Kathryn Born press photo
By Pawl Schwartz
The Blue Kind is a rare find. The page turning cyberpunk adventure focuses on a future drug trade in a city where the laws of physics are easily abandoned and everyone is so poor that they have to use women as collateral. In fact, the main character is a "link" on her ex-boyfriend’s "chain" — a woman to be traded off for drugs.
Written by local author Kathryn Born, The Blue Kind is different from novels on similar subjects (virtual reality, future drugs) in that it comes from the perspective not of a science fiction author looking for new conceptual fireworks, but from someone who was very much steeped in the actual drug trade and culture. Born simply found that the language of science fiction represented the emotional truth of the situation more than anything else. It is the same kind of logic that brought William Burroughs to revere science fiction and abandon the sad-junkie-autobio that started his career. Kathryn Born is a unique voice in literature and a true Chicago treasure.
UR Chicago sat down with Kathryn Born to discuss The Blue Kind, which she will be reading from on Tuesday, January 15th at Revolution Brewery (2323 N Milwaukee).
UR Chicago: When you started out on The Blue Kind, was it your intention to focus on women's issues, or did that just happen as a consequence of the main character? Why have bodies traded for drugs?
Kathryn Born: I think it was the consequence of being a female junkie and feeling like the "junkie literature genre" didn't have a female voice. Diane DiPrima was one of the few female beat writers, and a book about her called Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson had a big influence on me. I loved the idea of making the minor characters in the culture the main characters of the story.
(Note: I wrote a draft of this book 20 years ago, and re-wrote it at 40.) I felt that young, cute female drug addicts tend to go down a precarious path, and there was no literature that told that story. They're unique in that they often don't actually have to pay for their drugs — if they play their cards right. So, I was inspired by a bizarre community of women (and young gay men as well) who shared this bond of having to do a series of delicate maneuvers to get what was needed. To be clear — this wasn't prostitutional — this was dating, these were actual relationships, but the guy being the "drug breadwinner," so to speak, was required.
Hierarchies are very real in the drug trade, so there was a desire to "move up" in rank and find a guy with a better supply. "Fronting" is also very real, drugs tend to be given on credit, and the systems of how to deal with dealers who don't pay the money back varies, but it's never good. Hippies tended to take non-violent, but still very intense collection processes, so I was intrigued by that. Since I love allegory, metaphor and exaggeration, I took some cultural rituals and turned them into concrete metaphors.
UR: Some very interesting logic goes into the production of the drugs in this book, especially the drug long sought after by Alison, the protagonist. Could you tell us a bit about the unique nature of the drugs in this book?
KB: It's super fun to make up drugs. I like making stuff up in general, in the follow-up novel I am designing financial systems and urban planning based on Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. With LSD culture, there's a real belief that the drugs are going to "take you through the door" and actually do something for you as a human being. There's this mythology that drugs solve real problems, and I was satirizing that concept. I mean, talk to a pothead — they believe in it. I studied intoxication dating back to cavemen and there's always been drugs — lots of different forms — but always drugs. So, I felt like the form would be different in a different world. I also think reality is a drag; people want to read books to escape. Who wants reality? Who wants to read about pot and acid? I wanted to make it more creative, metaphorical. It's hard to describe a drug like nitrous oxide, so having people moving through syrupy air is a way to do it in writing. Also, the ovals (the drug they hold up to their eye) makes your eyes tear if you hold it to your eye too long. I liked the idea of people doing drugs with tears in their eyes.
Mushy Brain Syndrome is satire as well, but based on witnessing serious drug addicts get a particular mumbling speech impediment — I was getting it myself and it was really scaring me. People were always asking me to repeat myself.
UR: What are we to learn from Alison and Cory's relationship in the book? We know at some earlier point they burned the city down together, and now she has returned after all this time and certain things are different (mountains gone, both of their personalities splitting into two). Are we to read all of this metaphorically? If so, how? Or is it just a consequence of the weird drugs they are on?
