As I was preparing the Philip K. Dick Award Bundle for, I noticed that two of our authors had some startling things in common (other than being multiple award-winning, brilliant stylists and Philip K. Dick Award Finalists, of course).

Kathe Koja, who wrote The Cipher, and Elizabeth Hand, who wrote Aestival Tide, both grew up Catholic, are interested in the theater, and write science fiction and weird fiction.

I was intrigued and invited them to a Question-and-Answer. I grew up a Unitarian-Universalist but my great-grandparents in Europe were Catholic. Whatever your background, you’re sure to find this Q&A with Kathe and Liz as fascinating as I did.

Lisa Mason (LM): How did growing up Catholic affect your imagination as a child?

Kathe Koja (KK): It’s an extremely visual religion—not just the ceremonies, but the iconography, the saints and their various identifying symbols (St. Lucy with her plateful of eyes, who could forget that?), and the whole streaming pageant of heaven and hell art; think of Bosch. And the crucifix itself is a tremendous icon.

Elizabeth Hand (EH): For me, it was the storytelling element—the fact that there are all these great stories in both the Old and New Testament. From an early age I didn’t take (most of) them literally, but I loved the stories themselves. I went to Catholic elementary and high school, and then Catholic University (the latter not for religious reasons), so I had a long time to absorb and observe this stuff. And having to sit still during Mass gave me a chance to daydream and observe closely everyone around me, two habits which are crucial to writers.

LM: How has that affected your writing?

KK: Those visuals fostered an ability to think in symbols, which is very helpful. And growing up Catholic provides a kind of cheek-by-jowl daily acceptance of mysteries, or it did for me anyway: the impossible is real, they insist, nothing is too strange to be true. So for a fiction writer, that’s pretty fertile ground, pretty useful affirmation. And all the repression and absolute authority gives you something to push against, so that’s useful, too. It teaches you in the end that you must think for yourself.

EH: I was fascinated by the sense of ritual, though in my own work I’ve drawn on ancient pagan and mystery religions (which the Church did as well) rather than Catholic liturgy. I also was terrified by the notion of the apocalypse, and that definitely has played into a lot of my novels and stories.

LM: You’re both interested in the theater. Did the ceremonies, the religious costumes, the pomp and circumstance awaken your interest?

KK: No, but they make a jolly example.

EH: I’m not sure it did—I was more drawn to theater in and of itself. When I was in sixth grade, the eighth graders did “Macbeth,” and I was completely captivated. A few years later, my mother began taking my sisters and I to the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, CT, where we’d see whatever was playing in repertory for the entire summer. It was wonderful.

LM: Does theater play a part in your writing?

KK: A huge part. My most recent novels—UNDER THE POPPY, THE MERCURY WALTZ, and coming in November, THE BASTARDS’ PARADISE—are all about theatre, the story of two men who share their lives onstage and offstage. Love is a kind of performance, as life is a kind of show.

And I write and direct for my performance ensemble, nerve. Our next production is in January, an adaptation of DRACULA with no fangs and no blood.

EH: Oh, yes. My first novel, Winterlong, featured a Shakespearean troupe whose diva was a talking chimpanzee, and also riffed on “Twelfth Night,” a play I’ve been obsessed with since I was seventeen. I spent decades trying to capture that play’s magic in my fiction, and finally succeeded with Illyria.

LM: Kathe, are there Catholic influences or imagery in The Cipher?

KK: None there consciously, but you could call the Funhole hell, if you had a mind to, or one of its portals, in the absence of any presence but the self, as Nicholas suggests somewhere along the way down. I think it’s Dante who wrote “There is no sky in hell.”

LM: Liz, now that I’ve started reading the bundle, this may seem like a silly question, but there it is. Catholic influences or imagery in Aestival Tide?

EH: So much that’s under the dome in Araboth is a corruption of some sort of formal religious belief, especially fundamentalist beliefs. The Compassionate Redeemer is actually a monster loosed in a perverse ritual, and the Orsinate is a corrupt theocracy. Then there’s the Church of Christ Cadillac, whose adherents wear hubcaps on their heads. But there are also elements borrowed from ancient Greek and Roman ritual, so it’s all a pretty catholic (lowercase c) mix.

LM: Yes, catholic, lowercase, is a word in and of itself. Webster’s Tenth defines it as “comprehensive, universal, esp. broad in sympathies, tastes, or interests.”

So there you have it, my friends. The Philip K Dick Award Storybundle includes Aestival Tide by Elizabeth Hand (PKD Finalist), Life by Gwyneth Jones (PKD Winner), The Cipher by Kathe Koja (PKD Finalist), Points of Departure by Pat Murphy (PKD Winner), Dark Seeker by K. W. Jeter (PKD Finalist), Summer of Love by Lisa Mason (PKD Finalist), Frontera by Lewis Shiner (PKD Finalist), Acts of Conscience by William Barton (PKD Special Citation), Maximum Ice by Kay Kenyon (PKD Finalist), Knight Moves by Walter Jon Williams (PKD Finalist), and Reclamation by Sarah Zettel (PKD Finalist).

The Philip K Dick Award Storybundle runs only until October 15. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Download yours today at and enjoy world-class, award-winning reading right now and into the holidays.