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An Interview with Kathe Koja, the Stoker Award-Winning Author of The Cipher

The celebrated author dives deep into her genre-defying works and reveals what scares her most—on the page and in reality.

kathe koja
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  • Photo Credit: Rick Lieder

Kathe Koja has seen it all. The author of a diverse range of books, everything from literary horror to YA, her 1991 novel, The Cipher, was both her debut and the first title in Dell’s experimental/literary horror imprint, Abyss. A book about a strange hole forming in places unexpected and impossible, it went on to win two of the most prestigious awards in the genre, the Locus and the Bram Stoker. Right out of the gate, Koja unleashed a blend of surrealism and blood-curdling horror that became an instant cult hit and inspiration for an entire generation of writers seeking to bring the odd back into the world.

Her work deals with philosophical concepts of transcendence, that bittersweet spot of human purpose where we try to make sense of the things we do, and the reason we exist. It’s a concept that extends throughout both age and time, so much that Koja went on to write multiple young adult books—including Straydog and Going Under—to continue exploring that meaning. Koja has said that writing for young adults only extends these concerns for the greater self, when adolescence is at its peak and everything is at once foreign and strange. Teens lose their footing while trying to find a sense of self. Koja’s ability to transfix and transport readers reached new dark heights with 2010's Under the Poppy, the first in an epic historical trilogy. The novel takes readers to 1870s Brussels, set in the titular Under the Poppy, a brothel. Throughout, Koja expertly relocates readers to the past while still managing to dazzle with that impeccable blend of language and narrative surprise. 

Related: Kathe Koja Shares Her Favorite Genre-Defying Tales of Terror 

Koja has been actively writing for over 20 years, her cult-like following of fans never ceasing to pick up her latest. And yet, with so many stunning tales under her belt, and with her foray into interactive theater and performance, it is a wonder how such a unique voice in both horror and literature hasn’t been read by everyone. And I mean everyone. Well, it’s been upwards of 30 years since Koja published her debut novel, and Meerkat Press is now reviving the deathless narrative with a glittering, long-overdue reissue of The Cipher. Along with Koja's new short story collection, Velocities, published by Meerkat in tandem with the new edition, we now have a definitive primer for a new generation of readers. 

As a long-time fan of her work, I can’t help but shout at readers: Now’s your chance! Experience a one-of-a-kind novel from a one-of-a-kind writer. And then read everything else she’s ever written. In celebration of these releases, we sat down with Kathe Koja for the following interview. 

What scared you first? What scares you most—on the page, in reality?

As a kid, I loved Dracula, and I adored horror story anthologies—M.R. James, and Saki, and that gross nun from Perceval Landon's “Thurnley Abbey.” And George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead truly and indelibly shocked me: the hero who survives everything imaginable only to be shot dead by cops. That taught me everything I needed to know about authority.

What truly scared me then is a variant of what scares me now: Never monsters and gore, but the inescapable dread that what reality is can change. Which means what’s “real” was never real. When that sinks in, the footing gets very precarious.

The funhole is back—could you tease us with what, exactly, the funhole might be, for those that get to luckily experience it for the first time now in 2020 rather than 1991?

The Funhole itself resists definition, and it should—you get out of it exactly what you put into it. The novel it springs from is The Cipher, where two people who really should never, ever be together, passive Nicholas and ferocious Nakota, find that Funhole, a black hole in the floor that goes nowhere and has everything. And from there, things just go haywire.

What does it feel like to see a book, particularly your first, given new life after many years of being out of print? 

New readers meeting this book—I’m legit thrilled by that. And I’m delighted that Meerkat Press is publishing Cipher. Readers have asked me over and over when that might happen—the original Dell Abyss edition is pretty mythic now—but I wanted a publisher who would have actual fun bringing out the book, and Tricia Reeks at Meerkat fills that bill beautifully and with unflagging energy.

I’d be remiss not to add a shoutout to the most recent Ciphers: Crossroad Press’ marvelous audio edition, Roadswell Editions’ eBook, and Cero from La biblioteca de Carfax, translated by the amazing Pilar Ramírez Tello. Which leads us to…

the cipher kathe koja

The Cipher

By Kathe Koja

The funhole is back: Dive into The Cipher, Kathe Koja's award-winning novel recently reissued by Meerkat Press.

I’d love to discuss what you’ve seen, the good, the bad, and the ugly, with regards to the state of publishing, and the state of horror, then versus now.

…publishing. Publishing’s landscape has changed a lot, but in some ways, not nearly enough. We have so many different ways available to create and present narrative, why aren’t we exploring them all? Format is still destiny, a “book” still means mostly one thing, and I believe that’s no longer useful for readers. Dark Factory, an immersive fiction project, is my own attempt to open things up.

Related: 13 Bone-Chilling Horror Books to Haunt Your Dreams This Summer 

And as for the state of horror, I don’t read by genre, only by voice, so I can’t really speak to that. I do love that weird fiction is such an encompassing genre—and I think there are some marvelous, heartfelt, transgressive works, for example, Maryse Meijer’s upcoming The Seventh Mansion, that horror readers would love if they knew the title was out there. 

Dark Factory sounds utterly fascinating! Have you explored any interactive drama/film—Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch—games that are often called “walking simulators” in that they are essentially interactive stories and nothing but?

Dark Factory is leading me on all sorts of paths—Firewatch I knew, Edith Finch, no—its narrative is already adaptive, already pushing out of the novel form, so it's not at all a stretch to imagine it finding a home in another narrative format altogether.

