Author Catherynne M. Valente crafts a unique and vibrant world in her new novel, Radiance. Set in an alternate present where interplanetary travel was discovered at the turn of the 20th century, this story of secrets and scandals entertains and intrigues even as it explores what a single life can mean.
We asked Valente a few questions about her new book and its remarkable heroine.
You said in the acknowledgements that Radiance was inspired by growing up as the daughter of a filmmaker. How has film sculpted your approach to storytelling in ways that books haven’t?
Film is such a visual medium—it communicates so much of its power and narrative without words. I suppose you could say that books taught me how to speak and movies taught me how to see. My books are intensely visual, I always “see” the story in my head playing out like a movie, and I translate that visual experience of mine into words. Of course, a screenwriter must be more frugal with words than a novelist. But I think there’s much to be learned from film in terms of creating a cohesive aesthetic and making every word count double. It’s often the images that stick with us—the moon being hit with a rocket in Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the costumes in A Clockwork Orange. Those striking visions can happen in a novel, too. Some novels are not overly concerned with visuals—and that’s fine! I have a few favorites where I couldn’t tell you what the protagonist looks like at all, really. But for me, sight is a deeply important sense, even in prose.
"I think there’s much to be learned from film in terms of creating a cohesive aesthetic and making every word count double."
You could’ve written a Hollywood-centric mystery without changing Hollywood at all, but you infused the novel with an immense sci-fi/alternate history background. Were those elements there from the beginning, or did the story evolve to include them?
I am a science fiction and fantasy author at heart—the fantastic elements were present from the beginning. Radiance began as a short story, complete with my beloved waterlogged Venus. But when I went to convert it into a novel, I did have a moment of thinking, maybe I’m over-egging the pudding. I could just do a decopunk mystery without the space whales and the crazy planets. Slim it down a little, make it a bit more streamlined. And then I thought: NOPE.
I love the Radiance universe. The mystery happens within this mad, bustling solar system and without that, the mystery isn’t all that interesting. In the real world, it’s a binary choice: A missing person is either dead or alive. There are so many more options in science fiction. I couldn’t tell Severin’s story on Earth. And I couldn’t tell Venus’ story without Severin. To me, they were all wound up together, because movies, so far, are the way most of humanity has experienced space at all. We see the universe through a camera lens. And it’ll likely be that way for a long time. So for me, the lens and the rocket are twins.
I can do you Hollywood and space without the mystery, and I can do you space and mystery without Hollywood, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can't give you mystery and Hollywood without space. Space is compulsory.
"In the real world, it’s a binary choice: A missing person is either dead or alive. There are so many more options in science fiction."
Were there any parts of that alternate history that you would have liked to explore in greater detail?
I definitely would have liked to explore the effects of colonialism further on from the events of the book. Perhaps I will one day. The idea being that the discovery of space flight kind of puts the brakes on some of the colonial atrocities of the 19th century as the powers that be race toward the stars—leaving America governed jointly by Washington and a league of First Nation tribes, for example. But as Severin discovers, it’s really only a reprieve. All the same problems our own history saw will occur, just on a longer timescale, with greater damage, as Navies are forced to contend with the distance between planets and the colossal destruction that can be rained down on, for example, a Martian moon.
There’s also a subtle thread concerning caretaking the environment on the worlds of the Solar System—I didn’t really have room to tease it out in the larger narrative, but it’s there. Though no sentient life was found on the other planets, much plant and animal life abounds, and the colonial powers of the 19th century treat it more or less as they have always done, as resources to be consumed at top speed.
When did you realize this was going to be a story told primarily outside the realm of narrative prose, i.e. through transcripts and diary entries?
Oh, right away, really. It’s very hard to write a book about movies and sub-light space travel while keeping the narrative strictly linear. There were so many stories and voices I wanted to explore, and it never seemed right, to restrict it to simply Percival’s story, or Anchises’, or Severin’s, or Mary’s, or Erasmo’s. With these characters living on different worlds for much of the book, some hopping about was required.
And the thing is, life isn’t linear. It isn’t made up of neat scenes that only take place in one location and then fade in to another that logically follows on. Life is made up not only of the things we do and say but the things we read and watch and hear secondhand. Especially for lovers of movies and books, the world of stories intrudes on the real world all the time. We speak, often, in quotations and references. We race to show a new partner every movie we’ve loved. The fictional world lives alongside the nonfiction. And if I was going to have my alternate Hollywood (and eat it too), I needed to create that same network of referential culture that I and everyone else lives in, or it wouldn’t feel authentic. I find it frustrating when alternate histories don’t explore the timeline’s effect on popular culture, or simply repeat that culture more or less as it happened in our own world. I didn’t want to make that mistake—so that meant including movies and radio plays and pieces of fiction. Add that to the need for multiple perspectives to see the Solar System all at once, and you’ve got the structure of Radiance.
Severin, your main character, makes nonfiction films in part because she rejects her father’s focus on fiction. Your book is obviously fiction, but you tell much of her story through writing styles primarily used in nonfiction. Is that connection a coincidence?
Not at all, and I’m so pleased you noticed!
