Writer Kathleen Ann Goonan stops by to chat about how Knoxville shaped her futuristic fiction
by Adrienne Martini
Science fiction writers are always disappointing to meet. While their ideas, general comportment, and personability are always top-notch, I expect something else, some ineffable quirkiness that says "I write about aliens, the future, and spaceships." Perhaps I'm simply asking for too much; after all, most writers spend every waking moment plumbing the depths of their own heads, not designing a costume to wear during interviews so that hapless, equally non-descript reporters will be able to gush about their "colorfulness."
Kathleen Ann Goonan is one such science fiction writer who almost dazzles you with her heartbreakingly normal appearance. Dark, curly hair, smiley crinkles, and crows feetshe looks like she should be leading teenagers to great books in the local library. Those books, however, would probably be hers.
Goonan's work has been dazzling science fiction fans since 1994's Queen City Jazz, the first book in what would become known as her Nanotech Quartet. Jazz made the New York Times notable book list for that year. Other accolades have followed, the most recent being a nomination for the 2000 Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is a honor given to the best science fiction novel published in Great Britain in the previous year, for her book The Bones of Time.
While Goonan has been the subject of international acclaim, she also has a strong attachment to Knoxville. She lived here for 10 years (from 1978-1987), during her husband's residency at UT. Currently, they own a cabin in Sevier County and travel from their Lakeland, Fla., home to vacation there. Some adults who were students during her Knoxville years may have memories of Goonan as well, since she was one of the founders of the local Montessori school. Knoxvillethis city with all of its charm and irritationsalso makes subtle appearances in her work.
"Knoxville really gave me a sense of kind of a medium-size city that was growing," she says. "It also gave me a sense of the South that is different than the South of southwest Virginia, which is were I went to school. In that sense, in sense of culture, Knoxville really was a good place. It's an interesting kind of place culturally because there are many different kinds of people here.
"There are the university people. There are people from Oak Ridge, the people who have lived in Knoxville for generations, the African-Americans who live in Knoxville. And the fact that there are coffee houses and book stores means that things changed so rapidly from the time that we moved here."
Goonan has been in a position to see some of these changes, given that she and her husband used to live out west on Ebenezer Road. Beyond their place was nothing, she says. "Now there are things all the way up to Lenoir City."
That rapid change is a cornerstone of her new book Crescent City Rhapsody. The book reads like a warning manual for nanotechnology, a cautionary tale about what can happen if biologically-based machines are spread like viruses on a citywide scale. Goonan's cities of the future mutate rapidly, almost as fast as the face of Kingston Pike, which shouldn't be that much of a surprise given that she started honing her writing chops in Knoxville.
"At first," she says, "I wrote a novel while I was in Knoxville, but the school was totally involving. I loved teaching and I would work like 50 hours a week. During that time, I don't think I was meant to be a writer. Then when I tuned 33, I just had this realization that I had to get started, so I started writing this book [which never made it to publication], which is a strange hybrid of fantasy and science fiction. I wrote it in a year."
It seems like science fictionwhich her work, with its reliance on hard science, strongly iswould be a strange choice for any aspiring writer, especially one who was not a long-time reader of the genre.
"I try to keep up with the field," she explains, "Especially when I started writing, I told people I would do reviews, so I've written lots and lots of reviews, which kind of helped me get up to speedbecause before I hadn't really read a lot of science fiction.
"I think that I thought it was a field where you could write anything you wanted, because there is science fiction where all kind of things happen. I thought science fiction was a field where I could do anything I wanted to. That hasn't exactly turned out to be true, but I have worked hard at learning the conventions of science fiction. Once you know the rules then you know how you can break them."
When asked if she worked in the hard sciences and has an extensive background in them, Goonan laughs.
"No! I'd say that I have the same background as Greg Bearwho is a very well known science fiction writer with a degree in science and an ability for research. And I have kind of had in the past 10 years a crash course on the 20th century, the history of the 20th century, also the 20th century in terms of science and technology. It helps that my husband has a degree in chemistry and he was studying graduate things when he was at Virginia Tech, so I can run things by him and ask him questions. And my father is a fire protection engineer so he is pretty helpful, too," she adds.
Her books weren't originally intended to be linked in what is now being called the Nanotech Quartet, which consists of Queen City Jazz, Mississippi Blues, Crescent City Rhapsody, and, the book she is currently at work on, Light Music. It just seemed to happen.
"Well, I wrote Queen City Jazz and then I decide to write a stand-alone novel called Mississippi Blues," she says. "But it takes place at the end of Queen City Jazz, with characters in Cincinnati with certain things that have happened. And it is 'jazz-based' in that the book is improvisational in form. Plus, the characters can access information so that they can believe they are other people and artists, musicians. And it's not a linear placebut Mississippi Blues is linear in a picturesque way.
"Jazz was about technology seen from the individual's point of view, when the character, Verity, starts off in a Shaker community in southwest Ohio, and they have isolated themselves from the world because of technology," Goonan explains, "so Verity knows as much as the average reader would know about technology, and everything she knows really scares her. So she learns more and more about it, definitely making it from a person's point of view.
"Blues is from the country's point of view, it has a lot of Mark Twain in it, it has a lot of racial issues that the United States has had to deal with, it has a lot of the sensibilities, it has several African American characters, and it is linear and picturesque. I has a lot of what has happened to the United States.
"Crescent City Rhapsody," she continues, "takes place before Mississippi Blues so it's more like a prequel, it's kinda what sets the stage. The book that I'm working on now is called Light Music and it's gonna be the last book in the series. I'm going to relate it to quantum physics and music and aliens and the evolution of consciousness. Somehow that will come together," she laughs. "I think."
So does Goonan ever want to break free of the constrictions of genre writing and hop on the mainstream bandwagon?
"Well, I kind of do," she says, "but mainly I think I have best-seller aspirations. I want to sell a lot of books so that I may continue to write. I enjoy writing science fiction. I really do. It's kind of odd, I never realized I was working really hard to get into a ghetto when I started writing. I worked in book stores for years, I just didn't realize how a lot of intellectual people look down on science fiction. And one thing that they saywhich can be legitimate about a lot of fictionsis the characterization often takes the back seat to the ideas."
Despite this criticism of her chosen field, Goonan is quite pleased with where she is in her career.
"The best thing," she opines, "is to be able to do whatever you want to do. If I have an idea, I would be perfectly free to follow it through. The only thing I have to do is sell the proposaland make it good enough to selland if it's a good enough concept then it will sell.
"And then, since I like to read a lot, then everything that I'm reading feeds into what I'm working on. It's a really nice synthesis for me. Being able to set your own hours is good and bad, because you have to pretty disciplined and pretty strong-willed to make sure nothing else monopolizes your time. What I've done is I just work when my husband is working, so that really means that I learned how to write at different hours of the day.
"But when you are starting out," she concludes, "the uncertainty is very difficult because you never know what will happen. Someone sent me a poem, to paraphrase it: Some people think that when you start writing, it's a hobby like knitting. Then people think you are eccentric and ask you why don't you have a baby instead. Then they think you're a genius after your third volume is published. You have to have faith in yourself; I think that is the hardest part."
March 16, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 11
© 2000 Metro Pulse