Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Interview about Kate Wilhelm


Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with Richard Wilhelm (April 2024)

Richard Wilhelm is the son of Kate Wilhelm and the stepson of Damon Knight. Richard runs InfinityBox Press a publishing company that Kate started with him, his wife, Sue Arbuthnot, and brother, Jonathan Knight. You can purchase many of her novels and short fiction from their website,

Damo Mac Choiligh: Did Kate Wilhelm enjoy writing the crime novels she produced, especially from the 80s on, as much as her SF output? Did she consider it to be as meaningful? Or was it all still storytelling? Would you recommend this SF aficionado to read her crime work?

From childhood, Kate loved storytelling. She loved compelling characters and complex plots. She moved from genre to genre, never claiming one as her first and only love. It was always about the story that was trying to get out—some were mysteries, some Science Fiction, some a combination, and still some that were less easy to categorize. Her first published novel, More Bitter Than Death, 1963, Simon & Schuster, was a mystery even though she had also, by that time, written nearly 20 shorter Science Fiction stories. The mystery genre stuck with her though her career, but so did the Science Fiction, Speculative, Psychological, and Mimetic Fiction, and Comedy. She combined Science Fiction and Mystery in the first of her 14 edition Barbara Holloway Mystery series, Death Qualified, 1991, St. Martin's Press, and she would also mix the genres in her Charlie Meiklejohn and Constance Leidl series. For her, the wall between genres was porous. If she had a paintbrush, she would paint; if she had clay, she would sculpt. While one may be an aficionado of one genre, I would always recommend trying something new. In this case, I'd recommend Death Qualified for an introduction to the Barbara Holloway mysteries, and I'd point one to The Dark Door, The Hamlet Trap, and Smart House for the C&C Mysteries. And then, the rest.

Connie Marshall Thompson: Kate Wilhelm is a genre-crossing author with success in the science fiction, suspense and mystery genres. Did she have a personal preference for a particular genre or did she equally enjoy them all?

Writing in one genre, while considering another was normal for Kate. It was always about the characters who populate the world she envisioned and how they interact with each other and their situation. She told me once that writing about spacecraft hardware limited the speculative and character-driven nature of the stories she had to tell. What if her characters didn't have a spaceship and didn't have to describe every nut and bolt—what would their story be? Later, in her career, she moved into the serialization of courtroom mysteries with her main character, attorney Barbara Holloway, and in another series, with former arson inspector Charlie Meiklejohn and his wife, psychologist Constance Leidl and the supernatural thread she occasionally sewed into their cases. As Kate summed it up in her introduction to The Infinity Box, in 1975, "The problem with labels is that they all too quickly become eroded; they cannot cope with borderline cases." And she loved the borderline cases.

Damo Mac Choiligh: Wilhelm is often regarded as being a feminist writer, in a similar vein as Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Josephine Saxton et al. Would she agree with this assessment? Was it an important influence for her in her work? If so, did she regard herself and these writers as forming a trend or coherent group within SF of the time?

Kate didn't consider herself a feminist writer, per se. Although she frequently wrote strong women into her stories, she didn't care much for the label; strong women were natural for her, not special. She would say, "I'm just me, and here's my story." Kate entered her writing career in the mid-50s, when men dominated every aspect of publishing from writing to printing. And though I don't remember her ever talking about belonging to a coherent group of feminist writers pushing their influence, I know she appreciated the company of Joanna Russ, Carol Emshwiller, and others, who in their growing numbers and popularity (read sales), helped to move the publishing industry considerably forward. I don't believe she ever questioned that strong women can and should be the dominant voices in stories.

Damo Mac Choiligh: When I read her work, she is one of those writers whose careful prose stands out for me, like Ursula LeGuin or Ted Chiang. Who would have been her influences for her writing style, was there anyone she tried to emulate or for that matter anyone whose style she would have rejected?

