Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Author Interview: Catherynne M. Valente

I'm excited to present my interview with mythic fiction author Catherynne M. Valente. I think you'll find it amusing, intriguing, thought-provoking.

Catherynne's 2006 novel The Orphan's Tales Vol I: In the Night Garden received the James Tiptree Jr. Award for the expansion of gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. In the Night Garden was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in the Best Novel category, alongside Ellen Kushner, Gene Wolfe, Scott Lynch, and Stephen King. The Orphan's Tales Vol II: In the Cities of Coin and Spice was released on October 30. You can learn more about Catherynne at her website,

Did you study folklore and the motif index at all during your time in your B.A. or M.A. programs?
Not officially. I was a Classics major, it's not our bag. But informally, I did study it, and think about it obsessively--it's like an old-school wikipedia for fairy tale geeks. It combines a total obsession with numbering and filing and categorizing with truly bent and grotesque stories--how could you not love it? I kept wanting to label things in my own life with Tale Types. Tale Type 6000: Cat Seeks Her Fortune Overseas and Discovers She Does Not Like Cuttlefish. My newest poetry collection is actually full of fictional Tale Types, but with better titles than that one.

I understand your background is in the Classics and linguistics. How does that come out in your mythical stories?
Well, I've been reading, studying, gorging on folklore and myth most of my life. It neither started nor ended with Greco-Roman stories. But as I got older and became more aware of a horrible, green-eared little thing living in my stomach that wanted to be a writer, folktales started to become more transparent to me, I started to see how they were done, how they were made, and language is a big part of that. Now that I think about it, I think that maybe learning Greek and Latin was partly responsible for me becoming so interested in the basic parts of things, the smallest part you could break a story into and still use it, rearrange it, put it back in a different place. Narrative atoms, I suppose. Greek and Latin are ancient languages, with complex systems wherein every word has its place and its part, systems much more complex than English. I was fascinated with the process by which those languages and systems were still present in English, in degraded form. I think I wanted to degrade things on purpose, to break them, to see how much you can bruise story and language before they just fall apart. When you learn the smallest parts of things, you learn the biggest things they can do.

Do you find that you look at your own life in terms of motifs or archetypes?
Completely. I think to some extent most thinking people do. Hero's journey and all--but for a woman what does the hero's journey really mean? Ought she to stand still and wait to be someone's Lady Fair or someone's Temptation? Are we to, alternatively, be content with the maiden, mother, crone schtick that neopaganism presents us, that defines us only in terms of sexual access: virgin, pregnancy, menopause? Or can we see into the cracks of these stories, and see women trying to integrate the lessons of their mothers, survive violence, find power in old age, escape the horrors of their childhoods, grow up, fight good and necessary fights, die well?

I grew up a very lonely child, under extreme circumstances, and if it sounds silly to say that it helped me to think of myself as Gretel, as Snow White, as Gerta, as the armless maiden, then it is silly. But all those stories say the same thing. Little girl, you will come out on the other side of this, and you will come out alive.

Of course, as I grew older there were less stories for me--the child is always the hero of the fairy tale. As I went through my divorce, I scrambled for something to tell me that same thing, that I could survive it, that it was not greater than my strength to withstand it. There is not a whole lot out there for divorced women--Medea? Hippolyta? I'm still looking, to some extent, but I think the answer is that the wood is always deep, and the world is always a wicked and frightening place, and parents and lovers will betray you to the wolves, but there are always breadcrumbs, too, and lamps to light the way, and brothers in the forest, and sisters in the dark.

Stith Thompson identified over 40,000 tale motifs. Out of that massive number, what are your favorite motifs? Why?
I think my favorite overall tale is Snow White, which combines several motifs--I am always a slave to the lost girl running away from a terrible home. Pretty psychologically transparent there. I'm also fascinated with mirrors and doubling, with siblings, with witches and prisons, with psychopomps and katabasis and fell gatekeepers. With food and the corruption of domestic items like spindles and apples and combs.

What symbols do you find appear most often in your work? Why do you think that is?
See above. I think I'm attracted to things just behind or beside the great coursing swath of the Self, the Hero, the Mainstream, O Tempora, O Mores, you know? Monsters and broken people and worlds beneath the world. I always ask myself, when writing a folkloric story, how I would react if this were real and close as a heartbeat. the answer is usually "wildly poorly," but I think that is honest, and interesting in a narrative sense.

