KU English professor nabs major award for feminist fantasy novella ‘The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe’

University of Kansas professor of English and fantasy writer Kij Johnson is pictured on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in her office at Wescoe Hall.

Kij Johnson would’ve been happy with just one industry award under her belt. But, after nabbing the World Fantasy Award — her second — earlier this month in San Antonio, she’s not complaining.

“I’ve been telling people that once you’ve won once, that’s great, and anything after that is gravy. But I didn’t expect to be as excited as I was,” says Johnson, the Lawrence-based author of “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.”

The 2016 novella earned Johnson the 2017 World Fantasy Award for best long fiction, following a 2009 win for her short story “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” Johnson, an assistant professor of English at the University of Kansas, refers to her recent string of honors — which include 2009 and 2011 Nebula Awards, plus a 2012 Hugo Award — as the “hat trick” of fantasy and sci-fi writing prizes.

Still, her latest win, for “Vellitt Boe,” left the prolific author a little emotional.

“I was really excited and I started crying, which I didn’t expect at all,” Johnson says. “So, it was pretty wonderful.”

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The novella, also named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2016, is a new spin on H.P. Lovecraft’s posthumously published 1943 novella “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” After idolizing Lovecraft during her childhood in Iowa, Johnson had trouble reconciling her love of “Unknown Kadath” with the book’s lack of three-dimensional female characters.

“The more I looked at it as an adult, the harder I found it to read,” Johnson says. “There were stylistic reasons, but it was also the fact that there was nobody in the story that I directly related to.”

So, she set about creating a dynamic, complex female protagonist rarely seen in fantasy and sci-fi literature. The result was Vellitt Boe, a mathematics professor at a women’s college — set amid the dreamlands of Lovecraft’s works — who embarks on a harrowing journey to retrieve one of her most promising students after the younger woman runs away with a dreamer from the waking world.

Vellitt Boe, an academic in her mid-50s, represents a character rarely seen in Johnson’s chosen genre: a middle-aged woman who isn’t just another minor, meaningless granny. She’s smart, capable and childless. And she’s the heroine of her own story.

“She was exactly my age, and a lot of who she was at the beginning of the story was my story. That’s part of why it was so much fun to write,” Johnson says of Vellitt Boe. “She’s not in any way like me — she’s calmer, she likes traveling better and she’s a mathematician instead of a writer — but nonetheless she has the same life path and a lot of the same attitudes.”

Johnson, now 57, says women are rarely given significant roles in fantasy and science fiction. When female protagonists do pop up, they’re usually young women “who fall in love or pick up a sword to defend their kingdom,” Johnson says.

But, as Johnson has gotten older, she’s become less interested in those kinds of tales.

“They’re a story of becoming instead of a story of being,” she says of books that focus on young women coming of age.

Johnson doesn’t remember noticing the lack of female protagonists in her favorite books as a kid. “But of course you internalize it,” she recalls now. One of those books, Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s novel “The Wind in the Willows,” was set in a fantasy world where animals talk to each other and commit crimes and engage in class warfare as the proletarian weasels and stoats plot to capture the stately Toad Hall.

But Grahame apparently couldn’t imagine — or simply chose not to — an animal world that also included female rats, badgers, moles and toads. Johnson turned that story on its head in this year’s “The River Bank,” in which Grahame’s Mole, Water Rat, Badger and Toad are joined by a young female mole and her rabbit friend.

The book, published in September, has garnered positive reviews so far, including raves from the Washington Post, NPR, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.

Johnson’s string of recent successes — another career highlight was 2012’s “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” a collection of short stories — have kept her busier than ever, she says. Balancing her teaching job with her writing career has been a “nightmare” at times, and right now, Johnson sure could use a break.

“I did three books in really rapid succession, and promoting them is a really enormous job. I’m in Seattle now, I was in Portland yesterday,” Johnson told the Journal-World last Tuesday. “So, I’m really exhausted when I’m trying to do full-time teaching and full-time writing plus book support.”

Johnson says she has applied for a sabbatical from teaching next year, which she hopes will give her time to focus on her next project.

She’s considering a dive into the world of Gothic literature, but isn’t divulging many details yet. Just give her some time.