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Friday, November 2, 2007

Interview with Catherynne M. Valente

Official Orphan’s Tales Website
Order “In the Cities of Coin & SpiceHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “In the Night GardenHERE + “In the Cities of Coin & SpiceHERE
(Photo Credit: Charles Reynolds)

In 2006, poet/novelist Catherynne M. Valente (The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon, The Grass-Cutting Sword) made her major publishing debut with “In the Night Garden” which not only attracted a whole new legion of fans, myself included, but was also critically-acclaimed by press and peers alike winning the 2006 Tiptree Award and becoming a 2007 World Fantasy Award finalist. With “In the Cities of Coin and Spice”, Ms. Valente successfully concludes The Orphan’s Tales duology with a novel that will no doubt garner even more fans and accolades. So in conjunction with the new book’s release, Catherynne M. Valente has graced Fantasy Book Critic with a wonderfully enlightening interview that I hope will raise the awareness of one of the most original and gifted new voices in modern literature:

Q: Writing-wise, your works have been described as 'surrealist' or 'post-modern'. How would you describe your style of writing?

Catherynne: I suppose I count as post-modern by virtue of writing in the early 21st century--though that very thing should probably disqualify me from being counted as a genuine surrealist, who were a phenomenon of the last century. I would describe my writing as sensual, weird, non-linear, and flamboyant. In everyday conversation I usually say: "pretty funky stuff." I wrote poetry for years before I even attempted fiction, and the care for language poets have has become something of a mission statement as far as the style of my novels. I want every word to count, to sing. Verlaine once said that he could never write a novel because he would, at some point, have to write something like "the count walked into the drawing room." I don't think it has to be like that. I suppose I've spent most of my career (such as it is) tying to avoid writing that sentence.

Q: Originally "The Orphan's Tales" was conceived as a novella, then it became a four-book series with each part representing a certain season in the Garden, and now it's being published as a duology with each volume containing two books (Volume One – Book of the Steppe, Book of the Sea; Volume Two – Book of the Storm, Book of the Scald). Could you tell us how "The Orphan's Tales" evolved from a novella into the epic it has become and what seasons/elements you were trying to represent with each of the four books?

Catherynne: Can I crib from Tolkien and say it grew in the telling? I think it's ok, everyone cribs from Tolkien...

I started out with the story of the prince and the goose, having in mind Priapus's sacred geese from the Satyricon, which I'd been working on translating earlier in the year. It sounds strange to say a story got away from you, but it did, and suddenly the goose was a girl and the witch was this poor broken thing and there was so much more to tell. Throughout the whole series I felt like I was groping in the dark, making progress inch by inch, just trying to see the part of the story that was directly in front of me. The elements are pretty simple--the Book of the Steppe is earth, the Book of the Sea water, and the latter two books, the Book of the Storm and the Book of the Scald are air and fire. The seasonal thing came later, as I expanded the garden segments from a simple tableau to a tale of their own, and time had to pass there. Volume II takes place in autumn and winter, Volume I in spring and summer. I think they also take on some of the characteristics of their element: the Book of the Steppe is very tied to one tribe and one part of the world, where the Book of the Sea explodes into a much more volatile narrative, always in motion, touching several countries, as the ocean does. But ultimately I'm a very organic writer--books grow like plants and I'm happy to let them take their own weird, winding time.

Q: In another interview you described "The Orphan's Tales" as "an intertwining series of fairy tales in the tradition of Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales" with all of the stories "coming back together in the end to create one complete narrative." What was the most difficult part of writing "The Orphan's Tales" in this manner?

Catherynne: The fact that I am a masochist and therefore never kept notes or outlines. I just kept it all in my head. I only kept notes if I thought of something on a road trip or on a plane. I said many times that I should just start keeping charts and timelines and all those good, organized things, but it would have taken longer to do that than to write the book. I have neither the patience nor the inclination to be organized, and that's just something I've had to accept about myself. Besides, if I think out a novel all the way through, I'll never write it, because in my head it will already be done and the impetus to get to the end will be gone. I guess in that way I write like a reader, and if I spoil the ending for myself, it's no fun. I didn't stumble upon the end details of The Orphan's Tales until very late, and the end itself underwent a last-minute change.

I think a lot of the best writing comes from authors trying to avoid boredom halfway through a book.

