Catherynne M. Valente on fairy tales, Fairyland, and more

When I heard Catherynne M. Valente was coming to town, I immediately pounced with an interview request – and  happily she graciously agreed to let me steal her away to talk about the importance (and magic) of fairy tales.

Byrt: Catherynne, let’s talk a little bit about folk tales and fables and why they’re important – and why they’re not just children’s stories.

Valente: They never were children’s stories particularly. There didn’t used to be such a strong dividing line between a story you would tell a child and a story you would tell adults – it’s just a story that you tell. The story that the storyteller who shows up at your village and wants dinner for the story he tells – or she tells – around the fire, you know, that was just, The Story. Fairy tales and folklore are of course, slightly different. There are lots of disagreements as to what makes them each what they are – folklore often has a clear teaching element to it, it tends to be about why the world is the way it is; fairy tales tend to have more cultural memes, and often tend to be women’s stories. I think that’s part of why they get a little denigrated – if you think about the dominant images in fairy tales, mirrors and shoes and spindles and magical dresses, these are all traditionally associated with women. But ultimately what a fairy tale is usually about is something horrible that’s happening to a woman or a child. It really is, that’s most fairy tales – or it’s being done by a woman or a child, but the children usually live through it. Women don’t always live through it, but the children usually do. Unless it’s Hans Christian Andersen, and then they will die at the end.

But I think that, at least for me, is part of what I feel the value of fairy tales are, is that they’re stories of survival. They’re stories about how to live through things – and at the end of everything, you can still have a feast, and a dance, and a wedding, and that everything can be okay. Which some people think is a lie, and therefore you get this idea that fairy tales, folk tales, fables, mythology, that they’re lies. Even all of those words are synonyms for untruth in our modern English. They didn’t used to be, but they are now – synonyms for not telling the truth about something. Now I’m a fantasy writer, which means that I don’t necessarily “tell the truth” about much of anything – but I do tell the truth, but I tell it slant (as Mama Dickinson used to say).

I think they are vastly important. They have been edited down over thousands of years to be the purest stories, the ones that are most human, that are about what it means to be human, what it means to be a woman, a child, a man, a hunter, a wolf, a girl in a red dress. And if they had not been absolutely the most distilled essence of valuable storytelling, of the images that move us at a basic level, they would have been forgotten. It’s very easy to forget a story, it’s hard to remember so that you remember the good parts. And the good parts are sometimes very bloody and violent – but I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but kids like the bloody and violent parts. Part of the reason I think kids don’t read fairy tales as much these days is that we have boiled them down so far, and cut all of the blood and sex out, so that there’s nothing to appeal to a child. And I move to you, some of their obsessions and interests are blood and vague intonations of sexuality that they don’t quite understand, but they see it going on in the world all around them.

I think when you look at the modern world, you see people living in fairy tales. I mean, all of these couples that are infertile and go in for fertility treatments – every fairy tale starts, “The king and the queen wanted a child more than anything else in the world but couldn’t conceive.” I mean, they are fairy tales that people are walking in – we love to tell the stories of people who come from nothing, Cinderella stories, in our culture. We’ve just stopped calling them fairy tales anymore, because if we call them something else, people will think they’re true.

Byrt: Now you’ve written Deathless, which is a retelling of a Russian fairy tale, and then The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which is kind of an original fairytale. Can you talk a little bit about the difference of working with an existing structure as opposed to creating your own?

Valente:  Sure – so Deathless is a retelling, so I did not want to change any of the plot. (These are actually just my rules – the other people who retell fairy tales have no problem changing the plot of a fairy tale; I try not to change the plot.) Now, that means that I found one version I liked. There are many, many versions of all of these fairy tales – and particularly the one I used for Deathless, which is “Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless” – Vladamir Propp, in “The Morphology of the Folktale,” it’s the fairy tale he uses to analyze fairy tales as a whole, so there are many variations of this story. So obviously I found one I liked and I stuck to that plot.

Byrt: Could you just briefly say what that is, since people may not be familiar…?

Valente: Oh, sure. It’s important to know in Russian fairy tales that everybody has the same name from tale to tale. So it’s always “Ivan,” like “Prince Charming” or “Jack.” And Koschei the Deathless and Baba Yaga are always in there, and the princess is usually named Yelena, sometimes Vasalisa, “Yelena the Bright”and “Vasalisa the Brave,” But in this one story she is Marya Morevna, which is very unique. So Ivan is going to visit his sisters, and he comes across a field of dead people, of dead soldiers. And he says,”To whom do these dead belong?” And the last dying soldier says “These dead belong to Marya Morevna, the Queen from beyond the sea.” And he goes up to her tent, and they spend three days in the tent, and they’re married when they come out. So who knows what happens in there.

