason I brought one in. My other reason was that the story is modeled on the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Many of them have animal used for comic purposes . . . the leopard in BRINGING UP BABY, the snake in THE LADY EVE, the dog in THE AWFUL TRUTH. So I thought a dinosaur would add a new wrinkle to that old standard.

JF:  Fair enough. Jim, tell us a bit of the premise of "Think Like a Dinosaur", and John, just how many times have you seen "The Lady Eve".

Kessel:  I've seen THE LADY EVE too many times to remember. In fact, since much of my plot was borrowed from that movie, it was my goal in places to FORGET about the movie. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a 1940 romantic comedy starring Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck. Go rent it at your video store.

JF:  And of course, Bringing Up Baby had a dinosaur bone as a chief object of the film.

Kelly:  In "Think Like A Dinosaur" we can beam copies of ourselves to other planets. The catch is that the original must agree to be killed, or else the universe would be overrun by the copies. It struck me that this policy would need policing, and that "cold-blooded" saurians would make the perfect guardians of the system.

Kessel:  Right. And nighttime hijinks in pursuing the leopard who's pursuing the dog who buried the dinosaur bone.

Kessel:  I think perhaps this will work better if you pursue Jim first, then me. I'll shut up.

Kelly:  John, did you ever wonder what Wilma, *your* dinosaur, symbolizes? I've read the book and I'm not sure I know. Of course, not everything is a symbol, unless you're Freud.

Kessel:  I had no intention of using Wilma as a symbol of anything. Except as an example for an innocent inhabitant of the past whose life is being affected by time travelers from the future--so how she's treated raises the issue of whether interfering in the past is a good or a bad thing. About collaboration, it seems to me every one we've done has been a little different...

JF:  Actually, why not have you both talk for a bit about the process of collaboration, since the two of you have teamed up for several stories and a novel.

Kelly:  When we started out, we collaborated because of the similarities in our work. Since, we've both published enough to know that we're very different writers, with different agendas.

Kessel:  The good things about collaboration are that you have the chance to let another good writer solve the problems you can't solve yourself in creating the story. In the best cases, you get a kind of synergy, where you bounce off each other. That mostly what happens between Jim and me. In worst cases, you're having a tug of war over the characters and plotline.

JF:  What was the methodology of some of these collaborations? That is, did one write some and then mail it to the other, or what?

Kelly:  I think the common theme in all our collaborations is that we're in a kind of conversation. We don't always agree and in fact we may come away from the conversation thinking that we've said different things. But both sides have been represented in the conversation. (Or three sides, when we collaborate with Jonathan Lethem.)

Kelly:  Collaborations are hard, often as not harder than solo work. But it's good for the artistic soul to subordinate your vision to that of another writer. You might learn something and at the very least, you can work on your humility.

Kessel:  With our novel FREEDOM BEACH, Jim had the original idea, I wrote the first draft of the first section, Jim fixed that, and we sold it as a novelette. Then Jim figured out the structure of the whole book (with some discussion) and we wrote the middle as four separate stories, two each. Then I wrote a draft of the ending, which Jim drastically altered. Jim wrote four transition chapters. We put it all together and sent it back and forth many times. We got together in Connecticut for four days and wrote round the clock in the end it probably was more work than doing the novel separately. But I learned a lot from it . I had never written a novel before.

JF:  It sounds like collaborating may be one of the bravest acts in writing. Would you say it's easier for you both since you have workshop (i.e. Clarion et al) backgrounds?

Kessel:  For instance, I learned a lot about story structure, and economy of prose style from Jim, who is a more ruthless writer than I with his prose. If you compare my stories before FB with those after, I think some of his economy rubbed off on me, to my benefit. Though I'm still more florid than he is.

Kelly:  It's a good point. Workshopping does involve a commitment to listening carefully while other people mess around with your stuff. But I can think of at least one brilliant collaborator, Michael Swanwick, who can't abide workshops.

