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Caitlin R. Kiernan:
Refusing to Surrender Passion and Sincerity

April 2000
By Paula Guran

One of the most distinct new voices in the chorus of dark fiction these days is that of Caitlin R. Kiernan. Stylistically her stories -- often labeled as "goth-noir" --combine Gothic and Romantic literary traditions as well as American "Southern Gothic" with Modernist influences (like T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner); a few twentieth-century dark fantasists (Kathe Koja, Angela Carter, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison), and many rock lyricists (Michael Stipe, Andrew Eldritch, Tom Waits, Robert Smith, Siouxsie Sioux).

Caitlin Kiernan's short stories have been appearing in professional venues for the last five years or so, and her first novel, SILK, was published in 1998. It received both the Barnes and Noble Maiden Voyage and International Horror Guild awards for first novel and was nominated for the Bram Stoker and British Fantasy awards. She also scripts the monthly graphic series THE DREAMING (from Vertigo) and her recent mini-series, THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE DEATH, has been nominated for a GLAAD Award (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). Her first collection, the darkly luminous TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER, has just been published. (See review.)

Caitlin R Kiernan Kiernan's been both a vocalist/lyricist for goth-rock group Death's Little Sister and a vertebrate paleontologist . (Her area of specialty is a group of extinct marine reptiles known as mosasaurs -- basically giant monitor lizards with flippers -- that lived at the same time as the last of the dinosaurs.) At some point in her life she encountered and strongly identified with goth subculture.

What drew her to goth? "That's a little like asking someone what drew them to Christianity, or the Democratic Party," she says. "It might even be like asking someone why they're straight or gay. It's a question that operates on the same level, as far as I'm concerned. Goth is that important to me, and if any thought at all went into my decision to become a part of the subculture, then it has to be an extremely difficult question to answer, because there are an awful lot of things that drew me there and that keep me there."

"I was drawn to goth a long, long time ago," say Kiernan. "It's someplace that I've been for much of my adult life and it's really sort of difficult to recall exactly, or even vaguely, what the initial attraction was. I strongly suspect that whatever that original attraction was, it's not the reason I'm still willing to call myself a goth. Most of us come to goth as teenagers, or younger, because we sense in it a sort of sanctuary for the morbid and the freakish. But most of us outgrow our morbidity and freakishnish long before our twentieth birthday. Which is one reason goth is saddled with the perception that it's a 'youth' phenomenon. But I know a good number of goths over fifty, people who've been part of this thing since it began in the 70s (if that's where it began), and they've long since left behind the particular morbidities and insecurities of their teens and twenties."

Caitlin R Kiernan Whatever goth was to her years ago (when she was "heavy into vampirism and Clan of Xymox"), it's something else for her now. "Something just as valid, maybe more valid, that has been allowed to evolve from the initial attraction. And these days, as I see our mass culture sinking deeper and deeper into consumerism and cynicism, artless decadence and apathy, and probably a dozen other soul- and society-destroying evils I could tick off, I see goth as another sort of sanctuary. Maybe it's a sort of cultural Galapagos, where abandoned sensibilities can survive. There are those of us who refuse to surrender passion and sincerity, who are committed to a deeply romantic aesthetic and the expression of that aesthetic. Those of us who appreciate a walking suit or a fine suit of clothes over a Duck Head T-shirt and khaki shorts, who prefer the baroque style of the Victorians to minimalist architecture, and the Pre-Raphaelites to abstract expressionism. Not long ago, a friend suggested I was 'post-goth,' and at first I took offense at that, until I thought about it."

Despite the way it's often seen by those outside, Kiernan feel goth has grown very significantly in the last twenty years. "Sure, there are still a lot of kids listening to old Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy and The Cure, and that's cool. So do I. But there's so much more musically -- and I'm only using music as a familiar, convenient example; goth is a lotmore than a musical genre. These days I'm much more focused on the sort of bands that are labeled darkwave or ethereal or dark electronica, whatever you want to call it. Bands that transcend the old 'cookie monster' spooky band vocals and work within a vastly more complex musical palette, one that stretches far beyond the confines of rock. Bands and performers that incorporate elements of classical music and opera, for example, such as Lycia, black tape for a blue girl, Faith and the Muse, Peter Ulrich, The Changelings, Attrition, Faith and Disease -- I can go on and on. These are the bands that grew out of projects like Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, Bel Canto, and lots of the 4AD recordings. Of course there are some great new goth rock bands, such as The Cruxshadows and Audra, and that's still an important part of the aesthetic."

