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Plotting Prolifically
by Pat Barclay

With 30 books to his credit since 1984 - and three titles due this year (The Wishing Well, Dreams Underfoot, and a paperback edition of The Little Country) - Charles de Lint is a publishing phenomenon. Born in the Netherlands in 195 1, he came to Canada with his family a year later and grew up "all over the place" - Ontario, Quebec, the Yukon, Turkey, Lebanon - wherever his father's work as a navigator for a survey company took them. Best known for his novels of contemporary fantasy, de Lint blends myth and folklore from a variety of cultures with the adventures of such characters as a biker in downtown Ottawa and an ex-Mafia hitman in rural Ontario. The results have earned him the praise of his peers ("There is no better writer... at bringing out the possibilities of magic in a modem setting") and a flourishing writing career that includes two recent horror novels under the pseudonym Samuel M. Key. De Lint and his wife, MaryAnn, live in Ottawa, where they can be found on Thursday nights at a local pub playing with their folk-music band, jump at the Sun, which specializes in Celtic music. Pat Barclay spoke to de Lint in January.

BiC: I noticed that one of your books was dedicated to your grandmother, Oma Kame.

Charles de Lint: Yes, she was Japanese. My father was part Japanese, part English, and part Dutch.

BiC: No wonder you're so interested in the cultural mix. Do you think your own has been a real advantage?

De Lint: Oh, definitely.

BiC: What did you read as a child?

De Lint: I can remember The Wind in the Willows, Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, fairy tales, Winnie the Pooh, a series from the Netherlands called Bolka the Bear - another one that was anthropomorphized.

BiC: Where did you go to school?

De Lint: My mother was a teacher and when we lived in Turkey, she taught us. Then I went to Aylmer High School and after that to Philemon Wright High, in Hull. I never actually finished school. I played music a lot, and I worked in record stores. I started writing probably at about 15. 1 didn't write stories, I just wrote some songs and poetry. I was doing it for fun doing it with a friend.

BiC: What got you started in earnest?

De Lint: Well, I had a friend who was a very good artist, but he just had no real drive. So I started writing stories for him to do drawings from. We'd get together on my day off, and I'd write and he'd draw. He gave it up, but I kept going. I started selling short stories to what's called "the small press," and then I wrote The Harp of the Grey Rose (1985).

BiC: I thought The Riddle of the Wren (1984) came first.

De Lint: Bits and pieces of it did. The first completed book was The Harp of the Grey Rose. The first published one was The Riddle of the Wren. By that time I'd realized that I actually liked writing, and I especially liked writing novels.

BiC: I notice that one of your books is dedicated to your wife, whom you thank for her input. What does she contribute to your writing?

De Lint: She's the one who pushed me to write a novel in the first place. And then she's also the person who pushed me to write contemporary fantasy.

BiC: And that turned out to be a good idea; now they're calling you a pioneer.

De Lint: That's right. It was her idea, though. She's also what I call the first editor. Nothing really leaves the house until she's gone through it once herself.

BiC: Have any Canadian writers influenced you? Something in Greenmantle (1988) reminded me of a passage in Margaret Laurence's The Diviners.

De Lint: No. I don't say I don't read Canadian writers, but especially in the early part of my career, I wasn't really reading them. Greenmantle was influenced more by an Irish writer named Lord Dunsany. He wrote something like 80 or 90 novels.

BiC: You must have read very widely in this field.

De Lint: Especially when I was younger, you could read everything that came out in a year. Plus you could go back and discover all the older writers. I particularly liked Lord Dunsany and William Morris, James Branch Cabell - these are the writers who fired my imagination. And then of course there's always Tolkien.

BiC: What about right now? Who are the writers you respect in your field?

De Lint: Well, a perennial favourite would be John Crowley. And Parke Godwin, Robert Holdstock, Ursula Le Guin and Alice Hoffman, who publishes mainstream novels; she's considered part of the literary scene, but in her last two novels there's magic and a whole bunch of fantasy as well.

BiC: Do you ever want to break out of the genre mould once in a while?

