An interview with Catherynne Valente

Catherynne Valente is the author of over twenty books, several novellas, and a long list of short fiction. Her most recent, The Past Is Red, a post-climate change story of the last of humanity sailing on a pile of floating garbage, has been my favorite book I’ve read this year. Her newest, Comfort Me With Apples, a genre-defying not-quite-horror not-quite-thriller not-quite-fairytale comes out November 9th. I was thrilled to get a chance to interview her.

[RHM] First off, The Past is Red was so far my favorite book of the year, and a large part of that was Tetley’s voice. How did you know you had the voice right? Was it difficult coming back to that specific voice after the initial novelette?

Author Catherynne Valente[CV] The voice arrived in my head with the first line of the short story and simply never left. Tetley was her own self from the jump, and I just followed where she led. I’ve always felt odd about other writers saying that—we make our characters, we are in control! But now I have to eat garbage-crow, because Tetley just appeared in my skull like Athena, determined to crack her way out. The story lives or dies on Tetley’s voice, if you like it, you’re in, if you don’t, my apologies. It’s also the most fun to write—the dichotomy between her joyful love of the world and conviction that it, and the people in it, is good and right, contrasted with the absolute grim horror of the reality of that world as it exists around her is pretty endlessly fertile ground.

That said, it was a bit tough getting back into that voice. I wrote The Future Is Blue, the first quarter of this volume, in the beginning of 2016. I wrote The Past Is Red in 2020. A LOT HAPPENED TO MY OPTIMISM GLANDS IN THAT TIME. It felt daunting to climb Mt. Joyful Girl again, and I wondered if I could get it back, make it last for much, much longer than a short story. The concepts of Mister and Big Red Mars pulled me through. I knew if I could get to them, I could pull it off. So Tetley is perhaps a little more cynical, a little more damaged, but her core is as it always was, a big summer sun shining on literal Sesame Street.

[RHM] With The Past is Red and Comfort Me With Apples coming out so close together, what scenes from each would you use to pitch new readers to pick them up?

[CV] I usually use the participation trophies scene to sell people on The Past Is Red. I knew I would the day I wrote it—being a writer sometimes involves that kind of time travel. It re-frames the oft-mocked concept of participation trophies through the eyes of someone just trying to eat enough to survive, who sees them literally and unquestioningly, not as something stupid and wasteful, but as something extraordinary. Stripped of cultural context, participation trophies shine.

Comfort me with Apples by Catherynne ValenteComfort Me With Apples is a tough one because it has such a massive twist that we’ve worked so hard not to spoil in the lead-up to its release (and reviewers have kindly helped out!) so I would likely just read the first chapter, which sets up Sophia and her ever-so-slightly off existence, as well as the first of the hilariously specific HOA bylaws she lives under. All without giving away the game.

[RHM] Your writing tends to have a lot of voice, but this was purposefully reduced in Comfort Me With Apples, as Sophia has a more muted, naive personality than many of your protagonists. How hard was it to write a more stripped-down story?

[CV] It wasn’t at all, really. The voice serves the story, it’s not idiosyncratic for its own sake. Because of who Sophia is and what is happening to her, as well as the literary magic trick I’m trying to pull off, her voice couldn’t be too specific, or it would cease to feel in any way universal. Too much style would obscure this story, which takes its tone from more traditional suburban thrillers.

I wrote Apples very quickly, it was very much all there before I set one word to paper. I think the stripped-down style was also helped by two things: one, I had done some media tie-in work recently, which requires pulling back on my own signature stylings quite a bit, so I was in good practice. But also, to be blunt, I had had a baby about a year before and I was just tired. I’m still tired! Which I think is weirdly serving me pretty well! The tired balances out my predilection for purple prose and makes everything run damn smooth and just terribly accessible. Because I think we’re all tired at this point.

[RHM] Given Sophia’s personality, were you worried about people’s reactions to her?

[CV] I mean, it nearly killed me to write a perfect housewife who is so entirely fulfilled by that. Sophia might be the most alien character I’ve ever created—at least, alien to me. But I think that pretty quickly, she becomes sympathetic, as her world starts to crumble and she takes on some agency seeking after the truth. I don’t know if people will love her the way they love Tetley, but I feel pretty confident they will feel sorry for her, and that’s good enough for government work.

There is a certain demographic I suspect will hate this book, but they don’t usually go in for my work, anyway.

[RHM] Both The Past is Red and Comfort Me With Apples are quick reads. Was there much cut from either of them?

[CV] Absolutely nothing, to be completely honest. They are both very lean and close to the bone, not a word wasted. With novels, I often have deleted scenes or alternate versions of chapters, with both these books, I have no scraps.

[RHM] You’ve mentioned The Refrigerator Monologues was inspired by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and The Future is Blue was inspired by The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Drowned Worlds anthology. What was the moment of inspiration for Comfort Me With Apples?

[CV] Erm. Well. I can’t exactly tell you! Because spoilers! Let’s just delicately say that in researching another book I came across a piece of mythological/folkloric tale I had never heard of before. I made a cynical joke about it to my empty office, and that joke became Comfort Me With Apples.

The past is red by Catherynne Valente[RHM] Your work jumps around constantly, from myth to superheroes, science fiction to fantasy, comedy to horror, and middle-grade to adult. What do you enjoy about this? Is there a genre or a tone you prefer? Is there a particular kind of story you’d still like to try out?

[CV] It’s very important to me to always be trying something new, pushing the edges of my skill level, challenging myself. Which is a lot of positive spin on: I have severe ADHD and it literally kills my soul to do the same thing twice.

As far as genre and tone—usually my favorite is what I’m working with when someone asks. I enjoy the more comedic tone of Space Opera and Refrigerator Monologues (and Past Is Red to a slightly lesser extent) quite a bit these days, though.

If I haven’t tried it yet, I still want to try it out! Except realism. Ew. No thank you.

[RHM] Given how much your work jumps around, how do you know which project to take on next?

[CV] Whichever editor is currently yelling the loudest calls the lineup.

Not a joke, just a fact.

[RHM] Are there any themes that you find yourself mining repeatedly, consciously or unconsciously?

[CV] Oh good lord I’ll be dead in the ground before I stop hauling Persephone out of the underworld to be a motif. I seem to be fully unable to knock that off.

[RHM] You wrote tie-ins for both Mass Effect and Minecraft. Can you tell us about how writing those books is different from writing your own fiction? Is there another franchise you’d love to work in? (Also, Yorrik was the best.)

[CV] I’d love to write for Doctor Who, or perhaps less obviously on-brand, Terminator. I suppose the happiest I could be with other people’s IP would be getting a call to work on something Star Trek-related.

The major difference is literally no one cares how pretty I can make a sentence. It’s about the story, it’s about the world, it’s about being face-paced and exciting and accessible. That challenge is why I took those two projects in the first place—basically, I got paid to take a couple of classes in commercial writing.

[RHM] What books have impressed you recently?

[CV] Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow, and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

[RHM] Other than ‘read a lot’ and ‘write a lot’ what’s your best advice for writers?

[CV] Well, that’s two of the big guns. I suppose it would be: you can never tell what the market is going to want. You can’t tell today, but you especially can’t two years from now when a book sold today might actually come out. So you might as well be yourself, write what moves you and what excites you, no matter how weird it is, because unique and authentic always sells.

[RHM] And finally, what can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

[CV] I’m working on the sequel to Space Opera, Space Oddity! I think that about says it all.

Read The Past is Red by Catherynne Valente

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Ryan is a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat. He likes, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns. You can find him as unconundrum on reddit.

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