Interview with Margaret Killjoy (A COUNTRY OF GHOSTS)
Margaret Killjoy interview transcript 17th June 2022
Margaret Killjoy is an author and activist. She has written A Country Of Ghosts (2014), which was recently reissued by AK Press, as well as the Danielle Cain novellas for Tor Dot Com, comprising The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion (2017) and The Barrow Will Send What It May (2018). Her work combines insightful exploration of anarchist and utopian themes with excellent character work and creative speculative and fantastical imaginings. She has also written the non-fiction Mythmakers & Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers On Fiction (2009), creates music with her feminist black metal band Feminazgûl, and hosts the podcasts Live Like The World Is Dying and Cool People Who Did Cool Stuff. Margaret was kind enough to speak to The Fantasy Hive via Zoom.
Your novel A Country Of Ghost has recently been reissued by AK Press as part of their Black Dawn series. Could you tell us a bit about it?
Yeah, A Country Of Ghosts is a utopian novel, in which a journalist from a colonial power ends up embedded in the front in a colonial war of conquest. He realizes that he’s on the wrong side and ends up working with an anarchistic society to resist the colonial invasion. That’s the elevator version.
And one of the things that I very much enjoyed about the book was that it’s an exploration of possibly utopian ways of living. Especially in recent years, we talk about the turn of science fiction towards the dystopian rather than the utopian. What made you want to tell a utopian story about how we could live better than we do now?
I like dystopian fiction, and I don’t want to knock it as a genre. But I will say that I think one of the reasons that it is more popular as a genre is that it’s easier. Both as a writer and as a publisher. Because one, as a writer, it’s easier to generate conflict and conflict is the engine of stories, at least in the Western world. And it’s easier to generate conflict with a dystopia because you obviously have a problem – there’s a dystopia! And two, it’s easier to sell people on fighting against bad things than getting people to agree on what to fight for. And so I think that combination is one of the reasons we haven’t seen as much utopian fiction. Although I’m excited that this is starting to change a little bit as people become aware that fiction – not just written fiction, but stories in general – are how we generate what we perceive as possible, as a society and as individuals. And so we need stories that show other ways of living, besides the one that we’re in now that is obviously doing us all a great bit of disservice. I’ve been involved as an anarchist and involved in political activism for about 20 years now. But, you know, it was more than a decade at the time that I wrote the novel. I had seen people prefiguring creating societies, without authoritarianism, and without capitalist exchange models and working to undermine the rest of the oppressive systems that we live under, like white supremacy and patriarchy. Obviously, there’s no magic bullet on these things. But I’ve seen people working really hard in their own lives, in organizations, in activist camps, in various places, to prefigure a better world. I realized that I wanted to see that, but I wanted to see it in a fictional form. Because I know that I get stories and ideas better through fiction personally than I do through theory. So I basically just sat down to write up, it’s not a complete wonderful like what I wish the world looked like, but it is close. It is close to how I envision an ideal society. They are struggling with some problems there that I couldn’t just magic wand that way. So, for example, there’s no coffee at the moment, in Hron. So, yeah, that’s why I wrote it.
Your protagonist Dimos Horacki has a certain amount of privilege coming from the colonial background, but this is undermined by his identity as a gay man…
So, one of the things that I wanted to explore with his identity is the idea that within the city that he grew up in, he’s not necessarily facing much oppression as a gay man. And yet, when he comes out to the colonial edge where the war is happening, he suddenly is oppressed because the army is very homophobic, even if the society it comes from is theoretically not. I wanted to show that contrast about how the raw edge of the state relies on oppressive mindsets and relies upon being a safe place to be a bigot. And despite sort of creating a more insulated safe place back home. I just wanted to show that, highlight that difference. And then, of course, you know, it’s an easy way to contrast the society in Hron, the utopian society is completely gay accepting, completely queer accepting. I partly included that to not make Borolia a simple dystopia. It’s that thing where it does not feel like a dystopia necessarily to those who live in it, although, clearly, there’s all the signs. Yet it relies on all these dystopian elements in a way, like the violence at the front and the anti -gay rhetoric and stuff at the front.
