Caitlín R. Kiernan

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I've seen so goddamn much — I've seen so much that there's no reasonable excuse for looking away, because there can't be anything left that's more terrible than what has come before.
If there must be resolution and explanation, it must be something worth its weight in mystery. Most times, I'd be content with the mystery.

Caitlín Rebekah Kiernan (born 26 May 1964) is an Irish-born American author and paleontologist, perhaps best known for her novels The Drowning Girl: A Memoir and The Red Tree. She is also a prolific blogger.

Quotes[edit]

Trilobite: The Writing of Threshold (2003)[edit]

  • To paraphrase Truman Capote, finishing a novel is like taking a child out behind the house and shooting it. To which I would hasten to add, that makes critics a bit like stranger who come along later to piss on the corpse.

To Charles Fort, With Love (2005)[edit]

  • Give me enough words, enough attendant gravity, and I might fall into myself forever, crushed infinitely flat by my own hubris. It'd be a neat trick, I admit. I'd pay to see it — but from a safe distance, of course.

Houses Under the Sea (2007)[edit]

  • I've seen so goddamn much — I've seen so much that there's no reasonable excuse for looking away, because there can't be anything left that's more terrible than what has come before.
  • Orpheus' mistake wasn't that he turned and looked back towards Eurydice and Hell, but that he ever thought he could escape. Same with Lot's wife. Averting our eyes does not change the fact that we are marked.
  • I sincerely hope I'm not as big a fool as that. Whatever else I may be, I like to think that I'm not an idiot.
  • The divine is always abominable.

Unfit for Mass Consumption (blog entries)[edit]

That wasn't a real orgasm. I was only faking the plot.
Unfit for Mass Consumption : The Online Journal of a Construct Sometimes Known as Caitlín R. Kiernan (Caitlín R. Kiernan's LiveJournal), as well as previous blog incarnations including: "Species of One: Confessions of a Lady Writer and Alien Malcontent

2001[edit]

  • And speaking of Massachusetts, I just heard on CNN that the first human cloning has been successfuly performed there. I'm not inherently opposed to the idea of cloning humans (or anything else), but I have to question the need for any technology that produces more of us. Making babies is about the only thing for which our species seems to display a more or less universal talent. We hardly need any help.
    • (26 November 2001)
  • I was thinking, earlier, how there's this stigma attached to "writing for money" and how odd that is, as though writing is akin to sex (another "creative" act?) and writing for money is akin to prostitution in the minds of so many people. Whoring with adjectives, so to speak. Do I give good prose? Look up the definition of "hack." So, there must be the perception that writing, like the priesthood, comes with some higher purpose in tow. Getting paid well somehow sullies the purer cause. I've heard writers dismiss something or another that they've written by explaining, "Oh, yes, I know that sucked, but I only wrote it because they paid me so much money." And then we might even forgive them a piece of crap, because we have a sensible explanation. That wasn't a real orgasm. I was only faking the plot. Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner in Hollywood.
    • (29 November 2001)

2003[edit]

Every time some dolt whines, "I'm confused" or "I don't understand" or "This doesn't make any sense," I should smile and know that I'm doing my job.
  • The world wants oatmeal. It is not my job to give the world oatmeal. It is my job not to be a hack. It is my job to try to make the world chew, lest its lazy jaw muscles atrophy and its collective mandible withers and all its teeth fall out. It is my job, as a writer, to give the world toffee and peanut brittle and tough steak and celery. I write peanut butter sandwiches, not oatmeal. And every time some dolt whines, "I'm confused" or "I don't understand" or "This doesn't make any sense," I should smile and know that I'm doing my job. Not because it is my job to be opaque, but because it is not my job to be transparent.
    • (23 June 2003)

2004[edit]