Byrt: I think we have a pretty good idea…

Valente: And they go to her house – which is also very interesting, it’s her house. And she says you can go in any room, but don’t go in the basement – so it’s a Bluebeard story, where the Bluebeard is a woman (which I totally dig). And he goes in the basement, inevitably, and Koschei the Deathless is down there chained up against the wall. Koschei is the devil of Russian folklore. He’s incredibly powerful and strong – he kidnaps maidens, that’s what he does. And when my husband was reading this story to me, I didn’t even get past that part – I was like,”whoa, whoa  whoa  whoa –  why is he in the basement? Why is he chained up in the basement?” My husband was like,”I don’t know, it’s not part of the story.” (He was reading to me from a Russian collection.) I was like, “But that IS the story. Why?!? Was he there voluntarily? Did she overpower him? Did she do it on purpose? What’s going on in there?” And he said, “I don’t know. There’s like two more acts in the story, and Ivan has to go and get her when Koschei makes the match of the century!” I was like,”I don’t care, Ivan sucks!”

He does – Ivan, I can’t stand that dude. So Koschei takes her, he busts out of the chains when Ivan gives him a glass of water – so apparently water gives him superpowers, I don’t know. Neh, Whatever, I don’t really care about that. But so I wanted to tell the story of how he got in the basement, that was what I wanted to tell. And I had been – Dmitiri, my husband’s, parents had been living with us for a number of years, so I’d been listening to these amazing stories – Slovenian, his grandmother’s stories – and so those things went together very naturally in my mind. I love to combine the modern world with fairy tales and show how we really do walk in these fairy tales over and over and over again. They’re very much a valid part of our lives. And in Russian literature there’s a strong tradition of that kind of thing, because the only way that you could critique the government, back in the day, was to write fantasy or science fiction, because obviously it’s not real if a bad fairy’s doing it. And so that’s really the story I wanted to tell. And though I don’t really care about Ivan, I did – towards the end his whole little story is played out as well. And I wanted to push that story, that one story I did not make up, as far as I could push it.

Fairyland on the other hand, is a critique of a genre, is a critique of portal fantasies, which is very obvious by the end – there’s a strong little jab at Narnia at the end. And there’s a whole idea that these girls and boys who go to these magical countries would immediately want to turn around and go home – that’s the thrust of those stories: to get home, going down the yellow brick road to get home. Which is slightly unfair to Baum because the rest of the books, of the Oz series, are not about that particularly – but the movie is what has captured the American mindset, and the movie is all about that – which I find very interesting, actually. That that’s the story we want to be told, because it butters up our ego about our world, that our world is better – no matter how crappy and depression-filled and dusty it is, it’s better than Oz. Well I think that’s crap. When I was a kid, if I’d found a portal to another world, I would have been gone., and I would have never particularly thought of going home unless things got really bad in the other world.

And so in Fairyland there’s a lot of sort of meta-commentary on fairy tales, but it also takes it ultimately extremely seriously, because I take fairy tales extremely seriously. There’s a lot of creatures from different mythologies around the world, and September, the protagonist, thinking very seriously about how these stories work, because she’s read those stories – and how she can act and not act like the stories that she knows.

Byrt: Was Alice in Wonderland at all…?

Valente: Oh, I’m a huge Alice fan. I love Alice. In fact, you know, in the sequel I had to be- I realized that I had a rabbit, and I was like, oh, I can’t have rabbit! It already skirts Alice occasionally, so I had to change the rabbit. So yeah, Alice is a huge influence – but I’m a Through the Looking Glass girl, as opposed to a Wonderland girl – and I love it so much that I don’t find so much to critique in it. I mean, I think that Narnia is problematic on a number of levels, and so is Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz, and a lot these other ones. But Alice is…Alice is just a book of my heart.

Byrt: What would you say are the problems – the larger problems – with The Lord of the Rings and Narnia?

Valente: There are no women in Lord of the Rings. Well okay, I’m sorry, there’s two –  sorry, three, if you count Galadriel, but she does just stand still most of the time. So does Arwen, stand still most of the time. And Eowyn, who’s a freak, and treated as a freak, stops being her manly self when she gets a boyfriend. So not great, Mr. Tolkien. Narnia – the thing that bothers me about Narnia is not even particularly Susan, although I don’t like that either. Women particularly-

Byrt: That women cannot fight in war?

