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Catherynne Valente on comic book feminism and taking the Brontës to Narnia

Catherynne Valente Simon & Schuster
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Catherynne M. Valente is the kind of writer whose books shout out the pleasure of the cultural remix. She’s best known for her Fairyland books, a middle-grade series that takes the tropes of Victorian children’s stories and twists them around for the 21st century. Elsewhere, she’s remixed Russian folk tales and turned Snow White into a Western. Whatever source materials her books draw from, they’re always witty, sparkling, and a delight to read.

I sat down with Valente at this year’s Book Expo to talk about her latest books: Refrigerator Monologues, which is a kind of Vagina Monologues for the comic book heroines who have been “fridged” (i.e., killed as part of the hero’s tragic backstory), out in June; and The Glass Town Game, a middle-grade novel in which the Brontë children are drawn into the imaginary world they created, out September 5. Over the course of our conversation, Valente covered everything from the feminism of Red Sonja to the suppression of women’s writing to the ever-vexing question of whether Elizabeth Gaskell is overrated.

This conversation been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On breaking down archetypes and building a voice

Constance Grady

The first thing I think about when I think about a Catherynne Valente book is that you’ll be taking this archetype that I did not even know I knew about and then ripping it into little shreds. What draws you to that approach to storytelling?

Catherynne Valente

It’s just sort of the way I think. It’s so natural to me that I have to go back to my childhood, to the fact that I was raised by a stepmother. When I was a kid, Snow White seemed like a documentary of my life. I looked just like my mother. My stepmother looked nothing like me.

It was not an entirely good situation with my parents and all of their conflict, and I was going back and forth between my mom and my dad. I was going back and forth between my dad — who lived in Seattle, where it’s cold and dark, and I was there for the winter — and then in the summer I was with my mom, in California, where it was warm and bright. So I also thought Persephone was definitely about me. I, from very early on, was attaching these stories to my own life; it just seemed very natural to do that professionally.

Also, my mother was an academic, and I had originally planned to be a classics professor, so any formal training I have is also in pulling those formal theses out. I used to joke that every book was the dissertation I never finished. That’s just very much a part of my analytical mind, and where my analytical mind and creative mind meet, the theses become stories.

Constance Grady

The second thing I think about is a really hyperstylized voice, one that always changes dramatically from book to book. So how important to your process is finding the voice for a book? Does it come with the concept, or do you find it along the way?

Catherynne Valente

It’s hugely important. I don’t think I think about it that formally; when I’m formulating an idea for a book, I tend to sit with it for quite a while before I start writing, and the story will suggest the voice. I was an actress for years and years and years, and I think that’s part of where the voices come from. I always want to do a different character.

With Refrigerator Monologues, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever written. It’s a much more modern and angry and stripped-down voice than Fairyland, which is whimsical and similes all over, and very heightened Victorian language.

But I love to do the different voices. I think it is that actress in me that wants to get up and do a funny voice every time. Structure and voice is so much what attracts me to any given project.

On throwing art at the things that make you mad

Constance Grady

Moving more specifically into Refrigerator Monologues, I know you’ve written some about Gwen Stacy being the impetus to this book. Do you remember noticing fridging at all when you were a kid? Was there one that really broke your heart?

Catherynne Valente

The funny thing is, I was after different things when I was a kid. My favorite comic book when I was a kid was Red Sonja. Which is, I recognize, not necessarily a comic that everyone gets geek cred for loving, but I did love it. I particularly loved when Red Sonja had a female nemesis. And there’s not a lot of fridging in Red Sonja, because the whole point of her is how strong she is.

So as a kid I didn’t see a lot of fridging, but as a teenager I definitely did. I’ve been angry about how women get treated in books for a long time. But until Gail Simone came up with that wonderful phrase, we all saw it, but we didn’t have a way to talk about it in such a concise and vivid way.

When you’re young, whether it’s movies or comic books or whatever, as a young woman, you’re looking for who you are in the movie. And your choices are standing in a window waiting to come home, or getting brutally killed and never mentioned again. It’s not fun! That’s not a fun thing to play in the schoolyard, like, “I’ll play Mary Jane. I’ll just stay here by the jungle gym for a while.”

It was something that had always bothered me. But there’s a weird thing, because as comic books have gotten so popular, and comic book movies, everybody knows this is a problem. But we kind of put it in the back of our heads, like, “Well, that’s how this genre is.” And there’s been such a huge explosion of women’s comic creators and people trying to redeem that in comics, but I found that it still happens a lot in prose superhero stories, and it still happens a ton in the movies. The movies are 20 years behind the comic books as far as this stuff goes.

I was just mad at something. And when I get mad at something, I throw art at it.

On taking the Brontës to Narnia

Constance Grady

Moving to The Glass Town Game, what attracted you to the Brontës?

Catherynne Valente

Well, I’ve loved the Brontës my whole life. When I was 13 years old, I read Wuthering Heights. I remember it so clearly, sitting in silence reading and finishing the book and looking up and thinking, “Adults are not better at dating than me and my friends. It’s never gonna get any better, and it might be worse. This book is full of crazy people.”

