Kathleen Goonan, science fiction writer and professor

In fall 2010, Tech gained an award-winning science fiction writer in the Literature, Media and Communication School (LMC).

Kathleen Goonan gained popularity for the first novel in her Nanotech Quartet, Queen City Jazz. Her debut novel, Queen City Jazz is set in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is Goonan’s hometown.

Since Cincinnati was her childhood home, Goonan decided to mirror her childlike perceptions of the city in the novel. As a result, Queen City Jazz is a surrealistic novel with a nonlinear structure charmingly mimicking an adolescent perspective.

Less than a decade after her birth, Goonan and her family moved to Hawaii, where her father worked for the U.S. Navy designing fire protection for buildings.

The local library was a walk away, so young Goonan devoured books on fairy tales as well as Hawaiian history and folklore.

When she moved back to Hawaii 28 years later, Goonan used these early readings as inspiration for her novel The Bones of Time.

In 2008, Goonan won the John W. Campbell Award for her novel In War Times. Goonan says it is a personal favorite of her works because “it interweaves my father’s WWII memoirs with a science fictional investigation of why humans are so warlike, and how we might change that tragic propensity.”

Before winning major awards, before being placed on lists for best science fiction novels of the year, before accepting a job at Tech, Kathleen Goonan was a recent college grad with an English undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech who realized she wanted to be a writer.

To achieve this goal, Goonan realized she “needed to know more about life and about writing, and [I] trained to be an Association Montessori Internationale teacher in a program that is now a Master’s degree course at Loyola University.”

She wanted to open her own Montessori school so she could teach for nine months out of the year and use her evenings and summers to write. As usual, life decided to change things up a bit.

Goonan opened a school in Knoxville in 1979 and enrollment filled up quickly. The school was on a year-round, full-day schedule. Even though she loved teaching, Goonan found she had less time to write than she originally intended.

“When I woke up on the morning of my thirty-third birthday,” Goonan said, “a voice in my  head said ‘If you’re going to be a writer, you’d better get started.’”

She took the voice’s advice to heart and started writing at every opportunity that presented itself. Mornings, weekends and lunch breaks all saw Goonan scribbling away to produce her first novel. Her work resulted in the aforementioned Queen City Jazz.

Goonan did not always have a focus on science fiction.

“My first writing identity was that of a poet,” she revealed. “I had some success with poetry when a college student, but during the fifteen years in which I was a Montessori teacher, something within me to which I have little access decided that I would write narrative fiction, and, more than that, science fiction, for which I had no background at all.”

Part of why science fiction allured Goonan was the intellectual challenge. Science fiction provided “a literature in which I could be experimental in the use of language as well as with story.”

This challenge, combined with her love for Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, novels which “stand out like mountain peaks for me,” turned Goonan into the respected writer she is today.

Dr. Lisa Yaszek, Head of Undergraduate Studies in LMC at Tech, invited Goonan to speak at Tech and at a few meetings of the Science Fiction Research Association. Dr. Yaszek later invited Goonan to teach at Tech. Goonan accepted, and said, “I enjoy it tremendously.”

Goonan particularly likes teaching science fiction at Tech because she finds that Tech’s focus on technology education has fostered a respect for the genre amongst the students and faculty.

She has also benefitted from teaching at Tech, saying that “teaching at a research institution has deepened my own appreciation of the history and the possibilities of science fiction as an emerging international literature uniquely able to investigate and portray culture, politics, and how radical change affects countries and individuals.”

When asked which of her works was the most difficult to write, Goonan responded, “If you define ‘difficult’ as ‘unpleasant,’ then I would have to say that none of my writing has been difficult. It is my life’s work…Writing consists of proposing one’s own challenges and finding ways to solve the puzzle of communicating vision. For me, writing is thus the keenest enjoyment imaginable. When I am immersed in a story or novel, what I am working on seems like the most difficult thing I have ever attempted. Once it is down on paper or pixels, once it has been wrested from the part of me where story lives, which is a lot like trying to remember a dream, the fun, easy work of editing, shaping, and refining begins.”