by Lawrence Schimel
Charles de Lint first began publishing stories and verse in 1978, but it was in 1984-when his first two novels Moonheart and The Riddle Of The Wren were published-that he really burst onto the fantasy scene. He won the William L. Crawford Award for Best New Fantasy Author of 1984, presented by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and has gone on to publish many deftly-imagined fantasy novels and stories. He is perhaps best known for his urban fantasies, positing the interactions of the realms of faerie (or other traditional mythologies) with the modern world.
This interview was conducted as a "silent" interview, taking place in print with questions and answers going back and forth over a few months of correspondence.
LS: Let's begin at the beginning, I guess: you were born in The Netherlands, and grew up in the "army brat" lifestyle. While you often focus on the lives of nomadic peoples-tinkers and gypsies-your work is especially grounded in the idea of place. Ottawa, in particular, plays an important role in you work, especially many of your earlier novels; how long ago did you move to Ottawa?
CdL: Although my family travelled a fair amount up until I was ten or eleven, we ended up settling in a rural community called (at the time) Lucerne, in Québec, across the river from Ottawa. Because of the proximity to the city, it was fairly easy to take a bus or hitchhike into town when I was a teenager, so I spent half my time there and half in Aylmer, a small town that eventually swallowed Lucerne. Eventually I moved across the river, simply because I felt like living in a more urban environment and it was closer to where I worked at the time-in a record store. Then I met my wife MaryAnn and didn't want to leave the area.
LS: What was it that attracted you to the city? Were you yet a writer when you moved to Ottawa? Does it have a lively writer's community?CdL: I've always written, but it wasn't until the late seventies that I considered it as a possible career. Up until that point I was far more interested in playing music and quite enjoyed working in retail. Writing was a private pleasure, shared with local friends and correspondents.
LS: I know you are closely associated with an SF bookstore there, The House of Speculative Fiction, which plays a role in your novel Yarrow, and which published a limited edition of your Borderlands novella Berlin (later reprinted in the anthology Life On The Border).
CdL: My association with the House of Speculative Fiction came about more because of my friendship with the owners.
LS: Is it simply because it is the city in which you live, and are therefore most familiar with, that Ottawa appears so frequently in your work, or is there something else about the place that especially lends itself as a setting? The Little Country, for instance, while as firmly rooted in a particular place, is set in Cornwall, where you have not, to the best of my knowledge, ever lived.CdL: Ottawa appeared frequently in my earlier work because this is where I live and believing as I do that there are no dull settings or characters, only dull writers, I enjoyed being able to set stories here and have characters run through its familiar streets. Also, though it may be an odd thing for a fantasy writer to say, I don't particularly like to write about a place where I haven't at least visited. Even in my secondary world fantasies, I've at least visited most of the settings-or rather, similar ones in our own world. Much of what I write requires a root in the real world and when I was starting out, I couldn't afford to go anywhere else, so I wrote about Ottawa and the area around it.
LS: Your recent books have largely concerned the imaginary city of Newford which you are creating. The first Newford story I saw was "Uncle Dobbin's Parrot Fair" which was published in Asimov's Sf Magazine in 1987. It wasn't until you had a series of Newford stories in Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine, though, that the city began to take on an identity. Did you know, at the time you were writing these stories in Pulphouse, that they were part of the same setting as "Uncle Dobbin's Parrot Fair"? Do you create the bits and piece of Newford as you need them, or have you mapped out sections of the city and then navigate these imaginary streets in your stories?CdL: Much as I enjoyed setting books in Ottawa, after awhile I felt I needed a change. But since I hadn't lived long enough in another large urban centre, I wasn't comfortable setting a story in someplace like the Bronx, or East L.A., or London, England. Still, I had stories that wanted to be set in places like that.
LS: You have a very close affinity for gypsies in your work, it seems-the novel Mulengro, and stories such as "Romano Drom"-and portray them in a very positive light. Do you know any gypsies, either in Ottawa or from growing up during your own semi-nomadic childhood? Is your knowledge about them derived from books and stories-the myth of the gypsy-or personal experience? Where did you discover so much about their language, which is oral. Storytelling is an important aspect of your work, and also of gypsy culture. Were there stories of and by the gypsies you heard what drew your attention to them? Or perhaps after you began to study them, you discovered their oral culture as well?CdL: I don't feel that I have a close affinity for Gypsies in particular. Rather I'm interested in "the outsider," into which category they certainly fit. It's the same reason the characters I like to write about the most are the outsiders who don't fit into regular society, even in my secondary world books. Now some choose to be outsiders, some have no choice, but they're all fascinating.
