The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Humans are garbage. Or perhaps, as author Catherynne M. Valente has it, it’s more accurate to say that the world that people live in is actual garbage. Come along in her Big Idea as she tells you all about Garbagetown, the not-so-trashy setting for her newest novel, The Past Is Red.


Wonderful Trash: Tetley Abednego and The Past Is Red

The sea levels have risen. There is nothing left. A hot, blue, ruined world. A girl named Tetley grows up on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, picking through the literal wreckage of our culture as the trash heap drifts across the planet, grown as vast and peopled as a continent. She is an exile, a romantic, a scavenger—and a criminal, abused by her fellow survivors at will in payment for a terrible, unfixable crime. 

And Tetley loves her life. Adores it. Desperately, joyfully, with a powerful determination to protect it from itself.

The Past Is Red is the most cheerful nightmarish climate change dystopia you’re likely to find on the shelves. 

Not because humanity bands together to find some magical way to restore what our selfishness and short-sighted stubbornness destroyed—because, let’s be honest, the last year has shown us in living color how truly fantastical that idea always was. 

Not because we deserve a cozy It Gets Better fable of the endurance of the human spirit because we definitely don’t.

Because humans can love anything, even the end of us.

No, the good humor and cheer of The Past Is Red comes not from plucky, down-on-its-luck humanity as a whole, but from Tetley Abednego herself, the most hated, and beloved, girl in Garbagetown. A girl who sees her ruined universe through the eyes of a normal, everyday child born into it, who has known nothing else, and so finds beauty wherever she looks.

Tetley began in the 2016 anthology Drowned Worlds, as the voice of a novelette called The Future Is Blue (don’t worry, it’s included in the book) about a delightful, happy girl on the Garbage Patch who did something so terrible that she can never be forgiven, and her punishment can never end. That novelette went on to garner a small but fervent fanbase, and won the Sturgeon Award. Part of me always knew I wasn’t quite done with Tetley or Garbagetown just because I had covered the traditional bildungsroman territory, so I was delighted when the wonderful editor who got the tale out of me, Jonathan Strahan, asked me to expand and continue her story, and The Past Is Red came to be. Tetley has grown up, and so has Garbagetown, with a new despot setting up his empire of pleasure and pain, and a mysterious object unearthed from the rubbish that connects our heroine to the past and the future in ways she can barely comprehend.

Red is much bigger and deeper and gnarlier than Blue. It has some big new things to say about memory and truth, perception and authority, love and grief and intelligence. It takes several sharp left turns and goes places you could never predict from the short story. It is a massive expansion of the Garbagetown universe, both where it’s going and how we got there. And, given that I wrote it at the tail end of 2019, it has some eerily prescient twists of plot that I will not spoil for you, as The Past Is Red has some of the twistiest twists I’ve ever twisted, but I’ll just say they resonate pretty damn furiously with current events. 

You’ve come a long way, baby.

We all have, from 2016 through til now.

Drowned Worlds was an anthology of stories of the sea levels rising, of climate change, of the worlds we might inhabit when it has all gone definitively to hell in a plastic water bottle. At the time, I was deep in a middle grade fantasy novel. I’d never written explicit climate change or environmental fiction or even post-apocalyptica before—but my favorite thing to write has always been the thing I’ve never done before and no one expects me to try. 

I was intrigued by a line in the anthology pitch: what kinds of stories will we tell when the worst has come to pass?

My knee-jerk, immediate mental response was: absolutely the same kinds of stories we tell now, because humanity never, ever changes, and we’ve been telling the same stories since before we knew copper + tin = Bronze Age Fun Times. We are and always have been such wonderful trash.

Which seems like a lazy, snarky answer, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like there was something more profound, and more comforting, hiding in there, and in those last two words: wonderful trash.

But all of that was just the intellectual scaffolding of the story, of Garbagetown, of the persistence of power and privilege, of stupidity and bravery  and love and regret and the unchanging ways in which humans try and try and try again to get what they desire.

It was Tetley that made it a story.

I remember Peter Beagle coming to my creative writing class when I was a sophomore in high school. It made an impression on me something akin to the impression a meteor makes when it hits the Earth. But I couldn’t get my head around one of his stories about The Last Unicorn. He said that he had no business knowing Molly Grue. That she was too good for him. She’d come from somewhere else, somewhere outside him, and he considered himself lucky to have gotten to know her, but she was so different and alive and pure he knew he had nothing to do with her. She was her own, not his.