De Lint: I'm not necessarily happy with being stuck with a particular label. If you took through my list of books, there's what's called high fantasy, contemporary fantasy, straightforward horror, science fiction; there's bits of everything. For instance, my contemporary fantasy novels could just as well be marketed as thrillers. I like to write what I write. A book like The Little Country (1993), to my mind, would find a readership that's not just a fantasy readership. I think people who read mainstream novels would be intrigued with the story.

BiC: When I heard that you wrote horror novels under the name of Samuel M. Key, I bought a copy of From a Whisper to a Scream (1992) to read aloud while my husband and I were driving from Ontario to British Columbia in December. Now, I don't like horror and my husband doesn't like fantasy, and yet we both enjoyed it.

De Lint: At least two or three of the books could have been marketed as police procedurals. That's why, when you start trying to put things in little bottles, it gets confusing.

BiC: How do you organize your time?

De Lint: I treat writing like a job in the sense that I work on it five days a week when my wife, MaryAnn, is at work herself. When she comes home from work, then I don't keep writing. I think it's really important for a writer not to be just locked in a room. I usually try to do my new material, my first draft, in the morning and the business stuff in the afternoon, which includes research and all kinds of things. I do a lot of reviewing for magazines, and I have an opinion column for Pulphouse, a magazine in the States.

BiC: You use a computer?

De Lint: Yes. When I first started writing, back when I was 15, 1 used a quill. I just liked the feel of it. I still do. I don't write that way, but I'll do art that way. I love using the quill pen.

BiC: Do you make your own?

De Lint: No, I haven't got to that yet. You see, my dad's navigating was also involved with cartography, and I have a huge box of everything you could possibly imagine; I've got enough nibs to last me the rest of my life. Anyway, then I used a manual typewriter and later I switched to a Selectric, one of those selfcorrect deals. Then a friend of mine in Sudbury who's also a writer, Sean Costello - he writes horror novels and he's also a doctor - gave me some really primitive word-processing equipment. You use Wordstar, and you get, like, 17 pages on diskette. But it was phenomenal. As soon as I could afford it, I got an IBM clone. And, like everyone I know, I still use Wordstar. I would never recommend anyone learning it, because it's quite complicated, but once you know it I see no point in changing.

BiC: Somewhere in one of your books you say that every writer has a quirk, like a favourite chair or a special pencil.

De Lint: I'm not like that at all. I'll write anywhere, on anything. There's a local bookshop, for instance, that appeared in Yarrow (1986); it's a small operation, so when the owner's sick, I've gone in and manned the desk for them and I would bring in either paper - or later on, I had a laptop - and just work there.

BiC: Does it help to have contact with bookstore owners? Somebody who can tell you what's new and interesting?

De Lint: I'm actually totally on top of that in the sense that because I do so much reviewing, I'm on the review lists for all the publishers. I like reviewing, I'm interested, and it's like getting together with friends and talking about books.

BiC: You sound as if you've never, ever, had writer's block.

De Lint: I did once, but I wrote a book about it. That's where Yarrow came from; the main character in it has writer's block. It was when I stopped working at the record store; all of a sudden I could work full time, I had all this time to write. And I just couldn't write. It was driving me crazy, because I'd never had a problem before. So I just said, "Well, fine, what I'll do is write something about a person who has writer's block, and make up a reason why they have it, as a way of settling it."

BiC: And part way through, it went away?

De Lint: Yes; mine sooner than hers.

BiC: Which leads me to ask you about dreams. Do you have an active dream life that you're aware of?

De Lint: Not that I'm aware of-, I don't remember them at all. I love the idea of dreams, though.

BiC: So where does all this stuff come from?

De Lint: Well, my imagination. (Laughs)

BiC: When do you have time to imagine; when do you think?

De Lint: Well, you know, I'll often meet neophyte writers and they'll express this concern about ideas, and being afraid of sending their story somewhere because they're afraid their idea might get stolen, etc. To me, ideas are the cheapest commodity in writing. I mean, if you give the exact same plot to 12 writers, if they're good, you'll get 12 different stories even though they're trying to stay with that plot. My feeling is that ideas sort of generate themselves. If I don't write for a while for one or two weeks - I have less inclination to write. The more I write and the more I work, the more ideas I get. It's a self-generating thing.

