A TOY, A TOOL, A LEVER: Rebecca Gransden interviews Kathe Koja

If anyone can be considered a psychonaut of literature it is Kathe Koja, a writer who utilizes prose to explore every altered state the page has to offer. With her latest project, Dark Factory, Koja enters the club scene, a place where mind-bending as old as licking a frog meets speed freak technology, and pagan archetypes dance with virtual avatars. I spoke with Koja about the sweet delirium of the project.

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What attracted you to club culture for the world of Dark Factory?Everything I write starts with a character, and for Dark Factory, it’s Ari Regon—smiling, hyper-alive, throwing sparks—and Ari brought the whole party along with him, including the club. And a club is very fertile ground for human behavior, good and bad, it’s a safe space and a potentially dangerous one. It’s where we go when we want to just let ourselves go.Your writing is highly sensory and accelerated, a perfect fit for the themes of Dark Factory. Do you consider stylistic approach when preparing for each project, or is this more an instinctive process?Completely instinctive. A project’s format—a piece of writing, a live event—might make different uses of it, but my work’s voice is consistent. The world of Dark Factory is rich and highly textured. How did you approach research for the project?There are so many moving parts—club culture, immersive makers, VR-adjacent tech, various religious mythologies, the business of art—and each one is its own rabbithole, so I had to dive in and keep going, keep following the branching turns, keep up.The whole project was like that: it knew what it wanted to be from the jump, and once I stopped trying to cram all that research and material into a traditional, linear “novel”, everything got a lot easier—though it took awhile, more than a year, to get to that point, to understand what the material was actually about, and what it needed to be.A main character in the book is the Dark Factory club itself. How did you go about creating it, and what are your own feelings towards it?Thank you for saying that! Definitely the club is a character. And definitely a club can have a character, all the best ones do (think Berghain, for example, or your favorite spot, the one you walked into and said, this is for me). When a club’s really hitting all the marks, it becomes a truly liminal space, and you become limitless inside the music, the created atmosphere, the feeling that this is where you most want to be. Someone in Dark Factory says, It’s like the world if the world was perfect. That’s the goal.The characters of Dark Factory are frequently decorated with masks. Could you talk about the significance of masks to the narrative?Masks are signifiers of intent or philosophy, they’re borrowed personality, wearing one is hiding in plain sight: people feel freed with a mask on, liberated by anonymity, or absorbed into a tribe. The dancefloor avatars of Dark Factory are very much in that mode. And the horned mask kicks it all up another notch: Ari accepts the mask from a woman he tried to help in her creative endeavor, then it’s worn by Felix the DJ to totally blow up the party, and his own creativity, too; it’s seen as a symbol of sex for some people, a satanic symbol by others, it’s emulated and appropriated and made into art. It asks, What if a mask is its own energized space, is sacred space, in the sense of a mythos operating in real time?A recurring theme is that of connectivity, iterations of which include: the connective bind of the Dark Factory club itself, connection made and missed between characters, mycelium networks, orgiastic happenings, and the interconnectivity of tech. What is the narrative significance of connectivity?To highlight reality, because everything really is part of one big thing. There’s no meaningful organic separation between living things and their universal environment, everything exists in the same flow and flux—not in a wouldn’t that be wonderful? kind of way, but in a physics kind of way, a climate change kind of way, a karmic kind of way. Humans are the ones who insist that artificial boundaries are just as immutable as those laws of physics, and tailor their belief systems accordingly. And their behavior.Tech is a dominant feature, especially in the realm of interactivity. Perception and experience of reality is modified by technology, and the borderline between traditional definitions of objective reality and the virtual sphere overlap and interrelate. The game of life intertwines with computer generated gaming. Could you elaborate on the role of technology in the book?We like our tech. We’re ingenious in finding new uses for the things we’ve already made, and those things enable us to make still more new things. So is tech meant to be a toy, a tool, a lever? or all three? The people who come to the club to inhabit their shiny, sexy bespoke avatars, to dance and fuck the night away, are interacting on one level; the techs working on that augmented reality are on another; and the developers creating the games that lead to transformation are on another. How many levels are there? and are they necessarily hierarchal? The urge to transcend our human, body-based experience exists on all those levels. Is interaction with tech dependent on its functionality, or on ours?Interactivity extends to the novel itself, where the reader is provided with links to bonus content, placed at suggested points in the narrative. Was this aspect present from the start or did the idea evolve over time?It was definitely present, though I had no idea how to deploy it! Which is why that early period of What even is this? took so long. But once I got it into her hands, Tricia Reeks of Meerkat Press conceptualized the experience, with a very streamlined and engaging design for the print and ebook editions, to make sure people could enjoy the book at whatever depth of engagement they chose. Which all leads into –The world of Dark Factory widens into a multidisciplinary project, with a devoted website featuring immersive and multimedia content, and a varied online presence. What is your intention for the project as a whole?—the overarching intent, which is to present immersive fiction, a story that operates just like life operates, in a constant rolling moment of creation and action and loss and memory and art, in the core story of this club, and everybody whose lives radiate around it and around each other, just like our lives radiate around one another, every day. And to offer people a way to play in this world, if they choose to.One important aspect of the project is energy. When writing, or conceptualizing, did you use any methods to aid the mindset needed to sustain the desired energy for the project? Loud techno, and sitting at my desk every single day.How should I prepare for a night at Dark Factory, and what can I expect?Expect to have fun, expect to be surprised, expect a dose of possible heartbreak and/or everlasting friendship. Expect to play along! Hydrate. Wear shoes you can dance in. Bonus if you like flowers. Bonus if you know where to get excellent espresso.What tracks are essential to include on my Dark Factory playlist?Oh the best question of all! And the hardest to answer. Here’s a (very) shortlist, to get you dressed and out the door:
  • Lady Monix – Track 39 (feat. Rashida)
  • Green Velvet & Harvard Bass – Lazer Beams
  • Perfume Genius – Your Body Changes Everything
  • Romy –Lifetime (PlanningtoRock “Let It Happen” remix)
  • Lampé – Sunset Avenue
Any advice for the morning after a Dark Factory experience?Check to see what reality you currently inhabit. Check to see if you still have your shoes. Drink that espresso! And tell your friends.Lastly, what would you want a reader to take away from the novel?The indelible rush of fun. The urge to go make some fun yourself.

