From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Mythpunk diva Catherynne M. Valente

Born on Cinco de Mayo in the Pacific Northwest in 1979, Catherynne M. Valente is the author of four books of poetry, Music of a Proto-Suicide, Apocrypha, The Descent of Inanna, and Oracles, and five novels, including The Labyrinth, The Grass-Cutting Sword, and her Tiptree award winning book The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden. The conclusion to the Orphan’s Tales duology — In the Cities of Coin and Spice — is out this week, and Catherynne kindly agreed to make Fantasy Magazine the first stop on her blog tour.


K. Tempest Bradford: You said on your LiveJournal that about five years ago:

“I was just starting the first few pages of a little story about a girl with funny tattoos on her eyes, which I thought would make a nice Christmas present for my niece, Sarah, if I laminated the pages so she could get jam on them, as she was four.”

I can only assume it grew to epic proportions behind your back. Sneakily.

Catherynne M. Valente: Yes. It was wicked and dastardly and snuck up behind me and clubbed me with a crow-bar. I really thought that I’d just write a couple of cute stories and and give it to her for Christmas. By Christmas I had decided it was a novella. By Easter I figured it was probably a novel in four sections. And then my then-husband sighed as I was nattering on about this or that plot point and said: “You know this is a series, right?”

See? Crow-bar.

I wailed: “Look what you did! You said the S-word!”

Tempest: That is a very dangerous word. It gives the brain ideas.

Catherynne: I had never written anything like a series — I was only about five minutes out of finishing my first novel (The Labyrinth), which was quite short as novels go. Before that, nothing but poetry.

Distance-running is a thing you have to train for and work up to. But I just hit the tarmac and hoped I wouldn’t have a heart-attack halfway through.

Tempest: And you didn’t! You pulled it off. And spectacularly.

Catherynne: Thank you! I think it helps to split something this size into smaller segments — the function of chapters, after all. But by writing individual tales it never seemed like a Novel (capital N intentional) but like sitting down next to a little kid and trying to scare the crap out of her with little stories.

Tempest: Did it leave you feeling you could do anything? Triathlon, synchronized swimming…

Catherynne: I’m not sure I can do anything now. It left me feeling a little empty, after five years of work. It was a long time before I could read the final chapter without crying.

But the next project always feels daunting. It always feels like maybe I can’t make the paper version as beautiful as the version in my head. I think I can probably manage any structure at this point — very little would be more complicated than what I saddled myself with in The Orphan’s Tales, but there is a lot that still feels out of my league.

Tempest: Yeah, that was pretty freaking ambitious. Did that sneak up on you, too? Or did you always know that’s the structure you wanted?

Catherynne: The structure came first, when I started thinking about nested stories because of Arabian Nights. The next logical step, for me, was to nest everything, but to also connect it, so that the tales would in the end be one tale, so that the whole would be greater than the parts. That was the very first seed of the idea.

Tempest: That was a really nice surprise for me as a reader. When I got toward the end of the first section and realized all of the different stories were the same story, that thrilled me. It made me very sad when that first section ended, because I felt like I wasn’t done with those characters and that world yet. When I saw that the second section was also connected, I was quite joyous.

Catherynne: It has been totally delightful for me to hear what people think is going to happen in the second book, what characters they want to continue on, tie into the whole. I think that’s part of the pleasure of a series, on the authorial side. You pay the price in knowing that only you can see the size of the whole, but other people’s anticipation sort of makes up for that.

Tempest: It’s probably even more satisfying knowing that you have an end to the series, even though the very end left you with the empty feeling you talked about. Maybe this is why so many series just keep going and going. After spending so long with a world and the characters, letting go can’t be easy.

Catherynne: It isn’t. There was a while there when I was toying with the idea of a second series, just because I wasn’t ready to leave the garden, I wasn’t done talking about fairy tales and monsters and lost little girls. But I smacked myself around–it wouldn’t be right, the world and the books exist as they should, and my maudlin attachment to my own creation is hardly justification for dragging it out and probably ruining it in the process.

Tempest: That shows good judgment.

Catherynne: I like to pretend I have that.

Tempest: Does it help to immerse yourself in the next project and fall in love with another world?

Catherynne: Yes — I usually try to cleanse my palette with short stories and poetry before jumping into another novel, though, especially with the very strong voice of The Orphan’s Tales. After I finished In the Cities of Coin and Spice, I pretty much did nothing but research and short fiction for two months, and it helped a lot — I’m never so excited as when I have a new project. I’m working on several things right now, all of which are very different and fill me with glee.

Tempest: Like Invisible Games!

Catherynne: Like Invisible Games. And three novels. And a poetry collection. One of these days I’m going to look into wasting time and playing video games till my eyes bleed, I swear.

Tempest: Hey, it’s what other people do. Invisible Games looks very surreal and fun and haunting. I am fighting the urge to say, “explain it!” because it’s unfolding piece by piece.

Catherynne: I am evil, therefore I make you wait. I will just say that there is a narrative arc, to click on everything, pay attention to the tags, and be patient.

Tempest: Another of your projects I’m really, really excited to see is the Prester John novel. I loved the story in Interfictions and I’m intrigued by the whole history behind it. I’d never heard of Prester John before.

Catherynne: Thank you! I’m so excited about it. It’s a very obscure bit of history and a world which gives me both a blank check as far as myth, and limits, having been part of genuine culture and history. That’s kind of perfect and though the research has been immense, I am utterly taken with this place where I have come to live a not-insignificant part of the time.

Tempest: Being a folklore geek has its advantages.

Catherynne: Also a language geek — I first came across Prester John in my medieval Latin classes.

