Catherynne M. Valente grew up in Northern California and resides in Maine. She writes prodigiously: poetry, short fiction and longer works. Her books include “The Orphan’s Tales,” described as a “duology of original fairy tales,” and such novels as “The Labryrinth” and “Palimpsest.”
She is on tour for her new YA novel, “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making,” and will appear at 4 p.m. May 13 at a Literary Tea for Teens at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma.
She agreed to an interview about the book and her life as a writer.
Could you give a brief description of “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making”?
Fairyland is the story of a young girl named September. Bored of her rural life, she eagerly accepts the Green Wind’s invitation to come to a place called Fairyland and have adventures. Once there, however, adventures become deadly serious as she and her friends, a half-Wyvern, half-Library, a Marid, and a talking lamp must struggle with the wicked Marquess, who wants to use September to do something dreadful to Fairyland.
Your work includes novels, poetry and short stories. What was it about this new story that compelled you to craft it into a YA novel?
Fairyland began as a book-within-a-book in my adult novel, Palimpsest. It was the favorite childhood novel of the protagonist, and a few passages were included in the text. The idea, therefore, with the long title and affected style, was to imitate children’s books of the Oz era and before.
While on tour, people kept asking me if Fairyland was real. (Imagine perfect strangers coming up to you to ask “Is Fairyland real?” I mean, you always want to say yes!) I said no, it was just part of the novel, an invention. They asked when I was going to write it. I said never–who would publish such a thing?
But soon after my husband lost his job (both of them) in the economic crash, and months went by without him being able to find a new one. It was getting pretty dire, and so I decided to try to do something to help my family. I put up a chapter of Fairyland every Monday with a little button that said: donate whatever you feel the book is worth. People responded to it dramatically; it spread like wildfire. A little while later, Feiwel picked it up along with a sequel.
So the answer is: it was always a YA book. Conceived as one from the start, as the beloved object of a fictional woman’s lost childhood. It is a response, a love letter, and a critique to the portal fantasies I read and loved as a child. But I do hope that adults will also enjoy it–we never stop coming of age, which is why these stories are so often retold.
The opening chapter delights with fantastical, poetic descriptions: the Green Wind wears “green jodhpurs;” Latitude and Longitude interlock “hand into hand, foot onto knee, arms akimbo;” and your heroine September is advised that Fairy rules dictate “all traffic travels widdershins.” What helped you most to develop your writing as a way to enchant readers even as you move along your story?
I tried to think of fairy stories from different cultures: how fairies are often extremely specific in their wording (so as to trick mortals, of course) and their rules seem arbitrary, only to become quite deliberate and frightening later on. I like interesting words, words that have a kind of magic to them all of their own, like widdershins, and I wanted to put September in the midst of this delicate and merry but also very real and dangerous place.
In some ways, portal fantasies are always about a child entering the grown-up world suddenly and without warning. An adult world where wars are happening or have happened, where everyone else knows the rules but the child does not, where everything is colorful and dizzying and they suddenly have total freedom. When writing this, armored and dressed-up words can be very effective. Whenever we enter a new part of our lives (schools, jobs, technology, relationships) there is a new way of speaking, a new dialect we have to learn. The dialect of Fairyland is the dialect of old magic and new technology (Fairyland is, after all, a Scientifick place), and as such, it can be anything but plain.
What’s the best part about being a writer?
My answer is different month by month. But I think it’s the part when you’re dreaming up a book, planning it, growing it, imagining it. Making choices, pruning the plot, letting revelations about characters and actions hit you like lightning bolts, out of nowhere, running contrary to plans. It’s like dreaming awake, and it’s the most fun I can have with my brain without falling in love, solving a puzzle, or learning a new language.
Oh, wait. Writing is exactly like all three of those things.
Your website mentions several poets and writers who’ve influenced you. Are there some children or YA books that particularly helped draw you toward telling stories?
Besides the big bosses: Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and the Oz books, Peter Pan and Alice, I also adore Seaward, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Neverending Story (book, not film, though I do love the film) The Secret Country trilogy, The Last Unicorn, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, and McKinley’s Beauty. They’re the books that light up my face when they’re mentioned, the ones I can barely talk about how much they meant to me as a kid.
But when I try to think of what book or story most made me want to be a writer–not what I just loved and wanted to live in forever, but made me want to pick up a pen? I think it’s Shel Silverstein’s books. I started out as a poet, after all, and I remember his poems lighting little fires in my brain that burned for a long time.
What awaits those who show up for your appearance at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma?
We are having a wonderful tea party with treats and teacups! I’ll be dressed up, and will be reading from various parts of the book, signing, and answering questions. We have so few opportunities to dress up these days! I’m really looking forward to it.
What key lessons have you learned on your journey?
Mainly, that Fairyland is always, always real.
Sometimes it just takes awhile to find it.