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KATHE KOJA on film with Rebecca Gransden

My sister had taken a bunch of us kids to the drive-in to see a scary movie, and we started out shrieking and giggling; by the end, we were jammed together in the front seat, silent, or crying. But the feeling I remember most deeply wasn’t fear, it was outrage.

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BRIAN ALAN ELLIS on film with Rebecca Gransden

What film, or films, made the first deep impression on you?

My aunt and uncle on Long Island, for whatever reason, had a big-box VHS copy of I Spit on Your Grave in their collection, nestled somewhere between Stripes and Mr. Mom. I never asked about it, or even watched it, but it always kind of confused me. I thought it was a porno or something. I finally ended up watching I Spit on Your Grave as a teenager, which made me thankful that I didn’t watch it as a child, though I did accidentally catch A Clockwork Orange on Cinemax at a very young age and it completely freaked me the hell out. 

Very often film is one of the ways we first come into contact with a world outside that of our direct experience. Which films introduced you to areas of life away from the familiar circumstances you grew up in? 

The coming-of-age films of John Hughes showed me that rich people have problems also, I guess. And it took me years to realize it, but Revenge of the Nerds taught me that nerds too can be real shitty, problematic people.

What films first felt transgressive to you? Do you remember being secretive about any films you watched growing up?

As a child I became obsessed with this Swedish film called My Life as a Dog that I’d see on HBO. It’s about a poor, lonely kid whose mom gets put in a looney bin. Then his dog is placed in a kennel. He gets abused by relatives and teachers. He learns to read by reciting lingerie catalogs to some creepy old man. Then he befriends this girl who is kind of a tomboy and they box for fun and they beat the crap out of each other. Then there’s a scene where he takes a bath with the tomboy and it all seemed very sexual and scandalous to me. It felt very much like watching porn, this movie. It made me feel icky and sad and enthralled and I’d only watch it if nobody was home. 

Are there any films that define your formative years?

The mid-1980s horror film The Gate showed me, at a very young age, that if you throw a dead dog (your untreated trauma and neurosis) into a demonic hellhole in your backyard (the void that exists within yourself) that bad shit will happen.

Can you talk about the influence film has had on your writing?

Plays, specifically movies based off of plays, probably influenced my writing quite a bit. Like Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or stuff like Comeback, Little Sheba. Splendor in the Grass. Tennessee Williams adaptations. I related to dialogue-heavy dramas about broken people. Experiencing Douglas Sirk films like Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind will really allow you to take your writing out of its comfort zone and just go bonkers with it. 

Do you use film as a prompt or direct motivation for your writing?

I try going into each writing project with the same energy as an Ernest P. Worrell film, especially Ernest Scared Stupid. 

What directors, film movements, or particular actors have been an influence?

