“The Fringe Is Where the Fun Really Happens”: A Conversation with Kathe Koja

May 10, 2022   •   By Rob Latham

KATHE KOJA HAS been a professional writer for over three decades, during which time she has had what amount to three different careers. During the 1990s, she was one of the most celebrated new authors of horror fiction, with her first novel, The Cipher (1991), a disturbing tale of urban slackers who stumble on a cryptic portal in an unused utility closet, winning the Bram Stoker Award; it is now widely regarded as among the most dazzling debuts in the genre’s history. Koja went on to publish four more novels — Bad Brains (1992), Skin (1993), Strange Angels (1994), and Kink (1996) — and one collection of stories, Extremities (1998), all exploring, as their titles imply, the freaky dark side of contemporary experience. At once sordid and sensuous, punkish and erudite, marked by wild artistic visions and delirious transformations, they are as cohesive and brilliant a six-book run as any author has enjoyed in any genre. Critics recognized Koja’s uniqueness, falling over themselves to craft suitable descriptions of her harrowing stories: “a savage hymn,” “a high energy assault on the senses,” “a perfect onyx jewel wrested from hell,” and “this book drags both Poe and Sade screaming and kicking into the harsh Xenon glare of our bloody twentieth century.”

But just as Koja had consolidated her signature voice — dense yet lyrically elliptical — and her characteristic theme (the transgressive power of art and sexuality), the genre she had made her own vanished out from under her. The horror boom that had ignited in the 1970s and exploded in the ’80s was dying out in the ’90s, and its most brilliant late efflorescence — the Dell Abyss line devoted to cutting-edge psychological horror, which published Koja’s first four books — finally sputtered out in 1998. So the resourceful author decided to retrench, emerging from a five-year silence with some of the most sophisticated and intelligent young adult fiction of the following decade: Straydog (2002), Buddha Boy (2003), The Blue Mirror (2004), Talk (2005), Going Under (2006), Kissing the Bee (2007), and Headlong (2008). While not quite as in-your-face gruesome or erotically frank as her horror novels, they were nonetheless sharp-eyed and fearless, confronting hot-button topics such as emotional bullying, substance abuse, and queer sexuality. They were also warmly praised by critics, who called them “poetic,” “brilliantly written,” and “psychologically gripping.”

Yet, after she had established this new literary beachhead, Koja again changed tack, embarking on her third career as an author of richly intricate historical romances. The audacious Under the Poppy (2010) kicked off a superb trilogy of novels — including The Mercury Waltz (2014) and The Bastards’ Paradise (2015) — that focused on the exploits of a pair of intrepid gay performers and artistic entrepreneurs in a dreamily evoked fin-de-siècle Europe. While a haze of fantasy shimmers in the margins, the novels are not overtly supernatural, their uncanny aspects deriving from the enchantments of theatrical illusion and the seductive perplexities of desire. As Koja herself put it: “Change the lights, put on a mask, and voila: instant strange.” With the help of several collaborators, she even adapted Under the Poppy for the stage in her hometown Detroit. After this, it was perhaps unsurprising that her next novel would feature the most infamous gay playwright of all time, Christopher (“Kit”) Marlowe, yet Christopher Wild (2017) went beyond historical fiction to pursue the brawling, mercurial bard from his Elizabethan haunts to the gritty 20th century and into a looming dystopian future. An astonishingly multifaceted literary performance, it made one wonder where the ever-changing Koja could possibly go next.

The answer was: back to her roots. In 2020, she brought out her second collection of stories, Velocities (2020), which gathered tales of urban dread and transformation, strongly reminiscent of her pathbreaking 1990s work, yet inflected now with elements of surreal fantasy and hard-edged science fiction. A Shirley Jackson Award winner and a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, the collection paved the way for her latest novel, Dark Factory, a cross-genre thriller set in and around a state-of-the-art dance club-cum-alternative community, where the patrons enjoy a “customizable reality” that includes various commodified VR environments. As in classic cyberpunk, this dabbling in virtuality leads to unexpected metamorphoses, ominous yet alluring — to “a joy nameless because it needs no name, resistless, beautiful, absolute.” The text is a palimpsest of layered voices, and it has been augmented by a club website, curated by Koja, that provides an immersive fictive experience: trance music videos, collage art, video-game clips, interviews, and much more. Her fellow authors have already embraced the project as a “glittering labyrinth of art, tech, danger, and lust” (Maryse Meijer), a “glow-in-the-dark vision of a new kind of writing” (Daniel Kraus), and a “journey into the throbbing heart of creativity itself” (S. A. Cosby). 

