Interview with Catherynne M. Valente

In Catherynne M. Valente's fantasy novel, Palimpsest, about a sexually transmitted city, the character November’s favorite book was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. Now Cat has written that book too. Originally published online and now available in a convenient offline form, it was the first online work to win a major literary award (specifically The Andre Norton Award).

During BEA, Cat met Bill and I for breakfast in Hell’s Kitchen (I was disappointed we did not see Daredevil) in a dangerous restaurant that offers bottomless mimosas, Nutella croissants, milkshakes with shots of espresso. She had just returned from the west coast leg of her book tour and Fairyland had just debuted at number eight on the New York Times Bestseller List. We talked about books, movies, the Internet, “The Goblin Market,” and medical waste.

Gene: Congratulations on making the bestseller list.

Cat: Thank you! I’m so excited about it.

Gene: I had to look up what ZOMG stood for after reading your blog post about it.

Cat: It stands for Oh My God but it’s an intensifier.

Bill: Or an ironifier.

Cat: That’s true. It’s like OMFG without the implied profanity.

Gene: I thought the Z stood for “zombies.”

Cat: Then there’s the OMGWTFBBQ, too, but that’s a little passe. It’s a joke. It’s word salad. Oh internet.

Gene: I saw Bridesmaids last night.

Cat: I saw that recently. What did you think?

Gene: I really liked it. Did you?

Cat: I hated it. The preview sold it to me as The Hangover for girls. I thought it was going to be a madcap comedy. It was just sad sack, depressing stuff.

Gene: It was but I was giggling all the way through. I don’t know what that says about me. Some of the time I was laughing at my friend Danielle laughing at the movie. The part about food poisoning sold it to me.

Cat: I laughed at that part. But I don’t necessarily like watching movies about people who make bad life choices over and over again. And they don’t learn anything at the end but they have a man so it’s all better. As if she’s not going to make the same choices now that she’s got a dude. And I don’t understand why everybody was British. It’s Milwaukee, there are not very many British people in Milwaukee. And who has that kind of money in Milwaukee? Also, the maid of honor doesn’t plan the wedding. That’s not how it works.

Gene: There were a lot of weird moments for me where I was like, “Is this something I don’t understand about the bridesmaid’s role?”

Cat: No! It was completely, really wrong.

Bill: That’s the way it’s going to be. Hollywood has redefined it.

(Gina, who is handling publicity for Fairyland, gave Cat a galley copy of Laini Taylor’s next book.)

Cat: OMG, she’s so awesome. Her pink hair is fabulous. She wrote Lips Touch Three Times, which she gave me and I cannot wait to read. It’s a retelling of "The Goblin Market," which was really cool to me. You know Dante Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite painter? His sister, Christina Rossetti wrote a poem called “The Goblin Market” which is so good! And also is a lesbian sister poem-ish, Victorian style. It’s very racy without having any actual sex in it. The sisters live by themselves in the woods in this cottage and the goblins have their marketplace nearby and they sell goblin fruit. Lucy runs off and buys goblin fruit and eats it. And then she doesn’t care about the world anymore and is sick and dying. Her sister ends up smearing Lucy’s body with fruit and then eating it off to break the spell. It’s very racy for the era. It’s pretty racy for our era! And the reason that book came up was I was talking to Laini about Persephone and I mentioned Goblin Fruit (which is a poetry zine).

Gene: I was reading your FAQ this morning.

Cat: It SO needs to be updated.

Gene: The cigarette ritual cracks me up. You really smoke a cigarette when you started a new project?

Cat: I smoked way back in the day in college and then I stopped. Then it was effective for ritualizing work. But I so need to get rid of that on the FAQ. We’re working on a website revamp and so I haven’t updated anything waiting for that. As with all rituals having to do with writing, I find it easier to just write the book. I stop doing whatever the ritual was because I’m too busy writing. I read about people online who talk about their rituals and I’m like, “That’s so cool but I’m never going to do it.” There’s one person who makes a collage about the stuff that’s in her book before she starts writing it. That sounds awesome. I’d never do anything like that, that’s never going to happen.