Everybody talks about Wuthering Heights like it’s this romantic story, and it’s not, it’s horrifying! It’s a horror novel, really. And I love Wuthering Heights. Like, my name’s Catherynne; my partner, no lie, is named Heath.

I was 22 when I read Jane Eyre for the first time. I don’t really know why it took me so long. But I went head over heels in love with it. I way overidentified, and I just loved it to absolute bits and pieces.

I started doing some research, ’cause that’s what I do when I love things, and I read a book called How to Suppress Women’s Writing. She talks about Charlotte Brontë, and one of the things she talks about with her is that people assume she only ever wrote the one book, when in fact, the only one of the three sisters that only wrote one book is Emily. Anne wrote two, and Charlotte wrote four.

And then she mentions this juvenilia, which is the first time that I’ve read about it. And it’s fascinating, the juvenilia. Really, it’s exactly what modern kids do with their action figures and Minecraft and all of that. They created this fantasy world for their toys to play in.

It reminds me so much of — I can’t remember the name of it. You can look it up later and pretend that I knew. It’s like sky-something, where there’s these action figures, and you put it on a slot on your video game machine?

Constance Grady

I want to say Skycraft? [Author note: Reader, it was not Skycraft. It was Skylanders.]

Catherynne Valente

It’s something like that. And then that action figure does things in the world. It’s exactly like that, with no technology.

Basically, it’s all these stories for these 12 wooden soldiers that the father bought for the son but the girls immediately stole. It’s all a child’s understanding of the Napoleonic Wars and fairytales from Yorkshire, and everything from their father’s magazines, because he subscribed to anything. So, like, Arctic exploration, African exploration — they were so invested in the real world, and they just sort of took it all in and regurgitated it into this wild set of stories, in which you can see the beginnings of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. You can see the characters who would go on to become Rochester and Bertha and all of these figures. It’s absolutely fascinating.

I had been asked to write a short story for an anthology called Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, and the rule was 19th century but not steampunk. And the first thing I thought of was the Brontës’ juvenilia. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a Narnia kind of story where they went to this place that they made up, if it became a place that existed that they could have adventures in?” I wrote that short story, which I hate now, because all I can see is the book it isn’t. But the book it isn’t exists.

I love them so much. I’m the oldest of four as well. Charlotte Brontë is such an amazing human being. And there’s so much that people don’t know or understand.

This may be far afield, but Elizabeth Gaskell is also a well-known novelist. She wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë, and that’s where we get all our ideas of these depressed women on the moor. It’s not true! She tried to make Charlotte Brontë into a character in a Brontë novel, but these people were rather happy. They were writing their books together, and Charlotte got married; it’s a whole different thing.

So this is a book with happy Brontës, because that’s what they were like. Yes, their mother died and their sisters died. But, like, it’s the 19th century. Shit goes down. That happens. And it was right after their sisters died that this all really started. I just wanted to bring them to life.

The word Brontë is never mentioned in this book, and the year in which it takes place, which is 1828, is never mentioned either. I didn’t want it to be not accessible to kids who don’t want to read a historical book. It’s my hope that a kid could read it and just love characters named Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Branwell. And then when they grew up a little bit, and saw Jane Eyre on the bookshelf, and saw Wuthering Heights, they’d be like, “But that’s my Emily, that’s my Charlotte! I know those people!” And that it would help them to read the Brontës in a way that was personal, where they knew something about their lives and their adventures.

There’s actually, if you know about the Brontës, this is like porn. [Author note: True!] There’s so many references to the things that happened in the Brontës’ lives. If you know that their lives were tragic, it’ll break your heart. But if you don’t, it’s just an adventure and a throwaway line, you know?

I didn’t want to write the most depressing middle-grade book of all time, but I wanted to be honest. So there are things that if you already know, you’ll be like [gasps], but if you don’t know, then it’s just another turn of the invention.

Constance Grady

I wanted to ask a little bit about Branwell, because he’s such a problem figure in Brontë stories. I really loved the way you treated him as kind of an Edmund-in-Narnia figure. How did you come to that solution?

Catherynne Valente

I actually from the beginning said, “He’s the Edmund.” Really, the way that I came toward it was treating him as a child. Not treating him as already the person that we knew he became, but just treating him as a kid like any other kid. A kid who’s frustrated that he’s not the oldest, but he’s the only boy, so he thinks he should be in charge, but unfortunately when your older sister is Charlotte Brontë, you’re not gonna be.

He was a brilliant and clever kid, and unfortunately, if you’re brilliant and clever but you’re born into a family of all-time geniuses, that’s a really hard position to be in and maintain your pride. I just wanted to let that play out, his frustration at being a middle kid and not having the authority that he wants, and the expectations of him being the only male child weighing very heavily. He’s the one who’s supposed to be protecting, and he’s the one who’s supposed to be — not just the focus, in a patriarchal way, but he’s supposed to take responsibility, and he never gets to.