LS: How does gypsy music fit into their culture and stories, and your own writings? Do you play any gypsy music, perhaps aspects of it fused with the music of other cultures?
CdL: I don't play Gypsy music, although some of the Celtic music I play comes out of the Tinker tradition in Ireland, but Tinkers are a whole different kettle of fish.
LS: The figure of the Trickster, in various of his guises, is a recurring and important theme in your work; when did you first "meet" the Trickster, in your own reading or story-listening? Did you know immediately that he would become a touchstone in your work, or was it only after he kept cropping up that you began to realize this?CdL: I first met Trickster in old myths, folktales, Aesop's fables and the like when I was very young-preteens, at least. And if you include Bugs Bunny, Heckle & Jeckle and other more contemporary incarnations, perhaps earlier still.
LS: Is there some essential connection (for you/in general) between the Trickster and storytelling (I think of the final lines of Jane Yolen's poem "The Storyteller," which you published in a chapbook of her work: "It is all true,/It is not true./The more I tell you,/The more I shall lie./What is story/But jesting Pilate's cry?/I am not paid to tell you the truth.")?
CdL: I think of those lines of Jane's as relating more to what storytelling does: we use lies to tell the truth.
LS: Shamanism and totems seem very important talismans in your work. Especially books such as Svaha are very deeply rooted in Native American traditions and mythology, although elements of these cultures also crop up in others of your works; these same elements are also present in the druidic traditions from which the fey you often write about are descended. Do you have a personal totem?
CdL: I don't have a personal totem, because I'm not from a culture that has totems, but I've had a long fondness for certain creatures, particularly badgers, owls, canids and corvids.
LS: What is your own religious upbringing?
CdL: I was raised Protestant; presently I'm vaguely animistic, but follow only two real tenets that seem to crop up in many religions: treat others as you'd have them treat you, and try to leave the world a bit of a better place than it was when you arrived. I figure if everybody did that, simplistic as it might sound, we'd soon have all of the world's problems solved.
LS: The theme of a dream stealer shows up in many of your novels, especially Drink Down The Moon and Memory And Dream, an evil figure who robs the very stuff of creativity from the character's souls. Do you remember your dreams? Do your dreams become incorporated into your fiction? Do you dream about your characters ever?
CdL: I don't dream much, or rather, I rarely remember my dreams. And even more rarely retain those that I do. Dreams don't play an active role as a source for my writing although I do like to use them in my writing. They're a good way of bringing a character's inner landscape "on stage," serving much the same purpose as many of the magical beings-dark, light and amoral-can.
LS: When you sit down to write, what distinguishes the structure of a story vs. a novel for you? Many of your stories seem more like small novels, even to the point of numbered sections like micro-chapters. Is there a certain scope about an idea which tells you this will be a certain length?CdL: Stories are shorter.
LS: Some of your novels are expanded from earlier stories; The Harp Of The Grey Rose was first "The Fane of the Grey Rose" in Andrew Offutt's Swords Against Darkness Iv, and Marion Zimmer Bradley published a series of your stories in her Sword & Sorceress collections which later were braided into the framework of a novel. How is this different than writing a novel "from scratch" as it were?
CdL: I would say that The Harp Of The Grey Rose is the exception, rather than the rule. The only other one that comes to mind is Into The Green, where the first three sections or so are based on short stories. In both cases, the novels don't expand the story, but carry on from the end of it-although I did fudge with Harp and change the "end" of the story as it appeared in novella form so that I could carry on with it more comfortably at the longer length.
LS: What is it like to write short fiction in a world you've also written novels in, or other stories? Is it different? You are saved a lot of trouble by not needing to reinvent the wheel, as it were, in terms of the setting, but you must also walk that fine line of making the story accessible to those who've never before read those other work while not boring those who have.
CdL: It's actually more trouble to do so. There's all the detail to keep straight-what goes where, the relationships between characters, timelines, etc. But it can be fun, obviously, or why would we do it?
LS: Your Newford stories have been collected into two volumes, and because of the strong sense of place you've created, they hold together in a way that is larger than simply a collection of short stories, because of their common characters and backgrounds. In writing these stories, are they more like chapters of a larger story-arc, or do you group them together later?CdL: The whole idea of a "Newford collection" came from my editor at Tor, Terri Windling, not from me. I didn't even realize I had enough stories to make up a collection until she pointed it out by telling me she wanted to buy one.
