Charles de Lint has been one of
the leading authors of fantasy for more than a decade and
his latest book, TRADER, continues his tales of the City
of Newford. He is also a gifted Celtic musician. Chuck
Lipsig interviewed him on subjects ranging from writing
to music to the Internet.
Sphere Magazine: Your latest book
is Trader. How is it doing?
Charles de Lint: It's too soon to know. You don't find out for months—not until the first royalty statements are issued.
SM: What would you like to tell
people about it?
CdL: The hard thing about talking about a book like Trader is that, since it was turned in to Tor, I've finished another book, and am now working on yet another.
The front story is the old idea of people switching souls and the man who wants to get his life back. It's something that's been seen in many films and stories. But the reason that I picked that old theme is the reason that most writers like to try their hands at the old themes—the vampire, the Frankenstein monster, all the clichés: to see what they can do with them. I think I've hit them all but the invisible man, so far.
Basically, though, Trader explores the idea of identity. One of the best ways to find out what a person is like, or for a person to discover oneself, is to be thrust into a different environment. You can place the character in a different city or a different country and have them figure out who they are against the strangeness around them. But I thought it would be more fun to do someone who's in an entirely different body. And that expands upon the idea of whether we are who we think we are, or who other people think we are.
There are a number of different principal characters and each one of them is dealing with identity in some way. There's a young teenage girl going through the usual angst of "Who am I?" Her mother is discovering that she has gay tendencies. There's somebody else who's always lived her life as the person other people wanted her to be and she's finally striking out on her own. These things are orbiting around the main plot of these two men who've switched souls.
I guess I'm not giving a very concise answer, but if I could think of a very short way to describe a novel, I wouldn't write a book to tell the story. There's that whole Hollywood sort of way of doing it: "It's Cinderella with Blade Runner." While it's really good at giving you the exact image in your brain, it's a bit too facile.
SM: You say you've got one novel
completed since Trader and are working on another. Can
say anything about them right now?
CdL: Not the one I'm working on. The main reason for that is I write in what I call a very "organic" style of writing. In other words, I'm finding out every day what happens, the same way a reader would. If I talk about a work in progress, then when I sit down to write it, I'm not finding out anymore and I get bored. At that point I either don't want to work on it anymore or I change it, and the change isn't always for the better. It's simply being changed because I'm bored. So I like to keep the material fresh by exploring it on my own..
The other one is called Someplace To Be Flying and it's coming out in February, from Tor. It's my corvid book—corvids are crows, ravens, magpies, etc. The novel is built upon the idea that the first people here were animal people, a distinct race of beings who could be animals or people. They're still with us now and the novel is about people discovering these animal people living among us..
SM: You just said that when you
write, you basically figure out what's happening, day by
day. Do your characters often surprise you?
CdL: To a degree, of
course. While I don't know how it's actually going to
happen, I usually have a theme I want to deal with and a
feeling that I want to leave the reader with. I'll make
notes and write little bits and pieces that I know are
going to happen later in the book as they occur to me
while I'm writing. So it's not a completely linear
process, but the basics of it are linear. Sometimes you
do get surprises.
It's actually kind of a dangerous way to write because you can go along for two to three-hundred pages and all of a sudden, you can't go anywhere. You have to backtrack to where it went wrong, throw those pages out, and start all over again from that point. It can be heartbreaking when you've put all that time into it.
Trader is a good example. I got to the end of the book and just didn't feel right about it. I asked my wife MaryAnn who does my first editing about it and she said, "Well, if you just take out this little section, it would probably work better." The "little" section she was talking about was 100 pages. I said, "Oh my God, no!" But I thought about it and she was right.
So you end up writing more than you have to lots of times. Starting a book I'll often write as much as a few hundred pages to get where I have 50 pages that I like. It's a long process, but it's the way I do it.
SM: Do you base your characters on
anyone in particular?
CdL: No. I consider that to be the kiss of death for a character. Say you base one on your next-door neighbor who's a good friend of yours; you're constantly going to try to make the character do what that friend would do, as opposed to letting the character grow on his own. Besides, you can get sued, too, so it's sort of pointless to do it.
It's more fun to create new characters, anyway. You end up really fond of these people, just as you would your friends. With a character, it's like meeting a new person: You don't know anything about them right away, but you slowly get to find out what they're interested in and what they care about. It's very enjoyable to spend a lot of time in their company. Not that it's not enjoyable to spend time in the company of people who are real. It's just two different things.
