DarkEcho Horror
Blowgun by Rick Berry
KATHE KOJA: Transcendence and Transformation
"Every writer, it seems to me, asks a question in his or her work; mine concerns transformation, or more properly transcendence: when we will to be more than we are, what do we do? How do we choose what then to become, and how accomplish that becoming? And after transformation -- what?" -- Kathe Koja

by Paula Guran
January, 1998 (Originally published by OMNI Online)


Kathe Koja's career as a novelist started in 1991 with the publication of The Cipher, which also debuted Dell Publishing's Abyss line. Dell's declared intent with Abyss was to publish cutting edge horror and dark fiction and The Cipher made a decided and controversial impact. The Cipher was co-winner (along with Melanie Tem's The Prodigal) of the 1992 Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker award for Outstanding Achievement in a First Novel, was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award for Best First Novel Originally Published in Paperback and was a Locus Readers' Poll winner.

Bad Brains followed in 1992, Skin in 1993 and Strange Angels, in 1994. Her most recent novel is Kink, which was published last fall by Henry Holt; Koja's short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines such as Asimov's, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and OMNI. Some of it will be collected in Extremities which will be published in 1998 by Four Walls Eight Windows. When discussing Koja, you'll often hear the words "original" and "distinctive voice." It's almost impossible to present Koja to you without giving you at least a taste of her prose. Here's an excerpt from Skin:

Tess said less, watching the dancers, thinking of the rhythm inherent in metal, in corroding iron, in the slick long limbs of steel. Could it be found? Could she find it? ... Branches of mastery, hints and feints and driving piston hearts, the drip of machine oil, the stutter of living flesh mechanically enabled; what she wanted -- what did she want? Machines that were not robots, moving sculpture that did not mimic the organic but played, somehow, both with and off that distanceless dichotomy, the insolvable equation of steel screws and aching flesh, that wanted people not only as operators but as co-conspirators. See those dancers now, and imagine them locked in ballerina combat with the grip and clench of metal, the sweet smoke of rosin solder like incense around their dripping faces, imagine them lit with a hundred strobes and the subsonic growl of bass-heavy music like the throb of an engine running hot, burning hot, burning like the white heart of the arc.

Burning. All of it burning.

As an interviewer, I prefer to allow the writer to speak for herself as much as possible, particularly when that writer has such a unique voice. But in the course of this exchange, I discovered Koja is not the easiest person to draw out about her own work. Instead she has a habit of turning the questions on the questioner, challenging you to, well, think. I wound up having a side conversation about spirituality with her. I also found myself putting more of my own ideas into this dialogue than I normally would have.

But that, perhaps, is just what Koja does with her writing: She opens up places in the reader's mind and soul that you never knew were there. For those receptive to that kind of self-exploration, there is a sense of discomfort -- but illumination as well.

DE: It's amazing how people describe your work, Kathe. You've been likened to Franz Kafka, Clive Barker, Don DeLillo, Marcel Proust, Katherine Dunn, the Marquis de Sade, Edgar Allan Poe, William S. Burroughs and God knows who else. I've seen your work described as post-modern, "modern primitive...pointedly describing cutting-edge pain culture," and "classy smut." I think people either love your work very much, or dismiss it as something they don't care for. Can Kathe Koja herself provide us with some form of definitive description of her work?

coverKK: I have no working definition for my stuff, although transcendence/transformation seems to be my obsession...My characters are generally people who are driven and obsessed in some way, and comfortable at extremes -- of behavior, of emotion, of belief -- that would make most people uneasy. Which is probably why people either like my fiction very much or dislike it just as strongly.

DE: Let's talk about the novels some...

The Cipher has an actual nasty hole in it the female protagonist Nakota calls "the Funhole." It's partly a metaphorical hole as well, but in the novel it functions as a very real, life-and-limb-threatening monster. It's also an irresistible source of dangerous insanity for Nakota. She becomes obsessed with it and draws Nicholas into her obsession. Their artist friends become involved in the "exploration" of the Funhole, which changes, transforms Nicholas. I see the Funhole as a perverse dark god that gives Nicholas (for gods always gift believers) the "most potent of gifts" -- fear. Nakota becomes a sacrifice. Nicholas becomes the god.

