An Interview with Charles de Lint
Fantasy author Charles de Lint has created a loyal fan base over the years on the strength of his breakthrough novel, Moonheart, and the long-running series of books and short stories written in his imaginary modern Canadian town of Newford. As one of the frontrunners in the urban fantasy or mythic fiction field, de Lint has consistently written about the conflicts and confusions that exist between the human world we all know and that of the faerie. The traditional Seelie and Unseelie courts rarely make appearances in de Lint's books, however (Jack the Giant Killer and its sequel, Drink Down the Moon, are the most notable exceptions to this). He relies more on the folklore found in Native American, Celtic and other mythologies to permeate the Old World aspects of settings. In one of his new titles out this spring, Widdershins, he has everyone from Coyote, Raven and the Buffalo people interacting with bogans, a fairy court at “Woodforest Plaza Mall,” and a very creepy salmon creature. It is vintage de Lint and a perfect example of how his nontraditional approach to faerie works so well.
“My reading in folklore and myth has been wide and eclectic,” de Lint wrote to me recently. “[I] read for pleasure, rather than research; I simply like these sorts of stories. When I write, I like to play with that material, presenting it in a different way. After all, readers can easily go and get the traditional versions themselves and I see no reason to repeat the old stories in a new setting.”
In the past de Lint has threaded Celtic influences through Moonheart, Cornish legends in The Little Country, and has retold a popular fairy tale with the female protagonist Jacky Rowan in Jack the Giant Killer. But he has relied heavily upon Native American myth as well. This open-mindedness when it comes to research and writing has allowed a great deal of mixing between ethnic mythologies in his titles and introduced readers to all sorts of storylines they would not commonly find together. One such key crossover occurs in Moonheart, where at the very beginning a Celtic “disc” is found with a Native American medicine bag. This discovery propels the main characters into an epic adventure that stretches between the real city of Ottawa and an enchanted land called the “Otherworld,” reached through portals within the mysterious Tamson House. Similar convergences of myth and legend occur in the Newford titles, where characters are always willing to question rather than accept the situations that surround them. This questioning can result in harrowing moments though, and none have been more dramatic than the climatic scenes in Widdershins.
In many ways Widdershins is a gift to de Lint’s fans, as it involves two of his most beloved characters, Geordie and Jilly, and a resolution to their long-standing, almost-but-not-quite-there romance. There is a lot more to the story than that however, including a deeply thought-out look at conflict and resolution from the most personal to the grandest of levels. “I think too many problems grow out of the intolerance and self-interest of people who don’t care for anything, or anyone else, people with no interest in the future -- even though their own children will be living in it,” writes de Lint. “It’s hard to understand why they’d do that to their own children, but then too many horror shows play out in the small canvas that is a family home, so I don’t suppose I should be surprised.”
This consideration of conflict is a recurrent theme in de Lint’s work, particularly as it affects children. Jilly, who must quite literally face her greatest childhood monster in Widdershins, is one of de Lint’s most damaged characters who has managed to become strong and resolute in the pages of his Newford stories. She has been joined over the years by a host of men and women who have overcome all manner of trauma and tragedy and found their way to a place that encourages the openness of mind that allows myth to be accepted as reality. There is no hopelessness in de Lint’s work -- far from it. In Widdershins he brings his readers into a most impressive moment of hopefulness, as he shows how anyone, from a former abused child to a former abused dog, can rise above the actions that were inflicted upon them and gain a stature of fearlessness that does not provoke violence but rather embraces peace. In many ways de Lint writes about the strongest sort of people, and Jilly is certainly the one who proves herself on that score in Widdershins.
Newford also plays a part in the short story collection Triskell Tales 2, although it is not the setting for all the offerings de Lint has in this volume. The Triskell Tales are what the author calls his annual holiday chapbooks, something that in the past have only been available to friends and family but are now reproduced in two volumes from Subterranean Press. De Lint’s association with the small press goes back quite a way and includes several limited edition versions of his novels, chapbooks, small collections and illustrated stories. His work with small presses is separate from his relationship with Tor, which publishes his adult novels, and Viking/Firebird, which releases his young adult and children’s books. (The ghost story The Blue Girl is his latest young adult release and an outstanding mix of traditional teenage angst and otherworldly influence.) But the small press projects are very important to de Lint, as they present unique opportunities for his fans.
