by Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne M. Valente appeared on the Center's panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Gender in Science Fiction and Fantasy, on September 18th in downtown Brooklyn (watch the video by clicking on the event link).
She walks into my life legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties. Her shoes are red; her eyes are green. She’s an Italian flag in occupied territory, and I fall for her like Paris. She mixes my metaphors like a martini and serves up my heart tartare. They all do. Every time. They have to. It’s that kind of story.
The lady in question stands in the corner of my office, lighting the cigarette dictated by tradition with shaking hands.
“You gotta help me, mister,” she says. I’m a miss, but that doesn’t matter. In situations like this, you have to stick to the formula. She’s the damsel in distress, I see that right away. I’m her knight in shining armor, even if that armor is a size eight slingback in Antique Pearl.
“Tell me all your troubles,” I say, and pour her a whiskey, straight. She drinks it, leaves a frosty red lip-print on the glass.
And she takes a deep breath that makes her black dress shift just so. She tells me a man is after her because he wants her heart. He chases her through the dark, through the neon forest of rainy streets. Or she has this brother, see, with a withered arm he carries in a sling, crooked like a bird’s wing. She was supposed to protect him from their father but she just wasn’t strong enough. Or her stepmother can’t stand the sight of her and beats her every night for a dozen sins. Or she’s waited and waited for a child but nothing doing. Or she pricked her finger on a needle when she was sixteen and oh, the things she’s done to keep on pricking. Or she woke up and all her savings accounts were gone, the money turned worthless overnight.
Maybe it’s simple: the mirror said she wasn’t pretty anymore. Maybe it’s complicated, and she got in over her head, and now she has three nights to cough up a name or an ugly little man is going to take her son. I’ve heard them all. It’s what I do. I’m not so much an investigator as what you might call a consultant. Step right up; show me your life. I’ll show you the story you’re in. Nothing more important in this world, kid. Figure that out and you’re halfway out of the dark.
Call them fairy tales, if that makes you feel good. If you call them fairy tales, then you don’t have to believe you’re in one.
It’s all about seeing the pattern—and the pattern is always there. It’s a vicious circle: the story gets told because the pattern repeats, and the pattern repeats because the story gets told. A girl comes in with mascara running down her face and says that she slept with her professor because she thought he’d love her forever, she wanted to walk in his rarified world of books and gin parties and wickedly sardonic quips instead of treading water in her dreary home town. She tried to speak the way his friends did and dress the way he liked and write the way he did himself, and now he’s gone and she’s got this knife, see, but not a lot of courage. She’s in so much pain. Every step is like walking on knives.
And I say: “Sweetheart, you gave up your voice for him. That was bound to go badly. Now, how do you want to proceed?”
Because there’s a choice. There’s always a choice. Who do you want to be? You can break this tale, once you’ve got a sightline on it. That’s why they come to me. Because I can open up my files and tell them who they are. Because I’ve got a little Derringer in my desk with six bullets in it like pomegranate seeds. Because I have the hat, crooked at just the right angle, that says I can save them.
So who do you want to be? Sure, no great loss to be the ingenue, sacrificing yourself for your love. Put away that knife, fix your make-up, drop his class, watch him with his hand on the waist of some blonde thing at the faculty party—never forgetting that she’s in a story too, and you can’t tell which one by looking at her, and maybe she’s the true bride and maybe she’s bleeding in her six hundred dollar shoes to convince him she’s the right girl—become like dancing foam on the waves of his society: glittering, beautiful, tragic. Maybe that’ll buy you what you’re looking for. But it’s not the only solution. Sometimes it’s better to choose the knife, cut his tenure, go back home, where you’ll be exotic and urbane, for all your experience in that strange, foreign world.
I don’t judge. I just give them options. And sometimes the best thing is to put on a black dress and become a wicked stepmother. There’s power in that, if you’re after power.
And then there’s the back alley deals, the workarounds, the needles and the camels. You can turn around in the dark, with the man who wants your heart looming so big, so big over you, and you can give it to him, so bright and red and pure that it destroys him. Getting what you want has that effect, more often than you think. But it’s a dangerous thing, the intimate exchange of hearts in the shadows, and sometimes the man in the dark walks off with everything anyway. You can burn every spinning wheel in the kingdom. You can cut your hair before he ever gets the chance to climb up. It is possible to decline the beanstalk. You can let the old witch dance at your wedding, the kind of forgiveness that would wake the dead and sleeping. You can just walk away, get on a horse, and go wake some other maiden from her narrative coffin, if you’re brave, if you’re strong. What do you want? Do you want to escape? Or were you looking for that candy house?
