Author Interview: Kathleen Bartholomew, sister of Kage Baker

Kage Baker and Kathleen Bartholomew, circa 1985

Kage Baker and Kathleen Bartholomew, circa 1985

Kage Baker was one of my favorite authors, an incredibly talented and imaginative writer who seemed to be able to do it all: SF, fantasy, horror, essays, short stories, and novels. Gardner Dozois called her “the best natural storyteller to enter the field since Poul Anderson.”

She was also the first author I ever worked up the courage to email, back when she was between publishers and I was desperate to find out when the next installment of her incredible time travel epic about Dr. Zeus Inc. would come out. I exchanged a few emails with her over the years, and got the chance to meet her at a signing here in San Diego. She was an amazing person and one of my favorite writers to ever work in science fiction and fantasy.

Kage died of uterine cancer at the age of 57, exactly three years ago today. Her sister Kathleen Bartholomew, who was an integral part of Kage’s life and writing, is now continuing the author’s legacy by completing some of her unfinished works. The first one of these, Nell Gwynne’s On Land and at Sea (review), was released in December 2012.

I was fortunate enough to conduct the following long, in-depth interview with Kathleen Bartholomew about her amazing sister and the incredible stories they created together.

Far Beyond Reality: Hi Kathleen, thank you for agreeing to do this interview! Most people mainly know you right now as Kage Baker’s sister. What else would you like people to know about yourself?

Kathleen Bartholomew: Let’s see, what do I want people to know about me? Statute of limitations and all that … well, obviously, I grew up running semi-feral through the Hollywood Hills with Kage. She was the idea person – I was the facilitator: Kage found interesting places to explore, and I explained to their owners that we were just looking for our dog.

Along the way, I survived college with a major in biology and a minor in English. I embarked on a default career of data entry, being in the first wave of youngsters to learn how to use office computers. That has proven amazingly helpful, especially when Kage began to write seriously. I helped Kage design the Operatives, and the Immortality Process – the original plans called for deep hypnosis and clockwork. I think that if I hadn’t convinced Kage to try cellular manipulation and nano-machinery instead, she’d have invented steam punk 20 years early.

I’ve spent the last 39 years deeply involved with historical re-creation, right beside Kage. She designed sets and wrote playlets; I built the sets and got the plays on stage. I still work for the originators of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, at their current enterprise: the Dickens Christmas Fair, put on annually in the Cow Palace in San Francisco. And there, as everywhere else, I play a character devised by Kage Baker, on a set designed by her.

When I’m not running a Victorian pub somewhere in Kage Baker’s extended memory, I knit, read, blog, serve my parrot master, and continue drawing the loose edges of Kage’s many worlds together.

Far Beyond Reality: What you just said about steampunk and cellular manipulation is the perfect segue to my next question. Kage’s first stories were published relatively late in her life, when she was already in her forties. How long before that had the world and story of the Company been brewing in her head. How much of it coalesced in conversations with you?

Kage Baker and Harry the Parrot

Kage Baker and Harry the Parrot

Kathleen Bartholomew: Kage wrote stories pretty much continuously from the age of 12 to the end of her life. Some of them show up, in other forms, in the stories she wrote professionally – especially the stories about Ermenwyr’s world, like The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag. Other cycles of stories – and they are cycles, she never wrote a one-off story until she began to be published – have never surfaced publicly. But the Company stories only date back to Kage’s 30′s.

One morning in the Spring of 1987 or so, we were having a leisurely Saturday breakfast in our house in the Hollywood Hills. Kage was eating Wheaties and I was eating Mini Frosted Shredded Wheats. I was reading tidbits aloud from the LA Times while our parrot, Harry, wandered around on the table stealing cereal from both of us. Kage wasn’t very fond of this habit of mine, but she was too busy defending her Wheaties from Harry to throw things at me. Family breakfasts are like that.

I read aloud a story about some plant that had been considered extinct and recently discovered to be alive and well. Things like that fascinated us both – artifacts, plants, animals, entire cities are always being re-discovered somewhere peculiar; I kept a collection of articles on them, just because it was so weird and interesting. And after listening to this one story – about a small plant recently re-discovered on the slopes of Mt. Diablo in Northern California – Kage looked up and said: “This kind of thing happens all the time. Paintings, music, animals, old books … and they always get found in odd, safe places, intact and thriving. Somebody must be doing this on purpose!”

Said I: “Why and how would someone do this so weirdly and sneakily?”

