Interview: Nina Kiriki Hoffman
By Karen Meisner
24 November 2003
Nina Kiriki Hoffman writes wonderful stories: stories full of wonder. Also full of horror, and love, and humor and science and magic. She won the Bram Stoker Award for first novel with The Thread That Binds the Bones (1993); her second novel, The Silent Strength of Stones (1995), was a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She's published several more books and close to 200 stories over the past twenty years, and they just go on being strange, fun, and beautiful.
I first became interested in Nina when I read her novels; they sparked in me that rare thrill of enchantment I used to get from fantasy as a kid, while they also spoke to adult problems and longings. But it was a year and a half ago, when she was a Guest of Honor at WisCon, that she impressed me with her presence. Nina conveys an attitude of calm, friendly, genuine openness -- to ideas, to people, to whatever weirdness might come her way. I wanted to learn more about this serene and wise yet highly goofy person, so when I heard Strange Horizons was planning an Author Focus on Nina Kiriki Hoffman, I jumped at the chance to do the interview.
Karen Meisner: What drives or inspires you to write? Has that changed over the years since you first began writing?
Nina Kiriki Hoffman: When I first started writing, I wrote for a couple reasons:
Number one, escape: if I was in some boring class, and I wrote my way into a story, voila, instant fun. This also worked if I was walking around (not writing, but I'd be telling myself stories), but it especially kicked in after I went to bed. As soon as the lights were out, the fantasy world opened up. Sometimes I got so involved in my serial stories that I didn't sleep much.
The second reason I wrote was because nobody else in the family did it. I come from a large family. We were pretty competitive, and all of us aspired to be artists. We were always testing who could draw the best, who played the best piano, who was fastest with a sarcastic remark or a wild idea. One of my brothers became a glassblower. Several of us played guitar. One played cutthroat pool. Everybody drew. I dibsed writing.
These days four of my brothers are songwriters, and one has written a book about contra dancing. My sister is a line producer in movies and television, but I'm still the only fiction writer among us. My mother writes nonfiction, mostly articles about peace, nonviolent activism, and compassionate listening, and she is widely published.
KM: You were raised in a lively atmosphere by parents with unusual ideals. From what I can tell, your home was a counterculture gathering spot for all kinds of people to meet: peace activists, Quakers, artists, teenagers. In the past few decades your mother has traveled all over the world working to try and reconcile groups of people in conflict, particularly in the Middle East, through "compassionate listening." Growing up in a family with these political, religious, or personal values, how do you see their influence in your own outlook on humanity and the world, and in your writing?
NKH: I've been curious about the impact of growing up in a pacifist family. One hears about kids rebelling against their parents' values, but when I grew up, during the hippie era, my parents already believed all those hippie values. And I did too, and have never really stopped. So we had trouble rebelling. Our parents encouraged us to question authority; I remember telling my teacher I couldn't say the Pledge of Allegiance, because I didn't believe it was true, and as a Quaker, my word being my bond, I could not in good conscience profess things that weren't true every morning. Liberty and justice for all? Not hardly. At that point, Mom was probably reading us Dick Gregory's Nigger aloud before bedtime. My teacher talked me down by saying the Pledge was a promise and a hope, not an actual fact, but I still just stood and didn't say the words.
I do hope, dream, and pray for peace. I continue to believe that violence is not a good answer to conflict, that there are peaceable solutions to problems, most of which involve talking and listening to each other. Having watched years of news at this point, my belief in easy solutions has eroded. But I think belief itself is powerful, so I'll act from my belief in the basic goodness of people. My experience has been that almost everybody I meet is nice to me. I have a great time.
While I was growing up, there was also a heavy emphasis placed on working toward psychological balance in our family. We believed in therapy as a healing process. I find this still to be true. How this manifests in my writing may be unclear.
I've heard Steve Barnes talk about how to tell a writer's belief system: it's not in what the characters say or do, it's how the universe of the story reacts to their speech and actions. I find this a scary but valuable concept. Draw your own conclusions. <G>
KM: Yes, exactly: it comes through in your writing that there's this interesting mind/background at work. And if it were as direct as your characters spouting off paragraphs of philosophy, I would ask questions about the characters -- but it's the whole universe of the stories, and so I ask about you.
