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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Carrie Vaughn
    by Darrell Schweitzer

Carrie Vaughn is most famous for the bestselling Kitty Norville series of novels, which began with Kitty and The Midnight Hour (2005), about a female werewolf who runs a late night radio talk show for supernatural creatures. She is also the author of four published non-Kitty novels and about fifty short stories. This interview was done on October 16, 2011, as the Capclave convention in the Washington DC area (at which she was guest of honor) was winding down.

SCHWEITZER: I am sure that a lot of people now think of you as "the werewolf lady." There must be more to you than that. So why don't you start by telling something about your background?

VAUGHN: I have been writing since high school, sending stuff out since high school, but I didn't sell my first story until I was about twenty-seven, to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthology. I am not sure how many people know that. I probably sold a couple dozen short stories before my first novel finally came out. As you said, I am best known for my werewolf novels, but I do have this other short-story career that I am quite proud of. I still try to do as much as I can in the short format, because I do like it.

In other news, I have a master's degree in English Lit. I am a military brat. My father was in the Air Force for twenty years. So I have lived all over the country. I've settled in Colorado. I have been there about fifteen years now and I have a dog. What else would you like to know?

SCHWEITZER: Did you set out to write in this field and the kind of books you are writing, or did it just happen? I know I once thought I was going to be a science fiction writer. That's not how it worked out.

VAUGHN: It just kind of happened. I grew up reading the science fiction and fantasy that was on my parents' bookshelves. So, all of the classics, Clarke, Niven, anybody you can think of. The old anthologies. So I did read a lot of short fiction, even when growing up, and that was the kind of thing I wanted to write. I was one of those daydreaming kids who wasn't any good at sports. Writing was one way I could daydream productively, I guess. So I tried to write the kinds of things that I read, and the short story was part of that. I really did think I was going to be a hard-science fiction writer. I was very much into the science classes, watching National Geographic, and reading the magazines, that sort of thing, and then I kind of realized that most of what I was reading later on was Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series and Robin McKinley and I took a lot of mythology classes in college and started writing more and more fantasy. My first three novels that didn't sell at all were traditional fantasy, medieval world, quest-type fantasy novels, which I think would surprise some people.

Then I got the idea for the Kitty novels. It started as a short story. You know this. I wrote a short story about this werewolf with a talk radio show. It seemed like such a crazy idea that I could get maybe a short story out of this and nothing else. I wrote the short story, and it appeared in Weird Tales in 2001. Thank you, Darrell. [DS: I humbly explain that the late George Scithers and I were editing Weird Tales at this point.] I had a great time writing it, and I had a lot more ideas in that world. The big push on this was when you sent me the letter that Gene Wolfe had sent to the magazine, saying that "Dr. Kitty Solves All Your Love Problems" was his favorite story in that issue. I was so incredibly happy that I immediately went and wrote the next Kitty story. I've gotten to speak with him about that just a little bit. When the novel was coming out, my editor asked me for people who might be willing to give blurbs, I immediately mentioned Gene Wolfe. I didn't know if he would blurb the book, but he did. That also made me very happy.

Yes, it started as a short story, and it turns out that the idea was a lot bigger than I thought it was. I am working in the eleventh novel right now. But I do have three traditional fantasy novels tucked away, and I still write lots of other things in short fiction. I am slowly branching out in the novel realm as well.

SCHWEITZER: So if you were to take these three traditional fantasy novels and put werewolves in them . . .

VAUGHN: I don't know. Maybe I should try it.

SCHWEITZER: But seriously I think that the appeal of the Kitty Norville series is that this is about a werewolf who is a part of modern life.

VAUGHN: Absolutely.

SCHWEITZER: So just putting a werewolf into a generic fantasy setting wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

VAUGHN: That's exactly right. I think that's the appeal of urban fantasy, the reason for its surge in popularity over the last few years. It's not just the supernatural creatures. It's supernatural creatures that are recognizably like us, in a culture that's recognizable, in the modern world. That is my favorite thing about writing the Kitty books. I can have her go to Senate hearings. I can have a reality TV show. I can deal with werewolf veterans of the Afghanistan War. I can look out at the real world and ask myself what this would look like with vampires and werewolves or magic or fairies, and the stories keep coming. There is just so much out there. Not even dealing with it on the level of metaphor, it's fun, and the thing that makes it fun is the real part of the equation.

SCHWEITZER: And as long as the real world exists, I suppose it will continue to supply you with material.

VAUGHN: Yeah. The thing that is going to limit the series is that, dealing with Kitty, there is a character arc, and I do want to give that arc an ending someday. I don't know when, but I do know how that story ends. I would like to do that. But, in the meantime I am up to eleven books because I keep getting ideas that don't fit into the book that I am currently writing. Then I put them in the next book. You just have to look and see how many people are writing urban fantasy with how many ideas. It has touched some kind of chord, and yeah, it's relevant.