SM: One of the things I admire
about your writing—Mulengro and Yarrow especially come
to mind—is that there are characters I liked a lot who
got killed off. When this would happen, I'd get this gut
level anger, not at you, but at the character who killed
CdL: It's really tough. I
often create characters to be killed off and then can't
do it and have to find somebody else. It's very weird. In
Mulengro, though, I knew all along that Janfir was done
for. Whenever I was writing from his point of view,
there'd be a bittersweet feeling in my head.
SM: The one I really remember in
Yarrow—I don't remember the name, though—is the
punk with the mohawk.
CdL: Yeah, the mechanic. I just had to proof Yarrow because it's being republished this December from Tor in an Orb edition and I was rather shocked when he died. I get these books that I wrote ten or fifteen years ago and have to proof the galleys for republication. I don't remember the details myself and go, "Oh, No!" when something tragic happens.
SM: Does that ever make you want to
CdL: To be honest with you, a lot of times I would like to rewrite some of my earlier books, but my feeling is that those books were written by somebody else, ten years ago, and that was the best that the person I was could do at the time. I've got so many other stories to tell that I'd rather work on them as opposed to reworking old ones.
SM: More recently you've been using
the city of Newford as your main setting. Are you keeping
your novels set in Newford or are you going to use other
CdL: Well, it depends. I like visiting Newford myself. The stories work there and there's a long tradition of authors creating and using their own locales. It's very comforting to be able to make up whatever you need, from creating your own history for the place to details like the direction of a one-way street..
On the other hand, I'm not going to necessarily stick with stories set in Newford. I have written some other books in between the Newford books. The last one was The Wild Wood. I'm also exploring further directions from the city. A lot of Someplace to be Flying takes place north of Newford, up in the mountains.
SM: Do you feel like you're a
citizen of Newford?
CdL: More like a journalist; someone who's working that beat.
When I read series books, I often enjoy ones that have a setting as a connective thread, rather than characters. I think it's a nice idea because your readers get familiar with the setting, but you're not rehashing the characters. It's very difficult for characters to have really, really wonderful or trying events happen over and over again. After a while, it's not going to make much change in their lives. At the same time, I enjoy having some of what I consider my repertory company make cameo appearances from book to book, or to take a secondary character from one story and make them the lead in another.
SM: On your homepage, you write
that you like writing about places you've been. You also
say you spent some time growing up in Turkey and Lebanon.
Any chance that you would write fantasies that would take
CdL: You never know. As it is, there's a desert scene in my novel Into the Green that's definitely based on my memories of Egypt.
But the places where I lived are so different now from when I lived there, and I'm not so sure how safe it would be for me to go back and visit some of them. I'm sure I wouldn't even recognize Beirut. I've seen the news footage; it's like two different places.
SM: What is it about fantasy that
inspires you, compared to other genres?
CdL: The interesting thing about fantasy is that you can write any sort of story you want. You can write a thriller or a mystery; you can write what's called a literary novel or a mainstream novel—any sort of novel, whatsoever, will still fit if has some kind of fantastical element. I just happen to like that fantastical element in the story.
I don't necessarily like the fantastical element to be the main pervasive force, which is why I am not always enamored with secondary world high fantasies, though I also find the sameness of many of them problematic. I think one of the reasons that happens is that a lot of writers aren't going back to primary sources. They're basing their fantasies on other fantasies.
What I do like is that idea of something odd, something different, and how it affects ordinary people in the real world. I guess it's the same reason people like to watch things like the X-Files: It's nice to have that extra little edge.
I get a kick from a lot of mainstream writers when something fantastical creeps in. James Lee Burke. When one his characters runs into a ghost, it's not treated like a fantasy at all; it's very, very hard-boiled crime writing. But that ghost of a lost soul will pop up in it. Or Alice Hoffman: She's written these beautiful, lyrical, literary mainstream novels with witches in them. I enjoy that kind of thing.
SM: What authors influenced you?
CdL: Pretty well anything
I've experienced has influenced me. Everyone I've ever
read. Every movie I've ever seen. People I've talked to.
Dreams that I've had. They all play their part.