Tempest: Maybe you’ll bring about a Prester John revival. Here’s hoping it doesn’t then go the way of Tam Lin.

Catherynne: Wouldn’t that be nice? JohnCon 09!

Tempest: It would have the best masquerade ever seen and presentation of papers on the historical origins of monopods.

Catherynne: And the world would be that much more awesome. The filk alone!

Tempest: I would totally buy Prester John filk.

In your Tiptree speech, you said that you tried very hard to create a positive feminist text with The Orphan’s Tales.

Catherynne: Which is much harder than deconstructing a negative one.

Tempest: I completely agree. There is definitely a lot of merit to texts that deconstruct. But I also feel that we should be moving into a post-deconstruction era. That creating texts that start with the positive can be even more useful or liberating or even mind-changing.

Catherynne: I think you’re right. I love the play of deconstruction, but I think of my own work as a kind of reconstruction–as in the Orphan’s Tales, taking apart the fairy tale and building it back up into a different shape, using the same materials. Or medieval iconography in Prester John. Taking things apart is fun — ask any four year old — but I think somehow putting things back together got lost along the way.

Tempest: Maybe because folks get into the mindset that deconstruction is the only way to change things. Or that reconstruction somehow magically, invisibly follows.

Catherynne: That reminds me of the end of the film version of V for Vendetta somehow… as Parliment blew up I couldn’t help thinking: “That’s great. What about tomorrow?”

Tempest: Since I assume you are highly aware of gender issues in general, how was creating a positive feminist text with Orphan’s Tales challenging or different? And is Prester John presenting the same challenges? Obviously, in the historical context, you’ve got the whole Christian/Patriarchal worldview to start with.

Catherynne: I am highly aware of gender issues, I can’t really help it, being female. Writing the Orphan’s Tales, whenever I started a new tale I had to decide whether the speaker would be male or female (after awhile I started inventing third sexes out of boredom) and that very simple decision was often an agonizing one, because I wanted, not just to create a work about kick ass women who kick ass, but about flawed, complex people, male and female both. I didn’t want to neglect male characters just because I’m more interested in female ones. Every step along the way I strove to make something that would be genuine and real and not whitewashed or boywashed.

My criteria was usually “Would this piss me off if I read it off the shelf?” Still, until the Tiptree, I didn’t know if I’d pulled it off.

As for Prester John, it is different, but only in the character of Prester John, who comes from that patriarchal culture. The Kingdom he eventually gives his name to (in my version, anyway) is a completely different beast, with its own conflicts and judgments and customs — it doesn’t so much matter whether one is male or female when Difference is so drastic. When griffins and cranes and pygmies and blemmyae are all living side by side. The Other is totally redefined and has nothing to do with the binary ideas of Western history. I guess you could say it’s a novel of Infinite Others.

The structure of the novel (which is called The Spindle of Necessity) is also a bit out there — I know that’s a surprise. It is a story told through the literature of Prester John’s Kingdom. Each chapter is an excerpt from a history, a novel, a scientific text, a philosophical treatise — Prester John’s autobiography as well as that of his wife Hagia, who is the main protagonist. So I get to speak in many voices, explore how history changes depending on who is writing it, how fiction evolves in a fantastical culture. It leaves room for any gender or race dynamic I want to put there–only John, the foreigner, is bound by ideology.

Tempest: Now I really can’t wait to read it.

Catherynne: I shall suppress my evil cackle.

Tempest: Last thing before I let you go — the Three Wishes Tour you’re doing for the book. What is it, first, and what ever gave you the brilliant idea?

Catherynne: It’s a traveling art show that will visit three cities: Cleveland, Boston, and New York. When I first conceived of the Orphan’s Tales I wanted them to be a complete folkloric system — and now they are, with folk music and folkart to match the tales themselves. 20 artists from all over the country contributed amazing pieces — textile, jewelry, oil paintings, sculpture, text art — to be auctioned off to benefit the Interstitial Arts Foundation. And, of course, the amazing S.J. Tucker has completed another album based on the Tales, which will debut at these shows. The upcoming dates are:

December 1st at Pandemonium Books in Boston
December 4th at the NYRSF reading in NYC

There is no cover and they are all open to the public.

Tempest: That must be one of the best things about having fans and friends who are also artistic. People creating art and music based on your book? Awesome.

Catherynne: I am COMPLETELY addicted to it. It is the most exciting thing ever to see art based on the book. It makes it real.

I am so spoiled. I feel bad for future books that won’t have this amazing orbiting community around them!

Tempest: How much does the art surprise you? After all, you wrote the book and know it better than anyone. Then someone comes along with a painting or something — does any of it ever turn your mind inside out?

Catherynne: Kaluta’s certainly did. I think the best example is the Skin-Peddler in Book I — in my head he was tall and thin and reedy, but Kaluta made him a terrible squat little crow-man, and I can’t picture him any other way now.

Tempest: It’s awesome the way in which the images in your mind translate to words that translates into different images in other people’s minds. It’s all the same thing, but not, and that’s what makes art work.

Catherynne: Which, ironically, was kind of the point of deconstruction, that texts exist in infinite variation at once — quantum literature — because all reader’s versions are equal in value, the reader and writer creating a new text every time they interact.

Tempest: Are you ready to see what comes out of Schrödinger’s box with the new book?

Catherynne: I am. I’m nervous — it is a much more painful book than the first, some of the rough things that fairy tales deal with are front and center, but there is also joy and catharsis, and things turned out far better than I originally intended them to.


K. Tempest Bradford is a writer, blogger, and the non-fiction editor for Fantasy magazine.

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