A Chat with Catherynne Valente in Which Flowers Are Defended

I’m returning in style.  I was introduced to the work of Catherynne M. Valente through my very past interview experiences. The very first guest I had was one K.J. Bishop and after I demanded she give up writers that were moving her and she finally uttered two names. One was Jeffrey Ford — the other was Catherynne M. Valente.

My introduction to Valente was The Labyrinth, an effort that word for word is on of the most beautiful efforts in fiction you will find. She then took me into her book of dreams, Yume No Hon, which was the first piece of fiction that came to mind — in any form — when Cheryl Morgan asked for preliminary Hugo nominees last year. Her most recent project is a two-book set entitled The Orphan’s Tales, the first book of which was released late last year and titled In the Night Garden to be followed by In the Cities of Coin and Spice later this year.

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With that, I’d like to welcome Catherynne and thank her for the time.

Let’s work backwards — your latest released project is Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden, the first in a two-book sequence that collects interlinked and crisscrossing stories that tell a greater story. Please tell the potential readers what this project is about — and why you need to tell it.

Catherynne M. Valente — This project is first and foremost about stories — the kind of stories you used to hear that thrilled and terrified and made you believe in anything. I wanted to tell those sorts of stories again, I wanted to write a book that was a kind of huge hearth that any reader could draw themselves up to and listen, remember what fairy tales were before Disney got ahold of the lot and turned them into cute little bubbles of pastel colors and wise-cracking animal sidekicks.

In the Night Garden is the first book of a duology — an intertwining series of fairy tales in the tradition of Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales. These hearth-stories arc through and swerve around and trace back along each other, coming back together in the end — I promise! — to create one complete narrative. The second volume, In the Cities of Coin and Spice comes out this fall.

Each tale is tattooed on the eyelids of a lost little girl, banished to a vast Palace Garden for her strange birthmark, left on her as an infant by a creature she cannot remember — though she has since been told that when all the stories are read out, it will return and judge her. She is a child without a past or a name, parents or friends.

All she has are her tales — which she shares, at first hesitantly, but with growing urgency and joy, with one of the noble children who shows her brief and simple kindness. She carries this prince with her into the world painted on her eyes, a world of griffins and monopods, witches and pirates, selkies and satyrs, living stars and wolf-monks, murdered gods and three-breasted saints. Along the way the two children become close, and the mystery of the girl’s own secret history and identity begins to unfold.

What I wanted to do was not to create a complete world, as fantasy so often does, but to create a complete folkloric system, a complete mythology, through which the world would be visible — a world which is not in its essence too terribly different from our own ancient mythscape.

I think stylistically you’re one of the most distinctive writers in the field and even more unique, after reading In the Night Garden I have found this new level of appreciation for a form/quality that have not been confronted with in some time — you’re a rarity — you are a storyteller. This makes me want to ask, what or who gave you the love of stories, not just reading but the telling as well?

Catherynne M. Valente — I think the easiest answer to that would be to just list everything I have read and loved since I was a child. I’ll try something both harder and easier. My grandmother used to read to me from the Bible during the day and the Ramayana and Arabian Nights after bedtime, if you can imagine the effect of that kind of demarcation of the known universe has on a little girl. I had the standard compliment of Andersen and Grimm as well, and my mother piled me high with Plato, Beckett, Homer, Dylan Thomas, and French surrealist theatre — I’m not kidding, my mother is a very serious reader — to name a few of those she introduced me to by the time I was nine.

My father gave me Steinbeck’s Acts of King Arthur when I was reduced to tears of rage upon viewing Lancelot and Guinevere kissing in Camelot when I was six or seven. When I grew up, I got over that prudish streak and had an extremely torrid affair with Homeric Greek, who is not at all to be trusted, let me tell you. All I got was a lousy Classics degree which just about qualifies me to be a greeter at Wal-Mart

But I think this is how you map a writer’s DNA: what books, in what combinations, from whom and when? Where were you when you first saw a lamp-post in the snow and looked for a faun instead of your mittens? They merge like chemicals, the books we love, some volatile, some compatible, and a writer is like a very strong beaker in which all these experiments in: if X goes in, what comes out? are performed. I tend to like the ones that explode.

I learned to love storytelling from everyone who ever told me a tale or gave me a book that left me slack-jawed with wonder, and that strange desire to be inside a story, instead of outside.

One of the most compelling aspects of In the Night Garden for me is the narrator who herself represented the most noteworthy deviation from the work that is perhaps it’s literary grandmother — the Arabian Nights — in her more immediate role, both underlying and blatantly branded. If I look hard enough into her eyes, how much of Cat the storyteller will I see in the girl in the garden?

