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Writers I Admire: Catherynne M. Valente

Posted on 06.23.2015 at 10:44
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I’ve had an idea sitting on the backburner for years now. Ever since I started keeping track of my reading in a given year, I’ve found that one or two books often stand out among the bunch. I’ve wanted to devote a post to each of those books but, to do any justice, I wanted to revisit those books and really immerse myself in them, give myself time to enjoy their textures and styles even while contemplating what made each of them, for me, special. But I’ve realized that I don’t now have the time to do so, nor will I in the near future. And keeping thoughts stored up until “the right time” isn’t easy, especially when so many other things currently compete for headspace. Instead of putting it off further (and thus building up the finished product in my head and making me even less likely to ever start for fear of failure), I’m putting those thoughts down now, inspired by a friend’s post(s) on writing mentors. Imperfect, but better that than unwritten.

I met Cat Valente through her work, specifically the first volume of her Orphan’s Tales, In the Night Garden. It was the spring of 2009. I was winding toward the end of my first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program. As a cursory attempt to dive into the breadth of speculative fiction, I’d spent the previous few months familiarizing myself with some of the genre’s different strands: steampunk, interstitial, space opera, slipstream, and cyberpunk. By that point I was several years removed from finishing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; I knew I wanted to read more work that drew on myth, fairy tales, and folklore so that those influences would find their way into my own writing. Saving the best for last—so I hoped—I chose Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Valente’s In the Night Garden as my semester’s final readings.

I can say without exaggeration: those books changed my life.

It was only an odd kind of luck that put those books on my radar. At my MFA residency that began the semester, everyone seemed to be talking about Angela Carter. I like to think of myself as fairly well-read, so the fact that I’d never heard of her before, even in passing, rankled. I decided there and then to remedy the oversight. (Maybe I’ll write about Carter in a future post.) As for The Orphan’s Tales, I vaguely remembered all the praise the books received when they debuted a few years prior, and I thought they had something to do with fairy tales. They did indeed and I could, so went my thinking, read another new-to-me author, a bonus that squared well with my goal of exploring spec fic. When I think now of all the fairy tale fiction I could have stumbled upon instead—the anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, the vast number of retellings, and of course the wonder-tales themselves—I reel with the possibilities.

It’s been six years since I’ve read In the Night Garden, so my memory has unsurprisingly grown hazy with time, but I remember my reactions to it. I felt a kind of intoxication with her prose, to the point I found myself occasionally wishing for a page without a simile or metaphor. (I’m sure the book had plenty of such pages, but to me, I felt saturated by the richness and density of it all.) The frustration, though, was infrequent; far more often the beauty of the language struck me so much I could only read a little at a time, the better to process, to digest. I was dizzied and dazzled by the structure, nested stories within stories, each distinct enough that I rarely felt lost. (For a visual breakdown of these interconnections, see my friend Robert’s insightful post.) I could not then, and cannot now, totally comprehend how she envisioned that, let alone how she pulled it off so it felt natural. And I was amused by her sly commentary on fantasy’s tropes and mechanisms, touches of meta that felt of a piece with the world she’d created, luring you in with its (false) sense of familiarity only to up-end the whole thing time after time.*

No sooner did I finish the book than I had to start preparing for the MFA summer residency and line up classes for the fall (the life of an adjunct!). So I didn’t—still haven’t—finished the series. But I found a writer I wanted to know more about, to read more from. I was a fan.

I didn’t immediately seek out more of her work because, being enrolled in the MFA, I tried to expand my horizons, which to me meant finding other authors, other books. But three important events followed my encounter with Valente’s work. One, when the MFA director encouraged students to recommend visiting writers, I suggested Valente since she lived in Maine (not far from the program’s main site) and she wrote fiction and poetry, which seemed to go well with Stonecoast’s cross-genre emphasis. Two, I started following her LiveJournal. And finally, I met Valente, if only briefly.

I’d gotten some sense of Valente’s preoccupations through her novel, but her blogging felt so much more direct and raw. Though not as prolific now as she used to be, Valente imbues her nonfiction with the same qualities as her fiction: a gift for metaphor, a fascination with the stories we tell and how and why (which also means taking them apart and putting them back together with new bits), a compelling voice, and a refusal to flinch from harsh truth or sensitive material. I’m usually wary of published work that’s also available online, but when she announced she’d release a collection of her posts in book form, I knew I’d add it to my shelf because I wanted her work at hand, tangible.