I dig all the New Hollywood films of the 1970s. Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Peter Bogdanovich, etc. etc. That’s the best stuff, in a lot of ways. Great character stuff. Lots of hidden gems, too. Like Searching for Mr. Goodbar and Joe. Robert Altman’s Nashville is pretty much Brothers Karamazov, but better. 

Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?

I’ve acted in little short films that friends and I have made, but nothing too serious. I would be down to do something more substantial one day. Filmmaking is a lot of hard work, even doing just nonsense stuff. 

Are there films you associate with a particular time in your life, or a specific writing project?

Ghostbusters will always remind me of childhood, especially because my mom sewed me a Ghostbusters jumpsuit for Halloween one year. 

My buddy and I, as teenagers, snuck into a screening of Boogie Nights, but it was at the end where the drug deal goes bad and then Mark Wahlberg shows off his prosthetic penis. We obviously stayed for the next showing.

Donnie Darko was kind of the movie of my twenties. I first saw it while my band was on tour and we were crashing on someone’s floor in Chicago. I didn’t think it was very good at first, but everyone I spoke to loved it. It took several viewings with different people at different periods of my twenties to really appreciate it. It’s now a movie I revisit often. 

My thirties were mostly spent in a majorly depressive stupor, though I do remember being very charmed by Frances Ha for quite some time. 

Note: How any of this random bs relates to specific writing projects, well, I have no clue. 

Thinking about the places you’ve lived, are there any environments that are cinematic? Have you lived anywhere that has been regularly depicted onscreen? If so, has this had an influence on your perception of the place, or how you’ve depicted it in any of your writings?

I grew up in a trailer park in south Florida, so maybe Gummo? I don’t think I put too much “place” in my writing, at least not intentionally. I guess I’m more into characters and situations than surroundings, I don’t know. There’s been a lot of films and TV shows made in Miami. The Larry Clark movie Bully was made in the neighborhood where I grew up. (The Florida Project also captures that empty, Florida outlet mall spirit pretty well.) I live in Gainesville, Florida, now, which is where that Paul Giamatti movie The Hawk is Dying (based off of a Harry Crews book) was filmed. That was 15 years ago, mind you, so the city has changed quite a bit since then. That’s one great thing about film—it captures a certain time and place to revisit, which is comforting. 

Are there films you regularly return to, and do you know why?

I mostly watch films I’ve already seen several times and I do that more than checking out newer releases, which is probably a bad habit. I think it means I have anxiety and that I’m mostly depressed. I especially enjoy revisiting “light and crunchy” stuff. For example, I recently watched 10 Things I Hate About You again, and let me tell you, it still slaps. 

Do you have any lines of film dialogue you regularly use in your daily life?

I regularly say “Dishes are done, man,” from Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, even when there are no dishes involved. Also, I’m pretty sure I still quote Wayne’s World as much as I did as a teenager and people rarely know what the hell I’m even talking about. A sphincter says what?

Are there individual scenes that stay with you?

The super sad ending in Wayne’s World where Wayne’s hot girlfriend resents him and all his idiot friends perish in an electrical fire.

What films have roused a visceral reaction in you? 

My mom took me to see that violent Stallone cop movie Cobra when I was a kid and the film opens with a gun pointing directly at the audience and I remember it giving me quite a jolt. I probably peed my pants. My mom was nuts, by the way. 

Are there films that are reliable for inspiring your creativity?

Pretty much any John Waters movie gives me a creative charge, though the results are never as funny or brilliant. See also: the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 

Which of your writings would adapt most successfully to film?

Probably my book Something to Do with Self-Hate, which would make a sad tour de force about lost, damaged people further damaging themselves. A real “feel bad” flick. Lars von Trier could direct. 

Can you give some film recommendations for those who have liked your writing?

I recommend Shakespeare’s Thrashin’ (1986), where the older brother from The Goonies falls for the leader of the rival skater gang’s sister at a Red Hot Chili Peppers show, which Shakespeare rewrote in 1993, replacing the skateboards with rollerblades and calling it Airborne.


 Brian Alan Ellis' yearlong Internet novel, HOBBIES YOU ENJOY, is being updated daily on Instagram.

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JAYNE MARTIN ON ADULT ISSUES with Rebecca Gransden

With The Daddy Chronicles (Whisk(e)y Tit Books, 2022), Jayne Martin returns to bruised memories. The book is driven to explore how recollection takes form, fragments made vivid, torn from deep wells and thrust into an attempt at order, a chronology, a way to make sense of an absent father. This absence dominates, and is bitterly ever-present. Martin strives to confront the irony in this, and with this collection of memory vignettes, reframes her past. 

