Music and Myth: A Conversation with Charles de Lint
by James Palmer
Originally published in The Internet Review of Science Fiction
Charles de Lint is an award-winning author who uses myth in a modern-day setting for his stories and novels, many of which are set in the fictional city of Newford. Here Faerie hold court in shopping malls, and a pair of girls who might be birds—or birds who might be girls—watch you from their favorite tree. His books include Someplace To Be Flying, Jack the Giant Killer, the short story collection Moonlight & Vines, The Onion Girl, Spirits in the Wires, and his new book, Widdershins, which has just been released by Tor. Charles is also an accomplished musician, singer and songwriter, and writes a book review column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He lives in Canada with his wife, artist and musician MaryAnn Harris.
This interview was conducted at the 2006 Mythic Journeys conference in Atlanta, Georgia.
James Palmer: I don’t typically read fantasy, but I like your work. Has anyone else reacted to your work in that way?
Charles de Lint: I get that all the time, actually. I have a lot of fantasy readers who like my stuff, but I have a lot of people who are introduced to fantasy through my writing. It’s usually somebody they know will say, “I know you don’t read fantasy, but try this book.” And they will buy as many books as they can find. I had a great review that said that I write fantasy for people who don’t normally read fantasy fiction. But obviously I want to have fantasy readers as well. I’m a great fantasy reader, so I don’t want to lose that crowd. Most of the world doesn’t read it, so I’d like to think that I can get them to as well.
JP: I read “Timeskip,” which is your first Newford story, in the Post Mortem anthology, which was published way back in 1989. Did you know when you wrote that story that you were still going to be writing about this place and these characters?
CdL: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I just wanted to write in a big, urban setting with a lot of urban decay that I don’t have in Ottawa. I hadn’t lived long enough in any place to feel comfortable writing about it because I’d get called, you know, someone would say, “Well, you know, that one-way street goes the other way, or, what do you mean there’s a museum right there?”—that kind of stuff. So I thought I’d just write the short story and set it in a made-up city, and I’ll just take whatever I need from all the ones I have visited. I had actually been to large urban centers, but didn’t have the familiarity to write about a real one. And I didn’t actually give that place a name until four or five stories in. I wrote “Timeskip,” and then I can’t remember what the next one was—I think it was “Freewheeling” or something like that—but all of them got set in the same setting because it was fun, and it kind of grew from there.
JP: Did you intend to return to those same characters over and over again?
CdL: Once I started to realize what I was doing, I realized that I wanted to have the background to be like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover or Ed McBain’s—I can’t remember what the city was, but he had like an imaginary city as well. It’s been done a lot. So the series is the background, the connective series. And in the short stories I’ll often return to different characters, and they would often be in the background of the books. Most of the novels, up until the last three, always had new characters as the leads, and then this repertory company would show up to fill little bits and pieces in the background. It was just a way for me to keep up with what they were doing. And the readers seem to like it as well. And it also makes the collections when they come out—and they’re not cobbled-together novels by any means—but they have a connective flow to them because there’s the setting and you meet a secondary character in the first story and in the seventh story they’re the main character. It’s just kind of fun. I know readers enjoy it; I certainly enjoy writing it.
It’s just in the last three books that I’ve done novels about those characters, and in fact Widdershins is the last book I’m doing with those characters. I’m gonna go back to what I was doing before: new characters every book.
JP: Set in Newford, or different places?
CdL: Possibly, yeah. Probably. The next few are set in Newford or the area around. For now. But those characters are beginning to carry too much baggage around with them, and I don’t want people to think that they have to read the books in any particular order or that they have to have read something else beforehand. Obviously, there are going to be nuances that you pick up if you’re familiar with everything and have read them in the order they got published, but I don’t want it to be the criteria, ’cause people get turned off, like a new person starts a book and goes, “I don’t want to start that, that’s book twenty-three in a series.” And I don’t want to be that person. I want to be that person. I want to be the kind of person who sees a book and if it looks interesting, you can read it and not have any familiarity with anything else I’ve written.