Koja spoke with me via email about Dark Factory and the remarkably versatile career it culminates.

Author photo by Rick Lieder.

¤

ROB LATHAM: In Paperbacks from Hell (2017), his book about contemporary horror fiction, Grady Hendrix writes that the genre, in the early ’90s, was all but defunct: “[T]he coroner had called it and the medical examiner was zipping up horror’s body bag. But,” he adds, “one last twitch was left in the corpse.” This was the Dell Abyss line edited by Jeanne Cavelos, which (Hendrix says) “would be a home for genuinely new voices in horror, punk rock writers with something to say beyond ‘Serial killers are scary.’” Your first novel, The Cipher, was also the line’s debut, and it was a huge hit, winning a Bram Stoker Award. You went on to publish your next three books under the imprint, and they not only gave Dell Abyss a cohesiveness and punch (along with titles by Melanie Tem and, later, Poppy Z. Brite), they also launched you into the mainstream, with your fifth novel, Kink (which isn’t really horror), coming out from Henry Holt.

Can you say a bit about how your early career developed, in particular the importance of your association with Cavelos and Dell? It must have been difficult debuting as a “horror” writer when the future of the genre seemed so sketchy. (Also, can you tell us why Dell wouldn’t let you call your first novel “The Funhole”?)

KATHE KOJA: Publishing the inaugural book in a new horror line was a terrific experience, maybe especially because I came to the genre through the side door and knew next to nothing about it as a publishing category. I’d gone to the Clarion Workshop, and afterward published some SF short fiction, which was how I met my then-agent; he suggested I expand to novel length a story of mine that had garnered lots of attention and was included in best-of anthologies. So, I did, I didn’t like it, I abstracted a moody poet-type from that abandoned novel, and voilà, Nicholas immediately brought the Funhole to life along with him. And that was the book I wrote.

In the publishing landscape of the time, there was likely no happier possible home than Dell Abyss for a novel so harsh, gooey, and sui generis (though I never did get a good explanation for that title change: it is a book about a funhole). The packaging was a treat, dark and shiny and delirious — I love Marshall Arisman’s cover art — and the book got a huge push. Jeanne Cavelos deserves a ton of credit for her hard work, in-house and in the world, to make sure that Abyss succeeded and kept its vision for as long as it did. No one else was doing anything like it, or did after she was done.

You have said that the key theme of your horror writing is transcendence: “When we will to be more than we are, what do we do? How do we choose what then to become, and how accomplish that becoming? And after transformation — what?” Having just reread your early novels, I was struck by how insistently they return to this theme and yet how diversely they address it. In The Cipher, the protagonist — initially with dread, then with a kind of nihilistic wonder — exposes himself to the mutative power of the funhole; in Bad Brains, the protagonist, after suffering a traumatic brain injury, begins to experience what might be epileptic hallucinations of an eerily beautiful entity that stalks and transfigures him; in Skin, the protagonist becomes obsessed, aesthetically and sexually, with a performance artist who is literally remaking her body through surgery and ritual scarification; in Strange Angels, the protagonist enters into a bizarre folie à deux with an autistic young man whose drawings seem like prefigurations of a more essential, if terrifying, reality. Even the mainstream Kink, another tale of erotic obsession, explores how a heterosexual couple are transformed when they enter into a ménage à trois with a seductively manipulative sociopath. 

So, a two-part question. First, given that so many of your main characters are either artists or frustrated artists, usually doing work that would be called “outsider” or “fringe,” how do you see their callings being linked to the transformations that happen to them, whether they’re inflicted or self-willed? To me, art seems like a double-edged sword in your work: it promises radical forms of change that, when actually experienced, are terrifying and destructive. And the same could be said about sexuality, which leads to part two of my question. So many of these characters have ambiguous or conflicted sexualities: they’re either repressed and/or asexual (e.g., The Cipher) or they’re gradually drawn into relationships that can only be described as queer, whether it’s the overtly lesbian affair in Skin or whatever exactly is going on between the two male characters in Strange Angels. How do you see sex and sexuality as linked to this overarching theme of metamorphosis?

I think — I’ve always thought — that the fringe is where the fun really happens: the basement bars and wasteland workshops, places where original ideas can germinate on their own terms, and the DIY cadres who decide what they want to do, figure out how, then go do it. This isn’t a romantic idea, it’s borne of observation. A real freedom is always possible when money is not the goal but the tool: it doesn’t dictate, it facilitates. And that mindset and those places draw people who are comfortable without visible limits. So, these characters, Nicholas and Randy in Cipher, Austen in Bad Brains, Tess and Bibi and all their friends in Skin, are situated in that outsiders’ creative zone, trying to make the work that they feel compelled to make. Robin, in Strange Angels, is a step ahead of all of them. Robin’s the real savant, but none of them are too worried about whether or not the commercial art world is going to approve of what they’re doing, or even care about their ability to do it at all (or aching, roiling inability: Nakota in Cipher, Michael Hispard in Skin, Grant in Strange Angels).

