Good Reading From Raleigh

by Howard Henry Chen

First published in The News and Observer, Sunday, January 12, 1997 edition

ere are two things you probably didn't know about John Kessel, the N.C. State University English professor and one of contemporary science fiction's most respected authors.

First, a copy of his debut novel is a prop on "The X-Files," Fox's Sunday night creepfest.

That's right. His Good News From Outer Space, published in 1989, rests alongside other books next to a computer in the apartment belonging to FBI Special Agent and all-around prince of paranoia Fox Mulder (David Duchovny).

"I should call `The X-Files' producers and tell them I have another book coming out," says Kessell [sic], who has never actually seen his book on the show and is taking Entertainment Weekly's word for its prescence.

The second thing you probably didn't know is that Kessel can hold a paper clip in the crevice of his furrowed brow.

Really, he can. After having his photograph taken in the writing room of his North Raleigh home, he picks up a paper clip from his computer desk, without being asked, and a minute later it's hanging between his eyes. No hands.

John Kessel probably will never become better known for his weird body tricks than his science fiction. Since 1975 his work has thrust him into the company of some of the most prominent writers of science fiction of the past two decades, writers like Kim Stanley Robinson and James Blish.

When it's officially released next month, Corrupting Dr. Nice (Tor Books), his new time travel novel, will join a bibliography that contains Good News; a novel co-written with Jim Kelly in 1985 called Freedom Beach; and a slew of short stories. Kessel, 45, won the Nebula Award, one of the major prizes in the genre, in 1993, and he has been included in short story collections, including The Norton Book of Science Fiction, an anthology of works from the past 60 years.

Kessel is anything but prolific, unlike the people who write serialized science fiction that builds on current television programs and movies.

"This is my first novel in eight years," he says. He's sitting in the living room chair, and because he's so tall, his knees are being pushed up toward his chest. He has a long aquiline nose and a coarse beard the color of burnt toast. "I'm not that much of a fast novelist."

After the publication of Good News, Kessel started work on Corrupting Dr. Nice, produced 30 pages in five months, then put it down for five years. He took a leave of absence from teaching a few years ago to work on it again, and spent a year and a half on straight writing before the book was finished.

Caring for Emma, his 2-year-old daughter, eats much of his writing time, as does his teaching at NCSU, although he's taking a reduced course load this semester to start on his new novel.

"I wish I could write more," he says. "My career would be stronger if I could do one every two or three years. Maybe I'm just not a fast writer. Maybe it's the way I work."

With Corrupting Dr. Nice, Kessel returns to the work and the brand of science fiction that combines a biting and informed edginess that would impress Swift. And he combines it with the unexpectedness seen in the magical realism plied by South American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges that builds fantastic plots from the everyday.

Richard Butner read Dr. Nice last year at the Sycamore Hill Writers' Conference in Raleigh, a workshop he organized with Kessel and Mark Van Name. Some of the nation's most renowned science fiction writers were there.

"It has a satirical vibe that John has really perfected," Butner says. "He points out problems and foibles by satirizing them, but it's not comedy writing."

But he still wanted to make it a fun ride. The trip the reader takes in Corrupting Dr. Nice is through time, but Kessel says it's not a rewrite of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine." Whipping back and forth from Connecticut in the 21st century to Jerusalem of the first century, which is now littered with the political and pop culture detritus left behind by 21st-century time travelers, it allows Kessel to talk about modern cultural imperialism and dollar-diplomacy.

"I wanted to use this framework to comment on the exploitation of the Third World by the First World and the capitalism of the late `80s, of mass commercialism, and about how image is everything," he says. "With the time-travel idea, I wanted to do something completely different from time travel stories of the past, where you could not interfere with the past with impunity."

To that end, he went so far as to twist a plot of an old Ray Bradbury short story, "The Sound of Thunder," as he introduced his main character. In the Bradbury story, a time traveler steps off a time machine and crunches a butterfly underfoot, a seemingly insignificant event that ultimately leads to changes in the traveler's home time. In Corrupting Dr. Nice, the protagonist disembarks his time travel mechanism and crushes a butterfly underfoot--and nothing happens.

Kessel said he wanted his book to concentrate on the implications and not the mechanics of time travel. He started thinking of the subject one day a few years ago, and then he mused on it some more.

"That's just how my mind works," he says.

It's a fantastically fertile place of imagination, as anyone who has read the short stories "The Franchise" or "The Lecturer" or his other fiction will tell you, but it's an imagination ensconced in relatively regular-guy digs. He shares his North Raleigh home with his wife, graphic artist Sue Hall, their daughter and two cats. There's a Honda Civic in the driveway, and on the steps laeding to his front door are chalk drawings and stick figures he and Emma made.

The only hints at his science fiction orientation are found in the writing room next to the living room, where the literature of science fiction--everything from Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov to Robert Heinlein and Ursula Le Guin--fights for space with posters of the moon and his Nebula Award, a glass-encased trophy that looks like a model of a cloud. All the things you would imagine a science fiction novelist would keep in his writing room are there.

Only, Kessel isn't sure he wants to be called a science fiction writer. He's toyed with the idea of calling himself a "speculative fiction writer," because it might turn away stereotypes the public might hold of traditional sci-fi fare.

"I write for the intelligent adult reader," he says. "It can be frustrating so often that people who I think would enjoy the work I do will not read it because they think they know what science fiction is. It's `Mars Attacks!' or `Independence Day.'"

Science fiction writers aren't any different from any other novelist, he says. They just work within a different set of conventions. And like writers in all genres, some are more literary than others.

"You have writers whose aspirations are literary, or writers who want to tell an entertaining story, or writers who are concerned about finding a way to make money," says Van Name. "The thrust of John's work is toward being a literary science fiction writer."