“I’m Done With Fiction”: A Conversation with Chris Kelso

Chris Kelso

We can only hope that it is a posture of frustration and new growth into so many other areas that led Scottish writer of science fiction and horror, Chris Kelso, to utter such a fatalist statement in the title at the age of thirty-two years old. Kelso is also a filmmaker, illustrator, and musician and by day a [*gasp*] high school English teacher. Since publishing his first short story at twenty-two in Evergreen Review, Kelso has been responsible for twenty-five books (nineteen books of his own—fifteen novels, three story collections, one non-fiction work—and six anthologies he edited or co-edited). He’s been nominated for a British Fantasy Award and some of his work has been translated into Spanish, French, and Sweden. The books cover a wild, weird range of topics, styles, and even quality, but the world would certainly suffer to be deprived of more Kelso works of fiction. Luckily, we have three recent volumes of his fiction to enjoy—his best works, he claims—before his first foray into non-fiction is published next year. This forthcoming book brings together two topics very close to Kelso’s heart, the writer William S. Burroughs and Kelso’s home, Scotland. The book involves Burroughs’ time in Scotland, mostly in pursuit of his Scientology fix, and is simply titled Burroughs and Scotland, but with the subtitle: Dethroning the Ancients: the commitment of exile (Beatdom Books, 2021). In the Appendix, Kelso provides his first published short story, “Naked Punch (redux),” which illustrates his debt to Burroughs.

The recent works of fiction that Kelso stands by are the only ones I’ve read, and if this is how he plans to end his run as a fiction writer it’s a damn impressive finale. His most recent titles are:

The Dregs Trilogy (Black Shuck Books, 2020) is a litany of infamy across a baroque spiderweb of Burroughsian and Lovecraftian cosmology. There is a globalizing of local dirtiness, a feeling of a story and world of connections beyond what is on the page closer to William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels than William S. Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. This litany of humanity gross and raw even brings connections to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

I Dream of Mirrors (Sinister Horror Company, 2019) is a trip deep inside the basic nature of organic life. It is violent, mind-bending science fiction more concerned with the humanity of its characters and what humanity means than any futuristic or otherworldly trappings. 

Vistas (Demain Publishing, 2020) is a collection of non-related short stories of pure, intellectual, and philosophical science fiction exploration. It was only published as an e-book, so I cherish it like a secret book of futuristic common prayer in my back pocket (where my phone is kept). 

Kelso reminds me a bit of David Bowie, with his blonde hair, gracious manners, and youthful charm; and like Bowie he has a deep love of America, the Beats, esoterica, and science fiction. As Bowie finally did with Ziggy Stardust, I hope Chris Kelso can conquer an audience on this shore with an intensity and body of work demanding and deserving of attention. 

After months of Facebook messages during a time of global pandemic, we finally emailed back and forth a proper interview:

Who are your most important literary influences? 

Christ, I have so many. It’s a question I revise in my own head over and over again, but there are a few names who always make first draft. Staples of the creative diet include Alasdair Gray, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, Dennis Cooper, Octavia Butler, and the like. I do like to explore science fiction and genre writing and am always finding some quiet geniuses hidden beneath the sod. It’s probably no secret that I adore anything remotely transgressive. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I’m attracted to that kind of writing or art, it just speaks to the 32-year long dark night of the soul I’ve been experiencing *shrugs*

 How about non-literary influences, from other arts?

Again, there is a lot and it is ever-evolving. The full list of my non-literary influences are recorded in my journals – which consist of 5 volumes, each individual tome is bloated with taped-in top 10 lists, movie inventories, and clippings from articles I enjoyed. I would rather give you the library of journals than offer you a whittled down directory, but I realise there’s an etiquette with interview conversations that must be adhered to. And we’re friends. With that in mind I would say that I love a lot of the US and British directors who take their cues from European New Wave, directors like Cronenberg, Lynch, Schlesinger, Haneke, and William Freidkin. I’m greatly influenced by the art and photography of Beksinski and Peter Howson. Anything that holds a mirror to the baser impulses, vulnerabilities and motivations of humanity is of inherent interest to me. 

I Dream of Mirrors is a novel that seems to relish in controlled confusion and teasing out uncertainty from its reader. How much do you consider your audience when you write? Do you have a perfect reader in mind? If so, who is that reader, what are they like?

To be honest. I rarely consider them. I’m not writing serialised YA or broad fantasy with a mythological canon or beloved characters. It would be insincere otherwise. Even if my book is undeniably bad, at least it’s sincerely bad. I think the few people who do read my books enjoy the freedom and, to an extent, the lack of consideration I give them. Only when there is no expectation can you hope to exceed it. I also believe that when you consider the reader, you admit to branding. After all, everyone must sell themselves. Everyone must have something to sell in this grotesque oversaturated bazaar we call online culture, or you basically don’t exist. I mean, we’re barely human beings anymore, we’re logos. We’re symbols on an algorithm – willing submissive to commerce. It used to be that the corporate animal was this insidious, quiet subsumer, now we’re all happy to let it drag us back to its cave and fuck us. You become part of the social media mind-meld that’s turning our collective creative souls into tapioca pudding. My perfect reader is their own person and can project their own imaginations over my images. 

