Monday, April 28, 2008

Interview with Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is one of the best storytellers of our time. For two decades, he has awed and delighted readers with his mythic fiction. I was sitting here trying to figure out how to adequately describe what Charles does. He writes urban fantasy like no one else, but that doesn’t really tell you anything. You can hate fantasy but love Charles’ work. Maybe his stories are so remarkable and accessible because they are so grounded in myth, grounded in those stories that make up our world; because of this and because they are also rooted in place, the stories become real to us. I suppose that is what all great writers do, but it’s more difficult when you are writing “magic.“ In other words, with most fantasy you have to suspend your disbelief. With Charles’ stories, you aren’t suspending anything; you’re going along for the ride! After reading his stories, you are certain magic does exist, right here and now, in the way the birds fly, the sun sets, and the coyotes howl in the desert.

Charles and I first became acquainted when Nina Hoffman sent me some reviews Charles had done of my short fiction. At the time I was living in Tucson getting my Master of Library Science; I was sick, miserable, and I had yet again quit writing for good and forever. I wrote to Charles after reading his kind reviews, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Before email was popular, Charles and I used to write each other long letters, snail mail. I am embarrassed now on how I would prattle on about nothing. (Not much has changed.) Life took various twists and turns and the long letters stopped, but we’ve never lost touch with each other, even though we’ve only met in person twice. I love his wife, MaryAnn Harris, and I have never met her in “real” life.

Charles has been my mentor since the beginning of our friendship. He helped me get my first agent, and he and MaryAnn were instrumental in getting Coyote Cowgirl published. What I like most about Charles’ work is the same thing I like about Charles. His stories have a kindness to them. He seems to empathize with his characters, even the ones who aren’t particularly “good.“ His stories don’t have a black or white, good vs. evil, view of the world. There is the sense that were are all kin.

Charles has published over 60 books. Eight of his books were chosen for the reader-selected Modern Library Top 100 Books of the Twentieth Century poll, conducted online by Random House. Charles won the World Fantasy Award for his short story collection Moonlight and Vines in 2000. As those of you who’ve read Charles have probably guessed, Charles is a musician, too. You can find lots more out about Charles and his work on his website. Enjoy!

Kim Antieau (KA): What was your favorite book when you were a boy?

Charles de Lint (CDL): Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the edition illustrated by Ernest Shepherd. I must have reread it a hundred times, and still go back to it. But while most people loved Toad, I much preferred the company of Ratty, Mole and Badger.

KA: Place seems to be very important in your books. Is it equally important in your life? Are you an indoor or an outdoor guy?

CDL: A bit of both. I like living in the city where I have all my books and music and can go out to buy that night’s dinner or easily see a band. But I also like the wild places, especially hiking in the desert and the Eastern woodlands. Do I have to choose?

KA: You really love the Sonoran desert. Can you tell us about the first time you went and/or what it is about this place that speaks to you?

CDL: It’s one of those inexplicable things. I remember stepping out of the airport the first time we came to Tucson (it must fifteen years or so ago, now) and I just felt like I was home. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I lived in desert country when I was a kid (Turkey, Lebanon, with lots of side trips through the Middle East and Egypt). Maybe it was from reading all those Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey westerns when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because it was once a sea and we all came from there originally.

I do know that I miss it when I’m not there. One of the main things that stops MaryAnn and I from moving to Tucson is that we can’t afford the health insurance. And MaryAnn would miss her family, who all live in or close to Ottawa.

KA: Am I remembering right that you left home when you were quite young and were on your own. Was being on your own so young a difficult thing to survive? Do you think that experience contributes to your understanding and empathy with your teen characters?

CDL: You’re right, but you know it was 1967—the Summer of Love—and things were a little different then. Sure, there were dangers and you could get into real serious trouble when you were homeless, but they pale in comparison to what the streets are like today. And there was always a sense of community. Not necessarily with everyone, but you could always find people to hook up with, share a meal and a smoke, play some music, talk into the night.

A fifteen year old hitting the streets today has a lot more dangers to face.

But that kind of experience teaches you about being hungry; about being cold and wet with no place to go; about the kindness and indifference of strangers. I also can’t pass by a homeless person without considering what put them there, because on the streets, you didn’t have to say a word to be accepted, but you could also share war stories long into the night.

