Interview with Catherynne M. Valente (SPACE OPERA)
Catherynne M. Valente is a unique voice in modern genre fiction. Her most recent novel, Space Opera (2018), was nominated for a Hugo Award. Her YA novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making (2011) was the first online crowdfunded book to win a major literary award before traditional publication, and spawned three sequels and a prequel. She has written the fairy tale inspired Fantasy The Orphans Tales (2006-2007), Palimspest (2009), a portal Fantasy about people who travel to a fantastical city after sleeping with people who share a tattoo of the city on their bodies, The Glass Town Game (2017), a gothic Fantasy starring Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and the fractured science fiction narrative of Radiance (2015). Her work has won the Lambda Award for LGBT Science Fiction or Fantasy, the Mythopoeic Award, the James Tiptree Jr Award and been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award.
Catherynne M. Valente was attending WorldCon in Dublin, and was kind enough to speak to The Fantasy Hive via Skype while she was there.
Your latest novel Space Opera is out now and is nominated for a Hugo. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
Sure. The shorthand for it is just Eurovision in space, and a few people have described it as Douglas Adams meets Eurovision. Obviously Eurovision is not something that Americans are wholly aware of, so most of the little Easter eggs are quite well hidden. But it’s the story of the galaxy and the story of a washed-up rock band called Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes. Earth encounters alien life for the first time, and are immediately informed that our sentience is definitely up for debate and not entirely sure we are worth bringing into the galactic community. So in order to prove our sentience and the level of our civilisation, we are strongly mandatorily invited to take part in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, which is Eurovision in space essentially, which takes place every cycle among the gathered species of the galaxy. And if we manage to not come in last place—that’s all we have to do, just don’t come in last—we will be welcomed into the family with open arms. But if we do come in last we will be annihilated and our biosphere reseeded.
Space Opera deals with the idea of Eurovision coming out of the legacy of World War II as a less destructive way for us to interact with each other. What drew you to writing about this?
I mean, I genuinely believe it’s one of the greatest things humans have ever done. I say that without irony, despite the fact that the first time I watched Eurovision it was from the UK, a participating country that does not generally feel the same way about it. I think that to look at the first half of the 20th century and see all of that blood and fire and ash, and turn around and say, let’s just sing it out, is incredible. We don’t usually do those kinds of things as human beings. We just keep being awful to each other. And Europe in many ways does keep being awful to each other, but they put it all aside for the absolutely most absurd display of art they can come up with, every year since it started in 1956. It actually is exactly as old as my father, which I take as a kind of kismet that I was meant to write this book. And that combination of darkness and light, of something so over the top and campy and beautiful and stupid and absurd and wonderful coming from something so awful and dark and a sort of collective scar on the subconscious of the last 20 generations is infinitely compelling to me.
You mentioned Douglas Adams earlier, who’s unavoidable if you’re writing comedy SF. Was that something that you were nervous about when you were writing the book?
I don’t think that nervous covers it, I think sheer terror more covers it! He is the ghost in the room, he stands over your shoulder and asks you if it’s really necessary to write this book, since he already did it. And so, I was never going to have American protagonists because it’s Eurovision, and it’s absurd and America should never be part of Eurovision and we shouldn’t touch it with our grimy fingers. And the only country that participates in Europe that I’ve actually lived in is the UK. I also thought it would be kind of a funny joke – a real insider joke – if the saviours of the human race in space Eurovision were from the country that literally always loses.
So I knew I was going to have Brits in space. And once you have Brits in space, Douglas Adams appears, he is summoned. And though, in some sense, was I going to be able to avoid it? I don’t really know. But I didn’t really have a plan for the book, so when I sat down to write it, I just sort of closed my eyes and wrote the first chapter, which I wrote in about half an hour. I sat back and I was really happy with it, and I thought, I love this, but it’s Adams-y, and people are going to notice. People are going to read this book and they’re going to say something about it. Is this the tone that I want to go with? Even though it feels like the right tone for the book, even though it feels correct.
