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Catherynne M. Valente: Weird Hybrids

Catherynne Morgan Valente was born in Seattle WA, and grew up moving between her parents in Seattle and Sacramento CA. She attended high school in Davis CA, graduating at age 15 and attending UC San Diego, where she took a degree in Classical studies. She attended grad school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but quit to move overseas. She married in 2002, and lived near Yokohama Japan, where her husband was stationed in the Navy, for just over two years. In 2005 they returned to the US and lived briefly in Virginia. After their divorce, Valente moved to Cleveland OH. She now lives on Peaks Island ME with second husband Dmitri Zagidulin.

The Labyrinth, her surreal first novel, appeared in 2004, followed by Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams (2005) and The Grass-Cutting Sword (2006). Those books, along with novella Under in the Mere (2009), were collected in 2011 omnibus Myths of Origin. Her Mythopoeic Award-winning Orphan’s Tales duology, In the Night Garden (2006) and In the Cities of Coin and Spice (2007), brought her to the attention of a wider audience; the first volume won the Tiptree and was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Hugo and Mythopoeic Award finalist Palimpsest appeared in 2009. Children’s book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (which was first a book-within-a-book mentioned in Palimpsest) was serialized online the same year, and won the Andre Norton Award; it appeared in print in 2012. Sequel The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (2012) followed, with more books in the series forthcoming. Two books in the historical fantasy Dirge for Prester John series have appeared so far: The Habitation of the Blessed (2010) and The Folded World (2011). Deathless, a fantasy set in Russia, appeared in 2011, and a companion book is forthcoming.

Valente’s short stories have appeared in various literary and genre magazines and have been reprinted in Year’s Best anthologies and published as standalone books. ‘‘A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica’’ (2008) was a World Fantasy Award finalist, and novella Silently and Very Fast (2011) was a Hugo, Sturgeon, World Fantasy, and Nebula Award finalist. Western fantasy novella Six-Gun Snow White is forthcoming.

Valente was first published as a poet. Notable works of poetry include chapbook Music of a Proto-Suicide (2004), Oracles: A Pilgrimage (2005), Apocrypha (2005), and The Descent of Inanna (2006). She won a Rhysling Award for best long poem with ‘‘The Seven Devils of Central California’’ (2007). She has also published and presented various critical papers, mostly about feminism, mythology, and literature. Valente helps run the SF Squeecast podcast, winner of a 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fancast.

Official website

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland was just supposed to be part of Palimpsest. Fairyland is the protagonist’s favorite novel from when she was a child, and Palimpsest includes the first paragraph of Fairyland. I never intended it to be more than that. ”

‘‘We had been promised that there was a job waiting for my husband Dmitri when we got back home, but it evaporated; it wasn’t there. People say, ‘How could you go on tour during a recession?’ But it cost very little. We stayed on couches the whole way across America, we sold books out of the car, and people fed us. We had savings, but we’d been using it to pay the rent. I mean, my husband’s a programmer; he’d never not had a job. But after the tour we got to the point where we didn’t have money for rent the next month, and we didn’t have money for groceries. And I thought, ‘All right, I guess I’m going to have to get a non-writing job, but I can’t do that in time for next month’s rent. I have to do something now.’ I remember talking to Amal El Mohtar, and saying, ‘I think I’ll write a serial novel. I’ll put it on my website with a donation button. It’ll work.’ She said, ‘What are you going to write?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m looking through my ideas file for one I can sacrifice because nobody will ever publish it once I’ve published it online.’ This was before Kickstarter was a thing, and before people were reading on Kindle. It was new. I remember typing, ‘Oh, I could write Fairyland. Everybody wants to read Fairyland.’ And she said, ‘Oh, my God, please write Fairyland.’ I started posting chapters every Monday. I put a button up saying, donate whatever you think it’s worth, if you can. Neil Gaiman posted about it, Cory Doctorow posted about it, Warren Ellis posted about it, John Scalzi posted about it. And the serial went viral within a day.”


