Born in the Netherlands but raised in Canada, fantasy writer Charles de Lint began his career as a musician. Fortunately for the fantasy-fiction world, he turned his attention to writing in the 1980s and has been in print consistently ever since. He is widely regarded as a leading pioneer in the Urban Fantasy field. His award-winning novel Moonheart (Tor 1984) remains a top seller. Charles has been a jury member for many of the leading genre awards and is regularly invited to guest at major conventions throughout the world, including World Fantasy and World Horror Conventions.
He has a vast list of credits to his name; he is the author of over sixty books and myriad short stories, poems, essays, columns, gaming modules, reviews (of music and fiction). He's also a dab hand with the paint brush.
Firstly, Charles, can you recall the first story or book that kick-started your passion for fantasy and folklore? Which authors do you return to the most?
I was read fairy tales and Dutch books like the Bolka the Bear series when I was a kid, but the one I remember the most that I read on my own was The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame—the edition illustrated by Shepherd—which gave me my love of both story and illustrated books. I still revisit it. Some of my long-standing fav writers—the ones I go back to, or stop everything else when a new book of theirs arrives in the house—include Alice Hoffman, Andrew Vachss, Dean Koontz, Robert Crais, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kim Antieau, and more recently Richard Parks and Patricia Briggs. I'd add Stephen King to the list, but it's hit and miss with him for me. When I like a book of his, it's brilliant; when I don't, it really sucks.
Actually, once I start trying to list writers I like, it starts to become endless. There is such a wealth of wonderful reading out there, both in and out of the genre, and even in styles that I don't think I'll like. For instance, while I don't much care for most current secondary world high fantasy, I'm totally addicted to Greg Keyes' latest series, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, and can't wait to read the new one.
So what I suppose I'm saying is that I like anything that's good.
Your Father's career meant that much of your early years were spent on the move. How much did this life style influence your ability to weave cultures together?
My dad was a navigator for a surveying company. Moving as much as we did was more an irritation at the time for my sister Kamé and myself because we never felt we had roots. We didn't grow up, or go through grades in school, with the same kids, in the same neighbourhood—that sort of thing. It's only in later years that I've appreciated what a mind-opening upbringing it was and how much of those experiences I've retained for all my youth at the time (I was around 10 years old). But I can trace my love for desert country and indigenous music right back to living in the Middle East and travelling through Europe (although I must have been a miserable travel companion because I was forever getting carsick).
I might also note that while my father didn't keep many novels in his library (though tons of reference and non-fiction), it was in that library that I found copies of the first three Tarzan and the first three John Carter books which I reread any number of times before I found that there were other books and authors to read. (We didn't have access to a library because we lived in a rural area and the school library was pretty boring—or at least it seemed so at the time.)
I should also note that my Dutch relatives would send me Enid Blyton books for Christmas and my birthday, which were fun as a kid, but I didn't become a voracious reader until those Tarzan books, and then discovering Ian Fleming, Leslie Charteris, Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, John D MacDonald, and the like.
Which career did you choose first: music or fantasy fiction? Or something else entirely?
I wanted to be a musician from when I first started listening to Elvis and Johnny Cash in the late fifties. The subsequent explosion of rock 'n' roll only crystallized my desire. But by the time I started to learn instruments (tin whistle and guitar) in the mid-sixties, the whole hippie scene was happening and I gravitated to playing a lot of the psychedelic folk-rock (Donovan, the Incredible String Band) or the early singer-songwriters (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin) and only appreciated rock as a listener. (First song I ever learned, for you trivia fans, wasn't 'The House of the Rising Sun' but J Frank Wilson's 'Last Kiss'.)
My friends and I played a lot of early hippie festivals and renaissance fairs until I came across a Seamus Ennis album on the old Tradition label (full of uillean piping and whistle playing) and realized that the folk and fairy tales and fantasy I was reading had an older soundtrack than the music I was hearing at the time. So then our repertoire began to include more Celtic music as we became more proficient on various mandolins, fiddles, pipes, flutes, banjos, bouzoukis and the like. There are some old photos from those days on my web site.
I'd been writing all along, and working in record stores for all those years (and I have to smile to see that vinyl's making a comeback), but the music was my main interest in terms of a career. Except I got worn out from playing for drunk people in pubs (the good gigs at festivals and concert stages were far and few between) and began to play only in sessions and at home for fun. Then, after years of trad music, I got back to the story songs that I'd started out playing (which were now being called Americana), and writing some of my own. (I used to write a lot of music back in the hippie band days, but I threw it all out once I fell in love with Celtic music.)
Anyway, to make a long story short, I used to always write. I just didn't do anything with it except share the stories with a legion of pen pals (back before the internet). At some point (late seventies) writing prose became more of a career choice, and while I still play music now (back to a weekly gig in a pub where most times the people don't get too drunk!), I spend most of my time writing stories and getting lost in the lives of the people who inhabit them.
But there's always an instrument close at hand that I can pick up and noodle on while I'm trying to think of the next words I want to write.