And Kage said: “With secret technology. And special agents, sworn to silence. For money – lots and lots of money.” Her eyes glazed over, staring into the amazing world inside her own head, and she said:  “And they are called Dr. Zeus, Incorporated.”

And in that moment, in the spring sunlight, with the parrot rampaging through Kage’s Wheaties and milk dripping from her spoon  - the Company was born. Just. Like. That.

Kage started sketching out the parameters of the Company at once; she began the outline of In the Garden of Iden within a month or so. And the first short stories began at the same time, as she got a grasp on the enormity of the idea. She made notes on several stories that cropped up in the process of writing In the Garden of Iden, and set them aside to be fleshed out later. The actual first story was composed verbally in 1992, for our mother in her final, mortal illness – Kage came up with it sitting on the edge of Momma’s hospital bed while the Rodney King Riots began out in Los Angeles, and acted it out for her.

It was “Noble Mold”, the first story that sold – to Gardner Dozois, at Asimov’s.

As to how many of the stories coalesced out of conversations with me? All of them. I was Kage’s notebook, beta reader and assistant researcher. Everything she wrote was worked out verbally before she sat down to write – she called it “brainstorming”. It was instrumental to her process, as they say, and it took at least two people.

Far Beyond Reality: You already mentioned how the Operatives changed from having clockwork to nano-machinery. Are there other elements of the Company series that changed that dramatically during the long writing process?

Kathleen Bartholomew: Not quite as dramatically as that – it was really the big one. But there were some others.

There was the impermeability of the Operatives’ skulls – originally, Kage was thinking along the lines of simply some extraordinarily tough material. Maybe a ferro-ceramic, like their bones; but that is ultimately brittle and Operatives can break bones. Their skulls had to be not merely strong, but unbreakable. Which is why the final step in the immortality process is the installation of a small, personal Time Transcendence generator in the brain. Because the brain is perpetually slightly out of sync with real time, nothing can get into the skull. It’s the ultimate blood-brain filter.

That change necessitated several bits of back-engineering on how the Operatives work. The only opening into the skull is through a modified foramen magnum, through what is essentially an airlock. The spinal bones are reinforced ferro-ceramic; the spinal cord itself is reinforced with and within a ferro-ceramic wire sheath: flexible, very strong, and repairable. The dura mater is reinforced with the same wire mesh. Should severe enough trauma occur to necessitate fugue, the airlock at the foramen magnum shuts down and the connection between the brain and the body is closed. Then the entire skull is enveloped in the Time Transcendence Field; the field itself produces energy that runs a backup system of artificial blood and neurospinal fluid that circulates and replaces the “normal” blood and fluids.

At this point, the cervical vertebrae can even be severed (and that is, in fact, one of the primary traumas this is meant to circumvent) and no brain death will occur. If the trauma goes on long enough, the brain goes into deep hibernation mode. The optical, nasal, oral and auditory orifices are all closed and the brain becomes an isolated system. The entire process is run by emergency wetware that is installed as a thin lining in some of the natural cavities in the brain. The spinal cord function need to be re-established afterwards, of course, but that is a standard procedure for the Company.

Other things …  the classic paradox: can History be changed? If so, why? If not, why not? Show your work, as the nuns used to tell us. This was the core of Kage’s interpretation of Time Travel.

Initially, Kage was just going to declare it was impossible to change History. But she didn’t like the inflexibility of that. Also, she wanted to actually have a system that was understandable – at least once you accept the idea at all.

That was when she came up with the concept that history cannot be changed – but that it can only be observed not to change in History that has been recorded. Unrecorded History is still all unrealized potential. She based that on relativity – that what happens is dependent on observation; and also on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – that the unobserved remains in a limbo of potentiality. The corollary to observed and recorded History was the Event Shadows: some events are so immense, little else gets observed at all. And in those Shadows, all manner of temporal cheats and chicanery can be perpetrated. Event Shadows were my idea (she said not-very-modestly …)

With this structure in place, the entirety of the history of the Earth was Kage’s playground. You’d be astounded at how little actually does get recorded, or how wrong it can be – even in these days of omnipresent cameras. And while it takes some digging, you can get an idea of what else happened – or may have happened, or should have happened – on a given date in Time. Everyone has seen those birthday lists of the other things that happened on your birthday. Kage took that idea and gleefully ran with it, full speed into other worlds.

Kage thought Schroedinger’s Cat experiment was hilarious, by the way. You can get away with anything in that hypothetical box. She also suspected it wouldn’t have worked with any animal less contrary than a cat. Except maybe a parrot.