In her teens, Kate told stories to her five siblings after school while their mom worked in a munitions factory in Louisville. That offered the first level of refinement to her storytelling abilities as she had to hold their attention. That was during WWII, the pulp fiction era was in full bloom, and magazines such as Amazing Stories (Analog), F&SF, and others were publishing exciting works by both established authors and relative newcomers. And then there was a push to move science fiction into a more literary tent by a few influential people, especially Damon Knight, Kate's future husband and first reader of her stories. While she never spoke of emulating anyone, I believe her second and most influential level of storytelling refinement occurred after she was invited by Damon to the Milford Writers Conference in the early 60s. There, she met established, hardcore authors, who for two weeks each summer, would tear each other's works to shreds, of course in the mostly congenial, constructive manner possible. It was through these fiery workshop settings that she gained the confidence that she, too, was a hardcore writer. She didn't reject anyone for their style, but she knew what worked and what didn't, and more importantly, how to fix it.

John Grayshaw: Who were some of the writers your mother grew up reading? And who are some writers that were your mother’s contemporaries that she enjoyed/admired?

Kate was a proud library-card-carrying ecumenical reader. When I was very young, she would take me to the main library in Louisville where she would attend "stargazers" astronomy meetings, and I would be set loose among the stacks. We would both return home with our limit of books. There was always a partially read pile of books on the side table next to her favorite couch. Sometimes the top book may be a Garbriel Garcia Márquez title, other times it might be a primer on organic gardening. As with her writing, she didn't favor one genre over another, but she once told me she enjoyed reading nonfiction more than she did fiction, because in those books were the seeds of her story garden.

Damo Mac Choiligh: Wilhelm occasionally collaborated with other writers (especially Theodore Thomas) and she and Damon Knight put out a collection of short stories together, but did they ever collaborate on a novel or shorter work?

She and Ted Thomas collaborated on two books, The Clone, and The Year of the Cloud. It was early in her career, and Ted was a family friend and a patent attorney with a deep science and engineering background. After those two books, she decided not to enter into further collaborations. Although Kate and Damon were each other's first reader, they tried and failed miserably at collaboration. The best they could do was publish their discrete stories in a single volume.

Damo Mac Choiligh: Much of the collection 'Again, Dangerous Visions' seems dated and not remotely as shocking as Harlan Ellison thought, except in the juvenile sense, but one of the standout stories there is the brilliant 'The Funeral' by KW. She said once that she was angry when she wrote it, angry at the way societies treat their young. 'The Village' was even more an overtly angry story. Did an anger at the state of the world inform much of her thinking or her work?

The My Lai massacre had happened a few years prior to the completion of The Village. Kate's ire was laser focused on the insanity of our government's role in pursuing a war it started to prove a policy point. Kate had two sons of draft age, one of whom had already been packed of to Vietnam. She was hyper-aware of the possibility the other would be drafted, too, and wondered, in The Village, what would happen if the geography was switched and it was her hometown that was under threat of annihilation. The Funeral comes out of the same era, but Kate used her own experience attending a girls school in Louisville to craft a story about authoritarianism, which she imagined, even then, being only one election away. She could be a harsh critic and few of her other stories reflect that. By Stone, By Blade, By Fire is another example of her veiled criticism; this time her focus was on religion.

Philip Bonner: Ive been working my way through the Orbit anthologies (which is something anyone into good, solid literary SF should do— these thoughtfully curated books out-dangerous vision Dangerous Visions. Each one has been surprising for me. ) Im on Orbit 4. So far every book has a story by Kate Wilhelm and each one is much better than the last. I wasnt too knocked out by ‘Staras Flonderans’, but I felt she was zeroing in on something with ‘Baby, You Were Great’. By the time she makes it to ‘The Planners’ and ‘Windsong’ theres a really strong voice— great character portraiture, disturbing idea-driven settings with satirical undertones. ‘Windsong’ in particular was great.

Did Kate Wilhelm use the Orbit books as a laboratory for workshopping new ideas and techniques?

