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A Conversation With Charles de Lint
An interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke
2000

© Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint has been writing urban fantasy, mixing elements of Native American and Celtic folklore, for a long time. Many of his earlier stories, such as Moonheart, Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon (both later republished together as Jack of Kinrowan), Ascian in Rose, Westlin Wind and Ghostwood (later collected and republished as the single volume Spiritwalk) explored this, using the city of Ottawa as a backdrop. The fictional city of Newford became the stage for novellas such as "Ghosts of Wind and Shadows", "Our Lady of the Harbour", "The Wishing Well", The Dreaming Place; short story collections such as Dreams Underfoot and The Ivory and the Horn; and novels such as Memory and Dream, Trader, and Someplace to be Flying.

Charles de Lint Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Reading List: Charles de Lint
SF Site Review: Forests of the Heart
SF Site Review: Jack of Kinrowan
SF Site Review: Moonlight and Vines, A Newford Collection
SF Site Review: Someplace to be Flying
Information about the Tamson House Mailing List
One Tamson House
Newford Chronicles

The Onion Girl
Forests of the Heart

Art: Tom Canty
Jack of Kinrowan

Design: Terri Windling
Moonlight and Vines, A Newford Collection
Someplace to be Flying
Into the Green

The author of more than two dozen novels and collections ranging from high fantasy to horror to science fiction, Charles de Lint is best-known for his pioneering work in the sub-genre of urban fantasy. Unusual among novelists in that he continues to put out a strong body of short fiction, de Lint's work often examines social issues and the disenfranchised in the mythical North American city of Newford. An accomplished Celtic musician, de Lint performs regularly with his wife and business partner, MaryAnn Harris -- a passion which shows up regularly in his fiction.

You've explored specific themes in your recent novels: family, individuality, etc. What kinds of themes do you tackle in your new novel, Forests of the Heart?

I'm pretty much fixated on certain themes. Family, but it's family of choice as much as family of blood. Individuality, yes, but not at the cost of others' happiness. Be true to your friends. Remembering to find some wonder and hope in the world. Basically it boils down to: treat people like you'd like them to treat you, leave the world a little better than it was when you got here, respect others and stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves.

So how does this new novel differ from your previous work?
It's more of a continuation than something radically different. I see my writing as a journey and each book and story takes me a little further along the way. Expanding on the themes, finding new ways to express them. Of course I love character and story, too, and never want to get heavy-handed with "messages." I prefer to let them grow out of the action and interaction between characters.

This time out, Newford's in deep winter, we spend some time in Arizona, some time in the spiritworld, meet mostly new faces, with cameos from a few old friends.

Since The Little Country, everything you've written has been set in Newford. Do you make any special efforts to keep things fresh? Is becoming too close to the city and its inhabitants -- repeating yourself -- ever a concern?
Of course it's a concern. But one of the things I usually do with the novels is make sure that they're primarily about new characters with the regular cast on the sidelines, so they stay as fresh as any new book should be. I haven't tired of Newford yet, but I have been exploring some of its environs, particularly in the novels. The short stories are where I revisit the old gang more and catch up on all the new gossip.

My theory about writing is that one should write books you'd like to read, but no one else has written yet. So, as long as I stick with that, I'm entertaining myself, and then hopefully my readers as well. I hope to god I realize that I'm repeating myself, if I ever do. But if I don't, I'm sure my readers will let me know.

Family is a recurring theme in your works, but "traditional" families seldom appear in your work. Juveniles are uncommon in your fiction, and when they do appear, they're invariably part of single-parent households. Your adult characters come from broken homes, are survivors of abuse and molestation. Where does this negative view of the traditional family come from?
Well, while I didn't have the more extreme experiences of some of my characters, I didn't exactly come from the most normal of households. Or rather, it was normal, in that dysfunctional families appear to be the norm.

But the real reason I write about those sorts of characters is that what I'm interested in reading and writing about is outsiders. The people that don't fit in. Whether they're the Louis L'Amour gunslingers with their strong moral codes, the Ivanhoes and Robin Hoods that leapt off the page and screen when I was growing up, or whether they're the hurt and lost, trying to find some way to at least survive, if they can't fit in, the outsider is born story material.

And I suppose, having grown up feeling like an outsider myself -- partly from moving around so much as I did as a kid which doesn't allow one to make long-term connections -- and knowing outsiders throughout my life -- everyone from criminals to people involved in creative endeavours -- I'm following that tried-and-true writing advice and writing about what I know.

