A conversation with Catherynne M. Valente

This is a conversation between myself (Iain Nicholas Mackenzie, Green Man librarian) and Catherynne M. Valente which took place in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room in the Library here at the Green Man offices, on a rather cold afternoon near Winter Solstice in 2007. Why here? Because we here at Green Man have all listened to stories late into the night, in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room, spun by a storyteller as she stands by the fireplace illuminated only by the flickering glow of the flames, and Valente is a master storyteller the equal of Robert Graves, Angela Carter, and even J. R. R.Tolkien! When I read the first volume of The Orphan's Tales, my first thought was that these were meant to be spoken, not read, as they have the true feel of oral storytelling.

Catherine's the author of many a splendid work, including two volumes of her Orphan's Tales series.

First question. As The Orphan's Tales is (in part) a feminist response (as I read it) to The Arabian Nights, which version(s) of The Nights do you prefer? And what drew you to the particular storytelling venture which is The Nights? I know that you've said that 'The inspiration for her was an arabic idiom: 'It was as clear as if it had been tattooed on the corners of her eyes.''

I prefer Hussein Haddawy's translation -- though the first one I ever read was the standard Burton version. My grandmother used to read it to me at night when I was a little girl, so for me, Arabian Nights has always been a thing of and between women. I do tend to prefer translations by native speakers rather than the invasive white colonial presentation.

But I think it would be stretching it to call The Orphan's Tales a direct response. feminist or otherwise -- too much intent is implied in that word, I'm afraid! About five years ago I found myself reading Haddawy's wonderful translation over a summer spent telling fortunes in Rhode Island, and it occurred to me that the structure itself was sort of endlessly malleable. I thought that since I had been studying mythology and folklore all my life, I might be able to shake up the big jar of archetypes in my head and come up with something new, a new folklore which would still seem familiar, authentic, because it was based on the same structures that organically occurring folklore is. I thought I could tell the story of a little girl by telling all the stories she knew, and simultaneously reveal a whole culture by way of their mythology, rather than the usual fantasy complement of maps and kingmaking dramas. I'm always and endlessly fascinated by unusual structures, so Arabian Nights leapt out at me as a fantastic one that could be taken a step further: not only a frame narrative and nested tales, but nested tales that connected and re-connected with each other, that subverted and illuminated one another, and became one complete story, which then, finally, is pulled into the frame narrative, rather than keeping all these things separate. Add to this that I became, through both Haddawy and various other non-English speaking writers like Milorad Pavic, intensely interested in the ways that similies can be windows onto whole societies, and you have The Orphan's Tales.

There are, of course, several homages to Arabian Nights in the book, from the name Dinarzad to the key phrase which the girl repeats on completing each iteration of her tales. Sheherezade was such an inspiration to me, I felt I owed her that.

Did you do a map of the world The Orphan's Tales is set in? How conscious were you of the implied geography?

I thought about making one many times, or to be exact, finding someone to make one for me, since I am hopeless at drawing. I am also obsessed with maps and cartography. But I never did -- oh, to have a pet artist at my beck and call! But even without a map I was very conscious of the geopgraphy -- the world of the Orphan's Tales was never meant to be anything but our own world, shifted just a bit towards shadow and glamour. So the geography is meant to be internally consistent with our own.

I have often wondered if you could write a whole story, a whole book, necessarily a graphic novel, as a map -- maps are stories a country tells about itself, after all.

Which story from In the Night Garden was the hardest for you to write?

I think the one that gave me the most trouble individually was 'Grandmother's Tale'. That was very early in the process, almost five years ago, and in its original form had several offshoot stories that are gone now, or shunted into other storylines. The Orphan's Tales is a very specific style and technique, and as it takes a bit to learn how to read it, it also took a bit for me to learn to write it, and in that tale I was way over my head at first. It's a pretty typical quest narrative at that point, and jazzing that up is tough going in this post-Campbellian world. It might still be the weakest part of the book, certainly the most 'traditional'. But it has gone through the most changes since the beginning.

When you set out to weave The Orphan's Tales, did you have an agenda, intending to subvert gender roles and reinvent the fairy tale? Or did the stories just tumble from you, fully formed, any perceived agenda being incidental?