IntheGardenofIdenFar Beyond Reality: I recently read (and loved) Nell Gwynne’s On Land and at Sea, the first Company story that officially has both your and Kage’s name on the cover. How did that book come to be? How much of it was actually written by Kage herself? Was it just an outline and notes, or did she write out parts of it?

Kathleen Bartholomew: I’m very glad you liked it. The reviews have so far been decent, and the readers who have contacted me personally have been kind and enthusiastic. It’s an enormous relief!

So: How did Nell Gwynne II come to be? Subterranean Press, the publisher of Nell Gwynne I (The Women of Nell Gwynne’s) asked for it. By this point in her career, almost everything Kage was doing was because someone had asked for it. She wedged her own original projects – like The Bird of the River – into the time she wasn’t spending writing to order for people like Tachyon Publishing, Subterranean, Tor, and numerous themed anthologies.

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s began as a throwaway bit of fun in her novel Not Less Than Gods. Once having come up with the Ladies Auxilliary to the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, she was intrigued with them – so she gave the characters their head. TWONG, as she amusedly called it, was the result. The characters literally would not be silenced. A short time later, she wrote “The Bohemian Astrobleme” as a short story to be added to the Subterranean volume The Scarlet Spy. It was largely because I had found the history of the said Astrobleme; it had an exotic locale, weird minerals associated with it, and what Kage thought was the funniest word she’d heard that month … And  the Astrobleme is quite real; the photos of it are amazing.

Kage loved steampunk, you see. All the Nell Gwynne and GSS stories were the result of her fondness for that genre.

TWONG did pretty well (ultimately, it won the Nebula and Locus awards). Subterranean requested a sequel, and so Kage began research and notes – that was her method when dealing with a story written to order. However, also at this point in her career, her cancer was diagnosed. All her writing suddenly became a matter of considerable urgency. At first, she wasn’t sure how long it would take for her to recover from surgery and therapy. Then, it became obvious that the real problem was going to be how long she would live to write at all …

Kage’s reaction to this – with which she came to terms LONG before I did – was to pour most of what was left of her strength into the writing. She was determined to finish. As she had Mendoza often say, Nothing matters. Except the work.

It became increasingly difficult for Kage to sit up and type. So the notes and planning for NG II became more and more a verbal affair. It was a super-brainstorming session, where she described the basic plot to me and we worked out the details together. I took down the notes and the structure; I did the research and brought her the results, and she and I decided how to wind them into the growing plot. When she decided it was time to begin writing, we rigged up a lap desk with her notebook computer (affectionately called The Buke, after the personal computers used in her Company series) and she started in.

But by that time – November or so of 2009 – she was getting increasingly weaker and sicker. She was also still writing reviews of silent science fiction and fantasy movies for Tor.com, and the effort of physically writing was too much for her. She began to dictate to me instead. Ultimately, I did the last 3 reviews for Tor as well, from her instructions and partial dictation.

Kage dictated the first several pages of NG II to me straight off the top of her head. The text she recited covers the first 14 pages of the Subterranean hard copy version – some of that was later lightly edited and supplemented by me, but the most of those pages was directly from Kage. There were a lot of Mozart and Scoliari jokes … I kept yelling, “You go too fast!” and she would yell back, “But do you have it?” It made us laugh inordinately.

And that’s where we were when she died, on January 31, 2010.

When she died, I had those first 14 pages and days worth of notes and brainstorming. The publisher, Bill Schafer, kindly agreed to let me see what I could do with it; in this, he was strongly encouraged by Kage’s indomitable agent, Linn Prentis. I owe both of them perpetual thanks. What with one thing and another – Kage’s funeral and estate processes; half-a-dozen conventions where I took her place; closing up and moving our household; more or less losing my mind for a while – it was a year to the day after her death before I finished it. It came to 176 pages. So, Kage wrote 14 pages of it and I wrote 162 pages from her notes.

It’s hard to pinpoint every place where Kage’s words are used; I can’t recall, now, exactly, where some of it came from – the bicycle and the dog are mine but a lot of the rest … it was all in the notes and the long, long conversations. Readers tell me that they can pick out Kage’s words clearly here and there – others can’t tell one of us from the other. Personally, I heard her voice in every line, precisely as if she were still dictating to me from the sofa. Including all the places where she observed, “That’s crap. Do it over.”

I think everyone who finds themselves in this kind of postmortum collaboration has that happen. Kage may have been a little louder than many, because she was so recently gone and I knew her so long and so well. But believe me; everyone who has picked up someone else’s work hears them talking. At least part of the time.