Okay, so, she knows that was a very long answer, "But it's still only the tip of the iceberg. So, don't ask me why I'm bisexual . . ." book cover But we will ask what she would like people to come away with after they read TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER: "That's a particularly hard question, partly because I'm afraid that there are readers who may find an honest answer off-putting. But I suppose that I'm trying to show other people the way that I've come to see the world. And I'm inviting them to consider the validity and relevance of this world view, its efficacy, I guess. I want readers to be willing to think of these stories as more than just entertainment, more than just a bunch of spooky tales to pass a few hours. I've met a lot of readers and writers who are very unwilling to think of dark fiction as anything more than a diversion. Personally, I find these stories deeply disturbing and, for whatever authorial intent is worth, they weren't exactly intended to be entertaining. The sorts of things that so many of these stories deal with -- rape, murder, loss of innocence, necrophilia, drugs, AIDS, homelessness, etcetera -- these are not the sorts of things we should be entertained by, but they are the sorts of things that we have to live with and think about every day."

"Indeed," she continues, "in the wake of tragedies like Columbine, I think those of us who write dark fiction have to think about these issues. When we reduce violence to entertainment people begin to become desensitized and that's one place where the danger of life imitating art appears. As far as I'm concerned, that point where dark fantasy or horror becomes merely entertainment is the same point at which it becomes merely pornography."

One interesting aspect of the collection is that certain characters, a bit of narrative world, connects many of them. Although she provides readers with a chronological reading order at the end of the book, "I prefer that the stories be read in the order that they appear in the book, which is, with one exception, the order in which I wrote them. That's my preferred order, because it's most interesting to me how various ideas and themes and characters developed over the five years that the stories were written. But I also thought that providing readers with the alternate, chronological order was a good idea, for anyone particularly interested in the way the stories are connected and in the overall narrative."

One character of Kiernan's, Salmagundi Desvernine, is of particular interest. "I found Salmagundi on a reproduction of an antique Whitman's sampler tin back in 1995, shortly before I wrote 'Glass Coffin,' which was really a turning point for the whole TOPAW story cycle, the place where I truly began to understand what I was trying to do with these stories. Anyway, I learned that Alphonse Mucha had painted her for a series of Whitman tins in the twenties and I thought it was such a marvelous word to choose as a name, with such marvelous connotations, that I used that name and that face for Silas Desvernine's great granddaughter. Then, about a year later, Poppy Z. Brite sent me one of the original tins, which she'd come across in a Magazine Street antique store [in New Orleans]. She bought it for me, even though she had no idea whatsoever that I'd used Salmagundi as a character or that the box had any significance to me. It sort of freaked us both out just a little, I think. Anyway, I guess that's not so much who Salmagundi Desvernine is, as the inspiration behind her, isn't it? Doug Winter has called her my 'avatar,' which is partly true. Like Jimmy DeSade [another recurring character and Salmagundi's consort], she's a focal point for certain ideas. But she's also a character I care about a great deal, that I think of first as a person. To me, Salmagundi is something beautiful and strong that the world has lost or given up, like faith and hope, something that we're not likely to see again."

TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER is illustrated by Richard Kirk, an artist who -- with pen-and-ink references to the Symbolists and Dada as well as fossils and feathers -- is a remarkably apt match for Kiernan's text. "Richard is absolutely wonderful, isn't he?" agrees Kiernan. I met him last year at the World Horror Convention in Atlanta and as soon as I saw his work I knew he was the person I wanted to illustrate TALES OF PAIN AND WONDER. I'd been looking for an illustrator for months and he was the first one that really clicked. He'll also be illustrating my second collection, FROM WEIRD AND DISTANT SHORES, which will be released in August or September of this year by Michael Matthews Press."

book cover Along with the awards and critical acclaim, Kiernan's novel, SILK, did well for a first novel, especially for a first novel released as a paperback. Two years after its release, SILK is still receiving new reviews and the author is still getting letters and email from people about the book. Her work in the comics field has, to a degree, brought her an entirely different following. "That surprised me. I thought there would be much more of an overlap, but I'm constantly meeting DREAMING fans who have no idea I've ever written a novel or that I write short fiction. And I meet even more people who've read SILK that have no idea I do THE DREAMING, because they've never read comics or they stopped reading comics in high school. I always try to encourage the prose readers to try the comics, and vice versa."