What I ultimately ended up deciding was that first of all, it kind of takes some of the pressure off. You’re not going to write the best space comedy, you’re just not, it’s already been written. So I could shoot for the bronze, and it’ll be fine. And the second was that maybe what I can add to that tradition of British space comedy is my gross American feelings, that I could get my open emotions and straightforward addressing of drippy gooey feelings all over that dry British wit. And hopefully that’s what I did.
People have absolutely compared it to Douglas Adams with every breath taken on account of this book, but very fortunately for me, it has been 99% positively compared to Adams. I would never have dreamed when I was a young baby writer that anyone would compare me positively to my hero, and so many of my heroes, and if I never ever win an award or make another penny from Space Opera, it will have been enough, to have been compared to a pantheon of people I have looked up to and worshipped since I was a tiny baby reader. I’m very very fortunate that I have somehow been allowed to thread the needle and get compared to Douglas Adams without being entirely trashed.
Space Opera is a very funny book but also a deeply sad book…
That was very much the intention. There’s a bit at the beginning where it talks about the story of the galaxy as the story of one person, so the story of Decibel’s life is in many ways the story of galactic history in this world. Nothing panned out the way anybody wanted and there’s a hugely sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
The reason that the Metagalactic Grand Prix exists is that there was a completely horrific war fought between species that didn’t believe the others were sentient, and it’s literally to keep that from happening again every time a new species is discovered. And so all of that sadness is a huge part of it. And part of that is just that I don’t think it’s possible to write honestly about Eurovision without trying to find that balance, but it’s also that I sold this book in the summer of 2016 and I started writing it in February 2017. And some shit had gone down between those two times.
I sold that a much more optimistic person than the woman who sat down to write it. Like so many other writers I just didn’t know what to do artistically after the election. And not just our election, but the British election and the Australian election – my husband’s Australian, so like our house was a very sad place. And I didn’t feel like I was even capable of writing if I didn’t somehow address what was happening in the world around me. So all of that went into it. And Space Opera is in many ways the beautiful glittery disco bomb that I threw in the face of a world that felt falling apart.
Was it fun coming up with all the completely bonkers aliens?
That was actually one of the most fun parts. I had no plan going into this book, and all I really knew was that I was going to have to make a lot of aliens—there are a lot of countries in Eurovision! I just wanted them to be really over the top, because I didn’t want anybody to be able to draw conclusions that this represents this country and this alien represents this country; I didn’t want to get into that at all.
I also just felt very strongly, as a lifelong Trekkie, that I wanted them to be truly alien, not just having funky foreheads or slightly different ears. I wanted there to be a huge variety of biological specimens. And so it was really really fun to come up with all of the crazy people. I love them so much, like by the end they were my friends.
One of the little Easter eggs for Eurovision fans and polyglots is that all of the alien species names and their personal names and their planet names are all words in the languages of Eurovision participating countries. Which ended up being the smartest thing I ever did, because first of all I didn’t have to like invent languages for all of them. But what ended up happening was that my writing room was covered in pieces of paper that had words that I liked in Lithuanian, and words that I liked in German, and words that I liked in Maltese, all of these languages. They started out just being nonsense words. Words that I liked the definition of or words that I liked the sound of, and by the end, all of them were my friends. All of my little alien friends. All of those words had become familiar and warm and a source of happiness for me.
The book also has a lot of exploration of gender and sexuality in it…
Definitely. First of all, I don’t think that David Bowie or Mick Jagger would be all that thrown by an alien who wanted to sleep with them, so I felt that was very true to the glam rock aesthetic. But I also felt like it was a good place to explore a little bit of that. Most of the things that are said about sex in Space Opera I genuinely believe to be true. I always try to have Decibel react the way I think a washed-up rock star would react. His own sexuality even on Earth was quite liberal, and his own conception of his own gender is not entirely on the usual spectrum. For a while, without naming it, that used to be OK in the 70s before people decided to make a huge political stink out of it and try to make laws against it.
