by Terri Windling
Charles and I came into the fantasy field at the same time (in 1979), and our work and lives have been deeply entwined for three decades now. In that time I've watched him develop from a young writer of unusual potential to an award-winning master storyteller, beloved by readers all around the world. His books have been instrumental in establishing a uniquely North American form of fantasy literature, and blazed trails that a whole generation of mythic fiction and urban fantasy writers have been following ever since.
Charles was born in 1951 in the town of Bussum in north Holland; his mother was Dutch and his father of mixed Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese heritage. The family emigrated to Canada when he was four months old, moved frequently due to his father's job, and spent three years in Turkey and Lebanon before finally settling in Lucerne, Quebec. Like many children with uprooted childhoods, Charles found solace, escape, and companionship in books. "I read voraciously and widely," he remembers. "Mythic matter and folklore made up much of that reading -- retellings of the old stories (Mallory, White, Briggs), anecdotal collections and historical investigations of the stories' backgrounds -- and then I stumbled upon the Tolkien books, which took me back to Lord Dunsany, William Morris, James Branch Cabell, E.R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake and the like. I was in heaven when Lin Carter began the Sign of the Unicorn imprint for Ballantine, and scoured the other publishers for similar good finds, delighting when I discovered someone like Thomas Burnett Swann, who still remains a favourite. This was before there was such a thing as a fantasy genre, when you'd be lucky to have one fantasy book published in a month, little say the hundreds per year we have now."
Charles ran away from home at age 15 and the subsequent years were a troubled time, exposing him to a darker side of life that he has often drawn upon for his fiction. Three things helped him find a better path: music, fiction, and meeting the woman who would become his life's companion: his wife, muse, and artistic collaborator MaryAnn Harris, an artist and fellow musician.
"I never considered making a living as a writer," Charles recalls. "I wanted to be a musician back then. The music I loved to play was Celtic music, but at the time, there really wasn't much of a career to be made from it. This was before Worldbeat, The Pogues, Spirit of the West and the like, so I worked in record stores during the day and played gigs on the weekends. I was writing all this time, but only for my own enjoyment. It wasn't until the mid-Seventies, when I started getting together with John Charette, an artist friend of mine, that I began to write with any seriousness, and even that only came about by chance. While John would draw, I'd write stories for him to illustrate. He passed some of my stories on to a writer he knew named Charles R. Saunders who, in turn, convinced me to send some out to one of the small press magazines that had sprung up in the wake of a growing interest in fantasy. I sold those first stories for the princely sum of $10.00 each and the proverbial light went on in my head. Here was something that I loved to do and people would actually pay me to do it.
"Six or seven years followed, during which I continued to work in record stores, played music on the weekends and wrote. I sent stories and novels out and back they came (except for those sold to the small press market). Finally, Andy Offutt picked up my novella "The Fane of the Grey Rose" for his Swords Against Darkness anthology series." The novella was published in Volume IV of the series (Zebra Books,1979).
Charles is quick to credit MaryAnn's role in supporting him in his new career, which -- like the music they play together--they've always approached as a team. "She's the one who got me to start my first novel...and then finish it. She's the one who convinced me I should take my stories out of the faerie forest and see how well they might fare on a city street. And, in 1983, when I became one of the early victims of downsizing (the new owner of the record shop I was managing decided he wanted to run it himself), she's the one who convinced me to have a go at writing full-time. Whether it was happy coincidence, or simply my own steam-engine time, I sold three novels that year" -- two of them to me, at Ace Books, and one to a small press publisher -- "and we haven't looked back since. I don't mean to imply that it's always been easy, for we've had some very lean years, but whatever else happens, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we follow our muses -- MaryAnn with her art, I with my writing, both of us with our music."
This is the point in Charles' story at which I became acquainted with him: first through editorial correspondence, and then face-to-face (if I'm remembering correctly) at a World Fantasy Convention. I think we were both equally surprised by how darn young the other was -- and, as we got to know each other, by the remarkable number of interests and aesthetic convictions that we held in common. The fantasy field back then was a very different place than it is today -- much smaller, for starters, and dominated by two distinct forms of magical fiction: Tolkienesque epic fantasy and Howardian swords-&-sorcery. These books sported covers that inevitably featured unicorns or half-naked barbarians, set in pseudo-medieval landscapes populated by dragons and swordsmen and warring wizards. Charles loved classic fantasy, mind you, and his first book, The Riddle of the Wren, was beautifully steeped in the Celtic bardic tradition...but it irked him that the genre's boundaries were quite so tightly drawn.
"People have got the idea," he'd say, "that myth and magic and faeries and the like can only exist in Old World settings, yet we have such a rich mythic tradition of our own here in North America -- a melting pot of indiginous and immigrant tales unique to this land." His aim was to seek the magic within our own landscape and mythic history. The English fantasy tradition, from Morris to Tolkien, had cast a long shadow over North American writers, and surely it was time for a new generation of writers to explore beyond it.