KA: When did you first start writing? When did you decide you were actually going to be a writer?

CDL: It seems like I always wrote, I just didn’t think of it as a career choice. I just liked to tell myself, to pen pals (I had a lot of them, all over the world). Of course this was in the days before computers were everywhere, and anyone could access the Web. You had to make an effort keeping up a correspondence, and the arrival of the mail once a day was a big deal. I think if modern technology had been around when I was a kid, I would never have left my bedroom except to take the dogs out for their run three times a day.

KA: You are a musician as well as a writer. Do you view your music as an vocation or an avocation? Or is that just such a capitalistic question? MaryAnn is also a musician, isn’t she?

CDL: We’re both musicians. I’ve been doing it for longer than she has and I think I like to play for people more than she does. She is just as happy sitting on the porch or the end of the dock up at the lake playing her mandolin with only the birds to listen to her. I like the buzz of playing with other people, for people.

It was my career choice from about fifteen on. I’ve always lived and breathed music, running off to buy a new 45 as soon as I got my allowance and playing that thing over and over for hours. I could listen to music forever, and once I started playing, I could play forever. Worked for years in a record shop, which didn’t feel like work because you were listening to and talking about music all day long. Every record store I worked in was like High Fidelity, but there aren’t many like that any more.

In my late twenties, I started trying to make a go of it as a writer and music, didn’t so much take a back seat, as become something I just liked to do.

KA: You’ve always written young adult as well as adult novels, haven’t you? Do you find the experience of writing young adult novels different from your experience of writing adult novels?

CDL: I wrote a couple before I hooked up with Viking, and also used to write stories for the kids in my life, but it wasn’t until Joe Monti (then a buyer for a big chain) got me together with Sharyn November my editor at Viking that I was able to do as much of it as I liked. And I do like it.

To me there’s no difference between writing YA and adult except that in YA I make the book a little shorter and the protagonists are teens. The difference is in the readers. I have great, responsive adult readers, but I adore the interaction with teen readers because they’re so enthusiastic about their likes and dislikes. They don’t pull punches.

These days, I find myself finishing a YA, then doing an adult novel, then back to a YA. I wouldn’t want to only do one—mostly because there are stories that work better, depending on the age of the protagonists.

KA: I’m interested in how writers actually write. Do you have an office? Do you write at a certain time of the day? If you have a regular place where you write, does that mean you have difficulty writing away from your nest? Do you write on a computer or a pad of paper. Etc.

CDL: I write on a computer, but I’ve run the complete gambit. When I was very young, I wrote with a ballpoint pen in school notebooks. Then I got pretentious and started writing with a dip pen on parchment (I wrote at least a novel-length poem that way). Moved on to a fountain pen. Then a typewriter, then an electric self-correct. Then someone gave me a word processor and I was amazed at being able to fit ten pages on one of those floppy discs. Now I work on a computer.

I have an office, and I love it, but I can write, and have written, pretty much anywhere. In airports, on planes, in cafes, at someone’s dining room table...wherever I can open up the laptop and get to work.

KA: Are you ever unsure of yourself or your writing?

CDL: All the time. I think a good writer is a mix of confidence (sure that what they’re writing is going to appeal to their readers) and uncertainty (what if all these words are crap?). If you’re too confident, you get an attitude that seeps through into your writing, affecting the characters and the story. If you’re too uncertain, you’ll never finish anything.

In the end, I can only write a story I’d like to read, do it as best as I can, and hope that others will like it, too. The good thing about this method is that, no matter what else happens, at least I’ll enjoy the process.

KA: Now for the Cosmo portion of our interview: What do you do for fun?

CDL:: I’m boring. I like to read, play music, listen to music, watch TV (my last obsession was Veronica Mars). We’ve recently added a dog to our lives, young Johnny Cash, the dog in black, a Maltese/toy poodle mix. MaryAnn and I love playing with him and walking him. Our cat Clare is still holding judgment.

Also, if we’re in any sort of wild country, I love to hike. I also like painting and drawing, but I haven’t had enough time to enjoy it so much in the past few years.

KA: What’s your favorite thing to eat?

CDL: Chile rellenos at La Indita in Tucson.

KA: Do you have a favorite movie? Or are you not a movie kind of guy?

CDL: This will horrify real movie buffs who love the big screen, but I love watching home. Years ago I pretty much stopped seeing them because I just got sick of the theatre experience (the lines, the talking, the crappy theatres). Then along came Betamax (yes, I always choose the wrong format) and I was in heaven. I’ve since moved on to DVDs, which of course are on the way out now I’m sure with the advent of Blue Ray, but I doubt I’m going to switch. If DVDs become unavailable the way VHS tapes did when the big companies decided that we should only watch DVDs, I’m just going to stop buying them. I’ll still have lots of old ones to rewatch.

KA: What animal do you most relate to? (Not the animal you like the most, but which animal are you most like.)

CDL: If I say crows and coyotes, is that cheating?, considering I like them as much as I do. Or maybe a better term would be that I respect them, and they amuse me and fill me with wonder. But that’s true for pretty much every living thing.

KA: Alice Hoffman said in our interview that you can tell a lot about a person by which novel a person prefers: Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Which do you like best and what do you think that says about you?

CDL: Haven’t read either—but then I’m not necessarily as well-versed in the classics. I had terrible teachers who worked hard to kill any love for reading a kid might have, and since I never finished high school, I wasn’t exposed to them in college or university (neither of which I attended). I’ve subsequently caught up with some, but not with Bronte.

But I liked Kate Bush’s song “Wuthering Heights.”

KA: Do you have a favorite poet? If you do, who is s/he?

CDL: Wow, that’s a tough question. I’m the only person I know who goes out and buys poetry books. (Like I went and bought a little stack of books by Jimmy Santiago Baca after you told me about him—the guy’s brilliant; thanks for the tip!) Anyway, the point is, I love so many. I’ve spent many a happy hour reading Yeats, Wordsworth, the Beat poets, Leonard Cohen and the like. I’d also include people more commonly considered songwriters such as Dylan and Robin Williamson.

Currently (at the risk of sounding like I’m sucking up to you), I’m completely enamoured with your husband Mario’s work, especially the poems collected in Animal Life. Carolyn Dunn is so gifted. Gary Snyder, though I tend to read his essays more than his verse.

KA: I won’t ask you which of your novels is your favorite, but I wonder if there is a novel you love that you wish more people would notice and read?

CDL: I wish more people would read me, period. What writer doesn’t? We’re here to tell our stories to as many people as we can. I’m grateful to the readership I have—they’re loyal to a fault—but I also know that there’s a whole mainstream market I could tap into if I could only let them know I existed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a letter, or someone’s come up to me at a signing, to tell me that they don’t normally read fantasy, but after they read (insert title of whatever book it happened to be) they went out and bought all the others they could find.

That’s gold, for a writer to hear that. But also frustrating because you know you could connect to so many more people.

And I actually have favourite books, but they’re favourites for various reasons other than quality, usually because I tried something different and it worked. I often cite Dreams Underfoot as my favourite because it’s where I learned to write short stories, and it’s also where I learned that one doesn’t need a linear plot, or a clear antagonist, to tell a story that works.

KA: Does MaryAnn ever suggest story ideas to you?

CDL: All the time. Or she’ll point something out in a ms. that will take the story to a better and different place.

KA: Do you want to tell us what you’re working on now?

CDL: Right at this moment I’m in the wonderful position of not being under contract to anyone (though I have a number of offers that my agent’s hammering out), so I’m just writing a story for the fun of it. It’s YA, set in the southwest, with Chinese dragons and bandas and narcocorridos. Maybe it’ll fit one of the upcoming contracts, maybe it won’t, but I’m having fun writing it.

I’d give you more details, but I don’t really talk about what I’m working on because if I tell the story, then I don’t feel like writing it anymore.

KA: I understand. I'm the same way. Thanks so much, Charles! Love to MaryAnn.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another great interview. This also spoke to me because I have the same sort of friendship with British writer, John Rowe Townsend (and his partner Jill Paton Walsh). We've only met once, last year, but we have been corresponding for sixteen years. I have to admit that I don't read much fantasy, but I'll go find something by Mr. de Lint right now. And you can add John Rowe Townsend to your reading list if you like! Thanks, Kim.


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