When did you first have the impulse to tackle this subject? Was the form of the book apparent from the start?

The book just erupted from within and took me completely by surprise. It was subject matter I had tackled once before in an essay form, but never followed through on it. This time it wouldn’t let go. Why now? I don’t know. I think as we get older we have the desire to make peace with the things that have haunted us. I was in a flash fiction workshop led by Meg Pokrass in November of 2020. It was based on her novella-in-flash, The Loss Detector, about a fatherless family, single mom, its main narrator the young daughter. Each day we’d write a flash piece based on one of the stories. In doing so, I discovered that the character in “The Other Woman” waiting for her married lover who never shows, and the infant in “First Love” whose father ignores her cries, were actually the same person—and that person was me. That’s when it morphed from fiction to memoir. 

There is a fragmentary feel to the book, both structurally and narratively. How purposeful was this? 

Memory is fragmentary. We, or at least I, write to make sense of things. While there are many threads that make up a tapestry of a life and often writers interweave them in order to tell a larger story, my focus was singular and specific. I had questions. How did the rejection of the very first love of my life, my father, lead me to seek out others like him—men who were charismatic and emotionally unavailable? It was like putting together a puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box. As I wrote, pieces emerged that I hadn’t expected. There was no way to plan the book in any kind of cohesive manner. Without Meg’s workshop, I doubt I would have found the structure at all. 

Did writing about real people, often in an unflattering way, lead to any conflicted feelings? Are there aspects you left out of the book, or wish you’d included?

Had I included every bad romance, this would have been a mini-series. After a while, readers would have justifiably said, “Oh, for God’s sake woman. Get it together.” The last thing I wanted this to be is a pity party. The fact is, things turned out very well for me. Granted, I forged my way alone, but whatever my father didn’t give me in life, he did pass on a gene pool that made me strong, resilient, accomplished, healthy and so much more. As did my mother. I regret that she may come off in an unflattering way when the truth is she gave up everything for me. My father was the love of her life. She entered into a second marriage that was unhappy for her in order to make a stable home for me, and then, divorced again, struggled to raise me as a single mom. She died at just 54. I was 23. After years of being a selfish, disrespectful, horrible teenager, I didn’t have the opportunity to convey to her how grateful I was. My mother’s story is a whole other book, but whenever I try to write about her I’m awash in guilt and tears.

For your previous book Tender Cuts you use flash fiction. Were you conscious of the influence of flash fiction on your non-fiction in this case?

Long before I wrote flash fiction, I wrote movies-for-television for 25 years. Different from their big-screen brethren, TV movies are written in seven acts to account for commercial breaks. The “two-hour movie” is a misnomer. You have approximately 93 minutes of actual screen time to tell the story and at the end of each act you need a “keep them guessing” story beat to lure your audience back after the commercials. Raymond Carver could have been talking about the TV movie when he said “Get in, get out. Don’t Linger. Move on.” As it was, he was talking about flash fiction. So I came to the form well-prepared and it felt very natural to continue with it in The Daddy Chronicles where each chapter is akin to a movie scene. 

Some of the most vivid moments are the observations of small, seemingly inconsequential incidences that ultimately have great emotional weight. This juxtaposition has a startling effect. Is this a technique you planned to use, or did it evolve naturally from the material?

Details place the reader in the story and create emotional resonance. I will never forget a scene from Mary Gordon’s brilliant novel Final Payments, where she’s dealing with the grief of her father’s death and the unresolved emotional issues between them. She’s cleaning out his refrigerator and picks up a head of lettuce that dissolves into a mushy, moldy mess in her hands. I read that book 40 years ago and that moment still sends me to my knees. The use of visceral details is something that pervades all my work. It’s how I see the world. 

How long did the book take to write? What is your recollection of the time spent writing it?

This book was one of those rare writing experiences where the story just poured out of me, like it had been hovering for years just waiting for a point of entry. In Meg’s workshop, we wrote a story a day for 30 days. At the end of that month I had a first draft. Of course, there was still a great deal of work to be done, but just a couple of months later, I was ready to send it out. It was crazy. It was like the book knew what it wanted to be. Everything about its creation was a surprise. Most surprising was the anger that came up for me. I thought I had dealt with my feelings toward my father. Intellectually, I had reasoned that one cannot give what one does not have. I had forgiven him. But there was still a very hurt child inside of me screaming, “Hey! Not so fast.” 