In the novel, you also contrast Hron, which agrees to operate with some rules, with the completely ruleless Karak….
Within the book, there is the sort of non-country of Hron, which is anarchistic but has accepted an accord, it’s accepted certain rules of behavior. It’s not like as soon as you break the rules, you’re out, but for people who consciously do not sign off on the social contract, there is a place where they can choose to go. And it is a town a sort of territory at the edge of Hron called Karak, which kind of like is and isn’t within the boundaries of Hron. And the tension between the two is one of the main driving forces of the plot of the book. But also, I wanted to show that there’s actually symbiosis available between a lot of different ways of viewing anti-authoritarian societies. So I absolutely would want to live in Hron. I don’t mind accepting rules like don’t destroy the environment, or don’t pick fights for no reason or whatever. But I know people and respect people who would be like, No, fuck that, right? Who want to explore the raw edge of freedom and what that means, and want to go do it consensually. And so, there’s a place for folks like that as well. And there’s mobility between those places, of course. And then Hron itself is also not a homogenous space. There’s a lot of different cultures and even polities that overlap. Although they overall are sharing one political ideal, even if culturally they’re sharing a lot of different spaces between the rural folks and the more urban folks there.
You’ve also written the Danielle Cain novellas. Would you be able to tell us a bit about that series?
Yeah, so the Danielle Cain series is currently a duology, there’s the chance that it’ll expand out. It follows the protagonist, Danielle Cain, as well as another group of people. I mostly like calling it punk rock Scooby Doo. Because by the second book they’re literally in a van and driving around, trying to solve what’s going on in the spooky world. But the beginning of the first book, our protagonist, Danielle Cain, is just off to go find out what happened to a friend who killed himself and why he did it. And so she goes to the last place he lived, which is an anarchist settlement. She does not know that magic exists at the start of the book, and not in the dramatic way that it exists within this book. But yes, the town is being watched over by a malevolent, or benevolent depending on the day, deer named Uliksi, that is a demon that they summoned in order to essentially be cops in the town, to be the force that goes around and make sure that no one wields power over other people. And it goes wrong. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor that I think I pulled off about the nature of power and what we choose to give up our autonomy to invest into. But it’s mostly meant to be fun. A Country Of Ghosts is a little bit more serious in tone. And the Danielle Cain books are definitely meant to be much lighter. They take place in modern society, the characters are closer to people that we all know. They came out from Tor dot com in 2017 and 2018.
I think they do a really good job of being straightforward, fun books, but at the same time, you’re still exploring these ideas around anarchism and different ways to live. Especially in the first one, the town of Freedom is really interesting because in some ways, they come so close to sort of living this ideal, but can’t quite get there…
I started writing a version of the first Danielle Cain book immediately after I finished A Country Of Ghosts. Sometimes I get into these writing sprints. I’m a very sporadic writer, I’ll write two books one year, and then nothing for two years or something. And so I wrote a book that was not nearly as good. It had similar bones and took place in Freedom, Iowa. And it didn’t have the demon deer in it. It just was anarchy town, a squatter town in Iowa. And it just wasn’t as good. It wasn’t as good thematically or narratively as when I made it more self-consciously a genre book by introducing the supernatural. And I liked that. I liked that writing in genre lets you turn things up to 11 in order to draw attention to certain points, certain concepts, in a way that non-genre fiction sometimes struggles to do. I appreciate both, but something that I really like about genre is my ability to do that. I think that, in the first book, the Landless Loggers Alliance is absolutely sort of a spiritual successor in some ways to A Country Of Ghosts, yet spinning off from it in very much its own direction, a much pulpier direction. It’s fun, when people are like, what book of yours do I read? And I’m like, well, do you want the serious one or the one that’s the same thing, but a little bit goofier?
