Interviewed by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Writer Katharine “Kit” Kerr is a child of water who can’t imagine living landlocked. She grew up in the energy field of the Great Lakes, and then made her way to southern California, finally claiming the San Francisco Bay Area as her place of choice. Her other great love in the Place Department is London and the Thames River. She is a professional storyteller, an amateur skeptic, and an impassioned fan of baseball and rock & roll. Best known for her world of Deverry, she is blessed with a lot of imagination, a loving husband, and a pounce of cats.
1.) You’ve been writing fiction for a while–how has your work changed since the first story you wrote?
It depends how you define “first story.” I started scribbling stories when I was about 10 years old, and they were about what you’d expect from a child who’d read widely in the children’s literature of the time—clumsy and derivative, that is. I assume, however, that you mean my first decently written stories. I wrote a number of mainstream short stories and a mainstream novel, all set in San Francisco in the 1960s, but I never put any effort into sending them to magazines and the like because I wasn’t satisfied with my level of craft. In 1979 I got an idea for a mainstream novel, Catch the Shadows, set in Southern California around the time of World War I. I wrote a long sloppy version, then revised it into a long but much tighter version. I sent this to an agent, who took it on, but it didn’t sell back then.
While she was sending it around, I got the idea for Deverry. This was the big change in my writing, from mainstream fiction to epic fantasy and science fiction. I’d always loved genre, which I discovered in junior high, and honestly, I don’t know why I put off writing in it until 1982! Once I got underway, the project took off. My skills improved as well. When I attended my first convention and began to make friends in the field, I felt like I was coming home.
2.) Why fantasy and science fiction? What brought you to this branch of fiction as your preferred territory? If you were to write something else, what would you try?
Fantasy and science fiction just fit my peculiar mind, I suppose. I love the idea of strange twists on the reality of our world and of new worlds, as well. I have gone back to mainstream once, when I thoroughly revised Catch the Shadows. I started that last October and worked on it till a few months ago. My agent is now sending it out again. It’s a much better book this time around, so we’ll see.
But unless some publisher offers a contract for a sequel to Shadows, I doubt if I’ll write another mainstream work. My heart really belongs to SF and F.
3.) Why writing to communicate your vision, and not art, drama, etc?
I’m not any good at anything other than writing. No, seriously, I have a little talent for music, but only a little, and I can draw a decent floral pattern for embroidery, but that’s it. In other fields I don’t have a vision to communicate. I’d lack the skills to do so if I did.
4.) You have several well known fantasy worlds out there, plus several SF novels as well. Are you done telling stories in Deverry or Nola O’Grady’s San Francisco, or can you see yourself writing a short piece or novel over there again?
I very much want to finish the Nola O’Grady story arc one day. I also have a Deverry novel, set in a later time than the main sequence, that I’m working on. I can see a few places in that main sequence of books that I’d like to fill in with novellas as well. The question is when I’ll get around to Nola’s story, since her original publisher has dropped the series. The Deverry novel comes first, because I know readers are out there for it.
5.) After a very successful career writing intricate, deep high fantasies, you have stepped off the path to play in the multiple worlds of urban fantasy. What drew you to Nola O’Grady’s strange, contemporary worlds? Did you start with the multiverse, with the family, with Nola herself?
I started with Nola. I’d noticed that Urban Fantasy had become popular, not that I understood how codified the sub-genre had become. One evening I was thinking vaguely about a project based on the idea of a “female James Bond with magic rather than violence” when I heard Nola’s voice in my mind, saying “I’d just stepped out of the shower when the angel appeared.” With an opening line like that, how could I turn her down? The first book, License to Ensorcel, practically wrote itself, especially once her family pushed their way in. I always start with character in my work, because that’s what I read for. And boy, the O’Gradys offer plenty of characters!
6.) Have you decided yet what writing means to you?
On one level, of course, it’s a job, the way I’ve supported myself for thirty years now. On another, it’s my passion in life. Writing well is a constant challenge, the best game in the world, intriguing and infuriating both at once. It’s also a way of bringing the complex of ideas and feelings that’s buried deep in your mind out to the surface where you, like the reader, can examine and learn from it. We all have hidden wounds and motives, as well as hidden strengths.
7.) Do you think your “voice,” the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story—or can you see themes that reoccur in your work?
The voice changes when I write first person narrative, because I try to give my characters their own voices. The Deverry books are seemingly in third person, but in truth they’re being narrated by another character, the Deverrian novelist Cadda Cerrmor, who finally reveals herself at the very end of The Silver Mage. Nola O’Grady and now Maya Cantescu have voices that are very different from Cadda’s and from each other.
As for themes, one of them would have to be “family politics”, though in Deverry that includes entire clans. Even mostly solitary characters like Bobbie Lacey in Polar City Blues have family backgrounds that influence them and family members who are a part of their lives.
I also see in some of my books an emphasis on a character learning who she or he is and acting appropriately to that new knowledge.
8.) What have you learned from your own writing? To what concepts, intentionally or not, do you think you’ve exposed your readers?
You can run but you can’t hide from who you are. As I remarked above, that’s a theme in my books. It’s something I learned from working on my craft, too. I’m not cut out to be a great genius of modern literature. I am cut out to tell entertaining stories that have some meat to them—not “messages”, but something for the mind to chew on rather than the pre-digested work we see in too much television and too many popular books.
9.) Book View Cafe is bringing out a new Kit Kerr work, Sorcerer’s Luck. It’s another contemporary fantasy, but it doesn’t overlap with Nola O’Grady’s world. Can you tell me in three sentences what it’s about? Who did you write this book for—what kind of readers will enjoy it?
The narrator of Luck is a young woman, an art student, who meets a young man who happens to be a powerful sorcerer. They begin what seems to be a steamy affair, but their relationship has roots that run troublingly deep—well, they trouble Maya, anyway, who’s on the run from who she really is. I could sum it up by twisting the old zen saying about mountains into, “first there is a vampire, then there is no vampire, then there is.”
I had no particular group of readers in mind for this. The story came out of nowhere and surprised me, rather like Nola O’Grady did. It does carry the theme of reincarnation, something that seems quite real to me.
10.) What sparks your creativity? When you feel stretched too thin and tired, where do you go to refill the well?
I love to walk in cities, just looking around, exploring, finding a place to sit and watch the people going by. London is wonderful for that with its two thousand years of history, but San Francisco is good, too. Even a newly built city like San Jose has its odd and interesting corners. I also love to read history, particularly the history of places that our Western system of education generally ignores. At the moment I’ve been reading about the areas around the less well-known seas of Eastern Europe—the Black Sea and the Baltic, in particular. History has all the best stories. They’ve always inspired me, and we’ll see where this particular bout of reading takes my writing next.