The following is an interview I did with Catherynne M. Valente for Fantastic Metropolis when her book The Labyrinth came out. She is currently a finalist for The World Fantasy Award (best novel) for her book The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden:
Brendan Connell: Who are your major influences as a writer?
Catherynne M. Valente: I write a great deal of poetry-even my fiction is very informed by poetry. So Sylvia Plath, Lorca, and T.S. Eliot-classic though they may be-were always big influences. In fiction, Anaïs Nin, Milorad Pavić, Clarice Lispector. Diane Wakoski’s books are combinations of prose and poetry, and I have loved her work from the time I was a teenager. I’m also very interested by the cadences of non-English work: Greek and Latin, which I can read in the original; and translated works-Neruda, Pavić, Ahkmatova. The assumptions are different; the way language is used is just slightly off the linear path that English often takes.
Brendan Connell: So, you are very influenced by the Greeks?
Catherynne M. Valente: Certainly. It’s hard to study anything for such a long time and not have it become a part of your psyche. The mythologies and archetypes of classical culture are a profound influence on me. Stylistically, I would say they are less so. The unique rhythms of the Greek language really opened up possibilities for me in the use of English. Greek is fundamentally different from Latinate languages, their conceptions of colour, time, love, are wildly Other, and each of their words packs about a paragraph of English explanation into it. Exposure to such a radically separate language, in some sense, inspired the focus on language that always seems to dominate my work.
Brendan Connell: So which Greek authors do you like the most,-aside from Homer?
Catherynne M. Valente: Sappho, Euripides…. The philosophers I have a love-hate relationship with. Some of the pre-Socratics I like.
Brendan Connell: What about the historians?
Catherynne M. Valente: Oh, well, there I have to prefer Herodotus over Thucydides, and Xenophon’s Socrates over Plato’s. I always go for the better storyteller…. But I am a poet, too, so poetry is very important to me.
Brendan Connell: The Labyrinth actually reads a lot like a long prose poem. Even though you did not mention them as being influences-there seems to be a bit of Lautréamont and Baudelaire in your work.
Catherynne M. Valente: Baudelaire was one of my first poetic loves, actually. And you’re right, in some sense The Labyrinth is a long prose-poem. But I don’t think that prose should necessarily be as divorced from the poetic as it often is today.
Brendan Connell: So have you written many prose poems?
Catherynne M. Valente: Very few. I believe I’ve written two. One, of course, is extremely long for a poem, but it is certainly not fiction. Poetry is different, its more concentrated, it’s more focused and internal. But in my prose I want to use language in much the same way I do as a poet. Meaning I don’t want to toss it out the window because it would be easier to say “Once upon a time there was this girl who got lost in a maze.” Language and story for me are conjoined twins. One can’t live without the other.
Brendan Connell: Speaking of getting lost in a maze, how did the idea for The Labyrinth evolve?
Catherynne M. Valente: I want to be able to say that it was germinating for years, and when I look back it seems as though it was, but at the time I simply sat at my computer with the intent to write a novel where I could be as dreamlike and surreal as I wanted to be. The image of a maze leapt almost immediately to mind. From there, it just came in huge portions, and only took me ten days to write, it was so present in me. I was able to use the framework of The Labyrinth to discuss a lot of the things that recur in my work, like the power of names and the meaning of the age-old idea of a quest.
Brendan Connell: It struck me as having a lot of automatic writing in it, such as the surrealists used. Would you be comfortable with the term “automatic writing” for the book?
Catherynne M. Valente: Not really. It implies that the writer is not at the wheel-or at least asleep. And while it contains a lot of-well, we tend to call it “satori-writing” around the house,-I was very conscious of what I was doing, even as my fingers ran away with my brain. Automatic writing borders dangerously on gibberish-in poetry, the equivalent is the Language poets, who leave me totally cold. There has to be a balance between chaos and meaning-not just chaos. There has to be an emotional core, not just words, words, words. But in the sense that there was a trance-like method involved in writing parts of the book, yes, I’d say there is a relationship to automatic writing or language poetry, but I like to think it straddles the line.