Folk tales and mythic stories were first made to be heard, not necessarily read. What do you think is lost, and what is gained, by telling these stories and tales on "paper"?
Well. Real folktales from real cultures, myths from countries that existed at some point, these are always oral and the value in writign them down is the value of not losing them. But I wanted to create folklore that does not exist, for a culture that never was--can't find that on any grandmother's porch or around any kitchen table. Some of the dynamism of the changing story, the multi-generational morphic tale is lost, but what is gained is intent, intentional folklore, created, false, totally constructed, but true and real for all that. But I do travel the country and read these stories out loud, with a singer who puts them all to music, so I'm taking part in the bardic tradition in my own way. They do feel intensely real when read out loud and there is power in that. Paper is slightly more permanent than memory, but it is the only way to deliver stories from places that can never be.

What was the inspiration for The Orphan's Tales, a set of novels that are the recounting of many tales, vs. a single mythic tale, a la The Grass-Cutting Sword?
There is a line in Arabian Nights that goes something like: "It was as clear as if it had been tattooed on the corners of her eyes." That image just opened up over and over like an origami box in my head--what if something really was that clear? Really was written all over a girl's face, but hidden and secret for all that? Combined with the idea of nested stories and frame narrative gleaned from reading in quick succession Carmina Burana, Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, and Pale Fire, The Orphan's Tales was a fairly natural outgrowth of having dumped all that in the cauldron like carrots and onions. I don't think I could have told the same story any other way, and I suppose in some sense I was like Scheherezade, telling myself stories every night for years on end, trying to stay alive, trying to remember everything in the right order, in the right way.

What was the first story you remember being told?
Um. Probably something from Arabian Nights? I distinctly remember being read Prince Caspian from the Narnia books, but my grandmother used to read to me from the Arabian Nights and the Ramayana when I was very young through to my teenage years. My mother also read me fairy tales--weird medieval things like Robert the Devil--and French surrealist plays like The Breasts of Tiresias. you can probably see why I turned out the way I did. I also remember my mother reading me The Odyssey when I was terribly wee.

What was the first book you ever read on your own?
The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende. I was 5, and no one believed I read it, and I had to give a book report to my whole family--I remember them asking about the last line of the book clearly even now. I read like a monster as a child, as soon as I could. I think after that one it was Wind in the Willows and D'Aulaire's book of Greek Myths.

Why myths, folktales, symbolism? What does it say to you, and to your readers?
It says the world is more than it seems. It says we walk in stories we can't even see. It says you can come out alive, you can come out whole, you can come out with your beloved holding your hand. You can stand against a dragon and a divorce, you can keep your grip steady and your gaze clear, even when castles are burning and dawn never seems to come. They are all we have to tell each other about personal experience in universal terms. I tell you I was Snow White, you tell me you were Iron Hans, and we know something about each other, we understand some small, fragile thing. If not for myth, folklore, symbols, all we would have to say about Life on Earth would be refrigerator brands, sleep patterns, breakfast cereal. We create a world extraordinary within ourselves, and folktales are the little keys we fashion so that others may for a moment crack the doors to our hearts and say: yes, I understand, it was like that for me, too, when the wood was dark and I had no one.

Humans tell stories. It's what we do, like having opposable thumbs or quality cranial capacity. And since we first figured out the way of it, we've been talking about things that never existed but are truer than what does. If we stop doing that, we lose something, we lose that key, and the wood will go black, and there will be no way out for anyone without the lanterns called stories, and if you put enough of them together, it looks just like the sun rising.


  1. Great interview. You both seem on a whole other level with this Fantasy stuff compared to me.

    I studied Computer Science in college not Classics or linguistics. Eek!

    Did you conduct the interview via phone or email of something else? Just curious.

  2. Thanks! The interview was via e-mail.

    I was lucky enough to take a class in grad school at UVA from a fantastic folklorist, and was completely hooked. Folklore, myth, symbols were never a focus of my studies (I got degrees in Humanities and English/ American Studies) but have always been an interest.

  3. Dear Julie --

    Thank you for this interview -- I found you through Matt Langdon who suggested it might be of interest, and it is. I especially like the portion of the interview about seeing our lives through motifs or archetypes. One of my favorite archetypes is Rachel/Leah -- I find myself constantly thinking about how the world looks through Rachel vs. Leah's eyes wondering how would I approach this situation if I were Rachel.

    Here's a link to my various entries on the topic.

    Thank you again for your interview.

  4. Wow, fascinating! Thanks for the comment, and the link to your blog.