K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, The Claddagh Icon, Chastity Flame, Pelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, a collection of short stories and a play based on the Kalevala, Kanteletar, and other Finnish myths and legend, for which she won the 2005 Eureka Short Story Fellowship as well as a 2006 Finlandia Foundation grant. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the occult detective comic Jane Quiet. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity has written on popular culture and social media for Ms., The Spectator and BitchBuzz, and teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about John Donne and Kierkegaard.
John Donne’s poetry spans sensuality and lapsed Catholicism, do you think the dialectic between the two tells us anything about the man?
Oh, just like a pro, you go right to my weak spot! I love Donne. And what a career in contrasts! You’d never think the young hedonist would change so. The sneering cynicism of the poet of “Song” who thinks it easier to catch a falling star or find where the mermaids sing than to find a woman who could be true. He’s the master manipulator of “The Flea” who uses the insect to seduce a woman, refolding the metaphor as if it were origami. The smug seducer of “Elegy XIX” doesn’t hide his triumph as his lover strips, claiming each part of her as it’s revealed, crowning it with that conqueror’s cry, “Oh, my America, my new found land.” Of course all cynics are just disappointed romantics and when he meets Anne he is “undone” in so many ways: not just being thrown in jail and giving up his political career. I’m not sure there’s a more beautiful poem of lovers parting than “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Donne assures her they can no more be parted than the twin legs of a drawing compass and the further he has to go from her, the more she pulls him back to the center. He’s devastated by her death. His sudden surge of faith—although raised by Jesuits he had been required to join the Anglican church in order to secure a position—seemed to have much more with yearning toward death and reunion with Anne. For his final monument, he posed in a shroud, ready for the grave. He couldn’t really wait for that bell to toll for him. An exquisite wordsmith.
What do you think Kierkegaard would make of the present obsession with genre?
Is this a three stages of life question? Because I’ve never left the first one, which I think he considered shallow and inadequate. Everything is possible, I laugh at accidents, I mix fiction with truth and dare anyone to figure out which is which. Sørre, as all his pals called him, was a twitchy sort and came down on that big Either/Or decision with a lot of certainty, so he’s see those of us who want to blur boundaries between genres as somewhat overly aesthetic and immature, but then again he could never relax enough to really enjoy life so I think modern medicine would mellow him considerably so he’d come around to a more inclusive view of genre. Then again, he did write “Once you label me, you negate me,” so I owe him for swiping that.
If you could give advice to yourself as a younger woman what would you say?
Your family doctor is an ass. Don’t let him fob you off with ‘your changing body’ pamphlets. Make your parents take you to an endocrinologist. You have serious thyroid problems. Get out of your home town even sooner. Don’t try to impress anyone; just write the stuff you want to write and FFS send it out, get used to rejection and get *better* at it. Oh and when you go to London that first time, don’t leave. But stay away from drummers — seriously, they’re trouble.
The public talks about violence today. Do you think reading Hrafnkels Saga would be educational to them?
There’s no violence like the classics. Hrafnkel, the man who went from violent fanatic to peaceful atheist. Hmm. When people talk about violence, my mind always returns to poet/adventurer/viking Egil Skallagrimsson who had a head hard enough to withstand the blows of a sword, could out drink (and then subsequently, outvomit) any man who ever lived as the infamous drinking contest story in his saga demonstrates. You have to be hard core to vomit down the throat of another man just to make him vomit even more. His dad Grim and granddad Kveldulf (evening wolf) were rumoured to be shape shifters and when you pressed one of his victims for a descriptive word about the assault, they were inclined to say “wolfish” of course. And he wrote immortal poetry. Enough with your hard case street thug. Egil would have finished him off without breaking a sweat, wrote a poem about it, defeated Queen Gunnhild’s magic (again) with some runes of his own, and then took off plundering.
A real man from the tenth century; they dug up his bones (http://www.viking.ucla.edu/Scientific_American/Egils_Bones.htm). I’ve been to his farm. Nice place.
I’ve a bit of an embarrassment of riches at the moment. I’ve got a “Shamans vs Aliens” novel out from Immanion Press called OWL STRETCHING. My dark story collection UNQUIET DREAMS is out from Tirgearr Publishing. Stories run the gamut from crime to spec fic — with a zombie western thrown in, too — it’s got something for everyone. I’m also wrapping up the first draft of a new supernatural crime novel WHITE RABBIT. It’s got fake psychics, designer drugs, a murdered socialite and a weird would-be religious cult. Sort of Philip Marlowe in Blue Sunshine in a way; the PI is an ex cop, James “Jawbone” Draygo who’s fallen on hard times. Noirish black humour. And later this month will see the slithering release from Fox Spirit Books of WEIRD NOIR, which features one of your stories, as well as folks like Paul D. Brazill, Andrez Bergen and Joyce Chng. And the first volume of my sexy thriller trilogy is out now, CHASTITY FLAME — as you might guess, she’s a sort of female James Bond and has a lot of sexual escapades between doing her best to try to save the European economy from a nasty computer virus. The second volume, LUSH SITUATION, comes out in January. I’ve got stories in OFF THE RECORD 2: AT THE MOVIES and coming up soon at SHOTGUN HONEY. It keeps me off the streets.
Who are your literary influences?
