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Interview: John Kessel on “Spirit Level”

John KesselF&SF: How do you describe “Spirit Level” to people?

JK: A ghost story where the ghosts are not necessarily the spirits of the dead. It’s meant to work within and against the tropes of classic ghost stories. Another way to think of it is as a story about trying to find a way to live beyond the regrets that haunt anyone who lasts into middle age.

F&SF: What inspired this story?. How is “Spirit Level” personal for you?

JK: In some ways it’s one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written. I have certain points of biographical contact with Michael, and have felt some of the things he has felt, though Michael is not me and his situation is not mine.

I started it nine or ten years ago, wrote a lot of words, then put it aside for many years. I had the character’s situation, but did not really know what the consequences after his initial ghostly encounter might be. In a way I wrote it as a warning to and critique of my younger self.

F&SF: We don’t want to spoil any aspects of the plot, but this takes several unexpected turns for a type of ghost story. What were the challenges of writing this particular story?

JK: I thought about the kinds of things one usually finds in ghost stories and then about what I might do a little differently. I can’t claim to any grand innovations, but it was fun to try my hand at a kind of story that I had never written. I wanted it to have some of the eeriness of classic ghost stories like Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” or “The Jolly Corner,” and like James use the ghosts to explore the character’s psychology.

F&SF: How has your writing process changed over the years?

JK: I don’t plan everything out quite as much as I used to before I start. This means I sometimes wander off into blind alleys and don’t always know what the story is about until I am well into it. It’s not as efficient a way to write, but the results are interesting to me; I eventually figure out all that I need and then can pull the pieces together. The shape of the story emerges more organically than it used to. This involves a lot more rewriting, but I enjoy rewriting until I get a story right.

Lately I have been returning to stories I started in the past but could not finish—something I almost never did earlier in my career—and have discovered that I see them better now. It goes a lot slower, but I’m okay with that.

F&SF: What are you working on right now?

JK: I’m writing a novella, a prequel of sorts to the novella you have already from me, “The Dark Ride.” “The Dark Ride” takes place at a world’s fair, the Pan-American Exposition, that took place in Buffalo, NY in 1901. In that story one plot thread deals with a “Trip to the Moon” fair ride that was inspired by H.G. Wells’s novel “First Men in the Moon.”

This new story takes place a year earlier, in England, during the period when Wells wrote “First Men in the Moon.” It involves other writers such as Stephen Crane and Henry James, with whom Wells was friends, and with Wells switching from writing scientific romances to becoming a public advocate for socialism and what some have called the first futurist.

I hope to write a third novella, set a year after “The Dark Ride,” in 1902, about the French film pioneer Georges Méliès creating his famous movie, “A Trip to the Moon,” which draws elements from both Wells’s novel and from the Pan-Am Expo fair ride.

I hope this tryptich of novellas will eventually make a book.

You can find John Kessel at these places:

Simon & Schuster: https://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/John-Kessel/2098446902
John Kessel’s website: https://johnjosephkessel.wixsite.com/kessel-website
His Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/john.kessel3

“Spirit Level” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: Madeleine E. Robins on “‘Omunculus”

    F&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    MER: A Pygmalion/RUR mashup with no romance. I think George Bernard Shaw would approve.

     
    F&SF: What inspired you to mix Pygmalion with R.U.R., and how did you bring those pieces together to write this story?

    MER: I think it began after having a discussion with one of my daughters about the shared responsibility of teachers to teach and learners to learn. Teaching isn’t just a matter of opening a student’s head and pouring the information in—but that appealingly robotic image may have been what started me thinking about the story. After all, Henry Higgins, egoist that he is, believes that all the effort is his; even the flesh and blood Eliza in Pygmalion is a prop in his experiment, rather than a partner in learning. Henry Higgins does not do partners (Col. Pickering, in the original, and Rossum, in “’Omunculus,” are merely higher-status props in Higgins’ story). So I’ve got Henry Higgins and an automaton, which meant, me being me, that I would have to hook Higgins up with Rossum (a character who doesn’t exist in Câpek’s play). Pygmalion debuted in 1913; R.U.R. in 1920, so I figured my story takes place before Rossum improved his automata and sold the business to the characters in R.U.R. With the two of them—and Eliza—in place, the rest while not precisely easy, was pretty much laid out for me by the structure of GBS’ play.

    The other thing that appealed to me was that there is no possibility of a Higgins-Eliza pairing if Eliza is a robot (it’s not that kind of story). I could go back to Shaw’s original material with a clear conscience (I yield to none in my fondness for My Fair Lady, but GBS was adamant that Higgins and Eliza did not wind up together). Since there’s no chance of a Freddie Eynsford-Hill and Eliza romance either (really not that kind of story) that left me free to come up with an ending that also made use of those two redoubtables, Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce. I have a serious soft spot for tough old broads, no matter how well mannered.

     
    F&SF: Besides the soft spot for tough old broads, is there anything in this story that’s personal for you?

    MER: I’m sure there is… I suspect that most women have had the experience of being underestimated and undervalued by a man who saw them as a prop in his story. I would not say this is revenge—I am not the vengeful sort. But I am human, and writing the scene in the theatre where Eliza breaks down—intentionally? Not intentionally?—was very satisfying.

     
    F&SF: How has your writing process changed over the years?

    MER: I’m still either glacially slow or fairly rapid—it doesn’t seem to matter what the text is: some pieces just drag me along and some require unearthing. What hasn’t changed is that while I know the emotional destination I’m heading for I often have no idea how I’m going to get there until I look around and Hey! Presto! there I am.

    I never used to outline, but these days on most projects I almost always get to a point about two thirds in, where I realize I need at the very least to make notes on what has to happen and in what order. I’m also a lot more comfortable writing what I’d call placeholder text when I cannot nail down the exact phrase or word I want. Making myself crazy trying to nail the mot juste for a first draft is a form of procrastination; better to plough ahead and come back and fix things in the edit, as my recording-engineer partner says. I’m also much more aware of the sensory surroundings of my characters than I was as a younger writer—I think that came, in part, from a work-for-hire gig writing a Marvel novel staring Daredevil, who is blind but whose other senses are heightened. Since I couldn’t describe anything visually, I had to think of what the smells, and textures, and tastes were. It was a great experience.

    Oh: and in the very beginning I wrote sitting crosslegged with my typewriter on my knees (it was a Selectric, and weighed the earth). Nowadays I write on a laptop and while I still sit crosslegged, my knees are happier.

     
    F&SF: What are you and your happier knees working on now?

    MER: A fourth in my Sarah Tolerance alternate-Regency detective series (Point of Honor, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner—all three can be found here), with a fifth beginning to distract me, which is not helpful. Also a fantasy novel set in contemporary San Francisco. And a challenge short story for my writing workshop. Sewing cloth masks for donation. And just at the moment, a loaf of sourdough bread. I am a Covid-cliche.

    I have nothing coming out right now (see “glacially slow” above), but I am blogging at Treehousewriters.com, as well as at my own website, madeleinerobins.com.

    “‘Omunculus” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

    Order a copy of this issue…

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