SCHWEITZER: Considering that you live in Colorado, why not contemporary western rural fantasy? Not all the world is in cities.

VAUGHN: That is a big debate right now. Why do we keep calling it urban fantasy when a lot of it takes place in the boonies, or in small towns, or suburbia? Suburban fantasy is the next big trend, I predict. That is one of the ways I am a little ambivalent about the term "urban fantasy," because it does have so many different definitions for so many people. The great thing about having Kitty be from Denver is that Denver is a great urban city. I can tell an urban city if I want to, but it's also thirty minutes away from national forest and the Rocky Mountains. I can go to those places if I need to as well.

SCHWEITZER: Taking a scholarly turn, I wonder if you've read much of the fantasy that was published in Unknown Worlds? Presumably in reprints. Do you know what Unknown Worlds was?


SCHWEITZER: There was a whole school of fantasy developed in it, of which Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife is probably the best remembered example. Unknown, which was later titled Unknown Worlds, was a companion magazine to Astounding Science Fiction. It was edited by John W. Campbell between 1939 and 1943, and it specialized in what we now call urban fantasy. It was about Old World supernatural creatures living in contemporary Chicago. There were stories about elves learning to adapt to the 1940s. This is where Leiber's "Smoke Ghost" was published. I wondered if there was any link between what you're doing and this older school of urban fantasy.

VAUGHN: That's the other thing that I wish people talked about with urban fantasy, that it is not new. It has been going on for decades. People have been writing this kind of story for a long time. It's the modern fairy tale in some ways. It really is the modern take on magic in the world and dealing with the world in terms of magic. Yes . . . I recently picked up Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think, which would be completely at home in today's market. It's just the same kind of thing.

SCHWEITZER: And it was first published in Unknown in 1940.

VAUGHN: The story I probably talk about most when people have me on werewolf panels to talk about where werewolves come from is Marie de France's "Bisclavret." [12th century French poet. The title means "The Werewolf." -DS] For that audience it was a contemporary story. It was set in a contemporary world that they would have all recognized. It just happened to have a werewolf in it. So we've been telling these kinds of stories for a really long time. It's only recently that people had paid attention and compartmentalized it into this particular brand with the action-adventure mystery component.

SCHWEITZER: We've been telling werewolf stories since, at least, Petronius's The Satyricon. You must know that one, too. But I have a theory that a good deal of what we are seeing in present-day publishing consists of the immediate descendants of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

VAUGHN: It's the descendants of Buffy and a couple other veins. Through the '80s we had Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and P.N. Elrod, as well as Anne Rice. What is interesting to me is that in the '80s it was just vampire fiction. Now it's become this big, huge sub-genre. I have also heard the idea that it is also an inheritor of Gothic fiction, 19th century Gothic. I think there is a component of that just in the dynamic of how some of the romances work. It really is Jane and Rochester and Cathy and Heathcliff. It's that kind of romance played out in a different setting with different creatures.

SCHWEITZER: I think it also has a substantial component of the hardboiled detective story. Raymond Chandler got into the mix.

VAUGHN: Yeah, very noir. Which is one of the things that is so fascinating, that it does draw all of these different components from all of these different areas. It's mystery, thriller, romance, erotica in some cases, all rolled up into one strange brew.

SCHWEITZER: At what point does it become a formula, in which someone can take standard elements off the shelf and just put them together? I am sure that sooner or later someone will write a totally generic urban fantasy.

VAUGHN: [Laughs.] It's already there. If you talk to some people, it was like that from the beginning. As we said, these aren't necessarily new stories. Yeah, it is a formula. I have talked to people who think that for it to be urban fantasy you have to have a kick-ass woman who's in a love triangle doing X, Y, and Z. I keep telling them, no, please, you can do other things. You don't need to have it just like this. It's a bigger umbrella than that. But a certain kind of story appeals to a lot of people, and a lot of people deal with the familiar, rather than trying to branch out, I think.

SCHWEITZER: Do the readers want the familiar? Are we getting into the condition of prose television?

VAUGHN: I don't know. I am not sure I can answer that, being one of the producers in this genre. I don't always know what readers want and what they are looking for. For my own series, I do try to tell a different story with every book. I try to bring in issues that I am interested in. I try to challenge myself as a writer. So, just for myself, I am trying to do as much as I can within the constraints of the genre that I've agreed to.

SCHWEITZER: Do you know yet if your readers are Kitty readers or Carrie Vaughn readers? I am sure they are discussing this at your publishers' a lot.

