Interview with Kij Johnson
by Philip Martin

Martin: I wanted to ask you about your novel, The Fox Woman, and especially about writing in multiple voices, and viewpoints. How did you go about that?

First, I had written a short story told in just one viewpoint, the fox girl’s, Kitsune’s. That was fairly easy, because she was a very simple, genuine, straight-forward, ingenuous person.

When I decided to expand it into a novel, I became very interested in what this story was like for everybody else. Because in some ways, Kitsune is a little juggernaut. She knows what she wants, she’s going to get it, and she doesn’t care who’s hurt in the process. The only person she truly knows is herself. So, like everybody else, she seeks to avoid pain and maximize happiness. Even if that hurts other people.

Now the other two characters, the two people – Shikujo the wife and Yoshifuji, her husband – were so much more complex. Because life isn’t that simple for humans. They compromise all the time. They want happiness desperately. But often they are unwilling to make sacrifices either of themselves or of other people, to achieve that happiness. Often, one of the things you have to sacrifice is your cherished illusions about yourself. “I’m this sort of a person.” You believe that; you never question it. And you never understand why you’re not happy.

When I was thinking out the novel, I would write long sequences from each of their points of view, much of which didn’t make it into the book. I would sit down to say – okay, who is Shikujo? If I’m the woman, Shikujo, what am I feeling? Okay, I’m mad, but I can’t admit it.  I’m hurt, but I can’t admit it. I want desperately to be good. I want to be a good wife because that’s how I identify myself. If I’m not a good wife, then I don’t know what I am.

Or, if I’m Yoshifuji, why am I here, what am I feeling? I’m restless, I’m lonely within my marriage. How can that be? There’s must be something wrong with the marriage; it’s not necessarily something wrong with me. Because he hasn’t given up any of his cherished illusions yet.

So I wrote these long pieces which were much like if you were to take them to therapy and say, “Tell me about yourself.” And then for an hour, they would just talk. They rambled all over. They were disjointed. They were ungrammatical.

But in the course of doing that, because I was writing about what really mattered to them, I tended to find a voice. How they spoke about it. What they tried to conceal. It was as if they were in therapy – because they did try to conceal things.  Everybody tries to conceal things all the time. So therapy, or with very trusted friends, are often the only times that people are willing to get past these places where they’re hiding things.

And I just went back again and again and again. That’s a story I rewrote. It didn’t write itself so much as it accreted. I would write scenes out of order and I would end up having to add entire sequences into it. For instance, Brother’s falling in love with Yoshifuji, that was something that I kind of knew happened, but I hadn’t put in. And then when I did, I had to go back through all those scenes. Then in the course of rewriting, I also was changing the writing – the words and the patterns – to reflect what I now knew about the characters.

What did you achieve by telling it from three points of view?  Why do that? It’s definitely harder.

Especially for new writers, multiple points of view are hard to manage. I think the only reason to jump around in points of view is if the story cannot be told in any other way.  Which is kind of a minimalist theory.

For this story, it’s such an internal story – plot happens, but there’s not really much of it. What’s really happening is that we’re watching three people come to maturity. And there seemed no way to do that except from their points of view.

For instance, I couldn’t have Yoshifuji argue with Shikujo about who he is for the entire story. Because the whole point is that he doesn’t learn to argue with Shikujo until he has come to terms with himself.

Kitsune is the only person who has company throughout. She’s the only person whose story can be told through her interactions with others. For Yoshifuji and Shikujo, their stories are told through what they think, what they observe, and how they react to it.

Shikujo has friends, people she talks to who offer counsel. But Yoshifuji doesn’t. For him in particular, if you tried to tell the story from outside his point of view, you wouldn’t have any idea what’s going on for him. And he was a completely unsympathetic character, because he’s a jerk from outside. From the inside, though, he is somebody who’s just struggling, who’s unhappy and is flailing desperately.

I read a story once about wolves gnawing off their paws in traps. Yoshifuji’s gnawing, desperately, to get out of what he sees as a trap, without any understanding of what he’s doing. If I weren’t inside his point of view, I couldn’t show that.

Also, the literature of that period was diaries. In Japan, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the main two forms of literature which have come down to us are poetry and diaries.

If you’re going to tell a whole story in diary, you’ve got all these suspensions of disbelief. How many words could somebody write without her hand falling off? Could she write about this event in this way? Or would she just write just a shorthand version of it? And I thought that the biggest lump that people could not swallow is: would she be able to tell what other people are thinking? And would one person write a whole story, from beginning to end?