In Bad Brains Austen, a failed portrait painter, takes a pratfall that leaves him with brain damage and disturbing visions that begin to transform him. His developing madness takes him on an odyssey of loss and pain, an unholy journey of discovery -- an anti-heroic quest.

coverIn Skin, Tess is an artist who makes sculptures from scrap metal; Bibi is a dancer who, with her "torture dance," uses Tess' works in her own kinetic art. As she dances she inflicts wounds on herself using the hard sharp edges of Tess' sculpture. As the characters' relationship evolves, Bibi becomes more and more obsessed with mutilating her own body to convey her artistic vision. Michael enters their relationship, trying to act the muse to both of them. He is unsuccessful with Tess, but eggs on Bibi as she grows to feel she has the artistic right to "create" on others' bodies. Perhaps Bibi also becomes a dark god in her pursuit of art. There is certainly transcendence here that comes from the intensity of the artist's relationship to her art. There's also an exploration of the artist's ability to use madness and obsession and transform it into art.

Kathe, you also explore madness, art and obsession in Strange Angels. Here the obsession leads not only to, perhaps, enlightenment for the character Grant, but transcendence and transformation for the schizophrenic artist Robin. Grant sees Robin as literally becoming an angel. The transformation here also requires a sacrificial death to attain.

In Kink, there is no "artist" character, but you deal with sexual and emotional obsession: a couple seduced by a third into believing in "essential evolution through means of purest kink." It's the first time in any of your novels, I think, that we see sexual obsession and emotional wounds transform into redemption. In Kink, Lena is the transforming god-character. She brings self-knowledge through illusion certainly to Jess and, perhaps, to Sophie.

coverTo me, although you obviously you deal with obsession a lot -- and madness -- and relationships --and art -- you write a kind of modern transformative mythology, too.

KK:I admit to a certain distaste for authors' "interpretations" of their work. I can tell you what I wanted to do, tried to do in a given novel, but whether I did it or not every reader must decide for him/herself, using his or her own sensibility, vision, taste, etc. With that caveat..Every writer, it seems to me, asks a question in his or her work; mine concerns transformation, or more properly transcendence: when we will to be more than we are, what do we do? How do we choose what then to become, and how accomplish that becoming? And after transformation -- what?

In my first two novels, the device used to accomplish the becoming can be understood in one of two ways: that is, the funhole in Cipher can be seen as a device or as an actual presence, much like the silver "vision" in Bad Brains: either Bad Brains's protagonist, Austen, is neurologically damaged or he has been given a terrible gift. In Skin and Strange Angels art itself (without the possibility of supernatural elements, as in Bad Brains) is the tool: Bibi's "torture dance" evolving into self-mutilation, Robin's mute ferocious drawings. In Kink sexual love and betrayal, as induced by Lena, is the transformative agent. And in all of the books there is, as you say, an engine of obsession driving the transformation. In each the viewpoint character undergoes a fundamental change -- Nicholas in Cipher, Austen in Bad Brains, Tess in Skin, Grant in Strange Angels, Jess in Kink (although another character may be the catalyst for that change) -- and they are all transformed in various ways; two of them do not survive the transformation -- and you're right to say that it's only in Kink that redemption follows as well. I used to send my characters into a fire that necessarily consumed them, but I have learned, a little, how to send them through the fire to a new place. The characters who do not change -- most notably Nakota in Cipher, Bibi in Skin, and Lena in Kink -- are motivated by an essential selfishness or self-centeredness, an unwillingness to relinquish control to the process, a refusal to become.

coverArt is always a constant in my books. I'm a writer, my husband is an artist, many of our friends do one or the other, so I guess I'm writing from a milieu I know pretty well -- but the inherently transformative properties of art itself, of the making of art, fascinate me too, in my life as well as my work. So I suppose I'm trying to answer my own questions: what is art for, in its largest and yet most personal context? Can it be used as a transformative tool? Michele Landsberg, writing on John Goldthwaite, says "If the purpose [of writing] is not deeply moral -- 'to humanize rather than merely to socialize' -- then why write?" To humanize the writer, too, as much as -- or maybe even more than -- the reader; when we explain something to someone else, we necessarily explain it first to ourselves as well.

DE: But with your work, some of that humanizing process comes from making the reader uncomfortable, I think. Perhaps the "uneasiness" people feel is the essence of what makes your work "dark" -- it disturbs people and evokes an emotional response. Obviously there are going to be different strokes for different folks. However, with your work, I hear people say: "Oh, I just can't get into Koja." They don't care for the way it is written and therefore never get far enough into it to have any response. Of course, on the other hand, you have readers who love your "voice." Are you intentionally "inaccessible"?