Gene: You were born in Seattle, right? But you didn’t grow up there?

Cat: I lived there until I was thirteen. My parents were divorced like 30 seconds after I was born.

Gene: You beat my parents’ record, which is something.

Cat: When I was eight my mom moved to California and Sacramento and then when I was thirteen I moved in with my mom. When I’m on the east coast I say I’m from the west coast. Although this time [on her recent west coast tour] I felt like an east coaster. Why is everything so far apart? How do you people live like this? And someone asked me where I was from and I said, ”Maine.” I didn’t even think about it. I never say Maine because you’re not allowed unless your grandparents were born there. Even where we are, if you drive two hours due north you’re in Bangor. If you drive two hours in any of these west coast cities you are still in the city.

Bill: That’s the traffic.

Cat: LA is just gigantic. And then in the Bay Area everything is super far.

(Gene: I told Cat the story about my daughter getting stung by a stingray in the ankle at Huntington Beach when we were in LA two years ago.)

Cat: I have an odd, mild fear of that because I’ve been swimming many times and suddenly seen a stingray. Now I always think I’m going to step on one. But also I would never swim in LA. I was on the sailing team in college (in San Diego) and we had a regatta at UCLA and we had to sign a release form that said if you fall in the water and get staph or hepatitis B you will not sue the university. There’s a lot of medical waste, that’s probably why. And then of course someone turtled their boat.

Bill: You had me at ‘medical waste.’

Cat: We had these little 14-foot boats and they were easy to capsize. And someone turtled it, which means mast straight down in the water. And nobody would go near them when they came out of the water. So I never swim in LA now.

Gene: Then were did you live?

Cat: I’ve lived all over the place. Seattle and all the S cities on the west coast: Sacramento, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Diego and then Scotland (another S), Japan (broke the tradition), then Rhode Island, Virginia, Cleveland, and now Maine. I met my husband online and move to Cleveland to be with him. You have to make sacrifices. I love the lake, it’s beautiful. There are islands in Lake Eerie, it’s wild country like the island I live on now. My husband is not always a super practical person so after he finished college instead of buying a car he bought a boat. So we have a boat! (Whenever I say, “We have a boat,” I feel like I married the boat. It’s a 26-foot sailboat. I named it. It’s called Persephone because we can only use her half the year because the water freezes over.)

Gene: The salt water freezes?

Cat: About ten feet out. 100 years ago the by froze over completely. Now it doesn’t do that anymore -- thank you, climate change (which doesn’t exist). I remember my thirteenth birthday in Seattle when I insisted we were going to go swimming. I grew up with sailboats. My dad raced in college and he had sailboats when I was a kid. My birthday is May 5th. Swimming in Lake Washington on May 5th is bracing to say the least. My friends and I decided to have a cake fight first. So we had to stay in the water long enough to get the icing off.

Gene: You still think Lake Washington is cold now that you live in Maine?

Cat: I doubt it. I learned to snorkel diving shipwrecks in Lake Ontario so I think I’m good now. We didn’t know it was as shipwreck. We pulled into this protected cove to spend the night and there was some wood sticking up out of the water. And in the morning this guy comes up in a kayak like an NPC in a video game and goes, “Did you know that’s the shipwreck of the bla bla bla?” and gave us all the information about it. We were like, “Thank you video-game-man-exposition-kayak.” So we went and dived the wreck and it was really cool. I blogged about and someone commented on the blog that they’d seen us from one of the houses there because they saw the name on our boat and found my blog. Of all there weird things that have happened on my blog, that is the weirdest.

Gene: What’s another weird thing? You get a lot of comments on your blog.