From your web site and from previous interviews, your involvement in Celtic folk, and music generally, has been hugely important to you. Does one influence the other? Or does it come as a package?
It's kind of a package. I don't play much Celtic music anymore (it's probably a third of our repertoire and that's only when MaryAnn and I are at the pub where we usually have a fiddler accompanying us, or at the cottage where we play flute and mandolin for the loons), but finding that Seamus Ennis album was what first wove the two together for me because, as I mentioned above, listening to his piping and whistling made me realize that this was the soundtrack to a lot of the folk tales and mythology I was reading. These days I get as much connection between prose and the likes of Kathryn Tickell, Calexico, the Reverb Syndicate, and even a psychobilly band like HorrorPops. The music I tend to gravitate towards and write myself are story songs, which is another connection. I find it fascinating how someone like Chris Knight or Brock Zeman can tell a novel in a four-minute song—and they find it weird that I can spend over a year working on just one story.
Without music, I don't think I'd have the stamina to write fiction every day.
Expanding on this theme, how influential do you see old ballads such as 'Twa Corbies' in the history of fantasy fiction, both in your own development as a writer and in a world-wide fantasy sense?
Well, 'Twa Corbies' is a favourite song of mine. I've been singing it for years—I got my version from Tommy Sands of the Sands Family from Northern Ireland—and then when Charles Vess was illustrating ballads, I used it as the basis for one of my script contributions, then later rewrote it in prose format to get it into a Newford collection.
Of course the melody's lovely—strange and eerie (and actually a Breton air called 'An Alarc'h')—but I've always been fascinated with the corvid family and love the idea of a couple of black birds sitting up in a tree discussing what to do with a dead knight's body. Though it wasn't deliberate, I've no doubt that's where my crow girls came from, so it only seemed fitting to use them when I did my script for Vess.
What's interesting about playing around with the ballads as inspiration is that the stories are fabulous, but there's often not a lot there in terms of characterization or motive so there's a lot of meat you can put on the bones. And then as soon as you take it out of its historical setting, you get a whole new set of parameters to bounce the story against. I like to think of all art as this huge ongoing conversation, so it seems especially apropos when a painting or ballad inspires a story, a story inspires an instrumental suite, which in turn might inspire a sculpture, or a play…
Over the years, Celtic and Teutonic myths have been the basis for a lot (some might say too much) fantasy. I've liked a great deal of it, from Tolkien through Parke Godwin to Greg Keyes, but I like the fact that the inspiration pool is widening to investigate the mythologies and folk lore from throughout the world. I like Robert E Howard and the world he created, but I get a bigger kick out of the Africa you'll find in Charles Saunders's Imaro books. When you trust a writer to do his research properly, you end up learning so much, and broadening your own views of the world, and though I read for entertainment, I like to learn something while I'm being entertained.
Tell us about Triskell Press. How and why did it come about?
It's funny you should ask that, since I just name-checked Charles Saunders. Triskell Press was a small press publishing house I initially started to publish Dragonbane, a magazine that Charles edited. But once I put a foot in the water, the publishing bug bit me and we did a few other magazines, art portfolios, chapbooks and the like. This was before the internet, so it was harder to find stories and art, especially if you didn't live in a large urban centre (we did—I'm speaking of many of our readers here) and the responses we got from them, and the friendships we made, can't have a price put on them.
We had a lot of critical success with stories being pulled for best-of anthologies and artists going on to do pro work, but everything we did lost money. We used to pay for everything we used (which is why you saw material by us in there—it kept the costs down since we didn't pay ourselves). Eventually, Charles moved to Halifax to become a journalist and an author of non-fiction books (quick plug here: his Imaro books are going to all be in print very soon—keep an eye on my web site for news) and my own professional career in the field took over.
But I don't regret any of it. I loved working with Charles and our contributors, and I first met my pal Charles Vess through the magazines. And Triskell Press is still active, if only as a venue to publish the yearly chapbook I send out as a Christmas card to friends and family.
Art is another aspect of your work that figures large: your own work, that of your wife MaryAnn Harris, and other artists such as Charles Vess. Do the pictures come from the texts? Or do you sometimes write to further 'illustrate' an existing image.
I'm a very visual writer. A simple painting, an image, an imagined scene, on its own is enough to spark an entire novel for me. I've often said that if I could paint better, I probably wouldn't write since much of my fiction exists because I'm trying to get down in words the story that surrounds an image I have in my head. I'm not sure that's entirely true—because I love words too much—but there is a kernel of truth in there.
As for the process, I've worked from art, had my work illustrated, and illustrated my own stories. My favourite way to collaborate, however, is when the art and writing are created at the same time, which is how most of my collaborations with Charles Vess come about. That comes the closest to jamming with another musician—where the creative spark bounces back and forth between you, and you get something special that neither of you could have done on your own.
Many of your lead characters are female; you are one of the few male authors who can write well from a female perspective. Did you have a largely female influence in your young years?
