Skin and Ink: an interview with Catherynne M. Valente

by William Alexander

Catherynne M. Valente was born in Seattle, studied Greek in California and Edinburgh, lived in Japan, and currently resides on an island off the coast of Maine. Her poetry has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Her duology of novels The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice, a nested collection of original and overlapping fairy tales, won the Mythopoeic Award and the James Tiptree Jr. Award for the exploration and expansion of gender and sexuality in speculative fiction, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award.

The eponymous setting of Valente’s most recent novel, Palimpsest (Bantam Spectra, $14), is a fantastical city that is also a sexually transmitted disease. Sex is the only way to get there, and those infected are marked with a portion of the city mapped onto their skin.

William Alexander: I’m curious about the ways your poetry and prose overlap and talk to each other; your prose exhibits a patterned intensity of language. What are the differences in head-space and work habits between being a fiction writer and a poet?

Catherynne M. Valente: Well, I started out as a poet with no interest in writing fiction at all. Everything I ever learned about writing until after my first novel was published was all in the realm of poetry. So they’re very mixed up for me, and I’ve been accused of passing off poetry as fiction for awhile now. The difference, as I think of it these days, is one of scope. A poem is about a moment, even if it’s a narrative poem, it circles around a central emotional image. Whereas fiction has more breadth, and a little less depth—plots and subplots and minor characters and twists and turns. A story is a cup of really good coffee. A poem is a shot of espresso.

As far as work habits they’re nearly identical, except that I can write a poem in a few hours and be done and have the satisfaction of a finished work, whereas a novel takes a little longer.

WA: Did you know at the time that the short story “Palimpsest” would grow up to be a novel?

CMV: I wrote two lines and said: “Oh, shit. This is a novel!”

WA: You often treat locations as characters (and your places may literally become characters). Does setting usually surface first when you start up a new project?

CMV: It depends a lot on the project. Most novels, for me, start with a flicker of images, almost like a movie: a girl shivering in a garden, a map on a woman’s skin, a long black car with chicken legs. Sometimes place is deathly important—Palimpsest is obviously one of those, but it started not with the idea of the city but the image of maps and diseases and clockwork insects. Place is important to me, I think, because I travel so much, and part of the process of moving to a new place, getting to know it, is writing about it. So wherever I live at the moment gets into my work in wormy, windy ways. Post-industrial Cleveland affects Palimpsest and infects it; rural and urban Japan is all through The Orphan’s Tales. Maybe it goes back to poetry—I’m always writing about my actual life, confessing it, even when I’m writing about manticores and faceless children.

WA: Would you be able to write such confessions, or want to, without the distance provided by manticores and faceless children?

CMV: Is that a way of asking if I’m going to write realist books? She says wryly. For me, manticores don’t provide distance. They provide intensity. I have no interest in writing a book about my abusive childhood or my awful marriage, stripped of the folklore and myth through which I saw those things even while they were happening. For me, those images are part of what happened, and part of what makes personal experience into stories that can touch others. It’s more interesting to walk between the real world and the constructed world—and more, I don’t really think there’s much of a difference. Fiction is always fiction. It might as well have manticores in it as divorces.

WA: Literary explorations of secondary-world fantasy tend to lead readers there and back again, more or less safely. Palimpsest, by contrast, is not safe. Was that structural change from the norm a deliberate goal from the beginning?

CMV: Very deliberate. It’s always infuriated me that in portal fantasy the characters’ main priority is to get home immediately, and whine about it all the way there. Well, Kansas isn’t so great, really, and if I am honest with myself, I wouldn’t care at all for getting home in such a situation. I think this all has to do, in strange and underground ways, with the realist/genre conflict, and the privileging of the “real,” of copies of the real, ever-increasing in accuracy, over the invented, which has been going on since Plato. I privilege the invented, the bizarre, the foreign. The Other, if you like. And time and again I write books about embracing it and becoming it, because that rings true to me, where hollering to be taken home this instant rings as boring and irritating and false.

