An Interview with Margaret Killjoy

AK Press recently released a book by Margaret Killjoy called Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction, in which the author interviews 14 anarchist writers about their fiction and their politics. Killjoy is known for founding Steampunk Magazine and his own DIY press called Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. He recently completed an East Coast mini-tour to read from and speak about Mythmakers and Lawbreakers. The Nor'easter talked with Mr. Killjoy about his inspirations for his book and his thoughts on anarchism.

THE NOR’EASTER: In your book, you talk to some pretty famous and sometimes far away people, including Alan Moore, author of V for Vendetta. How did you first contact these big names? Do you think that a sense of anarchist affinity attracted them to the project (or were they simply compelled by your irresistible demeanor)?

MARGARET KILLJOY: It was actually easier to reach the famous people than the not-famous people. They proved easier to track down. And I think by and large it was because people were excited to finally talk about their politics to someone who actually understood their politics.

Some of them were kind of random – like I got in touch with Alan Moore because I was at this goth festival, Convergence 13, waiting in line for the bathroom, and this guy starts talking to me. For some reason I mentioned I was an anarchist, and he said, “Oh, you know Alan Moore is an anarchist.”

And I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard that.”

“Well, I’m friends with him – even though I’m not an anarchist; I’m something of a fascist.”

I was like, “Really?”

“Well, business acquaintances; I’ve talked to him before.”

I was like, “Okay, well I’m trying to interview anarchist fiction writers.”

He said, “Oh, well I’ll get you in contact with him. I can’t just give you his number; I have to call him and make sure that’s okay.”

And I was like, “Of course, guy, sure. I totally believe you. Here is my e-mail address. The guy I randomly met at the bathroom at a goth festival who calls himself a fascist will get me in touch with Alan Moore. Absolutely. That’s what’s going to happen.” And it did.

But I found most people to be very approachable. Just be respectful, you know? Be willing to take no for an answer.

Also a lot of people just wanted to be in the same book as Ursula K. Le Guin. I didn’t have too much trouble getting people to be in it after talking to her.

TN: Through these interviews, did you establish longer-lasting relationships with any of the authors?

MK: Interviewing can be a fairly intimate process or it can be a fairly detached process. I guess I feel like a lot of the people I now have more of a connection with, doing various speaking events with some of the other authors. But I actually only finally got to meet in person one of the authors, Lewis Shiner, recently. I did a talk in Chapel Hill, N.C., and he came out to that, and it was really great to actually meet him. There is a sort of kinship there of radical fiction writers. The people I interviewed are actually all just very nice.

Alan Moore is putting out a magazine now, too, called Dodgem Logic, and he got in contact with me to see if I wanted to contribute something about post-civilized theory. So that’s kind of exciting.

TN: What are your views on the publishing world? Is the anarchist publishing world (e.g. AK Press) different than mainstream publishing, and how so?

MK: Well, of course. I come at things mostly from a DIY publishing point of view. And AK Press is very different from DIY publishing in that they actually interact with the mainstream book world. They give books ISBNs, they work with major distributors, all of that stuff. I mean, Barnes and Noble bought copies of my book. Not sure if they’re going to sell any, of course. But at the end of the day it’s still an anarchist collective that’s running AK.

Now, even in the mainstream publishing world, any book deal you’re going to get, you have final say over all the words that are going to go into the book. But things like the cover, you have absolutely no say in, and you don’t have much control, much agency. AK Press does a really good job of working with the authors to make sure that they have agency over what happens with their words … And I think it’s just really nice to be working with people who don’t have bosses.

I talked to authors who worked all over the place; from self-published (or published by my own distro, Strangers In A Tangled Wilderness), to folks who work with independents and radicals like AK Press or PM Press, to those who publish with mainstream houses. And I think we actually need all of that. More everything, please. Just more radical books would be nice.

TN: In your research of anarchist authors, you learned that not all of them embrace the label of “anarchist,” despite still identifying with the politics. Similarly, you uncovered many authors who were very close to identifying as anarchist but didn’t quite make the cut. How did you decide which writers to interview? And what became of the rest of the research?

MK: In terms of who I chose to interview, I approached people and said, “This is my project. Do you think that you would belong in this project?” And all the people who ended up in the book said yes. Although, certainly even within the interviewees, there’s a range of how strongly people identify with “anarchist.” I learned that it’s not completely black and white, and that there are people who mostly identify with anarchism, or they identify philosophically with anarchism but not politically with anarchism. And there are other people who very strongly identify with “anarchist” who are interviewed in the book.

