Interview: Catherynne M. Valente

How did you first come to discover the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

I had always been aware of them in a sort of geek osmosis way–but my husband is particularly obsessed with Mars-based science fiction, so anything set on Mars tends to find its way onto our shelves.

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

The combination of science fiction and fantasy. The idea that Mars is just so incredibly peopled and complex–I think we all felt sadness when it was determined to be lifeless. Reading ERB allows us to imagine, for a little while, that we have this amazing world right next door.

What sort of an influence do you think the Barsoom books have had on the development of fantasy & science fiction?

While I was re-reading for the anthology, it struck me that this really is where a great deal of science fiction begins–Heinlein of course loved them, and Heinlein influences nearly everyone. But the consciousness of the genre as an adventure genre, of a single strong human man besting and becoming part of an alien culture, the interest in masculinity and almost cowboy/western elements to science fiction, I think a lot of that comes from Barsoom.

Who is your favorite character in the Barsoom canon? (And why?)

Honestly, I think it’s Woola. I’m a sucker for space puppies, and Woola has such an affecting way of communicating his feelings. In adventure books of this period, there isn’t always much emotional content, and Woola provides some of that for me.

Authors: Tell us a bit about your story in the anthology. What’s it about?

It’s about a young Thark named Falm Rojut, who observes the arrival of John Carter and his actions, disliking the human and feeling helpless in the face of his ascension in their culture. It’s a story of colonization from the point of view of the colonized.

What was the genesis of the story–where did the initial seed for the story come from?

Because A Princess of Mars is so tightly bound to Carter’s point of view, I wanted to look at the action of the novel from the perspective of someone else, to reinterpret Tharkian culture in a new way. There’s not a lot of realistic anthropology going on in the original, and it struck me that almost everything that happens can be seen totally differently–and the Thark culture not nearly so barbaric and backward as Carter thinks. Carter has slaughtered Native Americans, and seems to see the Tharkians in the same way whites saw the First Nations, which is a terribly ugly way of looking. I wanted to show how an outsider’s impressions can hardly help but be wrong. The title, of course, is meant to invoke that anthropological sense. I wanted to grant Tharkian culture some measure of respect, since science fiction has a spotty track record with these kinds of colonization stories.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Very much so! The only other shared world type complex I’ve written for is the new Bordertown anthology, and it’s strange and interesting to try to fit one’s own ideas and sensibilities into someone else’s universe. In the end, imitating ERB’s meta-textual introductions allowed me to get into the style and perspective I needed, and of course, to have a little postmodern fun.

What kind of research–other than, perhaps, rereading the Barsoom novels–did you have to do for the story?

I just re-read the early Barsoom novels, looking for what spiked an emotional/literary reaction in me. Given that I work with folklore and non-Western myth quite a bit, I didn’t have to do much extra research to get thinking about colonized cultures and how they see the “great men” who conquer them.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

The sequel to my bestselling novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making comes out in October 2012: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. Also, the conclusion of my own trilogy of problematic colonization, A Dirge for Prester John, comes out in fall of 2012 as well: The Spindle of Necessity.