  • A writer who does not write is nothing. One may as well be a fisherman who doesn't fish, a stripper who doesn't strip, or a beggar who doesn't beg.
    • (7 December 2004)
  • I'm not kidding, and I'm not being hyperbolic — sometimes I hate this thing I do more than I could ever say. Sometimes, it seems that I spend my days dragging people whose only crime is that I am their creator through the filth and pain and degradation of my own despicable imagination. Where is the good in this? Where is the resolution? Where is the sense of it? If I had even a scintilla of belief in a "higher" intelligence of any sort, days like yesterday (and, by extension, today) would, on the one hand, give me some degree of sympathy for the idiot dieties unable to craft a better universe, and, on the other hand, it makes me grateful I have no such beliefs, because the anger I would have for that "higher" whatever would be inexpressible. And I cannot imagine that there are actually people out there — self-professed "horror" writers — who are trying to elicit these emotions in others, who are purposefully driving their characters on through all the futile, dead-end nightmares that might be devised. I would not do this. I swear I would not do this, if I could find other words in me.
    • (20 December 2004)
  • No matter what you may have heard elsewhere or however you may have romanticized the life of working writers, know this: it is, with very, very few exceptions, a brutal, ugly, and unrelentingly difficult existence. It is a grind, no matter how much you may love to write or feel driven to tell stories. Personal demons aside, you will encounter at almost every turn no shortage of idiots and shitheels upon whom you must depend to get your work to readers. Occasionally, there will be a fortunate aberration: a wonderful, brilliant editor, or a copyeditor who doesn't try to express herhimitself vicariously by attempting to rewrite your work, or an agent who busts hisherits ass for you. You may even be so fortunate as to encounter a publisher who cares more about herhisits authors than the bottom line. Those things do happen. But don't ever fucking count on it. If you come to this life, and if you "make it" and can actually eek out some sort of living writing, you will likely learn these things for yourselves. Plenty of people will tell you I'm full of shit on this account. And you are certainly free to listen to whomever you please. But after fourteen years as a full-time writer, during which time I have had great successes and profound failures, seen modest fortune and considerable poverty and everything in-between, been appreciated and reviled, awarded and ignored, helped and hindered — one thing remains true. It's a tough row to hoe, as my Grandfather Ramey would have said. And you do yourself and all working authors a disservice if you dare believe otherwise.
    • (25 November 2006)
  • On our present course, this may eventually stand as the ultimate achievement of Homo sapiens sapiens. We should take a bow. We are obviously planet killers. The question is, can we also be planet saviors? I'd say that seems unlikely. Happy Earth Day.
    • (22 April 2004)

2005[edit]