Q: Wow, that’s impressive :) Even after reading it, I’m not sure I could keep everything straight in my head ;) Okay, so as you said, all of the stories come together and create a single narrative by the end of "In the Cities of Coin and Spice". However, it's also alluded at the end of the book that there are many more tales yet to be told, so will readers get to see you return to this world?

Catherynne: I toyed with the idea of a second series for a long time, and there is a part of me that would still like to do it, but I think I must practice some self-restraint and say that the story as it was meant to be told is all told now, and the shadowy gaps and corners and tantalizing little hints that remain are there for the reader to play in, and dwell in, and not for me to shine a blinding light upon.

There are always more tales to be told--no story truly ends. The very idea of an ending is just a literary device to save paper. Lives go on once the book is shut, and so do all these tales. But one does have to shut the book eventually.

Q: As much as I would like to see a second series, I have to respect your decision of not doing another one and find it refreshing, especially in this day and age where sequels have become the norm…

So, next question. While Michael Kaluta's interior illustrations provide a visual medium for the book, I also noticed that color, sound, taste and even touch play an important role in the way you tell your stories. Was this done deliberately?

Catherynne: Deliberately may not be the best word--it's who I am as a reader and a writer. I can't help but produce sensual things, it's just how I think, how I experience the world. I see things very clearly in my mind's eye--I'm a champion dreamer--and if I could draw worth a lick I'd probably have been a painter. Maybe I'm just compensating. The real world is high definition, surround sound, full contact. Why shouldn't books be?

Q: I think it’s fair to say that mythology & folklore play a big part in your writing. What is it about the two that influenced you to compose an entire series built on a system of fables?

Catherynne: Well, honestly, when I started writing The Orphan's Tales I didn't have the first idea how to write a novel. I'm not sure I do now, but I certainly didn't then. I had just finished The Labyrinth, which a lot of people, including my editor, still say isn't really a novel, but a prose-poem. So I had this idea, but I didn't really know how to crack the particular code of making it into a novel--but mythology? Folklore? I've loved those all my life. There's very little I know more about. Those I could handle. So, re-reading Arabian Nights, it all kind of came together, that I could use that structure, but take it one step further, connect all the individual tales. And the way the language of AN is so revelatory of Arabic culture made me wonder if someone could write a book that was so subtly revelatory of a culture that never existed. If folklore could contain enough information--and of course it can, story is the basic informational unit of culture.

Q: Could you further explain the relationship between culture and storytelling?

Catherynne: All culture ever was was a set of stories a group of people tell each other about themselves. It is a complex system of stories--America is the home of the free and the brave, the sun never sets on the British Empire, there is no god but Allah--but it's still just stories. Every culture tells itself it has a destiny, tells itself it is superior in one way or another, tells itself why and how it is how it is. In our own country, George Washington is an almost entirely fictitious character at this point. Culture is a performance of group memory, and a long project of mass folklore. There is literally nothing else to it. And culture becomes embedded in language (this was an incredibly common theme in 70s SF) in the form of cliché. Why is something a cliché? Because it's been said so many times it is obvious, and no longer interesting. We say a thing is red as an apple: which indicates that parts of our country are temperate enough to support apples, that red varieties are common, even more common than green or yellow, that we express color through comparison, that we associate red with life and food and health--it goes on and on. In Russian to say a girl is pretty you would use the word prekrasnaya, which also has the connotation of red (red cheeks, flushed skin, health, women who spend time out of doors) whereas we use the word "fair" (pale skin, fragility, women who spend time indoors). The cultural values embedded in simile are extraordinary and endless.

So in writing The Orphan's Tales, a large part of the experiment was to embed fictional cultural information into the language of the tales, so that the narrative would be carried not only through folklore but through the most basic informational units.

Q: Well I think you really succeeded in that regard. Going back to the earlier question about folklore, what would you say your favorite fairy tale is of all time?

Catherynne: Oh boy. I suppose it's Snow White. Being a black-haired girl who had a wicked stepmother in her youth, it always seemed to speak to me specifically. And it seemed to say that black-haired girls could survive, even huntsmen, even dwarves, even death. And the iconic coffin and mirror and's fascinating, and grotesque, and the psychology has always twigged as quite subtle and sad to me: why does she open the door? Doesn't she know that witches are up to no good? Doesn't she recognize the woman who raised her? And it was my own history that made me answer that the way I always have: of course she did, but it was her mother. She would have done anything for her mother's love, even die. That sad little idea of how a woman falls into temptation has been at the core of a lot of my understandings of fairy tales, which are so often about children seeking love.