BiC: You've got some pretty clear instructions for meditating in some of your books. Do you do that?

De Lint: No. I actually disappoint readers a lot of the time because I'm not a wicked priest, you know. It's a matter of research, talking to people about how things work for them, and reading material, using the library. That's all it is to me. Well, that's not all it is, but that's how you find out about

BiC: Somewhere you say that a writer is thinking about his writing all the time.

De Lint: I do think that is true. Especially when I'm in the middle of a project - when it's a novel, that could be a couple of years, sometimes - I'm just basically in that book. Those people are like another bunch of friends, a whole other group of people you know really well.

BiC: Because you are a musician, and you're interested in the old folk tunes, which are not unrelated to the stories you're telling, it seems to me that your music and your writing must feed each other.

De Lint: The way music plays a part in my writing is only in terms of how I choreograph scenes and the prose. If there's a really exciting part happening, my sentences will get much shorter, my paragraphs get shorter - and even that has been instinctual for a very long time; I've only realized it in talking to other people about it, and going back and looking at older work. Also, over the last year or so I've gotten very interested in actually doing art as opposed to just appreciating it, and I find that's really helped me in terms of visualizing.

BiC: I notice that one of your characters is often an "old child" who's wise beyond her years....

De Lint: That's what I like about this kind of situation, because people find things that you're not aware of I hadn't realized that. I think every writer works with a certain cast of characters. And no matter how different and individual we try to make the people who appear on the stage of our stories, I think that it's a certain repertory company, and they tend to go, "Okay, I could play that role" and "Oh, I'll do this one." I try to make things different, but I know this in retrospect.

BiC: You include a wise older figure often, too.

De Lint: Some of that is archetypal, but some of it is just the fact that I have a certain set bunch of players. It's not deliberate at all; I'd love to have the entire world at my disposal, but we're limited to what we know.

BiC: You do seem to be able to write from a woman's point of view, which is rare.

De Lint: I'm very pleased with the reaction from women; they seem to feel that I've been able to capture it. The reason I'll

often write from a woman's perspective is the same reason I'll often explore alternate cultures: it's because I want to find out about it, and the best way to find out about something is to write about it.

BiC: I don't mean to say that you're a didactic writer, but you do tend to do a bit of teaching in your novels.

De Lint: Well certainly, to be honest with you, I have my own private agendas. I try not to make them too overt, but I do have them. I feel if fiction's going to have any worth whatsoever, it's got to have more going for it than just the story and characters.

BiC: Does the agenda vary with the story?

De Lint: They're often really simple things, like being true and faithful to your friends or your family, or respecting the earth, or let's try and stop the terrible abuse of women and children for all these centuries; things like that, which I think are really important concerns. You don't want to beat people over the head with it, but you want to keep it constantly in their awareness. These are themes I'll return to often in my work. I have another agenda, too: that the world is a wonderful place as it is. And if I have to use magic to show that, that's what I'll do. I'll create elves and fairies from another world and put them into our world, but it's really a metaphor for the wonder and magic that really is there, once you pay attention to it. And that's tied to everything else as well, like the Native belief of beauty. Beauty is not necessarily something that is beautiful in the sense of Vogue magazine; beauty is something that's perfect in itself, the perfect whatever-it-is. The perfect pine tree, the perfect forest, the perfect elder, the perfect tipi - there's a sense of beauty.

BiC: Where did this come from for you? Is it an intellectual thing, or is it something you've felt because you've moved around so much?

De Lint: Well, you can't live in this world and not be struck by the injustice and inequality everywhere you turn. And I think all you can do is just try and point out that it doesn't have to be that way. I'm a writer, so I'm using my writing to do it.

BiC: Is there something that you want to get across that you haven't done yet?

De Lint: I'm not sure. My feeling is that until those things are solved - and to be cynical, I don't think they're going to be solved that quickly - I've got fuel to write on forever. I have a friend named Andrew Vachss; he's a lawyer in New York who writes novels. He's very successful with novels but he uses the money to pay for his practice, which is with abused children, who have no money of course. He's quite a crusader on this and I really respect him for what he's doing, his integrity and determination. He's told me, "I've only got one story to tell, so I'm just going to keep telling it until I don't have to tell it any more, until the problem is cleared up." And I feet that way, too.

