One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Charles de Lint
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
One of the first names that came to mind when I was concocting this interview series was Charles de Lint, probably because (in addition to being one of my favorite writers of all time) back when I was a teen myself, his books sort of saved me. I was still in high school but not living at home when I stumbled across Moonheart, then his stories in the Bordertown anthologies, Greenmantle and Yarrow, and the two books that became Jack of Kinrowan, and those stories opened new worlds to me, new ways of thinking, in the way really extraordinary books are wont to do. Few authors have been as formative for me, both as a reader (my devotion to mythic fiction and urban fantasy post-Moonheart has never wavered) and as a human being, as Charles de Lint. The ideas I found on the streets of Newford resonated profoundly and I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that they not only guided me through some rough times, but introduced me to concepts that still influence me today.
Which is all to say that conducting this interview was a real privilege. True to form, Charles’ answers are thoughtful and thought-provoking, so I hope you’ll load up one of the demo songs on his website if you don’t have his Old Blue Truck album already, and settle in for a grand read. Thank you, Charles, for taking the time to talk with me, and for your honest, insightful, and generous answers.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
I was a misfit, but I think most teenagers feel that way. I don’t care if you were a popular jock or the kid who spent his lunch hours in a stairwell reading a book, we all seem to have dealt with insecurities of one kind or another throughout our high school years.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
The first thing I can remember wanting to be (after the usual cowboy, fireman, etc., when I was quite small) was the person who collected animals for zoos. This came from reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals and the books that followed that autobiography. The desire lasted only until I realized that animals were being pulled out of their natural habitats and stuck in cages to be peered at and prodded by people. Now, granted, Durrell went on to do excellent work in the preservation of endangered animals with his own zoo, but for me, the shine was pretty well off by that point.
In my early teens I knew what I wanted to be was a musician, and from the time I was fifteen I went on to teach myself how to play numerous instruments, then began playing with other people, eventually getting gigs and the like.
At the same time I was writing constantly—mostly poetry ranging from the sort of bastard Middle English that William Morris wrote, through free-verse beat poetry, to songs, rhyming verse and haiku.
Back then I never even considered writing a career option. I just liked the play of words. I was certainly interested in story, but the stories I was telling then were in narrative verse and prose poems, short and succinct, except for one novel-length poem written in narrative couplets.
What were your high school years like? What were you doing during those years?
Let me give you a bit of context. I’d spent my early childhood moving around with my family because of my father’s job, so school had always been difficult for me because I’d pretty much always been the new kid and a bit of a loner. When I reached my teens, my family had settled in Lucerne, Quebec, a rural area not too far from Ottawa, where I now live. I went to the local English high school, but I never liked it.
I realize this is the sort of thing that parents and teachers don’t like to hear, but you did ask. I felt different from most of the other kids there and the curriculum bored me. Halfway through I quit, left home and lived on the streets, making a living busking and panhandling. By the time I did return to home and school, my dislike of school was even stronger. I generally ignored the curriculum and most of my fellow students, skipped a lot of classes and instead spent my time reading, writing and playing music, which didn’t go over well with school officials. So, rather than finish high school, I left again and ended up getting some temporary office placements—that was a lot easier in the late sixties/early seventies than it is now—until I got my dream job, which was working in a record shop. Suddenly I was surrounded by music and by people who shared that same enthusiasm for it.
What were some of your passions during that time?
My hobbies were reading, playing music, writing poetry and songs, and writing to penpals (this was pre-Internet, so that was how you “met” other people in different parts of the world).
I mucked around a bit with the usual sports like baseball and football, but I wasn’t particularly good at any of them. I always enjoyed a pick-up game more than something organized like the Little League. But I got a lot of exercise because in that rural area where we lived, I spent literally whole days (and often part of the night) out wandering in the fields and forests around our house with the small pack of dogs we had at the time.
Books and music saved me as a teenager because it was through them that I realized that I wasn’t alone in my obsessive love for words and music. I read a lot of poetry—the beats were my favorites, but I also liked Wordsworth, Frost, ee cummings, Whitman, and the like. I also loved the lyrics of contemporary (at the time) songs—the ones that had meat or simply a lyrical beauty by artists such as Donovan, Bob Dylan, the Incredible String Band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Tim Hardin, Tom Rapp, and Leonard Cohen.
I read a lot of fiction and books on mythology and folklore, but my memory gets hazy when I try to remember what I was reading at any particular time. I know it wasn’t any one sort of book. I appreciated most of the genres, though mostly books by the classic fantasists. Tolkien, of course, but also William Morris, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, James Branch Cabell… the authors of stories that awoke and fueled my sense of wonder.