WA: “Palimpsest” is both a place and a sexually transmitted disease, which adds adult entendres to the word “fantasy” (and the phrase “portal fantasy”). How did the sexual subject matter shape the novel’s prose and structure?

CMV: Well, from the beginning, there had to be a sex scene for every scene in Palimpsest, so the alternating structure was sort of automatic: real world—sex—Palimpsest. The language just got a bit more graphic. I don’t like gratuitous, un-subtle sex, so I tried to have each scene reveal something about the characters having sex, not just describe the mechanics.

WA: Can you describe the various art projects and multi-authored, participatory fictions in orbit around the novel?

CMV: Oh boy. First, there was the SJ Tucker album, Quartered. This grew up into a nationwide tour that included a train trip to New Orleans, masked balls, rope suspension performances, burlesque and belly dancers, and an art show full of jewelry, textiles, and collage art based on the book. But before all that was the alternate reality game, which brought together a couple of dozen artists and writers to create an interactive story leading up to the publication of the novel, complete with false Amazon pages, blogs [here and here], video and audio content, and, a live forum where authors created characters who had visited the city and wrote strong, chatroom-shaped pieces of Palimpsest fiction. The game blurs the line between the world of the novel and our own world.

WA: Tolkien hoped that his world-building would inspire others to create art and music from that same world (though he probably didn’t foresee metal bands screaming in the tongues of Mordor). What are some of the aesthetic and practical reasons and rewards for creating/commissioning/ encouraging all of this paratextual stuff?

CMV: Well, first of all, it’s damn neat to see your book inspiring so many people. But the main thing is that in this way the book becomes partly real. It enters the real world, in bits and pieces, artifacts, becomes part of people’s lives and psyches in these incredibly visceral ways. Folk art, from folk tales. I think it’s an extraordinary thing.

WA: Can you share a moment when Palimpsest-inspired work surprised and delighted you?

CMV: The first time I heard SJ’s song “Casimira,” my jaw was literally on the floor. It totally blew me away. And at several shows, starting in Cleveland with a group of four lovers painted with henna, people started coming to the shows with maps on their skin. I tell you, watching people dance to SJ’s songs and seeing their hair or clothes move aside to reveal maps is heartstopping. It’s like a tribal marker.

WA: And the web facilitates contact between so many tribal members who might not otherwise come into contact with each other.

CMV: Exactly. I mean, in some sense, Palimpsest is a book about the web—that ephemeral space where those of us who do not live in the same cities can meet.

WA: Did you play any alternate reality games before commissioning your own?

CMV: I did! I played the Lost game and the Cloverfield game. I’m secretly a closet gamer. Don’t tell anyone!

WA: Too late! I think you just did... So how does game-logic relate to story-logic?

CMV: Well, game-pieces of fiction always have to lead to exciting cookies and end on a rising note to lead to the next installment. Stories have more leisure. And less multimedia. The biggest challenge was finding ways to hide the audio and video without making it impossible. Most ARG [alternate reality game] players are novice gamers.

WA: Really? I sort of imagined roving bands of skilled, hardened players, sharp of wit and difficult to impress.

CMV: There are a few of those, but the majority are not.

WA: Do you have a Palimpsest tattoo of your own?

CMV: I do. It takes up half my back. 😉

WA: Describe! What can you tell us about the places depicted?

CMV: It is the entire city, taken from a medieval woodcut of Edinburgh, winged by a horned woman with a lantern and a human woman holding a compass. I’m the master copy, see, so I get the whole lot.

WA: Are there extant photos posted somewhere?

CMV: No, actually, I’ll have to take some.

WA: Last question: what is the very first bedtime story you can remember listening to?

CMV: I don’t know which came first, the Ramayana or Prince Caspian, but they seem roughly equivalent in memory, as though I heard them at the same time, from my grandmother and my stepmother.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009