I sense that many readers want nothing more complex or challenging than wind-up toys. It's dispiriting.
Every month, the US is spending more on the Iraqi war than it took to reach Saturn and Titan. Mass murder is expensive, and good science is relatively cheap.
Each man and woman defines the world about them, creating a set of those things which they consider "normal" and "good" and "evil" and "sympathetic" and "likable," and these are damned indomitable walls. They are high and thick, and it is the task of the writer to penetrate or scale them.
  • There are many words and phrases that should be forever kept out of the hands of book reviewers. It's sad, but true. And one of these is "self-indulgent." And this is one of those things that strikes me very odd, like reviewers accusing an author of writing in a way that seems "artificial" or "self-conscious." It is, of course, a necessary prerequisite of fiction that one employ the artifice of language and that one exist in an intensely self-conscious state. Same with "self-indulgent." What could possibly be more self-indulgent than the act of writing fantastic fiction? The author is indulging her- or himself in the expression of the fantasy, and, likewise, the readers are indulging themselves in the luxury of someone else's fantasy. I've never written a story that wasn't self-indulgent. Neither has any other fantasy or sf author. We indulge our interests, our obsessions, and assume that someone out there will feel as passionately about X as we do.
    • (24 July 2005)
  • Originality is the most deadly mirage in all of art. You can chase it from now until doomsday, and you'll only find yourself lost and dying of thirst.
    • (24 July 2005)
  • I want to build vast machines of light and darkness, intricate mechanisms within mechanisms, a progression of gears and cogs and pistons each working to its own end as well as that of the Greater Device. That's what I see in my head. But, too often, I sense that many readers want nothing more complex or challenging than wind-up toys. It's dispiriting.
    • (3 January 2005)
  • The writing of a novel or short story or poem or whatever should elevate the audience, not drag the writer down to some level beneath herself. And she — the author — should fight always to prevent that dragging down, especially when the only possible benefit of allowing it to happen is monetary.
    • (10 January 2005)
  • Every month, the US is spending more on the Iraqi war than it took to reach Saturn and Titan. Mass murder is expensive, and good science is relatively cheap.
    • (16 January 2005)
  • Isn't there some great, grim irony in the fact that the whole country gets a day off work in honor of a man who struggled against and died to end oppression, even after having re-elected one of the greatest would-be oppressors of the last century? And that the threat of freedom for a minority may have been what finally tipped the electoral scales in Dominar Bush's favor? Yes, I think that's what it is, a great, grim irony. King said, "No one is free until we are all free." Somehow, the Reverend Bernice King has missed that part, as have so many other Americans. All or nothing. Personally, I think that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should have been suspended this year in recognition of Bush's second term. A nation cannot simultaneously pat itself on the back for granting this group of people freedom and strive to deny freedom to this other group. Or, rather, it can, but it should not be permitted to do so. The vacation has not been earned because the work is not finished.
    • (17 January 2005)
  • All I have to do is make you see this. This one particular thing here. That's all. And sometimes it's impossible. Sometimes, I know the best odds I can hope for are a thousand to one. You'll see what you see, what your life has conditioned you to see upon encountering that combination of words, not what I want or need you to see. Fiction writing is like making films for the blind.
    • (19 January 2005)
  • [On test audiences and alternate endings on DVDs] Seeing these two endings, knowing that the studio most likely chose the one that would close the film after polling test audiences, makes me a little ill. What if I did that with my novels? What would you think of me, if I were to so subvert the act of storytelling and mythmaking in an effort to make more money (by, I might add, perverting democracy)? Okay, at the end of Low Red Moon, I can kill Chance, or I can let her live. Which ending do you prefer? Check the box, and let us know. Should Orpheus make it back to the surface without looking to see if Eurydice is truly following him, or should he look? Should the mouse pull the thorn from the lion's paw, or should he mind his own damned business? I can only hope that it is self-evident that this process is as alien and destructive to art as anything ever could be. Yes, I'm sure it makes people more money, and money is nice, but it has very little to do with telling good and true and useful stories.
    • (22 January 2005)
  • At some point, I stopped and made the following note to myself: I have never finished a story. I'm beginning to see that now. I don't think that there's ever a point where a story or novel is just exactly right. There are only finer and lesser degrees of refinement, and even those are probably subjective. You might think it's perfect for a time, but read it a year or five years later, and you'll see you were mistaken. There's always something I can make better, every time I read one of my stories. Usually there are dozens of somethings. And I once thought this wasn't true, that a story reached a certain point and beyond that point you were only changing things, making them different, not making them better. Indeed, I thought, beyond a point, you risk screwing it all up. I don't think that anymore. You risk screwing it all up right from the start, and no story is ever as perfect as it can be. Perfection is always one or two polishes away from the writer.
    • (29 January 2005)
  • Art should never be a slave to commerce, but for all working artists that's exactly what it must be.
    • (31 January 2005)
  • Yesterday was an utter waste. An artist, of whatever stripe, has only so many days, to write or paint or dance or whatever, and each one wasted is that much that will never be accomplished.
    • (20 February 2005)
  • Sometimes, I think that the most alien thing to mankind is mankind itself. The real aliens live next door or across the border or somewhere overseas. Each man and woman defines the world about them, creating a set of those things which they consider "normal" and "good" and "evil" and "sympathetic" and "likable," and these are damned indomitable walls. They are high and thick, and it is the task of the writer to penetrate or scale them. To break in. To shatter preconceptions. To force people to rethink cherished opinions and prejudices.
    • (12 August 2005)

2006[edit]

Magick may be no more than the willful invocation of awe.
  • I'm not sure if erotica should be angry and grim and terrifying and bitter, but it works for me. I rode my frustration. I kicked the bitch in the ribs until it spat up what I needed.
    • (19 January 2006)
  • Magick may be no more than the willful invocation of awe.
    • (11 December 2006)
  • If there must be resolution and explanation, it must be something worth its weight in mystery. Most times, I'd be content with the mystery.
    • (12 December 2006)

2007[edit]

