Someplace to Be Flying: An Interview with Charles de Lint

by Michael McCarty

Science-fiction giant Orson Scott Card said this about Charles de Lint’s work: “There is no better writer now than Charles de Lint at bringing out the magic in contemporary life….The best of the post-Stephen King contemporary fantasists, the one with the clearest vision of the possibilities of magic in a modern setting.”

Charles de Lint is a folk musician, folklore scholar, book reviewer and visual artist – but he is best known as a captivating storyteller who specializes in novels and short story collections that bring mythic themes into modern urban life. Much of his fiction is set in the imaginary city of Newford, somewhere in North America. The Newford works include Trader, Moonlight and Vines, Memory and Dream, Forests of the Heart, The Onion Girl, Spirits in the Wires, and Dreams Underfoot.

Though Charles de Lint is published under a “fantasy” label, he and Tor editor Terri Windling have come up with the term “mystic fiction” to more properly describe the Newford books, which fall in the interstitial realm between fantasy literature and mainstream fiction with a magical-realist bent. He has won numerous awards including the World Fantasy Award, YALSA, Prix Ozone, the New York Public Library’s Best Books for the Teen Age, the HOMer Award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Canadian SF/Fantasy Award and the William L. Crawford Award. For more information about Charles de Lint, visit his website at http://www.cyberus.ca/~cdl.

Reflection’s Edge: You and your Tor Books editor, Terri Windling, came up with the term mystic fiction to describe your work. What is about mystic fiction that makes it a good genre for your writing?

Charles de Lint: Mystic fiction is fiction that has elements and roots of folktale and myth in it – but it is strictly fiction. It encompasses historical, rural, urbane – whatever kind of thing you are dealing with, as long as it has a myth underpinning.

I like telling stories with people, but also, I’ve always been interested in stories which are slightly off-kilter—I like to put that in a story. It’s interesting; there are a lot of books that are published in the mainstream, or films and things, that would be considered fantasy material except [they aren't] marketed that way. It is all a marketing thing….

Alice Hoffman, for instance, has little mysterious goings-on like witches or ghosts in her stories—but no one ever considers them to be fantasy. In movies like Tom Hanks’ Big or Splash, John Travolta in Michael or Phenomenon, City Of Angels or Pleasantville – they are all fantasy films.

I’m intrigued by ordinary real people in their lives and how things go on; I also like something else in the mix that makes it more than just the world around me and makes it more fun to write about.

RE: Forests of the Hearts features “The Gentry.” Is “The Gentry” based on real folklore, or is it something you created?

de Lint: They are kind of a mix of the old Sidhe – who are these tall dark elves of Ireland, as opposed to the ones that end up in Victorian children’s books. In folklore, the elf races were quite immoral. They were very dangerous—they weren’t kindly flower fairies and it’s a play on that.

It is also a play on the hard men you see in bars and pubs. They are just nursing these longstanding grievances – you’ll find them in Irish bars; you’ll find them in any kind of bars. They are the brooding person in the corner. The reason I dealt with the Irish in that book….I wanted to deal with that aspect of the drinking. The Irish stereotypes aren’t real, but unfortunately, there are going to be people who embrace them anyway.

That wasn’t the main thrust of the book, to be honest with you. That is like one little part of it. The main thrust of the book was the idea of home—where it is and what it means to you.

RE: Of all your books, which ones would you like to see made into movies? Has Hollywood shown any interest in your work?

de Lint: I’ve had nibbles off and on for quite a while. “The Sacred Fire,” one of the stories from the Newford collections, was used for Showtime’s series, “The Hunger.” They had a couple of series; one had David Bowie doing the introduction to “The Hunger.” That was the one with my story in it. That show was filmed in Montreal. They did a really good job of bringing the tombs to life. They did a wonderful job.

I’ve been approached for various things, but nothing ever gets off the ground. If anything, I’d like to see a TV series based on the Newford stories – it is wide open for it. You’d have a regular cast of characters who you wouldn’t have to feature in every story in different episodes. It doesn’t have to be the same core of characters in the episode. You have them there to keep the continuity going and there are lots of stories there. I’ve been approached a couple of times, but nothing went through.

