Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Kathleen Ann Goonan's first novel, Queen City Jazz (the start of her Nanotech Quartet), was a New York Times Notable book. The Bones of Time, her acclaimed second novel, was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2000. Crescent City Rhapsody (third in the Quartet) was a Nebula nominee, and Light Music, also a Nebula finalist, was described by Booklist as the "brilliant conclusion to a tetralogy as consequential in sf as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy."

Goonan won the John W. Campbell Award for her novel In War Times.

Her new novel is This Shared Dream.

Goonan's response to my recent query about what she was reading:
Much of what I write is historic fiction, so my library is full of the kind of nonfiction that feeds that addiction. Last spring, wearing my Visiting Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology hat, I taught a Science, Technology, and Ideology course that I created, using biography. I began with Desmond and Moore’s Darwin, which, I think, was an eye-opener for my students and of great interest to me.

In that vein, I am presently reading The Philosophical Breakfast Club, by Laura J. Snyder, which expounds on the rich vein of the history of science in Victoria’s England. These were heady times, and the people and events of the age led straight to our present technological age with nary a bend in the road. We were just waiting for the necessary scientific tools, the painstakingly catalogued data, for the explosion to take place.

Snyder’s Prologue features a cameo of Coleridge proclaiming, at the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Cambridge in 1833, that these new practitioners of what was formerly known as “natural philosophy,” who dirtied their hands with excavating, collecting beetles, and exploring, ought not be called any type of “philosopher,” whereupon William Whewel, one of the principals of this book, who was hosting the meeting, suggested the appellation “Scientists.” Rarely does one encounter or recognize such a succinct, defining moment, but it is the work of a good writer to use these moments, as does Snyder, to illuminate a narrative and an age.

Song of Slaves in the Desert, by Alan Cheuse

I love the possibilities of narrative fiction. My own life unfolds with inexorable linearity; literature and story telling is the gift of our peculiar form of consciousness that allows us to slip those bonds and explore minds, times, and sensibilities different from our own. Therefore, I enjoy big novels that leap, like poetry, hither and yon; I welcome tapestries woven of many voices; I crave the experience of immersion in first one century and now another; one continent, and then another. When unified with as much mastery as does Alan Cheuse in Song of Slaves in the Desert, this approach to Story frees me from the limitations of time and space.

It seems that I am always writing a novel, and during that process all that I read is research for the novel. I read history, biography, books about science—any nonfiction that seems fruitful or related. While writing, I rarely read fiction. If it is good, it subsumes my entire being and I get no work done, and if it is not good, it is a waste of time. So in that delicious burst of freedom after I turn in a novel, I read fiction. However, when I turned in This Shared Dream in the summer of 2010, I immediately took up my post at Georgia Institute of Technology, where I teach writing, literature, and a cultural course in science, technology, and ideology. It is fascinating, and I love teaching, but there was no free time to read, and I thought that there would be no free time this summer, either.

I was right about having no free time, but I may need to think more deeply about why I don’t read much fiction.

What I ask of my fiction is that when I finish it I close the book I must sit, like one thunder-struck, in the after-silence, so that the whole washes through me at once: images; dialogue, beautiful language; lives. Not all novels do have this effect, but it is why I read fiction. It is one of the best feelings in the world. The author has reached into me, through words, and changed me. Something is left behind.

So perhaps I read such a small amount of fiction because so few novels fulfill that promise. I am a patient reader, but I expect much. I expect to have to surrender to a novel: surrender time; my own sense of self. I do not put down a novel to which I am committed after a paragraph, a page, a chapter. At some point, the inevitable pull of so much time invested in characters, in story, in worlds, keeps me going, and I keep reading until the book falls from my hands at three in the morning, or until the rude interruptions of life hit me on the head.

Song of Slaves in the Desert pulled me in immediately, and I was lost. I read it in about twenty-four hours. It is a satisfyingly big novel—I don’t like short novels—but I am a fast reader. During that time I slept adequately, gave a cookout, dealt with my credit card company, and so on. I hardly noticed all that, though. I was in the world Cheuse draws so completely that it is four-dimensional, particularly since it contains so very, very much time, and one only realizes toward the end who the magnificent main character truly is. She is in the process of realizing herself throughout the entire novel; her soul is her work and her soul is linked to the Africa of her ancestors and moves toward a state almost unimaginable for her, but toward which she deeply dreams, and in the realization of which she acts strongly and decisively. There are many points of view. Each is necessary, and all are compelling.

The novel begins in the 1850’s and is set on a South Carolina plantation. It is about many things. It is about slavery and freedom. It is about a family. It is about literature, and about the power of literature to free any individual. But mostly, it is about characters. The novel contains many rich voices, so at the end, at that book-closing, deeply satisfied moment, they all sound at once, in perfect balance, moving out into the great ocean of life in which we all live and infusing it, as a great novel should.

You can read about the plot, or read reviews, but my strong recommendation is that you just ought to read this book, and read it now. I am quite glad that I took the time to slip the bounds of All That I Must Do. In practical terms, that meant I ought not to succumb to the dream of fiction at all this summer, despite the tall and lovely stack of books I pile up toward the time when I can. So I thank Alan Cheuse. It is tremendously pleasant to remember what it is like to read wonderful, deeply felt, masterfully wrought fiction. It is like seeing someone I have not seen in a long time, someone I have missed, whose name is Love of Reading, or like taking a drink of water after a long, hot race. I hope I do not go so long between drinks again.


Early this summer, to slake my need for at least some fiction, I decided to read Chekhov. My prescription: read one story a night; dream well.

An unrepentant collector of Books I May Someday Wish To Read (rather than a collector of Books As Valuable Objects), I have several intact libraries that have survived the sturm and drang of many moves. I visited the 1970’s library presently housed in my shed, and there, in a neat, compact row assembled by a former organized self who seems to have vanished, perhaps out of frustration, were four paperback collections of Chekov stories. I lifted out the books in one piece, like so many slices of bread, and scurried back to the house, a thoroughly satisfied hoarder.

I slip from collection to collection, from translator to translator, sometimes puzzled by what seems vagueness. How can “The House With the Mezzanine” possibly be the same story as “The House With The Attic?” Is it “A Boring Story,” “A Dreary Story,” “Awful Story?” None of the above, but those adjectives seem to have more in common with one another than an attic might have with a mezzanine. This does not give one much confidence. I began hoping to find some translations by Nabokov, a famous stickler, but only found sentences such as this, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1981: “I heartily recommend taking as often as possible Chekhov’s books (even in the translations they have suffered) and dreaming through them as they are intended to be dreamed through.” Some translators infuse Chekhov’s sentences with a grace and beauty that may not be literal translations, but they satisfy the poet in me.

I find some of Chekhov’s character’s attitudes regarding science surprisingly modern—particularly that of the dying professor, Nikolay Sepanovitch in the either Awful or Boring or Dreary story. Stepanovich says of a fellow academic, “Another characteristic is his fanatical faith in the Germans. He believes in himself, in his preparations; knows the object of live, and knows nothing of the doubts and disappointments that turn the hair of talent grey. He has a slavish reverence for authorities and a complete lack of desire for independent thought.”

These stories unfold through character, could be said to be, essentially, plotless, and I am thoroughly satisfied. Often, when reading a short story collection, I begin to feel nauseous, as if I had eaten too many similar candies, but each of Chekhov’s stories is unique and a thing of wonder.
Visit Kathleen Ann Goonan's website.

The Page 99 Test: In War Times.

The Page 69 Test: This Shared Dream.

--Marshal Zeringue