It’s him trying to take that responsibility that turns everything sour. Because he’s just trying to do the right thing, and everyone thinks they’re trying to do the right thing. As much as Branwell was not, you know, a great human being, he was a normal kid. I just think that the best way to humanize a character like that, especially one who people have such divergent ideas about, is to treat him the way I would treat any 10-year-old male character, who has issues and is trying to work them out, and that’s really hard.

Constance Grady

Do you have a favorite Brontë, either sibling or novel?

Catherynne Valente

Well, Charlotte will always be my favorite, and Jane Eyre will always be my favorite. Although I have to say that Villette is really, really good, and not read nearly as much as it should be. The prose of it is like sinking into a velvet couch; it’s just a beautiful book.

But the real treat, I think, of writing the book was discovering Anne. Charlotte will always be my favorite, but I had never read Anne Brontë when I started the research. Most people haven’t; she’s not read or discussed nearly as much [as her sisters], even though she wrote two novels.

And I know why. It’s very easy to see why. She was not a romantic. There were no sweeping moors and men who had deep, deep emotional trauma and attractive hair. That wasn’t her thing. Both books are basically like, “Men are the worst. Most people are alcoholics. Rich men are definitely alcoholics, and they’re gonna mistreat you really badly. The best thing you can do is find someone you can be friends with and marry them, because it’s not gonna get any better than that.”

She’s so pragmatic, and actually more feminist than her sisters in a very strange way. It feels very modern, because she’s so unromantic about the world. She just faces it head on. Her prose is crystal clear; it’s like steel. It’s so good.

It was really lovely and wonderful to discover this person. I loved writing Charlotte and Emily, but in some sense, I felt that Charlotte and Emily had always been with me. Writing Anne and Branwell was like making new friends.

Constance Grady

Jane Austen shows up briefly, and since it’s Charlotte’s point of view, it’s not the most flattering Jane depiction.

Catherynne Valente

I felt so bad!

Constance Grady

The Brontës and Austen are very often pitted against each other. Why do you think that is?

Catherynne Valente

I myself have said that there’s two kinds of people in the world, Austen people and Brontë people, and I’m a Brontë-saurus.

I think because it’s the Beethoven/Mozart thing, you know? There’s so much overweening passion [in the Brontës’ novels]. The class is very different, as well, in the Brontës, where it’s very lower middle class. There’s this frustration of bucking against the world and the expectations. That’s in Austen, too, but because it’s a different class, it’s much more pulled back and refined, and it isn’t as tied to the geography.

I just think that some people want someone to bang away at the piano and make you feel things, and there are people who want the absolutely precise, beautiful, tuned-to-perfection prose. Not that I don’t think the Brontës’ prose is perfect and wonderful. But I do think they are very different sorts of people.

I’ll tell you the truth: That character, Jane Austen, that was originally Elizabeth Gaskell. My editor was like, “Cat, I get it. I get it! But no one cares but you.” I was like, “I hate her! I hate her so much!” I wanted to skewer her even if no one else cared.

The thing is that my editor did her internship at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. She said, “You know how much this kills me, but it should be Austen. Charlotte hated Austen.” I was like, “You know, you’re completely right.” I felt really bad, but I was like, “I’m being true to what Charlotte felt. I’m making a sacrifice to the real person who really lived and not just the way I think things should be. This is my gift to Charlotte.”

I understand why Charlotte felt that way. Originally it was my little joke about Elizabeth Gaskell, but there are jokes that are too insider for a children’s book.

Constance Grady

So you’re not a North and South fan?

Catherynne Valente

I’m not, really. I’ve read a little bit of it, and I’ve watched it. I liked Cranford a lot better than North and South, actually. But I don’t think she ever rises to Austen or Brontë levels. Her characters are not as sympathetic, the things that she’s dealing with — she tries to be sweeping in every book, and sometimes a story doesn’t bear that. I don’t think her prose is as good. Nobody does! Nobody thinks Elizabeth Gaskell should be in the canon instead of Austen or Brontë! These are things that have never been said, by anybody. But it’s hard for me to forgive what she did to Charlotte’s memory.

Constance Grady

My last question is, in Fairyland you have A-through-L, who’s named after a volume of an encyclopedia, and in Glass Town Games there is a character who prays to an encyclopedia god. What do you love about encyclopedias, and do you have a favorite?

Catherynne Valente

I love dictionaries and encyclopedias, and I collect the volumes. I have one at home called The Dictionary of Every-day Wants, which is a very strange, almost an encyclopedia in and of itself. It’s basically just a collection of stuff the author thought would be part of everyone’s everyday lives, and it’s fascinating to read. I have a dictionary of the Maine dialect as well. I love these things.

But the character of Brundy, the guy made of books [who prays to an encyclopedia god], that’s actually from a dream Charlotte had and wrote down. Not his name. Brundy is actually their original last name. Their father changed it to be fancy, stuck an umlaut on it. But she had this nightmare of a man made of books. The quote from Charlotte Brontë at the beginning of the book? Right before that, she’s describing a nightmare that she had, and she goes on to say that in the nightmare, she was a character in someone else’s book.

So I didn’t have a choice. Reading that, there’s no way you’re not going to have a man-made-of-books character. So that actually came right out of Charlotte’s subconscious.

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