Guest Post: Catherynne M. Valente Takes Us on a Grand Tour of Her Library and the Solar System

radianceOne Author, Nine Planets, and Half a Library

There used to be a poster hanging in one of my long-ago English classrooms that read: “In order to write a single book, one must turn over half a library.” I’ve long forgetten the attribution, so forgive me, but I’ve thought of that phrase over and over again as I grew into my life as an author. I believe it completely. Writing isn’t a solitary activity, not really. You sit alone, but your book has a lively conversation with everything else you’ve ever read, good and bad, fiction and non-fiction. Everything that goes in comes out—usually backwards, upside-down, and doing a cannonball.

My new novel, Radiance, is certainly the child of many, many influences. Some of them aren’t even books. It’s a science fiction mystery set in an alternate timeline in which our Solar System was explored and settled in the late 19th century, and in which each world was habitable, if not always comfortable. The story takes place in the late 1940s, and begins with the disappearance of a filmmaker on Venus. The book is deeply concerned with movies, most of the characters are actors, directors, cinematographers, sound technicians. And so many of the influences on the aesthetic of the novel—what I like to call decopunk—are films. Metropolis, A Trip to the Moon, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and more modern movies as well, such as L.A. Confidential, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and the recent swath of found footage horror films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield.

But that “half a library” always hits the heaviest in the cagematch of influence. In terms of the structure and metafictional aspects of the book, I certainly have to take my hat off to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which is a master class in those techniques, and in building a slow feeling of organic, visceral dread while still using all those wonderful postmodern toys. John Fowles’ The Magus also inspired me, both in terms of its claustrophobic, hothouse atmosphere and tension and in terms of constructing a mystery by constantly revealing different interpretations of a single event, never letting the reader get too comfortable. I’ve only started reading Fowles’ recently, and he’s just stunning.

There’s not so many art deco science fiction novels out there—it’s obvious to cite Jules Verne, so I’ll get that out of the way at once. I returned a lot to fiction written during the period, The Great Gatsby, Save Me the Waltz, A Moveable Feast, Anais Nin’s diaries. Radiance plays with many genres, including noir and Gothic, for which The Big Sleep and The Mysteries of Udolpho were instrumental in getting the language right, though my touchstone for pared-down, muscular prose will always be True Grit.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 came out when I was about halfway through writing Radiance and made me do a double take. After all, it’s a sprawling voyage through an inhabited Solar System, though one much more realistic and fact-based than mine. I think it’s such an extraordinary work, both unlike anything he’s written and the culmination of years of brilliance. Again, there’s not so many books out there that take such a madcap, joyous view of so many familiar worlds, and I am continually impressed by it.

The aesthetic of my planets very much comes from pulp science fiction like A Princess of Mars and Roger Zelazny’s wonderful short story The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth. I wanted those worlds back—the Venuses and Marses and Neptunes SF writers created before we knew for certain that the planets were empty and inhospitable. There’s such a richness of notion in Golden and Silver Age SF, a care only for story and that fabled sense of wonder, rather than hewing to known physics and tested science. I wanted to make readers gasp and dream of gorgeous, lurid worlds the way they used to, and not worry so much about whether anything could really live on Venus.

The aesthetic of the culture in Radiance came from all over the place, as I’ve mentioned, but Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw is such a fabulous example of how to apply the stricture of real human cultures to fantastical characters, and China Mieville’s Railsea—a book not enough people have read!—is just superb when it comes to creating an alternate world with a visual sense that reminds us of certain historical settings without being a slave to it. But it’s superb in nearly every way, really.

Finally, some excellent memoirs really helped me to get the voice of Old Hollywood. The infamous Hollywood Babylon, by Kenneth Anger, and The Movies—and Me, by the nearly forgotten but totally amazing Mary MacLane, absolutely transported me into that world and taught me the local tongue.

I’m terribly grateful to my half a library, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten many of its denizens. Radiance is a big party, and hopefully I’ve brought enough gin for everyone.

Radiance is available October 20.

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