John Crowley is a powerful writer best known for his novel Little, Big, one of the most widely admired fantasies of the past few decades. His latest novel, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr, is the magical tale of a crow who finds himself reincarnated through time. Crowley has been fascinated with crows ever since childhood, when he first learned of their uncanny intelligence.
“Crows can tell the difference between a man carrying a shovel over his shoulder and a man carrying a gun,” Crowley says in Episode 283 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They know to stay away from the one and the other one can’t hurt them. I thought that was pretty remarkable.”
But when it came time to publish Ka, he discovered that not everyone shares his fascination with the finer details of crow life, including his former editor.
“She said, ‘It’s going to be about crows?’” he says. “‘Crow sex?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and she made this ‘Ewww’ face, and I knew then that I probably didn’t have a sale there.”
Fortunately the book found a home at Saga, a fantasy and science fiction imprint of Simon & Schuster. Crowley’s last few novels have been less overtly supernatural than his earlier work, but Ka represents his triumphant return to the fantasy genre. “That’s part of the reason it was so much fun to write,” he says, “because I knew I was writing a fantasy novel and I could write anything, and I was unconstrained by anything except my own imagination.”
He hopes that Ka will find its way into the hands of the many fantasy readers who loved Little, Big.
“I knew that if I would write a book that would appeal to them in some way, that I would probably get a readership for this book,” Crowley says. “And I did, I am doing. So the plan is working so far.”
Listen to the complete interview with John Crowley in Episode 283 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
John Crowley on crow intelligence:
“There are crows in—it might be Japan, I’m not certain where this is—but they like to eat a certain kind of nut that has a hard shell. These nut trees grow along the street, and the nuts fall on the ground. So the crow picks up a nut, takes it to the middle of the road, sets it down, then rushes back out of the way and waits for a car to drive over the nut, and then he goes out and eats the meat. But this is risky, because he could get run over while he’s sitting there eating it. … [The crows] can see this red light down the road, so when the light turns red they rush out and put the nut down. When the light turns green the car drives over the nut, then they wait until the light turns red again, so they know it’s safe to go out and eat the nut.”
John Crowley on economics:
“The Soviet technology guys—people who were working in data management and digital stuff and computers in the ’70s—were on the point of figuring out how to run a command economy with data information. The plans were getting clearer and clearer, but the society of course was in desperate trouble in the ’70s, and eventually the leadership suppressed it, said, no, we’re not going to go that way, we’re going to go the old way with all the paperbound books full of handwritten notes about how much bread and how much steel and how much pork fat and all that. And that was the end. That decision meant it was all over for the Soviet Union, because the command economy was not working, and it was going to work less and less well until it was bankrupt.”
John Crowley on commercial success:
“I think that your nature as a writer is fixed and you can’t actually change it. You think to yourself, when you’re a young writer, ‘Well, I can write, I know how to construct paragraphs, I know how to make good sentences, I know how to tell stories, I ought to write something like Dan Brown‘—or something like whatever, make lots of money. In fact you can’t. You can try, but your nature is going to prevent you from actually doing that. You have to be Dan Brown in order to write that way, or you have to be somebody like Dan Brown. … All I could do probably is a parody. You have to have the sincerity to write those things, and if you don’t have the sincerity nobody will like it, no matter how hard you try. They can tell.”
John Crowley on fantasy fans:
“Every once in a while people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to meet you. You’re one of my two favorite writers.’ And I learned over time not to ask who the other one was. But it taught me something, which is that what the real deep fans of fantasy and science fiction are looking for in books and stories is something that doesn’t need to be particularly well-written, or written with imaginative use of rhetoric and language, it just has to contain these elements that they’re looking for. To be mean about it—this is kind of unkind—it’s like an alcoholic who’s going to get the same kick out of a cheap bottle of vodka as a Chateau Lafite ’49. That’s what he’s getting, and the other qualities of it are nice, but not necessary. What’s really necessary is the thrill that they get from, ‘This is my kind of book, this is my kind of thing. This is a realm I can lose myself in.’”
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