In her 24 years as a science fiction-fantasy author, Kansas native Kij Johnson has written precisely one short story set in Alaska.
“I’m hyper aware of landscape, what a place means, what it is to understand that place,” she told me by phone the other day. “That particular story was about wolves and you can’t write about wolves anywhere but in Alaska — at least back then you couldn’t.”
The story, “Wolf Trapping,” originally appeared in a 1989 issue of “Twilight Zone” magazine (seven years before wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park). Now, nearly a quarter-century later, she returns to the Last Frontier not only in support of a new book, “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” but as the featured author of the 2013 University of Alaska Southeast “One Campus, One Book” program, which will be the focus of several community-wide events this weekend.
“Obviously, I’m thrilled by the opportunity to visit Alaska,” Johnson said, pausing briefly to ask about appropriate outerwear for November in Juneau. “But as a featured author — of science-fiction fantasy, with a short story collection, published by a small press, no less — I’m especially honored.”
In addition to two novels, “The Fox Woman” and “Fudoki,” the first two volumes of the “Heian” trilogy, Kij Johnson (the name comes from her initials, Katherine Irene Johnson) has published dozens of stories and won several awards, including the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” is her first short story collection.
“All the stories take place at the human-animal interface,” Johnson said, describing her book’s thematic link.
Characterized as “shocking,” “provocative” and “captivating” by various critics, the 17 stories comprising “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” — some of which were reprinted in “The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror” and “Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year” — feature cats, bees, monkeys, dogs, magical ponies and -- warning -- alien tentacle-sex (yes, you read that right).
Though proficient in both forms, Johnson prefers short stories to novels.
“Novels are such a grand undertaking,” she said. “I admire novels more than I love them. Short stories, on the other hand… It’s much easier to sustain passion for 10,000 words than 100,000.”
During her stay in Juneau, Johnson will visit classes on the UAS campus, meet with students in more informal settings, read from her work as part of the Evening at Egan lecture series and lead a community fiction writing workshop sponsored by Friends of the Juneau Public Library. She also hopes to “get in some hiking.”
This marks the fourth year of UAS’s One Campus, One Book program, which seeks to help ease first-year students into the college experience — and accustom them to an academic setting — by selecting what UAS Librarian Jonas Lamb calls “a common read.” Past One Campus, One Book selections include “Being Caribou” by Karsten Heuer, “The Truth About Stories” by Thomas King and “Listening is an Act of Love” by David Isay.
“The idea is to spur conversation in class and out of class, and for students to make friends based on a shared experience,” Lamb said.
To that end, he explained, every freshman at orientation received a free copy of “At the Mouth of the River of Bees.” Twelve classes are “teaching the book,” from general humanities to studio art to drama, and the recently revived UAS Drama Club has adapted several stories and “hashed-out scripts” for a staged reading.
“Kij Johnson is edgy, she’s speculative, she’s challenging — she’s willing to attend,” Lamb said. “Seriously, though, her stories involve young narrators ‘on the path.’ They’re all about the value of the journey, and I think that’s really resonated this year.”
And while Johnson herself looks forward to working with students — “especially seeing what creative work arises from the program” — she’s excited to meet the larger Juneau writing community when she teaches a free fiction workshop at the downtown library on Saturday afternoon.
“I’m going to talk about everything, but predominately characterization and structure — two things that can improve someone’s writing immediately,” said Johnson, who also teaches fiction at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
“Authors throw the word ‘craft’ around a lot, but seldom do they really mean craft: how to structure a story, how to move between story lines, how to navigate the scene you’re in,” she said.
“Stories have been told roughly the same way for as long as people have been telling stories. There’s a reason why.”
Know and go
Brown Bag Lunch with Kij Johnson,
Nov. 8, 2013, 12-1 p.m., UAS Writing Center. Short reading and Q&A. Coffee, tea and cookies will be provided. Seating limited.
Evening at Egan Presentation: “At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Human-animal communication after the Change,”
reading and keynote by Kij Johnson, Nov. 8, 7 p.m., UAS Egan Library, sponsored by OCOB and UAS Evening at Egan lecture series.
Community Fiction Writing Workshop with Kij Johnson, Nov. 9, 1-4 p,m,, Douglas Public Library, sponsored by the Friends of the Juneau Public Libraries