While Kate had an "in" with Damon for having her work selected for Orbit, she never assumed that would assure her a spot in the anthologies. She enjoyed stretching her style and poking the boundaries of Science Fiction, and the series was a perfect petri dish for these experiments. Some of her best short fiction was published in those anthologies. In Orbit, she was in the company of the best of the "New Wave" of Science Fiction authors and her skillful wordsmithing shone.

John Grayshaw: What made her write novels? Was she a storyteller at heart?

She started out writing short stories, because she could write them relatively quickly in the middle of the night, as we all slept, and she found a willing set of buyers in the Science Fiction magazines at the time. She was a master short story writer, but sometimes there would be too many side rooms that needed to be explored and a novel or novella was needed for those. She said that the story would tell her. In all, she wrote about 50 novels and about 130 titles of shorter fiction.

John Grayshaw: Did your mom tell you stories? What were they about? Did she read books with you? Which were her favorites?

Owing to her years telling stories to her siblings while their parents were at work, by the time we came along, Kate was already an amazing oral storyteller. She would tell us stories in the evening as we kids, Damon's and Kate's combined, gathered in the living room. We listened to these stories while huddled around the fireplace in a creaky house we all at one time or another—or to this day—believed was haunted. The house was a huge, old Victorian, which Damon bought in the early 1960s, and it had all the spooky, dark nooks and crannies one might imagine in a 100-year-old house. Kate kept the tension high with her storytelling; most tales were Science Fiction-y, and they were rich with characters, set in fantastic places, and plots that wound in unexpected and exciting directions. And, for our added pleasure, she would make them slightly scary. She serialized these with some going on for weeks; each evening's episode ending in a cliffhanger. She always remembered where she left the story and started the next episode at that precise point. The living room was on the main floor at the north end of the house; our bedrooms were at the south end, on the third and fourth floors. After her evening storytelling session ended, it felt as though we had to track a mile through the maze of our house to reach our bedrooms. There was typically a lot of sprinting and screaming involved. And we could all hear the stairs creak for a half hour afterward.

John Grayshaw: Scott Bradfield said about your moms writing and why she didnt have the same mainstream popularity as Le Guin, Russ, or Tiptree (aka Alice Sheldon). Wilhelms fiction couldnt be easily categorized or summarized; she explored people rather than ideas; and her style was-like the style of many good writers-so lucid, seamless and convincing that it seemed invisible.” Why do you think she didnt have the same popularity?

I think Scott pegged it. Kate likely sent her agents and editors into conniptions from one title to the next. She mused that she had a difficult time staying within defined genre boundaries, when people populating her imagination wouldn't stay within theirs. So, while one of her titles may be in the Science Fiction section in a bookstore, another may be in Mysteries. And some were hard to define as either, so they would end up wherever the seller thought they looked good. She was told more than once that if she had only stayed within the borders of one genre, she would have enjoyed much more popularity. That wasn't her goal.

John Grayshaw: Your mother once claimed that her decision to write SF was entirely serendipitous. She said, I was a housewife with two young children, and Id been reading an anthology, and I put it down and said to myself, I can do that.And I wrote The Mile-Long Spaceship,and sold it.” Did your mother fall in love with the genre over time?

At the time she began to write the space race had just started. We lived on Star Lane in Louisville, and Dr. Moore, a professor of astronomy at the University of Louisville had built an observatory—round, white, silver dome, 20-inch telescope, and all—just a couple hundred yards up the hill from our house. I remember a number of cold nights when he would invite us to peer into space, and it was fantastic! That was during the 50s and the world was in the middle of a technological sea change, and the stories being written and published in the magazines at the time reflected that. Most were 'nuts and bolts' Science Fiction. The Mile-Long Spaceship [1956] was Kate's first published story and was solidly Science Fiction. ("The Pint-Sized Genie" was also published that same year, and there is some question about which came first. She told me she wrote "Genie" first.) She wandered among genres a little during that time, but her Science Fiction stories were selling. But she was already showing signs that she might not be contained within the Science Fiction genre with her short stories from the 50s and early 60s, including "A is For Automation," "One for the Road," "The Last Threshold," "The Ecstasy of It," "Brace Yourself for Mother," and "Gift from the Stars." They reflect her earliest interests in the decisions people make when confronted with difficult predicaments. I don't know that she ever fell in love with the Science Fiction genre as much as she did being genre-fluid.