When in the process of writing it did you know you were going to do a sequel?
So I think this is safe to say, the reason I did that is I wanted the publisher to buy more than one! Because I wanted to write a series. But I was a beginning author at the time. That was my first sort of mainstream published book. So I finished the book and sent it to an editor who was interested in seeing it, but I intentionally left the door open to sequels because I wanted to write sequels. Tor bought two of them, they bought a duology, and so that’s what I’ve written so far. But yeah, I knew from the beginning that I liked these characters. They’re fun to write, they can have fun adventures, and they can explore themes I care about. The second book is much more about feminism, for example, the way that power is held in interpersonal relationships, and what happens in our loved ones’ lives. And I have a couple more of them mapped out that I’m hoping I’ll have some announcements about within a year or so. But who knows!
Fingers crossed! I would love more Danielle Cain books!
Later this year, you have a short story collection, We Won’t Be Here Tomorrow, coming out. Am I right in thinking this is your first collection of short fiction?
The book, We Won’t Be Here Tomorrow, comes out from AK Press on September 20th, it’s the short fiction that I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing short fiction for a very long time. It doesn’t go back to the very beginning, when I was four, or five, when my my dad published one of my short stories in his zine. My dad’s also an interesting, creative person who published in the 80s, and published some of my fiction and when I was too young to remember writing. It will also not include material from like high school and early 20s. But basically, since I’ve been writing at a more professional level, it’s a collection of most of my stories, not all of my stories.
I’ve been very excited. They’ve been published in a bunch of different markets. But the readership of the science fiction short fiction markets and websites and things, I think is a smaller readership than that for collected short fiction books. And so I’ve been looking for a while for a good moment to put out a collection. I finished some stories a year or two ago now, as I kind of closed out my Patreon. I used to publish a lot of my fiction to my Patreon backers, but I no longer have a personal Patreon, I passed off my personal Patreon to support a short fiction publisher called Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness that I’m part of that’s collectively run. And it felt like a good closure moment. So I put them all together. And if people want to read about trans women who feed men to their mermaid girlfriend, or if they want to read about hackers who program AI into drones in order to troll CEOs into quitting. Or a lot of stuff that’s either fantasy feminism, or hackers in the modern era. Or a fugitive who’s in love with the ghost in the haunted house that she’s hiding in. I’m excited for people to see that because I think it’ll show a wider selection of my work than what most people have been exposed to.
Your passionate interest in both anarchism and feminism very much informs your work. And I know from that your biography on the websites that you’ve been involved in activism for large parts of your life as well. Could you tell us a little bit about activism as an anarchist, and how you feel it relates to your creative process as a writer?
Yeah. So when I was younger, and first discovered radical politics, something clicked in me and a lot of things that I’ve been struggling to make sense of made sense. Because most of the alternatives that have been presented, that have been existent, seemed very uninteresting to me. And so basically, I discovered anarchism, and I never looked back in a lot of ways.
I wanted to hit the ground running. I was 19, and I wanted to change the world. I wanted to do so as directly as possible. There was a very large movement that I came into, that mostly now gets called the anti-globalization or alter globalization movement, that now people using very similar terminology might mean something sort of right wing, that absolutely was a strong international left-wing movement at the turn of the millennium. I hit the ground running with that. I went off to go protest everywhere I could, I got involved in squatting, I got involved in organizing environmental defence. I sat in some trees. And I think that this did several good things for me. It did several bad things for me too, like PTSD, but it did several good things for me. It gave me a breadth of experience that I had not previously been exposed to. I think in particular, people who’ve come from more sheltered or privileged backgrounds who want to be writers – and I grew up white and middle class, and my gender expression, I was very deep in the closet for teenage life. So I needed to experience more things before I could be a good writer. I wasn’t doing it for the sake of being a good writer. But I do believe that the experiences that I had have been more useful to me as a writer than any formal study could have been. And so it did that.
