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The Inner Landscapes of


By Alex von Thorn

[Charles de Lint was interviewed at the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal on November 3, 2001. Author photo by Beth Gwinn.]

Although the antecedents of fantasy predate the definition of fantasy as a literary genre, you practically invented the contemporary subgenre of urban fantasy, and in particular what one might call the Canadian school of urban fantasy. What made you juxtapose modern identifiable settings with the symbols and themes of traditional fantasy?

The way I started, I didn't actually do it on purpose. I always liked fantasy, but it wasn't interchangeable the way it is today. There wasn't a whole lot of it around, so I was reading great stuff: Tolkien obviously, but also Lord Dunsany, William Morris, [E.R.] Eddison, Patricia McKillip, and Joy Chance. Every one had a very individual voice and kind of story. But a lot of it was where the characters went to a secondary world where it all happened. And because I liked fantasy and folklore and myths, I thought that if I'm going to write a fantasy, I've got to write it in a secondary world. So my short stories and my books were all aimed at that kind of thing at first.

But I wasn't real happy with it, you know? Because I just felt like I was being derivative, writing the kind of books that I don't like to read today. And my wife said, "Listen, you don't read all these fantasies; you read tons of mainstream books. Why don't you combine the two?" And I said, "No, it actually wouldn't work." But we thought about it, and I tried a book, and I was right; it didn't work. But then I tried a second book and something just clicked for me. That was Moonheart. After that happened, all these doors just opened up in my head, and I realized two things: that there were lots of stories to tell there, and also that it was a really good way to tell stories about real-world concerns, but still be able to use fantasy. But the fantasy now are the mythic or folkloric elements, rather than being the sort of setting where everything is wondrous and everything is magical, which to my mind makes none of it that way. [But in my writing,] all of a sudden you have this great juxtaposition of the intrusion of fantasy and how it changes things.

I revere one fan who said that I was doing for fantasy what Stephen King was doing for horror: putting it in the suburbs and in the city. I like that idea. And that's what it is: it's just the idea of real people, just like you and me, being able to turn a corner and everything changes; everything's different. It's really interesting to follow characters and see how that changes them. So that's how it got started.

How do you do research to obtain so much detail and depth when you draw on such unconventional sources as Gypsy culture or native Canadian mythology?

You just do lots of research. If possible, you do primary research. But if you can't, you do secondary research with books. There's a wealth of material out there. It's thinking of writing as art, in other words, so you can use a full palette. I also like to write about things that I don't know about, because it gives me an excuse to find out about it, and the best way [to do that] besides research is to write about it, because then you have to put yourself in those shoes and that skin and try and figure it out. You just have to pay attention and, I think, be respectful.

Some writers approach their craft as a purely artistic effort, but you seem to put an effort into addressing contemporary issues in your work. What advantages do you see in applying fantasy motifs and techniques to modern settings, and what kind of energy do you get from current events to apply in your writing?

Well, I think no matter who you are or what time period you're writing about, you're writing about now. The interesting thing is that if you take a really classical story like, say, the Trojan War, and you read a book that was written in the Twenties, the Forties, one in the Seventies, and one in the year 2000, they're all going to have a very different sensibility because what people are basically writing about, no matter what historical context, is their own time. So I'm just doing it a bit more specifically. I'm writing about my own time right now. What I feel fantasy allows you do do is—and this is kind of difficult to explain—allow you to put the inner landscape on stage. In other words, [you can] use the folkloric and mythic elements as stand-ins for people's internal dialogues and conflicts. You can have your characters talking to what might otherwise be various parts of their egos. In a mainstream novel [that] would be a lot of internal conversations, which I think are boring on the page, but [in fantasy] you can bring it down and have it as action; it's showing the story, not telling. It's not always for that reason; sometimes I'm doing it to play off... [say] you have something horrific like a runaway wife from an abusive household, and the story also illuminates some other dark things in this as well. Sometimes you can play that against something like a flower fairy, that gives it a whole different spin again, but it's still addressing interesting or current problems that need to be dealt with. I think it allows people to read about them without feeling that they're being preached to. Nobody ever wants to hear that there's a lot of homeless people, or that there's a lot of abusive relationships or that sort of thing. But on the other hand we have to talk about it; we can't not have a dialogue about it. This is a way to have a dialogue that feels safe for some people. It starts off feeling safe, but obviously it takes you into dangerous territories, yet it's a different way than if you just plunge a person into it.

You're popular in fandom as a musician. How did your love of music influence your writing?

People ask me that question. I don't know that it does. But I think it allows you a certain cadence in your writing. To be simplistic about it, it's as basic as saying that if you want the action to move quicker, you use short sentences, short paragraphs; if you want to slow things down, longer paragraphs, longer sentences. This is basically like scoring. I almost think it's something that music, maybe, gave me. Because my brain has a musical channel in it, it does it naturally.

The creative endeavour that really made a difference to me in my writing was taking up fine art. I did it because a lot of my characters were artists. Although I had the background in terms of my wife being an artist, and I have lots of friends being artists, I didn't have the hands-on experience. I felt it was important to have that to write about it in a manner that would be realistic. I discovered that when I took up fine art I started seeing things differently and visualizing things differently, and I really helped my writing. It helped me light scenes and place scenes. I don't even know if it actually appears on the page so much as making it more real in my head, and that's what's really important. We have to please ourselves first as writers, and then hope that other people want to read [our work].