Besides the movement of her mind, her journal also offered glimpses of her relationship with fans. Her comment threads could reach into the triple digits, and many of the comments were hers, engaging with her fans’ questions and expressions of gratitude for articulating something they didn’t know they felt. I got to know the puppeteer, and that made me more eager to attend her next performance.

That next performance wasn’t long after I’d read that novel. Stonecoast, my MFA program, is magic. As proof of that, one of the students helped set up a salon with the Interstitial Arts Foundation in the same town as my first summer residency. One of my friends, a fellow Stonecoast student, had recently gotten a story accepted for the IAF’s second Interfictions, so he’d be reading along with—you guessed it—Cat Valente, who’d had a story in the first Interfictions. I found this out days before heading north, so I packed my copies of The Orphan’s Tales for her to sign and tried to keep my anticipation in check.

When I did meet her, I practiced extreme restraint. I asked her to sign my books, thanked her, and shut my mouth to keep from gushing. Sure, I wished I’d said more, felt like I could have without self-consciousness, but to my mind I’d made the right choice. I much preferred subtlety to histrionics.

The next year, as far as this particular story is concerned, was unremarkable. I read, I wrote, I taught. I read Valente’s blog regularly and kept my eyes open for anthologies she appeared in. When she decided to self-publish a collection of short stories, I bought myself a copy right away—I really got started reading spec fic with short stories and even today they’re all I feel confident writing, so I try to read whatever I can and support writers who also work in the short form. But aside from that, nothing major until late in the fall.

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my MFA thesis, I found out that Samuel Delany, who directed the creative writing program at Temple University, invited Valente to read from her latest novel. I’d also discovered that the suggestion I’d made so long ago was taken up: Cat Valente would be a visiting writer at Stonecoast in January, just in time for my final residency. As I read over the e-mail with her name on the residency schedule, I shook my head and laughed in disbelief. Friends of mine, fellow writers I’d grown to love and respect over the last two years, would get to know first-hand Cat Valente’s awesomeness. “Excited” didn’t begin to cover it.

Yet somehow when I went up to Valente after that Temple U reading, I managed—if memory serves—to conduct myself like a normal human being. We talked about the book she’d read from, the collection I had her sign, and how much I was looking forward to her Stonecoast visit in a few short months. She was gracious and charming; I didn’t feel a moment’s dissonance between the writer I read and the person she was.

That final residency was one of the most emotionally intense experiences I’ve ever had. I presented research and read fiction to my friends. I said (for-the-moment) goodbyes. And I introduced Cat Valente at her reading. Introductions are a little weird. You say nice things about someone present to other people. And, while it’s not about you, you want to do a good job, to do justice to the person you’re setting the stage for. A lot of people dug her reading and seminar; she fit in smoothly with everyone, like she’d been there for months instead of hours. She mentored a couple of students the following semester—a terrific surprise I’m unsure anyone expected—and I can only imagine what that must have been like.

If that was all Cat Valente had done for me—bookending my Stonecoast experience, two years I’ll never forget—that would be enough to earn her a place of honor among the writers I’ve encountered. But it goes beyond that. When I’ve seen her at reading since, she’s always willing to chat, patiently signing the small stack of books I’ve purchased in the interim. The more of her work I’ve read, the more I appreciate not only the richness of the prose and the uncanny way she reinvigorates old stories but also the optimism, the feminism, and the strong sense of empathy pervading her work**. I admire the productivity she manages: her first book was published in 2004 and since then she’s released about two dozen others. (The only other author represented nearly so well on my shelves is Ursula Le Guin, which I’d bet Cat would appreciate.) I admire the honesty and enthusiasm in her posts on her blog and on Twitter. The way she is in the world and the ways she encourages others to find their individuality and to own it—it’s advice we all need to be reminded of occasionally. Cat Valente may or may not be magic, but I believe she has access to magic. Read her work, speak with her, and maybe you’ll find that out for yourself. I count myself very lucky to have met her and her work.

*This review from Strange Horizons does a great job discussing how the book seamlessly handles exposition, another of its impressive feats.

**Her work would need a lengthy post to itself, if I could ever find the words for how powerful I find it.

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