by Mike Timonin
It was with some trepidation that I approached the front door. After all, how does one approach a personal hero? However, it had taken almost a month to set up the meeting (more my busy schedule than his, I suspect, but that's neither here nor there), so I rang the doorbell of Charles de Lint's house. Contrary to popular rumour, it isn't the Gruagagh's Tower of the Kinrowan books, although it's not far from there. At any rate, I was greeted by the man himself, who is quiet and soft spoken, and very pleasant to talk to (he also brews a mean cup of tea...). I was set entirely at ease. As soon as I had my beverage, we began the interview.
M. -You've been influential in the creation of the "Urban Fantasy" genre. Where do the concepts come from? Why this style and not the "traditional" fantasy world?
C. -Actually, I did write two novels in the traditional genre; The Riddle of the Wren and The Harp of the Grey Rose are both set in a mythical, secondary world. It was MaryAnn--my wife--who got me started on urban fantasy. She pointed out that I had wider interests than the traditional style would allow me to utilise, so I tried writing in a conventional setting. I didn't like the first attempt, but the second one worked for me, and I've been doing it ever since.
I didn't set out to create a genre. The term "Urban Fantasy" is connected to my description of the Jack of Kinrowan books, which I called "Novels of Urban Faerie," and it's followed me ever since. However, what I usually see being described as urban fantasy is high fantasy transposed into a contemporary scene, you know, grand quests and the like. I think I've moved on to different things; my novels are more character driven now.
M. -Music seems integral to the genre, not only in your writing, but in the writing of others who write in a similar style. Is it just coincidence that so many authors writing urban fantasy are also musically inclined?
C. -Well, I can't speak for other writers, but for myself, I try to write about what interests me. I play music, so it gets into my novels. It's not usually a major theme. It's there in The Little Country, Drink Down the Moon and Trader, but it doesn't usually play a big role in most of my novels.
M. -No, but you frequently refer to music that people are listening to on the radio, or to bands they know, or friends who play instruments.
C. -That's true. I think that's because that's the sort of people I know in real life. I have to spend a lot of time with my characters, so I try hard to make them the sort of people I find interesting, the sort of people I would want to spend that much time with.
M. -Speaking of music, do you have a favourite band, or musician?
C. -My musical taste is very eclectic. As a rule, I like music that you can hear all the instruments in, so not heavy metal or concert orchestras. My favourite album is by Alan Stivell: Renaissance of the Celtic Harp. In retrospect, the appearance of that album was something of a mixed blessing because he was the first person to record traditional music on a traditional harp. It struck a chord and now there are just too many other people who are doing the same thing. You have to remember, though, that like Tolkien, Stivell went back to original sources for his material. The harp was built from etchings and old descriptions.
Of course, my favourite album changes from time to time; it depends on what I feel like. Stivell's is my favourite over all, but what I'm listening to repeatedly right now is Steve Earle's new album, El Corazón.
M. -Who, in your opinion, is the most influential author of the 20th Century?
C. -That's hard to say, understanding that "influential" isn't the same as "good." There's Tolkien, of course, but again, he's somewhat of a mixed blessing. Before him, there wasn't a fantasy genre; his editors and publishers had to create it. Now too many people try to write like him and every novel has to be a trilogy, though the latter isn't his fault, since his book wasn't originally a trilogy. His publishers broke up a longer novel into three shorter ones, purely for economic reasons. But we've been stuck with the idea ever since.
To return to your question, I'd have to pick Stephen King as one of the most influential authors. There were other writers that inspired him, certainly, but he was really the person who distilled the concept of extraordinary events affecting ordinary people. It's actually very similar to what I'm doing, except he works in the horror field and the ordinary people we write about are different. His tend to be rural, whereas mine are urban. It's a different head-space.
People condemn King for being too commercial--almost solely on his immense output--but I don't think that's a fair assessment. He doesn't have to write as much as he does; he's simply driven to write. And it's not as though he's deliberately writing a commercial novel and then a "serious" one. It doesn't work that way. You just don't want to keep writing the same sort of thing over and over. So you might write something that's light, and then you'll try something a little heavier, and then you might go back to something light, or you might go somewhere else entirely. I do it, too.