Q: Moving on, some of the projects that you've been working on include an Arthurian novel, an urban fantasy called "Palimpsest", "The Spindle of Necessity", etc. Could you shed some more light on these and anything else that you might be working on?

Catherynne: Happy to--though none of the projects you mention have been sold yet. It's still a tough market out there, and I'm hardly airport material.

Under in the Mere is finished--it's an Arthurian novel told from the points of view of ten of the more obscure knights, where modern California stands in for the Otherworld. It works...I swear.

The Alchemy of Winter is also finished, a post-industrial fantasy YA novel about the strange world that springs up on Lake Erie when it freezes over.

Palimpsest is an urban fantasy about a city that lives on human skin, a viral city whose citizens consist of those who bear parts of the city on their flesh, and visit it in their dreams. The story follows four such people as they search for others like themselves and a way to enter the city permanently.

The Spindle of Necessity is a sprawling, epic fantasy about the kingdom of Prester John, which was a medieval myth that deeply affected politics and religion at the time. Spindle takes the entire mythos of Prester John as true, and tells his story from the perspective of the bizarre, alien creatures of medieval folklore that people the kingdom.

I'm also working on an SF novel called Our Own Dust, but that's in a very nascent stage.

Q: That’s quite a diverse and very interesting list! A lot of writers tend to specialize in one area, but you’re all over the place ;) Why is that, how accessible are these projects compared to your current releases, and how traditional (or untraditional) are these individual titles within their respected sub-genres?

Catherynne: I would say that they are all pretty accessible compared to my earlier work--obviously the YA is the most accessible. I dialed back my messing about with language quite a bit, and there is no structural experimentation. Under in the Mere is probably the most experimental--it has nothing to do with any other Arthurian novel, I assure you, and is funky in the extreme. Palimpsest, Spindle of Necessity, and Our Own Dust all try to walk the line between rich language and unreadability.

I'm not really interested in specialization--I'm interested in writing, and becoming a better writer. If I don't stretch myself, what's the point of any of this? I write what moves me, what I like to read, and I read everything. I may even try realism one of these days. If I just wrote fairy tales for the rest of my life, I wouldn't really feel that I had ever grown at all. I want to write as much as I can, about as much as I can, and death is pretty much imminent for humans. It's kind of a race, sandbagging a deluge with books.

Q: So what have been the biggest improvements that you've made with your writing and in what areas would you like to get better at?

Catherynne: I think I've improved a lot on that thing called "plot." In that I occasionally have them. It used to be that everything I wrote was just this white-hot, undisciplined glut. There is value in that, and I still believe in it. But I've gotten better at discipline, at precision, at craft. I'd like to get better at all of that--I have a long way to go. I want to be elegant and precise in my white-hot glutiness, you know? I would like to be a more controlled writer, and better at dialogue, too.

Q: You've received a B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics, you’ve written short fiction and, as mentioned, you also write poetry. Do you think having the degree and writing in more than one format makes a difference in the way you write overall and if so, how?

Catherynne: My degree certainly plays a big part--I think the best way to write interestingly in English is to learn another language, and Greek is a behemoth. Learning ancient languages is like becoming a linguistic geneticist, and it makes English that much easier to manipulate. Writing in different formats doesn't, really. I often have to take some time to transition from a long period of writing fiction to writing poetry. It makes it harder, ultimately. And short fiction just became a necessity--so many people asked me for it that I figured I'd better learn to write it.

Q: What do you think about branching out even further into a different format such as graphic novels, television, film, etc?

Catherynne: I'd love to do a graphic novel if an artist surfaced who wanted to work with me. I think I could do wildly fun things with the genre. But the artist is always the catch, you know? There are a lot more able writers out there than able artists. As far as TV and film, I won't go out of my way to pursue it. I wrote plays once upon a time, and I enjoy the format, but it's pretty far from what I'm doing now, and I'm not sure I have the commercial viability to make it work. That said, if the kids from Doctor Who show up on my doorstep, I'll knock something over scrambling to the keyboard.

Q: Personally, I think "The Orphan's Tales" would make a great graphic novel or anime. Have there been any discussions about adapting the book and if so, could you share any details?

Catherynne: There have been discussions of film rights, some vague talk about a graphic novel adaptation, but nothing firm. More than that I can't say.