It also gave me a sense of how things change, and how people respond to different ideas. I spent a lot of time trying to convince strangers to not cut down a forest, or to be opposed to different international trade agreements or whatever. And so that taught me a lot about one, how people work in terms of writing realistic characters and two, in terms of why write? I was writing the whole time, but I didn’t think it really mattered. Then I started a very conscious project that became my first book, Mythmakers & Lawbreakers, which is not fiction, it is interviews with anarchist fiction writers about why they’re engaged in writing fiction. In my mind it is sort of anchored by an interview with Ursula Le Guin. That was the first interview I did for the project. And talking about what role fiction has within social change. That really opened my eyes. I saw them as very separate activities. And I no longer do, although I also do believe that it’s also easy to go too far the other way and be like, well, I’m doing my part, I sit at home and take no risks! And, you know, I do think that the actual work of making things change in this world involve organization, and they involve direct action, and they involve confronting oppressive powers directly.
I also think that, on top of this, you can’t just decide that you know how to write because you’re a good activist, in the same way that you can’t just decide you’re a good activists because you know how to write. And they really are separate skills that need to be developed. I think this is starting to change as a wider swath of people have a more radical understanding of politics. For a while, I think people would cringe when they would hear someone talk about an activist writing fiction, because we’re expecting activist fiction that’s like, well, let me tell you the point of why you should follow my political ideology for why prison is bad or whatever. I clearly do that – I wrote an anarchist utopian book, right? But then at some point, you realize that almost all fiction, especially science fiction, is activist fiction. Sometimes it’s an activist fiction for the status quo! But for the most part, it’s not, there’s like people all over the right and left and then weird combinations of both right and left, all over the history of science fiction. And so any radicals who are considering coming into the fiction world – I know your audience is a little bit more the opposite of that! – but I would say that there’s actually more welcome than you would expect, as long as people come in open minded and not come in saying my ideas have the right idea that everyone needs to listen to them. I have found the science fiction world to be very welcoming. And it’s cool to like meet old Grandmaster science fiction authors at conventions, and then have someone be like, you have to meet Margaret. She’s an anarchist! But then to have the person I’m talking to be like, Oh, me, too, you know, like somebody’s books that I read when I was 15 or whatever. Or people being like, oh, well, I’m not that but that’s really interesting to me or whatever. I know the question wasn’t about why science fiction rules and is an accepting community but I love how accepting the science fiction community can be. Not always. But it can be. Can I tell a story about that?
Yeah, of course.
The Chinese science fiction magazine, Science Fiction World, I believe it is the science fiction magazine with the largest print distribution in the world. And they translated one of my stories and published it. And then at the beginning of the pandemic, the staff of that magazine in China reached out to me and I believe other American science fiction authors they published and said, from our country to yours, solidarity. We know you have a mask shortage. And they sent me hundreds of KN95 masks when you couldn’t get them in the United States. And so then I was able to then go to George Floyd uprising and protests and distribute masks to people because science fiction cared. Science fiction, in another part of the world, sent a whole bunch of masks to a place that couldn’t get any. It made me happy.
That’s a lovely story!
As well as writing and activism, you’re also involved in a whole bunch of other projects. You’re a musician in various bands. And you host a couple of podcasts as well. So where do you find the time for this?