These days, there are no writers that I'm emulating. I remember years ago, when I was 15 or so, I was totally enthralled by writers such as William Morris. In fact, I once wrote a novel-length poem of epic narrative verse in that bastard Middle English that he wrote in. My piece was dreadful, mind you, but because I loved reading his stuff, I was trying it for fun.
Of course, when I first started writing, I was, like everybody else who starts writing fantasy, trying to write Tolkienesque fantasy, because that's what I thought fantasy had to be. Definitely the first couple of books I wrote were influenced by him. I'd written two or three of them, maybe more, because there were a number of them that were never published. MaryAnn was editing one of them and she said, "You should do this in a contemporary setting."
I said, "Absolutely not. It wouldn't work." But once I had the idea in my head, it wouldn't go away and I started thinking about it seriously because I knew I wanted to write about the real world, but I also wanted to write fantasies. So I tried combining the two in one book and it didn't work. Then the next one I did was Moonheart and I was happy with that. I've gone more and more in that contemporary direction ever since.
SM: You're an active Celtic
musician and in many of your novels—The Little
Country, most obviously—your music influences your
work. How do you think your music influences your
CdL: I think in a lot of
The way I got into Celtic music is that I used to read a lot of mythology and folklore, especially from the British Isles. Somewhere along the line I stumbled across this album by an Irish piper and folklore collector, the late Seamus Ennis. The album was just him playing solo pipes and tin whistle, singing, and telling a couple of stories. Listening to it, I realized that this Celtic music was the soundtrack to the stories and folklore I'd been reading for years and years.
In that sense, there's a Celtic soundtrack happening in some of my stories. In The Little Country it's definitely very strong. All the chapter titles, except for one, are names of traditional tunes.
As for music in general, I think that because I've been playing music for so long, I instinctively choreograph the writing in a musical way. In other words, when I want something to move faster, to build some tension and create a sense of action, I go for shorter sentences and paragraphs. When I want to slow things down, I lengthen them. It's not something I think about while I'm writing. I only think about it afterwards when people ask me questions such as, "How does music influence you?"
More recently, because I write a lot of multiple viewpoint books, I'll often decide what music a character likes and is interested in. Then, when I write from that character's point of view, I'll put that kind of music on. It's a quick way to get into their heads.
SM: In the other direction, how has
writing affected your music?
CdL:I don't think it has really. I don't do the filk kind of thing, when you're playing or writing songs that are based on Spider Robinson's bar or Anne McCaffrey's world or anything like that. I don't do that. I basically play mostly traditional music. I write a few tunes, myself, but I don't write songs. MaryAnn writes songs, but hers are about her own life, or conveying her own views of the world.
I don't know why I've never connected with filking. I suppose it's because the first material I was exposed to was people taking melodies from performers like Eric Bogle and writing silly lyrics to it. I found it somewhat irritating—I've never been that big a fan of parodies, and I prefer songwriters to come up with their own music as well as their own lyrics.
Mind you, I'm not sure what filk really is today. I came across an album not too long ago by Heather Alexander and found it quite interesting. But that's because it was her own material. The melodies were her own and the stories were her own.
SM: You were born in the Netherlands and yet, like many people of non-Celtic descent, you are very interested in Celtic music and mythos. Is there something about Celtic folklore that attracts people who aren't of Celtic heritage?
CdL: It's so hard to say. My background on my mother's side is Dutch and my dad was Dutch, Japanese, and Spanish, so the closest to Celtic would be the Spanish, I guess. But if you track the Celts, they started out in India, then they went through the Middle East, then through Europe, until they finally ended up in the British Isles. You can find traces of Celtic music in all the lands they traveled through. I don't think in the Netherlands so much—I've never heard much traditional Dutch folk music. But in some of the Hungarian, Slavic, Spanish, and French folk music you definitely hear traces of the Celtic rhythms and airs. I also hear traces in South American music, and of course, bluegrass and old timey music came out of the Irish and Scots folk tradition. So my guess would be that Celtic music has a certain universality to it, which is why the music, at any rate, would appeal to so many.
As for why it appeals to me, I have no idea. I think it's probably because I was brought up as a WASP. We lived in the predominately white society of the time so the kind of fairy tale books I'd run into were mostly based on those traditions. They were the first mythologies and folkloric traditions to which I was exposed, and one often tends to retain a connection to those early influences.
