From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Catherynne M. Valente

The first image among many that was arresting for me reading “The Lily and the Horn” was the picture of a happy kid playing with deadly scorpions. When you were writing “The Lily and the Horn,” what images did you really love?

The image I was always building to, from the moment I started thinking about the story, was the two young women kissing under the manchineel tree in the rain and remaining unharmed, the steam rising from their skin. Manchineels are real trees, and you really can be poisoned and even killed by standing under them while it rains through the toxic leaves. I discovered it while researching poisons for the story, and from then on it became the heart of it, that everything else circled around. That happens sometimes—a simple thing I find in my research unfolds into a fully-realized scene in an instant in my head. I had wanted to write a poisoner’s tale for awhile, but that tree made it something real and emotional.

I loved the mythology of the unicorn you built here: gross snuffling creatures with such utility—what prompted this narrative choice? Did you ever consider using the more conventional unicorn image?

I always saw unicorns so incredibly clearly. In my mind they look something like the mangalitsa pigs I saw while traveling in Hungary with Theodora Goss a few years ago, huge, bloated, squat creatures with matted gray fur so long it curls like a kid’s ponytail. They’re such extraordinarily ugly animals, and at the same time fascinatingly beautiful. Unicorns are so idealized, I loved the idea of making them simple livestock, not even particularly pretty. Unicorn horns are a vital part of medieval toxicology; I couldn’t possibly leave out the iconic goblet made of horn. But I wanted something completely different than anything I’d seen before, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those pigs. I thought I knew what a pig looked like! In the Western imagination, they’re always pink and cheerful and plump. Mangalitsas look like some primeval god of vengeful grandpa-pigs. The conflict between knowing what a pig looks like and being confronted with something that definitely is a pig, but doesn’t match your experience at all, is a fascinating place to play in. And that’s where I put my unicorns.

How did this story come together? Was there anything surprising about writing this one?

I had written something on Twitter several months previous about poisoning, about how it’s hardly ever used in high fantasy, but was used constantly in the actual medieval world. I ended up teasing out some ideas about how poisoning was and still is considered a kind of women’s work: a cowardly way of killing, something with less honor than a bold, masculine shot to the head or knife to the heart. Of course, it had to be framed that way. It’s all too terrifying otherwise. What difference does the strength of a knight or a king make when the servant girl can end the life of that powerful man without a single blow? If your wife, your slave, your discarded cousin can poison your porridge and very likely get away with it? Thus, poisoning must be discouraged. It must be seen as unacceptable, dishonorable, a thing that reflects poorly on the poisoner (more than other murderers, who could be seen as heroes) and thus, would be avoided by anyone who wanted to profit from their deed. Presto—only awful, nasty, deceitful women would ever poison anyone. No one wants to be like them.

Having teased all this out, I wanted to fictionalize it in some way. This happens to me a lot—I get some bee in my bonnet and the only way I can get it out is to make a story of the thing. I wanted to write something in which all that martial virtue that we so easily invest in high fantasy knights and warriors was instead invested in women and poisoners, a world in which poison was as accepted as physical combat, and had just as many rules and traditions built around it as any war. After all, is a poisoning contest really any less arbitrary than hundreds of men meeting on a specific field on a specific day to stand in a line and hit each other over the heads with long pieces of metal for the sake of a lord they’ve never met, or politics that will very likely not profit them personally? I don’t think it is.

The story’s history was compelling, and I loved the brutal practicality depicted in this world. It felt to me that you captured a real sense of one’s environment shaping attitudes. Putting the story part aside for a moment, what the last setting in story you’ve read that really caught your attention?

I recently read The Girl With All the Gifts, and was totally captivated by the setting of the first third of the novel, a kind of school/experimental facility for child zombies in which nothing I knew about schools or zombies seemed to apply. It was completely riveting and immersive—in some sense much more so than the “real” post-apocalyptic England the rest of the book explores.

What’s next for you?

My newest adult novel has just come out from Tor Books. It’s called Radiance, and it’s a Solar System-spanning decopunk thriller full of space whales and silent movies. I’m working on a superhero project and a new middle grade novel revolving around the Bronte children as well.