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By Scott Nicholson

Science fiction writer John Kessel has established himself for his use of comedy and romance in his work. Kessel won the Nebula Award for "Another Orphan" in 1982. In addition to dozens of short stories and two story collections, he's published the novels FREEDOM BEACH (with James Patrick Kelly), GOOD NEWS FROM OUTER SPACE, and CORRUPTING DR. NICE. Kessel teaches Creative Writing and American Literature at N.C. State.

Scott Nicholson: When did you first start writing seriously?

Kessel: I really didn't write much in high school, but when I got to college I started writing and sending stories off. I took my first writing class while I was a senior. In school, I was studying astrophysics at the University of Rochester. By the time I was a junior, I discovered I was not going to make it as a scientist, so I double-majored in Physics and English, and learned a lot about other things.

I had read tons of science fiction, but not much other stuff, so I grew to love literature as well. So writing become more of a serious thing, and when I graduated, I had no job prospects. By default, I went to graduate school in English because I wanted to read more and write more. I got my B.A. in 1972, so from 1972 to 1981 I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas.

I went to graduate school there because on the writing teachers was James Gunn, who is a science fiction writer going back to the late '40's, and also one of the few college professors in the country at that time doing science fiction. Although I didn't agree with him about a lot of things, he was a role model and very helpful to me. He directed my Masters thesis, which was a collection of short stories. About two-thirds of them were science fiction stories. I took the regular course load for a graduate student in English, but I did some workshops on the side, and I ultimately got to do a dissertation on fiction writing, which was unusual at the time. Although my Doctorate is in American Literature, my thesis was short stories. I eventually published all the stories from my dissertation.

SN: How did you get started writing novels?

Kessel: I was in a writer's block period in '82-'83 and I had just moved to Raleigh from Kansas, and I wrote my best pal Jim Kelly and said, "I'm stuck." He sent me idea, the first page of a story and some notion of what it would be, and said "Let's do this as a collaboration." It was my job to do the whole first draft, then he would go back and fix it. Somehow, with the idea, it was easier for me to write, knowing I only had to do the first draft. We wrote FREEDOM BEACH as a montage of different stories, with the same character running through all of them.

I learned a lot from that, though it wasn't all my book. I started writing GOOD NEWS FROM OUTER SPACE in 1985. I started writing steadily on that, and really learned to write a novel.

SN: And you were teaching English all that time?

Kessel: I was teaching as an assistant instructor in graduate school, and I did have other jobs. I worked in a bookstore for a couple of years, and I worked three years as an editor for a wire service. When I got my doctorate, I got a job at N.C. State in 1982 teaching American Literature and Creative Writing, and I've been there ever since.

SN: Do you have a writing routine?

Kessel: My goal in life is to write three mornings a week. During the school year, I don't get much done. During the summer, I try to write every day. I have more responsibilities at the university now, so that intrudes on my writing time.

SN: Do you feel like you have to write a "John Kessel" story, or just go with whatever feels right at the time?

Kessel: I don't feel like there's a "John Kessel" audience out there clamoring for the next work. I've always felt like I'm a minority taste, and that's fine with me. I just want to write something that's interesting to me. I don't really worry about whether it's interesting to someone else. I've been lucky enough to place everything I write. Some people like it a lot. I haven't felt a great pressure to do more of the same. That would be boring to me. My last book was a comedy. The book I'm writing now is deliberately not a comedy. I don't want to get typecast.

SN: What type of projects do you have in the works?

Kessel: The novel I'm working on now takes place fifty or sixty years from now on the moon. A colony there is dominated by women, a feminist society. Men are there, too, but it's a different social structure. The plot is about a man who comes up there on a business deal. The title I'm using right now is "Soft Upset," and it's very science fictional. I did a lot of research about the moon, and read a lot about male-female issues.

SN: Are you inspired by research, or do you research only what you need for a specific work?

Kessel: For the book I'm writing now, I had to do a lot of research about how people could live on the moon, how comfortable would it be, what things would they produce, what would the economy be like? There's a lot of information published about the moon in the last 20 years that really helped a lot. That can generate the story, too, because you have to build the details that make the story convincing. It gives you something to write about.

SN: Where do you get your ideas?

Kessel: Ideas come to you wherever you go. I get them out of the newspaper, and I collect little articles about strange things. It all grows out of what interests you. Sometimes I get ideas from other people's work. I'll go, "That's an interesting idea, but what could I do with that?" Some things come out of real life, and some things come out of art or other people's work. I'm often inspired by technical challenges.

SN: What sort of legacy would you like to leave as a writer?

Kessel: I would like them to be able to say, "This stuff is amazingly still worth reading 40 years later." I wouldn't mind them saying, "He was a decent human being, at least from what we can tell about his writing. He was passionate and cared about the things that were worth caring about and saw the big picture. He didn't waste his time."

-Copyright 1998 by Scott Nicholson


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