My favourite author is Barbara Kingsolver, but she's not particularly influential. Many people haven't even heard of her. There is a King link, though, since she's in his band. It's something of a joke; Stephen King, Dave Barry, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan and some others formed it for authors' conferences.
M. -Can you describe your writing process, or is that too big?
C. -I think I can. It's not a simple, linear process, but rather one that's more organic. It's like reading a book, except I have to type the words before I can read them. I don't use an outline, although I know many authors do. Instead, I write a lot of material to get the character's voice right, sometimes hundreds of pages, but not all of that goes into the novel. It's probably not the most efficient process. Working without an outline can take you to dead-ends, sometimes, and then you have to go back to find where the story stopped working--where it stopped going where you wanted to get to. Sometimes it's a few pages back, sometimes it's several hundred. And you have to throw out all those pages and start again from that point. I guess I lose a lot of time that way, unlike someone who uses an outline, but it's what works for me. Writing from an outline bores me and that's the last thing an author should feel when working on a book.
It's strange, when I started writing, I thought it would get easier as I went on, but it doesn't. It actually gets harder, each novel I write. I have to find something new to say, and because I don't want to repeat what I've said before, I have to go deeper, further.
M. -Do you find that the computer changes the way you write?
C. -Yes, I do more re-writes now [laughs]. I can do my pre-writing straight to the screen, so I'm making changes as I write. I used to write the whole thing, give it to MaryAnn for editing and comments before I did a final draft. I still do that, but now, by the time she gets it, it's gone through any number of revisions. I'm not sure that the computer makes the stories that much better--in fact, it makes the process longer, sometimes--but at least I don't have to type everything out again, so there is an element of labour-saving that occurs.
M. -This is the classic "Author Question," but do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
C. -Actually, I do and it's very short: Read a lot, and write a lot. And that's it.
Read a lot to see how it's done. I don't understand these authors who claim they don't read other things while they're writing. Art, not just writing, but painting, music, drama, are all a form of dialogue. Artists influence each other, and you have to be paying attention to those other voices. I believe that, if you aren't listening, you shouldn't be talking.
Now when you read for instructional purposes, you have the greatest novelists as your tutors. When you find a character you really like, ask yourself, "Why do I like this character? What has the author done to make him attractive to me?" This teaches you how to create characters as realistic yourself. The same goes for dialogue, motivation--all the tricks of the trade. They're in the books you're reading. All you need to do is study them to see how it's done.
Now I'm not saying you should stop reading purely for enjoyment, you should never do that. But go back to books you really liked, or even books you really hated, and re-read them, find out what made them memorable, what worked and what didn't.
Then write a lot for the practise. Some people are surprised that writing actually takes practise. They say, "I've written some book reports, and some essays, I write letters to my friends, I can do this," but it's not that easy. These same people wouldn't go out and buy a piano and expect to be on stage in a month playing like that [indicates the stereo, which is playing a jazz trio], yet they expect their first attempt at a book to be published instantly. It just doesn't work that way.
Also, you have to keep writing--you have to keep your chops up. Write for fifteen minutes a day, instead of putting it off for the weekend and trying to cram all your writing into an eight hour frenzy. Wake up half an hour earlier than usual, if necessary, and write then. You're not going to keep everything you write, but none of it's wasted. It's all practise.
M. -I was going to ask you about your plans for Christmas here...
C. -Oh, you know, the usual stuff. I don't usually get as much work done over Christmas since there's always so much going on, so many other things to do. It's very easy to lose the continuity that a novel requires over the holidays.
M. -But instead, I thought I'd ask you about your new book, it's coming out in January?
C. -February, actually. Well, it's got a February release date, but who knows when it will actually hit the shelves?
This is actually the hard part, having to come up with a catchy short description of a novel, like "Cinderella meets the Terminator." It's not that easy. If you could produce a brief description of the book, why write it in the first place?