I also read a lot of non-fiction. Thoreau. Gary Snyder. Colin Wilson. Mysteries, the pulps, spy novels, westerns. Reading Louis L’Amour made me fall in love with the Southwest and the badlands before I ever travelled to either.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
Living on the street as a kid changed the way I looked at everything. It was a different time and while it had its dangers, it was nothing like it would be today. It was the Summer of Love and there was a real sense of community among us. We were hippies who looked out for each other instead of trying to rip each other off. We only had to watch out for the police who liked to roust us just on general principles, and the kids who came in from the suburbs to do a little hippie-bashing.
I can’t walk by a homeless person or panhandler today without knowing that a) they don’t want to be there, and b) they’re people and they each have a story. I’m not saying that they’re necessarily good people. I’m saying they’re individuals. Each of them is different, and for all the similarities of their experiences, each of their stories is different.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
Part of that time on the street I got involved with the Diggers in Toronto. That was a real eye-opening experience for me. The Diggers had a big house near Yorkville where people could stay if they didn’t have shelter. They provided legal and medical help and referrals to other forms of assistance. They based their philosophy on that of the original Diggers (dating back to the 1600s), who had a vision of society as free from ownership of property, and all forms of buying and selling.
I can remember going around with them at the end of the day to the back doors of restaurants, supermarkets and bakeries. We’d be given the produce and bread that was otherwise going to be thrown out, and take it back to the house to make big dinners to feed whoever showed up.
There were some older people there (and when I say “older” I mean people in their twenties) but most of it was kids helping kids. I suppose that was my first introduction to the concept of a “family of choice.”
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
It wouldn’t so much be advice as to tell him that it gets better. And no, I wouldn’t listened.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
There are always regrets, but those formative years make us who we are, and since I’m comfortable with who I am inside my skin, I wouldn’t want to change anything because then I might be somebody else.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
My unfettered optimism. I honestly thought we were going to change the world for the better. It wasn’t a matter of perhaps, or maybe, so much as when.
Every Day I Write the Book
Your newest book, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, is both an expansion of a picture book and a collaboration with artist Charles Vess. A companion novel, Seven Wild Sisters, is forthcoming in 2014 and is also heavily illustrated. Can you tell us about the genesis of these books (which were both published previously in different forms) and about the collaboration process?
I must be a terrible collaborator. The reason I say that is because I don’t like to discuss works in progress or upcoming projects. The excitement I get from writing is finding out each day what happens next. If I talk about it, I lose interest. Or worse, deliberately do something different to maintain my interest—which can often be to the detriment of the story.
Before I started working with Charles Vess, my very limited experience with collaboration was taking turns writing something with another writer (this was in my formative years as a writer and I soon stopped doing it). With artists, either I’d be given some art, or the artist would work from a finished story.
The difference with Charles Vess is that we were friends for a long time before we ever began collaborating. Of course, we had similar interests and sensibilities, as one tends to have with friends.
Our first collaboration followed a somewhat traditional path. I knew that Charles had always wanted to illustrate children’s books, but he just couldn’t seem to catch a break with publishing houses despite a heap of talent and success in related areas such as professional comic book art. So I approached my editor at Viking and offered to write a children’s picture book on spec, which they could publish if they liked it—on the one condition that Charles Vess would be the artist.
With nothing to lose, they agreed to take a look at the manuscript when I’d completed it. So Charles and I sat on his rural front porch in Virginia and started throwing around ideas. I remembered this enormous charcoal drawing I’d seen at his studio. It featured one of those classic old trees that he’s so good at depicting, with a ring of cats surrounding it. I said, let’s do a story based on that, set in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, which were across the county road from where we were sitting.
Charles, my wife MaryAnn and I then went for a long hike in those hills. Charles Vess would point out scenes he’d like to paint—a waterfall, an old abandoned homestead—and I’d make a mental note to include them in the story.
I came up with the story itself later, when I got back to Ottawa, and sent him the finished manuscript. When Viking accepted it for a picture book, Charles proceeded to paint the illustrations. It was published as A Circle of Cats, a short picture book for kids.
Our next collaborations (Seven Wild Sisters and Medicine Road) were for an older audience, and followed a somewhat similar pattern, except we talked a lot more about themes before I began writing and I broke my own writing rule and sent him chapters as I wrote them. The benefit of this was that he would return character and scene sketches which would keep me excited as I wrote. The mash-ups of my first drafts and his sketches heightened the creative experience for me.
The process changed again with The Cats of Tanglewood Forest. Charles Vess and I talked about a few ideas for things that he wanted to draw, but I went back to my customary process of finishing the story in its entirety before sharing it with anyone, even him. What can I say? I always hold my first drafts close to the chest and old habits die hard.
