June 2009

Selena Chambers


An Interview with Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel, Palimpsest, published by Bantam Spectra, is a rich travelogue of dreams. Already known for her successful fantasy series The Orphan’s Tales, it is no surprise that Palimpsest is earning a lot of critical acclaim and cult followers. The novel's eponymous city is just beyond our own. To get there, you have to sleep with someone with a ticket; a map tattooed on their body. Once transported, you contract the ticket as well as a nomadic longing. The city itself is a marvel of steampunk and high fantasy, exploring an adult Narnia where four characters attempt to immigrate to the city in hopes of finding themselves and what Valente calls “tribe.”

In addition to weaving fantastic yarns, Valente is also an award-winning poet, having recently won the Rhysling Award for "The Seven Devils of Central California." She is also proving to be one of the more refreshing voices among contemporary short fiction. Stories like “The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World,” and “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” utilize mythmaking, secret histories, and mundane structures to minimize the epic. Palimpsest emerged from such a story written for Ekaterina Sedia’s urban fantasy anthology Paper Cities.

In an e-mail interview, Ms. Valente discusses her take on the short form, why it is underappreciated, as well as her experiences building cities with words.

This is an exciting time for the short form. On one hand, it seems desperate because magazines like Flytrap and Electric Velocipede are either closing or are flailing. On the other hand, in an Internet forum, be it magazines or Twitter, the short story seems to be surviving, if not resurrecting. What do you think the fate of the 21st century short story will be?

It's hard to say, obviously. While there are a number of markets -- and I find myself in a situation where the demand for my short fiction is often greater than for longer pieces; where I literally cannot keep up with the demand -- I question whether actual readership of short fiction has increased in any significant way. Single author short story collections are still extremely limited in sales and appeal, and I do not see the same excitement about author A's newest short story as their newest novel, unless author A publishes only rarely. Short stories do not seem to get the discussion or the critical attention at the fan level, though in the world of writers being read by other writers they are certainly quite the currency -- it is still the conventional wisdom that one ought to make a name in short fiction before publishing a novel.

I think, for one thing, the short story will get a whole lot shorter. Twitter is teaching us all to prune our prepositions, and as the unit of information gets smaller, so will fiction. I think there are a number of creative directions short fiction can take -- tradable stories like cards, ARGs [Alternate Reality Games], text message fiction. The world will always want to tell stories, and our generation will always try to access information at faster and faster rates. Short fiction would seem to fill the niche perfectly -- and yet, I think part of the reason short stories are not more popular is simply that very, very many of them, even in the prestige publications, are not very good.

I would certainly say the Internet is the future of short fiction. Print magazines will last awhile longer; print anthologies are still a going concern. But the real sharpshooters are publishing online, and as media, more and more, is perceived by the audience as something that ought to be free, online fiction will be the bulk of short fiction reading soon, if it is not already.

Follow-up to that, what effects do you think electronic publishing, social networking and the Internet will have on publishing?

Well, I'll dust off my crystal ball.

Take a whole lot of the present, make it faster, shinier, smaller, and noisier, and you've got the future. Minus a few more antediluvian morals if we're lucky, plus a few dystopian tantrums if we're not. Eventually, like it or not, and frankly, I don't, the paper book will die, whether from lack of resources to make them or lack of offline audience to buy them. Fiction, as a whole, will go electronic, at the least. That ship has already sailed. The question is only who will make money from the new model, who will protect authors, how will readers sift through a nearly infinite supply of text? How will it actually work?

I don't actually think this will happen in my lifetime, but we're headed there. Social networking is already a necessity for a new author -- it will be both more viable, and as more of the population goes online and the signal to noise gets deafening, less reliable as a means of transmitting quality -- which is what it's all about. If your friend says a book is amazing, you believe her, usually. If an ad does, you may not physically be able to see the ad to disbelieve it, as the Internet has literally taught our eyes to un-see advertising. It may well progress to the point where we can't see social networking either, though I can't imagine what that world would look like.

I think it's a wonderful world online, and no better one possible for getting stories read. Making a living off of telling stories? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on what you're writing, how you're distributing it, all the things it has always depended on. I think those who are suspicious of technology will see it pass them by, barring one or two of the last ones to make it using old tools, and those who can embrace it will go along for the ride. The world will never hurt for hopeful writers with new ideas. Where that goes, ultimately, I have no real idea. I'm a fantasy writer after all. Science fiction is not my strong suit.

When I approached you about this interview, you commented that your short stories did not receive as much attention as your novels. Do you think that is because short stories in general are overlooked? Does the writer, to be commercially successful, have to write novels, and save the shorter forms for “street cred”?