BiC: Is writing a good living for you?

De Lint: Well, my wife and I have a partnership, basically, in terms of our marriage, and there have been times when she's had to support us more than I've supported us, so we've had lean years and we've had good years. I've been doing this full time for about 11 years, since '82. At the moment, we're okay. We have a mortgage to pay for, though. The only reason I can make a living full time is because I don't publish in Canada, I publish in the States. So I get the big market there, and my books come out here as well.

BiC: How did you break into the American rnarket?

De Lint: I just kept submitting books till I sold. I think Harp of the Grey Rose got rejected 16 times. And then The Riddle of the Wren, I can't remember how many rejections. Then in one week I sold three books!

BiC: What did you do to celebrate?

De Lint: I drive people crazy, I guess; I'm fairly blase about these things, which is good in a sense, because I was also blase about the rejections. When I was submitting a new book, I just kept on writing. Between Yarrow and Harp of the Grey Rose there's another three or four novels in there that are just going to stay in my drawer because they're not good enough to be published, that's my feeling. Some of those earlier books are not as good as I would like them to be, but they're the very best I could do at the time, so I'm not embarrassed by them.

BiC: You forgive your younger self?

De Lint: Exactly. Also, when they get reprinted, I refuse to change them. Because they're written by somebody else; they're written by the person I was, 10 or whatever years ago.

BiC: Which of your books is your favourite?

De Lint: The one I'm working on. I have sort of pet favourites, going back, but it's almost like asking you to pick your favourite children.

BiC: Are you aware of your Canadian readers - do you get letters from them?

De Lint: A few. Most of my fan mail comes from the States, though.

BiC: Have you any idea what Canadians think of fantasy and science fiction?

De Lint: They've always been very enthusiastic when I talk to them. When I started out, there was no market in Canada and just didn't see any point in even trying. But a lot of my books ire very Canadian. They're set in Canada. A lot of the mail I ,et from the States ... people just figure that Ottawa is the most exotic place and are really baffled by it. Actually, I believe that any place is interesting. It's true. You know, you get fledgling writers who want advice, and the only advice you an really give them is that there are two things: you read a lot and you write a lot. But they'll say things like, "I don't know anything; I don't know any people with interesting jobs," or "I don't live anywhere interesting." And I just feel that any lace, any job, anybody is interesting. You can make a good story out of anyone. And sell it anywhere.

BiC: In Yarrow, in describing your heroine's writing, you say, "Each book had its own theme, but there was one underlying thread that bound them all together and each book took that thread - that Road - a little further along the way." Can you see that in your own work?

De Lint: Oh, definitely. I often wish that everything I wrote could be read by people only in the order that I wrote them.

BiC: So where are you going along that road?

De Lint: I have no idea. My writing style is the most dangerous one you can have. And that is, I just sit down and I find out what happens every day. It's not until I finish a first draft that I go back and bring it into more manageable form. But the first draft, that's like reading a book for me. It's exciting. It's also dangerous, in the sense that I've got manuscripts of 200 pages long that just died.

BiC: What are you working on right now?

De Lint: It's called "Memory and Dream," and it's basically an exploration of the two. It's fictional, a contemporary fantasy.

BiC: What do you say to people who don't consider your work to be serious writing?

De Lint: I get really tired of people judging things by the lowest common denominator. You get people saying, "Science fiction is just all ray guns and 'Star Trek' and it's garbage." But this is a field that has produced Ursula Le Guin, and Greg Baer, and some of the best fiction possible. It's also produced some of the worst dreck possible. Look at the literary giants who are upheld: if you took them as belonging to a genre and then judged that genre by its worst proponents, people would be outraged. But it's done so blithely with everything else. Genres are created by bookstores and publishers. And I grant you, there are people who will write within certain confines, but they're not the shining lights. In Canada, for instance, someone like Guy Gavriel Kay - his work stands head and shoulders above everybody else's, it's beautifully written work. He's one of the shining lights, one of the people who stand above the crowd.


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