Sometimes they don’t believe me. They can’t see what I see. They can’t even see how we play out a story right there in my office: her showing a little leg, me tipping my hat over my eyes, the dusty blinds, the broken sign beyond my window, blinking HOTEL into the inky night. It’s a pretty broad schtick, but it helps make my point: nothing here but us archetypes, sweetheart. Still, when I tell them it was always fairy gold, all that money those sleek men in their silk suits said was so wisely invested, they get angry. They think I’m having a joke at their expense. But that’s what fairy gold is: fake money, wisely invested. The morning was always going to come when you opened your 401k and it had all turned back to acorns and leaves. They throw water in my face or they beg me to hunt down the leprechaun that sold them that rotten house, and sure, I’ll do that. Whatever you pay me for. You choose your role in this. I provide an honest service, and that’s all. I don’t try to sway them either way; it wouldn’t be fair. After all, I can see their cards, but they can’t see mine.
It’s a lonely life. Me and my patterns and scotch and ice. The nature of the process is that they leave when it’s over, exeunt, pursued by a bear. If they didn’t go, I didn’t do my job. You have to keep moving, stay ahead of the oncoming plot. Never stop to rest, not here, not in the woods.
And me? Well, it doesn’t work that way. If you could narrate yourself I’d be out of a job. I need them to tell me who I am. If I’m a savior in their story, or a devil. If I’m a helpful guide, or temptation in a trenchcoat. No one’s ever guessed my name. And that’s the way I like it: clean, no mess, no mistakes. No attachments. Attachments beget stories, and I’m no protagonist. A bit player, a voice in the smoke. A Greek chorus, that’s me. Or maybe a mirror on the wall. Point is, I don’t work in the spotlight. I’m strictly in the wings. So they walk into my office—not always dames, sometimes a paladin in an ice-cream suit, and oh, if he doesn’t have that girl with the hair down to god-knows-where he’ll just die, or his wife is bored and unhappy and maybe she only ever liked him in the first place when he was a beast, or a wolf, or he’s just lost, and he can hear something like a bull calling for him from the deeps, and I fall for them because that’s the drill, but losing them is part of the denouement, and I know that better than anyone. It’ll make you hard, this business. Hard as glass.
I tell them: don’t depend on a woodsman in the third act. I tell them: look for sets of three, or seven. I tell them: there’s always a way to survive. I tell them: you can’t force fidelity. I tell them: don’t make bargains that involve major surgery. I tell them: you don’t have to lie still and wait for someone to tell you how to live. I tell them: it’s all right to push her into the oven. She was going to hurt you. I tell them: she couldn’t help it. She just loved her own children more. I tell them: everyone starts out young and brave. It’s what you do with that that matters. I tell them: you can share that bear with your sister. I tell them: no one can stay silent forever. I tell them: it’s not your fault. I tell them: mirrors lie. I tell them: you can wear those boots, if you want them. You can lift that sword. It was always your sword. I tell them: the apple has two sides. I tell them: just because he woke you up doesn’t mean you owe him anything. I tell them: his name is Rumplestiltskin.
And my cases ends like all stories end: with a sunset, and a kiss, and redemption, and iron shoes, and a sear of light from the shadows, a gun-muzzle flash that illuminates everything as the rain just keeps coming down in the motley, several-colored light of the back end of the world.
So come in. Sit down. We’ll have the air-conditioning working again in no time. Let me take your coat. Have a drink—it’s cheap and sour but it does the job. Much like myself.
Now. Tell me all your troubles.
Catherynne M. Valente is a New York Times Bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction novels, short stories, and poetry. She has written over two dozen volumes of fiction and poetry since her first novel, The Labyrinth, was published in 2004. Her full-length novels include (chronologically) Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword, The Orphan’s Tales (a duology consisting of In the Night Garden and Cities of Coin and Spice), Palimpsest, The Habitation of the Blessed, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She is also the author of two novellas, Under In the Mere and The Ice Puzzle as well as several collections of poetry, including Apocrypha and Oracles (2005), The Descent of Inanna (2006) and A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects (2008). Her first collection of short stories, Ventriloquism, came out in the winter of 2010, her second, The Bread We Eat in Dreams, in 2013, followed by an essay collection, Indistinguishable from Magic, in 2014.
She has won or been nominated for every major award in her field: the Hugo (2010, 2012, 2013, 2014), Nebula (2013 & 2014), Locus (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) and World Fantasy Awards (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014). In the Night Garden won the James Tiptree Jr. Award for expanding gender and sexuality in SFF (2007), and the series as a whole won the Mythopoeic Award for Adults (2008). Palimpsest won the Lambda Award for LGBT fiction (2010). Her story Urchins, While Swimming, received the Million Writers Award for best online short fiction in 2006 and her poem The Seven Devils of Central California won the Rhysling Award in 2008. She can be found on Twitter as @catvalente