An Interview with Catherynne M. Valente
The Orphan’s Tales is Catherynne M. Valente’s first book with major distribution, her first volume that’s likely to be found on the shelves of most brick and mortar stores -- but Valente’s earlier books, poetic outpourings that overflow with spillways, currents and whirlpools of words, are also worth seeking out.
She’s a prolific writer who, with The Orphan’s Tales, is emerging from the small press. Valente, with the help of publishers like Wildside, has established herself as a powerful voice, at times truculent, at times surreal and decadent or majestic and sweeping, with hard-won insight into dreams, nightmares and madness. With a B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics, the earlier novels and poetry collections have established her as a distinctive presence in contemporary fantasy’s landscape, but The Orphan’s Tales still might make her seem like a spontaneous mountain. With this new book having just appeared on Halloween, it’s not too melodramatic to say that readers are about to notice her work and wonder where on earth Catherynne M. Valente could have possibly come from.
Matthew Cheney, known for his World Fantasy-nominated blog The Mumpsimus, in a review for The SF Site, described the process of reading Valente’s first novel, The Labyrinth, with “Line by line and page by page, The Labyrinth contains more beauty than all but a very few books published this year. Each paragraph is an incantation, and the entirety is less novel than dithyramb, less story than dream.” There are other ways to describe her work (Cheney also called Valente’s work “a book to hug to your heart after throwing it across the room” and “like a shard of shamanic DNA”) but the important place for any reader to begin is that Valente’s writing is so distinctive that it is unforgettably brilliant.
How would you describe your work to an unfamiliar reader? Is it fair to say that your books are more complicated than most of the other volumes that appear on the shelves of box-shaped bookstores?
Rich, linguistically intense, at times surrealist, at times folkloric, rooted in myth, fairy tales, and postmodernist or high modernist style, wherever you draw that line. I think "complicated" is a fair enough assessment, though a great deal of fantasy published in the last few years is incredibly beautiful and complex, from Vellum to Shriek: An Afterword and Tonguecat to The Etched City and Only Revolutions -- but certainly these books and mine are in the minority. This is the world of slipstream and interstitiality and Greer Gilman and the New Weird: I am hardly alone on the frontier, if that is where I have pitched camp.
I would certainly warn the uninitiated that my books are different and, some might say, difficult, however, it's mostly a matter of syncing up your reading rhythm to the writing, which is not as hard as all that. The brain is an adaptable thing; you’ll get into the swing of it within a chapter or two, I think. However wild and dense my language use is, my structures are almost always based solidly in folkloric forms, and these are roads the psyche is quite used to traveling.
The thing is, if one isn't doing something different than the other volumes on the shelf, then there isn't much point in doing anything. That’s what the whole "find your voice" adage is all about.
Please tell the story of finding out that your out-of-print poetry collection Music of a Proto-Suicide was read over the phone to a suicide counselor...
I was at Capclave this year, and during my autograph session -- which is a notoriously pride-swallowing phase of any convention for a small-press writer -- a young woman came up to my table and casually started flipping through The Labyrinth, my first novel. She read the author's bio and looked up at me, her mouth dropping open.
"You wrote Music of a Proto-Suicide?" she asked
I laughed and said I had -- that chapbook seems like a long time ago now, my first real publication, though its production values were nil, and after all, it was a micropress poetry book: hardly something you expect to answer questions about almost three years later.
But this woman started to cry, and told me through her tears that she used to work for a suicide hotline, and that one night a woman had called, in bad shape, and started to read from this book of poetry. She said that she finally found something that spoke to how she felt. And all night, this counselor and this lost soul read poetry back and forth to each other, and somehow, that reading was what got her through. The woman at my table said she had been looking for that book, and a particular poem in it, for years.
She described the poem she meant and I found it for her in Apocrypha, my later full-length collection -- Music is no longer available anywhere -- and we talked. I was so stunned, completely taken aback. Music was written at a very difficult time in my own life, but I never really thought about how it would disseminate, what path that little book, printed on someone’s home computer, would take. We send these pages out into the world and they suddenly no longer belong to us, they become the emblems of other people’s lives. If we're lucky.
There are books that have absolutely had that effect on me, but I never thought that I could write something that served that purpose for someone else. I have never been so proud of anything I have done as I was in that moment, that the poetry written in the dark of night could evolve into something that guided another woman through her own black hours. That is the best possible destiny of literature.
How did living in Japan affect your writing and your life?