John Grayshaw: Did your mom talk to you about having a harder time getting published because she was a female writer? 

Of course she did, especially at the beginning of her career. She was told as she started out, that she should write under a pseudonym—male, of course. She didn't follow that advice, and in time, she was recognized for her talent—and her own name. As quoted from a Bob Thaves' "Frank and Ernest" cartoon: "Sure he (Fred Astaire) was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels." One note Kate added to her bio sketch: The "Mile-Long Spaceship," my first story, sold to Astounding Science Fiction in 1956, [and was] chosen as the best short story of the year. I had to have an affidavit notarized that I was the author before I received a check. I used the money to buy the portable typewriter I had rented to copy the story, written on lined notebook paper. Women were not supposed to write Science Fiction, plain and simple. But she and others did, and the publishing industry slowly changed. Just a few years later she could afford an IBM Model B typewriter.


John Grayshaw: What was it like when you were growing up, were your mom and stepdad talking about science fiction stories and writers workshops at the dinner table?

Kate and Damon tried to keep their work lives separate from family life, so at dinner time, they talked more about the mashed potatoes than about their work. It was a different story when they invited guests to visit. Most were also writers or had some kind of connection. Those conversations, although I don't remember specifics, were always entertaining and usually involved names of people I knew, heard of, or read the works of. But, after dinner, if I had nothing better to do, I'd sit with them in the living room and listen to their critiques of stories they had just finished or complain about a stinky contract they had been offered, or whatever else was on their minds. Damon was considered one of the country's leading Science Fiction critics in those days, and though I wasn't especially aware of his stature, I was amazed at his depth of knowledge and the ease with which he could connect dots between the arcane and obvious. In the middle of his occasionally savage dissection of a story, he'd compose a limerick or tell an elephant joke to clear the air. Kate was equally sharp with her story analysis, and it was a real education, far more interesting than the American Lit classes I suffered through in high school. Each summer, Kate and Damon hosted the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, and I would sometimes sit in the adjoining library to listen to the discussions, critiques, laughter, and yelling that would go on into the wee hours. The next day, everyone would make their way to our kitchen for coffee and some kind of treat Kate would make, and the conversation, argument, rancor, resignation, and agreement would start anew.

John Grayshaw: What are some of your fondest memories of your mother and what are some of the funniest memories?

There are things that parents keep from kids, for whatever reason. Sometimes, it's to protect, sometimes it's not particularly important and just doesn't come up. In 1979, Kate invited me to collaborate on a book with her. She didn't know what it would be, just that she had the idea of borders and boundaries crashing around in her head for some time and wanted those words—borders and boundaries—to crash around in my head, too. What do those words mean to each of us? I was a developing photographer (sorry, couldn't help it), and she thought each of us could use our medium to express our ideas, then combine those into a volume. So, off we went. Over the several years, we traveled together around Oregon for a week or two at a time, exploring and camping mostly on public lands far away from towns. I knew many of Oregon's backroads by the time we started our project, so I plotted our trips, chose our campsites, and checked the weather regularly since many of the roads I wanted us to travel on were considered all-weather roads, but in reality, were impassible after a rain. We saw places and things most people living here their entire lives have not seen, including some of the gnarliest roads I'd ever been on to reach some of the most magical locations. Kate was game and seemed to always be scanning the horizon when we were fortunate enough to have one. Toward the end of one of our final trips, I asked what she was looking for as she would stare straight ahead. She said, "A way out!" She then told me of her near paralyzing acrophobia suffered since childhood. The aha! moment for me was that that information had never come up in conversation over the decades. Within seconds, my mind drew a detailed picture of every bad-to-worse road I had taken her on over the past four years, all the non-guard-railed, switchbacked canyon two-tracks we had climbed, all the summits we drove to the edge of for a better look at the terrain a mile below, and of the huge windows in my VW van to see it all through. We stayed on lower-level roads through the end of our travels. And she forgave me, which was about the fondest memory I have. Oh, and the book is titled, The Hills Are Dancing, 1985, Corroboree Press.