Kessel:  I never attended Clarion as a student, but I do like workshops. I'd say both Jim and I like the feedback a workshop gives you, and are not oversensitive about being critiqued. I think I need an editor at times, and a good collaborator is also a good editor.

Kelly:  I think one thing I learned from my original collaboration with John was to trust what I learned as an English major and not to be afraid of being "intellectual." He helped me develop my post-modern chops.

JF:  Interesting point about about collaborators/editors. What role (if any) does the editor play in a collaboration? Anything different than it would be for a solo piece?

Kessel:  You should ask Kelly about the nasty implications of "Think Like A Dinosaur." And how has winning a Hugo Award changed his life? Does Gardner Dozois come over to do his laundry now?

JF:  OK. Jim, what are the nasty implications of "Think Like A Dinosaur." And how has winning a Hugo Award changed YOUR life? Does Gardner Dozois come over to do your laundry now?

Kelly:  There are two kinds of editors, those who ask for rewrites and those who just buy the damn stories. An editor who asks for rewrites can be a kind of collaborator but he can also be a pest. Gardner will unload the dishwasher but I can't get him to load!

Kessel:  My experience is that most editors don't do a lot of editing nowadays. For better or for worse. Sometimes I think I might like the response of a strong editor, other times I think it could be a disaster if he/she were unsympathetic...

Kelly:  Nasty implications? Who, me? I guess one implication is that there are no laws of morality built into the structure of the universe. Intelligence imposes morality. However, the morality imposed need not make sense or bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

Kessel:  One of the plusses I've had in my career, anyway, is that I've been able to write pretty much what I wanted to write, in my own way, and with only a couple of exceptions have been able to find editors and publishers willing to print my work, and readers who seem to like it. Though I'm hardly a big seller or household name.

I think one of the fascinating things about "Dinosaur" is just this idea that morality is a creation of intelligence. Lots of sf readers and writers seem to think that following the laws of the universe is or ought to be the basis of morality. I think the story puts that smug belief to the harshest possible test. Do you really want to run human interactions on that basis alone?

JF:  Sorry folks--I got thrown offline for about 5 minutes there... (Didja miss me?) I doubt my questions were posted, so I'll sit back for a moment and see where we are...

Kelly:  I think one thing that gets Kelly and Kessel's attention is the question, "What is the right thing to do?" This is because we're both recovering Catholics. But the question "What should the world of 2063 be exploiting the moment universes of the past?" is the heart of John's book.

Kessel:  Ah, Jim, you've hit on it! That question of "what's the right thing to do?" is the mainspring of all my stories. I think SF is a wonderful lab bench on which to test out these issues, in ways not immediately connected to, but very relevant to, our own situation. You're right--the exploitation of the past in DR NICE is a metaphor for the treatment of the Third World by the First. Doe technological superiority give you rights to go along with your increased powers?

Kessel:  Over and over throughout its history sf has examined moral issues in the abstract environment of made-up worlds. But with the added power that these made-up worlds, as Kim Stanley Robinson says, are historically and logically connected to our own (unlike much fantasy).

JF:  I think morality is at the heart of much of what you each write, and I believe each of you make excellent use of sf to do that. Do you think genre literature handles morality stories with greater ease or benefit than 'mainstream'?

Kessel:  ... plus, these moral questions, when embodies in real characters, make for damned engrossing stories.

Kelly:  Whew! Netscape kicked me off twice in the last ten minutes. But the point of science fictional explorations of morality is always *not* why can't the sprelgif and the lugnugmugwug get along, but how come the Bosnians and Serbs are killing each other?

JF:  That's something that occasionally happens with these chats, Jim. Hang in there. I got thrown off once already myself.

Kessel:  Right. In crude sf, this can seem cartoonish--like that old Star Trek about racial conflict that had the fight to the death between aliens who were black on the right side of their bodies against those who were black on the left. I suppose you can see this a satire like Gulliver's Travels, but the problem with too much sf is that it oversimplifies.. .