JP: Who is your favorite Newford character?
CdL: Oh, it’s probably Jilly. I like her a lot. But all the characters are actually part of me. People often say, “Which character is the closest to you?” And none of them are the closest to me, but there are bits and pieces of me in all of them. That’s what a writer does. We’re more like character actors, at least that’s how I write. I write from a specific viewpoint, and when I’m in that viewpoint it’s like I’m pretending to be that character so that I can feel what they would feel or think what they would think. It just makes it easier for me to write it, and it’s the way I like to read books too. I like to read books that are specifically in a point of view and you stick to that point of view until you shift to the next point of view.
JP: Who are you reading now, or what type of stuff do you read?
CdL: Well, my favorite writer is a woman named Alice Hoffman. She’s a mainstream writer, but she always has little touches of magical things going on, ghosts and things. And they’re always very subtle but they’re there. One of my favorite writers is Terri Windling. I just adore her book The Wood Wife. It’s a great book. And in that vein I like Holly Black’s books a lot, Valiant and Tithe. Right this moment I’m reading a book by Mark Chadborne from England. It’s called World’s End, I think. It’s a pretty fascinating kind of urban fantasy. It’s basically, the Age of Reason has ended, and the new age of magic has started. It’s also kind of dark and scary, but it’s interesting. I read all kinds of stuff. I love hard-boiled mysteries like Andrew Vachss or Dennis Lehane, so I’m all over the place.
JP: What is it about myth and fantasy that captivate us?
CdL: I don’t know how it captivates other people, but for me it’s another way of looking at the world. I just like the idea of there being something a little more. I don’t actually have experiences like the characters in my books have had, but I always kind of feel that there is more there. I always feel that there is a curtain, you know, that if I could just peek behind the curtain I’d see how the world really works. And since I haven’t had it I have to write about it instead. And I guess myth and those old stories are a great way to just kinda get directions, you know, in terms of individual challenges and ways of keeping communities together and that sort of thing. I like that. It’s a good reminder of the connectedness of things. And so, when you see how everything’s connected you kinda pay more attention to what you’re doing. It’s like that chaos theory thing, you know, the butterfly flaps its wings in China and there’s a storm in Georgia. So everything is connected, so it’s a good reminder of that kind of thing, that everything you do has repercussions. In myth they’re overblown, but that’s the drama that makes a good story. You can see smaller versions of that kind of thing in regular life.
JP: Since we’re attending a conference on myth and imagination, why are those things important to today’s society?
CdL: They’re important because we don’t have them in our lives. People nowadays grew up with, and the ideals that they have, are rock stars and super models and actors and sports figures. And they don’t sustain the ideal because they’re fallible. The characters of myth or the characters of legend are great ideals in terms of the right way to sort of live your life. Again, it goes back to that same thing about repercussions and how everything you do is gonna have an effect somewhere and so you should maybe pay attention to that. The idea of respecting everything that’s around you, not just yourselves, your family, your friends, but also other people and the city you live in, your environment. To me, it’s all connected. I find a connection in all that sort of stuff. And I find those kind of things in mythic stories a lot. I don’t find it in the story of an actor addicted to heroin, or a sports figure who does these amazing feats then we find out that they were on steroids. I don’t find that uplifting feeling in those kinds of stories. And because the old mythic stories are kind of getting far away from where we live, that’s why it’s fun to write new stories, new stories with a mythic feel that are set in the here and now. I get so much mail from people, or I go on a book tour, and people come up to me and they’ll bring me a copy of my book Dreams Underfoot, for instance, and they’ll say, “This is the book that got me through high school,” you know, or “This is the book that got me through whatever,” and it’s very humbling, and it’s a wonderful feeling to have, that you were able to help somebody you didn’t even know, so indirectly. But it also reinforces that concept to me that the mythic material we’re working with does have impact and does have some place in the modern world.
JP: You’re also a musician. Has your music influenced your writing?