You've long been an advocate for children's causes. "Don't! Buy! Thai!" is featured prominently on your website. What prompted your involvement in this? How does this intersect with your work?
I believe it's our responsibility as adults to ensure that all children have a safe and healthy upbringing. So I make it a point to support advocates of children's rights and to raise the issues in my fiction, hopefully as part of the story rather than a lecture. Any abusive relationship angers me, but when children are the victims, it seems that much more despicable.

The "Don't! Buy! Thai!" campaign that highlights the problems in Thailand, where basically a child sex tourism industry is still thriving, addresses only one problem area, but one has to pick and choose the battles, or else risk the chance that the battle front becomes to spread out to be effective. I think it's a good place to add one voice to many, that louder voice having more chance to be heard. But one shouldn't ignore the smaller issues, or those closer to home either.

You mentioned that you identify with the loner, the outcast. With a few exceptions, the characters in your fiction are outcasts on the fringe of society: Artists, loners, homeless... Is this a case of writing what you know, or writing about what interests you?
The point of writing about such characters is to humanize them. And there are so many stories there. The creative artist/writer/musician has the same fears and frailties as the rest of us, no matter how much they might be put on a pedestal. What turns someone to a life of crime, or makes them a loner? Street people are individuals, too. It's instructive to learn what put them there. We shouldn't have a society where some of its members are reduced to living on the street, but until taxpayers view them as people, things won't change.

I want to tell these stories, and not romanticize them. I use the fantasy genre as my backdrop, because I also like a little wonder in a story. I suppose I'm a "glass half full" sort of a person, aiming to raise hopes. Which isn't to knock something like Zak Mucha's The Beggar's Shore (published by Red 71 Press) which I thought was brilliant. We need those dark stories, too. We need to see all sides of the issue.

In Forests of the Heart you deal with both Old World and New World mythology -- fey, manitou, etc. You've worked with these different traditions before in Moonheart and Spiritwalk, and dealt with the conflicts between the two traditions in the two Jack of Kinrowan books. Why revisit these concepts now?
The difference here is, I'm dealing with some darker elements. Without wanting to sound too high-faluting, I was using the Irish spirits to explore the ongoing relevancy of "the Troubles" in Ireland, even for people who have been gone from the homeland for generations. I was also exploring family units, as you'll see when you get a chance to read the book. Of course none of this relates only to Ireland; it's just what I chose to focus on.

I also -- perhaps in reaction to all the "all things Celtic are fascinating and noble" sentiment that pervades a lot of fantasy fiction, some of my own included -- wanted to bring on stage some less than reputable proponents of the Celtic Twilight.

In this book, your protagonist is Hispanic/Indian. Did you establish this setup with the more tragic aspects of the European settlement of the Americas in mind?
That was certainly a large part of it. One can't live in North America and not be touched by the tragedies that were inflicted upon the continent's indigenous people. ("How could Columbus discover us?" a chief once commented. "We were never lost.") And of course the sad truth is that Natives are still being screwed, left, right and centre.

I've also been tying together the various elements from a number of the books and short stories, not to produce a cohesive whole to make some sort of a statement, but because I find it interesting to see how even the most disparate threads have analogies from work to work. Not so surprising, perhaps, when one considers that most authors have one story to tell -- at least those blessed/cursed with some fierce need to tell stories. They simply approach that one Story from as many different angles as they can.

Latin America, in particular, has a vibrant, living mythology -- European beliefs, Catholicism and native folklore fused into a unique hybrid. Is it inevitable that people bring their mythic beliefs with them wherever they go, establishing new traditions?
Not necessarily. It depends on how strong their traditions are. Some will come to a new land and take nothing from it, forcing their beliefs on those they find living there. But I love the mix of Latin American myths, how the Saints and the Virgin are considered spirits, and intermediaries, rather than actual members of the pantheon. And of course the imagery is fabulous.

Forests of the Heart takes place, partly, in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson, Arizona. This isn't the first time you've set stories there. What's the appeal?
I just love that area. MaryAnn and I keep thinking we'll move there, but little things like the high cost of medical insurance keep us here. Mind you, once there, I wonder how soon I'd be missing the seasons and the Eastern Woodlands? But the Sonoran Desert has long had an appeal for me -- before I even went there the first time. When I finally did make it, I felt as though I'd come home. There's something about the spirit of the place that fills empty places inside me. Since we don't live there, we at least try to get down there every couple of years to recharge the batteries, as it were.