Catherynne M. Valente — Well, I think you’ll find my eyelids are a somewhat paler shade than hers. But you’re welcome to look as close as you like.

Is there some of me in the girl in the garden? Absolutely. There is some of me in all the characters — my heart is kind of scattershot over all these books. Nothing is ever entirely fiction, entirely untrue, unrooted. I was a very lonely child — some lonely little girls grow up to be social workers, some grow up to be astronauts, some don’t grow up. Some grow up to be writers. I think lost children are at the core of most fairy tales, and I was certainly a lost child.

I even had a stepmother and lived on the edge of a wood. That doesn’t make me Snow White, but that’s the thing about fairy tales — they matter because they are tied intimately to the experience of children in a frightening, dark world. Monsters are real, beauty is dangerous, your parents will leave you. You have only your own cleverness to light the way. In some ways fairy tales are a terribly pragmatic education.

Did this book begin with a lonely little girl living in her stepmother’s house on the edge of a murky forest? Maybe. I never had a garden. The girl is her own fey, feral creature, and I could never have hoped for her tales or her eventual fate when I was young.

Was Orphan’s Tales once a planned 4-book sequence? Have these stories been condensed from the original format or will the now planned 2 books just be larger?

Catherynne M. Valente — It began, actually, as a novella, just a few fairy stories for my niece at Christmas, stapled together. But it grew, sort of like a beanstalk. Eventually I had a 4 book series in mind, 4 to correspond with the elements and the seasons in the Garden, and Bantam decided to combine them into two volumes. However, there has been no condensation. You will even find the books separated by titles just as I originally designed them. The books are exactly as I intended — just between four covers instead of eight. They simply folded two books into one volume.

catherynne valente cities of coin and spice

In  Arabian Nights the frame narrative was added later — was this the same with In the Night Garden?

Catherynne M. Valente — No. The frame narrative, the girl in the garden and her boy, were the seed and core of the story. Her arc was the vital one, to me, what I wanted to tell. It is the spine of the story — just wait, you’ll see. The idea for the nested story structure was inspired by my reading of Arabian Nights — hence a few little homages throughout, such as the name Dinarzad — but the only idea I started out with was the girl and her inked eyes. Everything else, rather literally, came out of her.

The thing is that Arabian Nights is an authentic folkloric artifact, as fascinating for its corruptions as for its veracities, while The Orphan’s Tales is a facsimile, a mirror and a shadow of actual folklore. Thus, over the centuries, the tales and structure of the AN document changed, but it was always rooted in Arabic Peninsula mythology. It has had time to go through an organic process of human digestions and re-iterations.

The Orphan’s Tales is definitively written by one person making it all up as she goes along, and while it would be nice to think that in a thousand years, it will have been sufficiently digested to be mistaken for the real thing, somehow, I really rather doubt it. So the structure, the frame narrative, does not have the luxury of being retconned in — it was all there from the beginning.

 In a previous interview — in a statement I would agree with — you have described this book as your most accessible book to date. What in your view gives this book this quality that distinguishes it from your previous work?

Catherynne M. Valente — Well, I heard about this radical new-fangled notion the kids were trying these days called “plot.” It seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but I figured I’d have a go at it.

Most of my previous books were intensely language-oriented character studies. I’ve been accused of passing off prose-poems as fiction, which just kind of shows how arbitrary those distinctions have become these days. They had plots, but they more or less followed the mental arc of their narrator, and the complexity of the novels was in the style, not the events.

For all my discussion of style, I do believe that style and content are intertwined, and if I wanted to tell a story about a person losing their mind, the kind of hallucinogenic style I used was perfectly appropriate. But when I wanted to tell fairy tales, then a whole different set of expectations arose for both: a more oral style, a more concrete plot, more iconic and arresting and numerous characters. I was no longer dealing with a single narrator, nor a story that could be told with non-linear prose.

Thus this book is more accessible because its style is more oral — though throughout I have tried to imitate the unusual similes and metaphors of Serbian, Arabic, Sicilian, and Chinese fairy tales, to name a few, whose oral style is much different from that of Grimm. Fairy tales are some of the most accessible stories you can tell.