John Grayshaw: When did you first read your mothers writing?

I wasn't much interested in Science Fiction as a kid, and I didn't begin to read her work until about the mid-60s, when I pulled a copy of More Bitter Than Death (a mystery) from the shelf and read it. After that, it was hit or miss on reading her work. I would read several in a row, then take a break for a year or two, then go back in. Since opening InfinityBox Press in 2012, I've reread most of her stories.

John Grayshaw: What are your personal favorites of your mothers works? And why? And did she have favorites of her own?

It's tough for me to choose favorites among her nearly 200 titles. Without going into detail, I appreciate some more than others on a given day. Then they reshuffle.

John Grayshaw: What are some of your mothers works that you feel should be better known than they are?

Of course, I believe everyone should read Kate's work—all of it. As I mentioned earlier, her cross-genre approach to writing was a bit of a bane for publishers and shop owners. But somehow, Kate's stories continue to find a wonderful audience of new readers and her long-time fans. Since we opened InfinityBox Press in 2012, we've reintroduced dozens of her earlier titles in collections, novellas, and novels, including first editions of her last two Barbara Holloway Mysteries.

John Grayshaw: What can you tell me about your mom and stepfather establishing the Clarion workshops?

Kate first met Damon in Milford. After she submitted a manuscript for the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, he invited her to participate. It was her first workshop and her story was deftly, but brutally taken apart by the others. Damon had started the Milford Writers Conference a few years earlier with Judith Merril, also a Milfordite, and by time Kate was invited, the workshoppers included many of the brightest stars in the Science Fiction universe. So, into the fire she was thrown. She came out of it relatively unscarred but with a much better sense for how the world of intense critical review sessions works and became a huge promoter of the constructive critique. Robin Wilson invited Kate and Damon into a conversation about starting a six-week long, intensive writing workshop at his college, Clarion, in northwestern Pennsylvania. Robin envisioned having prominent writers lead the workshop for one week each. Kate and Damon said they would do it with one condition: that they would lead the last two weeks together, which was immediately agreed to. The workshop moved around the country as funding and school policies shifted, landing it in Michigan, New Orleans, and finally California. Kate and Damon were the anchor writers of Clarion for 27 years. Kate's 2005 book, Storyteller, is all about Clarion. Side note: I designed the Clarion Foundation's logo.

John Grayshaw: What can you tell me about your mom and stepfather establishing the SFWA?

Damon Knight was the force behind SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America). He started his career when pulp fiction was still the thing. In fact, when we moved into the Anchorage in the early 60s, the huge old Victorian house in Milford, there were two walk-in closets along the third-floor hallway that were stuffed to the ceiling with ratty boxes filled with pulp fiction magazines that Damon had collected over the years. He had read each cover to cover, often adding notes in the margins. The pages were dark yellow and close to disintegration by time I found them. Damon had plotted for years to raise the public's and the publishers' view of Science Fiction from pulp magazines to a more mainstream acceptance. After all, how can a story be considered important if it has a lifespan only slightly longer than a mayfly before it turns to dust? By 1965, when he started SFWA, he had been one of the most influential critics in the genre, and he knew everyone. He found a lot of encouragement among his colleagues, and soon many of these contemporaries joined his new organization. Aside from helping with the organization of this new start-up, one of Kate's contributions to SFWA was the illustration she doodled—literally on a napkin in a restaurant—which would become the basis art for the Nebula Award. Damon succeeded in his dream of pulling Science Fiction out of the pulps and into mainstream. He disdained the term "sci-fi," because it cheapened the genre, in his mind: it was Science Fiction! And he remained a fierce champion of the genre throughout his life.

