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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:
John Kessel’s website:
His Facebook page:

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

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