Cat: I do. I met my husband on my blog, got my first book deal on my blog, everything good comes through my blog one way or another. When I started out I was not writing what you’d call fiction people would want to read. I was writing 200 page poems that weren’t in columns. But I was very realistic about it, I was like, I’m not even going to bother submitting to big presses. I submitted to small presses and I actually had a contract but when I declined to sleep with the editor it went away. Awesome. I was twenty-three. I couldn’t believe that was the world I lived in. Is it 1940? What is this? And it really discouraged me for a while and I didn’t submit to anybody. I had just started livejournal because I was living in Japan and I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I was writing to this guy Nick Mamatas on LJ and he had just had his first book published by a small press and I said, “I would never ever ask you to look at my chapters because that’s gross but who should I be submitting to if I have a weird, surrealist sort of book?” And he gave me a list. I said I’d submitted to all of them already and they rejected it. He asked me to send him my chapters and that if he liked them he’d send them on. And I did and he did and that’s how I got a book deal. That was The Labyrinth which was my first novel.

I actually told that story recently because Jim Hines does a first book Friday post where someone comes on and tells about how they sold their first book. There was a little footnote that nobody should bother Nick. And he was like no, actually I don’t mind, but you should make sure you’re a genius first as Cat did and it will go better for you.

Bill: Do you feel like you would be here doing this without the Internet?

Cat: Obviously Fairyland wouldn’t exist. Part of the reason Labyrinth took off like it did (it sold 600 copies for a small press -- they were like, “Yeah! That’s the whole print run and more!”) and it was a Locus recommended book which was very uncommon. I was living in Japan and had never had a story published, I didn’t go to Clarion, I didn’t go to any of the things you’re supposed to go to, I spontaneously appeared. But I had a following on my blog already because I’d been blogging for four years before I had a book out. People were going to buy whatever I published just because they were following me all the time. And I’ve always been very open and personal on my blog so people feel very attached to me (which has only gone wrong once or twice).

And then there’s Fairyland, which is such a weird string of coincidences. It was a book within a book in Palimpsest. It’s the protagonist’s favorite book from when she was a little girl. The first paragraph is completely intact from where it’s quoted in Palimpsest. When I toured people were like, “Is that a real book?” And they could be forgiven for thinking so because we did an alternate reality game to promote Palimpsest -- we mocked up fake amazon pages for both Fairyland and the other book within a book which was The History of Train Travel in the Japanese Isles (which is an academic book). Some kid actually emailed me asking me to be her thesis advisor for her urban planning in Tokyo degree. I’m like, “Baby girl, I’m so sorry.” Totally embarrassing. But yay for our web design which was very convincing.

So they said when are you going to write the book? Never! No one would ever publish the book. No one would ever publish a YA book that was connected to an adult novel. That’s not the point, that’s not how it works with books within books, you don’t just turn around and write them. But for the alternate reality game, I’d written about a page and a half as an easter egg to find. And I hired my seventy-five-year-old British friend to do a voice recording of it (which is still floating around somewhere). She has the perfect, clipped, British nanny voice, it’s amazing. I had this whole list of the other book titles in the series, and who this author was, and all that kind of stuff. We tried to make it seem real, made a cover for it, everything. And so when I got back from the tour my husband had been laid off. Supposedly there was a job waiting for him when he got back (he was freelancing when he was on the road). But there was no job. It turns out Portland, Maine, is not a hotbed of tech activity.

Months went by. He’s never been out of work. There was nothing and it was getting pretty dire. I was like, well, I’m going to write a novel online, use crowdsourcing and all that. I originally had planned to do something else and I remember sitting there on IM with my friend and saying, “Oh, I could write Fairyland. Everyone wants to read Fairyland.” And she was like, “Oh my god! Please write Fairyland. That would be amazing!” So I started posting a chapter every Monday. There was a little button that said to donate whatever you think the book is worth. Donations worked well -- some people gave fifty cents, but some people gave a lot more. I tried to stay three chapters ahead of the posting schedule so I could do triage, because after they were posted I couldn’t go back and change anything. I outlined really heavily which I never do because I had to make sure everything interlocked.

Bill: And you made a collage.