Valente: Particularly the Christian stuff – even though I didn’t notice that as a kid; I wasn’t clued in, I didn’t get it – but that at the end of the books, they’re sent home, after having lived these long, complicated,  adult lives, they’re back in their children’s bodies, and they don’t go crazy. Like they’re fine with that. And that’s not possible – I mean, at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they’re grownups! They’re in their forties! Then they’re all of a sudden pre-pubescent again? That’s a nightmare, that’s what that is.

Byrt: (laughing) YES.

Valente: And so I really wanted to explore – something that I really did, going into my Kingston literature and looking at all of those fairy tale and folktale tropes – and think about how real people would react if those things happened to them. You know, that Hansel and Gretel would never be okay. They would never be okay again, having gone through that. And I don’t think that anybody would who suddenly had their whole lives taken away from them. And of course Lewis is Lewis, so none of them are married or anything like that, but they completely would be. They would be married – they would probably have children in Narnia – and to be sucked back into the Blitz, London? That’s the worst ever! That’s just so nightmarish – that is a horror novel. That’s the beginning of a horror novel. And I really wanted to address that. So that is a strong theme in Fairyland, that that sucked. And not okay – that is not a nice way to end a children’s story. And so, yeah, I will not give away what character that is relevant to, but…

Byrt: Can you tell us a little bit about the sequel?

Valente: Sure. So at one point in Fairyland September trades away her shadow to save a little girl’s life. And this creature’s called the Glashtyn, who are like Kelpies – they have big black horse heads and human bodies, and they live under, they live in Fairyland Below, the land under Fairyland – and they take her shadow down. And in the sequel, her shadow has become the queen of Fairyland Below – Halloween the Hollow Queen – and is having a great time in Fairyland Below, stealing everyone’s shadows from Fairyland. So September has to go and clean up her mess.

Byrt: How much of the imagery and iconographic stuff – I mean how much of it is a commentary?

Valente: Well, it’s a mixture. A lot of it just comes out of my own head, and a lot of it comes from mythologies from around the world that I’ve found interesting – but even the mythologies that I find interesting I usually tweak in some way or another. I mean there are not actually wyveraries, there are Wyverns and libraries. The tsukumogami – the creatures, the household objects who’ve turned 100 years old – that’s a real thing, from Japanese folklore. Sirgins are obviously real. Marids, which are like water genies, they’re real too. So a lot of the actual creatures are real, but a lot of it, a lot of it is my own crazy head too.

Byrt: And what do you want children to take away from this story after they’ve read it?

Valente: To be brave and bold, and to always say yes to the world. I think that those portal fantasies, where especially young girls see this beautiful other world and they say no, they say they don’t want it, they want to be safe and taken care of forever – to say no to the world  is saying no to adulthood. Portal fantasies are very often about coming of age and becoming an adult, and to say no – say no, I don’t want it – is so wrong to me. You should always say yes. You should always say yes to the world, and yes it is dangerous, yes bad things happen, bad things happen to children, but you can’t block the world out. And adulthood is a magical kingdom of wonderful things if, IF you can see it that way. Kind of like the green goggles in Wizard of Oz. And kids should always say yes. That would be my message to children: be ill-tempered and irascible.

Byrt: You did mention briefly that you’re working on a sci-fi novel – could you tease a little bit about…?

Valente: I am. I’m working on a deco-punk space opera that features an alternate and fictional version of Old Hollywood. It’s based on the short story I wrote called The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew (which you can read on Clarkesworld) and it’s an extension of that story.

Byrt: One last question – what fairy tale do you want to tackle next?

Valente: What I really want to do is a companion piece to Deathless. Not a sequel, but a companion piece – because as I said, in Russian folktales everybody has the same names but are doing different things in every story. So I want to retell the story of Ivan and the Firebird set around the children’s evacuation in Leningrad (there was a children’s evacuation just like in London, which is what starts Narnia). So I want to do this portal fantasy, but with old-school, hard-core Russians, and retell the story of the Firebird, which is probably the most famous Russian fairy tale. That’s what I want to do next.

Byrt: I will be reading it! Thank you!

Valente: No problem.

Thanks again, Catherynne, for taking the time!

And for more on all things Catherynne M. Valente, you can find her website here.

And you can read an excerpt from The Girl who Fell Beneath Fairyland here.