Catherynne Valente has been writing genre fiction for quite some time now – even in my early return to fantasy et al, I would hear her name mentioned as someone I had to try (given that her novels are, sadly, not as widely available in the UK as they should be, this proved difficult). Nevertheless, I’ve been intrigued by her novels, and with the upcoming release of Deathless, I thought it would be a perfect time to interview Cat, and grill her about her writing practices, Russian folklore, and even her love of cheesy sports movies (an interest I share, as it happens)…
I thought I’d start off this interview with something easy: Who is Catherynne Valente?
Not so easy! Who are you never is! But I’ll give it a shot. I’m a writer in my thirties, living on a small island off the coast of Maine in the US, though I grew up on the West Coast. I’m a lapsed classicist, a geek, a gardener, a knitter, an owner of far too many animals, a cook, a traveler, a reader, a very poor accordion player, and on my better days, a storyteller. I write for both adults and children. My first novel came out when I was 25 and I’ve been working as hard as I can ever since. But despite all that writing, and thus words, in my life, I’m hopeless at Scrabble.
Your latest novel, Deathless, will be published in the UK in November. How would you introduce the series to a new reader?
Deathless is a retelling of the fairy tale Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, set in Stalinist Russia before and during WWII. It is a brutal love story and a dark war story that has a great deal of humor, tenderness, and grace in it. It centers on the experience of Marya Morevna, a unique figure in Russian folklore – a powerful queen with an army and palace of her own. In Deathless she becomes a child of the Revolution, at sea in a suddenly changed world. As she grows up, the old Russia of fairy tales and myth encroaches further and further into her life until Koschei the Deathless, a mysterious figure in the original stories, part vampire and part devil, spirits her away to his country, where the advent of Communism has altered the state of magic and beasts as well. It is a cross-hatch of history and mythology, human and inhuman, death and love.
US / UK Covers
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Growing up in America during the Cold War, Russia was always a presence in my life. The source of some fear, but as my stepmother was of Russian descent, also fascination. By coincidence, I fell in love several years ago, and my husband grew up in the Former Soviet Union. His family lived with us for a number of years, and I was inundated with stories of their lives there. I became a different person through those years, learning Russian, learning to cook Russian food – and listening to Russian fairy tales. My husband was translating the story of Marya Morevna for me one afternoon; there’s a moment when the unfortunate Ivan discovers that his new wife Marya has Koschei the Deathless locked up in her basement. I stopped him – wait, isn’t Koschei basically the devil? How could she possibly have him chained up? Why is he there? What did she do to him? Koschei kidnaps maidens, right? So did he kidnap Marya at some point and this is revenge? Or what? Dmitri said that he didn’t know, it wasn’t in the story, and there was a lot of plot left to go. But I told him then, some seven years ago now, that someday I’d write a book about this.
What inspires me in general tends to be this sort of thing – events in my life, travels and experiences and encounters that happen more by chance than by plan, bits of history and folklore that come out of my reading and living and working. I see the machinery of folklore and myth in everyday life and the connections between them are very fertile ground in my brain. The personal is political – but the personal is also mythical.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I’ve read science fiction and fantasy all my life – though when you’re a child, they just call that “books.” The first book I ever read on my own was The Neverending Story. I studied classics at university, and in ancient literature, monsters, witches, magic, curses, and impossible machines aren’t genre, they’re just Tuesday afternoon. I had no idea that I was writing fantasy at first, because I was so saturated in Greek literature that it never occurred to me that my talking animals and sentient mazes were anything but realism. Our instinct toward folklore and magical stories, parables and imagining the future, are as much a part of the human experiences as divorce, grief, falling in love, politics, or raising children. I’ve always read fantastic literature, because it’s always seemed truest to me. It makes the metaphorical literal and is all the more powerful for that immediacy and directness. I love genre fiction for the infinite expanse of stories it can tell – and it’s been my constant companion since I was a very small child.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I am incredibly lucky to be able to work in this industry, to write the kind of books I want to write and be supported in that by a number of truly amazing editors and publishers. It’s breathtaking, that kind of luck. We often forget that “the publishing industry” is made up of people, just people, people doing their best in a changing market, people who want to find good books and bring them into the world. We all go to work and try to make that happen, and when it is at its best, it really feels like being part of a team, and sometimes even a family. There have been hard times, of course, and the future is always uncertain, but I’ve managed to keep working steadily for eight years and I’m enormously grateful for that.
For nine months of the year, I caretake a small museum on my island and turn it into my office. (The other three are during the summer season when the museum is open.) There’s no wi-fi there, nor any distractions. I go down to the bay in the morning, get breakfast at our little cafe, and go to the office. I’ve managed to completely Pavlov myself – I turn on the computer and it makes the Mac boot-up sound, I put a drive into my TARDIS USB port and it makes the old school whooshing noise, and I turn on the coffee machine which gurgles and hisses. Then I put on Symphony of Science’s A Glorious Dawn, a song that always makes me feel hopeful. I find I actually need this series of sounds to feel like work has begun now! It’s silly, but I’m fond of it.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I’ve seen video footage of a two-year-old me hiking with my parents and telling them a story about the wizard who lived under Mt. Rainier and all the tricks he thought up to protect his gold. I’ve been telling stories since I could talk. I never thought I’d be able to make a living at it – I was always a practical child. I’d planned to be an academic professor like my mother. I wrote my first novel just before starting graduate school and over the next few years the writing grew and the academic work shrank in my heart. My first book was a very surreal and experimental piece called The Labyrinth. I wrote it over the course of a crazy, sleepless, caffeine-fueled fortnight. It came out from a small press and did well enough that other books became possible, which surprised me to no end. Sometimes I feel like I still want to be an author when I grow up – a better, smarter author, the ever-shifting goalpost. I do look back on that time fondly, when I was just starting out. But I love my life now. College isn’t always the best time of your life.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think the genre is a very exciting place to be these days. There is such a breadth of possibilities, more acceptance than ever for unusual and literary takes on SFF, and an increasing diversity of voices, women, people of color, LGBT. We’re telling our own stories and it’s made the genre stronger. I hope all those things proceed apace and we see more and more of them. My own work is deeply feminist and in conversation with both the bad and the good in the genre. I don’t think even ten years before I started my career my books would have been received as warmly – they are strange and complex and often non-linear, their language rich and not at all transparent. They are concerned with the voiceless and the marginalized. And there is a place for them in the big tent that is the enormous, vibrant, and growing science fiction and fantasy community.
What projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
The second book in the Fairyland series, my books for younger readers, came out on October 2nd! The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There was a challenging novel to write – a sequel to a popular original, a continuation rather than an origin story. I’m excited to have it in the world at last! I also have an original novella called Six-Gun Snow White coming out next year, as well as an essay collection and a short story collection. In 2014, I’ll have a new adult novel come out, an art deco-inflected alternate history and space opera. And in 2015 there will be a companion novel to Deathless – not a sequel, but a parallel story about the children’s evacuation of Leningrad.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
I just finished reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman for the first time and was blown away by it. I’ve just begun A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok and am very intrigued so far as I too had a particular book of myths that very much changed the way I thought about the world as a child.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
When I lived in Ohio, I was a pretty avid glassblower. I have a small home lampworking set up here in Maine, but it’s not quite the same as the full workshop experience.
Also I have a fatal love for cheesy sports movies.
I’m totally with you on the cheesy sports movies… What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Next July I get to come to the UK for a number of speaking engagements and I’m looking forward to it like crazy. Also, when I finish my tour this autumn, a new black and white kitten named Hieronymus will greet me! Cats and visiting London – what more can a writer ask for?