It’s been nearly thirty years since writer Kathe Koja released her first strange and scary novel, The Cipher. But rather than buying it a pearl necklace, the good people at Meerkat Press are instead bestowing this story with a new paperback edition, one that goes along great with the recent audiobook version…and the 8-year-old Kindle edition. In the following email interview about it, Koja discusses both this story and the other books she has coming soon or newly released.
Photo Credit: Rick Lieder
To begin, what is The Cipher about?
Cipher follows a dead end couple, Nicholas and Nakota, who find an inexplicable hole in a dusty storeroom: the Funhole. They start to experiment with it, and everything goes fully out of control.
Where did you get the idea for The Cipher, and how, if at all, did the idea evolve as you wrote this book?
The Cipher grew out of an earlier story, where the character of Nicholas first appeared. All my work always begins with a character, and once Nicholas emerged, it was clear that he had something major all his own that needed to happen. And that something was the Funhole, and Cipher.
It sounds like The Cipher is a scary story. Is that how you see it?
It’s very scary. It’s very strange. It’s very funny in certain moments — I think so, anyway — if you prefer your humor very cold. The book’s been described as a horror novel, a novel of the weird, magic realism, a psychological thriller, even as sci-fi. Its genre is in the eye of the beholder.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Cipher but not on anything you’ve written? Or was it more influenced by movies and TV shows?
I don’t really work from the outside in that way – it’s all about the character.
Now, this is a new version of The Cipher; the original is out of print. Is there anything new in this edition?
The original Dell edition of The Cipher is out of print; an ebook edition from Roadswell Editions has been available since 2012. What’s new in this Meerkat Press edition is a wonderfully incise and totally heartfelt afterword by Maryse Meijer, whose work I love and whose imagination is like no one else’s.
In the previous interview we did for your short story collection Velocities [which you can read by clicking here], you said, “I never rewrite or revisit any of my stories or novels. When I’ve finished something, it’s already as complete as I can make it, with as much care and skill as I can offer in that moment.” But when it came to this new edition of The Cipher, were you ever tempted to change something, or did it strengthen your resolve to never change anything?
I was never tempted to revise or rewrite Cipher for this new edition — the novel was and is already everything it needs to be.
And did you reread The Cipher in anticipation of its re-release?
I didn’t reread The Cipher, but I did listen to the audio edition as it came into being, which made the book wholly new for me again. Joshua Saxon of Saxon Audio did more than just straight narration: this is a translation, and it’s an entirely different way to experience the story. Even if you know Cipher very well, you owe it to yourself to hear this edition.
As I mentioned, we previously spoke about your short story collection, Velocities, which came out in April. For people who haven’t read it, what kind of stories are in Velocities, genre-wise?
The stories in Velocities could be considered weird fiction, historical fiction, horror fiction, futurist fiction: they don’t all share a genre, but they do all share a voice.
And how did you decide which of your stories to include in Velocities and which to save for the next collection?
I really put them together by feel — what stories felt right together, belonged together, rhymed together — and let that dictate the shape and length of the collection. But there are definitely others available for a third collection, down the road. First Extremities, then Velocities, then…
As if The Cipher and Velocities weren’t enough, you’re also hard at work on your next novel, Dark Factory. What is that going to be about, and do you know yet when it will be out?
I call Dark Factory a narrative mixtape because it brings together so many different components — including graphic art, audio, and (soon) video — to tell the story of a dance club where reality is customizable, and people can make their own world for a night. But then the real world decides to play along… Dark Factory is immersive fiction, a new way to experience a narrative, and I’m using my performance skillset — I also create, direct and produce immersive events through my production company, Loudermilk LLC — to make this world feel as real as our own. It’s a work in progress, so there’s no final completion date yet, but soon.
You can find out more about Dark Factory on Patreon.
Going back to The Cipher, I asked earlier if it had been influenced by any movies or TV shows. But has there been any interest — either before or now — in adapting The Cipher into a movie or show?
The Cipher has been optioned multiple times for film, and is under option right now. I can’t share the full details yet, but I will as soon as that’s possible.
If The Cipher does get made into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Nicholas and Nakota?
Reimagining a character as a living actor is a delicate business — we’ve all been disappointed by casting choices when our favorite books turn into films. What would matter most about casting The Cipher would be the lead actors’ chemistry: we must believe in the bond between Nicholas and Nakota, even if we don’t, or can’t, understand it. Or share it! Those actors would need to be fearless in more than one way.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Cipher, then they should check out Velocities. But after they’ve read that, what scary story of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?