Alternate History is a Tricky Thing: An Interview With Catherynne M. Valente, Author Of Radiance
To say that Catherynne M. Valente’s fiction eludes easy classification would be the very definition of an understatement. She’s written a hallucinatory novel of a city that spreads via a tattoo (Palimpsest), a decades-long epic encompassing Russian folklore and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union (Deathless), and an acclaimed series for middle-grade readers, the Fairyland books. And her latest novel is unlike anything that’s come before: Radiance (Tor Books 2015), a novel that blends aspects of space opera, cinematic history, and alternate history.
Radiance is set in a world where space travel began much earlier than in our world, where humans have colonized the solar system, and where massive Venusian creatures called callowhales prompt mystery and obsession. At the center of the novel is a documentary filmmaker named Severin Unck, daughter of an acclaimed director, who vanishes while making a film under particularly mysterious circumstances. The story of her life, her disappearance, and her world is told through an array of ornately arranged storytelling devices; the result is a stunningly structured narrative. I spoke with Valente about the process of writing Radiance, her cinematic inspirations, and how her childhood fondness for horror fiction inspired aspects of the book.
Tobias Carroll: In Radiance, there’s a lot of discussion of film, and in the acknowledgements, you mentioned being the daughter of a filmmaker. Where do your own tastes in film fall?
Catherynne M. Valente: Oh, all over the place. My parents met at UCLA, where my dad was in film school. When I was born–I was a happy accident–he went into advertising instead of continuing with a film career. But really, nobody will make kids watch movies like someone who comes from that background. So my siblings and I had such an incredibly diverse film education from the time we were very young. I had no real censors. The rule was, if you’re scared, just say so, and the movie will stop. So I saw everything. And I loved it all, from Freaks to Ridley Scott’s Alien and everything in between. I’m very omnivorous.
TC: There are a couple of epigraphs in the novel from filmmakers in our world. When you were writing the book, were you looking at it as a case where these people also existed in that world, or was it not so much of a one-to-one correlation?
CMV: I wanted to leave it ambiguous, whether the alternate history was alt enough that Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin and George Eastman would exist in that world, or whether they’re being replaced by my characters. Every one of the epigrams–and I love epigrams, I got to indulge that in a way that I hadn’t yet in this book…Every one of the epigrams has a filmmaker or photographer, an actor, and then, usually, something that is neither–Homer or Ovid or something of that nature. I would like to believe that there could be a Charlie Chaplin, but also that there are my various characters as well. Alternate history is a tricky thing like that. If the timeline is so completely altered that space travel is possible in the 40s, was someone named Charles Chaplin ever actually born? Who can say?
TC: Did you come up with the broad strokes of the alternate timeline first, or did you have more of a specific sense of what was and what was not different on Earth?
CMV: I started out with the core of the idea, that I wanted to have space travel in the 20s and 30s and 40s. One of the most enjoyable afternoons that I have ever spent–a couple of my friends who are obsessed with late 19th century and early 20th century history came to my house, and we formed a circle, and for about six hours discussed how history would fork if space travel began around 1870. And how the various political entities would behave in that situation, who would survive, who wouldn’t, of the colonial powers, and how the colonized countries would be affected by that. In 1870, you’re talking about the frontier in America and the political revolutions of 1848, but not up to the big empire-ending 20th century. So I did have it all worked out, very specifically, before writing the book.
TC: Is this a world that you can see yourself returning to for other works?
CMV: I would love to return to this world. I don’t have any particular ideas for it at the moment. Without spoilers, I think that in the ending, there are a lot of hints of where things are going to go in the future of this universe and this timeline. If I ever have an idea that necessitates going back to it, I would love to. I love this world, and I love this culture, and I love the characters. I would love to return to it at some point, but I don’t have any plans for it right now.
TC: When you’re describing the first trip into space, I found myself thinking of Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon. What first drew you to that particular vision of space travel?
