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Caitlín R. Kiernan : Transmutations
posted 31 December 2008
Caitlín Kiernan was born Ireland and grew up in rural Alabama. She studied vertebrate paleontology, geology, and biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Colorado at Boulder, , and taught evolutionary biology in Birmingham for about a year. In 1996 and '97 she sang for Athens, Georgia-based "goth-folk-blues" band Death's Little Sister (a reference to Neil Gaiman's character Delirium), but gave up music to concentrate on writing.

First story "Persephone" appeared in 1995. Notable stories include International Horror Guild Award winners "Onion" (2001) and "La Peau Verte" (2005); SF novella The Dry Salvages (2004); and IHG finalists "The Road of Pins" (2002) and "Bainbridge" (2006). Many of her stories have appeared in year's best fantasy, horror, and science fiction anthologies, and have been collected in Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000), To Charles Fort, with Love (2005), and other books.

First novel Silk (1998) won the IHG award, and was a Stoker finalist. Other novels include IHG winner Threshold (2001), The Five of Cups (2003), Low Red Moon (2003), Murder of Angels (2004), and Daughter of Hounds (2007). The Red Tree is forthcoming.

After many years in Georgia, Kiernan recently relocated to Providence, Rhode Island with her partner, doll-maker Kathryn A. Pollnac.
Photo by Amelia Beamer

Website: Pain and Wonder

Excerpts from the interview:

“Kids go through these stages. 'What are you going to do when you grow up?' I'm still asking myself that question. I started trying to write fiction way back in second grade. I always wanted to write. But I also wanted to be a paleontologist and a herpetologist. So which was going to win? When I went to college I decided, 'OK, I'm going to go into science.' But, at the same time, I worked on novels and took writing classes, which were inevitably a disaster, since I was constantly having fights with the instructors because they didn't want me writing fantastic fiction. They'd say stuff like, 'You could be a really good writer if you'd just write like Faulkner.' (It was the South, so everybody was expected to write in the New South tradition.)

“Finally getting published just happened, and I don't think it surprised anybody more than me, because I was in a place where nothing was much happening in my life. I'd drifted away from paleontology. I wasn't really doing much of anything, and then I wrote a genuinely unfortunate novel called The Five of Cups. I had it in my head to see what would have happened if T.S. Eliot had written a vampire novel, and it was frontloaded with huge globs of Grail mythology and corn-king imagery and whatnot. That was my first novel, which was eventually published many years later.”


“Whereas Silk was a novel about punk and goth subculture and club culture, in Threshold I went off into other territories and used my experience in paleontology and did very different things. Early on, in the early ‘90s, I would write stories where little bits of science would creep in, and I would think, 'This is boring and I should leave it out.' But people kept saying, 'No, use it, use it!' So when I wrote Threshold, for the first time I let go and put it all in there. Since then, the subject shows up quite a bit, although I don't think it's ever been as in-your-face as it was in Threshold (except in The Dry Salvages, where paleontology was at the center of the story). After Threshold, the reaction was sort of 'Oh, you're not Poppy Z. Brite; you're H.P. Lovecraft.' Because, of course, you have to be somebody! But, for me, at least it was a better direction to work from.”


“I will say up front (I've had interviewers in the past who simply refused to believe this), I never set out to write scary books. When people would talk to me about Silk, way back when, they'd say, 'Oh god, I'm so scared of spiders!' Well, I'm not scared of spiders. I adore spiders, and it never even crossed my mind that a book full of spiders would frighten people, merely because it is a book full of spiders. To me, the spiders signify power, not fear. Then, in Threshold, even though there are horrific elements and characters whom you care about who die horribly, in the end, the book was joyous, not frightening. Whether it's an ancient intelligence or the planet Mars, if you come into contact with something that's inimical or indifferent to human life, it inspires this particular set of emotions, and, if you live through it, you come away with something other people don't have; that experience changes you. And that's what I'm writing about.”


“The same way that I don't want to be thought of as a horror writer, I don't want to be thought of as a gay writer, or 'that transsexual writer.' In interviews it's something I shy away from addressing directly. I don't want strictly feminist critics saying, 'You have no right to be writing all these women from their point of view because you're not a real woman,' or whatever. I've never tried to keep the transgenderism a secret; I just don't put a big sign over my head. It does not define me.

“So, as a transsexual, how can I not write about the transmutation of flesh? How can I not write about having one mind, and a body that doesn't match? So when I'm writing about parahumans in a story like 'Faces in Revolving Souls', it's partly autobiography -- writing about what I've been through. I'm never going to be comfortable in this body, for a lot of reasons, and I'm constantly drawn to the subject of transformation, in a lot of different aspects.”


“As usual, I have a lot of projects going, and in mind. I'm working on a novel called The Red Tree that sort of ties in with Threshold, Low Red Moon, and Daughter of Hounds, but it's the only I've ever written with a first-person narration. It's sort of metafictional, in that it's a manuscript left by a writer after she died that gets delivered to an editor who writes the preface, and within that manuscript is this other manuscript the writer found in an old house in Rhode Island, a manuscript about a tree. So there's sort of three layers to it. It's hard, but I'm having a lot of fun in that I'm able to do some things I haven't done before.”

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