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Interview: John Kessel on “The Mark of Cain”

Tell us a bit about “The Mark of Cain.”

The story is based on a fragment that I wrote in the 1980s, fifteen handwritten pages in the voice of a character telling of his past, his ambitions, and his conviction that he has let down the people around him and failed in his professional and personal life. In going through my old story files I ran across these pages and thought, “This is pretty well written. This young writer has some talent, but he doesn’t have a story yet. But I could make it one.”


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

The character of “Cal” is based on somebody that I knew back in the 1980s when I lived in Kansas City and was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. Looking back on that time and the young man I was then from my current perspective of my late 60s made me think of the differences between youth and age, between the arrogance of the 30-year-old and the uncertainty of the 65-year-old.


Was “The Mark of Cain” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

It’s more personal than many of my other stories. I think about how easy it was for me to judge people when I was young, and how much more complicated the world seems now that I am older. I found some fertile ironies in the differences between my made-up would-be alchemist “Cal” and the ambitious writer “John,” both in 1981 and in 2019. The story mentions places and events that I saw back then, and draws on my Catholic upbringing and concern for right and wrong.


What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

Life is mysterious, we do not have control over what happens to us even when we think we are in control, and judgment of ourselves and others is difficult. Right and wrong are real, but they are not simple. Self-examination is necessary, but who is to say what our lives mean, if they mean anything, in the end?


Why do you write?

Writing is a way to explore things that interest, amuse, and bother me. It is a way of figuring out what I think about things. It also is a way to entertain myself and others who might possibly see the world from a perspective similar to mine. If it’s done right, it’s fun both to do and read.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

At this point there are so many that it’s hard to single any out. My typical list ranges from Herman Melville and Jane Austen to Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin, from Nathanael West to Karen Joy Fowler. I could easily add a dozen others. I am inspired and challenged by the work of other writers, living and dead. To say nothing of music and films and the world around me.


What are you working on now?

After seeing the publication of two very different novels in two years— my big sf novel The Moon and the Other and my Jane Austen/Mary Shelley pastiche Pride and Prometheus—I am writing some short stories. I’ve always loved the short story form, but have been away from it while. I’ve finished a new novella I’m very proud of titled The Dark Ride that is seeking a publisher right now.


“The Mark of Cain” appears in the March/April 2019 issue of F&SF.

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