You’re not only prolific but also a writer with a wide range—publishing everything from horror to YA. How do you balance different limitations of genre, cater to a wide demographic depending on the title?

I’ve always chosen to write what excites and interests me, what pulls me, and worry later about what to call it. And ranging from horror to YA to historical to fiction biography to whatever Dark Factory is going to be called is like roaming from party to party, and meeting cool new people at each stop. Readers are amazingly welcoming to the new kid, the new byline: I’ve experienced that over and over.  

Related: 13 Historical Horror Books That Beckon You Into the Shadows of the Past 

As a reader, I always go for voice, period—Russell Hoban wrote both Riddley Walker and The Mouse and His Child, and I adore those very different books because of that strong, inimitable Hoban voice. Any reader who enjoys my voice can go from Cipher to Under the Poppy, my historical queer puppetry trilogy, to The Blue Mirror, my demon lover YA, and so on.

I’m a fiend for a good writing process or ritual—do you have any rituals? What about writing process: do you have one, any preferences, and do they change depending on the book?

I always write in the mornings, and I write every day: at my desk, music on (each book or project has a different and evolving playlist), probably below a mood board or two, surrounded by notes. Whether it’s a novel, story, or performance piece, the process stays pretty much the same.

For awhile I had a Japanese incense fixation, so a stick or two of that would be going. Lately, I’ve been watching clips from Netflix's The Old Guard to start off in the right mode. (Joe + Nicky forever!)

Same as with process but with the story itself—what comes first? Plot, structure, character? 

If it’s fiction, the character always comes first: a mind’s eye view, like Who is that, what is that person about? Then the story starts to accrete around them, other characters come, and I start making notes. If it’s a performance piece, it starts with a read-through of the source material, whether it’s my own work or someone else’s, looking for the core—when I did an immersive live Dracula, the core was the food chain, hunger, who gets to eat whom. 

Related: 19 Vampire Movies that will Make Your Blood Run Cold 

Care to talk about your latest collection, Velocities

Oh for sure. Velocities is my second collection (Extremities came first), thirteen stories, two original to the collection, ranging from horror to historical to weird to pretty much unclassifiable. Here’s Velocities in 60 seconds for a taste. Velocities came out this spring, also from Meerkat Press. 

april 2020 giveaway


By Kathe Koja

Koja's latest electrifying collection of short fiction presents thirteen stories, two never before published, all flying at the speed of strange.

In addition to being a writer, you’re a performer who's produced dramatized immersive versions of your work—how has one informed the other? What’s it like to be right in the middle of a performance?

It can be magic, and I don’t use that word lightly: it’s a distillation and a combination of energy, yours and the audience, it’s like standing inside a story, and watching it work. And writing and immersive performance definitely play off and speak to each other. 

Related: An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones, Acclaimed Horror Author of The Only Good Indians 

I write, direct, and produce performances and events—I’m in the middle of one right now, a live piece created for video and drone, using worm suits, dog collars, a labyrinth, and a big pile of dirt, along with two amazing movement artists and a gifted noise musician. The writing is the easy part, and producing is by far the hardest: everything is the producer’s job. 

I’d love to know more about your interactive performances. As a writer myself, obsessed with structure of a narrative, interactive modes that cross mediums really fascinate me!

I've created/directed/produced events in galleries and at site-specific locations—a Victorian mansion for Under the Poppy, a basement for Dracula, a historic church for Marlowe's Faustus—all with audience interaction/collaboration. My interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, titled ALI<E, took place in a weird little parochial preschool, where the audience tried to keep two characters from "fighting," so I had to keep the audience out of the way. That's part of what's so satisfying, the unpredictability, the depth of the audience's engagement. Each time, I'm using everything that suits the narrative to get that audience in closer and closer. The more involved they are, the better.

What books, films, music, culture essentially, that has been such an influence, a profound effect, that it has become a part of you? In many ways, your work, like The Cipher, has become such a thing for many a reader.

Taking one example from each: Wuthering Heights was the first book that owned my mind, and it’s kept on doing it—utterly sui generis. Perfume Genius and Sigur Rós (and Jonsi) continue to amaze and enrich me. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is another brilliantly sui generis work of art. And Netflix's Dark is probably the best episodic series I’ve ever seen.

Related: 11 Mind-Bending Horror Shows Like Dark You Can Watch Tonight 

under the poppy kathe koja

Under the Poppy

By Kathe Koja

The first in Koja's dark and sweeping historical fiction trilogy is "a gothic, glam-rock take on love and sex and death" (Tor.com).

When it is all said and done, what do you hope to have accomplished with your career?

To have more to say and more to do.  

What are you working on next? 

My newest project is Dark Factory, about two guys and a wild dance club where reality is customizable. Dark Factory is immersive fiction: telling the story as if it’s happening almost in real time, with sidebar moments of the characters’ backstories, interviews, posters and murals and flowers… It’s intense and it’s weird and I’m loving the collaborative input of the other artists involved! And I can’t wait to open the club doors for readers.

Kathe Koja is the Stoker and Locus Award-winning author of The Cipher, Under the Poppy, Buddha Boy, Christopher Wild, and more. She writes novels and short fiction, and creates and produces immersive fiction performances, both solo and with a rotating ensemble of artists. Her works have been translated into multiple languages and optioned for film and performance. She's based in Detroit and thinks globally. Her latest release is Velocities and a new edition of The Cipher, published by Meerkat Press. 

Feature image via Rick Lieder / KatheKoja.com