Who isn’t? Okay, Dan Brown isn’t, but so many others are. I got early into nonsense so there’s a wide streak of Lewis Carroll running through all I do and a good bit of Edward Lear as well. They prepared me well for more adult humour like Dorothy Parker, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and PG Wodehouse. The funnier stuff ends up going out under the Kit Marlowe name (like my comic Gothic novel The Mangrove Legacy) but I think it’s safe to say there’s humour in almost everything I write, though often it’s more dark, Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and even Lester Bangs. Comedians like Peter Cook and Spike Milligan taught me so much about timing (and sometime I’ll get around to the non-fic book on the Gothic in Cook’s work). Crime writing I’m still kind of under the shadow of the masters like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and the always fascinating Patricia Highsmith. A lot of darkness and horror came out of Poe at an early age, Shirley Jackson expanding that and Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker giving the old one-two Liverpool punch. Literary classics like Beowulf, Chaucer, Behn, Austin, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot opened up my head in the best possible way and I can’t begin to say how much Jorge Luis Borges did for the natural surrealism in my head. And I’d probably give a slightly different list tomorrow. There’s just so many giants out there.
What do you think Aphra would have said to Cervantes?
I think she would have said, “When a man looks to the past for happiness it will always elude him, and while we all have a tendency to tilt at windmills, you have to live in the here and now to truly enjoy life. But I wish I had made better use of my prison time as a writing retreat. Well done you.”
How important is transgression in fiction in terms of its cultural evolution?
I think it’s always important to transgress the perceived boundaries and received wisdom and every era has its own kind of transgressions. The pity is that too often ‘transgressive’ is just a lazy impulse to épater le bourgeois. Any snotty teen can shock somebody’s parents and the desperate attempts at ultraviolence that fueled some of the explorations into the worst of the so-called ‘torture porn’ were just that juvenile. Why use a sledgehammer when a stiletto wil do the trick? With the global world now a tweet away, it’s easy to find that taboos vary regionally and sometimes what you thought oh so transgressive is tame to folks in other places. The real transgression in fiction is innovations that aren’t just empty gestures of style, but come with a compelling narrative that changes forever the art of storytelling. And sometimes they have to be repeated: you have to have Naked Fire before people will accept Infinite Jest (if they do). True transgression keeps the wonder of fiction fresh: but not every story has to be transgressive. We will never lose our thirst for a good tale well told — or even a good tale badly told. This best seller lists are chock full of examples. Keep readers turning pages and they won’t care if you’re transgressing the rules of form—or even if you write well. Despite all our innovations, we’re still telling stories around the campfire.
“You know what date is on this coin?”
What do you make of Anton Chigurh’s philosophy in No Country For Old Men?
Ah, the mystic destiny of the awe-ful avenging god! What a great character. What would be in less sure hands a mindless killing machine becomes a man who creates the whole universe over with himself at the centre and a ritual invoking the arbitrary (and to his way of thinking, completely fair and objective) decision of fate to run it all. His philosophy expands just as far as it needs to do: the coin has spent what is it? 22 years? traveling hither and yon, just to be present at that moment and offer the illusion of choice. The shopkeeper, too, is just there to demonstrate Chigurh’s power and ironic ‘mercy’ because he isn’t just some crazy killer, oh no. He’s impressing order on a disordered universe. In the same way Sheriff Bell tries to impose order on the chaos around him to assuage the guilt of his failures. We need our illusions to build a sense of purpose. Chigurh makes himself the centre of that purpose; Bell tries to right wrongs, so he puts the needs of others at the heart of what he does. That’s the difference between a good guy and a bad one — but neither of them are particularly happy. They’re trying to make the world over into something it’s not.
Why can’t you stick to one genre?
I wish I knew. Like a lot of creative people I know, ideas come from anywhere and everywhere and I have more ideas in my head than I could ever write in several lifetimes. So I have to pick and choose, although some just shout louder than others. But they all seem to want to mix together things that ought to be like oil and water and try to make something that actually gels. So I write zombie westerns (High Plains Lazarus) and shamans v aliens (Owl Stretching) and Elizabethan gonzo psychedelia (Fear and Loathing in Deptford). But nobody knows where to look for me on the shelves at the bookstore. Ebooks help a lot: they’re tagged in a variety of ways so people can find books more by fiat, although even Amazon makes suggestions based on typical genres. I write under a couple of other pen names; at least they stick to one specific genre each. I’m trying to be smarter about sticking to one genre (crime) as much as I can lately, but even so it keeps wandering across the borders. The crime novel I’m wrapping up, White Rabbit, has some supernatural elements in it and the anthology Weird Noir that I edited mashes up traditional noir with eerie horrors. I guess that like me, my muse is a kind of gypsy that just likes to wander. Of course if I could sell off all those extra ideas I’ll never have time to use to the people who always ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I could probably make a better living than I do from my stories. Alas.
Thanks Kate for a great interview.
Find K. A. Laity at her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
A few of Kate’s books:
Owl Strething can be had in digital and paperback editions:
Kindle at Amazon US and UK and paperback at Amazon US and UK
Find Unquiet dreams at Amazon US and UK
Chastity Flame is at Amazon US and UK as well
Get a copy of The Claddagh Icon at Atlantis, and Amazon US and UK
Pelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic is available in digital and paperback editions:
Kindle at Amazon US and UK and paperback at Amazon UK
Unifirja is in digital and paperback at Amazon US and UK
And a hard copy of Jane Quiet can be found at Amazon US