Oh, that's a big question! I think Yume no Hon is probably one long answer to it, but I'll give it a shot here.
Japan was very hard for me -- my husband, a naval officer, was gone for 19 out of the 25 months we lived there. I was alone in an extremely alien culture, unable to speak the language, without friends or family. I lived alone with my dog and wrote. It was as close to a garret as you can get in the 21st century. I had never experienced loneliness like that before, and I'll probably be processing it for awhile yet.
However, I came to interact with Japanese culture on my own terms, relatively stripped of the assumptions fostered stateside by anime and other memetic exports. I found my own way to loving it, and though it is a hard-won love, I won't lose it soon. I lived like a hermit for a year and a half -- if you don't come out of that with some kind of zen, you go crazy.
So instead I wrote. And a lot of what I wrote in that time involves Japanese culture, because that was what I lived with every day. I wrote a novel about a lonely woman slowly losing her mind -- not a very subtle allegory, I'll admit -- and another about the Shinto creation myth, and quite a lot of poetry. As a white woman living there, my relationship to Shinto was divided at best -- I felt very strongly about it, and traveled all over to visit shrines, yet I always felt like an outsider, which is perhaps appropriate. The gaze of the outsider is part of all of my work, I think.
Part of me will probably always be in Japan, but it will be awhile before I write another Japanese novel. There are always new worlds to devour.
You've made an exercise of writing first drafts quickly. Was that how The Orphan's Tales came about or was this series different? How much editing do you do after the first drafts?
You're right: most of my novel's drafts have been written very quickly, in a flush of coffee-addled nights and red-eyed days. With things like The Labyrinth and Yume no Hon, that's appropriate -- they read like fevered dreams in part because they were written that way. I believe in the first flush.
That is not how The Orphan's Tales came about, however. I started writing it in late 2002, and it was something I worked on steadily while writing the other books. I finished the volume which is currently in stores in early 2005, and have spent much of the last year polishing it. I find that each book is different in its origin -- this one was a slow growing tree, the others were quick bloomers.
I tend to edit as I go along, so it is somewhat deceptive how much editing is done after the "first draft." Vonnegut said something about that -- some writers bang out a full draft and then go back and prune it, some don't go on to the next sentence until they've pruned the previous one. I'm very much the latter. By the time I'm through a draft a great deal of editing has already taken place.
When it came time to edit The Orphan's Tales, however, I was looking at fiction I had written four years previously. Any writer changes a great deal in four years, and I re-worked quite a lot of the first book at that point. In the end it depends on the book: each one gestates at a different rate.
You've said that your "fiction is very informed by poetry." In an era where traditional forms, rhymes and meter are less and less popular, what are the differences, for you as a writer, between poems, prose-poems and fiction?
You'll never get two professors to agree on this one, or two MFA students, either. And I inevitably get into trouble trying to define them for myself, but here goes: for one thing, they have different purposes. A poem captures a core moment, even a narrative poem, unless it's the length of The Iliad -- and even then, it's a brief episode in a ten year war -- captures a pivotal, often internal, shift in perception or action or being. It is a snapshot. Language-wise, while meter and rhyme might not be popular anymore, rhythm is still vital, the sound of a poem is still so much a part of it, and that was what I meant when I said that: my fiction is informed by long practice of choosing every single word precisely and carefully, letting it carry all the meaning of a paragraph.
Prose-poems, if poems are a snapshot, are like a short video, removed from any constraint of typesetting or verse or stanzaic strategy, they are still not at the narrative level of a short story, but provide something more than a poem, more voices, more length, more breadth of scope. Now, these lines are often blurred -- that's practically the mission statement of postmodernism -- but I'm talking in general terms. I've heard my previous novels described as prose-poems, and while I don't agree, I can see the point. What is being discussed is a certain language usage, not so much the nature of poetry or fiction. Can you use consistently and unflaggingly poetic sensibilities in fiction? I think so. I think fiction and poetry should mate and have wild-eyed babies. Not everyone does. Salman Rushdie once said that we could, if we tried, give every word in a novel the same weight of meaning it has in a poem -- that's what I try to do.
Back to the visual analogy -- fiction then becomes the full length film, with dialogue, multiple plotlines, etc. Often, when the scope of the plot is given precedence, language takes a backseat, and we get transparent prose. I just try not to do that -- for me, the way a story is told is at least as important as the story itself, or else why read any new novels? The basic plotlines available to the human animal have been more than covered by every other writer and long before even the last century. It is voice that remains fluid, the slant of a tale, its shape. Without those strange and innovative structures, voices, manners of delivering narrative, we just sit around and spout Hamlet over and over again. Style, if you'll excuse the expression, saves.