Their building blocks are the most basic and primal of storytelling techniques and modes, and the reader can almost immediately tell when they are in a fairy tale, and adjust their expectations accordingly. Obviously I try to subvert those expectations, and in the finished product, the plot itself is quite non-linear, as I was telling a long story through short ones, rather than the unconnected traditional stories, but that play would be impossible if I didn’t first deliver the kind of story that puts even the oldest reader back by the hearth, reading from a huge illustrated book about magic geese.

Is there a personal favorite or memorable tale in the book for you? Any that made you just made you feel particularly devilishly gifted as it came to mind or perhaps in how it seamlessly fit around or in-between pieces you already had in place?

Catherynne M. Valente -The girl in the garden is probably the tale that is dearest to me and closest to my heart, but I also loved writing the Firebird, the Black Papess, Sigrid and her Griffins, the Anchorite and the Snake-Star — in the new book I was practically cackling all the way through, as I tied together every story to the whole, in little ways and big ones. The horrible story of the City of Marrow and its secrets was a delight to write, though somewhat depressing, the character of Oubliette, a wild girl who is given a golden ball to tame her, was surprisingly affecting to write, the Kappa and the Princess of Glass Rain were bizarre and fun, filling in the pre-history of these tales.

I loved writing the tale of Lock, a goldfish who dreams of becoming a dragon, and oddly enough the very sweet and sad and not very dramatic at all tale of the teamaker and the shoemaker was one of my favorites. And every time I bring back a character from a previous tale I smile. I guess I’m saying I love them all, as that’s a long list, but I am partial to some of them — the ones that came very easily or very hard, usually.

Artwork in novels is typically something I tend to ignore, but the art in this book really adds to the folklore ambiance and is supplied by Michael Kaluta, who with no hyperbolic aspirations can justifiably be described as a legend. Were you familiar with his work prior to, and what do you think of this contribution to your book, from a storytelling perspective?

Catherynne M. Valente — I have to confess I was not familiar with it, not being a reader of graphic novels or comic books. But I immediately went to find out and recognized some of his old calendar work and such. I am obviously a huge fan now.

It may be unforgivably dorky to admit it, but when I saw even his early sketches of my characters, my book, I teared up a little. He brings them to life so well, so passionately. I could not be happier with the work — it’s truly spectacular. It was my editor’s idea to go to bat for illustrations for this thing, and I’m incredibly honored to have all this effort poured into my little book of fairy tales, to have someone like Kaluta shed ink over my work.

As for how it affects the storytelling? It doesn’t affect it while I’m working, but almost the first thing I said when I finished the final chapter was: “I can’t wait to see what Kaluta does!”

You have two pieces that uses Japan as a backdrop The Grass Cutting Sword and Yume No Hon. Are these two isolated instances or do you have a fondness for Far Eastern myth?

Catherynne M. Valente — Well, I used to live in Japan, and they told me in freshman comp that you have to “write what you know,” so I figured I had better do as I was told.

I lived just south of Yokohama for two years. I wrote Yume no Hon there, in a little house at the bottom of a ravine in the jungle, and The Grass-Cutting Sword when I came back to the US. I also wrote a lot of In the Night Garden there, and you’ll find a fair share of Japanese myth scattered throughout the series. When I knew I was going to have to relocate to Japan, I, not a particular fan of anime or any of the other ways that the West imbibes Eastern culture, did what to me was the most logical thing to prepare: I read Japanese fairy tales. Shinto myths. Buddhist stories of monks lost in snowstorms only to be saved by cats.

This certainly prepared me, but a Japanese language class might have been more useful, and no cats ever came to my rescue, the little brats. Japan and I had a rough road at first, and I came to love the country through writing about it, trying to come to terms with my isolation there and hitting the culture at awkward angles.

I don’t pretend my Japanese novels are any kind of authentic depiction of pure culture — they are very much the product of a young foreign woman trying to learn to love a place which was both hostile and beautiful. Now that I have some distance from it, I can scale that back to say yes, I love Far Eastern myth, but that love began in a much more primal and intimate fashion than that affirmative lets on.

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As a SF/F reviewer, I like to keep myself in the plush gutter with the fans, only occasionally infiltrating ‘critical’ mountaintops under guise. I love your prose, it has what I look for I anything from books to people — beauty and layers of content — and shows what I believe to be is a pure love of language, but word on some corners is that you may be ‘flowery’. What does that term mean to you — and how would you respond to that?

Catherynne M. Valente — All right. This thing. Look, is there some kind of problem with flowers? Flowers are living, breathing sex organs. They are the brightest, most colorful things going. There are flowers that drink blood and eat animals whole. There are flowers as big as your living room that have the approximate color and scent of a rotting corpse. You can make opium from flowers, and cure cancer with them. Flowers will cut your hands to shreds and poison you right quick. If, given all that, the kids on the corner experimenting with transparent prose that has all the punch of an illicit hit from a whipped cream can want to call me flowery, I’ll take it.