Charles' second novel, Moonheart (1984), was thus an astonishing and ground-breaking book, set in urban Ottowa and a mythic world whose magic permeated our own. I have a clear memory of the electric excitement I felt as I turned the manuscript pages, for it was not only unusual in its urban setting but filled with characters who seemed like people I knew -- and that was something I'd never encountered in the fantasy genre before. Although now widely hailed as a fantasy classic, and as a foundational text of the "urban fantasy" genre, back then it was an offbeat, trangressive novel that broke unspoken (but distinct) genre rules. It's not that Moonheart was the very first book to put a magical tale into an urban setting, but the way it did so -- in its deft and considered mingling of Old and New World myths, and its casting of young, quirky, urban characters as fantasy heroes -- was thoroughly fresh and original. (Keep in mind that it pre-dated Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, etc.) Some readers and critics loved Moonheart straight off, but others took time to warm to it, challenged by a writer who had questioned their notion of what a fantasy novel should be. So here's the thing I remember best about Charles as a young man and a beginning writer: he not only had talent and vision, he had courage. He wrote from the heart, from his own experience of life, magic, and the mythic landscape -- and he ignored all the voices who told him he'd be more acceptable, more saleable, if he just stuck to lyrical, pastoral stories about tinkers and riddles and harps. Instead of changing to fit the genre, he (and a handful of like-minded writers) changed the fantasy genre instead. He stuck to his guns, survived the lean years, and turned into the artist he is today.
Mind you, he didn't set out to change the genre; he's much too humble for any such claim. "I'm just telling the stories I have to," he'd say, "and hoping they reach the right readers' hands." He's never much cared about genre designations, criticial theories, or publishing politics, and has often said he wished all novels were filed together under the simple label Fiction. His own personal reading is not genre-bound, ranging from mainstream fiction to world magic realism to poetry to mystery to horror, and all of these things have influenced his work, which defies easy catagorization. (If forced to adopt a label, he prefers the term "mythic fiction.")
J.R.R. Tolkien once likened fairy stories to a soup that's been simmering for centuries: storytellers dip into the soup, but also add their own ingredients and spices to make the tales new for each new audience. I think of artistic influence in a similar way: the soup of a writer's creativity is made up of everything they've seen, listened to, and experienced, and by all the books they've read and loved, but stirred together in a way that is (or at least should be) uniquely their own. For Charles, his soup of influence is made up of a truly vast range of ingredients: from his wide-ranging reading in many fields; his eclectic tastes in music and art; his travels, friendships, and correspondence with people from many walks of life -- all stirred together into stories so vivid and true that real life can seem pale beside them.
There are certain themes that are central to his work: The creation of stories as a means of shining light into the dark corners of world. Magic as a metaphor for the power of art, love, and community to transform broken lives and broken societies. Myth as an expression of the relationship between people and the natural world...and how such tales survive on a continent with a complex history of immigration and displacement. He is particularly interested in the role of the Outsider: figures that dwell in the shadows of the city and at the margins of our culture: street kids, artists, gypsies, mixed bloods, tricksters, con men, shape-shifters. He is deeply interested in issues of social justice and not afraid to to use the power of fiction to give a voice to those too often silenced: the homeless, the wounded, the visionaries who stand just at the edge of madness, the lost souls for whom even a safe bed to sleep in would be as unexpected and miraculous as a doorway into Faerie.
“There's stories and then there's stories," he once wrote (in his early collection Dreams Underfoot). "The ones with any worth change your life forever, perhaps only in a small way, but once you've heard them, they are forever a part of you. You nurture them and pass them on, and the giving only makes you feel better. The others are just words on a page."
In a culture that privileges detachment and irony he dares to write with passion and conviction, insisting that truth, compassion, and the creation of beauty in the world are things that matter. He's not on a soapbox, he's not didactic, he's just telling stories -- but those stories are searing.
"Like Rilke, who whispers his poetry into your ear," says the Irish fantasist O.R. Melling, "de Lint is felt as a presence throughout his work. It's not just that he and his artist wife appear to show up as characters, most obviously in the Kelledys and Christy Riddell and Saskia, while more subtly in others; it's that de Lint's voice echoes through every aspect of his writing -- dialogue, description, plot, theme -- with the immanence of the hidden creator who is yet divined in the nature of his creation. And what a beautiful voice it is! Benign, thoughtful, wise, righteously angry, poetic, generous, just, moral (without being moralistic) and above all -- strange to say for such a fey man writing such fey material -- utterly human."
That's it exactly.
Another important aspect of Charles' work is that it spans a number of disciplins: he is not only a writer but also a musician, a visual artist, a folklorist, a book reviewer, and a small press publisher. Each medium informs the others; each one is steeped in myth, mystery, and wonder; and as a whole they make a cohesive career dedicated to Story in its many forms. His accomplishments across several fields might suggest a rather formidable man, but in person he is gentle, thoughtful, and gracious, with a bewitching mixture of warmth and reserve, a deep knowledge of myth and mythic arts, and a deliciously wicked sense of humour. I feel very blessed to have known him, and MaryAnn, for all these years. I admire him as an artist. I love him as a brother. I wouldn't be the person I am today had we not "grown up" in the field close together.
I'll end by quoting a writer whom we both love, the poet and mythographer Gary Snyder. "As a poet," Snyder said, "I hold the most archaic values on earth...the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and the wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times.”
Charles, too, creates art that honors the land, its animals, its stories, and the world-wide tribe we're all part of as fantasists. His stories stand against unbalance and ignorance; they stand for healing, hózhǫ́, justice, and grace. “Our lives are stories," he once wrote, "and the stories we have to give to each other are the most important. No one has a story too small and all are of equal stature. We each tell them in different ways, through different mediums -- and if we care about each other, we'll take the time to listen.”
Photo above: Charles and his dog, Johnny Cash. To learn more about him and his work, please visit his author website.
Credits & copyrights:
The paintings above are by John Jude Palencar. They appeared on the covers of the following books by Charles de Lint: Forests of the Heart, The Mystery of Grace, Trader, and Waifs & Strays. All rights reserved by the artist.