‘‘‘‘Some of my foreign publishers have said, since I’m now a children’s author, ‘You should not swear in your Twitter.’ I said, ‘I’ve been writing for adults for eight years. I’ve been writing for kids for a year.’ Kids are going to the website, and I’ve never gotten any pushback. You could literally raise a kid through my books. I’ve done a picture book. I did The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Orphan’s Tales is kind of YA, and there are all the adult books! I think people have been pretty good about understanding that I write for two audiences. Had Fairyland not come out online, I probably would have chosen a pseudonym to keep the children’s stuff separate. Now it’s all connected, but when I go on tour for Fairyland, all the publicity will refer to me as ‘Cat Valente,’ which is a subtle branding that I think works. I haven’t had any pushback from the YA community. They’ve all been really incredibly supportive. It is an entirely different world. It took me a long time to get to know people in that world, and their conventions are different.”


‘‘My husband’s a programmer, so I’ve been learning a lot over the last seven years about programming and computers and AI, which is his pet specialty, and how that works in the real world. I’m fascinated with it, because it hits all of my interests in consciousness and the way we express our humanity. I’d wanted to write about it and didn’t know how for a long time. Part of the reason there’s fantasy stuff in with the science fiction is because I wanted to write about these issues in a way that people who are not hard science fiction writers would still understand on a visceral level. I had someone come up to me and say this was the first time they’d ever felt like a story about computers was written for them. That’s where I feel like I’m going in my work – it’s a weird hybrid.

‘‘The core of Silently and Very Fast is something that I think underlies a lot of my work: that the most human thing is telling stories. When you can tell a story about yourself, that’s the beginning of consciousness. You can see it in little kids, and it’s part of why dogs are not conscious. In all of the books I’ve read about AI, my favorite part is always when the AI talks. I wanted to write something where the AI was struggling with how to talk about itself. We have all these stories about sexbots and things, because nobody talks about how gender has to be programmed – everything has to be programmed. My husband gave me programming lessons. He sat me down and said, ‘You have to do your Hello World.’ It was sobering to see what it means when people talk about strong AI. And how much code it takes to do even a tiny thing. Once you’ve written the code, it isn’t done. There are bugs, and it breaks. Nothing doesn’t break. The amount of code necessary for an AI is incredible. I learned about genetic programming, which is the mechanism by which the AI develops in Silently and Very Fast.

‘‘Especially with Silently I’ve been going back and forth on the old question that everyone groans at: ‘What’s the difference between fantasy and science fiction?’ I don’t have a good answer, other than that science fiction feels the need to explain things, and fantasy is not obligated to, but can. Silently feels like science fiction to me, but every time I’ve ever written science fiction I’ve had reviews saying it’s not science fiction. Silently and Very Fast is the first time nobody has outright said it’s fantasy, but they do say it has fantasy elements. I say it only has fantasy elements if you feel that folklore and mythology are fantasy – I feel they’re sociology and psychology. There’s a reason I quote Bruno Bettelheim in the book. He wrote The Uses of Enchantment, which is all about fairy tales as psychoanalysis. I love telling folktales about science fiction.”


‘‘Science fiction, when you’re on the outside, feels surrounded by a rigorously defended wall. I didn’t think there was a place in science fiction for someone who writes with the kind of language I write. I didn’t think the things I’m interested in are things people would follow me on. Even though I’m interested in science fiction tropes, the angles I’m interested in are wrong. I did it, but it took me a long time. My first instinct was, ‘There’s nowhere for me to go.’ What I figured out was that I only want to write if I feel I have something new to bring to it. I didn’t have anything to bring to science fiction. I’m Red Riding Hood and there’s nothing in my basket. But telling folk tales about the science fictional world we live in was something I could do.”


Comment from Ross
Time February 4, 2013 at 5:43 pm

The consensus among ethologists today is that dogs and other animals are conscious. Consciousness doesn’t have to express itself through words and storytelling.

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