In an interview for the Agony Column, discussing The Labyrinth, you mentioned that you didn't "think about structure or genre at all." Have you reached a place (with The Orphan's Tales, for example) where you've had no choice but to consider genre? Is it another pigeonhole or do you feel that you're coming from a place that's free of traditional genre constraints?
I feel that every book begins with a blank page, and is by its nature free of constraint. You then chose the constraints which will work to tell the story, one by one, until the book is finished. Maybe it's what restraints you chose that determine genre -- realism is stuffed full of its own literary handcuffs. But no one works entirely free of literary convention. We have all read far too many books for that.
The Orphan's Tales directly addresses genre conventions, where the genre involved is traditional fairy tales, so I could not avoid considering them. Given a witch and a prince, the seed-story of the novel, there are a certain set of stories that can be told, subverted, rearranged. Knowledge of genre is vital -- you have to know the rules before you can tie them in a knot and throw them over your shoulder. I still write what I am compelled to write, but I recognize that most of what I'm compelled to write falls into the fantasy category more than not, however arbitrary that category often is. The Labyrinth was my first novel -- you learn a lot when your publisher decides to slot that first book into "x," whatever "x" is. You can't write about talking crocodiles and witches and monopods and eight-headed dragons for too long before it does dawn on you that you're not strictly in the realist camp.
On the other hand, I write about those things because they are what interests me, not because I've stuck a flag in fantasy and claimed it for France. I am a little less cavalier these days about where I am placed, but I feel more strongly than ever that boundaries between fantasy and realism are somewhat silly -- especially considering that the whole of classical fiction is more or less fantastic -- the fantasy ghetto is a function of 19th century Protestant ideas about this world being a place of suffering, with salvation as the only goal. Thus literature becomes a reflection of this world only, so that the soul can be elevated by following another's journey towards God. In this equation, fantasy becomes dangerously irrelevant and distracting from the work at hand. I'm not much of a fan of that equation, or the bookshelves that result as we try to work it out subconsciously even today.
In a discussion with Bookslut's new comic columnist, Jeff VanderMeer (who wrote the introduction to your first novel The Labyrinth), you said that "The FDA has recently determined that Product #423789A, 'my book,' causes 1/3 less side-effects than LSD." You were joking, of course, but it seems worth further exploration. Is it accurate to say that you've written hallucinatory prose? Do you worry about alienating readers who fear dreams and/or nightmares? Or, perhaps more succinctly, do you worry about baffling readers by being so different than what commonly passes as conventional?
I think those who fear dreams and nightmares ought to steer clear of the genre section entirely -- they are our stocks in trade.
I am sure that my style will alienate some readers. But it is useless to write to please all readers. My work takes a little more effort than average -- I like to think it rewards that effort. I have written hallucinatory prose (though of course in some sense all prose is hallucinatory as it makes us see and sense things which are not real), but I swear, Officer, the effect wears off in a day or two. They'll be fine when they wake up, I promise.
As for baffling readers, the short answer is no. I am quite certain some readers have been baffled, some others have been put off or turned off by what I have chosen to do. But I don't worry about it. I just write, and hope that some few folks will come along with me when I go traipsing through the enchanted woods at midnight. No writer pleases everyone.
Since you've also used more conventional voices, how would you delineate your published work so far? By your definitions, which are the farthest out there and which are the most traditional?
I would draw a dotted line between my small-press books and The Orphan's Tales. Dotted because I am still and always myself, and I will never write anything which is not centered in rich language, so that aesthetic passes through from one set to another. But there is a line, nevertheless.
Again, style serves the story, and while I was writing stories that dealt with madness and fractured perception, the unconventional style I used was necessary to write the books I wanted to write. The Orphan's Tales, however, are fairy tales, and require a more oral style. What I tried to do was infuse that familiar folkloric voice with the kind of fascinating language that is so prevalent in Near Eastern, Slavic, and Asian fairy tales, where even at the simile level, the culture is so present and vital and different from standard Western tales. The Labyrinth is probably the most far afield of my books, The Orphan's Tales closest to the hearth.
