Sometime in 2009 I was asked to write a science fiction story for Clarkesworld Magazine. At the time, I had mainly written fantasy — I was eager to dive into the other side of the speculative field. Two things had been bouncing around my head, and they bashed together at once. I had sprouted a fascination with the pulp SF planets of Zelazny, Bester, Burroughs, and Asimov’s day. The worlds we thought might be out there before satellite footage assured us it was not. Savage deserts of Mars, undersea Neptune, Venusian waterways. I wanted to make a planet like that. I didn’t want to follow the trend of hewing closely to established scientific fact. I wanted to go back to the wild, free-wheeling pulp universe, where there are no shackles on what you can imagine out there.
At the same time, I had read an interview with Mark Danielewski, who wrote House of Leaves, one of my favorite novels. He talked about his father, a cinematographer, and what a profound influence on his writing his father’s profession had been. And I thought: I was raised by a film director. It shaped every way I see the world and the ways I make my own. And I’ve never written about it even a little.
So I got my chocolate in my peanut butter. I wrote a short story about a famous director’s daughter, Severin Unck, who disappeared on a watery Venus. The ending was ambiguous, the structure full of film scripts as well as straight narrative. And from the first line, I knew it wanted to be a novel when it grew up. The world was just there, completely realized in my brain, and I knew a short could never contain it.
So began the long road to fill out the story The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew into the novel Radiance. One of the biggest challenges was waiting in the wings for me from that first sentence: a short story can get away with an ambiguous ending that doesn’t answer questions. But a novel needs to take a stand. It has a responsibility to satisfy the reader. And it took years for Severin Unck to finally tell me what happened to her.
It was a horrendously ambitious project, and my first in so many categories: first science fiction novel, first alternate history, first murder mystery, first noir, first time writing radio plays, first time I delievered exposition via a singing and dancing animated mongoose and octopus duo…
In order to write Radiance, I had to become a better writer. I had to acquire skills that none of my other books needed me to have. I had to solve problems I’d never run into face-first before — how would the history of the 19th and early 20th century unfold if everyone could get on a rocket and settle another planet? How can you hide the solution to a mystery from readers long enough to make them care without cheating and withholding information? How to get all that expostion and worldbuilding out without the tricks I’d used in past books and without boring my readers to tears? (Mongooses and octopi help.) How to tell this enormous story that spans the entire universe and a few other ones besides, but never lose sight of the lost and lonely and flawed and angry woman at the center of it, without making her a MacGuffin for the men of the book to seek after like a rather unwieldy Maltese Falcon? How to make it all as exciting as the Maltese Falcon anyway?
I don’t know if I accomplished all that. I suppose you never really do know if your book in the world looks like the book in your head. But I’m awfully proud of it, and I was awfully sad to leave my people behind, my mad and marvelous and occasionally cell-animated people on my mad and marvelous and impossible planets. I hope that when you reach the end, you’ll be sorry to leave them, too.
Catherynne M. Valente‘s Radiance is published in the UK by Corsair, and in the US by Tor Books (cover below). For more on the author’s novels and writing, be sure to check out her website, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.