I also think that once you get out into the alien world this binary conception of gender is going to go right out the window. There’s no chance another alien species is going to conceive of gender the way we do. So, why not throw it all up in the air and mix it around? And again one of the things that has been so odd about the reception of this book is that it’s been so popular and people have liked it so much and no one seems to have even gotten their nose a little bit out of joint by having the galaxy saved by a nonbinary protagonist. Somehow I’ve gotten some kind of forcefield to people’s usual stinks that they like to raise. So that’s been really gratifying. Decibel has just charmed people enough that they don’t mind. I also really wanted with both Oort and Decibel and Mira, they’re also all mixed race. The whole idea of them is that they don’t fit anywhere in particularly, that they cross boundaries wherever they go. They did on Earth, and they do when they leave Earth, and that is an inevitable part of their existence because of who they are and how they were born.
You write in a really wide range of styles. When you start a new book, does it have to be something completely different from the previous one?
A little bit… “and now for something completely different!” I have ADD, I get bored very easily. I never want to do the same thing twice. It nearly kills me to write a series, because I always want to change things up. I was talking to my husband the other day about the new book I’m writing, I’m like, oh I could just do a straightforward book, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and he was saying yeah totally. A few days later, I was kind of moping around, he said, you’re mad because you’re not reinventing the wheel aren’t you. You don’t want to pick up a dirty old wheel. I’m like, yes! I am most excited when I’m experimenting with something new, when I’m doing something that is out of the box for me.
Space Opera was definitely something I’ve never done. And I’m always looking for that opportunity. If somebody says, “Cat Valente would never do this“, that’s the thing I want to do. It’s just who I am, I like to reinvent myself, I like to always be pushing the limits of my abilities, and developing and growing and learning new things, and whatever the book that I pick up next has always got to be something out of left field to make me really happy. It’s just me, that’s how I’ll always be, and I think I lucked out in that publishers have been supportive of that over the years.
There’s a lot of people who you know have had a hard time breaking out of their niche without pseudonyms, and I’m just very fortunate that my publishers have let me more or less do what I wanted to do. And early on, with Palimpsest, which came right after The Orphan’s Tales. There were other books in that contract, but I felt very strongly that it had to be Palimpsest next, because if I did one more fairy tale book I was going to be the fairy tale girl forever. So I had to do something different in order to be allowed to do something different later on, and that has worked out very well.
Palimpsest is such a strikingly odd idea. What was the inspiration for that?
It’s funny, like I say, I really enjoy opportunities that come out of nowhere to do something different. I was asked to contribute to this anthology called Paper Cities, and I did not want to at all, because I had just finished a book called In The Cities Of Coin And Spice, and I did not think I had another city in me. I just was so tired of writing cities, and it’s just like, I don’t care, I don’t want to do this. But it was a good friend of mine, Ekaterina Sedia, who was editing the anthology, and you know I want to help my friends out, and do good art for my friends. The pay was abysmal, it was twenty dollars and a present that Ekaterina would choose for us. But again, I will often do things at very little or no pay if it’s for friends. Mates rates.
So I sat down to write the story and I had absolutely nothing. I was just like, uh, cities are the worst, I don’t want to do it anymore. Cities were so popular at the time, it was China Mieviile, and the New Weird, and a friend of mine said, ah you should do something with like, bodies and skin. Do some kind of weird city to do with that. And I was like, maybe I can do something wildly different. Nothing to do with fairy tales and everything to do with bodies. And that’s sort of where it came from.
So I wrote this short story from the anthology. I knew from the very beginning it was going to be a novel. That happens sometimes when I write short stories. And ultimately that’s what happened, I sold the novel pretty quickly, and Palimpsest, my god, Palimpsest, which I only ever wrote because Ekaterina asked me to write her a city, is this little engine at the heart of my career. Because Fairyland came out of Palimpsest, it was the protagonist’s favourite novel from when she was a little girl, and I ended up writing that, and that’s how I got on the New York Times list. Palimpsest got me my first Hugo nomination, which is the reason that I flew to Australia and met my now-husband and father of my child, so my child only exists because of this weird book about bodies. That so much has come out of Palimpsest is absolutely crazy, that I wrote it for twenty dollars and my present was the Dictionary of Poisonous Plants.
