This Author Spotlight
Kathleen Ann Goonan
QUEEN CITY JAZZ
Kathleen Ann Goonan is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, including her groundbreaking Nanotech Quartet: New York Times Notable Book Queen City Jazz, Darrell Award winner Mississippi Blues, and Nebula Award finalists Crescent City Rhapsody and Light Music. In War Times won the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2007 and was the American Library Association’s Best SF Novel of 2007. Her most recent novel is This Shared Dream. She has published over fifty stories in venues such as Discover Magazine, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous Best of Year anthologies, some of which are collected in Angels and You Dogs. Professor of the Practice of Science Fiction Studies and Creative Writing at Georgia Tech 2010-2016, her most recent academic work appeared in SFRA Review and in Intelligence Unbound: The Future of Uploaded and Machine Minds, edited by Broderick and Blackwell and in Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction (Ed. Yaszek and Sharp, Wesleyan 2016). A novella, “The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse,” will appear in Extrasolar (PS Publishing) in 2017. Her web site is www.goonan.com.
1.How did you get into writing and why do you write?
I always intended to be a writer, but after some initial success with poetry while in college, I had the somewhat belated realization that I needed to make money (I graduated from Virginia Tech in 1975 with a degree in English; MFA’s were not as ubiquitous then as they are now). I therefore took a master’s Montessori training course so that I could have my own business, control my own time, and begin my writing career in my copious free time. Because my school soon had a hundred students, two locations, and many employees, and because I found that I loved teaching preschoolers and managing a business, that time did not come for a number of years. Maria Montessori was a scientist and developed her method of teaching based on observation and long-running experiments, during which she laid the foundation for our understanding of how humans learn (now being corroborated by fMRI). Seeing how effortlessly children can learn to read, write, and lay the concrete foundations of math at a relatively young age, I had an epiphany about how science works. This lead to my writing science fiction, becoming keenly interested in science and technology ethical issues, and, since 2010, teaching courses about the confluence of science, technology, and culture in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech as a Professor of the Practice, where I also teach Creative Writing.
But to move the story back a bit, I awoke from the trance of teaching when I was 33. A voice in a dream said to me, “If you’re going to be a writer, you’d better get started.” Startled, I woke and took this advice to heart. Better yet, I had an entire novel in mind. I wrote early in the morning, during lunch, and on weekends and finished it in a year, a feat which still amazes me, considering that it now takes me two or more years to complete a novel. I then started writing stories and sending them out; within a year I was getting personal notes from Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois suggesting that I workshop them. Instead, I left my school, moved to Honolulu with my husband, and began writing full time. I sold travel pieces and mainstream fiction, but no SF. A friend who had read my trunk novel recommended Locus, and there I saw a tiny ad for a six-week writer’s workshop. I attended Clarion West in 1988, which gave my career an SF focus and a push in the right direction.
I think that persevering in a writing career is a fool’s errand, but successful writers are overwhelmingly convinced of the necessity to do so. Belief in one’s own vision can be a curse or a blessing, but is most often a combination of the two. When it works, it is the most satisfying thing to do that I can imagine, other than teaching a child to read.
2.What do you like best (or least) about writing?
Actually, writing a first draft puts me into a state of agitation and irritation at how wretchedly the whole process is proceeding until about 45 minutes in, and then it becomes easy. When I look up, hours have passed. Having been a professional writer for twenty-five years, I do have confidence that a story will be wrought, which is helpful. Rewriting—rearranging, cutting, adding new scenes, exploring and pointing up nuances—is the most important part of writing, and the most satisfying.
3.What is your writing process? IE do you outline? Do you stick to a daily word or page count, write 7 days a week, etc?
I have done all of the above. It all depends on what I’m working on. I must say that I’ve never tried the daily word count approach, but I generally write over a thousand words a day. I usually have a necessary scene in mind when I sit down to write, and generally know how I’m going to go about it. If I finish a scene, I’m satisfied.
4.Who are some other writers you read and admire, regardless of whether they are commercially “successful?”
Reading is my drug, and I read omnivorously and catholically, in and out of various genres (SF, mystery, thriller, literary, mainstream, past and present writers). I admire biographers such as Hermione Lee and David McCullough, historical writers such as Max Hastings and Doris Kearns Goodwin, contemporary fiction writers such as Karen Joy Fowler and Zadie Smith, and science writers such as Eric Kandel, Freeman Dyson, E.O. Wilson, and a host of others. I’m particularly interested in the recent spate of books about women in the jet propulsion industry and other sciences, such as Hidden Figures, Rocket Girl (about Mary Sherman Morgan, who developed Hydyne), The Glass Universe, and women scientists in general, such as Lise Meitner, whose biography I taught as part of one of my courses, and Maria Montessori. Lise Meitner became the model for Eliani Hadntz, a character in In War Times (Tor, 2007), my sixth novel, which was the American Library Association’s Best SF Novel of the Year and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award winner; she is also in This Shared Dream (Tor, 2011), recently released as a mm paperback.
5.Should the question mark in the above question be inside or outside the quotes?