In the course of preparing for the interview I've been learning a bit about your mother's work, which fascinates me not only in its idealism but in its realism: she seems so conscious of the need to accept and work with flawed humanity. It's been quite an inspiration. I also discovered your brother Kristian's music, which was a great find.
NKH: It's very cool that you're interested in what Mom and Kristian are doing. Also wild! The Internet! Who knew!
KM: Your characters often have an awkward time finding a place for themselves in society. Sometimes they possess magical abilities that set them apart, but even with the fantasy factor, their social oddness rings true at a human level. One way or another, they haven't learned to cram themselves into mainstream roles of class, gender, and other behaviors. You give us all these people who think and act with a kind of natural, unforced eccentricity. What draws you to these characters?
NKH: Er, ah, well, shared experience? I don't feel like I've ever lived a normal life. I remember studying The Flintstones for hints on what real people lived like -- the job at the rock quarry, going home to the wife, who had cooked a giant dinosteak for your dinner, the membership in the men's club where you got to wear funny hats, and doing fun stuff like going to the drive-in with the neighbors. Okay, it's weird that I was identifying with Fred, or more likely Barney, but I didn't know any better; they were the characters the stories were about. I thought they lived more realistic lives than I did.
My mother was a stage actress and spiritual seeker whose immigrant father was a self-made millionaire. My father's father was the president of Studebaker and later administered the Marshall Plan and worked at the United Nations. My father worked at a think tank. Try to explain that to the other kids in kindergarten when you don't understand it yourself. There was nobody on TV who resembled us.
The short answer is, I'm still guessing at what's normal.
KM: Many of your stories take place in a reality where witches live secretly among us, each with individual magical gifts. When did you first start writing about this idea, and did you originally envision it extending into connected series of novels?
NKH: Well, my favorite TV shows when I was a kid were My Favorite Martian, Bewitched, and I Dream Of Jeannie. I was terrified by The Invaders. I liked books that featured magical or alien people hiding among us, masquerading more or less successfully as human, too: Alexander Key's Escape to Witch Mountain and The Forgotten Door, Sylvia Louise Engdahl's novels, Zenna Henderson's stories, etc.
I started writing my own stories when I was twelve. I often wrote about gifted kids trying to blend. I didn't envision these stories as extending into a connected series of novels. I didn't even realize I was writing novel-like objects. I just kept writing about the same characters and their friends and eventually their children because I liked my established worlds.
Because those worlds got so wide and detailed, when I started writing stories to send out fifteen years later, I drew on those worlds -- set stories in them, engaged with the characters again, explored and expanded and improved. Many of my stories are connected in ways nobody but I know. One of these years I'd like to annotate them.
In the real world, I do think everybody's gifted in some way, often in a way they'd like to keep secret or that they don't know how to share. I suspect most people live secret lives. The magic is, of course, a metaphor.
KM: The Thread that Binds The Bones and The Silent Strength of Stones made me think of Escape to Witch Mountain, which I also loved as a kid, both the book and the movie. Gave me that same very specific delicious thrill.
Sometimes your work is categorized as young adult, or as horror, as fantasy or as science fiction. How useful is it to you to define the genre(s) you write in? Do you set out to write with the audience or publishers in mind that way, thinking "This one's going to be a YA novel"?
NKH: When it's time to send a story out, it's good if I have some idea of which magazine to send it to, which means I need to determine its genre at that point. But unless I'm writing for a specific market (I have a great time writing for theme anthologies, for instance, and Marty Greenberg is one of my saints), I don't think too much about what genre I'm writing in. I do know my stories end up at the speculative end of the spectrum of literary endeavors. I find it much more fun to write when magic/advanced technology/the supernatural is involved.
As far as the YA thing, people tell me everything I write has a YA feel. This probably has to do with my mental age, which varies from eleven to fifteen to the occasional twenty-three. A lot of my favorite reading comes from the YA section. Right now I'm meeting with a couple of teenage writers every week, ostensibly to help them with their writing, but I'm sure getting a kick out of listening to them talk to each other.