RE: How do you keep the place of Newford fresh for you to keep writing about that setting?

de Lint: I have no idea. I enjoy writing about the place—and revisiting the characters. I have been dealing with the same core of characters in the novels, and I’m going to stop doing that very soon. I prefer to have a new cast of characters for every novel. I’ll probably still use those guys for short stories or background stuff.

Newford is just an amalgam of all the different cities I have seen. That is where the place came from. If I go to a city that has something really cool – I’ll just put it into a Newford story.

RE: Is the main theme of Trader about identity?

de Lint: Yes.

RE: With all the body-swapping that goes on in Trader, was it hard to keep the characters straight when you have them in different bodies?

de Lint: I think it is easier to do body-swapping in fiction than in film. In film, the actor is going to have to develop all the mannerisms of the other character. But in your writing, you stick with the same characteristics for the character. It doesn’t matter what body they are in, you just stick with the way their mind works. I didn’t have any trouble with that at all.

There are certain tropes in science fiction, fantasy and horror—if you work in the field, you are going to want to write them all. You’re going to want to do a werewolf story, a vampire story, a Frankenstein story, time travel, an invisible man, a body-swapping kind of story. These are the things that intrigue you about the field in the first place – so you’re going to want to try to see how you do it as well. I wanted to try that kind of story for the fun of it. I didn’t think it was original – I just wanted to see what I could do with it.

RE: I liked it a lot. It was in the same vein as Anne Rice’s Tale Of The Body Thief, but you had a lot of fun with this tale and it shows with the writing.

de Lint: Thank you. One of the things that writers talk about a lot is that there are ten plots that they keep reusing. I think there is a certain validity to that. What we do as writers….It’s not the plot or the ideas that make a book stand out – it is what you, as an individual, bring to it. As long as you can write honesty and effectively, I think readers will appreciate that. If you give ten writers the same plot, you’ll have ten different stories.

RE: Talking about writers, I’ve heard you’re a friend and fan of Dean Koontz. What is Dean Koontz like?

de Lint: I always find it sad how so many people equate bestseller success with hack writing, as though one’s work can’t be both popular and literate. Koontz, like King and a number of other popular writers, has had to suffer this backlash—from the critics rather than the general readership, naturally—since the former particularly appear to have these axes they need to grind.

I know for a fact it’s not true with Dean’s work. Never mind that the books happily stand up for themselves in terms of quality. The truth is, Dean spends more time worrying over a sentence than most of us do whole pages.

I first “met” Dean when we were both judges for the World Fantasy Awards. We had many telephone conversations about the works published that year which naturally devolved into general discussions on writing, literature, favorite authors and books, and the like. Time and again, I was struck by how widely read Dean was, his fairness towards approaching the work of other writers, his desire to constantly push the envelope in both his reading and his own writing, but mostly by his dedication to his own work.

Here was a man who worked every day…who wouldn’t let a sentence leave his house until it was completely to his satisfaction. Who cared deeply about his characters, which, in the hands of an artist, translates into the creation of characters others will care deeply about as well.

And there’s one other thing that I won’t forget:

At this time—the mid-Eighties—there weren’t many of us doing what’s happily become much more common these days: crossing genres within the context of a single work. I love letting a story take me where it needs to go, even if that makes it unclassifiable, and writers like Dean Koontz and Joe Lansdale helped validate what I’d only been doing on instinct. Their encouragement and example were of enormous benefit to the new writer I was then, helping me keep the faith during those lean times when my publisher at the time didn’t know what to do with these hybrid books I was producing.

I finally got to meet Dean in 1986 when I was a Guest of Honor at a convention in Long Beach, CA, and he proved to be just as kind and thoughtful an individual in person as he was in letters and on the phone. Except for one thing. His corny sense of humor is even more pronounced in person. But you have to love him for it.

RE: What was the inspiration for The Blue Girl?

de Lint: I don’t really have a flash of inspiration to write a book. I might get it for a scene – I don’t get it for a book. That book, I just wanted to write about friendship and people helping each other. To me, that is what that book is all about. The book is about a friendship that developed between the two characters—which completed each of them. They were adrift before—one of them was too wild, the other was too restricted. Through their friendship, they loosened and opened things up between each other. That is what I wanted to explore. I wanted to see how that would work and if it could work effectively.