But what’s actually transcendent, what actually leads them from one state of being to another — or out of the world entirely — doesn’t exist as art but uses that art as a springboard, or vehicle, for change. And change is the ultimate liminal situation, change is always dangerous. Because once it starts you have no idea where it will stop, or if it can be stopped. No doubt that’s why we so often fear and fight it in our own lives! Even small changes can have enormous implications.

And certainly, all these books have a queer sensibility. In a formal sense, I never considered these characters’ sexuality; sexuality is an integral part of who they are, as it is for all of us, in whatever way we live it and express it. Any character in anything I write is someone I observe, not assemble: they come fully formed, and it’s my job to learn who they are, what they’re like, who they love, and how all of that exists within them, then exists within the world of whatever I’m writing.

You have said that you “don’t really think in terms of genre, when I write or when I read,” that what attracts you is “intensity, the places where life operates at high levels of emotional velocity,” and anyone who reads through your corpus can definitely see strong continuities in theme and style — they are all clearly Kathe Koja books. But publishing is, for good or ill, a marketing enterprise, and agents, editors, booksellers, even readers often think in terms of genre, sometimes narrowly so. When you moved into writing YA, I’m sure you confronted kneejerk assumptions about the field: that it had to pull its punches when dealing with contentious topics, that it couldn’t be as sophisticated as “adult” literature. Yet your YA novels are, if not as obviously transgressive as your horror fiction, quite bold and even worldly: they never pander, never assume their readers can’t grasp complex motivations or ambiguous desires. The young heroine of The Blue Mirror, for example, one of your more overtly supernatural stories, is as seduced by darkness as any of the protagonists in your horror novels. Can you say a bit about what drew you to the field? Did you find that you had to adapt your style or writing method at all? And I’m curious, have you had any response from young readers to your books?

At my first meeting with my YA editor, the completely legendary Frances Foster at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, she cautioned me about that very thing. And there were some readers who mourned that I had “stopped writing” when they learned I was writing YA! It just floors me that anyone would think writing for young(er) readers is “easier” — writing YA demanded all the same skills I’d deploy in any novel, and even more stringent narrative drive: younger readers are wonderfully unforgiving, and if you bore them, they will straight up let you know.

It was one of the things I loved most about doing school and library visits: the kids would ask pointed questions, they’d confront me if they thought they found errors in the books. And they would question and debate with each other. During one especially remarkable visit, bleachers full of middle schoolers argued, passionately, over whether a book should show the world as it ought to be rather than as it is, “so we can see it and change it.” Writing YA asked of me a heightened level of intention: because younger readers know that they don’t know everything (older readers don’t either, but they might not believe that anymore), and a new idea, a new point of reference, can change a young reader’s point of view, change the way they view the world. There’s a responsibility inherent in that, and I took it very seriously.

As far as the field itself, working with Frances was a joy; she was rigorous and subtle, and every time out — we did seven novels together — I knew my work was in the surest possible hands. And the YA world, while definitely owning a different vibe than the horror world, had the same devotion to its chosen genre; I came to that field, as I came to horror, as a total outsider, and I was welcomed by other writers, and editors, and teachers and librarians. And most importantly, both times, by the readers.

Many of your YA novels confront social evils that teenagers too often experience: racism, bullying, addiction. Yet, though your own position as an author is always clear, these aren’t preachy books with simple messages: the issues they address are embedded in complex stories, with multiple and conflicting viewpoints. The most sophisticated in this regard is probably Talk, about a closeted gay kid who joins a theater company at his school and becomes embroiled in a nasty communal debate over a controversial play. The structure is wonderfully dense and intricate, with alternating points of view and a play-within-a-play structure. The story also deals frankly with homoerotic desire and homophobic prejudice; like your other YA books, it accommodates a range of sexualities and has, like your horror novels, a distinctly queer vibe. Did you ever get any pushback for tackling such topics? Also, do you think YA has to address issues of sexuality in a different way than adult fiction? Finally, it’s kind of sad to observe that Talk, with its angry parents lobbying school administrators to shut down a provocative play, remains highly relevant today, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about recent right-wing campaigns to ban books that deal openly with sexuality (or race) and to close off certain avenues of discussion for kids (such as the grotesque “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida)? 