Personally, I have my doubts that science can be said to be genuinely progressive, but I'm pretty dammed certain that art is not. Which is not to say that it is not accumulative or accretionary.
A good writing day is a day when one has written well, and the word counts be damned. Finishing is not the goal. Doing the job well is the goal.
What people ought to be asking me is "Where do you get those tiny, little infinitesimally faint sparks that you then somehow manage to blow up into ideas?" Of course, my answer would be, "I have no inkling whatsoever."
Writing is a wild magic (at least it is for me). It comes when it's ready, and then, if I'm lucky, I have some small say in where it goes and what it does.
We have here these two different paradigms. I spark. They craft. Two incommensurable world views. I cannot explain to them what it is that I do. I cannot even explain it to myself.
  • Basically, I wish I could read the way I used to read. I did not dissect as I read. I simply became immersed in the story and let it sweep me happily along. Now I cannot help but dissect. I try not to, but I do anyway. I cannot help but see "flaws" and all the ways I think I could have done this better. I would suspect that all writers are like this, to one degree or another. Writers are the gods of their universes, and we are never at a loss to suggest how some other god might better run herhisits universe/s. At least, this is true of me. It is one reason I read so much less fiction than I did fifteen years ago. And, actually, stage magic is not a bad metaphor for this problem I now have as a reader. I am precisely like a magician watching another magician's act. I should be suckered in with the rest of the crowd. I passionately desire to have the wool pulled over my eyes. Only it very rarely happens, as I'm too busy figuring out how it's all being done and how I could improve upon it ... I just can't help but read it as a novelist. This is, from my perspective, unfortunate. I don't want to know how the trick works. I want to be amazed. I want to be convinced of the magic. But this is what I do. I spend my days gluing words together to try and fool other people. And I can't help but try to see how other writers, especially writers who have found more commercial success than have I, make it work. Sadly, I don't even find the mechanics & theory of fiction writing remotely interesting, which makes this doubly frustrating. It's just a reflex.
    • (16 January 2007)
  • Art is not science. Even when art is about science, it is still art. There cannot be consensus, in the sense that science strives for meaningful consensus. And unlike science, art is not progressive. Personally, I have my doubts that science can be said to be genuinely progressive, but I'm pretty dammed certain that art is not. Which is not to say that it is not accumulative or accretionary. But the belief that sf writers are out there forecasting the future, that they have some social responsibility to do so, that's malarky, if you ask me. Writers of sf can only, at best, make educated guesses, and usually those guesses are wrong, and clumping together to form a consensus does not in any way insure against history unfolding in one of those other, unpredicted directions. People love to pick out the occasional instances where Jules Verne and William Gibson got it right; they rarely ever point fingers at their miscalls.
    • (15 June 2007)
  • I pondered exactly how future biographers would go about writing the biographies of authors without letters. It's not like email and "chat" and whatnot will fill the void. Online journals help a little, but they are not, generally, the truly honest sorts of things that letters were, and only a few authors keep them. I tried for years to keep up letter writing, but was defeated in the end by too many unreliable correspondents.
    • (27 June 2007)
  • Bad writing days are days when you mean to write and can't, or are interrupted so frequently that nothing gets done. I'm disheartened at how often I see the blogs of aspiring writers bemoaning how slowly a book or story is coming along. They have somehow gotten it in their heads that writing is a thing done quickly, efficiently, like an assembly line with lots of shiny robotic workers. The truth, of course, is that writing is usually slow, and inefficient, and more like trying to find a cube of brown Jello that someone's carelessly dropped into a pig sty. Five hundred words in a day is good. So is a thousand. Or fifteen hundred. A good writing day is a day when one has written well, and the word counts be damned. Finishing is not the goal. Doing the job well is the goal. And I say that as someone with no means of financial support but her writing, as someone who is woefully underpaid for her writing, and as someone with so many deadlines breathing down her neck that she can no longer tell one breather from the other. Sometimes, I forget this, that daily word counts are irrelevant, that writing is not a race to the finish line. One need only write well if one wishes to be a writer. A day when one does not do her best merely so that more may be written, that's a bad writing day.
    • (20 July 2007)
  • A book may only be judged for what it is, not what you'd like it to be.
    • (7 January 2007)
  • It has been my experience that many people actually believe that writers live in a state of perpetual inspiration. Maybe this is the source of that annoying "Where do you get your ideas from?" question. Maybe the people who believe writers live in a state of perpetual inspiration are the same people who ask that question, thinking — wrongly — that there's a trick of some sort involved. And if a writer would but tell them the trick, then they too would have access to the bottomless well of ideas and live in a state of perpetual inspiration. In my case, at least, there is no bottomless fucking well of ideas, and if I only wrote when I truly felt inspired, I'd starve and live in a cardboard box at the corner of Crack and Whore (which is to say, the corner of Ponce and Piedmont). But, that said, there does have to be a spark. What people ought to be asking me is "Where do you get those tiny, little infinitesimally faint sparks that you then somehow manage to blow up into ideas?" Of course, my answer would be, "I have no inkling whatsoever."
    • (5 August 2007)
  • I cannot force it. I have never been able to force it. Like I've said before, writing is a wild magic (at least it is for me). It comes when it's ready, and then, if I'm lucky, I have some small say in where it goes and what it does. This is one reason I can't comprehend why some writers talk so much about "craft." Crafts are something you learn how to do. I never learned to write. I write better now than I did ten years ago, and far better than I did twenty years ago, but I'm not exactly sure why. To me, it is an almost ineffable thing. I try to explain what it is I do, and how it is I do it ... on those extremely rare occasions when I try to explain ... and, for me, it's like grasping at air. I have no craft talk, no theory, no dos and don'ts, no discernible process. I sit here in my chair at my desk in front of the iMac, and when I'm lucky, it happens. It's not so much that I think the "writing as craft" people are wrong. They can't be wrong, not if they are crafting stories and know they are crafting stories. But I don't craft stories. So, for me, we have here these two different paradigms. I spark. They craft. Two incommensurable world views. I cannot explain to them what it is that I do. I cannot even explain it to myself. And I cannot comprehend what they do.
    • (5 August 2007)
  • We are indeed living at the end of the Golden Age of Mankind, or at least the end of this particular human civilization. That almost everything we take for granted today may, only a couple of decades farther along, seem entirely remarkable, that our most mundane artefacts and toys will stand as incredible examples of luxury and excess. That all of this will pass away, and the "simplest" bits of our day-to-day lives will become miracles of a half-remembered past. A past which will be responsible for that future-present misery. It is difficult to force myself through the trivial routine of my days when these thoughts are front and center. It is difficult to see beyond the veil they draw up about me and difficult to push it all aside long enough to write my silly little stories.
    • (29 March 2007)
    • There is no "right way" to write a book. There is only the way that the author needs it to be written, because the novel serves the author, even as the author serves the story, and failure is the act of failing to pull off that trick. (13 October 2008)