RE: Can you share some of your experiences working with artist Charles Vess on Medicine Road?

de Lint: I’ve done a previous book with Charles Vess for Subterranean Press called Seven Wild Sisters. Our editor/publisher Bill Schaffer was really happy with the way it was done. He wanted three more books that were connected. So we decided to connect them to the seven wild sisters and follow some of the sisters in each book.

With Medicine Road, Charles and I decided we wanted it to be set in Arizona because he wanted to draw desert scenes and I wanted to write about them. We took the road trip the character took and I came home and wrote the book.

Charles had lots of reference material and took lots of photographs. He had actually been to all the places. It was easy to write about and easy for him to draw.

It was a very fun project—we enjoyed doing it. I don’t know when in our schedules we can open it up enough to do another one, but down the road we certainly hope to.

RE: Why do you think your words and Charles Vess’s artwork work so well together?

de Lint: In terms of aesthetics they compliment each other. We approach a project with respect for one another. He gets to draw stuff he really wants to draw because I ask him what he wants to draw and I’ll write that into a story.

When we were doing A Circle of Cats, it was set in the mountains right across the road from where he lives in Virginia. He took me and my wife on a hike through there and he’d say, “I really love this waterfall—I really want to draw that,” or “I really love this homestead.” I just made note of all these things and when I got home, I’d make sure they got into the book.

We respect each other’s work. We’ve also been friends for twenty-five years. When you’re working with friends, you respect one another.

RE: What can we expect next from Charles de Lint?

de Lint: I am working on a book for Tor at the moment. It really doesn’t have a title. I also have a young adult book for Viking. I am also working on another picture book, a handful of short stories and my columns for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

I also have a fun little project coming out from Subterranean Press called The Hour Before Dawn and Other Stories—it is basically two reprints and a brand new story. I’ve decided to do the art for them. I’ve finished the cover and two interiors—I have one more interior left to do. I’m doing the photo-collage because I haven’t painted in three years—I don’t trust my hand at the moment. The reason I’m doing it is because [my wife] MaryAnn was going to do it, but she recently opened up a store and that is taking up so much of her time.

RE: You are also a book critic for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. As an author, do you feel you have a little more insight than most critics might? Also, how many books do you receive in a given year?

de Lint: I have no idea how many books I get [laughs]—but I can only review three a month. I don’t consider myself a critic, I consider myself a reviewer—there is a big difference. Basically, what I try to do with my column is sit down with the readers and talk about books we like and why we like them.

I think I’ve only given one completely negative review to the 120 or so columns I’ve done so far. I don’t feel like reading bad books. Therefore, if the book is bad, I don’t finish it. I have so little space in my column I prefer to concentrate on the good books and point them out to the people who might not have had a chance to read or notice them.

I have certain sympathy with authors. I probably don’t come down as hard on them as a person who doesn’t write might. I know how much work they put into it, to start with. I also know [that] just because I don’t get it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. There are lots of times when I write things which will seem absolutely crystal-clear. My editor or MaryAnn, who is the first editor, will not get it, and it baffles me. It’s not because they are stupid—it’s a matter of miscommunication. Sometimes that will happen. I will point [those miscommunications] out [to authors], but I don’t feel it is my job to come down hard on people because of it.

RE: Last words?

de Lint: It’s a hard world out there and we should all take care of each other. That’s all.

Michael McCarty is a former stand-up comedian, musician and managing editor of a music magazine. His books Giants of the Genre and More Giants Of The Genre (Nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Book of the Year) are collections of interviews with the greats of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. In 2005, Wildside Press published his first fiction collection, Dark Duets. In 2006, he wrote an article for Writers Digest Books' On Writing Horror (edited by Mort Castle), and appeared in the Cemetery Dance anthology In Laymon Terms. In April 2007, the novel Monster Behind the Wheel (co-authored with Mark McLaughlin) was published in England by Sarob Press. More on Mike can be found at geocities.com/mccartyzone and myspace.com/monsterbook. He can be reached at monstermike69 (at) hotmail.com.