KK: Writing is an act of communication, and for me to frustrate that communication, to be "intentionally inaccessible" for whatever reason, would be to negate the act itself. I wish I could communicate equally well with everybody, with anybody who ever picked up one of my books, but any deliberate attempt to please some imaginary reader, or group of readers, would end in cut-and-paste and pleasing no one. I expect of any reader what any writer requires: a concentrated effort of attention to, and participation in, the text. Then we can have some fun.

DE: And your distinct "voice"...?

KK: It was once explained to me that style is the voice, the story is the lyric; both together are the song. Poetic, isn't it? And true, too.

DE: You've spoken of a "black hole [that] is at the heart of every novel I've ever written as a symbol, metaphoric or not, of the emptiness we each carry close to our hearts, the emptiness of being alive in a world that doesn't care. And the way we fill that Freudian hole, well, that's the novel." Do you write from a personal emptiness or are you just an observer on the edge of the abyss?

KK: Everyone is cored by that existential void, the deep hole in the heart that cries for radiance; our entire consumer culture is predicated on the belief that, if you stuff enough things down that hole, you can finally satisfy it into silence. This has never been the case. Nor does creativity, sex, art, or even love fill the hole, when each are used as an object. For me, an active and questing belief in God is the only thing great enough to fill my own inner emptiness, with that belief reflected and refracted through my work.

DE: Faith, it has been said, is rational; not believing is irrational. What paths have you explored? How have you searched for God?.

KK: The search for God is, at heart, an intensely private thing, as the development of any true intimacy must be, but I can say that I was raised Catholic, spent some years away from religious practice, and returned some years ago: like a nautilus, or Dante's path, each turning taking me closer to where I needed most to be. One of the great advantages of being born a Catholic -- at least for me -- is a hands-on, matter-of-fact acceptance of mystery, of the limbo district where the corporeal intersects with the Divine; the "eyes of faith" have the capacity to see much that is wonderful and strange.

DE: Retaining that sense of wonderment is essential as a horror writer, and wonderment is also the basis of understanding that which is holy. Clive Barker once said, "Writing about the unholy is one way to write about what's sacred." You've mentioned that part of "horror's attractions is the freedom to handle icky stuff -- great pain, great loss, great waves of emotion -- without gloves. Readers and writers both." How, as a writer, do you use that freedom?

coverKK: The freedom to work at extremes is something I need as a writer, but the only expectation I hope anyone ever has about my work hinges on voice, not content, or the belief that it belongs to or reacts against any genre -- because those kinds of reader expectations can result in unconscious self-limitations, i.e., "I can't read that, it's not really horror (SF, mainstream, mystery, whatever)."

DE: Did you feel limited by genre labels earlier in your career? You seem to be perhaps the only writer in the nineties to have made the leap from "horror" to "literature" with the possible recent exception of Poppy Brite.

KK: Labels limit everyone in the process, reader as well as writer. If you're looking for a "mystery" or a "romance", a piece of fiction to deliver a defined and expected reaction like a Dorito delivers an expected taste, then I suppose they'd be useful, but if you want something you've never seen before, something that changes your inner landscape, those kind of labels won't help you at all and may unconsciously drive you away from work you might enjoy.

DE: So where does it begin for you? Did you always want to write?

KK: Yes: writing is my first and only vocation. (Except for a brief period in the early sixties when I wanted to be a cat.) In 1984 I attended the Clarion workshop, which was my first exposure to professional writers; in 1988 I sold my first story, in 1990 my first novel. And here I am before you in the shape you see today.

DE: Well, I suppose we all want to be cats at one point or another...but you never wanted to be a cowboy or a fireman? And, more seriously, are you saying that "success" has come fairly easily for you? That you never really struggled?

KK: No, I never dreamed of being a cowboy, nurse, etc.; all I wanted was to be a writer since I started writing stories, at four or five years old. As for "success" coming easily: there were four years between my participation in Clarion and my first story sale, and another two years until I wrote and sold my first novel, and all that time sure felt like struggle to me. And anyone who does work that is not easily defined in the marketplace is going to have to struggle all the time.

DE: What writers do you feel most influenced your work? Who do you admire?