I did have a lot of female friends when I was in my formative years, and I think that probably helped. Most of them were small women, artistic and smart, so for those readers who write to ask why I don't have larger female characters, or taller female characters, that's most likely the reason why. When I start a story with a female lead I think my mind automatically goes back to the ideal of those women.
I'm always gratified by the compliment that I write women well, but I believe any man can write a good female character. They just have to take the time to pay attention to the women in their lives. And it needs to be researched, the same as anything else. Luckily for the male writers who are interested in putting in the time, there's a whole other half of the population to learn from. The same can be said if you're writing from the perspective of different cultural and other sexual persuasions than your own. Do the research. What's wonderful about this, is how much you learn to enrich your own life, because when we understand the others with whom we share the planet, we get to see how we're all connected. We all have a place, and a part to play.
I also have the good fortune to be married to a woman who not only personifies the best of her gender, but has an astute editor's eye and will always call me on something if I get it wrong. Having your stories vetted is a great idea. For instance, I get nieces and a friend, who used to be a YA librarian, to look over my YA manuscripts before they're turned in because, while I can research to my heart's content, I'm not a kid anymore and can't trust that the memories of my own teenage years will be enough to write about contemporary teens.
There are strong earth energy and ecology themes running through your writing, either as story or in the general lives of your characters. Tell us something about your views on these subjects.
The more I look around, the more depressed I get about the condition in which we're leaving this world. I hate the carbon print I'm leaving, though I do my best to keep it as small as possible. I hate that intelligent people don't see global warming as a real danger. (Mind you, there are people who believe the world was created in seven days—and not as a metaphor—so why should I be surprised?) I don't understand why the gap between the haves and have-nots keeps growing—well, I understand the greed behind it, I just don't understand why the excess is necessary. Call me an old hippie, but why do we need more than enough to sustain ourselves in a pleasant life style? Much of the world can't get food to eat, clean water to drink, medicine, shelter…
Newford is a fictional city in which many of your novels take place. Do you prefer the anonymity of Newford's unmapped streets over somewhere more identifiable?
It's funny that you should ask that because my last Newford book (except for a fifth collection of already written stories) was Promises to Keep. I'm not saying I'll never go back, but I think I became too familiar with its streets and people and need to freshen things up. The more you write about the same characters and places, the more baggage they acquire (I don't mean that in a negative sense—they just accumulate history), and the harder it is to write something fresh about them. At this point I think everybody who's ever lived or visited Newford has had a magical experience of one kind or another and it's just too much.
I see these experiences as needing to be strange, new and fresh, even dangerous, and that's hard to pull off when it's all old hat to the characters.
But I do like working in a setting that I've made up, rather than one that exists and can be studied on Google Earth in minute detail, so you'll probably see more from me—it'll just be different from the large urban setting that is Newford.
Your fiction spans a huge range within the fantasy field from adult horror to folklore tales for children. But you also published some of your more overtly horror novels under the name Samuel M Key. Was/is there an overall plan for more in that vein?
The only reason to set the horror novels apart with a pen name was to indicate that they were different from the fantasy. Darker, and more intense, and not for all my readers. I also had a lot of books 'lined up on the runway, waiting for clearance,' as one of my editors put it at the time, so it seemed like a good way to get the books out in a more timely fashion (because we write them to be read). Of course, nowadays I take much longer to write a book, so that's not a problem anymore. And I haven't felt the urge to write the sort of story that would fit under the Samuel M Key by-line.
You have been a regular contributor to anthologies over the years, and must have seen more than most how the market seems to be shrinking. But in recent times there has been a rise in anthologies in the young adult range. Do you see this as encouraging for fantasy as a whole?
So long as those readers continue to read as they age. But a lot of that YA market is actually read by adults, and there's a good reason for that. They've dis-covered that some of the edgier and more interesting fantasy and SF, and even horror, is published as YA. But more importantly, the YA writers seem to care about characterization and plot, as well as fresh ideas, all of which sometimes seem to have fallen by the wayside in the adult market.
Fact or fiction? You have written many essays and reviews over the years. Is writing about writing something that goes with the territory?
I have no idea. I originally wrote a lot of reviews and columns for small press magazines as a way to get my by-line out there. Then I discovered it was something I enjoyed, so even though I can't really afford to use up my writing time with that sort of thing, I still tend to do it. I think it's mostly because I like to run on at the mouth about things I like.
What are you working on now?
I'm just finishing up a novel for Tor that's a bit late because I was unhappy with how it was going and needed to throw it out twice before I felt like I was on the right track. I'll know in a couple of weeks whether it actually works this time.
I'm also preparing the third and final collection of my early short stories for Subterranean Press (Woods and Waters Wild), although a slimmer collection of children's stories called What the Mouse Found will come out first. It's interesting revisiting this very early work, but I really enjoy doing the covers and (in the case of the children's collection) the interior illustrations.
After that, my contractual commitments will all be up-to-date and I haven't decided what I'll start next.
I wish to thank Charles for his time, for delving into his roots for this interview. There is a wealth of further information on his website—on all aspects of the life and works of Charles de Lint.