Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Interview: Catherynne M. Valente

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Catherynne M. Valente's poetry and short fiction can be found online and in print in such journals as The Pedestal Magazine, Fantastic Metropolis, The Journal of Mythic Arts, Clarkesworld Magazine, Jabberwocky, Mythic Delirium, Lone Star Stories, Fantasy Magazine, Electric Velocipede, Cabinet des Fees, and Star*Line, and anthologies such as Interfictions, The Book of Voices, Salon Fantastique, The Minotaur in Pamplona, Paper Cities, Clockwork Phoenix, and featured in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror #18 and #21. She received a Special Commendation for Service in the Arts from California State University in 2003. Her story Urchins, While Swimming, received the Million Writers Award for best online short fiction in 2006. Her poem The Seven Devils of Central California won the Rhysling Award in 2008. Her poem The Dance of Uzume-no-Ama and her short story Bones Like Black Sugar have also been shortlisted for the Spectrum Award. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize a total of nine times. Her critical series on feminine archetypes in Greek and Roman drama has appeared in successive issues of the International Journal of the Humanities.

Her first chapbook, Music of a Proto-Suicide, was released in the winter of 2004. Her first novel, The Labyrinth, was published by Prime Books in 2004, and her second, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, was released in the summer of 2005. Her third novel, The Grass-Cutting Sword, came out in the summer of 2006. Under the Aegis imprint, Prime has also published two collections of her poetry, Apocrypha, and Oracles. Her third volume of poetry, The Descent of Inanna, was published by Papaveria Press early in 2006.

Her fourth major project, a duology of original fairy tales, The Orphan's Tales, was released from Bantam Spectra in the fall of 2006. Volume I, In the Night Garden, went on to win the James Tiptree Jr. Award for the expansion of gender and sexuality in speculative fiction, and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award. Volume II, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, came out in the fall of 2007. As a whole, the series won the Mythopoeic Award for adult literature in 2008.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! This interview won't go live until after April but could you tell us something about your upcoming novel, Palimpest? Any other projects we should be looking out for?

Palimpsest is the story of a sexually-transmitted city and four people who find themselves infected, and then addicted, to traveling to that strange, beautiful, and dangerous place. It has steampunk elements, but is not really a steampunk novel, urban fantasy elements, but goes further than contemporary urban fantasy, in which the city is a backdrop to a search for a perfect and often paranormal sexual partner, and presents the city itself as a sexual partner.

I have a short story collection coming out next yer from PS Publishing as well, and everything else is under negotiation as the publishing world slowly implodes.

You mention that you're a classicist. How do you think that has affected your writing or your propensity to gravitate towards speculative fiction and poetry?

Oh, tremendously. I never really understood the idea that my books weren't "real" literature at all. For me, "real" literature is all about minotaurs and harpies and the underworld and blood magic. That's what classical literature is about--even the most political and realistic of it still has unquiet souls and curses and prophecies. The idea that writing about monsters and fairies meant I was writing anything but mainstream literature took awhile to sink in. I just thought: this is what writers write about. For me, divorce in the suburbs and miscarriages is speculative literature--after all, I haven't experience that either (well, ok, maybe a little divorce) so how is it any different than writing about sentient mazes and eight-headed dragons? I mean, at least there's dragons. I find those a lot more interesting than your average realist breast cancer odyssey. (Now dragons with breast cancer...)

It also means I don't draw too terribly thick a line between poetry in fiction. When we say Greek literature, we generally mean drama, because as far as fiction, you have to progress quite a few centuries before you get to anything that even starts to look like a novel. And drama is poetry, thus, fiction is poetry. Therefore it's hard for me, especially in this non-rhyming world, to say this is fiction and this is poetry and you should definitely pay me $5 and a contributor's copy for one and 5 figures for the other. It's a distinction in length, in concentration, but not in kind, for me. The difference, you might say, between a big mug of coffee and a single shot of espresso.

Anyway, being a classicist is kind of a core identity thing. Much like being a writer, it's far too much of a pain in the ass if you aren't head over heels in love with it, if you're not willing to sacrifice a hell of a lot on that altar.

What's the appeal of poetry for you? What was the first poem that resonated with you?