2010[edit]

I want a T-shirt that says, "Art is Emo." We live in an age where people are more apt to believe a thing if they read it on a T-shirt.
  • I'm wondering how the new crop of teens and twentysomethings became so afraid of emotion and the expression thereof.* Did their parents teach them? Did they learn it somewhere else? Is this a spontaneous cultural phenomenon? Are they afraid of appearing weak? Is this capitalism streamlining the human psyche to be more useful by eliminating anything that might hamper productivity? Is it a sort of conformism? I don't know, but I could go the rest of my life and never again hear anyone whine about someone else being "emo," and it would be a Very Good Thing.
* The suggestion has been made that they are so much expressing fear as contempt, and I am open to that possibility, though fear and contempt often go hand in hand.
  • Could anything be more inimical to art than a fear of emotion, or a fear of "excessive" emotion, or a reluctance to express emotion around others? No, of course not. Art can even best the weights of utter fucking ignorance and totalitarian repression, but it cannot survive emotional constipation.
    I want a T-shirt that says, "Art is Emo." We live in an age where people are more apt to believe a thing if they read it on a T-shirt.
    • "Would you like to see a little of it?" said the Mock Turtle. (3 April 2010)
  • In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man will poke out his eye to fit in.
    • (12 December 2010)

External links[edit]

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Interviews[edit]