Oh, I have many thoughts, about the cowardice and cruelty and bigotry of adults who purport to care about the children they bully and harm and seek to deploy as pawns in greedy bids for political advantage. Banning books, banning words, never works and never has, but it does testify to their inherent power. So, we use our words! We push back, fight back, write what needs to be written, and make sure young people can read whatever they choose to read.

Talk was the book that got hate mail; Talk was the book that introduced me to wonderful, smart, funny queer kids, and their parents and teachers and allies. (It’s a dream of mine to create an immersive school-wide live read of that book with students, teachers, and parents. Dream school, let’s do it!) But it was Buddha Boy, a novel about self-acceptance and bullying, that seemed to upset people the most: I was invited and then disinvited to classroom talks, parents complained to administrators, teachers got stuck in the middle. The kids always understood what that book was really about.

I treated sexuality in my YA novels exactly the same way as in my other novels: as an integral part of the character. Kit, in Talk, feels burdened by secrecy when he looks at the boy he cares for; Maggie, in Blue Mirror, feels burdened by confusion when she looks at the boy she cares for. In Headlong, casual sex is social capital; in Kissing the Bee, first true desire is a jewel. Sex is part of our human experience, so when you write about humans, it’s going to be there.

After a well-received run of YA novels, you turned to a new field for your next several books: historical romance. The “Under the Poppy” trilogy is an amazing accomplishment: it manages to be solidly grounded in a specific time and place — Middle Europe in the late 19th century, with its sumptuous beauty and ugly prejudice — and yet weirdly timeless in its intense absorption in the complexities of desire and performance. It reminds me a lot of novels like Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) or Robert Aickman’s The Model (1987), which also focus on the marvels of theatrical illusion at the fin de siècle, yet unlike those books, Under the Poppy and its sequels are not overtly fantastic (though the puppets are eerie as hell sometimes). Did you do a lot of research on the background for the stories, and why were you drawn to that specific historical moment? Also, how much did your own experience mounting theatrical events inform your depiction of the players and their milieu? I understand you went on to stage Under the Poppy itself — can you describe what that was like?

I can never know why certain ideas or projects take hold, but as soon as I saw the mental image of Istvan — glam and scruffy and dangerous, with his puppets, the horse-headed man and beautiful lady and small gentleman with a fixed smile — that was it, I knew I had to write it. What I didn’t know is that Under the Poppy was going to be a trilogy, until I finished the first book, and realized, Oh wow, it’s nowhere near done. It was a real education, watching the narrative expand, and trying to keep up with the great fraught decades-long love between Istvan and Rupert.

I also didn’t know anything beyond vague pop-culture Victoriana, so I did a ton of research about the era to learn what was feasible, possible, for this performing troupe. I also researched puppet art and puppeteers in general; Eileen Blumenthal’s Puppetry: A World History (2005) was an invaluable go-to. The puppet inhabits its own uncanny valley, and has been lawless for a long, long time.

And Under the Poppy was actually the springboard for the performances I created. From the shadow-puppet book trailer to a totally immersive live show in a Victorian mansion, the events became more and more complex. It was a whole new way to offer a narrative, and I loved the collaborative aspect too, working with performers and installation artists, and fire artists, and a scent artist … Before COVID put on the brakes, I’d written and produced more than 20 events, some my own, some commissioned.

After the “Under the Poppy” trilogy, you undertook what may be your oddest novel, yet also, in many ways, your most characteristic: Christopher Wild. When I heard that you had written a picaresque timeslip adventure with Christopher Marlowe as protagonist, I thought, Of course! After all, someone who once reportedly said, “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools!” and who died in a drunken brawl was clearly a Kathe Koja character in the making! In its style and structure, the novel also spans the gamut of what your fiction to that point had encompassed: lushly imagined historical adventure, gritty depictions of contemporary society (especially the urban demimonde of scuffling artists), and grim visions of a future dystopia. (A lot of readers are unaware of how much SF you’ve actually published, mostly in shorter forms, as evidenced by the stories gathered in your two collections.) 

What drew you to Marlowe as a protagonist? Given that you’ve now written four novels set (at least partly) in the past that feature gay central characters, did you want these books to communicate something to readers about the development of queer history? Finally, did you have any specific models in mind for the past-present-future arrangement of the story? It’s an unusual set-up that not a lot of authors have attempted, though I can think of Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days (2005) as a rare example. What sort of challenges did this intricate plot present you with?