Well, I'm not sure I reinvented the fairy tale. But I certainly intended to subvert gender roles. At the same time I don't think I had a real agenda in the political sense. I am a woman; I grew up on fairy tales, both enthralled and dissatisfied by them. I wanted to write the tales I hadn't heard, ones where rescue was by the way and incidental, where maidens and witches were grotesque and wonderful and not just set pieces. But I didn't want to create something that was all chicks kicking ass and boys cowering in corners, either. The question I constantly ask myself in regards to fairy tales is: 'How would he/she/it/I react if that really happened'? The answer is usually a lot more horrifying and messy than Disney.

Older fairy tales are like that, sometimes. Full of messiness. I wanted to write real, meaty, old-style stories, with sex and death and everything. If that's an agenda, I suppose I had one. I wanted to create, using everything I knew, a new mythological cycle, for a culture that never existed. That was the thesis, from Day One. That it was also feminist and twisty and postmodern is pretty much just by virtue of it having been written by me.

Do you have any plans in the works for an anthology collecting all of your short stories?

Not at present. I would love to put out a collection of short stories, and hope that I can find an interested press. I'd like to wait until I have a few more stories under my belt though -- I would prefer a collection of mine be a 'Best of' rather than just 'Everything I could find that wasn't nailed down'. I think I am still evolving as a short story writer, and I have many more things to learn. The form does excite me now, whereas for a long time it just perplexed and confounded me, and I hope one day soon I'll be worthy of a collection. I tend to write a batch of stories in January and February, and place them throughout the year, so I'm coming up on another cycle now.

You've often said that your heart is mainly with novels and poetry and that you are just recently coming to believe that you can write short stories. Did you finally set out to write short stories just to see if you could or because you thought that some ideas just work better in shorter form?

I finally set out to write them because editors kept saying 'Please send us some of your short fiction'. It was as if I were working in a coffee shop, and a customer came in asking for pizza. It's a coffee shop, but coffee is kind of like pizza . . . you ingest them both. . . . I just kind of blinked and said: 'I'll see what we have in the back. . . .'

But it turned out there was pizza in the back! Kind of weird to find it between the sugar and the milk, but you can't question that kind of luck. So I found, as I wrote them, and learned how to write them, that I did like it, that it was something I could do, though it is still harder for me. I find short stories turning into novels (Palimpsest, A Dirge for Prester John) as often as they are complete in themselves ('Urchins', 'While Swimming'). Some ideas are suited to a shorter form, but I find the line between short fiction and novel a very tough one to negotiate -- I always want to take off running with an idea, and limiting myself lengthwise is a challenge. I really feel I've only barely figured out how to write a short story, and that feeling will probably go away the minute I start another one and it gives me the least trouble. I'm not sure you ever really figure out how to write, you just hold your nose and jump in the deep end with as many tools as your swimsuit will hold.

What do you hear for a voice when reading The Orphan's Tales? What does the girl with the  tales inked on her eyelids sound like when speaking? While preparing questions I'm asking of characters in another series for a concordance that's being published for that series, I got thinking about the matter of what a character telling a tale sounds like. . . . and The Orphan's Tales strikes me as intensely oral affair!

(She blinks as she answers this question.)

I never really thought about it.

I suppose she's a variation on my own voice -- none of the other characters are, now that you've made me catalogue their sounds. But I was criticized often as a child for having a voice that was too low and "mannish" as well as being too loud to be ladylike. So in my head, she sounds like I did as a child, except that, having spent all her time outside without shelter, it's peculiarly scratchy, and she doesn't quite know how to modulate the volume correctly, being not particularly well socialized.

You do read bits of it aloud to groups of listeners, don't you? What voice do you give it when you do these presentations?

I do. I pitch her voice lower than my own, which is quite low, and try to give it an uncertain, hesitant, off-kilter feel. I also soften my voice to make it sound younger. Once I was able to get an 11 year old girl to read from it at an event, and that was absolutely wonderful. I'm 28 -- I can do my best, but I'm never going to sound convincingly like a feral 13 year old.

I can't overlook the spectacular artwork by Michael Kaluta that is in both of The Orphan's Tales books. What's your take on this art?

I completely adore Kaluta's work. It makes the book look like something old and absolutely authentic, a book of fairy tales from a childhood I never had. He and I have never corresponded about the characters, so it is always a delight to see how he has imagined the population of my story. He has never hit a wrong note, which is really pretty damn impressive. In a few cases, such as the Skin-Peddler and the Marsh King, his versions were so compelling they changed how I imagined the characters in my own mind. I could not have asked for a more skilled or attentive artist, and I am so grateful that he lent his ink to my pages.