Cat: No. But I made the banner, which was a collage, I did all the graphics for the website and everything. But people really dug it and it went viral and Gaiman was tweeting about it and Boing Boing did an article about it. There was a fan community in about five minutes and they were felting their own little wyverraries and stuff, very supportive.

I finished it quite far ahead of the posting schedule so my agent started shopping it around before it was done. Before [Fairyland’s publisher] Feiwel picked it up it won the Culture Geek Best Web Fiction of the Decade Award which was quite surprising to everyone involved because it was up against Dr. Horrible and XKCD and Girl Genius and all of these things that should have stomped it. Even the article from the judges was like, “We found it surprising that suddenly 40% of the voting people were Fairyland voters.” When they mobilize, they mobilize hardcore.

So Feiwel picked it up and shortly after that I got an email asking me if I knew that Fairyland was eligible for the Andre Norton Award. I said I didn’t know that. They changed the rules a couple years ago so that work published online would be eligible but nothing had had enough steam to get on the ballot. It turned out I had just enough steam to squeak in at the bottom of the ballot. The only reason I even went to the award ceremony was because part of the reason was seeing a space shuttle launch. One of my husband’s dreams when he was a little boy was to see one and there weren’t that many left so we went. I was so sure I wasn’t going to win -- I was up against Leviathan and Zoe’s Tale and all these things that should have stomped it. I kept saying, “I’m just here to see the spaceship.” I didn’t even write a speech. And it won. It was amazing -- I cried up there like a dork. It was the first online work to win a major literary award before it even came out. So without the Internet, Fairyland wouldn’t exist at all.

But my whole life comes from the Internet. It’s how I met my husband, I met most of my friends online (I have two I didn’t meet on the Internet). At our wedding we opened up the toast to everybody, which turned out to be a good way to get everyone completely drunk because we have a lot of really articulate friends. Everyone was like, “I met Cat on the internet.” It’s how our whole lives are conducted, especially because we live on a fairly remote island now.

Gene: How long did that online venture support you? A couple of years? Fairyland and the other thing --

Cat: The subscription thing? I’ve been doing that for three years. Omikuji is still going. Fairyland went from June to September, but we got a significant amount of donations and [my husband] found a job about four months after I started posting. Omikuji doesn’t support us, but when I started it really helped to patch up the month-to-month income.

Gene: The webcomics experience with subscriptions seems to be that it doesn’t work.

Cat: It’s because they get it in the mail. We have email subscribers, but the number is dwarfed by the number of people who want something physical.

Gene: It’s collectible, it’s the science fiction community --

Cat: They all want it because nothing gets mailed that’s for them anymore, so that’s what everybody digs. I don’t have any online projects going right now other than Omikuji because I have so much print work that I can barely keep up with that. Which is awesome, it’s a good problem to have. I’m always trying to figure out what the next thing online is going to be. Right now everyone is doing things through Kickstarter because it’s very safe -- you don’t have to do it if you don’t make the money to begin with. Which I would have never done with Fairyland, I would have felt that was against the spirit of Fairyland because I wanted people to be able to read it even if they couldn’t donate, especially because it’s a kid’s book and kids don’t have control over a Paypal account or anything like that. Or shouldn’t.

Gene: It’s the first book I read in my iPad. My friend Gina told me I had to read it. And then she kept telling me about Palimpsest. So I listened to the audio version while I was painting my house. I didn’t know Fairyland was related to Palimpsest at all, so I hit that point in the book and stopped painting and went, “Oh! That’s why they have these names.”

Cat: On the tour, this girl was talking to me. She goes to Faerieworlds every year and last year she went as November who is the protagonist of Palimpsest. It’s an outdoor fairy costume kind of Renfair. The Frouds started it. And she made her self a little girl who circumnavigated Fairyland to carry around with her as part of her November costume. And one of her friends told her she could just carry the real book now.

Bill: Did you put a book within a book in Fairyland?

Cat: No.

Bill: You could have kept on going.

Cat: No, but there’s one in the sequel. I kind of like the idea that when the kids grow up they’ll read Palimpsest and there’ll be that connection.

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