Christopher Wild exists because I fell madly in love with Christopher Marlowe, after reading A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), Anthony Burgess’s gritty, playful, doomful biographical novel. (How I came to the Burgess I don’t remember, but thank you, whoever gave it to me!) And the more I read about Marlowe — and I read every biography I could find, even the crappy ones — the more I saw that this man, who was as brave in his life as he was in his glorious, gory, knife-sharp writing, and whose death was more than likely a state-sanctioned murder, had grappled with and defied the same strictures and terrors that governments, and their operatives, have been inflicting on us for centuries.

So, it seemed inevitable to ask: How would Marlowe have existed in, say, the hysterical McCarthy era? Or in a future of even more hysteria and tighter surveillance? The triptych structure was useful as a framing device, and as a metaphysical device too: How much of what we believe is intrinsic to ourselves would or could we retain if we were born in other times or circumstances? And would we continue to resonate with, or recognize, those who were important to us in the lives we live now?

And as far as queer history, I would not presume to make any statement beyond the animating fact and continuing presence of queer people all throughout human history.

You keep pushing the envelope with each new project, and your latest novel, Dark Factory, may be your most far-out effort yet. Even calling it a novel is inaccurate because it’s really a multimedia project, with an affiliated website that expands upon and enriches the text. It’s easy enough to trace some of the influences that went into its making — cyberpunk SF and video games, techno and rave culture — but what’s impressive is how it all comes together into such a potent and trippy whole. In a way, the project continues the emphasis on theatricality that has been emerging in your work, from Talk to Under the Poppy to Christopher Wild, but it also pushes beyond the earthiness of live performance into ethereal digital realms. What moved you to create this sensory/conceptual extravaganza?

Dark Factory was bewildering to me at first — I spent at least a year trying to make it work solely as a “novel,” like the cartoon person jumping up and down on the giant bulging suitcase, trying to cram everything in. Finally, I got it: we’re used to experiencing narrative in multiple ways, on multiple platforms, so why can’t a novel expand in the same way? And then all of it, all the tangents and panoply, fell into place.

Tricia Reeks at Meerkat Press was creatively onboard from the jump — Tricia is a dream to work with, she personifies the vision and flexibility that makes independent publishing essential to literature — and we devised the print book and the ebook and the site, all the immersive content, to dovetail and work together. If you want to dig deeper into the characters, you can, if you want to know more about how the novel was written, you can, if you want to join in and create in the Dark Factory world, you can: and all of that is Dark Factory. And we’ve planned launch events to keep expanding, keep offering the invitation to come and have fun with us.

And that’s exactly what Dark Factory, the novel, is about: Ari Regon the driving force and Max Caspar his artistic counterweight, together in this dance club that’s more than just a club. And Marfa Carpenter the journalist, writing her way to the center of it all. And Marfa’s posts on the site also expand the narrative into the real world — she’s interviewed a philosophy professor at DePaul University, an Austin-based sound designer/composer, a liminal archeologist in the UK, with more to come.

There’s always been a tension in your work between embodiment and virtuality, and Dark Factory brings that dialectic to a new pitch of intensity. The characters in your early novels were often torn between extreme bodily metamorphosis and rarefied quasi-mystical experiences; in fact, those possibilities were usually linked. The performance artist in Skin, for example, carves and pares away at her body in a quest to push beyond it, into a rigorously austere aesthetic space. Unsurprisingly, this crazed pursuit of transcendence ends badly, as it tends to do in your other horror novels. Likewise, Dark Factory involves a contrast between what cyberpunk writers used to call “meat space” and various forms of digital enhancement, though here the high-tech setup — the whole science-fictional milieu — makes the prospect of radical transformation seem more plausible, if not less frightening. So, where do you come down on this divide? Is the impulse to transcend the body, to become some sort of posthuman being, always a dangerous fantasy?

I think the human impulse to become not other but more is evolutionary. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a painful or transgressive sundering: we can reimagine what it means, or could mean, to be human without allowing that examination and effort to wall us off, shut us down, render us inhuman. We could let it open us, allow us to grow, using digital hybridity as another tool to enlarge our participation in real life.

All the people in this book are reaching — Ari wants to bring life to its absolute peak, Max wants to exist at the nexus of creation, Marfa wants to explicate the entire process, Felix the DJ wants to chase music itself to its source — and everyone who’s dancing on that dance floor is there to find joy. I believe joy is evolutionary too, our modes of receiving it, our modes of making it. And joy is essential to life.

So, what’s next for you after the delirious genre and media fusion of Dark Factory? Do you have any new projects in the works that you can tell us about?

Dark Factory is still very much in the making — we have plans after launch for more creative engagement and expansion — so I’ll be in that club for the foreseeable. Everybody, come on and let’s dance!

¤

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).