Today I am interviewing Kij Johnson, author of the new fantasy novella, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.
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DJ: Hey Kij! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Kim Johnson: I try never to write the same sort of story twice, so this is hard to answer. I’ve written some historical fantasy and some secondary-world fantasy, as well as some SF and a lot of short experimental works. I also occasionally write things that can only by a real stretch be called genre at all. The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe is me writing a classic sort of story in a classic sort of way.
DJ: What is The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe about?
KJ: The book is set in the dreamlands of H. P. Lovecraft: a professor of Mathematics in the ancient university town of Ulthar has to retrieve one of her students, who has eloped with a man from the waking world.
DJ: What were some of your influences for The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe?
KJ: Well, the most obvious is of course H. P. Lovecraft. I loved his dreamland stories when I was a girl, but even then they bothered me, because there were no women at all in them. As a little girl looking for entrance points into the commonwealth of letters, I longed for stories about girls who did great deeds and had adventures, and women who were more than just objects of desire, victims, wives, and mothers– sometimes all at the same time (I’m looking at you, Anna Karenina). I imagined little genderswaps in the books I read, but I never could do that with Lovecraft: he just had no interest in or space for women.
This book was also deeple influenced by Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, a 1935ish mystery about a crime set in an Oxford women’s college. The book engaged interestingly with the practical concerns of a woman’s college of the time, and more generally with the question, how do women fit into a male-dominated world?
DJ: Out of all of Lovecraft’s works, why did you choose The Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath?
KJ: This book is a direct response to Kadath: it has some of the same characters and many of the same settings. The protagonist of that book, Randolph Carter struck me as a fool, even when I was a child. He did dumb things and was shocked when they went wrong, and he relied on others to rescue him again and again. I knew my protagonist was going not going to be a fool, and then found that it’s harder to write a story when your character does the sensible thing time after time.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
KJ: Vellitt Boe is a 55-year old woman , a college professor with an adventurous past. As a young woman she was a fearless far-traveller in a time when no woman did the things she did: think the 1910s, and imagine being a single woman mountain-climber at that time. She has never wanted the normal life, such as it is for women in the dreamlands: she had lovers, and survived great perils, and even the moment of her settling down was nontraditional. Now, many years later, she is looking back at the young woman she had been and thinking about the ways she is still that woman, and the ways she is not.
She’s also travelling, for reasons she doesn’t know, with a perfectly ordinary small domestic cat. Cats in this world are quite resourceful–they can jump to the moon, for instance–and make their own decisions, so she never really understands why it decides to cross the dreamlands with her.
DJ: This might seem like a strange question, but who is the cat on the cover?! What’s its purpose?! Since I had first seen your cover, that is what I’ve wanted to know most 😛
KJ: There are two answers to this: one is that I promised someone I would include a cat in my next story (and here it is). The other? I am really interested in the ways we anthropomorphize and sentimentalize animals in fiction. I wanted to write something about a cat that is not a pet and not sentimentalized by anyone: the protagonist or the author.
DJ: What is the universe For The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe like?
KJ: The dreamlands are a strange place. As Lovecraft wrote them, they are essentially a playground for his invariably white male protagonists, who treat the dreamlands with the self-absorbed privilege of the Great White Explorer. Some matser dreamers have caused places for to form just from their wanting them to exist; at the same time, the universe in which the dreamlands exist are controlled by the gods and Other Ones, incomprehensible, malevolent entities of incomprehensible power.
So I got to thinking, if that’s a real placve? What does it look like? And why? If you’re not one of the master dreamers, swanning in from the waking lands to have adventures and then waking up whenever shit gets to real for you? If you’re a local? Lovecraft manages to leave us ignorant about a lot of things to do with the dreamlands: his protagonists are oblivious, and so we don’t know either. I read and reread all the dreamlands narratives and then started to fill in what a real dreamland would look like. I decided that if there were sages and medieval-feeling towns, there are great universities; if there is a sky, it will be pendulous. There will be stars but only a handful of them; the Moon will be controlled by the gods’ whims and move from place to place without regard to orbits.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe?
KJ: I loved the world building. I was trying to operate inside what Lovecraft had already done without directly contradicting any of it. Since the stories were actively racist, and sexist by virtue of the almost total absence of women, I had to find ways to deal with that: the (male) matser dreamer’s blindness was part of this — but also? In these dreamlands, there really aren’t many women.
I also loved discovering Vellitt Boe, who was strong, resourceful, and pragmatic: the 55-year-old I aspire to be.
DJ: This may have skipped some reader’s attentions, but The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a actually novella. It seems to me that novella is gaining a rise is popularity again: what is it about the novella format that you like? Do you feel there is a particular advantage to telling your story that way over the novel?
KJ: The novella has some real advantages. There’s a focus and unified vision that novels can have trouble with. This story has a single plot, and if the book were three times the length, I would have had to decide: add some subplots? Add a bunch of incidents? Anything I might had added would have blurred the story’s focus.
DJ: Now that The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is released, what is next for you?
KJ: I am writing a novelette called “Wastoures.” The story is set in 13th-century England (sort of), and the protagonist is a six-year-old girl with a talking hen. Despite all tat, it’s an indcredibly dark story with axperimental voice. No idea if people will like it!
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe that we haven’t talked about yet?
KJ: I love so many moments in the book! I don’t always love my stories while I am working on them, but in this case, there was always soemthing to look forward to. I hope the readers like it, too.
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day your cruise to answer my questions! 😛
KJ: It was a pleasure!
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*** The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is published by Tor.com Publishing and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
Amazon | Barnes & Nobel | Goodreads | Kobo
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Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women’s College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.
“Kij Johnson’s haunting novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is both a commentary on a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale and a profound reflection on a woman’s life. Vellitt’s quest to find a former student who may be the only person who can save her community takes her through a world governed by a seemingly arbitrary dream logic in which she occasionally glimpses an underlying but mysterious order, a world ruled by capricious gods and populated by the creatures of dreams and nightmares. Those familiar with Lovecraft’s work will travel through a fantasy landscape infused with Lovecraftian images viewed from another perspective, but even readers unfamiliar with his work will be enthralled by Vellitt’s quest. A remarkable accomplishment that repays rereading.” —Pamela Sargent, winner of the Nebula Award
Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award (three times), the World Fantasy Award, the Sturgeon Award, and the Crawford Award. She has worked in book publishing, comics, game publishing, and the tech industry, before settling into teaching creative writing and science fiction/fantasy at the University of Kansas.