LS: Do you alter these stories at all when they are collected, to make them flow more connectedly?
CdL: The stories aren't altered when they're collected.
LS: How does writing in someone else's world affect you? You have written two novels in Philip Jose Farmer's The Dungeon series, packaged by Byron Preiss, and also wrote a novel for Byron Preiss based on paintings by Brian Froud. The Froud paintings, admittedly, share many elements with the novels you write on your own; what was the experience of writing these two books like for you and how did they differ, from each other and from the work you do on your own?CdL: The Dungeon novels and the Froud project were completely different. In The Dungeon books we were following a certain charted path-albeit my books were based on outlines of about a paragraph long that basically said something along the lines of, "they get from here to there." Because I had to write the book at a certain time to fit my own schedule, my first book (third in the series) was actually the first written of the six-the other two writers hadn't turned in their work yet. I checked in with my collaborators on either side to make sure I took up the characters in the right spot, and left them off again where they should be, but otherwise I got to do pretty much what I wanted with them. I didn't get to read the other books until I began my second in the series (book five) and then I followed the same procedure.
LS: While you write often about the act of creation, you are also a businessman. What are your writing habits? Do you treat writing as a job? Do you write regularly, on a certain time-frame? Do you write full-time? You mentioned a library job in one of your letters.CdL: I believe a writer (or any creative person) has to be two people. When you're creating, the only consideration has to be that you create your work from the heart, that it's as truthful and strong a work as you can make it. Market shouldn't enter into the equation-unless, of course, you're using the theme of some anthology as a springboard, but even then the work should be true to yourself, not geared towards a particular audience.
LS: Have you held other jobs? Do you prefer doing something non-writing related?
CdL: I've been a full-time writer now for thirteen years. Before that, my main sources of income came from working in a record store and playing in bands. The library job I mentioned is a position of writer-in-residence at two local public libraries that has me in the libraries three days a week, critiquing manuscripts and talking to writers about whatever they want to come in and talk to me about.
LS: I know you are also a Celtic musician; do you perform regularly in Ottawa (and elsewhere)?
CdL: I still play music, but it's become very part-time. My band rarely plays a regular gig, though MaryAnn and I do host a regular Celtic music session at a local pub and the other members of the band often drop by to sit in with whoever else happens to show up that night.
LS: Although you have published some sword & sorcery novels-The Harp Of The Gray Rose, Wolf Moon, Into The Green, and in a way the novella "The Fair at Emain Macha"-most of your work is contemporary, usually of myth transplanted into the modern world, or finding magic in the mundane. Is it that tension which draws your imagination most-strongly, of magic vs. technology?CdL: I don't really consider any of the titles you mentioned as sword & sorcery, except for "The Fair at Emain Macha." The others I think of as high fantasy-secondary world novels.
LS: Do you still enjoy high fantasy? Even though you no longer regularly write much of it, do you still read it for pleasure?
CdL: After twenty-five some years of reading high fantasy, I find it hard to read now. Too often I can read the first few chapters and pretty much finish the book in my head without having to read it. The details would be different, perhaps, but the tropes are very much old hat. There are exceptions, of course, and I delight in them when I find them. For example, Patricia McKillip seems to always be able to put a new spin on what's become the traditions of high fantasy. And there are others, but they're too few and far between. I find some of the most interesting fantasy is now being published outside the genre: Thomas King, Jeanette Winterson, Alice Hoffman, etc.
LS: You published three horror novels under the pseudonym Samuel Key, though the copyright page bears the name Charles de Lint. You had a horror novella under your own name in the Tor "triple" Cafe Purgatorium, and have regularly published in various horror anthologies; many of your fantasies also have very dark elements to them, often a vampiric evil. Was this alternate byline strictly a marketing-related decision? I can't imagine, having served as Vice President of the Horror Writers of America, that it was from any stigma of being labelled a "horror writer".
CdL: You're partly right. The full explanation can be found in the Sam Key section on the FAQ page of this site.
LS: When you read for pleasure, do you turn to horror often? Do you read outside the genres you work in much?
CdL: I read as broadly as possible, for pleasure, yes, but also to stay aware of what's going on in the field of literature at large. I haven't read much horror recently, mostly because it started to feel as repetitive as high fantasy-again, with exceptions, of course. But I'm having trouble tracking down much that's both well-written and can keep me surprised.