KB: This is a hard question and I don't want to do spoilers, but Alison is an unreliable narrator. Cory is a bad guy, so I tried to write a book where the reader can see he's a bad guy even if Alison sees him as a wonderful man. I don't think the book succeeds in that, but I tried. There's a scene with the Oracle at the end, and I wanted to convey the idea that "everyone sees what's going on except her." So, by having two men, there's the idealized loving man and then the horrible guy who is repeatedly selling her down the river, and she's in denial about how lethal this relationship is.
“Then I’ll really never get the egg back.” I sniffle. I cry harder and wipe away tears with a soaked handkerchief. “And I still miss those mountains.”
“I know you do.” He takes a drag; his voice is as gentle and gossamer as the smoke he exhales. “But you know, Alley, you make it even harder on yourself. I know you like to look out the window and think of the water tank as a moon, but—” He flicks an ash. “When you see an object as something it’s not, it can start to get heavy. It gets heavy with all the things it’s trying to be, right?” I blink at him through the tears. “See, Alley? So say they do construction and take down the water tank, then what do you lose?”
“Yeah, the moon, when all you had to lose was a fucking water tank. The mountains were just mountains."
So the idea is that things become a symbol of loss, when again, it's she is who lost. She's not sad about the mountains, she's just sad. She lives in a metaphor to beautify her world, but that fails her at times.
The other really important theme is emotional abuse. Sadly, that is autobiographical as well, as a partner and I spent six years trying to fix something broken — there is a line in a song, "is our love too strong to die, or were we just too weak to kill it?” There are some book critics who have really overanalyzed this book, but it's really a simple book asking a simple question: how bad does it have to get for her to leave this man?
UR: Have you spent any time reading similarly-themed literature?
KB: Not really, I'm not a fan of most science fiction. This is obviously a nod to The Handmaid's Tale but also Richard Brautigan (the junkyard is called IDEATH in In Watermelon Sugar) and Amos Tutola. I studied fairy tales and mythology in college, along with folklore and oral traditions, so this is really the tall tale genre, not science fiction. This is closer to Sula, 100 Years of Solitude, Less Than Zero or Peter Pan than William Gibson. Barry Yourgrau's A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane, which taught me concrete metaphor, is my single biggest influence.
UR: Do you/have you used drugs?
KB: Yessiree Bob. But I got clean at 27, so it's been a long time (14 years).
UR: How do you see this story as commenting on or being representative of the Chicago experience?
KB: I do love mountains and do feel like we live in Flatland. You could say Runaway Village is Logan Square, Cricket Hill is a real hill by the lake on Wilson Beach. The fire that jumped the river is based on The Great Chicago Fire jumping the river. The list goes on and on.
UR: The drug at the heart of the book, IDeath, is supposed to give the user the power to go back through time and change events (like JJ-180 in Philip K. Dick's Now Wait For Last Year, but more functional). Are we to take the quest of Allison and Cory to get this drug as the same kind of desire to change the past that any reconciled couple is going to have eating away at the heart of their relationship?
KB: Right, similarly he hands her a bottle of "DrinkMe" hoping she'll forget everything that happens in the novel. One of my favorite recovery slogans is "drugs weren't my problem, drugs were my solution," so of course they think it's going to be a drug that's going to fix their problem. They're out of ideas.
UR: What does the future hold for your writing? Do you plan to continue writing in a speculative-fiction direction?
KB: Yes, Capital City, Gesai Houses and the Army of Revolution await. I still hate the truth and have no desire to try to describe events. My life is still a tornado, a different tornado, but still a spiral of wind that smashes objects. It's crazy to take my life and try to describe it in a sensible way. So will I keep lying, telling tall tales and turning metaphors into realities that made-up people have to overcome in a strange world. And I will continue to try to be the voice of someone who still struggles, but never quits the fight.