KK: Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor (more as a role model than as a stylist) were and are major influences on me; J.D. Salinger was a revelation to me when I was younger. I particularly admire Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Merton, John Crowley, Anne Carson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Carter Scholz, Sylvia Plath, Thomas Pynchon (although I haven't yet read Mason & Dixon).

As a kid/young adult I read tons of crap, which did me a great deal of good by developing in me a workable shit detector; I had no formal exposure to The Great Works of the Western Canon, which meant I had to find things on my own, a method that works quite well but only up to a point. There are huge gaps in my self-education -- Dostoevski, Camus, Tolstoy, Faulkner. Hey, I only recently discovered William Gaddis (and Kierkegaard, which leads to more lacunae: Augustine, Aquinas, Hildegard, Julian of Norwich...)

DE: You live in Detroit now with your husband, artist Rick Lieder, and your son. What is every day life and writing like for you? Why Detroit?

KK: Rick and I are both native Detroiters; we live now in a small bedroom suburb close to the city; we both work primarily at home. My everyday life pretty much revolves around my family and my work; I write in the mornings, every day.

DE: Do you think the city has shaped you as a writer?

KK I don't see that living anywhere in particular has shaped me in any particular way, other than the way any ongoing life experience shapes the person who has it. But am I consciously "a Detroit writer"? Nope.

DE: You mentioned before that art played a role in your work. Are you involved in Rick's work as a visual artist? Is he involved in yours as a textual artist?

KK: Rick and I are involved in one another's work to a certain extent; I have modeled for him from time to time, helped with artist's statements, etc. For me, he's my first, best, and most stringent reader, and I take his opinions very seriously.

DE: You've collaborated a great deal on short fiction with Barry Malzberg. How did that come about? How do you work the collaboration?

KK: I met Barry Malzberg at a bookstore signing in 1992, and soon after we began collaborating; Barry has always been one of my favorite writers, and working with him was a great pleasure for me. We had no hard-and-fast method of working -- sometimes he would begin the story and I would finish, or vice versa -- and together we were able to do quite a bit of work, some of which, due to the miracles of modern publishing, is still coming out...More recently, I've collaborated with another of my favorite writers, Carter Scholz.

DE: The interviewer blinks, revealing her stupidity, and asks, "Uh, Carter Scholz?"

KK: In the late seventies and early eighties he wrote some exceptionally brilliant science fiction stories, and a novel (a collaboration with Glenn Harcourt) called Palimpsests, then ceased to write for a time. Fortunately he's back working now and doing wonderful things. For a recent example, try his "Radiance" in Greg Bear's New Legends anthology.

DE: I'm thrilled about the collection coming out. Are you working on the next novel?

KK: Yes, I'm working on a new novel, but it's too soon to say very much. A photographer, a pilgrim guide, transcendence in the desert.

DE: Do you work on a set schedule?

KK: I do write on a set schedule in the sense of internal momentum, needing to work every day, etc.

DE: How about new short stories? Current, upcoming?

KK: No short stories just now, unless Ellen calls me for something...

DE: She probably will one of these days. Even Ellen has to admit, though, there's not a huge market for anthologies, even from an noted editor like she is. Professional fiction magazines have pretty much dried up. Do you write short fiction now only for a book you've been invited to write for? This often means writing to a "theme." Is this a challenge?

KK: Writing to a theme is okay with me, as long as the theme is interesting and sufficiently broad to allow room to maneuver and play. I haven't written any short fiction in a few years, except the (long) story I wrote with Carter Scholz, probably because the things I'm interested in exploring now need more space than a short story allows.

DE: A writer must read. Who/what are you reading these days?

KK: Right now I'm reading Michael Mott's Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Merton's own New Seeds of Contemplation, and getting ready to start Sheila Kohler's The House On R. Street, which was recommended to me by a friend. Some books I've read and enjoyed in the last year: Gaddis' A Frolic of His Own, Barry Unsworth's Stone Virgin and Morality Play, Alan Jones' The Soul's Journey and Passion For Pilgrimage, Anne Carson's Glass, Irony and God.

DE: You are 37 years old. Where do you see yourself at 42? 47?

KK: Yes, I'm 37, 38 in January...I've had so little luck predicting my life so far (I'm still not a cat) that any speculation I might have would by definition be vain. What I want most is to continue working until all the lights go out. Or on.

-- Photo of Ms. Koja by Rick Lieder --

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Copyright © 1998 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.