It’s interesting as well that Palimpsest is the origin of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, because it’s had an odd journey towards being a popular series of young adult books.
Fairyland is a little bit of magic that I think I was just the host for, for a while. I have felt, from the very beginning, like I had much less control over that than any of my other books—it just had a life of its own.
The reason that I wrote it was because, when we toured for Palimpsest, people kept asking me where they could get a copy of that book, and I was like, it’s not real, it’s just postmodernism. It’s what we do. And then when I got home, the economic crash had happened and my ex was laid off and we needed to make rent so I thought, well nobody wants to publish a children’s book that’s based on something so adult, so I’m not really losing anything. No one could sell a book at the time unless you were already incredibly famous, publishing was pretty locked down. And my publisher had ceased to exist.
So I started posting a chapter of it every Monday to my website. Kickstarter had just barely started so it was not in the public mindset, really Kindle had only just started to take off, this was 2009, so in many ways I kind of looked after myself without knowing it by not putting it on any of those platforms, because it was easier for the publisher to buy it ultimately. At the time, if you wanted to do something like that, which people really weren’t, crowdfunding was only just starting to become a thing, you just had to slap it up on your own website; so that’s what I did, and I had a little button that said donate what you think the book is worth, and if you can’t afford anything, just enjoy it.
I recorded myself reading it, so it actually had a really big following among blind readers because they didn’t usually get to follow a viral story online, but because they could listen to it, it was very popular there. And it went viral within 24 hours. People ask me all the time how they can have a successful viral book, I’m like, I don’t even know if I could do it again. It was a perfect storm of everyone feeling helpless and wanting to do something to help somebody, to support art, to still feel like art was important when everything was falling down around our ears, a theme that I think we will probably never stop having nowadays. Neil Gaiman was posting about it, Cory Doctorow was posting about it, it just went really far.
I think a lot of my readers had enjoyed my books but not been able to share them with their kids. So I think that was part of it. It was bought by Feiwel and Friends pretty quickly, and debuted at number 8 on the New York Times list. And that was after it had won the Nebula. It really was just all crazy, and then the people that I had met, the children whose lives I have been a part of growing up, are extraordinary over the last many years since it came out. I’m just privileged to have been a part of that, and a part of so many people’s childhoods.
When in the process did you realise that this was going to be a novel, and then four novels and a prequel?
I knew that I would like to write more in that series, because it is inspired by so many classic works of children’s literature, particularly The Wizard Of Oz. I had this notion that I could write a lot of books in that series. Ultimately, as we talked about before, I think five was about my limit before I just wanted to do something else. When we sold the first book we sold a sequel with it. And that was part of why we went with Feiwel and Friends, we had a number of offers but a lot of them weren’t willing to commit to a sequel right away. So we went with one of the three that offered us two books. And particularly because the economy was in such shambles, my editor told me later that they had a policy of not doing multi-book deals at the time, and it was just very special.
Then when the first book did so incredibly well, we very quickly sold the rest of the series. We sold initially two books, but then my publisher was the one that said, we think you need a fifth book for the plot that you have told us you’re going to fit into these two. And I was like, that’s fine, if you want to pay me for a fifth book, you pay me for a fifth book! Originally I had intended to do a little novelette in between each book, but I got tired. And very busy. I was touring so much for those books. I don’t think people quite realise that I spent like years of my life on the road for those books. One of the wonderful miracles of Space Opera is that we managed to get a bestseller while all I did was go to New York for one launch party. I was pregnant too so I was like, this is great, we can do it while I’m in PJs? That’s awesome. I love touring but it was exhausting – from about 2011 to 2013 I was just on the road most of the time.
You write works that are quite hard to categorise. How do you approach genre when you’re writing?
The honest factor is I don’t care. As long as it either can’t happen in real life yet or has never happened in real life, I’m writing it. I’m not very interested in realism, but I write what I’m moved to write.