So all this led me to the idea of using multiple viewpoints. I was interested in diaries, and I was interested in having differences in tone. That was what I was pursuing.

Were there any special problems, any thorny thickets that you got into that were difficult to resolve?

When you’re dealing with multiple points of view, you have to be very careful about who tells which parts of the story. And what “doubling up,” if any, you’re going to permit.

I recently read a new writer’s story who had whole scenes which were doubled up. A scene had been told first from Joe’s point of view, and then four pages later, you had four pages from Lucy’s point of view. It was the exact same sequence, and you didn’t learn anything new.

Maybe you picked up a couple of internal things, but most of it was just, okay, now I’m seeing it from over here in the room.

What I usually did was just followed whoever a particular scene – or part of a scene – was most relevant to. So sometimes the characters didn’t get to comment about things that they ordinarily would have. For instance, Kitsune comments on the growing friendship between her brother and her husband, but she barely mentions it, and only as a reference to, “and here I am stuck at home.” Although she probably would have thought more about it, because this is her universe, these two men plus her grandfather.

It’s tricky. I don’t recommend that new writers fiddle a lot with multiple points of view, because it’s a delicate balancing act.

And it’s hard to give them distinctive voices. I’d done a lot of thinking about style, and I decided the way to do it is to come up with distinctive voice patterns. How they speak? Do they speak in complex sentences, or in direct sentences? Do they use lots of Latin words or mostly Anglo-Saxon based words?

Anglo-Saxon words are those we use in everyday speech.  Words like die. Kill. Eat. Drink. Sleep. Have. Be. Word. These are all Anglo-Saxon words. Hand is an Anglo-Saxon word.

The Latin-based words tend to be more distancing. Words like “manual,” as opposed to “by hand.” Or “prevaricate,” rather than “lie.”

They have different implications as well, but the most direct is that one is a word you would use in everyday language, and one is a word you would only use if you were trying for an elevated or distanced tone, especially in writing.

The Latin words often are more indirect. For instance, prevaricate means to pre-empt the truth. Which is not the same as lie. It’s a more complex concept.

The different characters have different styles of speaking – and thinking. I enjoyed the woman and her indirectness, her near-refusal to have any “self.”

In the diary form, I was mostly writing first person. But one thing that people do when talking about important stuff is to shift between first and second person. I might start by saying, “I had such a terrible day.” Then shift to – “You know how it is when your car breaks down and you’re stuck in traffic,” and so forth. What I’ve done is I’ve pushed myself away. I’ve pushed the experience out into the second person, to “you” instead of “I.”

Because it was too personal. Because I’m not comfortable enough with it to accept it within myself.

Shikujo does that all the time. In fact, sometimes she pushes it all the way into third person, when she says “one does this” or “one thinks that,” referring to herself. And she’ll switch within a sentence.

I also enjoyed the scenes with the fox family – their banter back and forth, how truly confused they are about things they don’t understand.

This was a hard story to write because it doesn’t really end well for most of them. I’ve always been somebody who treated my characters badly in my short fiction. I used to get a hard time from the writing workshop, because something always went horribly wrong. Although I think that’s the nature of drama. If it’s a happy story, it’s because they get it worked out in the end.

But even as I was writing, I would make up little side stories to kind of justify what was going on. Okay, Brother’s not really insane, he’s just “designed a reality he’s comfortable with.” And Grandfather didn’t have any pain; he didn’t really suffer. And the little fox boy didn’t really die, and stuff like that. I was always making up stories, just for myself.

So you’re the trusted friend, or the therapist, and you get them to reveal all – and then you betray them. . . .

I do. And then I betray them on the page. And sometimes treat them badly. So yes, I do feel terrible when I hurt them like that. I keep hoping that they have happy lives after the stories are done.

For me, when I read Watership Down, I would get to the end, when Hazel is old, lying there many years later, and El-ahrairah [a sort of rabbity trickster hero] shows up and invites him to be a member of his Owsla [personal guard] and takes him along. And I just loved that.

I really wanted to lead people on through that last scene of my book, too, so that they would want to reread the last paragraph or the last scene again and again, like me with Watership Down, crying helplessly. I really wanted people to feel deeply. I wanted to say, this portion of their life is over. It ends this instant. But the next portion begins right afterwards.

I really wanted people to care so much about these characters. Because I did.