Either, depending on whether you are an academic or a civilian.
6.What’s your stance on the Oxford Comma?
I enjoy the flexibility of a neutrality in which either usage is a style choice, not a heresy, in the writing of others or my own. I’m a word and language wonk, so the controversy delighted me.
7.What is your book Queen City Jazz about and how did it come to fruition?
I had been writing stories and selling to professional markets for a year or two after Clarion West 88 when QCJ emerged from a vision I had of a city with giant flowers atop the buildings, which inferred giant bees. Let us call them Bees, for they have an important role in the book.
I knew that the city was Cincinnati, where I was born and from whence my family moved when I was 8, to Honolulu. My memories gave the Flower-City of Cincinnati a decidedly surrealistic slant.
I was reading a lot of science and technology books at the time, including Drexler’s Engines of Creation. My husband, a physician, often mused about fascinating new biological applications; these musings were the foundation of how communications in the Flower Cities work. When the novel opens, many cities in North America had long ago converted to this new biologically-based system after radio communications failed. John Cramer, well-known physicist, suggested one theory of how this might have happened, but during the course of the Nanotech Quartet, which spans a century, several theories are in play.
The little town of Miamisburg, Ohio, first settled and platted by my not-so-distant ancestors in 1801, where my father grew up and where my grandparents had quite recently passed away, insisted on itself as the emotional focus of what I thought was a short story, and then a novella, after I tried setting it just outside of Cincinnati. Once I moved the opening to a Shaker community near Miamisburg, it took off.
My grandfather, Russell Goonan, was born in 1888, and knew the Wright Brothers when they were just bicycle repairmen. He mentioned that there had once been a Shaker community nearby, and said “They didn’t reproduce, so they eventually died out.” Mother Ann and the utopian Shaker experiment fascinated me, and religious belief became the reason that my main characters are outsiders, part of a sect that fears the nano-biotech of the Flower-City technology that emerged when radio communications ceased to work.
The most powerful underpinnings of QCJ are the American arts—ragtime, jazz, fiction, poetry, comics, architecture and design—and history. I called the processes occurring in the city bionan, because communication is intricately modulated and processed biologically.
Queen City Jazz was published by Tor in 1994, and was a New York Times Notable Book; it was also featured in a Scientific American piece about nanotech, Shamans of Small, along with the work of Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson and became an important part of the conversation about the possibilities of nanotechnology. Reviews in newspapers all over the country led to frequent interviews about how Drexlerian nanotechnology might play out, and my vision of that particular future played out in my Nanotech Quartet, which includes Mississippi Blues (Tor, 1998) as well as Crescent City Rhapsody (2000) and Light Music (2002), both Nebula Award Finalists and published by HarperCollins. By 2000, I was receiving frequent invitations to speak at universities and several international literary festivals about the future of nanotech. Nanotech has taken a more conservative turn than many originally feared, but research and speculation continue.
But basically, Queen City Jazz is a story about a girl and her dog, death, life, and the power of the arts. Oh, and also Giant Bees.
8.What’s your current writing project?
I’m working on a novel set in the Florida Keys in the 1930’s.
9.What book(s) are you currently reading?
Biographies of American presidents/American history and political theory, books about WWI and WWII, several books about animal consciousness as well as plant communication, and Moonglow by Michael Chabon
10.Who or what inspires your writing?
The world, personal memory, history, and deadlines.
Finally, is there anything you’d care to add? Please also include where people can read your published stories, buy your book, etc.
I love feedback, so don’t hesitate to write to me at email@example.com. I have published about fifty short stories, some of which are collected in Angels And You Dogs (PS Publishing, 2011). You can also read some stories online.
Discover Magazine first published “A Love Supreme,” and it is available here and at Lightspeed Magazine.
Tor.com has published “Where Did We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”, which is about genetic engineering and animal rights, as well as “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star,” which is about rockets, rocket scientists, Disneyland, WWII, and a girl with a Bowie knife.
My web page is www.goonan.com, and it has excerpts, essays, and many travel articles, most of which appeared in The Washington Post.
Signed hardcovers of CRESCENT CITY RHAPSODY, LIGHT MUSIC, THE BONES OF TIME, IN WAR TIMES, and MISSISSIPPI BLUES are available via my web page at https://www.goonan.com/
THE BONES OF TIME, my second novel (1996), was an Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist, and is available in ebook format at Amazon.
Signed Hardcover at https://www.goonan.com/
MISSISSIPPI BLUES, my third novel, is the second novel in my NANOTECH QUARTET, for which I was inducted into the Darrell Award Hall of Fame. Signed hardcover available at https://www.goonan.com/
"Memory Dog" was a Sturgeon Award runner-up. It is available on Amazon.
"Sundiver Day," a novelette ebook, is also available on Amazon.
"The String" was a Nebula Award finalist. Available at Amazon.
Thanks, Kathleen, for sharing your insights into writing and your career. You've given us a great deal of work to enjoy. Please visit with us again when your new novel is ready!
Be sure to visit Kathleen's website www.goonan.com to learn more about her work and to order autographed copies!