I had these two ideas: I wanted to write something about film, and I wanted to write something with a watery Venus…
CMV: I’m not actually sure that I completely remember, other than that steampunk was really popular when I was just starting to write it at night. I had these two ideas: I wanted to write something about film, and I wanted to write something with a watery Venus, the way a lot of the pulp writers had many, many decades ago. When I started thinking about the kind of culture that I wanted to place in that story, and who I wanted to go to those worlds, I think the popularity of steampunk probably got in the back of my head. I wanted to do something alternate-history but different from what was being done. I wasn’t as interested in Victorian England as a lot of people were. The 20s have been a favorite period of mine for a long time. The action of the book takes place in the 40s, but almost everyone in the book grew up during the 20s, and that very much affects their lives and their outlooks. It really fit perfectly for me.
I wrote the short story that this is based on in 2008. By now, seven years later, it seems perfectly natural that Radiance is an Art Deco book–how could it ever have been anything else? I don’t really remember the thought process, other than wanting to look at other periods of history and punkifying them. Metropolis is another one that was a huge influence on me, film-wise.
TC: In the opening, with scenes of images flickering over bodies, I was reminded of some of the imagery that you used in Palimpsest, and in the way that the film takes on a metafictional element, I was reminded of aspects of The Habitation of the Blessed. Did you see this book as a way to approach certain themes and ideas from a different angle than you had previously?
…Radiance is a departure in that it focuses on visual storytelling, rather than words.
CMV: I certainly think that Radiance is a departure, in a lot of ways. There are all kinds of things that I hadn’t done before in a novel. In a strange sense, it’s more realistic than a lot of the books I’ve written. There’s murder and jealousy and very straightforward storytelling, rather than some of the more abstract and oblique things that I’ve done before. But of course, every writer returns to certain images that they find fascinating. I certainly find the intersection of the body and storytelling to be something that I return to a lot. Hopefully, that I return to it in different ways. But I think that Radiance is a departure in that it focuses on visual storytelling, rather than words. Even down to the calligraphy, the building blocks of putting the story together, the strokes of the letters–I’ve written about that, and to some extent fetishized it, in all of my books, I think. This is the first time I’ve turned it around and made it about a completely different medium, one that I don’t work in. Obviously, I’ve never made a movie, and it’s not as intimately connected to me as writing is. But in a different way, it’s very intimately connected to me. I do think it’s different.
TC: You use the screenplay format for a few of the segments in Radiance. How did you find the right balance between different styles of storytelling, and translating one medium into another?
CMV: It was really hard, and there are a lot of failures on my hard drive. If you’re writing a book about moviemaking, you don’t want it to sound like you’d rather be writing a movie. I went around and around about how to communicate that, not only how the films in this universe are very different from the films in our universe, but to communicate the number of films that are part of the narrative in this book. I kept coming back to wanting to make a narrative of what was on the screen; I kept thinking that was really the way to do it, in a lot of ways. And that’s what I ended up with for the core narrative, of Severin’s father trying to make this film about what happened to his daughter and going through all of the genres, and trying to find some…not factual truth, but narrative truth, of a mystery that he can’t solve.
TC: I really enjoyed the interstitial moments: the radio dramas, the advertisements that ran before films that suggested an even greater depth to this universe. How did you fit each of those into the right place?
CMV: Those were some of the most fun things to write. Essentially–it may seem like there are a lot of different types of storytelling thrown at the wall, but it’s not the case. Each part is actually quite tightly structured, in the order of the types of storytelling. There are four main narratives: Severin, Anchises, Mary, and Erasmo. And within their storylines are interspersed these ephemera from the culture, and–yeah, I used them for exposition, because exposition is always difficult, and it’s more fun if you can use an animated whale to give the exposition.
I thought about what I wanted to explore as a storyteller. I knew, from the beginning, that I wanted to have a popular radio play in it. That was one of the first things that I wanted to do. I love radio plays, and how completely over-the-top and melodramatic they are. You carry a huge amount of cultural information without being aware of it. I thought that that was extraordinarily useful. I would rather read about the Invisible Hussar and get information about colonizing Venus from that than a huge infodump, so it seemed like a good way to go.
TC: How did the structure of the book come about? Did you try something more conventional and realize that it didn’t fit the story, as opposed to this very tightly-plotted, intricately-structured approach?
CMV: I tried to write it initially all from Anchises’s point of view, a straightforward, omniscient narrative, and it just wasn’t working. There was so much that I couldn’t even talk about when keeping to one person’s perspective. It also felt like robbing Severin of her own voice, a little bit. I kept feeling confined in my own skin with that. It just seemed small. But when I started opening it up to…not only to other voices, but to other types of storytelling–the radio plays, the advertisements, the interrogation that runs throughout the book, Erasmo’s debriefing–it seemed to pick up energy and to open up into a book that felt as big as the world did, at least to me.