Mainstream fiction usually avoids this "parable-like" quality that some sf has. And therefore is generally less preachy. On the other hand, there's no reason why sf has to be done crudely. I think the best sf is dealing with issues and written to a standard that compares well with anything being written today. But is does FEEL different than mainstream fiction.

JF:  (Message to all: We have now opened up the forum for audience participation. If you would like to join in, exit the forum and re-enter so you'll have a dialog box which lets you post questions. Please don't forget to sign your messages so we know who you are.)

Kelly:  I like that being a science fiction gives you a license to deconstruct morality, but then science fiction gives you the license to deconstruct everything! If we were only in the business of giving sermons from spaceships, then I doubt anyone would be paying attention. But our job is to question all assumptions. Sometimes I think the most powerful words in Skiffy are "What if ...?"

JF:  In the meantime, could you each talk a bit about the difference between the craft of short fiction vs. longer works? This is a pet question of mine, but I can't think of two people better suited to examine this.

Kessel:  Right. If you already know the moral outcome of your story before you begin, you're likely to write a sermon. I like it better when I seem to be figuring our exactly how I feel about the morality of my situation as I work my way through the story. That was what happened with CORRUPTING DR. NICE. I knew I disliked how some of the historicals were treated by the time travelers, but I also didn't feel that a policy of NO contact between cultures was feasible. So given the dirty nature of the world, how do we work out these issues? . . .

Angus MacDonald:  Are you guys going to keep writing about baseball?

Kessel:  Hi, Angus. Good to hear from you. I've got no baseball in the works right now. But I'm going to the Galapagos Islands in one week, so expect stories about giant turtles. . .

Angus:  Kessel, about "figuring our exactly how I feel about the morality of my situation as I work my way through the story" - did that come into play with 'The Pure Product'?

Kessel:  I think I'll always be more fond of the short story than the novel, though I'm getting to think I can write novels, now. Something about the intensity and precision of a good short story has always appealed to me. And sf has a history of great short stories, In my opinion, more than great novels.

Kelly:  Short fiction happens suddenly and when they're over I'm still more or less me. Novels always change me.

Kessel:  Yes, Angus, that definitely happened with "The Pure Product" which is a story I wrote over a period of twelve years (!) The last scene of that story surprised me, because it sort of called into question the moral stance of the whoe rest of the story. You get the feeling when you're writing maybe you've stacked the deck too much on one side, and suddenly the other side is speaking up from your hindbrain.

JF:  John, I suspect your trip to the Galapagos' will be the grist for the mill for more than one piece. I just finished working on a small website about the place... A place that begs to be kept pristine, but the politics and settlers (bringing pigs and cats) are upsetting the balance.

Guest:  Speaking of short fiction, is the Think Like a Dinosaur collection out already? Cute cover.

Kessel:  . . . by the way, "The Pure Product" is the title story of a semi-new collection of my work that TOR will publish this December. And you should all go out and buy Kelly's collection THINK LIKE A DINOSAUR AND OTHER STORIES out from Golden Gryphon Books in June, with a brilliant introduction by me . . .

 JF:  ...and be sure to pick up Corrupting Dr. Nice, especially if you're a Preston Sturges fan.

Guest:  Not Arkham House?

Kelly:  I'm baaaacccckkk! DINOTHINK is about a month away from your bookstores. Don't for get to ask for it by name!

Kessel:  I'm very much looking forward to the Galapagos trip. We'll also be in Quito, Ecuador. I suspect this will make me think about all sorts of first world/third world, civilization-vs.-nature issues...

Kelly:  Not Arkham House, no. And therein lies a tale. But Golden Gryphon is the company former Arkham House editor Jim Turner founded when he left.

Guest:  Care to name any of the other stories in the collection?

Kelly:  Hey, John, what's your favorite Kessel story and has it changed recently?

