Tue
Jul 23 2013 9:00am

The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe: Catherynne Valente

Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe Catherynne ValenteWelcome back to The Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, a recurring series here on Tor.com featuring some of our favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, artists, and others!

Today we’re joined by Catherynne M Valente, author of The Orphan’s Tales series. Her latest book, The Melancholy of Mechagirl, is available now from VIZ Media.

Join us as we cover subjects ranging from terrifying monsters to a modern commedia dell’arte, and more!

What D&D character alignment best describes you first thing in the morning?

Chaotic Good. I want to be awesome and spring out of bed at dawn with a song on my lips and bluebirds on my shoulders and a spoonful of sugar, but instead I have shrieking red-eyed death-stoats stalking the virtuous parts of my brain with their mad prey-hypnotizing dance moves and my face feels like a lump of dark matter and all I can think is that awake is horrible and sleep is beautiful and sometimes I actually wake up pleading “No, no, no” to the stoats but they just. won’t. stop.

But sometimes I do get up early and make myself smell like pomegranates and a solid work ethic and cook breakfast and believe as many as six impossible things before it’s ready. Sometimes my oversized lynx-like cats join me in a spritely song in a major key with an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme and an easy to remember chorus. Sometimes the coffee has just the right ratio of cream-to-bitter. Sometimes I have ages to go before a deadline. Sometimes enchanted brooms have cleaned my house without causing Gilgamesh’s flood and I wear lipstick for no one else but the book I’m writing. Sometimes I sit at the computer and chapters flow like the glorious Nile. It does happen. You never know when. You never know why. When it’s over you never know how it managed to happen. Every morning is a battle between the superego and the id and I am a mere footsoldier with mud and a snooze button on her shield. Along with a really cute stoat and the motto: Just One More Episode And Then I’ll Go To Bed. In Latin.

But I strive for the good. Lord, I do strive.

 Name your favorite monster from fiction, film, TV, or any other pop culture source.

This is really tough, because I love monsters. Given that I am a loud and opinionated American female, I count as one to a large portion of the world population. Monsters almost always are culture’s way of working out their fears and are thus inherently incredibly interesting and powerful. To me, what’s your favorite monster is like asking what’s your favorite character, because the brawny hero with the slaying tools is never going to be it. And thus my answer would change given my mood or the day or who I overidentify with this week.

The Melancholy of Mechagirl Catherynne ValenteBut I think, today, I have to say No-Face, from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. He/she is enormous and terrifying and incomprehensible—except that his/her actions all have a logic to them, and that logic is I want to be loved. I want to be useful. I want to not be lonely. Which is kind of everyone ever’s motivation for everything. And some of us do strange and incomprehensible things that barrel over the bounds of propriety or property damage or social rules trying to be loved and feel useful and escape from loneliness. I get No-Face. I’ve been No-Face. Sometimes I still am.

Do you have a favorite word/phrase/etymology?

I do! I am a lapsed classicist so you know this is gonna go Greek or Latin...survey says: Greek!

My favorite bit of etymological oddness is that the words “virgin” and “orgy” come from the same root: the Greek verb orgao, meaning “to swell with strength.”

I think the intention is obvious in the latter case, but it applies to virginity in that the Greeks (and a large portion of the ancient world) believed that virginity conferred strength (for men). It wasn’t a religious issue, either, and deliberate celibacy would do the trick, too. The crux was beautifully Strangelovian: having sex (for men) depleted vital fluids which were thought to contain the ineffable human powers of intelligence, physical strength, virtue, whathaveyou. So not having sex meant you were chock full of those things like a wrestler full of HGH. Male virginity was quite the fashionable accessory. In Seneca’s play Phaedra, Hippolytus is the superbest at everything and smarter than the smartiest of pants and BFFs with Artemis and also the most attractive man ever born, explicitly because he declines to partake in the great, messy human pastime. Naturally, Aphrodite cannot be having any of that nonsense, and the exact opposite of hilarity ensues.

It all depends on which branch of the orgao tree makes you feel strong, I guess.

List three things you’d like our readers to know about you and your work.

1. Every writing teacher I ever had except for one told me I was an awful writer, had no idea what I was doing, and should stop immediately. It only took the one to tell me something different to light a fire under me. To give me hope.

