Four on the Floor with Kathe Koja


Four on the Floor with Kathe Koja

My Four on the Floor interview with Kathe Koja appears below. I first discovered Koja’s writing in the early ’90s, when as a college student I visited a bookstore (remember those?) and picked up the Dell/Abyss paperback edition of her novel The Cipher. (If you’ve seen either this edition or the Abyss edition of her novel Bad Brains, you’ll likely remember the stunning cover art by Marshall Arisman).

You can probably easily count the number of times a writer has truly opened your eyes, and reading Koja had that effect on me. Thematically, stylistically, this was a horror novel (though Koja’s writing defies genre) unlike any horror novel I’d ever read. 

If you haven’t experienced her writing, that glittering promise nestled in 2018 is the experience of reading one of her novels for the very first time. Enjoy!

About: Kathe Koja’s books include Under the Poppy, The Bastards’ Paradise, The Cipher, and Skin; her young adult novels include Buddha Boy, Talk, and Kissing the Bee. Her work has been honored by the ALA, by the ASPCA, and with the Bram Stoker Award. She’s a Detroit native and lives with her husband, artist Rick Lieder. She also runs Loudermilk Productions, creating site-specific immersive events, including performances of Faustus and her own adaptation of Under the Poppy.

1. A Library Journal reviewer once wrote that your prose reads like “a collaboration between Clive Barker and William S. Burroughs.” Are there any writers (or artists in other mediums) whose works have exerted a particular influence on your writing?

The great, fierce, subtle Shirley Jackson was a lasting influence on me as a beginning writer—her “Notes for a Young Writer,” in Come Along with Me, is really a fiction master class in less than 20 paragraphs. And the work, her novels and her stories, pretty much defies category: it’s Shirley Jackson’s work, period.

David Bowie was a tremendous influence too—not just his genius as a musician, but his indelible example of fidelity to his own instincts and interests, his courage in making the work he wanted to make; he transcended categories, too, his music was Bowie music, first and always.

I’ve written YA novels, horror novels, historical novels, and what stays constant is my voice, so I very much took those examples to heart.

2. The beautifully styled and richly atmospheric nature of your prose would require a deft editorial hand. What has been your experience with editors?

Whenever I send a manuscript to any editor, it’s always complete, or as complete as I can possibly make it—I wouldn’t send it otherwise!—so I don’t invite much in the way of collaborative editing, but I’m of course wide open to close and critical reading and comments: the writer and editor have identical goals, to bring the book (or story) to its highest level of completion, so I listen very carefully to all editorial notes.

My best editorial experience? I was so fortunate to be able to work with Frances Foster at Farrar, Straus & Giroux: she was thorough, she was subtle, and whenever we disagreed, which was seldom, she was always open to honest argument. We worked on seven YA novels together and the process was utterly seamless. It’s no wonder she was a publishing legend.

3. In what ways do you play with the overall structure of your novels and at what point in your process are you most aware of structure?

All my fiction begins with a character—for The Cipher it was Nicholas, the failed poet; for Skin it was Tess, the stubborn sculptor; for Talk it was Kit Webster, the thoughtful and watchful young actor; for the Under the Poppy trilogy it was Istvan the puppeteer and his cadre of fantastic mecs—and the story just accretes around that person, through research, and notes, in a very hands-off kind of process, just letting the thing grow and find its shape until it’s time, finally, to start writing.

I’m not able to work with outlines, I need to discover what’s being made in and by the making itself. So the structure is never imposed, it’s always organic to whatever’s being written—for one example, I had no idea the Poppy trilogy would be a trilogy, but the story just kept growing, kept showing itself to have more and more facets, until it became three books.

4. Are there any recent books or films that have frightened or inspired or opened your eyes to something new in the world?

A true life-changing example is Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, his biographical novel about the sui generis Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe. I read it, fell head over heels for Marlowe, read all his poems and plays, and ended up writing a novel about him called Christopher Wild that’s also turning itself into a performance piece. A creative force of nature, Marlowe, that’s for certain.

Recent work I’ve loved: Carter Scholz’s short novel Gypsy, the Netflix series Dark, and Perfume Genius’s album No Shape.

Kathe Koja can be found online on Twitter, on Facebook, and at her website.

Readers will also want to check out this interview conducted by Jeff VanderMeer for the Weird Fiction Review and this New Yorker piece about her novel Headlong.

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