An interview with Charles de Lint -- October 2006

Charles de Lint's last novel was Widdershins, a sequel to The Onion Girl. Cat Eldridge sat down with him in the Green Man Pub on a cold early Fall day over a couple of pints of Guinness to discuss that book, his use of Celtic folklore, and other matters with him. What follows is his written transcription of the notes from that discussion. Given that they consumed several pints and a rather delicious meal of a Gaelic steak pie cooked with Jameson, and light soda bread, any inaccuracies are solely his fault!

I'm interested to know more about your interest in North American mythology and folklore and how you thought to combine it with Celtic folklore, and what some of the problems were in making that work. That approach has been pretty much unique in the field (until C. E. Murphy, at least). I've noted that in, for example, Widdershins, the melding is seamless. Was that the result of a conscious decision on your part, or did it just sort of evolve from what you've been doing in stories like Moonheart and Greenmantle?

Thanks for thinking it's seamless. As for how it all came about, I can't really pinpoint a moment where I decided to do this. What I can say is that I always write books I'd want to read and my reading palette is much broader than the fantasy field. It includes mainstream, thrillers, mysteries, poetry collections -- all sorts of writing. So when I tell a story, I follow it to where it needs to go without consideration of whether or not I'm doing something different or new. It just has to be appropriate to the story. 

So in the case of mixing old world and new world fantasy elements . . . it just made sense to me and it was something I wanted to read about. At the time I was working on Moonheart, no one else was doing it so I had to write it myself. And I still find myself fascinated by it.

Also, how does you feel Svaha, which is really the only 'science fiction' novel I can think of that you've produced, relates to the rest of your work?

Since it's set a hundred years in the future, it's merely a projection of how things might have gone -- but only at the time I was writing the book. We've already reached the new millennium and elements in that story haven't taken place, so if I was writing it today, it would be a different story.

It's also the work most explicitly centered on First Folk. Do you feel it's an accurate depiction of First Folk? And if so, why?

If you're referring to the 'cousins', or animal people, I think they first came strongly on stage in Someplace to Be Flying (which came a few years after Svaha) and have subsequently been sharing the stage with human characters ever since. If you mean Native Americans, I would say no, because there isn't one culture, language or belief system that encompasses all the various tribes in North America. They are each as individual as are other Nations throughout the world. Svaha merely touched on one group of people, specifically, one individual.

A great number of your most engaging characters are women. As a male writer, how do you create such believable characters?

The same way one does any sort of character and that's by paying attention. And realizing that for all our differences (gender, cultural, religious) we're still people. So you start with that, then layer on the differences. But the truth is, I have no idea. I find the characters in my head and the more I write about them, the better I get to know them. Perhaps the characters seem engaging because when I'm writing from their perspective, I lose myself in their character -- much the way actors use method acting.

Are your musician characters are reflection of the over thirty years that you have been a professional Celtic musician?

I haven't strictly played Celtic music in a very long time -- at least seven or eight years. These days, I do mostly originals or story songs in the Americana vein.

Anyway, none of my characters are me, but again, it's a matter of paying attention -- to my own experiences in music, and that of my friends.

Like many people of non-Celtic descent, you are very interested in music and myths of that rather long-lived culture. Is there something about Celtic music and myth that attracts people who aren't of Celtic heritage?

I'm interested in all sorts of cultures, and again, haven't been writing specifically about Celtica in a long time. Why does it appeal? Good stories, for one thing. And if you grow up in a Western culture, the music certainly helps one inhabit the stories. The area where I live was primarily settled by Scots/Irish, so it's something that was all around me when I was growing up.

Moonheart (which along with Someplace To Be Flying are my favorite works by you) is perennially a novel that gets cited by fans as your best work. Why do you think this is so? What is about this novel that you think makes it so appealing?

I have no idea. I like the book myself -- having recently reread it for the Subterranean Press 20th anniversary edition. When it first came out, it was different from most of the books around it on the fantasy shelf, and I'm guessing many readers liked that other, more contemporary perspective on the tropes of the genre.

How does your music and art, and that of your lovely wife MaryAnn Harris, relate to your writing? You illustrated the lovely Crow Girls chapbook, Make a Joyful Noise, and MAH has certainly contributed superb artwork to several of your projects. Does the art you two do, visual and musical, separately and as a couple, influence your writing?

Everything one does creatively effects everything else. Just as everything one experiences of the creativity of others sparks creative responses. The largest influence MaryAnn's and my own art and music have had on my work is allowing me a deeper understanding of the mechanics of other creative mediums when I'm writing about them. That's certainly the reason I took up working in the visual arts -- something I, alas, haven't had so much time for lately.

You've been writing a review column for Fantasy & Science Fiction, and an annual Best of The Year Music column for Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for quite some time. What's your take on being a reviewer? How do you approach looking at the creativity of other writers and musicians?

My reviewing is simply an outgrowth of my enthusiasm for books and albums I love and that I want to pass on. I'm always more interested in talking about work that excites me, though writing a bad review is much easier. But the trouble with writing a bad review is that you have read the whole book, or listen to the whole CD. I'd rather not. When a book stops working for me, I'd much rather put it aside and go on to something that does work. Though there have been occasional exceptions.

So there's no deep thinking or agendas involved. I read and listen widely, and just like to pass it on. 

Has this in turn affected how you look at reviews that are done of your work?

Not at all -- except to remind me that everything doesn't work for everybody, and there's no reason that it should. And that you can like somebody, but not like their work. And vice versa.

You and your Tor Books editor, Terri Windling, came up with the term mystic fiction to describe work like you and she have been doing. Later on, it was dubbed 'urban fantasy'. And I've read some reviews in which it's labeled 'contemporary fantasy with magic realism elements'. Do the various labels given to your work matter to you?

Well, urban fantasy came first, and that was only because I called Jack the Giant-Killer an urban fairy tale. The term Terri and I came up with is actually mythic fantasy -- and really, she coined it; I merely used it when I was out on a book tour for Someplace to Be Flying. Labels don't mean much to me one way or another -- except when they close the minds of potential readers. I'd much rather we do away with genres and simply file everything under fiction. I know it can work -- one of my favourite record stores (Waterloo Music in Austin) simply files everything alphabetically and no one seems to have much problem finding what they're looking for. But mostly it's a losing battle. 

Thank you for coming in and chatting today!

Learn more about Charles de Lint at his Web site.