First Book Friday: Catherynne M. Valente

Welcome to First Book Friday.

Today I am delighted to welcome Catherynne M. Valente (yuki-onna on LJ) to the blog. I’ve been trying to figure out how best to introduce her here, and have come up with the following. Cat is a beautiful person who writes beautiful stories, and our world would be a poorer place without her.


These days, most people think The Orphan’s Tales [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] was my first book.

Not so.

I suppose in a technical sense it was my second book–I started The Orphan’s Tales right after finishing my actual first novel, The Labyrinth [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], in the same tiny Rhode Island apartment, ricocheting between the table in that little kitchen to the opulent local Starbucks to the gothic tower where I was working as a fortune teller. But in publication order OT is my fourth baby, the first one to get into a really good New York school and win a few blue ribbons.

But my first was The Labyrinth. This is how it came to be.

I had just graduated from college and was in that purgatory between the diploma and what-are-you-actually-going-to-do-with-your-life. I’d been writing poetry for years but beyond a short story in undergrad, I’d never tried fiction. A friend of mine linked me to a little website called Nanowrimo, which was then just a baby itself. Well, that seemed like a great idea to me, and before I tell you what happened next you must remember that I was 22, and being 22 I was full of piss and vinegar and not knowing what I could and couldn’t do. A big part of that space after college is figuring out what you can and can’t do–and this was where I figured it out.

I said: It’s October. I don’t want to wait til November. Also, 30 days is way long. I’m going to do it in 10.

And I did. Everything I’d been keeping inside me for years while I learned Greek and Latin and got my varsity on the sailing team–and struggled with depression and a wholly crap childhood came out in a flood. It helps to be an insomniac already, and to have a job where I could pull out my laptop between Tarot clients. And at the end of that I had a (very short) surreal novel that I was reasonably sure I could never sell to anyone. Sure, I started writing that weird fairy tale thing, but I didn’t think I’d sell that either. It was just a Christmas present for my niece.

Fast forward a year and I’m in grad school, and very tentatively submitting The Labyrinth around. Around is a relative word, though–I knew absolutely nothing about the SFF world. Less than nothing. I got a few notes from editors saying it was so beautiful and they were definitely not buying it. (I still get those.) I ended up selling it to a small realist press just before I moved to Japan. A few weeks after arrival I was informed that they were pulling the contract, and it seemed reasonably clear to me that this had occurred not because the book had suddenly gone bad in the fridge but because I had declined the editor’s request to sleep with him before departing the US.

This dejected me in a big way–I couldn’t believe such things still happened, and I was afraid that no one would buy my book who wasn’t motivated by other and uglier considerations. I sat on it. I worked on the fairy tale thing which was getting longer and longer. I wrote another book, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams. I learned how to navigate the Tokyo subway system.

And I started a Livejournal.

I’d been blogging for years on Diaryland, the Ur-LJ, but Livejournal was where I really started to make friends and find an online home. After a few months clicking around and doing what LJers do, I came across nihilistic_kid (Nick Mamatas), who had just had his first novel, Move Under Ground, published. I left him a comment and said that I wasn’t asking him to look at my chapters, as that is awful and gross from a stranger, but only a few suggestions as to small presses I should submit to if I have a wildly uncommercial bizarro book. He obliged, and I sadly discovered that I had already submitted to all but one of them and been rejected. The one remaining was Prime Books–which, according to their website, was closed to submissions.

In an act of kindness that I certainly did not deserve and poor Nick should not be pressured to repeat[1. Editor’s Note: if I hear that someone has e-mailed Nick saying “Hey, I saw on Jim’s journal that you looked at Catherynne Valente’s novel, so will you read mine?” I’ll feed you to the goblins.], Nick said he’d look at my chapters and send them to Prime if he liked them. He did, and Prime accepted The Labyrinth within the week. I got an email from Jeff VanderMeer asking to write the introduction, and a little while later a box full of wonderful indie press SFF books from Jeff with a note that said: “Welcome to the Family.” It remains one of the dearest gestures anyone has ever made to me.

Nick and Jeff and the kids at Prime were the first people to believe in me, and think that I had something to offer. Everything else came later, Bantam and Tor and S.J. Tucker and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and, yes, some book with a bunch of nested fairy tales in it. But that’s where it started. With a Livejournal and a lost kid in Japan trying to figure out how to write a book.

After I got that email telling me, in effect, that my life was changing right now, I closed my computer very gently. I was happy, of course I was happy. But my overwhelming feeling was: Oh. Oh. I get it. Publication isn’t the point. It’s just the beginning. I have so much more work to do now. I can’t slow down, not even a little. Now comes the part where I will work as hard as I can as long as I’m alive, to be able to keep doing this. I’d better get started.