What I like about them is that you can publish books that are either going to be a more special edition than a NY publisher can (or is willing to do), or it’s a book that you know your die-hard readers would like, but you don’t really want to have them in all the bookstores where a casual browser might come upon it and think, "This is what he’s like? I don’t think I’ll try anymore."
The latter refers, in particular, to my collections of early short stories that Subterranean Press has been doing for the past few years. Some of these are quite painful, so I wouldn’t want them to be a reader’s introduction to my work, but as I mentioned above, the die-hard readers like them. They also provide an interesting view into the development of a writer (the first Triskell Tales is the best example) and can prove to be an inspiration to a beginning writer.
Sub Press also publishes gorgeous editions and has let me work with my old friend Charles Vess on illustrated projects that a NY publisher wouldn’t necessarily consider commercially viable. But while books like Seven Wild Sisters or Medicine Road wouldn’t sell hundreds of thousands of copies, they can sell out a print run of 3-4,000, making them a viable proposition for the small press to show a profit.
Triskell Tales 1 did provide some interesting background into some of de Lint’s more enduring characters and is certainly an important purchase for fans of the author. The second volume is considerably more user friendly for new readers, however, and can easily be enjoyed by someone with no knowledge of the Newford characters. It includes seven short stories that run the gamut from the unpredictable and uncontrollable Crow Girls employed as Santa’s elves at the local mall (“Fierce candy cane-eating outlaw girls”), to homeless children disappearing into the tunnels under Newford and joining the goblin world, to a tale about “the littles” that draws from Virginia Folk Legends, to an Appalachian story about the origin of Gypsies. As a writer I was absurdly fascinated by “Refinerytown,” which is all about what happens when you tell someone else’s story, and which includes the very real characters, editor Sharyn November and author Nina Kirki Hoffman.
The collection’s most poignant and powerful piece, though, is “The World in a Box,” a story about the responsibility that comes with awesome power and the almost sacred importance behind choosing the right thing to do. It also has a nice little romance within it and will appeal to anyone who has ever thought there is treasure lurking in flea markets and junk stores. (All fans of The Antiques Roadshow, this was written for you.)
Among other titles by de Lint, Subterranean Press has also published an anniversary edition of Moonheart, illustrated by Charles Vess, the first in a projected three book series called Medicine Road (also illustrated by Vess), and Road to Lisdoonvarna, a mystery that has no fantasy elements. All of these show de Lint stretching his creative muscles and reaching out to his readers, giving them more insight into the worlds he has created and the manner in which his writing ability has evolved over the years. Writers will particularly enjoy these looks behind the curtain and the ways in which they increase appreciation of his more modern titles.
In a broad analysis of his work, it is easy to define Charles de Lint as a fantasy writer, or more specifically as writer who incorporates fantastic elements into real world dramas. But the most revealing thing I have read about his stories is in his introduction to Triskell Tales 2.
Year by year, the world is turning into a darker and stranger place than any of us could want.
Somewhere, there is always a war.
Somewhere, there is always the threat of an act of terrorism.
Somewhere, there is always a woman or a child in peril.
Nature itself delivers devastating tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes.
In the light of this onslaught of shadows, is it naïve to try to shine a little light into the darkness? After all, these stories are only small flashlights of prose and who knows how long their batteries will last?
I don’t know. But naïve or not, I will continue to do so for as long as I can find the stories, or for as long as they find me.
I’m a writer. And this is what I do. This is the only thing I do that has potential to shine a little further than my immediate surroundings.
So these stories are important -- to me, at least. Each one is a little candle held up to the dark of night, trying to illuminate the hope for a better world where we all respect and care for each other.
Charles de Lint is one of my all-time favorite authors and both Widdershins and Triskell Tales 2 stand up as some of the best writing he has done. If you like fantasy, you need to be reading de Lint, period. There’s no one else like him, for as The Phoenix Gazette wrote back when Jack the Giant Killer was released, “in de Lint’s capable hands, modern fantasy becomes something other than escapism. It becomes folk song, the stuff of urban myth.” I would add that it becomes the kind of writing you can’t forget, and produces characters who live with you forever.