by Clinton Cyril Somerton
"I never planned to be a writer," asserts Charles de Lint, sitting casually at a dining room table in a downtown Toronto hotel. "For a long, long time, I was just going to be a musician." He ended up being both of these, and more.
An accomplished Celtic musician, journalist, poet, and, more recently, a visual artist, the Ottawa-based de Lint has focused his career primarily on authoring novels and short stories. His most recent novel, and 40th book, is entitled Someplace to Be Flying (Tor Books/H.B. Fenn); it is a story which, like much of his writing, combines elements of fantasy and urban reality to inform a distinctive literary genre: "These days, the current description we're using is Mythic Fiction," he explains. "The main thrust of my work is contemporary - taking place in a contemporary setting - involving ordinary people and how their lives are changed or not changed by some kind of extraordinary occurrence. It's very much mainstream writing with a fantasy or mythic element."
De Lint's interest in mythic stories emerged early in his life. Born in the Netherlands in 1951, Charles immigrated with his family to Canada when he was an infant. The family moved often, however, residing in various places in Canada and elsewhere as his father's job demanded, before they eventually settled in Lucerne (now Aylmer), Quebec. It was during those itinerant years that the young Charles developed a strong affinity to reading books. "Books were the only entertainment I could take with me," he remembers. "They're very portable." He particularly enjoyed books on mythology and folk tales, which included Celtic folklore.
De Lint also loved music and, as a teenager, began playing tin whistle and guitar. Then, in the late 1960's, he discovered Irish traditional music in the form of a recording by musician and storyteller the late Seamus Ennis. "I'd never heard anything like it before," de Lint recalls, "and that's when I fell in love with traditional music . . . (It) was the soundtrack for the folk and fairy tales I'd been devouring for years."
As a young man, de Lint moved to Ottawa, where he worked as a record store employee while playing music at night and on weekends. From the early 1970s, he was a member of the Celtic band Wickentree, which played at numerous venues and festivals throughout the Ottawa Valley and also appeared on television. It seemed, then, that Charles de Lint would remain primarily a professional musician.
During that period, de Lint also wrote prose and poetry, but only for his own enjoyment, he insists. By the mid-70s, however, he had begun collaborating with a visual artist friend to produce illustrated stories. To his surprise and delight, de Lint succeeded in selling some of those stories: "Here was something that I loved to do and people would actually pay me to do it."
For the next several years, de Lint struggled to establish himself as a fantasy/science fiction/horror writer while continuing his work as a musician and record store employee. Then, in the early-80s, one of his novellas was published as part of a collection. From that point, with the encouragement and help of his wife, MaryAnn Harris, his professional writing career blossomed into a full-time occupation.
Over the years, de Lint's literary works have been distributed widely in North America and abroad, and have won numerous international awards in various categories (including a 1998 YALSA Award - Best Books for Young Adults, and the Prix Ozone 1997 for Best Foreign Fantasy Short Story). It is in the genre of Mythic Fiction, in particular, that de Lint has developed singular prowess, as his novel Someplace to Be Flying amply demonstrates.
Someplace to Be Flying is set in the fictitious town of Newford, where photojournalist Lily and taxi driver Hank - inhabitants of two very different social spheres - are brought together during a life-shattering incident whose miraculous outcome defies rational explanation. Bonded in the aftermath of their ordeal, the unlikely pair search for answers through a labyrinth of ominous clues and paranormal experiences which indicate that the city's denizens are not limited merely to humans and animals, but include a more ancient breed: the fabled First People - shape-shifting beings who exist on the fringes of society's consciousness.
As the staggering implications of the First People's existence become increasingly apparent, Hank, Lily, and their circle of friends are gradually drawn on a harrowing odyssey where danger and wonder co-exist, and where individuals must confront their own nature amid an epic struggle that threatens to sunder the fabric of life itself.
Someplace to Be Flying takes readers on a fantastic journey by tapping into deeply rooted and shared human mythologies, and making them vital and accessible again. De Lint's characters reflect a variety of sociological and psychological profiles, and some are highly humanized, elaborated versions of mythological archetypes. De Lint also introduces new characters (even major ones) throughout the book, which constantly changes the dynamics of the story and keeps it fresh and unpredictable.
De Lint's narrative style is sometimes serial, sometimes parallel, with stream-of-consciousness and storytelling elements. The narrative voice changes from first person to third person in various sections, and the point of view shifts frequently among numerous characters, thus adding crucial pieces to the ever-expanding puzzle while creating a sense that the confluence of activities will lead to a spectacular climax.
Though set against the stark backdrop of crime, injustice, dependency, and personal turmoil, Someplace to Be Flying is ultimately an uplifting story; it links the hope of self-discovery to a heightened awareness of the world's possibilities, while bridging the sheer membrane between the mundane and the ethereal.
De Lint hopes the book will inspire people to "pay attention to how many really special things there are in the world. A lot of the supernatural or magical elements in the book stand in, metaphorically, for things that are already in the world as it is . . . (so) if you believe in a more positive world, you can certainly work toward that happening."
As for his personal mythology, de Lint describes it in broad and inclusive terms. "I believe everything has a spirit and I would say its individual and collective," he postulates. "I don't physically see fairies and elves and spirits running around, but I do feel that everything has a spirit - a presence . . .
"(Society's mythology) is expressed in icons, just as it always was," he observes, "except I don't think that they're very good ones anymore: superstars, rock stars, sports figures . . . Beavis and Butthead, Bart Simpson or Seinfeld. They've become the new icons. I don't think it's necessarily a good thing because I don't think they stand up for anything particularly uplifting."
Interviewed before an Indigo bookstore signing and musical performance in Toronto promoting Someplace to Be Flying, de Lint and wife/advisor/representative/musical partner Harris say they lead very active lives. They travel together, on an ongoing basis, to literary conventions and festivals throughout North America, where de Lint often conducts creative writing workshops and seminars. The pair occasionally perform Celtic and American folk tunes and story-songs (including some original material) under the band name Jump At The Sun, but they can be found on a weekly basis playing informally at Celtic music sessions in Ottawa. De Lint is also busy writing his next novel, whose working title is Forests of the Heart; he says the book will have "a very strong Irish base."
Obviously in reference to their full schedules, de Lint sighs, half jokingly, "Our lives are too complicated." Yet he expresses a simple goal for the future: "I'm hoping just to be able to keep on writing and making a living at it."
"It's more of the same," adds MaryAnn Harris. "I think we're living a charmed life; I really feel that we are. It would be nice if we had a bit more time to do all the things we'd like to do. It's just impossible for Charles, for example, to fit in his own painting and drawing at the moment . . . (and) I'd like to paint more. But really, we're so lucky. We're so lucky to have each other and to have this life."
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