I don’t know the answer to that question right now. I’m actually struggling a little bit right now, because it was different when I wasn’t very good at all the different things that I do. And I’m not amazing at the things I do now. But I’m good enough at the things I do now that they get more recognition and therefore, take more time, and involve more care and work. I used to just release albums by myself. And now I’m in a three-piece metal band called Feminazgûl that’s signed to Prosthetic Records. And so now there’s obligations to a record label, and to my bandmates to produce a certain amount of music, or help them when they’re producing music. And then I had a podcast that I just did for fun, called Live Like The World Is Dying. It was tied into my Patreon and I was supporting myself through my Patreon at the time. But I have a community and individual preparedness podcast called Live Like the World is Dying where I talk about taking preparedness into a community minded mindset. Like leftist and anarchist, but more specifically, just trying to say, survival isn’t about hoarding supplies, and hiding in the basement, but instead about building connections with community and building resilient communities. And sometimes hoarding food in your basement! My basement is definitely full of food. And then that sort of took off because I started it before the pandemic. And then for some reason, when the pandemic started, people suddenly started really caring about preparedness! And now I have another podcast that I do twice a week, called Cool People Who Did Cool Stuff, which is a history podcast. And that involves writing 10,000 words of a script every week. For anyone keeping track at home means every two months, I produce a novel’s worth writing, only about eight different topics. So that’s a lot of work. And I have a full time day job. But at the moment, I don’t balance it incredibly well, I need to find another way to balance it. But some of the ways that I do it is that as these projects expand, they’re no longer just me. So the way that I do it, is that I’m able to rely on my bandmates, and I’m able to rely on my record label. I’m able to rely on our band manager, and I have two producers for my two different podcasts and I rely heavily upon them. And my agent in terms of my writing. I work at my my day job, I am the person who is relied upon by the person who gets the work done. I work at it, but I do project management. I’m helping, I’m facilitating other people accomplishing things in a similar way that my producer might be facilitating me to, to put out the work that I do. So it’s just a big inner woven net that is the way to get things done. An inner woven net and also not having any other hobbies – but I do make my own instruments for my band!
Do you see all your creative work across the different bands and projects as being connected?
I do for the most part. Most of the time when I have something I want to say, I think about what medium expresses it best. I think that fiction, if you’ll forgive me to compare things to spell casting, you can think of it in D&D terms if you want, there’s a long casting time on writing a novel. It takes anywhere from two months to two years to just write it. It then takes anywhere from two months to two years to find a publisher, for it to come out another year or two, and then for the audience to internalize it and start thinking about it, and have it influence them, you’re talking years and years before a novel has an impact upon the world. But a song I can theoretically put up, and someone can listen to it in five minutes. And then be put into the mood that I want to express. So it’s just different. When I think about something that I want to say, I think about what the best way to say it is, what the best medium is for it. Podcasts are particularly good. I think for me, I just use them for raw information. They fit very similar niches as what pamphlets and zines and stuff used to fill. Everyone can make them and some of them go further than others. And that’s totally cool. People are like, oh, everyone has a podcast. I’m like, great. Okay. Listen to the ones you want. Don’t listen to ones you don’t want. Why would I complain about someone making something? Just because I don’t enjoy it. I just won’t listen to it. And it’s a hard scene to get noticed in, because there’s so many people doing it, but there’s also so many listeners. But yeah, in terms of themes. Sometimes my work more directly ties into each other. And I think that they’ll start becoming more clear as a lot of the people that we sing about in Feminazgûl are going to weave their way more into the writing, especially if I write more Danielle Cain books. But they’re also just coming in from the same place in terms of how I see the world, in terms of how I see the physical manifestation of different thematic ideas, of what Gods are and aren’t. All that stuff will tie in together. And it’s fun. I totally get now why so many writers that I love are just 50 years into one wild, weird world building thing. Or just declare all their work a multiverse. So they’d be like, yeah, it’s all tied together somehow. I totally get it now.
What’s next for Margaret Killjoy?
I am mostly working on the podcast, Cool People Who Did Cool Stuff. That is where the majority of my writing hours go. But I have two more books that will probably be out in the next year or two. One is a fun novella called Escape From Incel Island. And another is a YA book. There’s a decent chance it will get small press published at this point. Those are done, I guess. And my work in progress right now is a medium near future story about anarchist space marines.
Thank you, Margaret Killjoy, for speaking with us!