LS: In your work you often dwell on the way myth and stories are told and retold, time and time again. Do you reread books often? What are some of your favorites, books that you turn to time and again?
CdL: I don't reread books as often as I'd like to, mostly because of a lack of time. Trying to stay abreast of the new books, doing research for my own work, reading (and when I say this, I mean selected articles as they seem appropriate and/or interesting) some seventy magazines a month, it's difficult to find the time. But the first thing I'll reread when I do have some time, are some of Barbara Kingsolver's earlier novels.
LS: You've always had a review column, for various periodicals. There is that old saying "Those who can do, those who can't teach or write about it." You obviously can, and yet you also write about it. Do you think that, as a writer yourself, you approach reviewing differently than someone who is solely a critic?
CdL: I don't think about it that way. I think of it as sitting down with friends and talking about books I like that they might have missed, with occasional forays into more familiar territory to provide touchstones for the readers to gauge my taste. I tend not to write bad reviews simply because there are too many good books to cover and I don't really feel like reading a bad book all the way through, simply to write a review of it.
LS: Are the reviews you write the kind of reviews you'd like for your own books? That depth of understanding/attention?
CdL: What I like in a review, and try to provide, is: what is the book about and is it any good? If the theme is worth discussing, I'll do so. If something in the author's background adds understanding/resonance to their work, I'll bring it up. What I hate are reviews that are simply vehicles for character-assassinations. I've been victim to a couple-the most amusing being a fellow who decided that all my biographical material had to be a lie, and then went on to dismantle the book in question based on that fact.
LS: Does your reviewing ever become a conflict of interest, either to your own writing, or wanting to review (or not review) books by friends?
CdL: I don't understand how a review could become a conflict with my own writing. I'll review books by friends, but since-as I mentioned above-I only review what I think are good books, I don't see that who wrote it is a problem. These days I only have my column in F&SF, which means I can only cover 3 books a month, so there are lots of great books I never get around to; if you're a friend, or you're someone I don't know who wrote a wonderful book, my not writing about your work has no hidden agenda.
LS: I'd like to ask you about writing for other media. I know you've scripted a few comics, Warlock 5, and most-recently a short for Charles Vess. Your prose is often lush with detail and metaphor; how is scripting different for you? Working so visually, yet not being able to control the imagery as precisely as you're accustomed to, the teamwork involved?CdL: The Warlock 5 comic was a bit of a disaster. I stepped in to help out a friend, only to discover that I had walked into an ongoing creative struggle between the previous writer and artist and the publisher. By that time I'd turned in a number of scripts and I felt bad about the whole business, but it was too late.
LS: How is the collaboration of comics different for you than the collaboration of music?
CdL: Since I don't write music with other people, I can't answer that.
LS: Years ago, you published a small press fantasy magazine, and also a small press, Triskell Press. I know you're busy, but do you miss editing?
CdL: Not really. And especially not after coming off a second six-month stint as a writer-in-residence at a local library. There's simply too little time.
LS: What was it you were looking for in a story, as an editor? Was this different than what you look for in a story now, as a reader? Did you have an overall mission or vision for the press, and the chapbooks and magazines you published?CdL: No, I looked for the same thing. The writers had to engage me as a reader-if they could do that, they had a sale.
LS: You still publish chapbooks each Christmas for distribution to friends and family. A number of these have been reprinted in other venues. How did this tradition start, though, the Christmas chapbooks? Did Triskell Press evolve out of these chapbooks, or the other way around?CdL: No, Triskell Press was primarily to promote other writers and artists. Charles Saunders and I used some of our own work in the magazines, but that was only as a cost-saving factor-we didn't have to pay ourselves the way we did other contributors. Considering we lost money on every issue, that money saved was important.
LS: To conclude, I'd like to know what projects you're working on currently, as well as learning what's already completed and awaiting publication, to give readers an idea of what to expect from you next.
CdL: The next original book will be Trader-you can get a sneak preview at the Tor website. I also have a list there of forthcoming stories, like a comic book script I recently turned in to Charles Vess for his Ballads And Sagas book.
As for what I'm working on now, it's a novel concerning crows and ravens and magic in an urban setting. "Crow Girls" in an upcoming issue of F&SF is a good preview of the sort of mood, although the only characters from it who'll appear in the novel are the crow girls and the unnamed 1st person narrator. I'd tell you more, but I don't like to talk too much about works-in-progress because it steals the magic of actually writing it for me.
LS: Thank you, Charles.
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