This is by far and away the most accessible thing I've ever written, though I didn't sit down to write a More Accessible Book. It is an evolution of my old work, and I do feel like I'm moving into a new phase. I already wrote The Labyrinth. And though it took me a long time to figure this out, I don't need to write it again. I am slowly integrating that frenzied voice into something new -- still not transparent prose, still "not for everyone," as I have so often heard, but more polished and sharp. In one of my first reviews a critic commented that they hoped I had more than just the one trick in my bag -- The Orphan's Tales is just a new trick.
In terms of plot points in fiction, you've said that you like to "get there in an interesting way." Are you willing to elaborate?
If you give me a cookie.
Well, a novel draws a map from A to Z through whatever its compliment of plot points may be, hitting all the necessary tollbooths and scenic overviews along the way. At its simplest: you start in one place and end in another. And sometimes that's all there is: the book just gets you to Z as quickly and thrillingly as possible, shortcutting through cliffhangers and chases. It's a totally legitimate way to construct a novel, and a very successful model.
But for me as a reader, it's not quite enough to simply be led to resolution, the answer to Mystery X or What's Behind Alien Number Three. I want to be taken by the backroads, the slow, meandering, pitted lanes. I want to be completely immersed in a world or a character, until the boundaries between myself and the book I'm reading are blurry and thin.
As a writer I don't want to create things I wouldn't want to read, so the plot-road is not particularly straight in my books. How you get there matters, or you'll barely see what there is when you arrive, and in a year you'll be lucky to remember what exactly that alien was up to to begin with.
Since you're a classicist, is it fair to say that you read and discovered most of your like-minded peers after you were published? Can we settle on the collective phrase of mythpunk? If we were to draw lines, who are some of the other mythpunkers?
I read more or less indiscriminately even while studying classics, and gravitated towards genre literature, I think because so much of classical literature is non-realist: it's hard to go from donkey-metamorphosis and minotaurs and snake-haired witches to tales of hard-luck Irish upbringings and give them both the same weight. I was always drawn to the fantastic, even as I was so wrapped up in my studies that I think my entire collegiate output was something like three poems and one short story.
I've done a little better since then.
But I did not discover Jeff Vandermeer, Greer Gilman, Tim Pratt and the like until after my first novel was contracted. As most readers know, it is hard to find the more independent voices in the din. About the time I started publishing a lot of things came together: I became heavily involved in online culture and blogging, I returned to the United States and began to meet the members of our community -- it really is like a family, and I have been endlessly grateful to become a part of it.
But I'm not sure I would call those I mentioned my peers -- they are far more established writers than I am. Around the time I started publishing in the small presses, a group of young writers came on the scene as well, more or less at the same time, with only a year or sometimes mere months separating our debuts. Sonya Taaffe, Theodora Goss, Holly Phillips -- call it mythpunk, call it what you like, there is a distinct though small wave of us dancing through mythology in our absolutely distinct ways.
For me mythpunk describes a writer who uses myth and folklore as a launch-point and then warps it with their own voice. Someone for whom language is more than a simple tool, whose use of it is sometimes jangling, sometimes melodious, often musical, always passionate. Someone who uses the basic set of authorial instruments: character, plot, setting, and the fabulous orchestra of human language in a way that challenges and innovates, changes the reader's perception of mythology, both traditional narrative and new worlds combined and recombined. It's more fun to write than anything I know, and more profound to read than most things I find.
I would say that we are, if indeed we are accepting the mythpunk marquee, and obviously with the understanding that classifications are themselves only tools and never describe all of one writer's work, the spiritual children of Greer Gilman and T.S. Eliot, conceived in some kind of glowing green time-tunnel littered with quantum pages. I'd call out Sonya, Theodora, Holly, Vera Nazarian, Yoon Ha Lee, Jeanelle Ferriera, Mia Nutick, even Vandermeer and Hal Duncan, to an extent -- there are others, I'm sure. It's not exactly a surefire bestseller style. But I think it's some of the most exciting work being done right now.
Describing your stories, you've said, "It's always the witch in the hut with me." Do you think that will ever change?
That was a question about archetypes -- which are what we call stereotypes that don't offend us, I suppose. There are certain archetypes that endlessly fascinate me: the wicked queen, whose doppelganger is the witch in the hut, Snow White's Stepmother and Baba Yaga in the same body. Also the lost child and the trickster, the anchorite/nun and the princess in the tower. Archtypes are powerful or they wouldn't be archetypes -- they shunt directly into the primitive story-centers of the brain, and create those resonant images which stay with us all our lives: glass slippers, magic mirrors, seven-league boots.
