Q&A: James Patrick Kelly

James Patrick Kelly

There are a lot of wonderful writers living in our state. As the Director of the NH Center for the Book  I get the opportunity to talk to many of them. This interview series of Q&As with New Hampshire authors here on Book Notes lets me share that experience a bit with my blog readers.  
If someone hasn't read your work yet, where should they start?

A good place would probably be my short story collection Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories.  This was my first collection; I’ve had two others since: Strange But Not a Stranger and The Wreck of the Godspeed.  I’d like to think they’re all of equal quality.  But this first one includes what is my best known story “Think Like A Dinosaur.”  It’s been reprinted maybe a gajillion times, was adapted as an audioplay and was an episode of the new iteration of The Outer Limits, which you can still catch from time to time on the SyFy Channel.  Oh, and it won the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award.   I’m pretty sure that my obit, whenever it gets written, will say “This was the guy who wrote ‘Think Like A Dinosaur.’”  But be warned: I’m a science fiction writer and it’s a real science fiction story.   I know that not everybody likes science fiction – boy, do I know this!  But there are other stories in the collections that might appeal to readers who prefer a more mainstream or literary experience, poignant stories about bereaved moms and comic stories about dating after divorce, and existential stories about business people who’ve lost track of who they are.  I like to say that I’ve had an eclectic career, and my hope is that there is at least one story for every reader in all three of these collections.

When did you first think of yourself as a writer?

Probably in eighth grade when I won a prize for an essay I wrote.  Certainly in high school, I had dreams of publishing.  But then I had dreams of doing lots of things: becoming an astronaut, playing in the NBA, running a four minute mile.
Not all of those dreams came true, alas.
How did you end up living in NH?

In 1975, I was living in Massachusetts and had a day job.  My then-wife and I had saved up enough to buy our first house and we were ready to make an offer on one in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.  But on a whim we decided to continue driving up Route 3 to New Hampshire to see what prices were like up here.  We ended up buying the first house we saw.  Such a deal!  Since then I’ve lived in Durham, Portsmouth and now bucolic Nottingham. 

Where do you like to write?

For the longest time I really only wrote at my desk in my office.  I was easily distracted at the start of my career, so I liked to keep the room dark and quiet.  In fact, I used to wear earplugs because my computer’s fan was too loud.  More recently I have been able to write on my laptop pretty much anywhere.  There are no coffee shops in Nottingham, but I have popped over to the Starbucks in Epping, most often when the power goes out!  But I’ve written in our lovely little library here in Nottingham, and at the picnic table in the yard and on a lot on trips.  I particularly like working on airplanes.  However, I still wear earplugs when I’m writing away from my desk in noisy environments, or else my noise cancelling earphones.

How important is place in your writing?

I have certainly written a lot of fiction set in New Hampshire, and I really need a sense of a specific place in my stories.  I think setting is one of the hardest pieces to fit into the fiction puzzle, which is why I work so hard at it.  But although I’ve lived in New Hampshire now for almost forty years, had children here, taught at upwards of a hundred NH schools as a visiting writer, served on the State Arts Council and been on more local non-profit boards than I care to remember, I can never seem to forget that I am from away.  I was born near New York City and grew up in the suburbs there, and yet my ties to that place are negligible.  I hate the Yankees and I still say that the Mets stole our World Series in 1986!  So I don’t really know where I’m from. There’s a rootlessness to my work as well, but I’ve come to realize that is baggage that many science fiction writers carry.

What do you do when you aren't writing?

I’m a lifelong jogger and every so often sign up for one of the local 10K races.  I like to hike in the Whites, cross country ski, kayak and ride my motorcycle.  I am an avid gardener.  In recent years I’ve been doing a lot of traveling; I am particularly drawn to fallen civilizations.

What's the best piece of advice (writing or otherwise) you were ever given?

I owe a lot to the writers who helped me find my voice, and I have taught and continue to teach aspiring writers, most recently at the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.  But ultimately the way to master our craft isn’t to study, but to write. And write and write and write. One of my students at Stonecoast summed up all the literary pedagogy anyone needs in three words: Writing teaches writing.

What books do you love and what about them speaks to you?

I came of age with a cohort of science fiction writers who I am honored to call my friends and who have inspired me, along with countless readers.  For example, John Kessel, Connie Willis, Kim Stanley Robinson and Karen Joy Fowler, to name just four.   I am a big fan of noir writing, and am pretty much a Raymond Chandler completist.  I have a gratifying side career as a playwright, with a dozen shows produced, and I continue to be amazed by the vitality of Shakespeare.  Reading him, say I, is by far an inferior experience to seeing his masterpieces performed.  I think L. Frank Baum was the greatest children’s writer of all time.  And anyone planning to write the Great American Novel is at least ninety years too late.  F. Scott Fitzgerald already did it.  Or maybe it was Mark Twain.   

What are you working on now?

I’m hoping to finish a novel this year about a post-human teenager growing up in various places around the Solar System two hundred years from now.  Then more short stories and a new play.

What do you want to share that I neglected to ask about?

I served on the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts for eight years and I observed a disquieting prejudice about artists and writers who live on our state.  Some people -- and indeed, some artists -- are convinced that the arts in New Hampshire must be second rate.  If we were any good, we’d be in New York or LA or Chicago or Paris.  This is a pernicious lie.   As readers of your blog know, there are some world class writers who shop at your local Hannafords, or who toss their trash into the dumpster at your town’s transfer station.   The same goes for actors, painters, dancers, potters, oboe players and puppeteers.   If there are any aspiring writers reading this who believe they need to leave home and wait tables in Brooklyn in order to have a career, I say to them no.  What counts when you write, or make any kind of art, is not the ground you stand on, but what is inside of you. 

You can learn more about Kelly and his work at http://www.jimkelly.net

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