TC: One of the interesting details for me in the novel was the way that the alien wildlife was named–how sometimes, they would share a name with an animal on Earth, but it would soon be clear that they didn’t resemble their namesake at all.
CMV: That comes from real life. I’ve been traveling to Australia quite a bit since the first time I went, to go to WorldCon in 2010. On that first trip, I went to the National Gallery in Melbourne, and there were many paintings done by early settlers in Australia. Not only did they call trees that were absolutely not elms and oaks and birches elms and oaks and birches, but in painting the Australian landscape, they couldn’t even conceive of the trees as they were. They looked like some sort of love child of eucalyptuses and elms, because they were so fixated on their own cultural experience of what a tree looked like. I found that completely fascinating, and I thought, this is absolutely what would happen if we started colonizing other planets. We would call things familiar things, as we always have.
It’s very natural and very unsettling and sinister that the human tendency is to look at something that they can’t categorize and slap a name that they’re completely familiar with on it so that they don’t feel quite so uncanny about it.
When one nation colonizes another, there are always very strange naming crossovers that probably should not have been crossed over like that. There are birds called magpies all over the world that are not all the same bird; they’re not even related, some of them. So I really wanted to do that. I certainly have very clear images in my own head of what those creatures look like. I mean, I crocheted a callowhale for the winner of a contest that the store that I’m doing the book launch at is doing. So you can kind of see what I imagine the main alien as being. It’s very natural and very unsettling and sinister that the human tendency is to look at something that they can’t categorize and slap a name that they’re completely familiar with on it so that they don’t feel quite so uncanny about it.
TC: I was going to ask about callowhales–throughout the book, because they’re so vast, it’s difficult for people to perceive them in total. So that struck me as I was reading the book, whether you intended for them to have a definite form.
I could never have anything in my book that I didn’t have fully-formed in my head.
CMV: I thought about, at one point, including a speculative diagram, like naturalists used. But I’m not a good enough artist. I’m just good enough to do the children’s drawings towards the end of the book, but not nearly good enough for a naturalist. But I have very clear ideas about what a callowhale looks like, and what its structure is. At least for me, I have to. I’m a very visual person, so I see it all in my head, completely realized, and the task is translating that scene onto the page. I could never have anything in my book that I didn’t have fully-formed in my head.
TC: I read Deathless a few years ago, and I was curious when reading this if any of the research you had done there into Russia in the 1940s affected the scenes in this set in Russia during a similar time?
CMV: A little bit. The thing is–one of the very first scenes in the book is the World’s Fair in 1944 being held in Moscow, and the Tsar and his wife standing on a balcony. So you can see pretty clearly that the timeline is not normal. Because of the discovery of space travel, there are a lot of major political things that either didn’t happen or happened in a very different way or, more commonly, were just delayed by the spaces involved in traveling between planets, the distances. But certainly, all of that research into life in the 40s and the political situation and all of that… It was so much research that I can’t imagine that there will be anything I write for ten years that doesn’t have some portion of that in it. Certainly, that first scene of the rocket taking off in front of the Kremlin–I think I wrote that at the same time that I was writing Deathless.
TC: Something else that you mentioned in the acknowledgements was that Roger Zelazny had been an influence on this book…
I wanted to go back to that Golden Age sensibility of, it cold be anything. It could be anything in the world.
CMV: Particularly “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth.” It’s a Hemingway-esque fishing story that’s set on Venus, where they’re fishing for this big beast. It’s so incredibly evocative and lovely. It was a bit of a touchstone for me–my Venus also has a lot of water on it. I loved those stories of the planets in our solar system, the pulp science fiction stories from before we were absolutely certain that none of those planets could support life in any way that was meaningful to us. There was a sort of wildness of imagination before we could look at very recent probe photos and see…incredible things, amazing things, extraordinary things; the Pluto footage is incredible. But it does limit us a little bit in what we imagine finding there. I wanted to go back to that Golden Age sensibility of, it cold be anything. It could be anything in the world.