2. I am a Taurus, Scorpio rising, Virgo moon. Not important. But interesting to some. My mother taught me about astrology and Tarot and numerology before I had critical faculties to examine it. So no matter how many times someone tells me it’s silly, it’s still part of my narrative DNA. So there’s my stats.

3. I’m always trying to do something new. When people ask me if X is what I’m going to do forever now, where X is whatever thing I have done lately, be it middle grade fantasy or editing or teaching or science fiction or series, I am always confused. I want to do something new with every book, I never want X to be my destiny and destination for all time. I try to hurt myself, to sprain something, writing every novel and story, because I’m stretching for something new and difficult that I haven’t done before. You never know, some day I might flip out and adopt a Hemingwayesque minimalist style to write about something entirely possible in the real world.

But I’d only do it once.

Please relate one fact about yourself that has never appeared anywhere else in print or on the Internet.

All right. I’ll say it. In print where the great gods of the Undernet and everyone can see it. The thing that makes my friends look at me in horror and confusion, tears rolling down their once-innocent faces as they try to make sense of their suddenly-upended universe, in which black is white, up is down, and parents no longer love their children.

I have seen all of the Jackass movies. More than once. I love them and I laugh until I can’t breathe. I’m not proud of this fact. I don’t really understand it myself. The first time I watched one, I chalked it up to being deliriously sick with the flu, and thus not responsible for my behavior. So I tried it again, for science, to prove that I was better than Jackass, that it couldn’t beat me in a fair fight.

But it could. It could.

I could try to justify myself. I could try to convince you that Jackass is some kind of modern commedia dell’arte spectacle with Johnny Knoxville as Arlecchino the Clown (it is) or that complex and uncomfortable gender and sexuality issues seethe just under the surface (they do), but the fact is that I laugh at stupid things and like them and there is some deep part of me that finds profound kinship in Ted Theodore Logan so DON’T JUDGE ME ok?

Two roads diverge in a yellow wood: one leads toward a mysterious laboratory in which a mad scientist is currently ensconced. The other winds its way toward a tower inhabited by a powerful wizard. You could really use a snack, and it would be nice to have somewhere to crash for the night—which road do you choose?

Well, first off: is the wood yellow because of the sulfurous emissions of the mad scientist’s laboratory or because the wizard misread a translation from the Aramaic and finally figured out how to turn lindens to gold instead of lead? This is important information. It bears on the question at hand.

Either way, though, I go for the wizard. I hang out with a lot of science-minded types. Ok, programmers, mostly, but still science, even if fewer (but non-zero) things bubble in their houses/offices at any given time. And the truth is that they don’t feed themselves very well. They get wrapped up in a bug and forget to eat all day, and then when they remember that bodies need to ingest things in order to keep coding, they realize they have absolutely nothing in the house/break room and the pressure of going out to eat, when someone is definitely going to ask them to bring something back, which will lead others to ask, which will mean someone else will volunteer to come along, and yet another benighted soul will need something gluten-free or hey what about something from that new place, and jenga-ing everyone’s requests together into one tower of calories is just too much to deal with right this second so let’s split the one rock-hard apple cinnamon Nature Valley bar that’s been sitting in the cupboard for three weeks fourteen ways, ok guys? But NEXT TIME we’ll write a quickie script to handle everyone’s requests, no problem.

Whereas the wizard, who is enough of my kind of girl to use the word “ensconced,” whether or not she gets wrapped up in her own version of Ruby on Rails, which will involve actual rubies and actual train tracks, will definitely be able to gin me up a Hogwarts feast out of dustbunnies, ergot-infested straw, and leftover griffin parts before she turns me into a centaur for giggles.

Besides, centaurs are cool.

3 comments
Erin Underwood
1. Erin Underwood
Fun interview! :-)
Erin Underwood
2. Caryle
This is possibly my favorite interview ever. Just sayin'.
Ian Johnson
3. IanPJohnson
Jackass is awesome, and I don't care who knows it.

It is pure schadenfreude at its very best. It caters to the part deep, deep inside each and every one of us that somehow, without even knowing it, wants to see a snapping turtle bite a heavily-tattooed man right in the beanbag.

Pure poetry.

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