Brendan Connell: Well-many of the surrealists used the term “automatic writing” even though they produced coherent works. So for surrealism then, what are your influences?
Catherynne M. Valente: Painting, for the most part. My living room was covered in Dali while I was writing this book. Surrealist painters are a profound influence on me. As for writers there’s Borges, who is not entirely a surrealist, but tends more in that direction than most magic realists. And Nin is at her best totally surreal to me. When she tries to write conventional novels, she fails. Because I spent so much time in a classical studies program, at the time of the writing of The Labyrinth I had been reading more Greek than English. But I get the idea this isn’t what you want.
Brendan Connell: What I want?
Catherynne M. Valente: Strictly surrealist writers?
Brendan Connell: Not necessarily. When I read your book, I was reminded of Aragon-a strictly surrealist writer. But that does not necessarily mean that that is where you are coming from. Aragon was accused by some of being too structured.
Catherynne M. Valente: Honestly, while I was writing I didn’t think about structure or genre at all. It’s only now that others are making attempts to classify it that I am confronting the cultural context of the book.
Brendan Connell: In any case, when someone who has never read your work asks you the inevitable question “What kind of stuff do you write?” what is your reply?
Catherynne M. Valente: I usually say poetry and fiction, and none of it particularly normal.
Brendan Connell: And no one pokes around for more information?
Catherynne M. Valente: The difficulty of explaining the plot of any of my books usually leads to at least an hour long conversation about how it’s sort of like surrealism, but not really.
Brendan Connell: Ah good. Then I am in sync with the general population.
Catherynne M. Valente: I make comparisons to “high modernism” since I don’t really see it as post-modern-which is so intensely concerned with structure.
Brendan Connell: But just to back-track-what did you mean by “satori-writing”? I know that a satori is a sort of Zen Buddhist enlightenment experience-but…?
Catherynne M. Valente: Yes, well, I live in Japan about three feet from a Buddhist temple. Satori is an enlightenment experience, a moment of union with everything. It’s my husband’s phrase. While I was writing The Labyrinth he said that it’s what I do when I’m really working hard-the world doesn’t exist for me, just words and hands. I think that’s a pretty common impression for writers, and I like the phrase. And I do think that my writing falls into two “voices”. One is the satori-voice, which is The Labyrinth, and the other is the more “conventional” voice-the one in which the fairy tale sequence coming out from Prime next year is written. The voice of The Labyrinth is deeper and truer to me, it is more intimately mine, but it can only tell certain kinds of stories, the dark, subconscious chthonic ones. Does that make sense?
Brendan Connell: Sure…. So, anyhow, you have another book coming out from Prime. I thought The Labyrinth was very fairy tale like, but, I guess the next one is more so?
atherynne M. Valente: Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams is coming out later this year, that’s in the same style as The Labyrinth. But I have a series of books that Prime is going to be putting out next year that are very literally fairy tales, on the order of Arabian Nights.
Brendan Connell: How long did it take you to write Yume no Hon?
Catherynne M. Valente: Three days.
Brendan Connell: So at that rate you could write one-hundred books in a year, and still have two months for vacation.
Catherynne M. Valente: Ha… Some books come fast, some slow. It took me a year to write the first book of fairy tales. I tend to kind of save up material, like mulch. Then it all comes out in a rush when it’s ready.
Brendan Connell: You have written some critical papers also. One of them which is forthcoming is called The Sacrifice of Polyxena: Feminine Archetypes in Selected Ancient Greek and Roman Drama. What is that about?
Catherynne M. Valente: It’s an examination of the socio-political conditioning in Greek and Roman plays through an analysis of feminine archetypes. How gender roles are transmitted and reinforced by plays; co-authored with Dr. Linda O. Valenty. We have a second paper using the same method to evaluate different plays in progress to be presented at a conference this summer, which we may turn into a book.