Here’s a process question for you. Do you plot your novels? Do you use notes and character descriptions ahead of time? Or do you start from an image like Haruki Murakami? Is it different for different novels? What is your process like?

I honestly never plot. Even with The Dregs Trilogy, it really budded outward from a simple kernel of an idea, something I wanted to explore or articulate. I do write a lot of notes, conduct a lot of research, but usually this process is intended to refine descriptions or turns of phrase I like. My process is usually always like this. On the rare occasion where I collaborate on a short story and my writing partner and I decide to aim for a specific genre market – then I will be more meticulous and concerted. But when the arena is mine and mine alone then I give myself keys to the asylum. No questions asked. 

You mentioned in another interview I’ve read and in conversation with me that you disown your earlier work. What led to this feeling from you and at what point are you proud of your work again?

I think the earlier books just aren’t very good. The influences were too on the nose. I didn’t have my own voice yet. They’re also very “try hard.” Not in the way we talked about earlier, not that I was ever trying hard to please anyone. But I definitely had a point to prove to myself. That I could write and that my imagination could free me from the monotony of reality. In the early books I was exploring the boundaries of my imagination and my writing ability. It’s just strange I managed to get those books published, miraculous even – because I do think they require a thorough edit, or I might have just dissolved them into a larger work. Who knows? Don’t get me wrong, there are some nice ideas in there. I’m far from the perfect writer, but I think I was able to sharpen my skills during that period. I suppose it’s a good sign. If I was looking at my first collection and still thought it was shit-hot that’s probably a sign that I haven’t grown as a writer.

You’ve got a day job. I’ve got like three part-time day jobs, so it’s obviously not the money. Serious question, why do you do it? Why bother coming up with a plot and characters and labouring for months, if not years, to put a book out into the world?

Good question. Well, why do you do it? It’s probably the same reason any of us masochists do it. Because we have no choice. It’s like masturbating or a cyst that needs to be drained. We’re engaging the death drive without actively endangering ourselves. The creative mind is a prison and we’re all long-term inmates. And it really depends on what you want from this process. If you want to make money then you write because it’s a means to an end. But the rest of us do it because our sickness won’t let us do anything else. 

Next year will see the release of your first non-fiction work, Burroughs in Scotland. You’ve got the short story, “Naked Punch,” at back. What did you write this book? Is it about taking stock of your literary life and career so far? Is it about equating two of your loves, Burroughs and your home? It seems to me like you have a sort of spiritual home in Burroughs as I do.

I think it was a combination of both those things. I’ve never really set anything in Scotland and people are always complaining that I often use American or African environments instead of siphoning truths from my immediate reality in the West of Scotland. The truth is that I do really love Scotland and I’m grateful to the accident of geography that put me here, but I just can’t write fiction that’s set in this part of the country. It might have something to do with Scottish fiction in general. It kind of feels like a lot of the same topics recycled ad-nauseum (that’s not to say there aren’t fantastic writers here, young and old). I just kind of think, well, what would I even write about? Quiet broken men and their sad defeated wives? Kitchen-sink relationships in the schemes? Trade Unions? I’m not interested in any of those things when it comes to writing. There’s no romance or intrigue there. I suppose my books often feature some kind of oppressive political structure so I imagine that’s influenced by Scotland in an overt way. So, to answer the question, yes, Burroughs and Scotland was an opportunity to write about my immediate reality. But there’s definitely something in what you say – Burroughs and the world of his writing feel like my true home. A world of outliers and weirdos. Researching the book I realized Scotland has more of these than I initially thought. 

You said once to me, “I’m done with fiction.” Is this true, and if so, where does that decision come from?

I think I may have said that in the heat of the moment when I was very down about writing and my own abilities. I really wasn’t selling a lot of own stories to the genre magazines and after a decade of toiling, I felt like I should maybe take the hint, you know? I’d also been reading some David Shields and he puts forward quite a convincing case that fiction is an exhausted medium. So, while I do think The Dregs Trilogy will be my last novel, I have revised my ‘no mo fiction’ attitude. Recently, I wrote and submitted 3 stories to various anthologies and the remits excited me – which might be a sign that I have some unfinished business there. We’ll see how I feel about fiction when I get a response from these editors. 


Jordan A. Rothacker is a writer who lives in Athens, Georgia. His most recent book is the sci-fi noir, The Death of the Cyborg Oracle (Spaceboy Books, 2020), set in a post-climate catastrophe, post-fall of capitalism domed-Atlanta. In Spring of 2021, all of his recent non-fiction essays involving death will be published in a volume from Reprobate Books titled, Dead Letters: Epitaphs, Encomia, and Influence

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