CdL: Every creative endeavor kind of bounces back and forth. You know, to me it’s all telling stories. So the music is just another way to tell a different kind of story. I’ve written a number of songs, but music is a great way for me to tell other people’s stories. So if I hear a great song by a buddy of mine, he tells great stories. This guy’s got an eye for observation and detail and a wonderful story. And I like covering some of his songs because I don’t have to write that song. I don’t have to write that story ’cause he’s done it already, but I do want to present it to another audience or to my audience. And I have lots of songwriters who are like that. People like Dave Alvin, Steve Earl, there’s all these great writers out there telling great stories. I can’t do that in my fiction, because that’s plagiarizing, but I can do that in music because I’m singing their song and they get credit for it. So that’s the connection, just the stories.
JP: So music is another way to tell a story.
CdL: It’s another way to tell a story. And it’s a way to tell a story a lot quicker, a lot more immediate, and it’s got that added impetus where people don’t even have to know the language, ’cause something comes through. I listen to a lot of Latin music, and I have no idea what they’re talking about because I unfortunately don’t speak Spanish. But I’ll be listening to a Mexican rap album, and I’m enjoying it cause I like the beat. And they could be singing about bitches and hos, but I don’t know what they’re singing about, you know. I think Spanish is a beautiful language and I’m hearing what they’re singing, and it just sounds all wonderful to me. There’s all these flourishes of mariachi horns and Spanish guitar, and a great rap beat, or hip hop sort of beat. And I’m getting a story out of it. I might not be getting the story that the musicians are putting out, but I’m still getting a story. So that’s the nice thing about music too, it kind of crosses the barriers of language.
JP: What else do you have in the works?
CdL: Well, I don’t actually talk about my books much, because I find if I talk about them I don’t want to write them anymore. I write to find out what happens. You know how you read a book? That’s what I’m doing except I’m just doing it a lot slower because it takes a lot longer to do. But Widdershins is the new book that just came out. I just turned in a book to—I kinda have three publishers that I work with—so Tor is doing Widdershins, Viking does my YA books, and I just turned in a new book to them called Little Girl Lost, and then I’m working on a long novella or a short novel for them as well called Dingo. And then I start my next Tor book.
JP: I didn’t know you did YA.
CdL: I do. So far there’s been Waifs and Strays, which is a collection, and The Blue Girl, which is a novel. Those are the original ones. These are fairly recent in the last few years, but ten or twelve years ago I did a YA called The Dreaming Place for Atheneum, but I never followed up on it. I didn’t really have an editor there, but now I have an editor, Sharyn November, at Viking Firebird. There’s no difference to me writing for kids or for adults, I just write a story. The difference would be the age of the protagonist. And YA stuff is great. My stuff isn’t necessarily like this, but there is some unbelievably edgy stuff. I find some of the edgiest fiction being written is in the YA market. I mentioned Holly Black. If you read her Valiant, I mean it’s like a very powerful, strong book. It’s the kind of thing ten years ago you never would have thought would have been a YA book. It’s very comfortably in that genre.
JP: And a lot of adults are reading it now, and getting the stuff that goes over the kids’ heads.
CdL: Exactly. And we have the Harry Potter books to thank for that. It kind of made people sit up and go, OK. Everybody’s gonna read YA books, not just kids.
JP: An eight-hundred-page YA book.
CdL: Yeah, yeah. They’re getting a bit too long for me. I didn’t read the last one. I read them up until the last one. Every time I look at that last one I think—’cause my reading time is very short, I don’t have a lot of leisure reading time—so I look at that big book and I think, I could read three other books, so I’m reading three other books instead.
JP: Yeah, because you have to review for F&SF.
CdL: I’m reading for F&SF, yeah. And sometimes it’s very hard to find the time to get the books read. Because I’m not gonna review something if I haven’t read it. And I don’t want to just read fantasy books either, and those have to fit within the genre confines. So I’m reading at least three fantasy books a month, which is great ’cause I love it, but then I also want to read a little broader than that.
JP: Well, that is all I have. I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.
CdL: You’re very welcome. No problem.