Brendan Connell: So, sarcasm not intended, does gender play an important role in your writing?
Catherynne M. Valente: I suppose that depends on what you mean. Do I purposely write gendered texts? No. Do I use the word “gendered” in conversation? Yes… I feel that my books are feminine, but not in the lacy pink sense. I’m female. My work is intensely physical, and rooted in the body-so it does have a very thick, primordial femininity about it. And the fact that I am aware of gender issues in literature means that I am also aware of them in my own work. Yes, gender plays a role in that I am who I am, and I am a woman, I am not divorced from my body or my identity as a woman. But it’s not an agenda.
Brendan Connell: Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson both used “stream of consciousness” very effectively for the female voice. Dorothy Richardson seemed to indicate that it was the ideal way to writing feminine prose. The Labyrinth also has a lot of that sort of thing in it-I am not sure it is stream of consciousness-but it seems to be somehow related to it.
Catherynne M. Valente: I agree. Helene Cixous talks about this too. I’m not sure anything is the “ideal” feminine voice, no more than Hemingway is the ideal masculine voice. It’s how I write, and it certainly is dreamlike and strange-logicked.
Brendan Connell: Strange-logicked?
Catherynne M. Valente: Hey, it’s hard for me to define, too. Harder to define than to write!
Brendan Connell: Ok. I just thought it was some kind of literary term I was unfamiliar with.
Catherynne M. Valente: No, just me being grammatically whimsical.
Brendan Connell: No problem… Anyhow, a lot of women seem to go out of their way to make their writing “women’s writing” -in other words a book somehow different from a “male” book. Do you care much if your writing is feminine, or would you consider writing in a “masculine” voice also. Or would you rather stay out of the male psyche?
Catherynne M. Valente: Well, right now I am working on an Arthurian novel which is largely from a male point of view. I do think it’s a bit of a problem, for myself I do my best not to make it a “male” or a “female” voice, but a human voice. However, I am, as a woman, more interested in the female psyche. In the end, all I have to communicate is my own experience, which is necessarily female. To write in a male voice is an exercise in speculation, which is another kind, a less personal kind of creativity for me. No matter how wild the subject matter, it comes down to my own voice in the end, and I don’t hide my gender, I exult in it. My writing has a great deal of feminine physicality in it. I’m very at home in my body and my femininity, and it comes out in my books. Obviously this isn’t something I can bring to a male perspective. When I write that way, some of that physicality has to be lost.
Brendan Connell: So… you somehow link your body to your writing?
Catherynne M. Valente: Writing comes from the body. It has to-the body is central to existence. Not to get too philosophical here, but for me all writing is grounded in the body-not necessarily a gendered body. A body isn’t the sum of its genitals. Because writing is such an intellectual thing, in order not to be completely cerebral it has to find its root in physical experience.
Brendan Connell: This Arthurian novel. Can you tell us something about that?
Catherynne M. Valente: It’s a surrealist version, told from the points of view of several of the knights of the round table. Each chapter involves a knight in extremis, so that the Arthurian chronology is told through these linked men and women in their moments of greatest difficulty. It also bends time and geography so that parts take place in ancient England and parts in modern California.
Brendan Connell: As you mentioned earlier, The Labyrinth is a bit of a “quest” kind of book… So is the Arthurian book also along those lines;-quest for the Holy Grail and that sort of thing?
Catherynne M. Valente: The quest is part of it, yes;-can’t very well ignore the Holy Grail. You buy into a certain package when you write Arthurian. As for The Labyrinth-I think of it as an anti-quest. It uses the framework of a quest to show that all quests are ultimately imaginary, functions of the desire for meaning. But they are constructs-they have no end, no true Grail that anyone can possess, they have no real purpose-they are mazes without centres. A circular quest repeats itself until there is no meaning left at all. Just the impulse to keep moving forward.
Brendan Connell: A writer of anti-quests?
Catherynne M. Valente: Quests, anti-quests, it all depends on how much spare optimism I have to spend.