The illustrations that Charles did for the book are some of his best to date, and we’ve enjoyed quite a lot of success with it—so much so that Little, Brown decided that their edition of Seven Wild Sisters should get the same lavishly illustrated in colour treatment. That was an exciting development. Charles V.’s gorgeous style perfectly portrays the old-timey feel of that story.
Your work is often described as mythic, meaning fiction that draws essential substance from myth, folklore, fairy tale, and legend, but it is also grounded in reality, especially when it comes to characters. You often write characters, whether they’re teens or adults, who are outsiders, living on the fringes of society both practically and metaphorically speaking. You write about life on the street, about characters who have survived horrific abuse, who are bullied or ostracized, who live outside the lines. There seems to be a space there—where outcast characters meet the sense of wonder inherent in your work—that allows you to explore real world issues in unique ways. Could you talk a little about these elements and what draws you to explore these types of characters, especially in a mythic setting?
Fairy tales and mythology have always been an exaggerated distillation of the real world. Think of them as blueprints for how to deal with a multitude of situations that can arise in a person’s life. The beauty of them is that their analogies resonate so deeply and they also entertain while they teach.
I believe a good writer can write a good book with any sort of character, in any sort of setting, but I prefer to write about the outsider. It might just be because I’ve been one (or perceived myself to be one) for so much of my life. But the simple fact of being marginalized immediately brings conflict to a story before the narrative even begins, and that’s gold for a writer because it means that your character already has depth before events begin to unfold.
And there’s certainly no lack of outsiders one can use. There are artists and musicians, hobos and outlaws, even the high school loner.
I find the use of magical characters and storylines to be an excellent way of bringing the protagonist’s subconscious world on stage by showing these hidden elements, rather than simply telling the reader about them—sort of allowing the characters to have conversations with themselves through the magical beings. Eventually, in books like Memory & Dream, Someplace to Be Flying and various short stories, I began to tell events from the magical beings’ perspectives because they began to intrigue me in their own right.
These days I like to explore both—finding the magic in the ordinary characters and the humanity in the magical ones.
Fantasy/myth/fairy tales are also an excellent way to address real world problems. The reader who might avoid “issue” stories appears more willing to explore them when they are leavened with a sense of wonder.
The one rule I won’t ever break is that magic can’t solve real world problems.
Your settings range from Cornwall to Ottawa, fictional Newford to the American Southwest, but while the location might change, you have a number of recurring themes that are explored in fascinating and varied ways throughout all your books: family (whether the one you choose or the one you’re born into), kindness as an end in itself, the importance of holding on to hope and wonder, responsibility to others, being true to yourself. Has your approach to, or understanding of, these big ideas changed or evolved over the course of your career? Do you approach the exploration of those ideas differently when writing for different audiences or age groups?
My friend Andrew Vachss has told me more than once that he has only one story to tell and he’ll only stop telling it when it’s no longer necessary. Personally, I think he has all sorts of different stories, but I understand what he means.
Thankfully, my senses of hope, wonder and kindness remain intact, elsewise I just wouldn’t be interested in writing. To make a reader care about what goes on inside a piece of fiction, first the writer has to care. We need to write from our enthusiasms and the things that have meaning in our own lives. Our enthusiasms can change over the years, but the things we believe in and hold meaning for us—those elements that fuel the themes of what we want to talk about—are more steadfast. And they’re what infuses our art with color and meaning—whether we want them to or not.
I don’t write differently for younger age groups, except for omitting obvious scenes of graphic sex and/or violence, or very offensive language, but those don’t tend to show up very much in my work anyway.
Can you tell us about your alternate identity as a musician? How would you describe your music? How does writing and playing music compare to the process of writing a novel or short story? What or who inspires you to write music? Does the music you listen to seep into your work as a writer? What music are you listening to now?
Do you have room for a book-length answer to these questions? Because that’s what it would take to respond to them all properly. But I’ll try to touch on a few.
When I started playing music in the late sixties/early seventies it was a mix of folk music and the psych-folk that was coming out of England (Donovan, Incredible String Band, original material). Then one day I bought an album by Seamus Ennis on which he plays the uillean pipes and whistle, sings and even tells a story. I realized that this was the soundtrack to all those fairy tales and folktales I’d grown up reading and fell in love with the music.
After that I played and listened to Celtic music for years until I found myself wanting story songs that weren’t based on ancient goings-on, but set in the here and now. I’d never stopped listening to other kinds of music and slowly MaryAnn and I began to incorporate Americana songs and originals into our repertoire.