John Grayshaw: Who are some of the authors your mom mentored?

Kate taught two weeks of Clarion for 27 summers, so the numbers of writers she mentored in those workshops would be in the hundreds. She and Damon also hosted monthly workshops at their homes in Madeira Beach, Florida and Eugene, Oregon from the early-70s onward. After Damon passed away in 2002, Kate continued these workshops until 2017. These workshops witnessed 40+ years of writers filtering in and out. And then, there were the annual Milford Writers Conferences plus their overseas workshops and conferences. Her influence and mentoring spanned more than a half century. Among her students, workshoppers, and colleagues, whose stars have risen markedly, are Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Vonda McIntyre, George Alec Effinger, Lucius Shepard, Cory Doctorow, Ted Chiang, Leslie What, Edward Bryant, Octavia Butler, and many others.

John Grayshaw: Who are some of the science fiction writers she had correspondence/friendships with? Any stories about those relationships?

Kate's friends mostly included the people she interacted with during workshops and other teaching sessions, but there were others, too. She favored a meaningful conversation over small talk, although she could carry a conversation on just about any topic. Many of her long-time friends were participants in critique sessions she would lead, where emotions run high and invite deep connections. The names I provided under the previous question provide a good start to a long list.

John Grayshaw: Did you go with your mother to science fiction conventions? Any memories of these? Did you and/or your mom attend the ceremony when she was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2003?

I've never attended a Science Fiction convention. When Kate told me about her upcoming induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, in 2003, I invited her to go on a road trip with my wife, Sue, and me to Seattle for the ceremony. We sat with Neil Gaiman and shared stories for a couple hours. At the same ceremony, Damon was also inducted (posthumously) into the Hall of Fame, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Pretty good company, I'd say.

John Grayshaw: Do you know of any future adaptations of your mothers works in TV or movies?

Unfortunately, I can't talk about any options or plans for adaptations that might be in the works. But if some were interested, we own the rights to all of her and Damon's stories. Among those titles are many gems waiting to be adapted for screen.

John Grayshaw: What were some of your mothers hobbies other than writing?

With each move—Pennsylvania to Florida; Florida to Oregon—Kate's main decision on the precise location was based on good soil, good sun, and space; all for her garden. Her garden was her story nursery; it's where she would work the soil and nurture her characters, plotlines, and locations. In earlier years, she was drawn to astronomy, even to the point that she ground and polished her own telescope mirror, which she traded for a stereo system with her brother. Years later, the mirror found its way back to me. Kate was also a crack chess player, who beat Damon so often that he stopped playing with her. In earlier years, she would also play chess remotely with her brother by way of writing moves in the corners of postcards they would send to each other, waiting weeks or months for the next move to arrive.

John Grayshaw: Did your mother have a writing routine she stuck to?

Kate's routine was built around her family schedule. When we were young, she would work late at night. During our school years, she would work mid-morning to mid-afternoon and then return to it after we'd go to bed often keeping at it until 2 or 3 A.M. She more or less kept that schedule through the rest of her life.

John Grayshaw: What is your mothers legacy? Why was her work significant at the time? And why is it still important today?

Kate etched her name and those of other women writers in the glass ceiling of the publishing industry. She didn't do it alone, but she worked hard, through a transition time for publishing to make sure the voices of women and others would be heard equally. Her mentorship of new writers and sharp critical analysis of their stories helped shape at least two generations of excellent storytellers. Her own work spanned genres, but her fascination with the psychology of humans' decision-making processes helped to grow the genre of Speculative Fiction and free it as simply an "alternate" name for Science Fiction, as Heinlein had defined the term mid-20th century, or as a catchall name for other genres such as fantasy, or apocalyptic tales. She helped to set it on its own trajectory. And the genre hopping she performed opened a huge door for other restless authors with stories not fitting neatly into an existing template.