[Interview] Kathe Koja Talks Winning the Bram Stoker Award, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and Her New Collection ‘Velocities’
Kathe Koja burst onto the scene with The Cipher in 1991, picked up an award for her effort. The momentum hasn’t slowed for the talented author. A string of critically acclaimed works have flowed forth in steady fashion. To word it as simply as possible, Koja is a boss of the genre, and we’re excited that she was willing to spare some time to juggle dialogue with HNR’s prolific interviewer, John Wisniewski. Check out the full Q&A below!
John Wisniewski: What may inspire your writing?
Kathe Koja: Everything. Anything. Mystery. It always starts with a glimpse of a character, and I follow from there as the story (novel, performance, whatever) begins.
JW: Did you begin by writing short stories in the horror genre?
KK: No. My first stories were published as SF. But my work has a Venn diagram overlap with more than one genre – it always has, no matter if I’m writing horror, YA, historical, a performance piece – so most of those stories might have fit comfortably within horror as well.
JW: How do you create suspense and how do you scare the reader?
KK: When, as readers, we’re invested in the characters, when we really care about what’s happening to them, then worry for their welfare and the attendant suspense follow naturally. We all joke about the disposable teenagers in slasher movies, but it’s a joke because it’s true: no real character is ever “disposable.” So if I create characters who are real, who react and behave like real people do, who make mistakes and are menaced or boxed-in or left alone in the dark … the reader does all the rest.
JW: Any favorite horror writers?
KK: Shirley Jackson, top of the list!
JW: Any favorite horror films, Kathe?
KK: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD changed my life: I saw it as a kid, and every movie I knew up until then had taught me that the good guy struggles through, but makes it out victorious in the end. Except in that movie. The takeaway was to distrust authority, which is an excellent strategy for a writer.
The one film I’m afraid to watch is Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES – gore doesn’t faze me, but cruelty…
And THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is a fine homage to the novel, though that novel’s brilliance is, maybe, unfilmable.
JW: Could you tell us about writing your book “SKIN”-what may have inspired the story?
KK: SKIN started with a mental image of the characters, the way my novels and stories always begin: I saw two strong, stubborn, ferocious women – Tess and Bibi – making combustible art in a small space. I’ve always been attracted to art that pushes past the borders of its medium – which is why I have an immersive performance group, nerve http://gonerve.com – and I knew from that first image that these two were bound to go straight for the edge and over.
I did a lot of research into industrial culture, including the great Survival Research Laboratories/Mark Pauline, and the piercing culture, which was very underground at that time. All of this was to detail and create the world in which Tess and Bibi lived, the people they met, the work they did.
The book’s recently been published as an ebook http://www.roadswell.com/kathe-koja.html and I’ve been thrilled to hear form so many people that reading it changed, or confirmed, their view of art, of what it means to make something, of what it means to use your body as a canvas.
JW: Were you surprised that your first novel “The Cipher” won the Bram Stoker Award, Kathe?
KK: I was glad to see the book had spoken so strongly to so many readers, including the Stoker judges. And it’s always a pleasure to have your work recognized with an award.
JW: Could you tell us about writing the The Cipher-what may have inspired that story?
KK: THE CIPHER, like all my work, came from an inner glimpse of a character – Nicholas. This wary, weary, cloven-hearted guy, this loser at a video store; this catalyst of the darkness. Not a hero, not a villain, really; just a cipher. And then, when Nakota showed up on the inner landscape, that hardass Fury, we were off to the races.
I don’t work from an outline, ever, so I had no idea what was going to happen to them once they encountered the Funhole. Which has always been part of the joy for me, in writing, and I hope for the reader: the sense of exploration, of velocity.
JW: Are you interested in the paranormal or occultism?
KK: I’m interested in reproducing reality – it’s my job as a writer. But I think the lines we draw to define what is “normal” and what is not are pretty thin: we really have so little idea of the boundaries of the natural world we physically inhabit, those lines on the map keep moving forward all the time. So the metaphysical, call it, is constantly subject to those same re-definitions, for us as a species, for me and you as people. We all have had experiences that we can’t entirely define or explain.
JW: Should we expect an anthology soon of your collected short stories, Kathe?
KK: Yes, I’ll have a new story collection coming soon – VELOCITIES: STORIES. It will include two stories never before published.
Kathe Koja kicks ass. I should probably say more than this, but I figure that is a summation of what I think of the interview.