Oh good lord. Honestly? Probably The Dong with the Luminous Nose, which my grandmother bought for me when I was about three. But I suspect you're looking for something more sophisticated, so I'll call out Diane Wakoski's amazing collection, Medea: The Sorceress. My mother, knowing anything with Medea in the title would appeal to me, bought it for me when I was thirteen. I still remember her tossing it onto a pile of books at the store. It has a pink cover, which would normally put me off. But I read it and it completely turned my head around. I mean, it's about physics, Medea, Persephone, California, and this thorny search for identity. It was a case of the right book at the right time. Wakoski taught me to think of my life in mythic terms, that these stories were directly applicable to my experience, a kid living in California, shuttling between two parents in the winter and the summer, lost and unhappy. It might seem obvious to compare that to Persephone, but to a 13 year old girl it just isn't. You have to be taught to see with those eyes, and Wakoski taught me.

As for what appeals to me, it is always and forever the language. You are allowed, at least in theory (in practice it seems the realist world hates rich language in poetry just as much), to make pretty words in a way you aren't in fiction, to make every word count, to have every word matter. Creating something that dense and piercing and brief is always a profound act.

How about for fiction? What's the appeal of the short story and the novel?

Well, fiction is story and humans are addicted to story, whether it comes in the form of TV or Movies or video games or books. And last time I checked, I'm human. Again I think it's a distinction in concentration. In short fiction, the challenge is much like Japanese watercolors--to suggest a vast world with a few strokes, with shadow and a few distinct lines. That is very difficult--I never wrote short fiction until I had already written a novel, since I do everything backwards, and it took me a long time to learn how to do that. You'd think with a background in poetry it would be easy, right? But poetry doesn't have to have a narrative, it can, but it's not required. It can just be about a moment, a single breath. A short story has to have a structure that I wasn't used to supplying in under 5000 words. I like to think I've gotten a little better at it over the years.

The novel, on the other hand, is like a Diego Rivera mural. You get a HUGE space to work with, and all the colors you want, and when no one's looking you can roll around on the canvas naked.

Did you always know you were going to be a poet and an author?

Oh, certainly not. I was going to be a classics professor and write in my spare time. I was going to have my doctorate by 25. And be an astronaut. And a fireman. Honestly, all of those seem as remote now as being a full-time writer once seemed. I was raised by a single mother, and the idea that I wouldn't have some kind of steady income with art as a hobby at best was abhorrent for a long time. Because obviously, men will leave you with two kids and you'll have to struggle just to eat, forever, and that's just what life is.

Whatever conservatives might say about the degeneracy of single mothers, I think it's a pretty good upbringing. It teaches you to rely on yourself, to be as capable as she is, and gave me, at least, a tremendous ambition and drive. I got my first novel contract in the middle of graduate school and dropped out to get married, of course, so it all worked out as planned... except not at all.

The answer is I always knew I was going to write. As long as I can remember. I don't think I knew I was going to be a writer until just a couple of years ago.

Could you elaborate more on what mythpunk is? Which authors do you think would fall under this label?

Mythpunk started as a joke I made on my blog a couple of years ago, trying to find a name for what I felt people like myself, Theodora Goss, Sonya Taaffe, Yoon Ha Lee, and others were doing. I felt like we were not quite the mythopoeics of DeLint and Terri Windling, or exactly New Weird, but something in between that expressed anxiety and attration towards myth and folklore, the hallmark of calling anything punk in my book is expressions of anxiety and power(lessness). It has since taken off, and I am often asked about it as though I didn't coin the term. I think it's a good way of talking about the new generation of especially female writers--but of course the work must always speak louder than the movement.

Do you have a particular preference when it come to short fiction vs novels, or are you perfectly comfortable in both areas?

I definitely prefer novels. I started writing short fiction because John Klima of Electric Velocipede said: I will give you some money if you write me a short story. And I just sort of blinked, because I didn't know how to do that. But I've worked a lot of retail in my life, and I just said what I always said when customers wanted something I was pretty sure we didn't have: I'll see what we have in the back.

I'd say I'm pretty comfortable with both now, but I prefer the novel, by far. More room to stretch out.

I'm currently reading In The Night Garden and I'm impressed at the Scheherazade element you have going. Did you have to map out or take extensive notes writing that novel, considering how interconnected the stories were?

So when I was in college I used to get really good grades without having to study all that much--at least it didn't look like I was studying much. People used to ask me all the time how I did that, like I was swigging a secret potion at night. And I always used to warn them that I am in fact a terrible student and what works for me will almost certainly not work for them.

