SH: When I started to read Awash in Talent, I could not help myself from allegorizing the various Talents as analogous to some of the varied failures to deal with life that are called mental disorders, and catalogued in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Whether I am right or wrong in allegorizing your book, that’s what happened as I read it.
Jessica, is there anything allegorical in the Talents of your characters?
JK: It’s interesting that you mention allegory, as when I began writing, I thought allegory was the be-all end-all of great storytelling. I’m not sure I would qualify Awash in Talent as an allegory per se, but I certainly intended the Talents to represent difference in society, and the way some differences (prodigal abilities in science or art) are praised while others (accidents of genetics, mostly) tend to be marginalized. In my alternate version of Providence, about ten percent of the population has one of the Talents. I chose that specific cipher because I read long ago that about ten percent of any population sample is not heterosexual. The LGBTQ community has gained tremendous visibility in recent years, but in the United States, I don’t think they’re going to have social equality for many more years, if ever. I’m basing this assessment on my personal experience of the status of women. We think we’ve come so far, and then something happens to show us how little change has actually occurred in society over the past hundred or so years. If this is getting too political or cynical, understand that the Talents themselves aren’t intentionally about mental illness, although Emily, the un-Talented one, is indeed ill.
SH: Emily treats people as if they are manipulable objects, which is almost a definition of a sociopath. However, an interesting aspect of sociopaths is that they have real utility in the body politic. They are out of step with the rest of world in that they seem incapable of empathy, as opposed to the majority of people who just don’t care enough or retreat or whatever. As a result they have insights denied to the rest of us. I think this is something you’re treading upon in Awash in Talent.
JK: I like your observations about sociopaths and the absence of empathy in the general population. Perhaps that’s one reason Emily has so entranced me. She’s basically the same character as the megalomaniacal teacher in “Unpredictable Factors in Human Obedience”, the story that starts off Unpredictable Worlds.
SH: Would you like to talk about how you came to understand the point of view of a solipsistic person such a Emily?
JK: During the sessions with my critique group, the other members often asked for more details about other people in the story, and I had to resist because it’s from Emily’s point of view, and she doesn’t have the ability to perceive much outside her own little world. It was a major challenge to make such a character’s point of view readable at all. It’s easy to understand her point of view because I had to choose one version of the world and cling to it with all my might. When any stimulus came along, I imagined how I would react, and then wrote the opposite or exaggerated it drastically. For example, when Beth has her crisis in Ethiopia, I imagined I would be concerned as an older sister and do whatever I could to help. So Emily does everything she can to block Beth’s burgeoning Talents and draw attention away from them. It takes empathy to write about someone with none.
SH: Jessica, doesn’t Emily’s behaviour constitute a moral question?
JK: A disregard for traditional morality is one of the first signs of a personality disorder, which is what Patricia diagnoses. This may make morality discussions especially difficult. From Emily’s point of view, it’s wrong that everyone pays attention to Beth and keeps Emily away from Carlos, and therefore anything Emily can do against those conditions must be right. Is she a danger to herself and others? Yes. But my understanding of her point of view makes it hard for me to label her actions immoral. Maybe I’m just a moral relativist.
On the other hand, the way the firestarters and psychics are treated by legislation and society is deeply immoral. How could such dangerous Talents be kept under control without resorting to such inhuman treatment? I hope readers will think about that.
SH: Let me ask you a personal question, which you don’t have to answer. What’s your own experience with the 10% that’s so often persecuted and misunderstood?
JK: Happy to answer! I’ve had a few LGB friends, but the one I’m proudest of is my brother, Will Knauss. He’s also a writer! He does a fun podcast called “Jeff and Will’s Big Gay Fiction Podcast” with his writer husband. Also, my husband was raised by a lesbian mother during a time when it was required to be in the closet, and I thank her spirit for creating such a fine human being.
SH: You end with Patricia considering a huge bonfire. Instead, she buries the words and images she has been amassing. Not to inquire too deeply, but did you maybe get to the point where you just had to knot it all up, stick it in an empty house and trash it?
JK: Like me, Patricia feels a need to archive everything that happens to her. I take photos, write journals, and keep scrapbooks, much to the bemusement of my husband. He appreciates going through the materials sometimes, though. But Patricia has been through a trauma it might be better to rid herself of, so she does briefly consider the ritualistic cleansing of a fire. In the end, the archivist wins some ground, because the building where she’s planning to place the journal is only going to be bulldozed. Squashing flat is somehow less destructive than burning. This way, Patricia can feel she hasn’t wasted all the insight and experience she gained through the trauma because the journal remains, albeit buried with many other such items. Also, she will never again stumble across it in her office.
That said, I always have trouble with endings. It’s a cheat to end with “It seems like a fitting end,” I admit, but it satisfied me and left the possibility for a sequel, which I’m percolating now.
SH: So, let’s not talk about endings but about going on to the next thing. Jessica, where are your hopes and fears taking your writing?
JK: Right now, the character Emily from Awash in Talent is demanding a sequel. Maybe she feels so compelling to me because of those unique insights you mention. She brings what no one else can bring, for sure. I’m also working on a sequel to Seven Noble Knights (which releases December 15, 2016) that focuses on the female characters.
SH: Now for a silly question, but one people like to answer. If you were in full control of a movie based on Awash in Talent, which actors would you cast in the various roles? Why? (In other words, what is the picture in your head of what your characters look like and behave in the aspects of their lives that don’t get onto the page?)
JK: I wonder whether people would be surprised, pleased, or disappointed that I would cast Brian and his family with black actors? Or that I might search out Chinese actors for Emily and her family?
SH: I think they’ll be fascinated.
JK: Your question makes me think about “white default” in writing, meaning that unless race is mentioned, it can be taken for granted that characters are white. I was reading about this phenomenon during the final edits of Awash in Talent before I submitted it to publishers, and I wanted to make a point of racial diversity so that all readers could find themselves reflected in my contemporary fiction. But I wasn’t sure I had the sensitivity or the cultural knowledge to really pull it off, so the book remains vague on that point.
At least I suggested cultural diversity by using names like Raúl and Lakshmi, right? This is a very tough part of writing contemporary fiction.
SH: One more question: This year, you have two major publications. This is the result of years of hard work. Has anything happened recently that has inspired you to continue writing?
JK: On my recent trip to Spain, I got to do something beyond my wildest dreams: I met an artist I’ve admired for more than twenty years. He turned out to be insanely pleasant to talk to, to put it mildly, and the more he said the more thrilled I was. It turns out he’s an avid reader (all the finest people are), and in the midst of book recommendations, I told him about my two novels. He said that kind of creativity is important to the world. If I’d had any doubts about whether to keep writing, this would have erased them all. I’ve kept at it for decades in order to honor my own efforts, but that can only get one so far. Now to stop would be an insult to this ineffably wonderful person.
SH: Would it be appropriate to mention this exceptional person?
JK: I’m talking about Manolo García. The name is unexceptional in the extreme, but that’s the only unexceptional thing about him.
SH: He must be a very special person.
Thank you, Jessica. This has been fun, as talking with you always is.