Q: Understood. So if you could adapt any of your works, how would you do it?

Catherynne: I'd love to see The Orphan's Tales as a mini-series--I think the episodic format of the book would take to television perfectly, and would allow more time for a very big story to develop than a two hour film. Barring that, I'd be thrilled to see The Labyrinth as anime.

Q: I believe that with your small-press books you got to choose the cover art, while the artists for "The Orphan's Tales" were selected by the publisher Bantam including the wonderful Michael Kaluta who supplies the interior illustrations. Which method do you prefer and how do you feel about cover art in speculative fiction—how important it is in selling a book, how some of the covers are considered generic, the difference between international & stateside covers, et cetera?

Catherynne: I love being able to get work for my friends in visual art--the career arc is so much tougher for them. I regret not being able to lend a hand that way anymore. But Kaluta's work is so amazing, and such a joy to discover--we don't confer on the art much, so it's always a surprise to see what he's come up with, and I've never been disappointed, even a little. The covers have been delightful--I'm framing them to hang on my wall as we speak. I think The Orphan's Tales are presented in a stunning package, and that just speaks to how much effort and love Bantam put into it. You can't argue with that, and when so many genre covers are either generic or embarrassing, I am so terribly lucky to have had an editor who aims for the spectacular. I think, for me as a buyer, the aesthetics of a book are important, a bad cover will put me off an otherwise interesting book sometimes. But it's all Dread Alchemy, unknown, arcane. You just try to make the best product you can and hope for the best.

Q: Speaking of small-press, "The Orphan's Tales" is actually your first major published work. Could you tell us a bit about your journey in finding a publisher for "The Orphan's Tales", why you chose Bantam, and what you feel are the positive/negatives between a major & indie publisher?

Catherynne: Keep in mind I only worked with one indie publisher! There are several independent presses I'd love to work with--the market today demands a pretty big stable of publishers with whom you have good relations. But with an indie publisher you have more control. That's pretty much the advantage, in a nutshell. There is also less pressure to be a blockbuster, since selling 5000 copies is a huge success for an indie press, and a failure for a major publisher. But the visibility, publicity, money, and subsequent opportunities all go up with the big presses. I've also been lucky in that my relationship with my editor at Bantam is extremely positive--it certainly didn't have to fall out that way.

As far as choosing Bantam, Bantam more or less chose me. My editor at Prime sent the manuscript to Bantam in a moment of mad generosity, thinking it was more commercial than everything else I was doing and might have a shot at the big presses. We sort of thought they had forgotten about it, but a year and a half later, they accepted it, and I was just stunned to be allowed to sit at the big kids' table.

Q: Well I’m sure a lot of readers are glad that Bantam gave it a shot. In fact, “In the Night Garden" is even a finalist for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel alongside such names as Stephen King, Gene Wolfe, Ellen Kushner and Scott Lynch. First off, congratulations and good luck! Secondly, how does it feel to be on the final ballot and what would you say if you won?

Catherynne: Thanks! It feels unreal--I've only been publishing for three years, and for me, this means so much. Being stacked up beside the rest of the names on that ballot just cracks me up, though. It's like the old Sesame Street song: Which of these things just doesn't fit in here? Most of my anxiety about winning or losing evaporates when I think about that list. It's just an incredible honor. As for what I'd say if I won--I haven't thought about it yet. It kind of feels like a jinx to write a speech for something you may well not win, doesn't it? That poor little scrap of paper would feel so pathetic.

Q: Well I hope I didn’t jinx you with the question! So it's been said that authors of genre fiction, especially female writers, get little respect from writers of non-speculative fiction. Have you had to deal with any such problems and what are your thoughts on the subject?

Catherynne: Not directly--but then, I don't submit to markets with bad reputations in that area. I have had some trouble with men trying to talk over me from the audience during panels and the like, but I am a vocal feminist and I just tend to shout louder than they do. My editor is a woman, my agent is a woman--there are difficulties in this field, especially writing fairy tales, which are often not seen as sufficiently hardcore by the male reading public, but all I can do is write the best books I know how and hope they will be my shield. A lot of these things are too subtle to call out--awards ballots and behind the scenes selection processes. I sometimes wonder how my career would have been different if I had published under C.M. Valente, but in the absence of that data, I can't say. As far as genre and non-genre goes...yes, it's always there, but the above applies doubly: I write the best books I can and let them say what they like. After all, we all know that if it's good enough it stops being genre, right?