The “flowery” label is an odd one, and I’ve heard it a lot. Also “frilly.” I have never really understood what the problem with rich, evocative language is — if you’re going to use the English language, use it like you mean it. I have occasionally wondered whether it has more to do with being a woman who writes in something other than the standard “muscular” Hemingway-with-lasers style so common to SF than genuine commentary — I mean, what does flowery mean as a style? Flowerpunk? Flowerstream? It’s a bit meaningless.

Sure, I use big, heavy words and I use a lot of them. I’m hardly the first and it’s nothing to be afraid of — flowers are harmless, right? I write what I would like to read. I try to make every word count, every sentence matter. To me, that is the definition of muscular writing. I came to fiction from poetry, though these days you’re expected to keep your style in your pants even in poetry — I do wonder where one is allowed to have a style at all, actually — and I have never lost that need for language to pull its weight as surely as character and plot do.

The conventional wisdom is that style should be transparent: a window through which the reader views the world of the novel. I don’t believe that — or at least I don’t believe it for me. I believe in thick red curtains and a frosted pane, I believe in the house around the window, I believe in woodworking with flair on the sash. I believe the world means more if you have to throw yourself through broken glass to earn your way in. I believe in style that draws blood.

After all, you have to water the flowers somehow.

All those things you mentioned, and besides those the stories of Byzantium and Korea and Brazil and Sub-Saharan Africa are the living sum of the human soul, and I genuinely think that if you don’t take the time to listen to stories, to understand them, to know how you are always and forever acting out some story or other that a Tibetan monk told to his goat or Wace told to Eleanor of Aquitaine, you are remaining deliberately ignorant of that soul, of your own soul.

Why would anyone do that to themselves? Stories are blood and lymph and marrow and life. Sometimes they’re all that’s left of whole swathes of lives, and sometimes what’s left is a book and sometimes it’s a story told to a goat. It doesn’t really matter; they’re still living, searching, hungry things, ignored at peril. Stories, and especially, especially folklore, are pretty much the owner’s manual for a soul.

So: am I an old soul? Sure. But no older than any other — some of us just read the manual.

The nature, role, and definition of speculative poetry and opinions of it are somewhat in a permanent transition phase and a topic I read with interest via a Matthew Cheney article. I have absolutely no shame so I’m going to pilfer off of him. How do you define it — if you indeed do define it — and what is your view on it as a form and regarding its origins?

Catherynne M. Valente — Well, I believe it originated with Homer and Hesiod — poetry has always been “speculative,” if speculative is allowed to include all things not-realism. Mythology, folklore, men with bull’s heads and golden apples in the hands of goddesses, divinity and fire in the sky have always been the stuff of poetry, the core of poetry. The obsession with minutely detailed mirroring of “real life” is a pretty recent phenomenon. Funny how no one ever asks Billy Collins about his views on the peculiar origins of realist poetics and how he feels being part of such an odd little minority in the larger world of poetry.

I don’t really consider what I do to be speculative poetry so much as it is poetry. Just poetry. Because what we’re really talking about when we draw lines in the sand is subject matter — I write about things that aren’t real and Ted Kooser writes about things that are. But I just told you that I grew up on the edge of a dark wood with a stepmother at heel — and that is no less true for being archetypal.

Even before we get into a conversation about what is real and what is not, why engaging the entire mythological history of humans walking around on dirt is somehow less legitimate than writing about breast cancer, or for that matter, why breast cancer can’t engage mythological structures, I would have to ask why the literary world is so fascistic as to dictate what subjects poets can write about when it can’t even be bothered to worry about a bit of meter anymore? I say that if every poet of note from Sappho to Ginsberg can get their folklore on, then it’s not really a sub-genre. It’s just poetry.

The stereotypical SF/F fan apparently is already scared enough as it is of women, and male writers in the field for years have been comforting us by making us the all powerful hero and the female an impotent damsel or a wench. In your fiction you seem to take great pleasure in expanding our level of wariness of our better halves. What do you find so compelling about tinkering with these archetypes and even more so their perspective of a story?