First, I should say that I never wanted to write short stories to begin with. My brain works on a novel-scale at least, it wants room to play. But almost as soon as I sold my first novel, I started getting requests for short fiction from various sources. I was totally confused. It's like the late comedian Mitch Hedberg used to say when people asked him about doing a sitcom: "That's like saying: Hey, Mitch, you like to eat. Can you farm?" I just didn't understand why anyone would want a short story from me. I didn't know how to write them. I barely knew how to write novels.

But I was also broke. So I started reading short fiction, which I hadn't really done before. I tried to teach myself how to write a story -- and I was living in Japan at the time, so things like Clarion and Odyssey were just off the table for me. I clung to folk and fairy tales at first, because it gave me a structure to hang on. I tried to figure it out the home-school way: read, attempt, read again, attempt again. I'm still not sure I'm any good at it, and though I am aware that I've won an award for a short story, that's not false modesty. I read Kelly Link and Theodora Goss and I've just got so far to go. But I have gotten to like the short form, and a few stories have even turned into novels themselves.

I think Link and Goss as well as Chiang have proven you can be successful while never writing a novel. But they, and a few others, are the exceptions, and, of course, exceptional. Readership gravitates towards novels much more strongly, and it's hard to get people to read short fiction, even if they would read your novels happily. I'm not sure about street cred -- meaning I'm not sure how much street cred a short story buys you, especially in the fantasy world, when the doorstopper epic is the standard unit of currency. I think there are a lot more pedestrian short stories out there than brilliant ones precisely because of the stubborn idea that you should do your time in the short story mines before writing a novel. Thus, magazines are full of writers who are simply paying dues, not passionate about the form. And with that kind of signal to noise ratio, it's hard as a reader to figure out what is worth one's time. On top of that, outside of Link and a few others, there's not been terribly much experimentation and innovation in the short form, so there isn't the same excitement as in, say, fantasy or YA, where new ideas and styles are exploding right now.

As for how that affects attention on my stories, I really have no idea. It's all a weird voodoo ritual -- you put your stories out there and hope you did the right dance by the right moon. Maybe people notice it, maybe they don't. It helps to have a well-trafficked blog. It helps to write shocking stories, in content or structure. But in the end, a novel seems to excite people more.

You are often cited as a Fairy Tale revisionist. I can definitely see this in your novels, but while there are fairy tale elements in some of your short stories, their unification seems to be a theme of secret or lost histories. Would you mind commenting on that?

It's funny. I've only been publishing professionally for a little less than five years. Yet I'm about to talk about eras. Blue periods.

When I started out I did a lot of fairy/folk tale revision. I love folklore. Because of The Orphan's Tales people often think that's the bulk of what I do, what I'm interested in. But that's not really the case. I'm obsessed with the world, and folklore is the heart of the world to me. But lately I've gotten addicted, not only to secret histories, but to presenting them in that classic magical realist academic style. Oh, it is such fun. I don't want to get repetitive, but it's definitely a kink of mine these days. I should probably cool it a bit. But the short form lends itself so well to such things (as my buddy Jorge can attest) that it's hard to resist.

If there's any kind of unified theme to my short fiction -- and remember, an awful lot of short fiction comes from an anthology saying: we need 5,000 words from the point of view of a fairy tale villain, and not an obscure one. Or: space opera science fiction with a large organization at its heart, please. So the market often influences the content deeply. But if there is a theme, I would say it's lost things, and giving voice to the voiceless, whether that's Sleeping Beauty or a couple of Argentinean cartographers.

While I stated earlier that it seems like short stories are harder to sell, you have conceived of a way in making them profitable and collectible with your Omikuji Project. You write of it as a small community for readers and the writer. They can send you suggestions of stories they would like to see, and none of this work will be found in magazines or collections. How, or what was your need, to create such a community?

I'm deeply drawn to the idea of tribe, of a large group of humans each bringing what they can to their village -- which village is very far flung these days, given that the Internet connects people of extremely disparate geographical inclinations. What I can bring to the fireside is stories. I wanted to make something more personal than a mass-market paperback, something that would link us together. I won't say there wasn't an economic incentive -- things have been very difficult for everyone as of late, and my family is no exception. But part of the idea of a tribe is that old Marxist saw. This is what I have the ability to give to those who need it or want it.

It has become a family, a wonderful thing that ties all of us into a close group. I met several Omikuji members traveling across the country on tour and we always greeted each other with hugs and smiles. The livejournal community is active. I'm deeply glad I did it, and I hope they are, too.