VAUGHN: I think there's a Venn diagram. I have Kitty readers who will only read Kitty books. At the same time there are readers who would never read the Kitty books, because of the covers. The covers mark them as a certain kind of book. There's a group of readers that will never, ever touch that kind of urban fantasy. But they'll read my standalone books. They'll read Discord's Apple and After the Golden Age. Then there's a chunk in the middle, who will read anything. I do have Carrie Vaughn fans. Just at this convention I have signed stacks of books for people who have both the Kitty books and the Young Adult and the standalones. I think it's too much to ask for everybody to read everything, because it is not all going to appeal to everybody. But I do have a really solid split in the middle of that Venn diagram.

SCHWEITZER: So, has there been any Hollywood interest in Kitty yet?

VAUGHN: Not serious, let's say. I've gotten some nibbles, but when you hear words like "I can't pay you anything up front but can give you a percentage of the back end," it's best to walk away from those. But nothing serious. Nothing I'd be willing to sell the rights for.

SCHWEITZER: Obviously someone is going to do a series like this as a TV show. It might as well be yours. But on another subject, I wonder if the appeal of the werewolf as the continuing character is in some ways opposite that of the vampire. The problem with a vampire, if you really get down to it, is that he's dead. He may be superficially charming, but he's still a corpse. The werewolf is not only alive, but possibly excessively so. It has self-control issues. So do you think the appeal of the werewolf might be that if people are tired of vampires, here they can turn to the exact opposite?

VAUGHN: I occasionally get asked, "What's sexier, vampires or werewolves?" and I say, "So you're asking me between necrophilia and bestiality?" [Laughs.] It's a facetious way to put it. Just personally, I didn't feel I had anything to add to the vampire mythos. As you said, traditionally, yes, they're dead. But it's so interesting to me how that has become less and less of the vampire mythos as we've gone on. The vampires in the Twilight novels don't really follow that mythos, and a lot of people don't even think about that part of it. What appeals to people is the longevity, the immortality. With werewolves it's the self-control issue. There is something about werewolves that doesn't appeal to people the way the genteel, long-lived vampire does. I am not quite sure what it is. Once again, personally, I find werewolves much more interesting. They are much more vibrant and have a lot more diversity. For me there are many more stories to tell. They're not all the Lestat character that seems to attract readers.

SCHWEITZER: Your werewolves act like a combination between a wolf pack and a biker gang. But they'd be less appealing if they acted more like wolves, because wolf hygiene is not the same as human hygiene. It's all that sniffing in the wrong place.

VAUGHN: I am sure that appeals to some people. [Laughs.] I don't know that people give wolves enough credit for being civilized in some cases. I've done a bit of research into wolf behavior and pack dynamics to write the books, just because it's a great source of ideas and material. They are actually pretty civilized. There is some research that's been done that suggests that the leaders of the pack aren't necessarily the strongest, meanest wolves. They might be the wolves that are the best at organizing. They may be the best peacemakers. They're the wolves that can keep the most members of the pack alive the longest, which sort of speaks to a human bureaucracy. The thing I really enjoy doing is picking and choosing the traits I want to deal with. Every werewolf is going to fall somewhere on the scale, either more wolf or more human. They're not going to be either/or. They're going to be more one or more the other. Their place on that scale might change, depending on the story. That to me is the interesting bit, is getting to pick and choose.

SCHWEITZER: Was it the first story, in which somebody called in to Kitty's radio show because they were in trouble with a fundamentalist preacher who claimed he could "cure" werewolves? What I notice is that the larger, religious/spiritual dimension is neglected in most werewolf stories. The traditional medieval werewolf usually had serious damnation issues. It used to be that the basic method of becoming a werewolf, other than selling your soul to the Devil, was being an unwanted child born between Christmas and Epiphany. Lycanthropy was seen a curse. This is not to suggest that someone write a fundamentalist Christian werewolf series for the Left Behind market - though I suspect that someone could - but it does seem that the larger supernatural aspect - supernatural context, we might call it - is being neglected.

VAUGHN: I believe werewolves got their own chapter in Malleus Malificarum, which is the witch-hunter's handbook in the Middle Ages, because it was seen as a form of witchcraft as much as anything else. That's another aspect, like the undead part of vampirism, the whole damnation thing has just vanished. We have very secular supernatural creatures. It's something I'd like to deal more with. The faith-healer who was going to cure vampires and werewolves showed up in the first two Kitty books. Once again, that was more of a reflection of our modern American culture. That is a growing concern for a lot of people, this idea that your faith is a big part of you. The way that works out in the political arena is, I think, just fascinating and a little frightening. Yeah, I hope to deal with it more. I've got a vampire character in the book I am writing now. He was born in 15th century Spain. He was Catholic. He was pretty devoutly Catholic. He was turned into a vampire against his will. So is he still Catholic? How would you be a vampire and a Catholic at the same time, and is it even possible? That's something that I hope to deal with.