At the time I thought: what is this guy talking about? He invented her, he wrote her every thought and line of dialogue. There’s no such thing as a character too good for the author who created them. Whatever. Is this what writers are like? I hope it’s pizza for lunch today.

Well. Allow me to delicately lift a morsel of crow onto my fork.

I had no business knowing Tetley Abednego. She’s too good for me. So different and alive and pure I know I had nothing to do with her. She came from somewhere else, somewhere outside me, and I consider myself lucky to have gotten to know her. She is, and will always be, her own, not mine.

Tetley is nothing like me. She’s not really like any character I’ve ever written before. She lives an objectively terrible life, a life I definitely did create and invent and then pitched her in head-first with no protection. She lives a life deliberately designed to skewer the kindlier notions of what an apocalypse is actually like to live through. I fucked it up for her real good. On purpose, and with malice aforethought.

But this girl who arrived in my head wearing her Oscar the Grouch backpack and a smile just refused to see it that way. No matter what I threw at her. For her, the end of the world is simply home. It is beautiful, and magical, filled with adventure and possibility. If she ever found one of those awful home decor signs that say Live Laugh Love or Bless This Mess in the mountains of rubbish that make up her reality, this girl wouldn’t hesitate to hang it on her bombed-out wall, and she’d mean it more fiercely than most of us mean anything. But she’s not stupid or naive or delusional. She just can’t help seeing the way the flames of hell sparkle. 

She is a precious cinnamon roll, consistently squashed into a fine paste by humanity’s inability to come together unless it’s to hurt someone. She’s her surname, the Biblical man who walked in the furnace and did not burn.

She’s wonderful trash.

And that juxtaposition of Tetley’s optimistic voice with the hopelessness of this stranded species remnant living their worst landfill life has always been the core of the Garbagetown Saga. She isn’t possessed by the idea of somehow finding a place where the old world lives on. She doesn’t respect the civilization of the past that did this to its own future—we’re known as the Fuckwits to every soul on the Garbage Patch. She doesn’t respect much of anything but the connections she forms with other human beings. And Oscar the Grouch, the great true god of the Old World, to whom Tetley prays every night. 

And she’s telling the stories we’ve always told, because we’re people and we can help it. About the things we lose because we can’t evolve fast enough, the family we make out of the scraps at hand, lovers meeting and parting, coming of age and growing old, strangers coming to town, treasures found and stolen, betrayal and secrets and violence done to innocents, and the greater picture we can never fully see, and the impossible choice this single shunned exile will be forced to make for the good, or ill, of all.

The stories we are always going to tell about ourselves, to ourselves, until the sun expands in a fireball to take all its beautiful babies back again.

We are in the past of Tetley’s world now, and we are deep in the red. We are the Fuckwits, and we don’t really deserve respect. We build the present our descendants will call home every day, minute by minute, kindness by kindness, horror by horror, one piece of sopping, wasteful, gorgeous trash at a time. It’s pretty hard to see the beauty in the ruin. But it’s there. It’s just covered in garbage and old choices we can’t unmake. And more garbage still. Those tales we tell over and over are all that are likely to survive the catastrophe ahead intact. There is no temperature at which our stories burn, so long as anybody at all remains to give them voice.

This is a book about one of the people left to lend her voice to her species. A girl full of regret and hope and joy and truly bad decisions, just like her planet. 

Wonderful trash.

Just like us.

Welcome to Garbagetown. It sucks here. It’s amazing here.

Bless this mess.

The Past Is Red: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

9 Comments on “The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente”

  1. I’m sold. (If the excerpt had been in third-person present tense, I wouldn’t have been. My lifetime tolerance for that was reached long ago.)

  2. I’m sold – but I was when I read ‘Catherynne M. Valente’.
    I will follow wherever her story trails lead.

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever had a hair-raising, skin-prickling experience reading a Big Idea before.

    Wow. I need this book. I’m frightened of this book. Which is probably why I need it.

  4. Ms. Valente is the most inventive writer of recent years. Her childrens (???) book “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” has more ideas per page than many entire novels.

    HIGHLY recommended no matter what your age.

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