I also learned through this book that it’s a bit misleading to talk about radicalism through the eyes of anarchism, even though I feel that anarchism is the most useful. But I learned that there were a lot of people writing really interesting things that were completely radical and maybe even reached the same conclusions but not through the lens of anarchism. And it was kind of a shame by and large to not be able to include them. Most of the people like that ended up in the appendix of the book in the “Also of Note” section. Frank Herbert, for example, author of Dune, was a permaculturalist and way-ahead-of-his-time environmentalist who was anti-government and wasn’t right wing at all. And that’s who I want, but he didn’t use the label “anarchist.” Or Philip K. Dick was very, very questioning of government but is not quite an anarchist. I ran into that kind of thing a lot, and I tried to include a lot of those people in the “Also of Note” section. I’d do research on people and they’d seem wonderful, but then they were socialists or social democrats or all of these other potentially useful political philosophies that just didn’t happen to be anarchist. But I felt like I needed a specific choice in label; otherwise the whole project would become too broad.

TN: Many anarchists read theory as part of their radical education and often shrug off fiction as time wasted. In your own words, how would you explain the importance of fiction to anarchism?

MK: A lot of us don’t like to read non-fiction – or rather, a lot of us don’t always want to read theory. I do read a lot of non-fiction, but I don’t read a lot of theory; I can’t get through it. And I’m tired of pretending like I want to get through it. I remember growing up and thinking, “What, am I dumb? Why can’t I get through Das Kapital?” And at some point, I was like, “Ah, it’s because it’s communist and I’m an anarchist. But then, why can’t I read The Coming Insurrection?” (Well, The Coming Insurrection isn’t necessarily anarchist, either, but…) And it’s that I could – I could make myself read it, and I’m smart enough to understand it, but that’s not what I want to do. I actually would consider reading that to be time wasted, personally. Other people don’t feel that way, and other people get more out of theory, but basically, I’m sick of having what I’m interested in reading being looked down upon. I grew up developing my political, spiritual, philosophical ideas from the books I read. And it just so happened that the books I read were fiction, primarily science fiction and fantasy. They explored the same themes as philosophy books and political theory, and I actually think fiction has a hell of a lot to offer in that way because fiction is really good at asking questions. It says, “Here’s the society – now what would happen?” Whereas theory tends to be more on the “Here’s the society” page and not taking that extra step. And it’s less likely to be self-critical. If you write fiction, you usually can’t just say, “This is what’s best; everyone should do this!” Because that would make for crap fiction – and there’s a lot of crap fiction out there that tries to do that. But you need to actually question the ideas you present, when you present fiction.

TN: How and when did you realize that you are an anarchist? How have you incorporated anarchism into your own fiction?

MK: When I was 15 or 16, I thought I was a libertarian. I was dating a communist, and she said, “You know, if libertarians had their way, corporations would run everything.” And I said, “Oh crap, you’re right. But I’m just not a communist. I’ve never been a communist, I’ll never be a communist. Crap.” So I went to visit Finland, and they were social democrats there, and everything seemed kind of okay. The poor weren’t quite as poor, and the rich weren’t quite as rich. I thought, “Well, I guess social democrat is the best, I guess. Whatever.” But I didn’t really feel very strongly about this because it wasn’t very engaging; it wasn’t very dramatic or beautiful, and it didn’t really seem like it was worth fighting for.

One day I went to an anti-globalization protest, when I was 19, and I did some research, and it looked like the anarchists would be the most entertaining people to hang out with. I went to the anti-globalization demonstration wearing all black, as I did anyway, but no mask or anything, and I went up to some kids in masks and I said, “So what’s this anarchism thing?” And they were like, “Well, we hate the government and we hate capitalism.” And I was like, “Well, what are you gonna do about it?” And they were like, “Well, we’re going to build alternative structures at the same time that we fight the forces of global capitalism.” And I was like, “Oh. Can I have a mask?” And they said, “Sure.” So I put on a black mask, and from that day forth, I was an anarchist.

How do I incorporate anarchism into my fiction? For a while it was the opposite: It was “How do I incorporate fiction into my anarchism?” Because that was what I wanted to do. That was my primary drive in life: to overthrow capitalism and government. And I would say that that’s probably still true, but now I’m actually attempting to work a balance and realize that you can specialize in multiple things. I would say that I’m not really interested, personally, in writing anarchist utopian fiction, although there are people who do, and that’s fine. I’m interested in normalizing anarchism. Like, I think that homophobic literature is horrible, but hetero-normative literature is more insidious. It gets under people’s skin more, and it makes people make assumptions. I think that the power of fiction is to control people’s assumptions. I’m interested in breaking normative fiction. I’m interested in normalizing anarchism. I’m interested in characters who are anarchists being not perfect and not fucked up. And I’d like to read a book where trans characters don’t die.

But I also think I want to write fiction because it’s just what I’m drawn to do. And sometimes it doesn’t really have a specific purpose behind it. I like creating these worlds that I always escape to, always have while growing up. Right now, we have punk shows all the time, sure, and anyone can join a punk band and play a show and that’s incredibly empowering. But fiction isn’t as accepted in radical circles, not yet. It’s coming back, though. Because it’s not like we stopped reading fiction when we became radicals, it’s not like we stopped writing. And just like music, it makes sense that some people are going to specialize in it and some people are going to dabble, and there’s room enough in our culture for both.

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