And there’s more. The afternoon she died, Kage spent a determined hour telling me the story of an Icelandic witch who marries a troll. I’m working at the moment on a short story called Pareidolia, which features Joseph and icons in Byzantium. It’s all in the notes. And I have the blueprints for everything.

BestofKageBakerFar Beyond Reality: For reasons that are probably obvious to anyone who has read it, I was stunned and extremely moved by “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park”, the final story in the recent collection The Best of Kage Baker from Subterranean Press (review). Can you tell us about the writing process for that story?

Kathleen Bartholomew: Ah, that’s a grand story; Kage enjoyed writing it. She got the request through her agent, Linn – a strange little “intellectual” magazine put out an annual fiction issue, and wanted some brand-new science fiction to flavour the mix. Linn offered the assignment to Kage because she felt Kage’s work was cerebral enough to fit the bill, and unique enough to intrigue them.

Looking through the notes and Kage’s bibliography, I can’t even find the name of the journal. It was a tiny little thing, black and white on paper just a cut above newsprint – evidently terribly avante garde and East Coast. I do remember that the articles and stories in the sample copy were all very bitter and dark and rather self-consciously twisted. Lots of spoiled romances, unhappy sexuality, new-minted cynicism. Kage herself was unsure she could produce anything they would want, so she decided to finally write “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park”, which was a very strange story she had had in mind for some years.

See, Kage was fascinated by Adolph Sutro, and by Sutro Park. Mr. Sutro was an enormous mover and shaker in San Francisco, and left his mark on the city in all sorts of odd ways. Kage researched him and all his works, as it were; and she loved Sutro Park.

Have you ever been to Sutro Park? It’s what remains of Sutro’s 19th century estate, way out on the literal edge of San Francisco. Across the street to the west is the Pacific Ocean; across the street to the north are the remains of what was Sutro’s enormous Bath House. There was once a huge, public indoor pool under a roof of glass panels, and a little fun fair on the outside; now the fun fair is a parking lot and the Baths themselves are broken open to the sky. The waves wash in and out over the shattered sea wall, and the whole place looks like a bomb crater. It’s not – it was torn down by bulldozers in the mid-20th century.

Sutro’s estate itself is a City park – lawns and flower beds, a few statues remaining of the dozens Sutro once had on display there. In one place a few yards of tile floor in the grass mark where the greenhouse stood. There are battlements on the seaward side, where the house once stood. Even when Sutro lived there, the place was open to the public – he felt strongly that the common folks ought to have access to parks and green places. Currently, the place is a pale memory of the sumptuousness that Sutro built – San Francisco doesn’t have the money to maintain it, and what gardening goes on is largely done by volunteers. As there is nothing like sports equipment or playgrounds there, it’s mostly the sort of park where people go to walk, sit, paint, read, or leave beads and loaves of bread at the feet of of the statue of Diana. A lot of those people are rather odd.

Kage and I visited there as often as we could. She loved the place, and researched it until she could point out to me where all the interesting bits of it had stood  - the house, the specific statues, the greenhouses – and the beautiful, famous carpet beds, which were a Victorian-style feature of the gardens. She’d stand there in the middle of a graveled path, and point to various places empty of anything more splendid than a wooden bench, and describe to me what had once been there.

And that’s the ability she gave her damaged Operative protagonist, Ezra: though he needed an augmented brain to do it. Kristy Ann, the poor lost young woman he eventually liberates into his perfect memory of the place, was partly inspired by all the strange people who sit on the benches there and stare as if the Carpet Beds were still in flower – because, Kage said, maybe for those people, they are.

Both those characters were drawn very strongly from Kage herself. Ezra is essentially autistic – Kage herself had Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s no secret, and she both talked about it freely at conventions, and coped with it very well: but Ezra’s problems are ones with which she identified a great deal. Kristy Ann she wrote as a sort of “There but for the grace of God, go I.” figure – someone whose luck doesn’t give her a way to escape a miserably confused childhood to some decent sort of life. And because one of the reasons Kage wrote alternate history was to correct the injustices of the world, she gave them both a peculiar but happy ending.

Kristy Ann is dying of cancer when she makes her final trip to the Park, where Ezra rescues her. Kage wrote that before she knew about her own cancer. She was a little wistful about that later on – she said it would have been cool to spend eternity in the summer glory of Sutro’s Park.

The little intellectual journal accepted the story and even paid for it – which will make an author forgive a lot!  But they didn’t really know what to make of it. Linn said it frightened them. I think the editorial staff was probably very young.

