April 4th, 2011 | guest informant
You may remember me raving about Catherynne M Valente’s novel PALIMPSEST a while back. She has a new novel out, DEATHLESS. I asked her to write to you about it, and she kindly found the time to say this:
I can tell you exactly when and how I got the idea for Deathless.
I can’t always do that. Sometimes ideas come from nowhere, or seem to have always been banging around in my head. An obsession with fairy tales or Prester John or writing on skin. But it so happens that sometime in 2006, this guy I had just started dating offered to read me a Russian fairy tale from a very beautifully illustrated book. He just translated on the fly, reading Russian and speaking English and it was a nice little Bluebeard sort of story, about a boy named Ivan and a girl named Marya. Ivan was not supposed to go into the basement but of course he did–Ivan is never very bright in these stories. I liked the whole Girl Bluebeard reversal thing and was grooving along until Ivan discovers that what is in the basement that he’s not supposed to see is Koschei the Deathless, hanging from chains on the wall of the cellar of Marya’s house.
“Wait, what?” I said. “Why is he in the basement?”
“I don’t know,” said my suitor. “He just is. See?” And he showed me the illustration.
“But isn’t Koschei like, kind of the devil?”
“Yeah, basically. Without the whole religion part. He kidnaps maidens and is immortal and vaguely vampirey and various people named Ivan have to go get their girlfriends back.”
“Then why does she have him chained up in her basement? Who is she? How did she do that? Is he letting her? Did she force him? Was she a maiden he took before, and then she turned the tables on him? Does he still love her? I’ll bet he still loves her.”
My suitor had seen me do this particular dance before–Reading Too Much Into Things That Never Bothered Me and Just Want to Be Left Alone is like my #1 personality trait.
“It doesn’t say,” he said, grinning.
“Well, it sounds pretty kinky to me. Things which are actually meant to be kinky and hot are less kinky than fairy tale girls chaining up devilish vampires in their basement for fun and no reason.”
“It’s not really the point of the story. Ivan has this whole adventure after this, to get Marya back after Koschei runs off with her again. This is like act two. Marya’s not really in it much after this.”
“I don’t care about Ivan! He sucks. Marya is awesome–you heard the story! It said she was a warrior princess! She should be in All the Parts.”
And I paused. And our eyes met. And I said:
“I’m gonna write a book about this.”
And five years later, the Russian fairy tale boy and I are married, and he still reads me folktales looking for that glint in my eye when I find the place in a story where I fit, where the tale I want to tell is hiding.
And five years later there is a book where Marya is in all the parts, and there are reasons for everything, and it is kinky and funny and sad and hard, but yes, in the end, he still loves her.
After all, you never forget the girl with the power to chain you up in her cellar forever.