Which is a long way of saying: no, I never made a single outline or mapped anything out. And that is a bad habit. I do not recommend it. It works for me, but it's not something I can teach. For me, if I'm going to outline and map, I might as well just write the novel. Outlines seem like more work than writing the whole book.

Which comes back to the reason I did so well in college. When other students asked me how I did it, I said: I'm obsessed with this stuff. I think about it literally all the time. Even my pleasure reading is all tangled up in my field. It's what I do, 18 hours a day, obsess about books. It just doesn't look like studying when you get off on it.

How did you end up publishing with Prime Books? With Bantam?

Well, with my first novel, The Labyrinth, I was pretty sure big presses wouldn't even look at it. It was 50,000 words and weird as all hell. I submitted it around a bit, had a contract that fell through, and started submitting again. Mind you, I was 23. Not exactly someone with gravitas. But I was also on Livejournal, and through it met Nick Mamatas, who seems scary but is in fact kind of the guardian angel of my career. I asked him who else I should submit to, and he suggested Prime. Prime's website said that they were closed to submissions, but Nick knew they just didn't want to read slush. So Nick read the first three chapters of my book, liked it, and passed it on to Sean Wallace, who bought it. All through the magic of Livejournal.

And Sean bought a second book of mine, Yume no Hon. And looked at this manuscript called The Orphan's Tales. In a moment of serious altruism, he sent it on to Bantam instead of acquiring it himself, seeing a level of commercial possibility that wasn't present in my other books. Thus I met Juliet Ulman, who acquired the series 18 months later, and the rest is, well, not history, but at least a matter of record.

What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in getting published?

Being young, weird, and female. I wrote my first novel when I was 22. My age and the fact that I was an attractive young girl led to a whole lot of not being taken seriously, and skeezy realist editors promising me book deals if I'd sleep with them. Ironically, the other aspect, how weird and different my writing is, both led me to publication earlier and more frequently than most, since there was little else like what I was doing out there, and also remains a barrier to mainstream success. Blessings and curses, I guess.

In your opinion, which was tougher to break into: speculative fiction or speculative poetry?

It's easier to get single poems published than to get single stories published, I think, but building a name in poetry is brutally hard, much harder than building a name in fiction. There just isn't that much of a market for poetry--I think because it isn't being marketed correctly by publishers, but that's neither here nor there. Fewer people read it, many people write it but do not read it, and there are just so few interested hands to put poetry in. Getting a collection published is pretty tough, and even if you do, then what? Maybe 50 people will read a collection of speculative poetry. Maybe 100 if you're vastly lucky. There is no success metric in speculative poetry. You can't make too much money doing it--you'd be lucky to make as much from a collection as you would from selling a single short story at the low end of pro rates. I have five collections out and I'm not sure I'm any kind of name in speculative poetry.

In addition, I think there is such a wide swing of quality in speculative poetry that you can publish essentially forever on the low end and not even be in conversation with the high end, people who are trying to engage with poetry on a sophisticated level with a breadth of knowledge not only of speculative fiction but of the genre of poetry.

Considering the time you spent in Japan, what is it about that country that resonated with you the most?

I think the alienation I felt there will always mark me. I was totally alone in that culture, my husband gone, without friends, without speaking the language. It was an isolation more extreme than any I've experienced. Especially when you add to that the conventional wisdom of the internet that Japan is a totally awesome place to live. It's a place, like any other, and I never had a particular fetish for it. It became home, but only after a long battle.

Your Livejournal nickname is Yuki Onna. Is there any particular reason you named yourself Snow Woman?

I've been obsessed with the archetype of the Snow Queen for quite some time, an image of the sexually threatening elemental woman that occurs in almost all cultures. I even wrote an online serialized novel about her (anovelinpieces.catherynnemvalente.com). Yuki-Onna is the kami of snow and death in the Shinto faith, a kind of goddess who is also vampiric, swooping down from the winter sky to kiss young men to death and drink their souls. I dig her style.

If you met yourself seven years ago, what advice would you give her?

You know, maybe this whole getting married thing isn't going to work out.

Aside from what's listed in your FAQ, what advice would you give to aspiring poets?

Read poetry. As much as you can, as often as you can. It's the only way to develop an eye for what sucks and what doesn't, which is the single greatest tool a poet can possess.

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