Anyway, the basis of Someplace to Be Flying is that at the beginning of time, there were animal-people, hybrids who weren't completely one or the other. The first people, if you like. These animal-people become, over time, the animals and people we know today, but there are still some of those original beings wandering around. The novel is about people who run into these creatures--the impact it has on their lives.
The animal-people I'm using in the book are mostly corvids-- crows or ravens and the like...
M.-Like the Indian in Trader?
C. -Well, it's sort of a different way of looking at some of the issues raised in Trader, though it is set in Newford again.
M. -Where exactly did Newford come from? Is it based on a real city, or is it totally made up?
C. -It was actually something of an accident. I had some stories that didn't fit into Ottawa, and I don't like to write about places I've never seen. So, one day when an editor asked me to write something, I created this imaginary place based on cities I've visited over the years, but never lived in long enough to be able to write comfortably about them. I liked the story and the setting, so when I was asked for another story a few months later by another editor, I set it there as well. So Newford has built up over the years, containing elements of real cities in it. Ottawa. Toronto. London, England. New York. Chicago. L.A.
Actually, I wish now that I hadn't built it up the way I did. I never really codified it. For a long time it didn't even have a name. Now I find I have to go back and look up where things are. I almost wish some enterprising reader would go back and collate things for me, come up with a concordance and some sort of unified map of the city. It would make things so much easier.
M. -Don't look at me, I just read them... Here's the last question. Is there a question you've always wanted to answer, but no one has ever asked?
C. -No, not really. After so many interviews, you get asked pretty much everything. Especially, since I also play music, I've participated in interviews dealing with that aspect of my life as well.
M. -So, nothing you want the world to hear but have never had the opportunity to say. Well then, what's the strangest question anyone's ever asked you?
C. -I don't know about strangest. The most disturbing is when someone assumes that because of what you write, you have all the answers. I don't. Society has created this image of artists, this mystique. The same goes for actors, musicians, sports stars, etc. It's as though there's this sort of magic around us, like we're doing something that no one else can do. Well, anyone can do these things; what you need is to want to do them badly and put in the time it takes to get good at it.
I think that people should look as much at "ordinary" people, too. Plumbers, mechanics, office workers. We need them, too. They're important, but they get ignored. Of course, sometimes the reverse happens. You'll find people asking themselves, "Why should that person be special just because they can write or play music?" and I don't think that's fair either. But just as we need food for the body, we need food for the spirit, too.
The best questions, or reactions, perhaps, are when I get a letter that says, "After reading your book, I was inspired to show my poetry, or take up painting, or start playing music again." Equally, there are letters which say, "I just read your book, and I know that you're just writing about a fictional thing, but it describes me perfectly. It makes me feel as if I'm not the only one who's feeling that way, or going through that thing." Those are great, too.
M. - "I'm not the only one who sees fairies!"
C.. -Actually, that's one of the greatest disappointments for some of my readers. I don't see fairies--though I'd certainly love to. The troll under Laurier Street Bridge is just a metaphor, really. You can go down and stand under the bridge and get the same feeling as if there were a troll down there--he doesn't have to actually exist. That was the whole point of those stories. I was trying to show how cities have magic and souls, too. How you don't have to go out into the country, or to some mystical site, to find magic, since it's already all around you. I can go out my front door and stare up at the stars, and I get as strong a rush of emotion as I would in the country. Not the same, but as potent in its own way.
M. -Wordsworth vs. Whitman.
C. -Yes, like that.
With that, your intrepid editor acquired an autograph for his copy of Jack of Kinrowan, and left the house, with a tentative promise to go and see Charles' band playing at Mick's Irish Pub on Thursdays. It was a lovely afternoon, and Mr. de Lint is by far one of the most "reader friendly" authors I've had the pleasure to communicate with. So, I guess meeting your personal hero doesn't have to be that difficult. It all depends on the person.
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