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A Conversation With Kit Reed
An interview with Matthew Cheney
June 2006

© Kit Reed
Kit Reed
Kit Reed
A Guggenheim fellow, Kit Reed is the first American recipient of an international literary grant from the Abraham Woursell Foundation. She's had stories in, among others, The Yale Review, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Omni, and The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Literature. Both Weird Women, Wired Women and Little Sisters of the Apocalypse were finalists for the Tiptree Prize. She is a Professor of English at Wesleyan University.

Kit Reed Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dogs of Truth

The Baby Merchant
Dogs of Truth: New and Uncollected Stories
Thinner Than Thou
Weird Women, Wired Women

Publishers Weekly has called Kit Reed "one of our brightest cultural commentators", but she is far more than that. Her first published story, "The Wait," appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1958 and her first novel, Mother Isn't Dead, She's Only Sleeping was released in 1961. Since then, she has published a considerable number of stories and novels in a wide variety of genres, earning accolades and awards from a range of sources any writer would be proud to have gained notice from. Her short fiction has appeared in such publications as The Yale Review, Omni, Redbook, Asimov's, Transatlantic Review, and The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Literature.

Reed's new novel, The Baby Merchant, is a thoughtful thriller that tells the story of a near-future world where babies are a precious commodity some people will do anything to have.

Over the course of your career, have you noticed your approach to writing changing?

I've always been a visceral writer, as in, I don't have an intellectual approach, twelve steps or twelve things you need to put in to make a story, any of that; I sit down in the morning most days and do what I have to do, whatever that is. I do think the computer has made life better for me. Instead of ripping, say, seventeen unsatisfactory pages out of the klunky typewriter before hitting the right one, I can go over a file from the top sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph as many times as it takes to get it right (and with no heaps of draft pages to tell me, I lose count...)

Do you think of work such as The Baby Merchant as satirical, or socially engaged, or...?
I guess I didn't think of it as anything except a story that wanted me to see to it that it got told. I knew I loved the guy as soon as I heard him in my head, so what I was really thinking about was, how can it be that a smart, well intentioned likeable guy like Tom Starbird ends up stealing children for a living? Readers, both agents and editors will tell me after the fact that a book is satirical or socially concerned or... or... In fact, all I know about it is whether whatever drove me in the first place has gotten the novel to where it's going.

The style and voice of The Baby Merchant is particularly interesting -- there are moments of a sort of second-person point-of-view that infiltrate the narration. Was this approach a conscious choice?
I don't think so. I just became aware, reading back in The Baby Merchant and other recent work -- Thinner than Thou and Dogs of Truth, the short story collection -- that somewhere along the way I'd begun incorporating the reader in what I was doing. It's odd. It just happened, and I can't make it un-happen.

There's a moral complexity to The Baby Merchant in that we understand what motivates the characters to do what they do to each other, but by the end it does seem there's a clear "right answer" to the problems created, and one of the characters, at least, "does the right thing." Do you think that's the case?
The more I hang around the less sure I am whether there are "right" answers. I think everything in the world is morally complex. I suspect that most people, whatever they're doing and whatever their motives, manage to convince themselves that they're Doing the Right Thing. As in, our ways of looking at things and most of our decisions are basically subjective. Tom Starbird is deep into, um, existential thinking, as in, who am I, why am I doing this, so he does in fact believe, whatever he's doing, that he's Doing the Right Thing. So does Sasha. Maury, the poor woman who's desperate to have a child to love, becomes aware that what she and her husband are doing is wrong, but I think that in the novel, she is alone in this.

What do you think it is, in fiction or life (or both), that keeps people from recognizing that their actions are somehow wrong?
Rationalization, I think, isn't just a Catholic thing, it's a human thing. We have to think what we're doing is right or we wouldn't be doing it. In a funny way, I don't think about morality -- absolute or that of the characters -- when I'm telling their stories, I just think about what they'd do in a given situation, given who they are, and it isn't always what I would do. Jake does what he does because he doesn't care about the fine points, he cares about getting what he wants. No matter what we think of him, Jake thinks he's right because for him, right means whatever is expedient. In the crunch with Gary Cargill, Tom does what he does and then thinks, Oh my God, did I really just do that? He's surprised, but I'm not. Given the way things came down for him, he didn't have any choice.

Maury's always thought of herself as a good person, but when push comes to shove, she realizes that she will stoop to anything if it helps her get her baby. Yikes, I haven't rightly answered your question, I've told you what they'd think, which I guess means that I get so tight inside my characters that I can't step aside either before or after the fact and judge what they just did as opposed what's right or proper or what I would do. Things just happen.

In writing about complex ideas from multiple points of view, do you ever find yourself wondering what the absolute moral values in the situation are?
Probably I'm writing out of my own sense of what's right and what's wrong, I think most writers do, but these people have to make their own way. In a way, all of us do.

Do you think writers have a responsibility to their society with what they write?
Yes, but not in a tractarian way, i.e. novelists who preach are not good novelists. But probably whatever we write does in fact reflect whatever we believe. Which doesn't so much explain stuff I write that is just wildly suspenseful or madly funny. Or why some of the novels that I wrote with a completely straight face are read as satire. Maybe I just see the darkside. Or in some cases, the funny side of the darkside... of society. Of human nature. I guess I'm saying I don't START with a concept of responsibility to anybody or anything but the characters in the story I am telling.

But if the government has become a little more, um, domineering in this one -- closing the borders to keep out carriers of diseases like bird flu, to say nothing of keeping out "undesirables," microchipping citizens to keep track of them at every level -- if freedoms are eroding, clearly it's a reflection of what's going on under the current regime in this country. The stories come out the way they do, I suppose, because of where in our less-than-perfect world, I, as writer, am standing.

What do you think distinguishes preaching in a novel from exploring ideas in a novel? How can a writer who is interested in thinking about large socio-political topics avoid preaching? Are novels even the right form for exploring such topics?
Again, I'm probably going to give an unsatisfactory answer. For me fiction is organic, it's about happening and it's HAPPENING. I plunge into a situation, social, political, hell, sometimes theological, without fretting over what I want people to THINK about this. I am just bent on getting out the story. I hate expository dialogue, I hate tractarian writing and I hate opinionated rants and probably, well, to quote I think it was Hemingway: "If you want to deliver a message, call Western Union." The amazing part is that readers come up and point out things I didn't know I just did. That in fact, the HAPPENING uncovers issues. I think the best fiction, think George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm, demonstrates the idea, the problem, if you will, the political/social ethos, whereas plodders can only describe it.

Has your work as a teacher affected your writing?
Nope. What it did do was force me to explain how I do what I do for people who're trying to get to the point where they can write a good story.

What gives you pleasure when writing?
Um. The coffee and biscotti, which I need to jump-start my day. The view from my window. Sometimes I google my most recent novel and sometimes I clean my keyboard. The rest is mostly throwing myself at the wall until I finally climb up and over. When I'm into a thing that's going well I lose time, so I can't say what the real pleasure is except to be able to keep on doing it and that moment when the CLICK tells me something's gotten where it's going.

You say your approach to writing hasn't changed much over the years. How about your writing?
I hope it's gotten better! It's certainly gotten harder. But: we were having lunch with this 80 year old scholar in the farmhouse where he grew up, and he got all pixillated and told us, "I remember falling down in that farmyard when I was four years old and I remember what it felt like when I got up, and today..." He was beaming. "I'm that exact same person." I guess I've always been the exact same person.

Copyright © 2006 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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