KM: That Tor party at WisCon the year you were Guest of Honor, where you taught me how to play musical spoons: that was the only time before or since that I've ever been able to play musical spoons decently. I think perhaps you have a magical aura that extends a few yards out and makes everyone around you a better and more creative person. You don't have to comment on that; your secret powers are nobody's business but your own. My question is: who or what have you known in your life that's had similar effects on you?
NKH: My brother Erik taught me how to play the spoons, and he's still in the process of teaching me hambone, the art of percussion you create by slapping your thighs and chest in rhythm.
My friend Kris Rusch is an inspiration to me, and a continuing source of delight and knowledge.
My friend Leslie What and I dream up wild ideas of fun things to do we could never come up with on our own -- at least, I never could have, although Leslie often does figure out fun things. I feel like Leslie and I have great chemistry. Together we came up with the Writers on Rugs concept -- your photo on a bearskin rug in souvenir folder, $3. We held bearskin rug parties at three different conventions and always had a wonderful time with it, and everybody we photographed seemed to enjoy their pictures.
This led indirectly to our hosting the celebration party for the publication of our friend Ray Vukcevich's book, Meet Me In The Moon Room where we took pictures of people on the moon, same price, same explosion of fun.
We also got excited about a particular small plastic item we found in vending machines by the doors of supermarkets, so excited we actually made a two-hour pilgrimage to Portland, to the Source of Vending Machine Objects, and obtained whole bags of our favorite item, Buddha Buddies.
Right now we're doing biweekly two-minute radio commentaries on our local NPR affiliate (we alternate weeks), and that's something we came up with from an experience we shared -- visiting the mobile unit of the radio station and trying out their equipment. We get together and write downtown, then visit the radio station, get edited by the news director, and tape our commentaries together. We write about completely different things, but we have fun. This is something I know I never would have followed up on without Leslie.
KM: An interview in Locus wrote about you: "An accomplished fiddle player, she plays regularly at various granges near her home in Eugene, Oregon." What is a grange and how did you end up fiddling there?
NKH: When I first moved to Eugene in 1987, I checked out the continuing education class listings, as I am wont to do wherever I am. I had had a fiddle for almost twenty years by that time, but aside from a few lessons from one of the cooks at my boarding school and a couple of violin courses at community college, I didn't know much about playing. I was excited to find a class called "Old Time Fiddle by Ear."
Taking this class changed my life. I met some local musicians -- the teacher, Stan, and the accompanist, Slim -- who introduced me to the local world of Oregon Old Time Fiddlers and the various places they played -- at community celebrations, at nursing homes, at the county fair, and at granges, which are buildings which house rural farmers' associations. You can join your local grange and partake of many activities there: meetings, potlucks, talent shows, and maybe once a month, the Old Time Fiddlers provide live music for dancing on a Friday night.
I took Stan's Old Time Fiddle by Ear class about four times before he decided to retire, and inducted me as a replacement teacher. I taught three terms of it, and Stan and Slim came to every session and helped me out. Interest died down, or maybe I wasn't the teacher Stan had been; but Slim invited me out to the grange to play and encouraged me to play with him at a lot of other places, and that's still an important part of my life.
I didn't actually join a grange yet, but as a musician, I'm welcome there anyway. We used to have a grange to play at every Friday of the month. Now we're down to two. I fear this way of life is dying out. Lord knows a lot of the older folks I knew when I first started playing and singing -- most of my performing this days is with guitar and voice -- have passed on, including Stan and Slim, who were in their seventies or maybe eighties by the time they died. Before they left, though, they gave me a huge legacy of tunes, instructions on how to play music in big groups, and new friends. They also were role models for me on how to grow old. Keep playing, keep dancing, keep getting out there and seeing people right up to the end. I miss those guys a lot.
Scenes of fiddling/music making at the grange have appeared in a few of my works -- there's a scene in Silent Strength of Stones, and in the short stories "Gone to Heaven Shouting" (F&SF Jan 1998) and "Key Signatures" (F&SF April 1996), just in case you're interested. <G>
KM: Many of your stories involve characters who are searching for family -- or running away from family -- or both. Often they end up finding or creating a home within some sort of unconventional family of kith and kin. What sorts of communities have you found over the years that feel to you like coming home?
