by Zack Smith
Kij Johnson's appearance Tuesday night at Quail Ridge Books & Music to promote her new short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees (Small Beer Press, $16) is something of a homecoming for the award-winning writer of science fiction and fantasy — it's a return to the city where she recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing at N.C. State University, and completed her novella "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," which recently won both of science fiction's top awards, the Hugo and the Nebula (the story is available for free online).
Johnson, who is now Assistant Professor of Fiction Writing at the University of Kansas' Center for Science Fiction Studies, completed her MFA at N.C. State earlier this year. "I'm not really a school person — I started two other master's programs at University of Kansas and Goddard College," says Johnson in a phone call from Kansas. "In both cases, I was having a hard time focusing on it because I was doing other things at the same time.
"NCSU was kind of my third try — I'd left a job where the severance was good enough to think about what I wanted to do next. I'd been writing for 20 years, but I'd stopped learning anything about writing — exposing myself to new stuff and new ways of writing. And I wanted to be able to teach at the university level because I love to teach adult students and college students."
Johnson picked NCSU's MFA program in part because of the presence of local writer John Kessel, himself an award-winning author of science fiction. She found the program challenging but exciting: "The thing with a master of fine arts program is you write a lot. You write a lot of new stuff and you often dig out your old stuff and take a look at it and try to figure out what went wrong, and in the course of that, I figured out what was going wrong with this story and completely revamped it, and it doubled in length.
"It was very productive, not just for getting the work done and getting the writing done, but producing some work I'm really proud of."
The program in some ways proved different from what she'd anticipated. "What surprised me was that I really enjoyed the classes — you do a fair amount of literature classes, and I found out I loved them!" Johnson says. "That was unexpected for me, and I was also surprised by how much I loved being part of a group again. I'd been with writing groups, but they were pretty solitary, with friends — this was getting together with the same group of people every single day to talk about writing, and that cannot be reproduced.
"From having taught in the past, I thought, 'Oh, I know what people are going to say,' and I was wrong. There were people in their 20s with literature backgrounds, there were people in their 40s like me who came from a history background, and even people who hadn't written that much but were very talented and very interesting. So everyone's critiques were very different and very interesting — they might focus more on language, or on character development, or the plot."
She also has fond memories of living in Raleigh, which she describes as "the most beautiful town." "The science fiction community out here is incredibly vibrant," Johnson says. "People know each other, there's meetings, there's a magazine (Durham's Bull Spec), and it was a real pleasure to be any part of that."
Though life in the Triangle was very different from the fog-bound cities and mysterious creatures of "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," Johnson did find the area inspiring. "I don't have a North Carolina-specific story, but I was inspired by how the Triangle is just an ocean of trees with no horizon — you're just always looking up to see the sky instead of over the horizon to see the sky," Johnson says.
"You probably don't think of that much if you're from N.C., but I'm from Iowa and that's extraordinary to think about, living in the heart of a forest. And I want to write something that reflects some of that."
Kij Johnson will read from and sign copies of At the Mouth of the River of Bees at Quail Ridge Books & Music Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or call 919-828-1588.