From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

I’ve Never Wanted To Be Mythical: J. Kathleen Cheney

J. Kathleen Cheney, author of Early Winter, Near Jenli Village, is a former Mathematics teacher (currently taking a sabbatical), and has taught everything from 7th grade math to Calculus. She lives in Oklahoma, although she was born and raised in Texas. Her fiction has appeared in The Best of Jim Baen’s Universe 2, Shimmer, and Writers of the Future XXIV. Her story Masks of War appeared in our pages last year.

J. Kathleen Cheney is your pen name. Tell us about that. What do your friends call you?

I actually use Jeannette in person, but it’s terribly easy to misspell…so I use J. for writing. I’m not picky about how people address me, though. I’ll answer to J. or Jeannette, or Kathleen…or J. Kathleen…or JK. Not Jennifer, though. One has to have some limits.

Could you tell us about your teaching background and how that led to becoming a fiction writer?

Well, I would probably have to say that it didn’t. As a teacher I found myself sponsoring a horde of extracurricular activities, so much so that I ended up stepping away from teaching just to find time to write. I’m very fortunate that I was able to do so.

In your story up this week at Fantasy Magazine, “Early Winter, Near Jenli Village,” Li-huan is a troubled newlywed married to Lili.

He sighed and said, “Lili, you know I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“I know,” she whispered through her tears. Her fingers clenched again in the blankets. “Just do what you must.”

What was the inspiration behind this story of their ill-fated romance?

I woke up one morning with the idea fully formed in my head, which doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like. The “hungry” ghost is (in one of many interpretations) the spirit of someone who went into the afterlife with needs unmet who therefore comes back to feed on the fear of the living. I imagined the ghost luring out the most fragile member of the family–a young and frightened bride who had secrets to hide.

I suspect that the underlying idea for the story was prompted by my reading of Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D. It’s a fascinating and insightful book that looks at the ways that people manage to deal–or not deal–with horrible events and circumstances in their lives.

Tell us about the worldbuilding for “Early Winter.” How much research was involved?

“Early Winter” is actually one of several stories I wrote set in an altered Earth where the Mongols and Tatars have been wiped out by dragons, creating a vast power vacuum. A great deal of research went into that series, but this particular story only involved one culture, one house, and two families…a far more limited scope. So my main research here involved studying the design of houses in northern China, reading up on Chinese ghost lore–and enjoying a volume of Chinese poetry.

Do you write when the muse strikes you or do you have a set schedule? What is your writing day like?

I try to write every night if possible, but I’m not good at staying up late. So I usually quit by 10 PM. I write drivel after that. And usually if I have time to write on Sunday, I’ll concentrate on writing just for fun, not publication. That keeps me sane.

When crafting a story what aspect(s) of it do you find the hardest? The easiest?

Hardest? Making the plot interesting. I’m constantly having to cut out boring parts. Easiest? Writing characters that people find likable. I feel pretty comfortable with that.

Who are a few of your favorite writers who have influenced you as far as craft and technique?

I’d say the four authors who influenced me the most are Arthur Conan Doyle, Georgette Heyer, C. J. Cherryh, and Ansen Dibell. I tend to write somewhere between the genres–mystery, romance, and fantasy–so I try to pick up traits from each.

When reading for pleasure, who do you like and why?

I love to read Martha Wells’ books because her characters are so well-drawn. You know they had lives before the book, and they’ll go on afterward. I love P. C. Hodgell’s work because the plot never goes where I expect it to–and she also uses words like lugubrious and prognathous. I would drop everything to read a new book by either one of those authors.

If you could be one mythological creature, which one would that be and why?

Why is this the hardest question? I’ve never wanted to be mythical. As a child I did, however, want to be a horse. Never really grew out of that. I guess I’d have to be a puca…

What are your hobbies and interests outside of writing?

I spend a lot of time in the garden. I am a student of fencing–foil and saber. And one of these days I’ll get back to quilting…maybe.

What’s ahead for you? Goals? Aspirations?

I am almost finished with the first in a series of fantasy/romance novels set in a secondary world. It would be lovely to get those into print. I also have a pair of novellas (set in early 1900s Saratoga Springs, New York) in the formative stages–sequels to a novella I’ve already sold–along with a handful of other short stories in the wings. I suppose like any writer, I just want to see them all go to good homes.

Interviewer Marshall Payne has written over 90 short stories and his fiction has or will appear in Aeon Speculative Fiction, Brutarian, Talebones, and Fictitious Force to name a few. His numerous interviews with various luminaries of the field, as well as with up-and-coming SF/F writers, have appeared at The Fix. He has a homepage at

Tagged as: