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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat with Author/Editor Cat Valente

Cat Valente’s nine novels include The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Habitation of The Blessed, Under the Mere, The Labyrinth and Deathless. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Steampunk Tales, Fantasy Magazine and Lone Star Stories, amongst others.  She is also Fiction Editor at Apex Magazine. Find her online at, on Facebook and on Twitter as @catvalente.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you always a fan of speculative fiction?

Cat Valente: I started out in poetry, and when I was 22 decided I’d try fiction, to see if I could. I had heard about Nanowrimo, but being 22 and full of piss and vinegar, decided to do it in October, and in 10 days. That was The Labyrinth. Fiction was kinder to me than poetry. I had a few published in dinky journals. Then a small chapbook just before Labyrinth came out.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors/influences growing up?

CV: Mostly poets really. Sylvia Plath, TS Eliot, Lorca, and then Anais Nin and Henry Miller, Tolkien, Grimm, Andersen. The truth is I read everything I could get my hands on, even cereal boxes.  I should mention Under Milk Wood, The Breats of Tiresias, and Skin of Our Teeth, 3 hugely influential plays for me.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did it take you to find an agent and publisher for your first book?

CV: From the time I finished Labyrinth in 2002…well, it came out in 2004. But I didn’t get an agent till Orphan’s Tales. I did three small press novels before being picked up by Juliet Ulman at Bantam.

SFFWRTCHT: How much difference is there now with an agent than before without an agent?

CV: Really rather a lot. My agent is amazing, and does a tremendous amount of work for me. I’d be lost without him.

SFFWRTCHT: Your current novel is from Tor and titled Deathless and is based on a Russian folkstory?

CV: Yes, on the story of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, but it’s set in the Stalinist era/WWII.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you go to Russia to do research? How did you learn about Marya Morevna? And where did the idea for the novel originate?

CV: I went to Russia (somewhat notoriously) for my honeymoon. Marya I learned about from my husband, who read me the tale. Here’s an essay about the kernel of the Deathless idea.

SFFWRTCHT: What made you choose the Stalinist time period for Deathless? How much research did you do to capture the historical period?

CV: Magical realism often results when governments begin to engage in magical thinking. I’m interested in that point. My husband’s family lived with us for several years; their stories were astonishing–combination of that and book research.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about the domovoiâ kind of Russian house fairies of a sort?

CV: They’re house elves, though not like Dobby, more troll-like. They cause mischief but also protect a house.

SFFWRTCHT: What are some of the other significant Russian folk tropes you use?

CV: The novel is full of firebirds and leshy and of course Baba Yaga and Koschei, magical horses and prophetic birds.

SFFWRTCHT: Your descriptions are vivid, detailed in scope and remind me of Brazilian author Jorge Amado. Are you a visual person?

CV: I am, very much. If I could draw worth a damn, I’d have been a painter.

SFFWRTCHT: Was the book your first visit to this world or have you done short stories in that world/period?

CV: I wrote “Urchins, While Swimming,” a short story set in Leningrad–the protagonist has a cameo in Deathless.

SFFWRTCHT: You also meld folklore with the present in your story in “Teeth.” How did that story come about?

CV: Scout, in the “Teeth” story, is based on my sister, and wanting a non-geek protagonist.

SFFWRTCHT: What themes resonated with you most in learning about the Russian culture as compared to our own?

CV: A combination of humor and fatalism, the black wry wit, and the joy in the face of a certainty that life goes poorly. In American culture we tend to enforce optimism and narratives of wealth and gain–they’re lies but we never say so.

SFFWRTCHT: Having studied the WWII Jewish Ghettos, I was fascinated by the descriptions of so many families sharing a house.

CV: Yes, I mean, that’s very much a part of real history. Major portions of Deathless are.

SFFWRTCHT: Is this the end of the story or do you have plans to do a sequel or more stories?

CV: I would like to do a companion novel–not a sequel, but a parallel book, a diptych. About the children’s evacuation of Leningrad, based on Ivan and the Firebird.

SFFWRTCHT: I do want to talk a bit about Apex. You have been Fiction Editor there for a while. How did that come about?

CV: Well, they offered, and I said yes?

SFFWRTCHT: Surprising how that works, huh? Did you have a desire to be an editor? Any training?

CV: No. I hope I’ve done ok despite not having any formal editing training!

SFFWRTCHT: I’ve heard nothing but compliments. What kinds of elements do you think define Apex stories? Or is there a type?

CV: I don’t think there’s a type–I’m looking for something that arrests me. I think all editors want that.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you think editing has improved your writing?

CV: I’m not sure. It probably makes me more hesitant writing short fiction, seeing what doesn’t work all the time.

SFFWRTCHT: How did that Arab/Muslim issue come about? It has been hailed by many. Great stories in there.

CV: It was a response to the Elizabeth Moon debacle, trying to do something positive in that mess.

SFFWRTCHT: Any indication as to when the next themed issue is going to be and what that theme is?

CV: Soon, I think. A non-American authors issue.

SFFWRTCHT: Who have been some of your mentors?

CV: Jeff Vandermeer has been an Science Fiction godfather to me from the beginning. Also I look up awfully to Maureen McHugh.

SFFWRTCHT: How have you gone about developing your craft since switching from poetry? Workshops? Trial and error?

CV: Mostly trial and error. I’ve gone to a few workshops like Rio Hondo and Blue Heaven, but before publication, none.

SFFWRTCHT: Are you part of any crit group, or have a bunch of writerly friends that read for each other?

CV: I have a few beta readers, and am looking for a good pro crit group. It’s as hard as finding a mate!

SFFWRTCHT: What subjects are you yearning to tackle next?

CV: I am obsessed with lots of things! All my books are working out obsessions.

SFFWRTCHT: There’s playful, poetic development in your novels; not really a progression, but a more diverse command of language. How has your background as a poet informed your fiction writing? Has fiction informed your poetry?

CV: I’m learning, really, as I go. Six years ago I had no idea how to write a novel. Of course that isn’t always bad.

SFFWRTCHT: You do a lot of traveling, do you get inspiration from being away from home or is it easier to find ideas at home?

CV: Oh definitely. Part of why I love travel, I always spark and spin in new places.

SFFWRTCHT: With your busy schedule how do you schedule writing? is it daily or is it bursts of words at random times?

CV: I try to write during the regular business day, to keep myself sane and able to engage with other humans. Daily when I’m on deadline, less when I’m not. I need breaks too!

SFFWRTCHT: Do you write in Word or use a specialty software like Scrivener? Have any special disciplines or habits we might learn from?

CV: I use Scrivener.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you do character sketches and/or outlines or are you a “let the story unfold as it will” writer?

CV: No, I’m a very seat of my pants writer. Or an organic one if you want to be fancy. I rarely even keep notes. With Fairyland I outline heavily, but otherwise, I feel I need to move through it as a reader. It feels easier to keep it all in my head and just write than to outline.

SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?

CV: About a year to dream it up, 4-6 weeks to write.

SFFWRTCHT: Will we be seeing a paperback edition of Ventriloquism or another short story collection soon?

CV: An e-edition in the new year, paperback is unlikely given the publishing climate.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you tend to write out lessons you hope others will learn or just let those things come out on their own?

CV: I don’t really write with a moral in mind, no. I express what I can, and people take from it what they can.

SFFWRTCHT: Are there any particular issues in life/lessons you’ve been able to work through in your writing and come to terms with?

CV: I think loss of blood family and the finding of tribe are major themes in my work, which reflect my own life.

SFFWRTCHT: You’re married to a foreigner. I was. How do the cross cultural living experiences infuse your characters and writing? Do you find that challenges you to look at characters and POV in new ways?

CV: Absolutely. Obviously the Russian influence is strong. And living with someone with very different assumptions.

SFFWRTCHT: Any thoughts on the future of publishing and how it’s changing with the rise of the e-book?

CV: I think the hybrid approach will go on for some time. People won’t stop reading. It’s up to us to innovate.

SFFWRTCHT: What other projects can we look forward to from you after Deathless?

CV: The Fairyland sequel will be out next year–and I’m working a couple of new things I hope will sell.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the forthcoming space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

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