Do you find more satisfaction out of writing short stories in this forum than say publishing in the more traditional manner? What has surprised you most about this project?

It evens out. When the community particularly likes a story, then it's hugely satisfying. Of course it reaches a smaller pool, but they're generally more excited about it.

I think the extent to which people have become attached to it, have decided it's something they want on their doorstep every month, something they photograph and create art around. Something they talk to each other about. It's very hard to create fan community when the author is involved. I'm thrilled that it's happened in this case.

You have a new novel out, Palimpsest. It is an extension of a short story published in Ekaterina Sedia’s anthology Paper Cities. Reading the story after having read the novel, it is only one small sliver of the story. Would you mind discussing how you were able to flesh it out, build around this small structure? What difficulties did you encounter?

The novel is a macrocosm of the story. If you read the story carefully, it's simply the novel writ small. The main expansion was in having four POV characters instead of one. Obviously, the novel is much more complex, dealing much more deeply with the history of the city and its political situation. It grew in the telling, I suppose. From the beginning, the city was so much more than I could fit into a short story, and it oozed out of the seams when I wasn't looking. It was really fairly easy to expand, because the story was so compressed.

How different of an experience was writing Palimpsest than The Orphan’s Tales?

Oh, very. Firstly, I had been writing The Orphan's Tales off and on for five years. I was really good at writing nested tales. My fairy tale biceps were pumped. But I ran into a wall, because Palimpsest just isn't structured like that. In some sense, Palimpsest is actually my first novel -- a novel structured as a novel, not a prose-poem or a series of smaller stories. It was very hard. On top of that, it includes extensive sections set in our world, which I had never done before. It's easy to make a story interesting if you can toss in a pirate ship or a sentient maze or a huldra. Not so much when you aren't allowed that sort of thing.

I find it takes me about 40,000 words to feel like I have a handle on how to write whatever novel I'm working on. That's fine with The Orphan's Tales, which taken together is about 320,000 words. So you get pretty confident after awhile. You know how to dance that jig. But with a standalone, it means I'm halfway through the book before I have any idea how to write it. Palimpsest was a huge challenge in all kinds of ways.

You just concluded a whirlwind tour with chanteuse S.J. Tucker promoting Palimpsest. You guys have gone all across the East Coast, kicking off in New York City, and went West on a train. How did such a tour come about? What has been your favorite part of it so far?

SJ and I have been collaborating since the first Orphan's Tales book. When planning appearances for Palimpsest, I emailed her and said: "It's so weird planning this without you!" She answered: "So don't plan it without me." And a new album was born.

One of my goals this time was to make it to the West Coast, where I had never done readings and fans had been asking me to come for years. So it all just expanded and grew, and then, because of the strong theme of trains in the novel, the idea of the train trip to New Orleans came up. Kevin Wiley, SJ's partner and manager, made it happen with sheer will and organizational sorcery, and it was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had, full of color and beauty and intimacy and glittery masks and wonderful food and new friends. The best part of any tour is making new friends, and I have met so many extraordinary humans on this crazy latter-day Oregon Trail.

It seems like from the moment Palimpsest was released in February, people have been identifying with it. What is it about Palimpsest that you think speaks most to people?

I think many of us long for something to belong to, a secret to know, a place that embraces them. Palimpsest offers a kind of society, a tribe, where outcast and deviant and lonely and beautiful and obsessive people can be together. It's a fantasy world that doesn't say: you have to be white and straight and virtuous and preferably male to live here. It appeals to cultures that are often hidden from the mainstream eye, because in Palimpsest, those cultures are mainstream. 

It also has a marker -- the map on the skin. All over the country I've seen people wearing these things, in sharpie, in paint, in henna, in permanent tattoos. I wear one myself. It announces to those who know that we are related, we are family. I think a book that can make people feel like that is one that most people won't walk away from. Of course I hoped it would be like this, that people would love it. I'm endlessly thrilled that it's turned out to be so.

Will there be any hope of a collection of your short stories coming out soon? What new projects do you have coming up after the Palimpsest fervor dies down?

I have a short story collection coming out from PS Publishing in late 2010. I'm also working on Deathless, a retelling of a Russian folktale set in the Stalinist era, which will come out from Tor in 2011.

To find out more about Catherynne M. Valente and Palimpsest, visit her Web site.

S.J. Chambers lives in North Florida. Her writing has appeared in Yankee Pot Roast, Strange Horizons, Fantasy magazine, The Baltimore Sun Read Street Blog, and Up Against the Wall. She loves to entertain visitors at her online drawing room.