Mind you, since then I've gotten quite interested in all different kinds of material, such as Native and Latin American music and story. But while I can appreciate their music, I'm old enough that I'm not going to try switching from the sort of music I play now to learn whole new musical forms.
SM: You have a website on the
Internet . What would
you like to say about it?
CdL: Basically, it's there as an information source for my readers. After the Internet first began to grow in popularity, friends would call me up, or send me a note, saying, "You know, according to this website, you're dead?" or "Do you know your favorite band is The Beastie Boys?" and that kind of thing. So I realized I needed to put up my own website, one where my readers could find factual information, get news on book tours, public appearances and upcoming publications, and through which they could contact me.
I also wanted to do it myself, so I could maintain it. I took about a month to learn how to get everything looking the way I wanted it to, though I still tweak it every once in a while. I've also tried to make the site interesting in the sense that there's a lot to explore in it. The first page of the index doesn't take you to everywhere you could go. For instance, you can go to the art page, but there are all these other pages linked to it that you can't access from the index.
Because of the website, I get a lot of e-mail from readers, and I enjoy that direct contact. Sometimes, it's kind of cute. One fellow wrote, "When do you plan to put something new on your site?" And I had to write back, "When I do something new." Much of the life of a writer is spent alone in front of a computer screen, and that's not particularly worth writing about. Nor newsworthy enough to be put up on a homepage.
SM: How has the Internet influenced
your relationship and communication with your fans?
CdL: Well, I always get letters, but I get a lot more now. Before I got the site up, a book would come out and for about three months, I would get this mass of letters in the mail, instead of the usual trickle. Now what's happened is that the letters are spread out more. I can get as many as ten or more e-mails a day from people. Because of the FAQ page, a lot of readers' questions are answered without their needing to write, but many of them still drop me a note and, as I mentioned earlier, I enjoy that contact. Unfortunately, I can't get into lengthy correspondences—I'd never get any writing done if I did—but I appreciate the time people take to tell me about books or stories they loved, or how they've helped them, or changed them in some way. It's a great compliment, and something that simply can't readily be duplicated in the more hectic forum of a book signing or convention appearance.
Another thing I like about the Internet is that I have correspondents all over the world and now, instead of having a three or four week gap between when I've written a letter and getting an answer from someone in Australia or England, I can get a response the next day.
It's also very useful for business. Some of the places I write for take electronic submissions. I do a column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and I just e-mail it in. I also e-mail some of the stories for anthologies as well, although book publishers still like to receive a hardcopy of a manuscript.
SM: Have you considered publishing
on the Web?
CdL: No. I use the Internet
just as an information source.
I don't disagree with web publishing, but I don't understand it. How do you control it? How can a writer or an artist make a living, when, once you put your image and your words up on the web, anyone can access them, whenever they want? People can simply copy them forever. So I don't see how you can make any sort of a living or maintain copyright. You can put your name on it, you can say it's copyrighted material, but what's to stop people?
SM: Is there anything you found on
the Internet that you particularly like?
CdL: I don't really browse much on the web, more from a lack of time than anything else. And like everyone else, I find it irritating waiting for things to load. It's interesting, but look at the net magazines, for instance. It's so much easier to open up a print magazine. First of all, you don't have to sit in front of your computer screen to read it. Secondly, you don't have to wait five minutes to see if you're going to want to look at that page. In the magazine you can flip the page. I find that aspect of the Net more frustrating than anything else. Besides, I really like the tactile sensation of having the paper in my hands while I'm reading.
Where it does become useful is that if you're a writer, artist or musician, you can use it to find information. It's great for that, and that's about all I use it for. I remember one time recently MaryAnn wanted the lyrics to a song she was learning. We used to do take the lyrics right off the record, but there'd always be some awkward, mumbly lines. So I did a search, and after about 10 minutes, I managed to track down the lyrics to the song she was looking for.
SM: Any advice for people who want
to get published?
CdL: You have to write a lot and you have to read a lot. At it's most basic level, that's all it takes.
Read a lot to see how it's
done. By asking questions of books, you can have the
world's best writers be your tutors. Do you like a
character? Then why do you like the character? What did
the writer do to make you like the character? That kind
And write a lot for the practice. With music, you can't just buy a guitar, then go out and play in Carnegie Hall. It's the same thing with writing. Just because you've written essays in school and letters and memos, doesn't mean you know how to write. You have to get lots of practice in, learn your scales, practice your literary chops.