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Interview With an Author: Catherynne M. Valente

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Catherynne M. Valente and her latest book, The Past is Red
Author Catherynne M. Valente and her latest book, The Past is Red

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series; Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (and the four books that followed it). She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Sturgeon, Eugie Foster Memorial, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus, and Hugo awards, as well as the Prix Imaginales. Valente has also been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human. Her latest book is The Past is Red and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Past is Red?

The Past Is Red began as The Future Is Blue—the novelette that begins the book. I was asked by my wonderful editor, Jonathan Strahan, to write a story for his climate change/sea level anthology Drowned Worlds in 2016. The very first tiny seed that became Tetley and Garbagetown was a single line in the anthology invitation: What kinds of stories will we be telling in this inundated future?

I immediately thought: the exact stories we’re telling now because humanity doesn’t change very much, even when we know we absolutely have to. Especially then. I had just read an article about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and went into the story with little more than that idea and the notion of the Patch being all that was left. I sat down at my keyboard and out of more or less nowhere, Tetley’s voice just fell out onto the page. All I did was follow where she led.

After the story won the Sturgeon Award, Jonathan asked if I was interested in writing more of her story, and to be honest I had known from that first line that a novelette would never be enough time with Tetley. But I had to ask myself—what now? Her crime and her history is already revealed. What next? What could be worthy of significantly more ink when such a terrible and dramatic plot has already unfolded? I have been determined from the start that the typical post-apocalyptic yearning toward a restoration of the ruined world could never, in the Blue/Red universe, come to anything but grief and disappointment. Some choices are permanent. We’re making them now. You can’t always get everything back.

So what next for my girl?

Ultimately I knew that what comes after a coming of age is a coming to wisdom and experience, and in a world that is almost gone, that can only be uncovered by revelations of the past and connection to something more than Tetley has ever guessed existed in her little kingdom. And between the two of those, The Past Is Red lives.

Are Tetley, Maruchan, Goodnight Moon, or any of the other characters in the novella inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Every character is to some extent based on a conglomeration of humans I have known or heard about, that’s the nature of creating grounded, believable characters. I have three brothers, there is some of all of them in Maruchan. I have been married three times, there is some of all of them in Goodnight Moon.

But there is little at all of me in Tetley, she is in and of herself, a being able to see joy and beauty and wonder in the worst of all possible worlds, not because she is naïve or delusional or a fool, as Candide was, but because whatever dystopian futurescape we are each of us born into is and can only be home. We all know someone who sees the best in everything and everyone, and to be perfectly honest, rather a lot of those people have had more than their share of runs through life’s gauntlets. Tetley loves her home and her family and believes in herself without fail—there are few times and places our species has managed where that is not revolutionary, if not the actual seed of actual revolution.

How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

That isn’t really my process, I have precious few deleted scenes from any work floating around my hard drive. If I wished it was in there, it is, and I have been lucky enough to have an editor who understood what I was trying to do, and if I faltered, suggested massaging rather than all out deletion.

If you lived in/on Garbagetown, what area would you most want to claim as your home?

Oh goodness, I suppose Electric City is the most livable, but Candle Hole seems so cozy, like a scented hobbit hole, which is part of where it gets its epithet. And real talk, it’s probably the only part of the whole place that smells tolerable at all.

The television show Cheers (Norm!) has a significant cameo in the novella. Why, of all of the possibilities, did you choose to highlight Cheers?

Such a specific question! And I have such a specific answer!

I remember watching some kind of zombie or post-apocalyptic show, I don’t recall which, and complaining with my husband about how all these heartfelt, elegiac end-of-the-world stories are always full of somber, sentimental singalongs around the fire—but they always sing some kind of old-ass folk song or a new one that perfectly provides exposition and was written by…somebody who has time to write a song while being gnawed on by monsters? And everyone around the fire always knows all the words to goddamn Ye Olde German Plague Ballad or whatever it is. And while I know that’s much more to do with copyright than anything else, it drives me nuts. I remember so specifically standing on a ladder painting my house and whinging and moaning and I said: if you get ten random traumatized American adults together and ask them to sing a song they all know, you’re gonna get the theme song to Cheers if you’re "lucky".

I had kind of been waiting to use that somewhere ever since because it really is true—the things that stick in our heads aren’t usually all that fancy or resonant or culturally top-drawer, and when everything has gone to hell, things like the Cheers song are the trash that will bear up beneath us.

When I was writing that scene, I realized the roar of Norm! in every episode had quite the double meaning when echoing through the end of humanity about three seconds before I typed out the word. In the end, almost anything you choose can have a little gem like that in it, that seems like it was made for your book—because pop culture is powerful for a reason. It contains just about everything.

If you could choose your Garbagetown name (rather than participating in the ritual Tetley describes) what would it be?

That’s not for me to choose! There’s a process! Someone else has to choose it for me.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Oh, honestly? A mess of crap and half-drunk glasses of water and a baby monitor. I am not a tidy girl. But if you mean books, I’m reading Mexican Gothic at the moment.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I’ll go with influential. Sylvia Plath, John Crowley, Samuel R. Delany, A.S. Byatt, Helen Oyeyemi. Crowley’s Engine Summer was a particular influence on The Past Is Red.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Neverending Story. Michael Ende is also a huge influence on my work for younger readers. I read it when I was very young, so young no one believed I actually had, and I was completely in love with it. I still am—my son is named Bastian!

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I was given a very wide berth to read what I liked when I was young. I don’t think anything was really forbidden, and anyway, children can sneak just about anything by if it’s a print book. But do recall that I read Stephen King’s IT at 11 years old (I read a LOT of horror as a kid…and an adult) and asked what a VERY naughty word meant when my parents had friends over. They quite quickly decided that book was too mature for me and put it up on top of the bookshelf.

Pssh. As if that stopped me.

Is there a book you’ve faked reading?

That’s like faking an orgasm—you’re only doing it to please other people and robbing yourself of the joy of the real thing.

I’m perfectly happy to admit I couldn’t get through Ulysses!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Medea: The Sorceress by Diane Wakoski. And Let the Dog Drive by David Bowman. Both of which would become deep favorites of mine.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Every book changes my life, at least a little. But I suppose The Iliad changed it the most. I changed my major the first time I heard one single passage of it in Ancient Greek, and the course of my everything altered.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Probably Little, Big, by John Crowley. Or Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson. Or Was by Geoff Ryman. Or How to Live Safely In a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.

…I’m an evangelist for a lot of things.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Any of the above!

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Two of my absolute favorite shows from last year were Dark and Ted Lasso. Which could not possibly be more different in tone, subject matter, genre, even lighting. But both deeply moved me. Oh, and For All Mankind! I’m still not actually over the second season finale.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

If we’re going living or dead, I would love to take my father-in-law to Worldcon. Doesn’t matter where, though preferably somewhere he’d never been. He passed last year and was a lifelong science fiction fan. I never got the chance to take him behind the velvet ropes, so to speak, and I will always regret it.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

“Would you like this giant bag of free, untaxable, but morally clear, money?” My answer: “Why yes, yes I would!”

What are you working on now?

The sequel to Space Opera, Space Oddity, and a new adult science fiction novel for Tor.

Book cover for The Past is Red
The Past is Red
Valente, Catherynne M.