The book perceptively deals with trauma, both its immediate impact and ongoing after-effects. There is a self-awareness that accompanies the events, a distance that enables a matter-of-fact retelling. While this creates an unsentimental tone, it also demonstrates one of the main consequences of trauma. Could you elaborate on your intentions for the book with regard to the representation of trauma?  

You kind of nailed it here. Distance from one’s emotions as a consequence of trauma. There’s a scene in the book where a writing teacher suggests I see a therapist to get more in touch with my feelings and my response is “I don’t tell him I’ve been doing my best to stay out of touch with those things for most of my life.” As far as my intentions for the book, I guess it’s a book I wish I had read decades ago. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent so many years thinking I was the only one broken. During the writing, I read Denna Babul’s The Fatherless Daughter Project, where I learned that one in three women identify as fatherless. I saw myself on every page. Maybe others like me will see themselves in The Daddy Chronicles and not feel quite so alone.  

Could you talk about the locations in the book? Are there places you’ve returned to since the scenarios featured took place? Are there places you’d be curious to go back to, or those you’d not want to revisit?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my early life imprinted with the sights and sounds of San Francisco, the bay windows of the grand old Victorian “ladies” like eyes watching over me. Although I haven’t lived there in many years, it is still the place in my heart that I call home. At the age of about six, Mom and I moved to an older four-plex building in San Mateo where I started first grade. It was my first stable home and I often wonder if it is still there, but have never gone back to look. When my mother married my stepfather, we moved to the house on Cherry Street in San Carlos. While all the houses around it are exactly as I remember, ours is gone. Demolished. As if it never existed. Those years of my life wiped away. In its place, a new modern structure. Seeing it gone felt like a death. 

What is your experience with catharsis?  

Writing the book wasn’t so much a catharsis as a way to step out of my “strong woman” persona for a while to say, “This is who I am and this is why.” I’ve allowed few people to really know me in such a way and I’m honestly not sure if I’m ready for the response. 

You mention a spiritual component to your life, and cite a particular incident as having significance in the process of moving on from feelings that had a grip on you. Could you expand on this aspect?

I was raised Catholic and, although I left the church while still very young, the concept of a higher power, an energy that some call “God,” never left me. There’s a reason such beliefs are called “faith” and not “fact.” My mother was a big believer in guardian angels. When I look back at, particularly, my adult life, I have to believe in a Divine energy. No one could have been so “lucky.” There has never been a time when, confused or depressed, I have asked for guidance that some type of opportunity did not appear for my highest good. Every single day, sometimes several times a day, I align myself with the creative force of the Universe by taking a quiet moment to simply say “I AM” and express gratitude. Again, faith not fact. 

A central theme, especially in the earlier part of the book, is of a young person burdened too soon with adult issues. For many, this leads to a perpetual state of being ill-equipped to deal with vulnerability. What challenges or observations did you encounter when compiling examples of this for the book?

“Burdened too soon with adult issues.” Yes. That’s exactly it. From very early on I was acutely aware that the adults were not in charge. That I’d better take care of myself because they were likely going to drop the ball. As a result I became a total control freak. “I’ll do it myself,” my mantra. Vulnerability? I avoid that like Covid. The use of humor to sidestep my emotions is still my go-to coping tool. There’s a chapter in the book called “On My Own.” It was during a time in my life when I was no longer a child, but not yet an adult. I was engaging in very destructive behaviors involving sex and alcohol and I had this dream where I was in a room from my early childhood with my younger self and she says, “You were supposed to take care of me.” As an aside, it is very common for fatherless daughters to become promiscuous, to confuse sex with love, use one to try to get the other. 

How would you describe the book to a potential reader? And does this differ from how you describe the book to yourself?

The story of a fatherless daughter, my journey from hurt to healing. There comes a time when we all start to take stock of our lives. The focus begins to shift from mourning all the things we didn’t get to gratitude for the things that gave our lives meaning and joy. Honestly, if I could change the past and have the father I wish I’d had I don’t think I would do it. I’ve known people who had wonderful fathers and their lives still turned out a mess. My life turned out pretty great. 

What was your original intention for The Daddy Chronicles? Has this evolved or changed? Do you consider your intentions to be fulfilled?

My intention was to write the book and put it out into the world. I’ve accomplished that. Now it’s out of my hands. The search for and need for love is universal. When we learn to love ourselves first, we attract the love of others. My hope is that the book finds its way to those who need to hear that message the most. 

 

The Daddy Chronicles is published by Whisk(e)y Tit Books and is available at https://whiskeytit.com/product/the-daddy-chronicles/

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