Exclusive Interview: Burn Author James Patrick Kelly

Thirteen years after being released in print, James Patrick Kelly’s sci-fi novel Burn will finally be legally available as an eBook. In honor of this, I traded emails with him about this new edition, as well as about his upcoming short story collection, The Promise Of Space And Other Stories, which, ironically, is only being released in paperback this July.

James Patrick Kelly Burn The Promise Of Space

Photo Credit: Bill Clemente


For those who didn’t read it when it came out in 2005, what is Burn about?

Burn is a sociological adventure story about fighting forest fires on planet where indigenous peoples set forest fires to disrupt the founding of a would-be utopia based on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Hijinks ensue.

Where did you get the idea for Burn and how different is the finished novel from that initial idea?

As a science fiction writer, I’ve always had problems with Thoreau’s anti-technological notions of the Good Life. So I tried to extrapolate some of his ideas into a small scale agricultural society that was trying to maintain recognizable human values against the background of an advanced interstellar culture.But as I wrote, I got carried away doing research into forest fire fighting and inventing the dominant posthuman culture that the people of Walden were rejecting.

Burn is a science fiction story. But do you think there’s a subgenre of sci-fi, or combination of them, that describes this novel better?

If you look up “planetary romance” in the online Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction, you’ll get a sense of the tradition I thought I was writing in. Burnis not a “romance” in the sense of the popular genre with fiery gazes and passionate embraces, though there certainly is thwarted love as a subplot.

You’ve released numerous novels and short stories both before and after Burn was published. Were there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Burn, but not on your other work? Aside from Walden, of course.

Even though I was pushing hard against Thoreau’s conservative and largely agrarian values, I always respected the essence of humanity that he was advocating for. One of my favorite reviews of the book was in Booklist which makes this astute observation: “Besides its fireman hero (a reversal of Montag in Fahrenheit 451) and its would-be-utopian setting, the warm humanity and rural sympathies of this affectionate, winsome short novel will make many recall Ray Bradbury at his best.” While I wasn’t consciously thinking of Bradbury, as soon as I read this, I blushed. The quote captures an important part of the novel’s sensibility in that the people of planet Walden embrace some of Bradbury’s sunnier impulses.

What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have an impact on Burn?

Movies? TV shows? Video games? What are these exotic amusements of which you speak?

Don’t worry about it. Passing fads. Now, this new version of Burn marks the first time it’s legally available an an eBook. Are there any differences between this new version and the original?

I have written a new afterword which talks about some of the same issues we’re discussing here: the sources of my inspiration, the challenges of writing, and the clash of my imagined cultures. It’s called “What I Wrote and Why I Wrote It.” Thoreau fans will get the nod to Walden.

James Patrick Kelly Burn The Promise Of Space

Along with the new version of Burn, you also have a new short story collection, The Promise Of Space And Other Stories, coming out July 10th. What can you tell us about these stories and this collection? For instance, is there a theme or some connective tissue, or some chronological aspect to this collection?

The only thing which connects the stories in The Promise Of Space is that they were published relatively recently. I had a 220,000-word retrospective collection in 2016 from Centipede Press called James Patrick Kelly, Masters Of Science Fiction which spanned my entire literary career, though it was by no means all-inclusive. Despite its 2016 publication date, it had no stories written after 2011. Print publishing has some long lead times. This new book catches Kelly readers up on what I’ve been doing lately. For example, it includes a story original to the collection called “Yukui!”

Are any of the stories in The Promise Of Space And Other Stories connected in any way to Burn or any of your other books?

“Someday,” “Soulcatcher,” and “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” are all set in my Thousand Worlds universe [as is Burn]. In fact, the story I am currently working on belongs there. I suppose someday there might be collection for these pieces.

Though having typed that, I should say that none of these stories share characters, nor are they prequels or sequels. About the only thing they have in common is that they are set in a far-future, post-human universe in which faster-than-light travel is possible but very expensive and thus the cultures of most of the inhabited planets have developed largely in isolation.

Do you think fans of Burn will enjoy the stories in The Promise Of Space And Other Stories and vice versa, or do you think they’re so different that only someone who’s into your writing style will appreciate both?

I certainly hope that Burn fans will buy the new book. When Sean Wallace at Prime approached me about the collection, he said he wanted my latest science fiction stories. For the most part, that’s what I sent him. However, I take pride in my fantasy work, and I included handful of my recent faves in the genre as well. Although very few people regard me as a fantasy writer, about a third of my short fiction is fantasy, depending on your definition and which way the wind is blowing.

Going back to Burn, I asked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced it. But has there ever been any interest in adapting Burn into a movie, show, or game?

No interest as of the moment. Do you think Jeff Bezos reads your website? Would you by any chance have Steven Spielberg’s email address?

I think Bezos might be busy. Spielberg too. But if they’re not, do you think would work best as a movie, show, or game?

Oh, probably a miniseries. That extends over multiple seasons. And hires me as an executive producer with no responsibilities whatsoever. And I want a trailer on the set just for me. With croissants.

If that happens, if Burn is adapted into a miniseries, what actors would you cast in the main roles and why them?

I’ve given some, but not a lot, of thought to the whole notion of adaptations of my work. Look, one of my best-known stories, “Think Like A Dinosaur” was adapted as an episode of the TV show The Outer Limits. I had previously adapted it myself for the Syfy’s late-lamented audiotheater experiment, Seeing Ear Theater. Neither adaptation is as good as the story, in my opinion, although each has its pleasures that arise from the skill of the actors and directors and both the set and sound designers. For me at least, a successful adaptation is one that leaves the story intact and does not overshadow it in the public eye. I was on a panel recently with some other writers whose work had been adapted, and we all agreed that what we hoped for most was that our original works would “survive” the adaptation.

James Patrick Kelly Burn The Promise Of Space

Finally, if someone enjoys Burn, they should obviously check out The Promise Of Space And Other Stories. But until that comes out this summer, which of your other books would you suggest they read next ?

My novel Mother Go. Though I am mostly known as a short story writer, I have written four full length novels. After a hiatus in novel writing, I finally finished Mother Goin 2016 and it was published as an audiobook original 2017. My deal with Audible included a one-year print blackout, so that the only way to read this book is to listen to it. But it’s a magnificent listen, narrated by the amazing actress January LaVoy [War Of The Worlds]. Don’t take my word for it: Mother Go is currently a finalist for an Audie Award, equivalent to the Hugo or Nebula, or Emmy award in Audiobookland.


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