Kessel:  I haven't given it much thought lately. I suppose it's still "Invaders," or perhaps "Buffalo," though that one is more for personal reasons. How about the best Kelly story? I might vote for "The First Law of Thermodynamics," if not "Dinosaur." What do you think?

Angus:  I'd be more interested in learning what Kelly's favorite Kessel story is, and what Kessel's favorite Kelly story is.

JohnW:  So, John, you get to go to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador and Jim gets to go to...Cleveland?

Kelly:  Since you asked, even if you weren't asking me, the Kelly collection includes Heroics, Pogrom, Faith, Big Guy, Dancing with the Chairs, Rat, The First Law of Thermodynamics, Breakaway, Backdown, Standing in Line with Mr. Jimmy, Crow, Monsters, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Mr. Boy. (ah, the magic of cut and paste!)

Kessel:  Yes. I've already been to Cleveland.

Kessel:  I've always been very partial to Kelly's "Dancing with the Chairs." But I suspect you already know I'm a sucker for his work. We've got a nasty little mutual admiration society going here, and there's no point in trying to deny it.

Kelly:  I think one of the problems with winning an award is that you lose perspective on your winner. Is "Dino" far superior to "Mr. Boy?" Nope, sez me. And "First Law of Thermodynamics" is a fave of mine that probably wouldn't make some people's top ten Kelly stories. "Monsters" is another one that I like but that seemed to fall through the cracks.

JF:  John, you said "And sf has a history of great short stories, In my opinion, more than great novels." I believe this to be true, and further assert that sf has been doing more great things with short works than other forms of literature in the last few decades. Why might this be so? (And Jim, what are your views on the craft of writing short works?)

Kessel:  I hereby bequeath it to you, Angus. If only I could type.

Kelly:  I've always liked "The Pure Product" and if we're going to get sentimental about old Kessel stories, then I have to say that "Park and Lock It, Not Responsible" was the first story of his that knocked me back on my pins. Some people say "Another Orphan" is pretty good and I'd agree with them. But "Buffalo" seems to me to be the key to who Kessel is as a writer.

Kessel:  I think one reason sf has produced many good short stories in the last thrity years is that there has still been an active commercial market for short fiction, something you can't say for mainstream work. (it does look like the sf short fiction markets are endangered, though). So people still are trying to write sf short stories, and even if most of them aren't very good, the top five percent are going to be interesting....

Kelly:  Short story writers tend to take more risks. Where failure is an option, (and believe me, a lot of short stories flop), breakthrough is also a possibility. Novelists can't afford to roll the dice.

Kessel:  . . . I also think that sf may still be tuned into the traditional plotted story structure more than mainstream stories are today.

JF:  We have just a couple of minutes left, so I think we should re-gather and finish whatever threads and plugs we haven't mentioned yet. I do want to say how many hours of pleasure and serious thought I've gotten out of each of your latest works.

Kelly:  Another advantage that a short story writer has is that he's got the reader working harder for him. If I tell you that spacefaring dinosaurs have given us a way to the stars in a short story, you're going to have to invent their society in your mind. In a novel, the writer has to explain all that stuff and it will never be as convincing as the reality *you,* the reader made up.

Kelly:  Thanks, Jim. And to all you out there in cyberland!

Guest:  This has been a welcome treat. Thanks to all of you.

Kessel:  Thanks, Jim. This has been fun. Gets the old creative juices flowing again.

Kelly:  I've got a pretty good story in the current Asimov's, "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Plug, plug!

JF:  Likewise! It has been a pleasure to have you both here, and I hope we can do his again sometime.

Kessel:  Keep the faith, all. Bye, now.

Kelly:  Night, all!

JF:  Thanks again, J&J. And thanks to you all (audience) for coming by. Good night.

Clicking on the book cover images above will take you to, where you can read more and order the books.
home pagemore writerstop of page