In some sense The Orphan's Tales allows me to explore in depth my particular folkloric fascinations. The witch in the hut is a baseline, and it is a part of me as a woman as well as my writing, thanks to my experience in Japan, but I'll move on, evolve, branch out, like any carnivorous plant. I happily pounce upon anything that lights up those story-centers, and when witches stop doing that, maybe the were-turtles and vicious waterfowl will move in.
What was the hardest part about writing The Orphan's Tales?
Keeping it all straight in my head. I'm not an outliner -- I don't have plot schematics on my wall. Yet it's a very complex structure, and it's all housed in my brain at the moment. Things grow pretty organically with me, and I have been mashing and masticating the stories in my head for years now. If I try to outline it, or fill up a wiki (which I set up and promptly abandoned), it all seems to dissipate and become very flat and boring for me. Murakami said recently that he never knows where his books are going -- if he did he'd be too bored to write them. I absolutely agree, with the standard proviso that it's just what works for me. I write from beginning to end, I never jump around, and I am careful not to determine the plot too much ahead of time. I move through the manuscript simultaneously as a reader and a writer.
That said, it stretches the skull to keep something as massive as The Orphan's Tales in there. For now, it's more of a muscle-work stretch than a pore-tearing one. Hopefully this will hold out until the series is finished.
How does it make you feel that the jacket copy calls it "the Arabian Nights for our time?"
The cover copy is pretty amazing, isn't it? They sent the text to me early on and I was a bit taken aback -- it's a lot to live up to. But Arabian Nights has been a big part of my psyche since I was a little girl, and I'm just proud to be classed next to it. We haven't had a new set of fairy tales in a long time -- and our time needs one. Maybe it won't be The Orphan's Tales, maybe it will, you can never scry those things from behind your desk. But I'm proud and pleased with what's written on the back of that book, and I hope I grow to fill the shoes it lays out for me.
How much input did you have in how many volumes there would be? You considered several publishers and it seems to have evolved from stories into something more interlinked. Are you happy with how everything turned out?
Initially, I had submitted it as a four-book series. Bantam made the decision to package the four books -- which are still distinct units in the final product -- as two volumes of two books each. I certainly still think of them as four books, but I never argued with their choice.
I had first, back in 2002, planned a little novella, maybe even novelette. Something small to see if I could tell a few new folktales using the old buidling blocks of Grimm and Hesiod and Andersen. I thought I'd give it to my niece for Christmas. But it grew, and grew again, until I shot right past full-length novel and into series. Every story, I think, has its natural length, and this one wanted to sprawl.
I am more than happy with how the final book looks. The cover is stunning, the interior layout is innovative and classically beautiful. Kaluta's illustrations are nothing short of masterful -- I had no idea, when the notion of illustrations was first floated, that art of this caliber and scope was on the table. I'm so grateful to the entire team that worked on this book and believed in it, especially my editor, Juliet Ulman. As an object, it's one of the most gorgeous books I've ever seen. That might sound like lip service, but in this case it's the absolute truth. I have been speechless every step of the way as the packaging around my book became so lovely and so polished.
Please tell us about your upcoming reading tour with S. J. Tucker...
S.J. is, quite simply, the finest voice I have ever heard.
I was a fan of hers long before I met her this March, and all of our dastardly plans started with me shyly asking her to play at The Orphan's Tales launch party. We have since become close friends and mutual admirers. Our worlds have merged quite a bit in the last year, culminating in a full album in celebration of The Orphan's Tales, called For the Girl in the Garden. I could say I'm biased in my total love for the music she created, but it has proved itself in live performance -- the thing rocks, I'm telling you. The Orphan's Tales, before it even came out, sprinted through the folkloric cycle, all the way from narrative into song.
S.J. and I are doing a series of reading-concerts together, beginning this week in New York City. The shows alternate between my readings of tales and her singing from both For the Girl in the Garden and her new album, Sirens. It's more dynamic than a plain reading, and more fun. We're still finalizing the tour dates, working around my actual writing schedule, which is quite busy these days.
I'm humbled and awed by the community that has already grown up around this book, those who had a hand in its creation, were inspired enough to expand it into a totally different medium, and those who have read and loved it. It takes a lot more than a village to raise a book. It has been a very long process, and will be a longer one yet, but I can't stop smiling these days, and humming songs about my pirates and my stars and my orphans.