There’s a natural desire to rebel against, if not precisely one’s parents, at least against the known, the everyday world of childhood. Severin grew up in a very unusual environment (I often thought of Drew Barrymore when writing Severin, growing up the child of such a famous family, surrounded by Hollywood excess), where her “everyday” was filming wild Gothic dramas. Her rebellion against that meant she only wanted to tell real stories—the irony being that she ends up lost in a series of events very like her father’s fantastical films, and her “realistic” films involve planets that to us are completely fantastical. But then, I’ve often found that rejecting the fantastic means it comes running after you to fetch you home. Fairy tales and folklore and science fiction (which is really only a fairy tale with a machine instead of a fairy) are stories we take in very young, and they have a profound effect on our psyches. We play out their tropes in real life without even noticing—think of how many times you’ve heard something described as “a Cinderella story.”
I used a good number of very realistic, nonfictional styles to tell Severin Unck’s tale—newspaper clippings, interviews, film transcripts—because, well, Severin would just hate it if I used all those gussied-up literary flourishes to tell her really real and true story. I couldn’t let her down.
Severin is a captivating character, but we spend much of the book getting to know her only through the accounts of others. Were you as a writer able to see her distinctly as a character, or did you get to know her through your other characters, too?
It was very deliberate, seeing her through others’ eyes so often. Anyone who spends their lives in front of the camera is altered by their observers, just like any scientific experiment. But also, in utilizing the tropes of noir and gothic cinema, where the girl in question is so often completely trapped in the hero’s vision of her, I wanted to start from that place and then smash that vision. Anchises sees Severin as an obsession, by turns Madonna and whore, but he never really knew her at all, nor did many. So we start with her father’s idea of his daughter. Then Anchises. Then her stepmother’s. Then her lover’s. Then Severin’s idea of herself, what she put onscreen. And somewhere deep in that onion of images is Severin herself, just a girl trying to say something, trying to make something, within the restrictions of her life. All of these are true and none of them are—that’s what makes her very real to me, I think. Radiance is so deeply about who gets to speak and who gets to see, who gets to be seen and who gets to be heard. The privilege of the viewer is intense.
Most of us are a hybrid, just like that. The way people see us affects us. The way we present ourselves to the world slowly becomes habit. Our actual, secret selves come out only when we think it’s very safe.
I have always been able to see Severin in my mind’s eye with total clarity. I could tell you how many wrinkles she has around each eyes. I don’t see all my characters so clearly, but she has always been in full color—or in full black and white. It took a little longer to hear her voice. I think it was in writing Erasmo’s scenes that I really got a handle on her as a person—it takes time to get to know someone as grumpy and canny as my Rinny.
On one of the novel’s title pages, you quote Orson Wells as saying a camera is “a medium by which messages reach us from another world.” Stephen King has famously compared writing to “telepathy.” Do you feel that same sense of otherworldly communication about books and films?
Wow, I love all these questions I’ve never been asked before! I absolutely do. A book is a time capsule and a teleportation machine, it brings the writer into the reader’s house, and together they make something new, out of what the writer meant and the reader discovers, base don their own experiences, their obsessions, their assumptions, their mind. A book is a science fictional object.
Movies are, too. Books and movies work both ways—they teleport the creator and her creations into the reader’s world, and teleport us into the creator’s world. In movies we see more, in books we know more. A book is like a possession, you inhabit the body of someone who lives in that other place. A movie is a window. You see it all playing out in front of you. They are magic, such magic. And they bind strangers together, too. Instant friends are made through the magic spell of “Oh my god, you’ve read that, too? You’ve seen that, too?”
Books and movies are some of the best ways we have of truly knowing other human beings. Of exercising radical empathy. Of experiencing life as someone other than themselves. It’s as otherworldly as it gets.
Without giving anything away, the finale is, in part, a meditation on the nature of endings. Do you think, in the age of the “spoiler alert,” that readers and viewers rely too much on finality when it comes to storytelling?
I feel a little sad that I’ll never be able to read the final scenes—or sing the musical number—of Radiance at a public reading. They give everything away, but they’re some of my favorite scenes I’ve ever written. But that’s the nature of the beast.
My partner is so adamant about spoilers that he’d rather not even read the back of the book—sometimes I think he’d prefer they didn’t have titles. Something might be given away. So I’m of two minds. On the one hand, a book or a movie or a show is so much more than the step by step events of the plot. I don’t necessarily mind being spoiled, as long as the spoiler makes me want to know more. I need to know that the story is worth my time! You gotta tell me why I should read it, not just that I should!
But on the other, because of my partner, I’ve started seeing things completely unspoiled—like, for anything, even what actors are in it or who wrote the short story. And there’s a real pleasure to that, to being totally surprised. So I respect people wanting to stay pure, because you have to guard that surprise. People will gush and reveal everything without even meaning to, just because they’re excited. It’s hard work to avoid knowing the whole plot of something the week it comes out.
But there is more to a tale than the end. This is why I started describing Radiance by its many genres years ago. It tells you what’s in there without letting anything big escape. It’s a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller with space whales. Does what it says on the tin.
What are you working on next?
Several things! A superhero novella, a post-apocalyptic Western novel, and a new middle grade book called The Lords of Glass Town, which can be summed up as: The Bronte children go to Narnia.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Radiance.