TC: Are there any other contemporary works that you’d say are working in a similar vein?
CMV: One that came out as I was writing Radiance–and I went, “That’s interesting; I hope we didn’t cover any of the same territory”–was 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. And of course, we did not cover much of the same territory at all. 2312–I think it’s incredible, for one thing. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever written, and I wish that more people read it, because it is a masterwork. It also takes place over an inhabited solar system, and is a vast journey. It’s set in a future where terraforming has made those planets inhabitable to some extent. It is, very much based in what we think could happen now. It’s a completely wild and wonderful book. It also uses little bits of ephemera. I can’t possibly recommend it highly enough. It’s what comes to mind as something that hovers in the same atmosphere as Radiance, although it’s very different.
TC: You’ve now written several books in the Fairyland series; has writing those had any effect on your other fiction, or do they remain fairly separate?
CMV: It was really interesting to go back to writing adult books. With the Fairyland series having taken off in 2011, just after Deathless came out, I’ve been focused on that for quite a while. I hadn’t written an adult novel since Deathless. It was a relief to remember, “Oh! I can say ‘fuck’ again!” “I can have a sex scene! That’s okay.” I have learned a lot, I think, from writing Fairyland, and those lessons will be in every book of mine going forward. I am absolutely going to continue writing at the middle-grade level as well.
I think I’ve certainly learned a lot about writing a tight plot. Children have much less patience for meandering around the narrative than adults do. I got much more accustomed to writing tight, turning plots that have mysteries and solutions, that I hadn’t really been doing before in that sense.
TC: There is a metafictional element, in terms of the film that Severin’s father is making, atop the already rich and vast setting of Radiance. Was that something that you had planned from the outset?
Our universe is getting pretty science fictional. We always want more; we always want there to be real magic, we always want there to be real monsters.
CMV: If what you mean by metafictional is that Percival Unck makes speculative fiction in that universe, and Severin makes realistic documentaries, and that being something of a commentary on how we deal with those in our own universe–that was in it from the very beginning. It’s in the short story. It’s something that I’ve been fascinated with for a while: what is speculative fiction in a science fictional universe? Which is something we’re starting to have to deal with in a real way. Our universe is getting pretty science fictional. We always want more; we always want there to be real magic, we always want there to be real monsters. Even in a world like Radiance, where there are wonders everywhere, where there are aliens on these worlds that we can travel to, I think that people who make stories will always want something more fantastic. Longing for the fantastic is a human constant, I think.
TC: To bring it back around to the callowhales–on a very basic level, I’m fascinated and terrified by animals that are too vast to comprehend. Is that something that you also find about yourself, or were the callowhales more a case of the most fantastical creature possible in this universe?
CMV: I definitely have similar feelings. I grew up reading horror; I was obsessed with it. I started reading Stephen King when I was about nine. I found a box of Stephen King and John Saul and Dean Koontz and V.C. Andrews paperbacks in the garage; they were my stepmother’s books. I started reading them when I was about nine, which is sort of an inappropriate age to be reading those, but I loved them. Whenever I went to a bookstore, I made a beeline to that sea of black spines; you couldn’t publish a horror novel in the 80s and not have a black cover. Those were always things I was both revulsed by and thrilled by, the huge creatures beyond space and time and comprehension–Lovecraft and Stephen King’s It. There’s probably a German word for the feeling of being safe in your home but terrified of the great and deathless beyond. I definitely wanted to recapture that feeling with the callowhales.
TC: Are you working on something new now?
CMV: I’m always working on new things. I’m working on my next novel, which is a post-apocalyptic Western. I’m working on my next middle-grade novel, which is called The Lords of Glasstown, and it’s about the Brontë children. And I’m working on a superhero project as well. I’m working on a lot of things.
TC: What are you reading right now? Do you find that your reading habits change when you’re in the middle of a project?
You can’t just put internet comments and Twitter feeds into your head and expect good writing to come out.
CMV: Right now I’m reading Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot, which isn’t out until next year, and Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Reading while I’m writing is actually very important to me. If I’m not reading a novel, all I’m reading is the internet, and that’s not good. What goes in comes out. You can’t just put internet comments and Twitter feeds into your head and expect good writing to come out. So I try to always have a novel on hand when I’m reading.