With 46 books in 18 years...

Forty-seven, now.

Okay, 47 books—you're a very prolific writer. Would you ever like to put more effort into a single book, to try and reach a deeper level or a wider audience? Are you concerned about the question of quality versus quantity?

Well, first of all, it only seems like I write really fast. Let me backtrack here for a moment. My first book came out in '84. At the time it came out, I'd already written nine novels. Some of them will never see publication, but many of them were published. So at the beginning of my career, I'd be writing maybe two books a year, but I'd have three books come out. I wasn't writing that many books. It used to take me anywhere from nine months to a year to write a book. Now it takes me a year and a half. The only reason it's taking me longer now is, (a) I've got a larger body of work, and I have to step a little further to find something new to talk about, and (b) I'm more critical. It just slows the writing process down.

When I'm writing, all I'm doing is entertaining myself; I'm not even writing for you, or for my readers. I'm writing something I'd like to read [that] no one else has written that I know of. It's very much a creative process. Once that's finished, then I start considering the marketing: is this the book that Tor, or Viking, or whoever I'm selling it to at the time is going to want, and how can it be marketed and what can we do with it. But I put the same effort into everything I write. Whether it's a YA book, a pseudonymous book, whether it's a "de Lint" book, it doesn't matter. It's all the same effort.

Given your counterculture background...

My what?

Being a street musician in Toronto.

Not Toronto; Ottawa. But I did actually work on the street in Toronto as well.

...back in the Sixties, how are you faring with the actual business of writing today? Are publishers changing for you? Do you feel you miss opportunities being away from a literary centre like New York or Toronto?

No, it's actually becoming less and less important now. For myself especially, because once you establish a bit of credential, then you don't actually need the "ins" because you've already got some to start with. The way it works today with e-mail, being able to send a file, it just doesn't matter where you live; you can just send stuff. It's very easy.

Are there any advantages to working in a small city like Ottawa?

Yeah, I like living in Ottawa; it's a great place to live. I don't know if there's an advantage; maybe it keeps you a little more real. I don't know a lot of writers locally, or even in Canada that much, because when I started writing fiction, there was, and there is still, no real market for science fiction in Canada. You can't go to McClelland & Stewart and sell them a fantasy or a science fiction novel. They don't have a line. So I started, right at the beginning, marketing to the States. Because of that, all my contacts are in the States; most of the writer friends I've met are in the States. I communicate with them—it used to be by mail; now it's by e-mail, so I know them better. At home, I don't hang out with writers; I hang out with musicians, with artists, or just friends who have their own very real lives that are just as interesting to me as the lives of people involved in creative endeavours.

With such a wide range of work, what would you like to accomplish as a writer that you haven't done yet? Have you ever thought about futuristic science fiction, or non-genre fiction?

I've written futuristic science fiction, a book called Svaha. I've written horror, I've written a straight mystery novel which came out last summer, I'm into all kinds of stuff. I write what's in my mood to write. Sometimes I try to channel [author] Nina [Kiriki] Hoffman, but it doesn't seem to work that often, but she's so individual, what can you do?

As you've said, you read Tolkien, like most fantasy writers. Who are some of the lesser-known writers who have influenced your work? Who are some contemporary colleagues whom you most admire today?

Oh, I could go on forever about that. Probably the writer who influenced me more than anybody else was a writer named William Morris, a pre-Raphaelite. He was a furniture designer, a one-man Renaissance. But he also had the Kelmscott Press. I have a 24-volume collected works of his, so he wrote a fair amount. He's the guy who invented the fantasy novel, [where] the entire novel is set in a secondary world. My early writing was all these long narrative poems in a mock Old English, like he wrote. None of them have ever been published, and probably never will be.

By the time I started publishing, the influences of Morris and, let's say, Lord Dunsany, I guess were two of my biggest influences—weren't happening. When I started getting published it was in the small press, and I was being heavily influenced by people like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, and then by the time I got to the novels, it was expected that [I would write] a few Tolkienesque novels at the beginning. And after that, everything kind of influences me. These days, I think everything still influences me, and that's good; to me, all art is a dialogue. When I hear about writers that don't read, I just look at them and I think they're nuts. How else can you have a dialogue with our contemporaries? Or, actually, you don't have to be dealing with contemporaries; the neat thing is that you can have a dialogue with anybody, with someone who, say, died 600 years ago. There's too many [influences] to count. I always say Barbara Kingsolver, because I think she's a brilliant writer. Alice Hoffman is another; Thomas King; there's so many writers—Joe Lansdale, about half of Stephen King's stuff.

What are some books that we'll see coming from you in the next year or so, and how are they different from what you've done to date?

The next book is a short novel coming from Subterranean Press called Seven Wild Sisters. It's all set in my Newford world, but it's set in an Appalachian part of the world which people will have visited slightly in some of the other stories, and in The Onion Girl as well. Then there's a collection of short stories coming from Tor next fall. And I'm doing another collection of stories for Subterranean Press which will be early stories like Triskell Tales; there's going to be three volumes eventually. I'm doing a YA collection with Viking Books; I don't know when that's actually coming out. And I'm working on a new novel from Tor, in 2003.


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