How important is "the setting" to a story in your work?
Very. It's another character as far as I'm concerned. In Forests there's a huge ice storm that brings the entire city to a halt and that was as much an important part of the story as the more individual characters going about their business. The spiritworld -- at least in how it relates to the Newford stories -- gets more defined in it as well, and even more so in the book I'm currently working on, The Onion Girl. I think after The Onion Girl, we won't being visiting the spiritworld for awhile, certainly not in the next book I've got planned.

You have one contemporary fantasy set outside of North America: The Little Country takes place in Cornwall. Why Cornwall? Why not Newford's Lower Crowsea or Ottawa?
Originally, only the first chapter was going to be set in Mousehole. This was because an old friend of mine used to tell me all these stories about the place so I thought it would be fun to start off a book there. Around the time I was getting ready to start the book, we were planning a trip to the UK anyway, so I decided to wait before I did any actual work on the book, meaning to do a little on-site research for that chapter. Well, one thing led to another and I liked the area so much and had the time to do enough serious research that I decided to set the whole book there. Set elsewhere, it would have been a different book. Not better or worse, simply different. But I'm happy I made the decision I did.

You've said Newford was created as an outlet for stories you couldn't tell using Ottawa as a backdrop. How do those stories differ? What makes a story inherently "Ottawa" or "Newford?"
Newford is a much larger, grittier urban centre than Ottawa. It's that simple. There's no Tombs, for instance, where many stories are set, and Newford has a much wider population base than Ottawa -- though that changes each year as Ottawa gets larger and more urban.

Over the years, you've tied your various sets of stories together loosely. There are even some shared characters with your earlier high fantasy works. Was this a conscious effort on your part to draw together the various threads of your writing, or was it serendipitous?
The only real reason for self-referencing is the fun factor. It's fun for the writer, getting little peeks at what old characters might be up to. And it's fun for readers to spot a familiar face, or pick up on a made-up book title or something from an earlier story. I don't know that it does -- or even should -- contribute to the story in hand being any better than it would have been without it. I like to keep the two "worlds," if you will, fairly separate. Which isn't to say that it would never happen.

The dominant form of myth in modern fantasy is that of a British Isles/Celtic descent. What's the appeal?
It's the dominant form because that's what Tolkien did. A lot of people, when they do fantasy, they figure they've got to do what Tolkien did. It's partly laziness, but partly because that's what people want as well. I'm not sure if people want it because they're slightly xenophobic. It's like when you see a book that has all oriental characters in it, the cover's all white people. I mean, it's just weird. It's like they're trying to not scare people off. I don't know who it is -- the publishers or the writers themselves -- but it seems that people kind of shy away from unfamiliar mythologies or folk material.

So how does that explain the popularity of Native American mythology?
That's due to the 60s I think. You know, when it was cool to be an Indian. It's true. Up unto that point it never was, then all of the sudden in the 60s everyone decided that the Native Americans were "caretakers of the Earth" and they wore all these cool beads. The thing I find most offensive about that idea -- that all Native Americans are all one religion, or one cultural base when there's tons of different tribes that are really, really different. Some of them don't even like each other. It's just ordinary people. That's something that always strikes me.

Do you try to address those kinds of issues when you use the Kickaha Tribe?
Sometimes. The Kickaha, I made them up because I wanted them to have certain aspects. It's loosely based on an Algonquin language group, so I leave in certain things specific to that. I just wanted to have that opening to be able to throw in a few other things, like some of the animal people stuff that I didn't find that tradition. Like Coyote. Now, although coyotes are physically in eastern woodlands, they're not in the folklore. The tricksters are different. There's Whiskey Jack and there's a hare, stuff like that. But I just like Coyote, so I wanted to be able to use him. So it's not a matter of me trying to marginalize the Native beliefs, it's more a matter of my trying to use a specific kind of idea but not based on anything that's real, simply because I wanted the freedom to explore without Native peoples saying "Well you can't say, that's not what we believe." Because I don't know. I'm not a Native American. I can't write from that perspective.

(This interview first appeared in the January 2001 issue of the magazine Interzone.)

Copyright © 2000 by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia. His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html


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