. . . and on a related note: you live in Eugene, Oregon, along with many genre writers such as Ray Vukcevich, Leslie What, and Bruce Holland Rogers. How involved are you in the Eugene workshop scene? You were a student at Clarion, where you'll teach in 2004, and you recently went to Rio Hondo. How have writing workshops been useful to you in your work?
NKH: I'll answer them both at once. :) My community is writers. I moved to Eugene to be nearer to writers, and other writers moved here later to be near us. Today I went to a movie with a couple writer friends and their baby; tomorrow three writer friends will come to my house to watch anime; I usually meet a couple other writers for lunch every Monday; next week I'll be taking care of one of my writer friend's cats while she's out of town -- she's taken care of my cats often, too.
I know writers and readers all over the country, and that's why I go to conventions -- to reconnect to my friends, who do feel like my family. My family is still great, too; but the two people I e-mail every night, who e-mail me every night, are writer friends.
Of my genre friends/family in Eugene, I'd also mention Jerry and Kathy Oltion, the friends I meet for lunch every Monday when our schedules permit.
I still go to a weekly workshop here in Eugene that started in another form in 1986, and I still go to Kate Wilhelm's monthly workshop every chance I get.
How useful have workshops been to me in my work? My first two sales came from convention workshops in roundabout ways: I took a story to OryCon to be critiqued. Eileen Gunn was one of the critiquers, and she mentioned the story to her friend Jessica Amanda Salmonson, who later was editing an anthology, Tales By Moonlight, and bought the story for it. That was my first sale. I took another story to a Norwescon workshop and got shredded by some pros, who nevertheless also taught us the Scott Meredith seven-point plot outline. I was furious about that critique on the five-hour drive home from Seattle to Moscow, Idaho, and I was also thinking about everything they said. I rewrote the story, using information the pros had given me, and sent it off to Asimov's, and it sold.
I haven't been turning in a lot of things in lately, but I still workshop. I hope I'm helping people. I treasure the contact with other writers. We encourage each other, and heck, we understand each other. The Eugene Wordos Workshop, the one I go to weekly, is full of bright young writers doing interesting work. It's exciting to see them hit their stride, and it's inspiring to see their energy at work.
KM: You're a prolific writer. What are your working habits like? Do you ever struggle with writer's block?
NKH: Am I prolific? I wonder about the definition of that. I never feel as though I'm working hard enough. Jerry Oltion said his definition of a writer is someone who doesn't think they're writing enough. <G>
We were talking in our workshop last week about how to write quickly. Some people like to set a schedule. I like to have tasks to accomplish and deadlines to meet. When I tried to put myself on a writing schedule, it drove me crazy. I find it's better for me to work on projects and give myself rewards. Right now, my system (on good days) is write five pages, watch a half an hour of anime. Write another five pages, watch half an hour of anime. It motivates me.
I don't feel that I've been seriously blocked since 1994, which was when my brother Paul died. It took me some time to find my way back to writing after that. I hesitate once in a while, wondering if I'm just repeating myself, despairing because I don't write this sort of story or in that sort of style, but then I calm down and figure I just do what I do, and I'm feeling pretty confident about it.
KM: Any parting thoughts or advice you want to give to aspiring writers?
NKH: Advice to aspiring writers? Make friends. Take classes. Learn what supports you in your work, and look for more of that. If critiquing upsets you or makes you stall out and not write, don't workshop things. If it helps, do it.
About the classes, don't just take writing classes. Our job is to reflect the world, so the more we know about it, the better we can describe it. I love plant identification classes, for instance, and I'm so glad I took astronomy and earth science and chemistry, and life drawing and Japanese, and, well, Old Time Fiddle by Ear. Be open to new information and new experiences. It's all material.
Copyright © 2003 Karen Meisner
Karen Meisner is a Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons, and is slowly writing her first novel. In a little plastic bubble on her desk sits a Buddha Buddy. Karen lives in Madison, Wisconsin and encourages you all to come to WisCon and say hi.