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The diary is "Where it all begins"-The Labyrinth author Catherynne M. Valente

by Cris Saiki, staff writer

Author of The Labyrinth, Catherynne M. Valente’s break into the world of literature came at 24, after she began keeping a diary of her writings online. The Internet was buzzing with millions of people, and having a blog was all the rage.

“I was suspicious,” she said, “since obviously all bloggers are unstable basement freaks sniffing tapioca pudding mix, but I ventured. At first, it was nothing… but it grew. Writing is such a strange act—privately committed, but requiring public exposure. We all look for this—it is why we are online.

Catherynne M. Valente


“I have never been able to keep a paper journal to save my life. I start a hundred of them, I never finish. They are like failed marriages. The pressure of exhibitionism keeps this one alive—it, in fact, saved my writing career. Without the feeling that I had to keep writing because others saw it, I would likely have gotten lazy and this marriage would have ended like the others, in adultery and abandonment.”

It was also through the Internet that she learned about NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month), an annual contest for writers of every persuasion who can do a 50,000-word novella by midnight Nov. 30.

Valente thought 30 days was excessive, and set out to write her novel in a week. (It would eventually become The Labyrinth.)

“ I would have done it. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and where I wanted to go,” she said. “If my Mac hadn’t crashed, I would have finished it by Sunday. But it did, and the setback cost me three days.”

The final version of The Labyrinth is not much different from the draft of Valente’s original 10-day binge. “There were a few minor edits,” she said. “That was how it was supposed to be, from the start. That’s how it comes, too, even in my diary. It really feels like vomiting to me, in an aesthetic way. I am on my knees, holding back my hair, clutching my belly, pushing everything I am out of my mouth in a flood. There is no end.”

Anäis Nin, famed writer and diarist, once said that writing in her diary was like breathing. But for Valente, the self-exegesis is thicker than breathing.

“ There is a kind of body-imagery, visceral and wet,” she said. “The imagery of the body always seems to seize one at a deeper level. My writing is full of breasts and bellies, thighs, and throats. And the fluids, blood and spit and semen—and never-forgetting bile. What begins in the body is true. Perhaps I think this because I live so much in my head. The grass is greener on the other side of the Cartesian split.”

References to mathematicians and philosophers are not unusual with Valente. Her newest novel, The Book of Dreams, due out next year, is centered on the ever-merging concepts of eastern mysticism and quantum physics. Likewise, The Labyrinth explores existence through the metaphors and allusions of classic Greek and Latin works.

“ I was a history major until I took a class, from a retired poetry professor, on The Iliad and The Odyssey. I’d read them before, and I had loved Greek mythology since I was a child. D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Mythology in my elementary school library, has my little name in it 20 times. But this professor taught them as poetry.

“ That summer, we held a night long reading of The Iliad, the first 15 lines of each book in ancient Greek. There were bonfires, a whole roasting lamb on a spit, wine, drums. When I heard the Greek, the rhythm of it meant to sound like a war drum, I knew I had to know it; I had to devour the language so that I could devour Homer.”

“ So I spent three years learning Greek and Latin. It was incredibly difficult, and I have moved on to English literature. But I’ll always go back to the Greek. It’s like an abusive boyfriend. You always go back, even though you know he will beat you black and blue. One sidelong glance and you’re back in his arms. One omega, one chi, and I can’t not touch the letters, can’t keep from trilling the words.”

Her hunger for knowledge and her way with words make Valente’s novels into journeys. So is she going to keep writing online now that she has had her big break?

“ Yes!” she exclaimed. “This is where it all begins.”

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