There’s a companion piece in the notes, too. About the ghostly surfers reputed to float beyond the breakers in the sea below Cliff House.

It only took Kage about a week to write it; she’d been planning it for years. I cry every time I read it.

Kage's first fantasy novel

Kage’s first fantasy novel

Far Beyond Reality: I know this is an impossible question, but what are your (other) favorite stories by Kage? Favorite novels? Characters? Scenes? Anything else you’d like to single out?

Kathleen Bartholomew: Actually, I do have favourites among Kage’s books, stories and characters. My favourite characters are Ermenwyr, from The Anvil of the World; and good old Joseph. They are both complicated people, who are forced by circumstances to be heroes when they would really rather not be heroes. And they make me laugh. I feel like I’ve lived with each of them for years.

I like most of Kage’s female characters – except Mendoza. It’s not that I dislike her, and God He knows, her troubles are real. But she is also a bit of brat, and much of her grief is of her own making. I’d like to have a long, serious,maternal sort of talk with that girl.

My favourite book … that’s a hard one. I love them all, having watched each one grow into itself over the years. But I do have a soft place in my heart for The Anvil of the World and The Empress of Mars. The stories in Anvil date back, in their original forms, to when we were 14 and 15 years old – lots of them were talked into being while we sat in the boughs of trees in the front yard, or sat under the apricot trees eating all the fruit we could eat, or wandering around Hollywood on long summer days. Gard and his peculiar family are old, old friends.

And I love The Empress of Mars. How could I not? Kage wrote Mary based on me, and gave me the planet Mars into the bargain. Besides, it’s a grand story.

As far as the Company books and stories – for books, I like The Machine’s Child best. It’s where a lot of threads come together and the plot thickens like mad. And it’s a rip-roaring adventure, too. Clones! Bears! Multiple Personality Disorder! Tropic Isles and actual time travel! It’s a great story.

Among the smaller works, I love The Angel In the Darkness and “The Catch”. They are Company stories, but they show you more of the everyday workings of an immortal’s life – someone who is not as cosmically messed up as Mendoza.

Short stories … she wrote a series of them about a weird little beach town, and I really like them. “Calamari Curls”, “Pueblo, CO Has The Answers”, “Monkey Day”, etc. All gems.

And there are just passages in some of her writing where you can see the Muse of Fire that all writers long for, standing behind Kage with a hand on the back of her neck. The embodying of Captain Morgan makes me laugh in delight. The section in The House of the Stag where Gard explores the life of an actor. The scene in Anvil where Smith declines to destroy the world.

And I still get chills every time I read the passage where the dead of Mars Two appear to the Inklings Nouveau, with the “fragments of their children” in their hands …

Far Beyond Reality: And finally, do you write any fiction that’s not connected to one of Kage’s worlds? If so, can you tell us about it and let us know if we’ll ever get the chance to read it?

Kathleen Bartholomew:  Wow. That’s a harder question than I would have thought.

Yes, I do write some stuff that is not connected to Kage’s worlds. But not much. We spent most of the last 40 years brain storming, and all our ideas have gotten sort of pressed together.  There’s another Mars Two story on the back burner, for instance, And one set on Luna, probably about the Ephesians and Diana of Luna. And one about a Finnish witch and the trolls. The thing here is, Kage’s stories are not yet all told – that’s what I am trying to accomplish first and foremost,

I do have a sort of buddy story about a couple of nuns in a world headed for apocalypse. And another about the unpleasant reproductive habits of faeries …  whether or not they ever sees the light of day depends partly on how I do at these stories from Kage’s notes. Linn the agent will be seeing the first of them over the next couple of months. At that point, I’ll find out whether or not I have produced crap.

My blog is partially intended to get readers used to the idea that I can write. And,of course, your kind assistance in letting me ramble on here is greatly appreciated!

Far Beyond Reality: Thank you for this amazing interview.

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5 Responses to Author Interview: Kathleen Bartholomew, sister of Kage Baker

  1. Redhead says:

    Thank you so much for this amazing interview! I didn’t discover the writings of Kage Baker until after her death, and I had no idea of the details of her life or how closely she worked with her sister. A while ago, someone recommended The Anvil of the World to me, and I gotta tell ya, that book changed my outlook on how a fantasy book should read. because that book? that’s how to do it right.

  2. Pingback: Criticism | Kathleen, Kage and the Company

  3. Pingback: Lookin’ Good: In the Company of Thieves by Kage Baker | Far Beyond Reality

  4. Pingback: In the Company of Thieves by Kage Baker | Far Beyond Reality

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