Q: Very, very true. So are there any preconceived notions that you'd like to dispel about being a female speculative fiction author?

Catherynne: There is no style, subject or genre that is particular to one gender or the other. I am sick and tired of the subtle characterization of--you name it, fairy tales, descriptive writing, domestic activity, fantasy itself, as feminine and therefore beneath notice.

Q: What is the one question that no one ever asks you, but you wish they did, and how would you respond to it?

Catherynne: People rarely ask me about the life cycle of the cacao tree...but it's a fascinating plant. Legend has it that cacao beans were the Plumed Serpent's first gift to mankind after they were created out of maize. Beats the hell out of mud and an apple.

But I really wish people would ask me: would you like the combination to this strings-free safe full of money? And I would respond: yes, yes I would.

Q: Everyone always says either money or sex ;)… You actually lived in Japan for a while. My grandmother is Japanese :) Anyways, I was just wondering, what led you there, how was the experience, in what ways did the culture there influence your writing, and is there anywhere else internationally that you would want to live?

Catherynne: I went to college in Edinburgh for a time and would dearly love to live permanently in the UK. That's probably a pipe dream. Japan was a very difficult culture for me as I went there because my husband was stationed there, not out of choice or inclination. I knew no one, and the Navy community did not exactly embrace me. In essence, I spent two years alone in the mountains, and that does tend to shake you up a bit. Japan is a hard bedmate. But I think because of that friction, it was a tremendously rewarding experience for me ultimately. Japan and I had to get to know each other, like two old dogs in an alley. She beat me up pretty good, but we have respect now, mutual acknowledgment of total intractability. It profoundly affected my books, particularly Yume no Hon and The Grass-Cutting Sword. In some sense I will never leave there, and in another it happened to another person. I think that's always the case with complex experiences.

Q: I recently read on your blog that you saw Rilo Kiley, Iron & Wine and others in concert. I take it you're more into the indie/folk side of music? What else has been spinning on your Ipod/mp3 player?

Catherynne: I'm more into the good side of music, which as often as not is not canned studio output. I don't have an iPod, more's the pity, but I'm a huge fan of the Decemberists, the Dresden Dolls, Art in Manila, Final Fantasy, Martha Tilston, Dar Williams, Gogol Bordello, Rufus Wainwright, and especially S.J. Tucker, an amazing singer who created companion albums to the Orphan's Tales books.

Q: Nice list :) I really enjoy the Decemberists & Final Fantasy and Rufus Wainwright isn’t bad either. I didn’t know about the companion albums, but those sound like they’d be interesting to check out…

In the past, you've been described as a 'classicist' so what's been in your reading pile lately?

Catherynne: My days of reading Xenophon for fun are over, so don't expect too much classicist-fu here. The two best books I read this year were Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin and Little, Big, by John Crowley, which I can't believe I hadn't read before now and is hands down my favorite book of all time. You never think you'll find your favorite book at 28! It's always something you read when you were 14. I also read Master and Margarita and China Mountain Zhang this year, both of which I loved.

Q: What about new writers? Is there anyone you'd like to plug?

Catherynne: Chris Barzak's One for Sorrow just came out and is lyric and sad and lovely; Ekaterina Sedia's Secret History of Moscow is due out shortly and is merrily mythpunk. Both deserve a big audience.

Q: Is there anything you'd like to say in conclusion?

Catherynne: I'd like to conclude with a quotation, which says better than I ever could why fairy tales are Real, and True, what they do for us, and why it is always important to tell them. I had it taped over my desk for the last few months of Orphan's Tales writing, and it resonates with me on an utterly basic level:

Once upon a time, they say, there was a girl. . .there was a boy. . .there was a person who was in trouble. And this is what she did. . .and what he did. . .and how they learned to survive it. This is what they did. . .and why one failed. . .and why another triumphed in the end. And I know that it's true, because I danced at their wedding and drank their very best wine.

Terri Windling


Chris, The Book Swede said...

This was a really interesting interview, and I'm definitely very interested in her books, now.

Been looking around on Catherynne's website, and it's also quite cool.

Well done, both! I really enjoyed this one. :)

The Book Swede

chrisd said...

Great Interview!

Robert said...

Thanks! I definitely hope you give her a try :)

Nemes Gábor said...

nézzétek meg a


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