In this week’s Author Spotlight, we ask author Catherynne M. Valente to tell us a bit about her story for Fantasy, “The Wolves of Brooklyn.”
First, because I’ve stayed there a lot over the last few years, and have come to be fond of it, and it is an iconic place. But the real genesis of this story is that a friend of mine, who lives there, made a blog post one night. Very simply, just about going out to dinner or something. But this was during the first big snowstorm of last winter, and after talking about the unfriendly weather, she closed the post by saying: On our way home, we were eaten by wolves. The story just unspooled itself in my head.
One line in the story really jumped out at me. Anna is talking about the movie planned about the wolves, and she lists off one of the complaints locals have about the movie: “It’ll just bring stupid kids out here wanting to be part of it.” In the movie Shortbus, Justin Bond talks about how all the kids flock to New York because of 9/11, because it stands out as this remarkably authentic event in a time when much of what happens is so shallow. Is authenticity a theme you’ve wrestled with before?
Wow, that’s very perceptive! I love that line and I think it’s very true. As someone who was never drawn to New York like many people are, but came to love it, I’m fascinated with reasons for coming there, reasons for staying. I think there’s this idea that it’s America’s beating heart, and people do go there seeking some kind of authentic experience—and are derided for it, only to become natives in their turn and deride the next wave.
We’re all seeking authenticity because our culture is a culture of images, and saturated with images we start to feel unreal—and so many books and movies and television have told us that urban experience is more real than rural experience, and New York experience the most real of all. Layers of reality interest me—when Sarah Palin talked about her version of real America she was trying to cast a kind of magic spell, to define what was and was not at the most basic level. But she can’t fight against the onslaught of stories that tell us real America is New York (of course it’s all real and I know that, but as long as we keep spinning a narrative of real/unreal I’ll keep poking at it). New York is where the sitcoms are set. It’s where New Years come in. And it’s a place where sometimes terrible things happen.
In fact, after finishing the story, I joked that only now was I a real writer, having written a New York story. Other than London and possibly Paris, I can’t think of another city so often storied, made into narrative.
Anna says she always wears red. In a story about wolves, this definitely raises up visions of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Is this the first time you’ve played with this fairy tale? Do you have any favorite retellings of “Little Red,” or favorite riffings?
[Laughs.] Fairy tales and I go way back. I wrote The Orphan’s Tales, which is a series of novels that contain dozens of original fairy tales in an Arabian Nights structure, as well as Deathless, my most recent adult novel, a retelling of a Russian fairy tale set in Leningrad during WWII. I’ve also written many stories and poems that retell and remix folklore. It’s an obsession of mine.
So yes, of course Anna’s clothes are meant to invoke Red Riding Hood—but she is not Red Riding Hood. Part of the reason I like fairy tales so much is that without really thinking about it or meaning to, we walk in them every day; we organize our lives according to their principles (or the tales reflect our principles, or both—it’s very circular, when you grow up inundated with these stories). We obey the rule of three, we think there is one true love for everyone, and when wolves are about, we sometimes wear red.
I love Anna’s outfit, with the gold ropes and strappy ballet shoes. What inspired it? Actually, there’s a whole lot of fashion going on in this story. How did that element wind up in the piece?
I love fashion, and though I have little or no sewing talent, I love to write about it—clothes are how we present ourselves to the world. Clothes say everything, even the geek choice of “eschewing” fashion and sticking to black t-shirts with ironic/hip slogans on them and jeans—well, that’s a choice, a decision to express a certain statement (i.e., not wearing pink or orange but black; what cultural item the shirt references). It’s a huge gateway into a character; it can say everything about them. It seemed like a natural element here, in such a fashion-conscious city.
This is a new story for you—did you write it since you took the helm over at Apex Magazine? And has digging into editorial work within the realm of short fiction affected your approach to creating short stories?
I did write it since taking over—in fact I think it’s the first short story I wrote since taking over the magazine. I don’t think my own stories have changed because of my editorial work—perhaps I am more conscious of the value of a first line, of what is tired and what isn’t, but mainly I keep the two kinds of work separate. I’ve been experimenting with a more stripped-down, talky style in some of my short fiction, which seemed to fit well with this kind of magical realist story. However, that was in swing before Apex.
Is there anything else you’d like to share, either about the piece or anything new and exciting coming up for you?
Whenever I go back to Brooklyn I think of my wolves, now. I think that’s my favorite part of this piece, how it changed the way I saw the city.