SCHWEITZER: This opens a whole new can of worms, but what your faith healer reminded me of, very much, was certain religious fundamentalists who claim they can "cure" gays.

VAUGHN: That was exactly where that came from. I remember being in college, and you could turn to the back classifieds in the alternative weekly, and there would be an ad that said, "We can cure you. Call this number." That was exactly the thread I was following for that storyline.

SCHWEITZER: It would be an interesting statistical datum if you could get it: what percentage of the readers of this sort of supernatural novel series are gay? Is it above average for fantasy readers generally? Both the vampire stories and the werewolf ones are about alternate, secretive societies which are not mainstream and not respectable. They exist on their own terms. I am sure that parallelism must be working in both the writing and in the marketing.

VAUGHN: Purely anecdotal data says yes. I don't have numbers because I don't ask. It's not something I ask everybody who comes to a signing, but I think you're right. There probably is a readership that responds to that.

SCHWEITZER: There is also probably a readership that just responds to the feeling of being different. These are probably great books for teenagers.

VAUGHN: Teenagers love it. It's one of the reasons that Twilight has become so popular. Ironically enough, everybody can relate to alienation. Everybody has had that moment, no matter what it looks like from the outside, that they fell like an outsider. Sometimes being in the middle of everything can make you feel even more of an outsider, if you feel like you're putting on an act or trying to pass. So I think that definitely people are responding to that.

SCHWEITZER: Adolescents surely feel their hormones getting out of control in scary ways. What is a male werewolf anyway except a terminal testosterone explosion?

VAUGHN: Not just that. I don't know if you've seen the movie Ginger Snaps . . .?


VAUGHN: You need to see Ginger Snaps. It's about two teenaged girls. One of them gets infected and slowly transforms into a werewolf. It's the best treatment of that metaphor I have ever seen. Highly, highly recommended.

SCHWEITZER: But werewolfery is no longer purely a curse. It used to be the tragic story of how the werewolf had to be destroyed. Now they're coming to terms with it.

VAUGHN: If you're going to have stories, that's where it has to go. You have to come to terms with it and move in if you're going to tell different kinds of stories. I feel like for a long time the main werewolf story has been "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The werewolf always dies in the end. That is one reason that werewolves have never been as popular as vampires, I think, because they've stuck in this story-loop in which they always have to be destroyed. The wild urges have to be controlled. If vampires do represent death, that's why they keep winning. That's kind of where the Kitty series started, saying let's have werewolves who can control themselves. Then where do we go from there?

SCHWEITZER: Then there is the idea, rarely presented convincingly, I think, that vampirism is a treatable condition. Just get them their ration of blood, etc. I confess to being something of a fundamentalist on this. I think it's more dramatic to have vampires as evil. You do have a bit of a narrative problem, I suppose. You are writing about a person who terms into a ravening beast . . . but not a bad one.

VAUGHN: This is why you get Oz, on Buffy, being locked in a cage once a month. What are your rules? What boundaries are you willing to put up with? If you set up rules in your world, and if you've decided that in your world werewolves can go off to the mountains by themselves and run around and kill deer and rabbits and then come back and be fine, then that's your world. Or you can write about the lone wolf who can't control it and is always killing his neighbors, and that doesn't last very long.

SCHWEITZER: Let's talk about your other books for a bit. After the failed generic fantasy novels, you wrote several werewolf novels. Then what was next?

VAUGHN: Discord's Apple and After the Golden Age are my two stand-alone fantasy novels. I actually wrote those right around the times of the first and second Kitty novels. I didn't know whether the series was going to take off or not, so I started working on other things. Those are the two that came out of that. Oddly enough, they're both contemporary fantasy as well. I got into that vein and found it a very rich vein and kept going with it. Discord's Apple is my near-future, pre-apocalypse, Greek mythology and magic novel. I have been calling it my "kitchen sink" book because everything I love went into it. After the Golden Age is my superhero novel. My main character is the daughter of the most famous two superheroes in the city and she has no powers of her own, and she has to save the city with accounting; because not only does she have no powers, she became an accountant, and has never lived it down.

SCHWEITZER: What is immediately forthcoming? What are you working on now?

VAUGHN: Those are both out. I also have two Young Adult novels out, Steel and Voices of Dragons. Right now I am working on another science fiction YA. I'm not finished with it yet, so I don't want to talk much about it. I've got more Kitty books in the pipeline. I am considering doing a spinoff novel and branching out and doing more in that world. And short stories. I'm always working on short stories. One of my problems right now is that I've got lots of stuff I want to do and not enough time to do it. So I am having to pick and choose what I work on.

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Carrie.

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