"I think I was dangerously close to burning out with THE DREAMING just a few months ago," admits Kiernan. "There's a lot of pressure, writing a monthly comic, keeping the story fresh, keeping everyone happy, worrying about sales figures. Doing THE DREAMING has meant learning to accept a sort of crisis du jour situation. There's always something wrong, always someone who isn't happy, someone who is determined not to be happy no matter what you do, and after a while it starts to take a toll. You begin to spend more time worrying about silly shit like whether or not fans will like such and such than you spend actually writing the comic. And from the start, THE DREAMING has been saddled with living up to what Neil Gaiman did with THE SANDMAN. It doesn't take long to get puking sick of hearing 'It's just not the same,' or 'It's not as good as THE SANDMAN,' or 'Why is it so much darker than THE SANDMAN,' or even 'It's almost as good as THE SANDMAN.' I know the comparisons are inevitable, and even logical, but it's been an uphill battle trying to get readers to look at THE DREAMING as a series separate from THE SANDMAN, with its own tone and atmosphere and concerns. But, still, when I look back, I'm usually pleased with the end result. I don't think I'll do comics forever. Comics aren't my first love, certainly. But, at the same time, I don't see myself leaving THE DREAMING anytime in the near future. We'll just have to see how it all goes. As for THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE DEATH, it was recently nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) award, which I'm very proud of, and has been translated into German and Spanish editions."

book cover The next novel -- which she's "almost finished" -- is called TRILOBITE. "While I think it will probably appeal to people who liked SILK, it is going to be a somewhat different sort of book," she says. "It's a weirder book, for one thing, which I wouldn't have thought possible. When I started it, I had the idea that I wanted to do a sort of Southern Gothic retelling of BEOWULF, but I'm not sure how much of that will be evident in the final draft. I haven't made a secret of how difficult this book has been to write. I never imagined that my second novel would be anywhere near this difficult, even though everyone always warns you about how hard the second novel can be. I'm pretty sure that one thing that's slowed me down has been performance anxiety. With SILK, no one really had any particular expectations about what a Caitlin Kiernan novel would be like or whether or not it would be very good. SILK changed all that and now I'm in a position where I have to be as good as I was last time and preferably better. Which would be great, if I had any idea what I did right the first time. At any rate, it'll be finished sometime this spring."

Kiernan will then begin work on "what might be a sequel to SILK, which might be called SPYDER. And no, I definitely don't foresee a time when I'll be producing two or three novels a year. That's insane. Just one a year would be wonderful. I'm a terribly slow writer, and you also have to take into account how much I write besides the novels. I have at least one script for THE DREAMING due every month and that usually takes me about a week. Then there are the short stories, which are really my favorite sort of writing and they wind up getting the least time of all. Plus I have to do a lot of the production work with THE DREAMING, everything from rewrites to proofing art and text, and so on. When all is said and done, since I began writing for Vertigo in 1996, I'd say that work on novels only gets somewhere between twenty-five to forty per cent of my writing time each month. By comparison, while I was writing SILK, that's all I was doing, aside from an occasional short story, and SILK still took me well over two years to write."

Kiernan said once that she got serious about her writing because she saw thirty bearing down on her "like a crazy man behind the wheel of a school bus," and she knew she had to get her "shit together." Now she's making a living writing, a novel published. Does this she has it together, yet? "I wish I knew, but I don't," she says. "Most of the time, I don't feel any more together than I did before I began writing, before I sold SILK, whatever. I'm starting to think I never will. And I certainly think that I've outgrown the idea that developing a career as a writer will somehow make me a more together person. Writers probably aren't even supposed to be together people."

Caitlin R Kiernan Kiernan tends not to say much in interviews about her life beyond the official "born near Dublin, grew up in the southeast U. S., became a paleontologist, then a musician and writer, currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, in a renovated factory. . ." Why? "Lives are great, convoluted, messy things. Whenever someone writes a biography or makes a biographical film, the best they can ever hope to accomplish is a sort of fanciful half-truth, what I'd call 'necessary fictions' and 'synoptic histories', which actually bear very little resemblance to the life in question. I suspect that autobiographies are even worse, because the person who has lived the life, who is obviously biased, has the opportunity to tell things the way they'd like them to have been, instead of the way things actually were. So, that's one reason. Also, because 'life stories' are fictions, and because we already have plenty enough dull fiction to go around, I think I should wait and see if my life is going to turn out to be something that anyone would want to read about before I bother making words of it. Which will surely take a few more years, at least."

Caitlin R. Kiernan has a new Web siteand her newsgroup is alt.books.cait-r-kiernan.


From Top:
Photograph by Matthew C. Grasse, 1994 ("Backstage at the 40-Watt")
Photograph by Matthew C. Grasse, 1995
Photograph by Jennifer M. Caudle (Crystal Palace Park, Sydenham, England, Halloween 1997)

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