I was talking to my editor yesterday and noted that I haven’t written Fantasy in some time. I’ve written some short stories. But for the most part my heart is with science fiction right now. And I’m sure that will not continue. I’m sure that I will go back to Fantasy, I’ll go to horror, and bounce all around. Because I love speculative fiction as a big tent. I really enjoy being able to cross genres and bounce around and write things that are not easily categorised.
Would I maybe have more sales with some of them if they were more easily categorised? Perhaps. But I think that there is a certain kind of person that I write for that really passionately loves the kind of thing that I do, and it’s not easy to find somewhere else. If you’re into picking up what I’m putting down, there’s not so many places to pick it up. There are some. That’s how I’ve managed to carve out a place for myself over the years.
I grew up reading science fiction and Fantasy and horror, so in my mind they’re not that separate, and also, my degree’s in classics. When I was first starting out, the notion that magic and monsters and witches and curses and blood debt and kings and queens and all that was not strictly speaking realism was crazy. In classics that’s just Tuesday, that is the stuff of normal literature, that is not in any sense Fantasy; and if you are a classicist yourself, or read a lot into the Greek corpus, you’ll find plenty of science fiction in there as well. Hermes has automata that work for him and Hephaestus built them, and Lucian of Samosata wrote this incredible, arguably the first, piece of science fiction called A True Story, which is emphatically not true, so it’s postmodernist, even back in the day. It has a whole introduction which is one of the most postmodern things I’ve ever read. It wouldn’t be out of place in a John Barthes book. But it was written in the second century. So classics kind of broke my brain, because I had to be told that I was not writing literary fiction.
As well as novels you also write short fiction and poetry. When you start with an idea do you know which medium it will be?
I feel like I know but I’m quite often wrong. I don’t do as much poetry as I used to, but I do still do some. I don’t think I’ve ever started a poem and had it turn into fiction, or started fiction and had it turn into a poem, those are quite separate in my mind. But I’ve written a number of novels that have come out of short stories. Palimpsest is not the only one, Radiance did as well, so did The Glass Town Game. Many of these stories are written on commission on a particular topic. Radiance was not, but Palimpsest we’ve talked about, and Glass Town Game, I was asked to write a story that takes place during the lifetime of Queen Victoria but is not steampunk. So my mind when straight to gothic, obviously.
Oftentimes the idea feels so big that the minute I start writing it I feel I could go on with this forever, and that’s a feeling that tends to mean novel rather than short story. But I do have trouble staying within the bounds of a novella these days. Space Opera was supposed to be a novella – big long novella! I really like the novella form, but I usually end up butting right against as long as I come. I’m more long-winded as I get older, I guess.
I was in Russia last week for a convention and I read a short story that I hadn’t read in years and years, and I was stunned, I would never let so little happen in a short story these days. So often short stories turn into novels. Really quite often. But it doesn’t usually go the other way, I can usually tell when something’s a big idea. The last short story I wrote I absolutely knew was a small idea, and I’ve mostly forgot the details of it already. But the ideas that stick, they stick early and they stick hard.
What’s next for Catherynne M. Valente?
Well, a couple of things are next. I have a Minecraft tie-in novel, speaking of things Cat Valente would never do, coming out in November. Then I’ve got a couple of novellas coming out next year, and I may or may not have a novel coming out next year. I’ve got three novels in the pipeline and it is undetermined in what order or when they will be coming out in 2020 and 2021, so we’ll see. I’m not sure which one is going to come first, but the middle grade one is called The Quidnunks, it’s kind of a cross between Where The Wild Things Are and Finnish Folklore. The sequel to Space Opera, which is called Space Oddity, will be out in either 2020 or 2021, and my next adult novel is called The Moon Sees Me, and it’s a very odd body horror science fiction kind of thing.
Thank you Catherynne M. Valente for speaking with us!
Catherynne M. Valente is an award-winning author of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent novel, the Hugo-nominated SPACE OPERA, is available now.