Catherynne M. Valente — Ok, not to put my feminist critical hat on right out of the gate — but look at how you phrased that question. “Our better halves.” Even in the question you’ve got your masculine gaze going full force, Eye of Sauron level. I take no pleasure at all in expanding your — i.e. the male reader’s — level of “wariness.” I’m writing about my experience and the experience of women I know, though I don’t really make an agenda of it. It’s just us. It’s just me. Our experience, however, does not usually include any thought of being anyone’s better halves. That you phrase your question that way shows how important it still is to address these issues.

I write about women because I am a woman and I have a voice, just like men have written for millennia about men because they are men themselves, because they believe their experience in the world worth recording. So do I. That belief of necessity expands or explodes the idea of damsel/wench. I take pleasure and interest in the voices which have not been heard, and more often than not, those voices are female. That’s not always the case — I’m working on a version of Tam Lin from the poor kid’s perspective, as Janet’s is plentifully told elsewhere — but it often is. Not to mention that the female SFF reader is far from mythical.

All that said, I try to write strong male characters, too. (Can you imagine, making an effort to write strong male characters? It’s such a challenge. After all, men’s experience of the world is so incomplete, they are so much less interesting, less powerful, less admirable, their roles in any given narrative are so limited, Christ-figure or Lucifer-figure, a sidekick at best, a token love interest, but never the hero…wait, have I got something backwards?)

It was very important to me that The Orphan’s Tales not be full of impossibly strong women and weak men — that is no more an accurate reflection of humanity than the reverse. Fairy tales are quite often tales about and for women — think about how many fairy tale heroines you can name: Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. Now name their counterparts: Prince Charming. Prince Charming. Prince…you get the idea. But I tried to create strong women and weak women, strong men and weak men — you know, humans.

And the occasional manticore.

The concluding book in your Orphan’s Tales arc from Bantam, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, will be released later this year, what other projects — be it poetry, non-fiction, or fiction — can you discuss that we can expect to see from you in the future.

Catherynne M. Valente — At any given point I usually have roughly a dozen projects going at once, but as a random sampling: I’ve completed an Arthurian novel and am working on a series of epic poems for Papaveria Press, as well as writing two new books: The Spindle of Necessity, about the Kingdom of Prester John and an urban fantasy called Palimpsest, involving a viral city and four unfortunates caught up in its transmission.

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Your earlier works such as the Labyrinth and Yume No Hon were products of the Small Press, while In the Night Garden was published by Bantam. I was wondering, particularly as a writer who attempts to maximize and refine every line, and noting the structure of narrative itself, how was the transition for you from an editorial standpoint?

Catherynne M. Valente — I am sure it could have been a mortifying and painful process — I, too, heard horror stories about how big, scary New York publishers will brutalize your beloved novel until you can barely recognize it.

But the fact is that I have a truly wonderful editor at Bantam, Juliet Ulman, and none of those dreadful things have happened to me. She is gentle with my work, she saw even through the manuscripts early and extensive flaws what it could be, and is unerring in her judgement — she’s almost always right, and that’s hard to get snippy about in the traditional authorial ways. I am hard pressed to recall a disagreement about what the book should be. She has seen eye to eye with me from the beginning, and I am intensely grateful for that — somehow, in some other life, I sacrificed the right sheep to the right rock and in this life I got the editor you only dream about.

I am sure this is not the case with all editors, all the time, and many of those horror stories are true, but I got a fantastic editor, a beautiful cover, illustrations I couldn’t be happier with. It’s been a great experience, and I have had relatively few growing pains, thanks to her. I think, actually, the roughest transition was doing everything on physical paper, rather than digitally, as many of the small presses do. Piles of page proofs breed overnight, you know. And they slurp up corrective pencil like little pulpy graphite vampires.

In recent years, Catherynne M. Valente has been rather prolific, with poetry, novels, short fiction, and non-fiction. What does ‘Cat’ enjoy doing when not thinking about deadlines?

Catherynne M. Valente — There’s a world outside of deadlines? What is this nonsense of which you speak?

The whole prolific thing requires a lot of ass in chair time, so shamefully, I confess I’ve let a lot of my other hobbies slide since I started writing full-time and giving myself carpal tunnel. When I’m not writing I’m usually reading. I live a life drowned in pages. But! I travel a great deal, which is not really a hobby but still something I crave.

In the last year have taken up sailing again, which I did quite a bit when I was younger, on a lovely boat called Persephone — which is kind of a natural progression to fishing, which I’ve discovered I love. I occasionally sing, and somewhat more than occasionally work on a collages — sort of like 3-D installation collage. I also have two dogs, three cats, and a Volkswagen called Hildegard, so I keep pretty busy.

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