These days, if you listen to our CDs, they’re basically folk rock with touches of country and Celtic. If we play as a duo, the sound is pretty much the same, except unplugged. But I’ll be honest—it’s way more fun to play with a band.
Music’s always part of my writing. I think all art is interconnected. You can’t create or experience one without its influences bleeding into another. In my writing, music’s mostly something that feeds my inspiration and mood while I’m writing, but it’s also taught me how to “score” scenes and even novels. The rise and fall of the storyline echoes the flow of a good piece of music.
[You can see the video for the song "Cherokee Girl" here.]
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from David Levithan: Hello, Charles. Lovely to meet you. I’m going to ask a question I’ve always been curious about: How do you feel your life as a reviewer affects your life as a novelist? Is there a visible connection between them, or do you try to keep them in isolation booths?
Hi, David. I just have to say that your novel Every Day is probably one of the best, most innovative and meaningful books it’s been my pleasure to read. Thank you for writing it. And I mean that with all sincerity.
On to your question. I often tell new writers that the best way to learn this craft of ours is to read a lot and to write a lot. They sometimes don’t understand the reading a lot part and I have to explain that the beauty of writing is that we have the luxury of having the best writers of the past few hundred years to mentor us. We do it by reading their books and asking questions of those books. Why do we like this character, but not this one? Why are we bored, or why do we frantically turn pages to find out what happens next? Everything we need to know about characterization, pacing, plotting, the utilization of our themes is in those books.
So that’s what I get out of reviewing. Books show up in my mailbox that I might never have looked at twice in a bookstore, and since I try them all, I’m often surprised with some new discovery (and then have to go back and find all of the author’s old work).
On the other hand, as soon as a book bores me, I put it aside and try another. With my column I have the luxury of reviewing what I want, and being a bit selfish with the use of my time, I prefer to only review books that I like. I don’t want to have to read a bad book all the way through just to write a scathing review of it. And frankly, as bad as any book is, I know the amount of work that went into it and would get no pleasure out of tearing it apart.
I’m not a critic. That’s not my job. My job as a reviewer—or at least my perception of it—is to point out books to my readers that I think they’ll enjoy.
But I remember what made me stop reading a book when I’m writing my own, and I try not to make the same mistakes. It’s this constant reminder—of the good and the bad—that keeps me honest. It’s also completely subjective as well, of course, but I only write books that I’d like to read, so it works for me.
Charles has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Elizabeth Wein. Watch for an interview with her in a couple weeks.
Charles de Lint was born in the Netherlands on December 22, 1951. His family emigrated to Canada when he was only four months old. His father’s job with an international surveying company resulted in several moves during de Lint’s childhood, but by the time he was 12—having lived in Western Canada, Turkey and Lebanon—the family had settled in Lucerne, Quebec, not too far from Ottawa, Ontario where he now resides. In 1980, de Lint married the love of his life, MaryAnn Harris, who works closely with him as his first editor, business manager and creative consort. They share their love and home with a cheery little dog named Johnny Cash.
The proverbial Renaissance man, de Lint is also a painter, poet and musician. His storytelling skills shine in his original songs, several of which were recorded and released in 2011 on his CD, Old Blue Truck. A multi-instrumentalist, de Lint performs with MaryAnn (also a musician). His main instruments are guitar, harmonica and vocals, while hers are mandolin, guitar, vocals and percussion. De Lint has been the main book reviewer for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction since 1987 and has also written critical essays, music reviews, opinion columns and entries to encyclopedias.
He is best known as a master in the field of contemporary fantasy, helping to pioneer the genre with his groundbreaking novel Moonheart (1984). His numerous awards and honors include the World Fantasy Award, the Canadian SF/Fantasy Aurora Award, and the White Pine Award, among others. Modern Library’s Top 100 Books of the 20th Century poll, conducted by Random House and voted on by readers, put eight of de Lint’s books among the top 100. Trader (1997), Seven Wild Sisters (2002), and The Blue Girl (2004) were all selected as Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association, and The Blue Girl and Jack of Kinrowan (1997) were chosen for the 2008 and 2003 Popular Paperbacks lists.
With 39 novels and 35 books of short fiction to date, de Lint writes for adults, teens and children. His most recent adult novel, The Mystery of Grace (2009), is a fantastical ghost story; newer work includes Under My Skin and Over My Head—the first two books of his new YA series, The Wildlings, and The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, a novel for middle-grade readers. Another middle-grade novel, Seven Wild Sisters: A Modern Fairy Tale, will be published in 2014. You can find him at his website or Tumblr, on Twitter, or visit him on Facebook.
-Julie Bartel, currently reading and loving The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
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