Momentary Glimpses of a Complete Circus: A Conversation with Genevieve Valetine
Hollow bones and brass casings, wires and cogs... Genevieve Valentine's Circus Tresaulti is a place of aerialists, dancing girls, and strong men, of spectacle and secret hatreds—a world of wild wonders and brilliant beauty.
"Genevieve Valentine writes like no one else," said Ekaterina Sedia, author of Heart of Iron and The House of Discarded Dreams. "Her stories are heartbreaking but never manipulative, and her prose is stylized but never alienating."
Genevieve Valentine's non-fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and she is the co-author with Stephan H. Segal and of Geek Wisdom. Her short fiction has appeared Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed, and Apex, as well as in such anthologies as The Living Dead 2, The Way of the Wizard and Running with the Pack.
Valentine's love of language and character shine through whether she's writing fiction or non-fiction.
"Writing's a remarkably soothing vocation for an introvert with an active imagination and a controlling streak," said Valentine. "It's also a lovely excuse to stay out of the sun. If you're lucky, your writing manages to leave a mark on the people who read it. And it has all the character-building attacks of self-doubt that plague other artists with much less call to stand up in public, which is nice."
If Valentine's short fiction won her many admirers, her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, (Prime Books) has exceeded expectations.
"Genevieve's debut novel takes the promise and the power of her shorts a step further," said Sedia. "Mechanique's a remarkable book — non-linear, sophisticated, filled with keenly observed and expertly rendered personalities and their dramas, all playing out against a sparse, barely sketched in background. Like a modern production of a classic play that leaves the stage bare of everything but the actors, lest we get distracted by the decorations, Mechanique flays open the hearts of its principals and we cannot look away."
Below, Valentine and I talk about world-building, non-linear narratives, and her love of bad movies.
There's got to be a story behind the creation of the Circus Tresaulti!
I'd always liked the aesthetics of the circus and its trappings (minus the animal aspect — I prefer my circuses only be cruel to people), so it was definitely something that had intrigued me for a while. The Circus Tresaulti in particular probably started from a cirque act I saw on the late-night arts station in college (I was a partier). It played arts performances music-video-style, so between "The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" and "The Flower Duet" from Lakme, there was an acrobatic duo whose routine was really striking. I wrote a note about it and set it aside for later. But the notes folder kept growing, and the Circus kept filling in around the edges, until I knew it was novel material. It was one of the longest spans I've had between getting that inspiring spark and doing something about it, but it was very useful in terms of assembling a circus I knew was big enough to build a book around, but was still largely glimpses of things I wasn't sure of, which is always how I like to go into a book — knowing a little, guessing a lot, and finding out what works for the story as I go along.
And the world outside the circus...?
Funnily enough, that's where I started. For the Circus Tresaulti to exist, there has to be a world that needs it. A world that needs the Circus Tresaulti is a world that is pretty broken. (It also helps explain why people would take refuge in a circus that asks so much of its performers.) From there, it wasn't hard to imagine a world devastated by war and splintered into city-states, where a circus of...peculiar people, shall we say, is one of the few outfits brave enough to travel in the open. And those in the Circus know it, which is part of the reason they put on such a fantastic show — when you're the only beautiful thing someone might ever see, you want to make it count.
If you ran off to join this particular circus, what would your job be?
There are definitely some places in the Circus Tresaulti troupe that might appeal. (Some of them are probably a little too stressful to be worth it, no matter how awesome the trapeze is.) Sadly, given my level of physical coordination and my crippling stage fright, I suspect I would probably end up as one of the people who mends the tent and carries benches and other unbreakables.
You seem to tell the story as much by exclusion as by inclusion. What did the jumping and switching around chapter to chapter allow you to do that a more linear approach wouldn't have?
I enjoy non-linear storytelling, which crops up a lot in my short fiction, and in this novel particularly I like that the story is revealed in pieces, as if the Circus was accidentally leaving the curtain open a little at a time and you were getting momentary glimpses that start to form a more complete picture.
If someone were to open up Mechanique — with a screwdriver, a scalpel, a crow bar, can opener, whatever — what would she find?
A lot of unnecessary clean-up, sounds like!
Were there any ways in the writing of Mechanique that, like the people in the circus, you were "brave enough to travel in the open," to brave dangerous territory?
This question makes me feel as though there should have been, but honestly there wasn't much. It's fiction, not Doctors Without Borders, you know? I wanted to write this story, and I got to tell it the way I wanted to, and aside from it being my first published novel and all the inherent terror that comes with that, there's nothing particularly brave about it.
What is style and how would you describe yours?
As with houses, craft is the way you build it, style is how you make it yours. There are the more obviously stylistic approaches to story that use tertiary documents, direct address, time manipulation, extreme changes in voice, etc. to deliver the story. There's "transparent prose," a style that tends to focus on pushing characters through plot rather than taking a more formal or abstract view, but it's no less a style choice than a book in iambic pentameter. (Though not all styles are created equal, either; I'm pretty sure I do not have the command of language that it takes to write a book in iambic pentameter.)
I enjoy a variety of storytelling styles (sometimes you want immersive world-building, and sometimes you just need a snarky comedy of manners that routinely pauses the action to wink at you). However, the right combination of confidence, consciousness, and competence go a long way to making me a repeat reader of someone's work.
What should a sentence do? I mean, some of yours are just so... well, Wow!
Thank you! This doesn't sound at all like I paid you to say these things!
I guess my best answer here is that, while a sentence can have any number of styles or constructions or subtexts, every sentence should serve the story in at least one way, if not more — defining the world, forwarding plot, or illuminating character. (Also, maybe watch how many adverbs you attach to dialogue tags, but that's a minor thing and I'm not the boss of anyone, so if your character has to sigh despairingly, go ahead.)
Jeff VanderMeer has compared your style to Angela Carter's. Was Carter an influence? Who else was an influence?
It was an honor to be compared; Angela Carter is a patron saint of the dark mythic, and her writing is magnificent. Peter S. Beagle was also a formative influence on my love of fantasy (The Last Unicorn was one of the first books I read on my own, and every time I pick it up I find something new to love all over again). Stella Gibbons is invaluable reading for anyone who wants to know how to gently despise things. Octavia Butler is invaluable reading, period. Sherman Alexie is a master of sharp-edged, poignant humor in the face of overwhelming sadness. Not all of them were direct influences on Mechanique, but all of them definitely hardened my resolve to become a writer myself.
So, um, what's the deal with your fascination with bad movies?
Oh man, I love them so much. I love good movies, and many good movies fill my embarrassing number of DVD shelves, but when it comes down to it, I'd take a bad movie over a mediocre movie most days — it's more entertaining to watch a hilarious mess than to watch something workmanlike but dull. There will always be a special place in my heart for the accidentally funny, halfheartedly camp, and delightfully appalling.
What are you working on now? And what's next?
I recently finished up a new novel, a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses set in New York in the Roaring Twenties. I have several short stories coming up in the next few months, and though I'm not sure yet what form it will take, I'm guessing that someday I'd like to return to the Circus Tresaulti.
Any parting words of advice, warning, or playful miscellany?
When you're a tourist walking five abreast with your friends or family at a speed approximately half the rate of everyone around you, definitely do not give any warning before you stop in the center of the street to take a photo. Avoiding you keeps the locals nimble.