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Author Interview: Joanna Mishtal, The Politics of Morality

Growing up in the west, I had a fairly uncomplicated view of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, they were the EvilThe Politics of Morality Empire. Then down comes the Berlin Wall. The Iron Curtain crumbles. Freedom wins the day. Roll credits.

Of course, history is never that simple.

Anthropologist Joanna Mishtal grew up in Soviet Poland, defected to the United States as a teenager, and now studies reproductive rights in her country of birth. Her research uncovers a thornier narrative of post-Soviet Poland. Rather than a secular democracy, the Catholic church has assumed a dominant political role.

As a result, Poland has some of the strictest abortion laws of any European Union country, and Mishtal explores the effect this has had on women and women’s rights in her first book, The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland.

The book, published by Ohio University Press, blends politics, personal narrative, Polish history and peer-reviewed research. Full disclosure: I have known Mishtal for close to a decade and I proofread early drafts of a few chapters.

Mishtal provides a unique view of Polish politics, having experienced both Soviet and post-Soviet culture as well as having lived in the west. Most impressively, she is able to switch easily between detached observation and insider familiarity, lending a unique voice to her research. Her personal insights enhance the narrative while her use of case studies give flesh and bone to the academics.

With Russia once again a wild card, the EU in crisis and Poland’s recent swing even further to the right, The Politics of Morality is a timely and important read. We are still figuring out both the history and consequences of the end of the Cold War, and Mishtal’s is an important and necessary voice in the discussion.

She recently sat down with Ensuing Chapters to discuss The Politics of Morality.

 

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The Red Tags Release

The wait is over. Today, Comet Press releases my novel, The Red Tags. The e-book is available in all formats, so it can be read on an e-reader, tablet, phone or computer. It is available at the following sites:

redtags-comp

Barnes & Noble

Amazon

Smashwords

 

And if you like what you read, download my short story, Skull City, for free at Smashwords.

Skull City 03

Best of 2014

Happy New Year, coming to you live from gate B-11 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (en route from Pittsburgh to Denver).

Tis the season for arbitrary year-end best-of lists. Even the New York Times, with its battalion of bookworms, can’t cover and judge all new titles. I read more than 50 books this year, more than 30 of which were new releases. From this tiny sample, how can I present a definitive list of best books of the year? 

What I can do is highlight the finest books that reached my nightstand or my Nook. So here, in no particular ranking, are my top reads of 2014.

Spectacular Science Writing

The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things FunnyThe Humor Code

Joel Warner and Peter McGraw

“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” write Warner and McGraw. “Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.

Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.

For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.

That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.

The Tale of the Dueling NeurosurgeonsThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a brisk and engrossing read, and Sam Kean’s most impressive yet. He digs deep into the archives of psychology to discover little-known and sometimes forgotten gems that have had a great impact on modern science. You will laugh. You will learn. At times you will pick your jaw off the floor and ask yourself, “That happened?”

If you’ve never read Sam Kean, start now. You will devour all three of his books in a week. If you’re a longtime fan, prepare to be wowed once again.

And if you’re a judge for any of the big literary prizes, in the name of all that is just and good, start etching Sam’s name into the trophy.

Faith and Wisdom in Science

Tom McLeishfaith and wisdom in science

McLeish explores the history of both scientific discovery and biblical narrative, finding commonalities in the ways humans in each arena are awestruck and inspired by the natural world. There is room, he argues, for the sublime in science. The earliest scientific studies were not the cold, heavily controlled research we have today, he writes, but passionate probes of the natural world. There has since developed a rift between the science and humanities. Science got custody of the brain in the divorce, and humanities, the heart.

If you still feel the sublimity of mountain peaks, marvel at existence at the subatomic level or can be moved to tears by a sunrise, you’ll enjoy Faith and Wisdom in Science.

 

Dystopian Literature

Justice, Inc.

Dale Bridgesjustice-inc-cover

In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to kill off the human race, comes to the realization that “…when left to their own devices, they appeared to do a fair job of exterminating themselves.”

And thus the chain catches on the death-coaster, drags it to the summit and lets that fucker drop.

Hang on.

These are masterful tales of human obsolescence, cruel absurdities and species self-deliverance. In Bridges’ world, justice is self-imposed, whether or not his characters realize it. You want the convenience and savings of a Wal-Mart? Fine, but you have no one else to blame when you wake up in a world controlled by Wal-Marts. Punishment fits the crime.

Justice, Inc. manages to be both observational and engaging, philosophical yet lyrical at the same time. You’ll find yourself caring as much for the characters and their plights as for the underlying philosophy within each tale.

Bridges writes not with a pen but a skewer, piercing the absurdity of our cosmic sitcom with clarity and humor. Justice, Inc. is philosophical satire in the vein of Vonnegut and George Saunders—fellow madmen who have stared into the abyss and come away laughing.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.

Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.

 

Best Biography

Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon Happy Cloud, Happy Trees

Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy and Danny Coeyman

Beloved painter Bob Ross is all the more mysterious for the minimal amount of unauthorized or paratextual materials surrounding him. Mostly, what we know of Ross comes from his TV program. The mystique of the painter’s life has fueled his cultish following, and the authors do a wonderful job of exploring the man, his devotees and that ineffable thrill of creation. Bob had a word for it.

He called it joy.

An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

Hal CrowtherAn Infuriating American

The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:

“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”

Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.

The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation

Harold SchechterThe Mad Sculptor

“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” says Schechter. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”

In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.

But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.

Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book.

Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.

 

Notable Nonfiction

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

Ian PlenderleithRock n Roll Soccer

The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf.

The Perfect KillThe Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up. But before you begin stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of this as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook, but rather an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

 

Illuminating Lit

Beautiful You

Chuck PalahniukBeautiful You

Palahniuk took on male malaise with Fight Club and mocked cultural over-consumption with Choke. Snuff (ostensibly a novel about pornography) lampooned self-destructive excess and exploitation in a manner that could very well have served as a hyper-sexualized predictor of the impending financial crisis of 2008.

In Beautiful You, he wanted to write what he calls gonzo erotica, and in the process has penned an anthem for an overstimulated, multi-tasking, computer-coma society.

Penny Harrigan is a nice Nebraskan girl working in New York City when she catches the eye of the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Next thing you know, Penny is the talk of the tabloids and the envy of her coworkers.

Behind closed doors, however, is where Penny is truly transformed. Maxwell introduces her to a world of unimagined, if clinical pleasure. Penny has her reasons to question Maxwell’s motives (especially after a bizarre bathroom tryst with his bitter ex-lover), but is too enraptured with her new-found fame and sexuality.

Oozing with plot twists only Palahniuk’s sardonic tone could make palatable, Beautiful You aspires to remarkable levels of absurdity, but is it any more absurd than the daily inundation of product and marketing? Many reviewers have criticized the gratuitous satire in this novel, but is the idea of world domination via dildo really that far-fetched in a culture that has financially sustained multiple cable shopping channels for three decades?

We are a culture of instant gratification. We are a culture of distraction. We are the lab rats hammering away at the pleasure bar for a taste of sweet, sweet oblivion.

And much like Maxwell, Palahniuk is there wearing a lab coat, taking copious notes and holding up a funhouse mirror to our cage, so that we might catch a distorted glimpse of what we’ve become.

The Children ActThe Children Act

Ian McEwan

Fiona Maye is an experienced judge on the cusp of old age who is questioning her lifetime of restraint (as well as her decision not to reproduce). We enter her story mid-conversation to discover Fiona reeling from her husband’s proposed (and possibly in-progress) infidelity, just as she’s preparing for a high-profile case with a child’s life in the balance.

Cut to the courtroom, where a precocious teenager is refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Invoking the Children Act of 1989, Fiona gives her ruling, the consequences of which ultimately lead to a spontaneous, classically McEwan mistake, one that risks undoing her marriage, her career and a lifetime of calculated decision-making.

The Children Act is a short, but dense novel, as is usually the case with McEwan. The man is a master of reflection and interiority. The opening chapter encompasses but a moment in a 30-year marriage, but lays bare its successes, failings and a lifetime of insecurities and second-guessing. The tragedies unfold in slow motion and a lifetime of torment is distilled into a bitter, lingering moment.

 

Quality Quickies

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiechimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feminists

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. “Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.

Legion: Skin Deep

Brandon SandersonLegion

StephenLeeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends who enable him to solve crimes. His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.

In Skin Deep, the second novella in the series, Leeds is coerced into locating the corpse of a tech worker who was in possession of dangerous information—while at the same time outwitting a devious businessman and avoiding the strike of a first-rate assassin.

What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.

May there be many, many more.

 

Horrific Hits

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahonWinter People

What is it about New England that inspires isolated, small-town horror tales in which the blood runs as cold as the weather? I’m not sure what it is exactly, but having spent many a wintry a night in Maine, I am familiar with that feeling. And I can’t get enough of it.

Jennifer McMahon captures that frostbite feeling perfectly in this heartbreaker of haunted legends and legacies, curses and karma, and, more than anything, unendurable loss.

The Winter People is well-written and bursting with heart. There are mysteries at every turn, and reminders that grief can be deadly. Or worse. Like a modern retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” there are consequences for disrupting the dead, and The Winter People reminds that despair can drive even the most sensible among us to dangerous depths.

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.

Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.

A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills, and I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories.

These stories tap into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

The Cutting Room

Ellen Datlow, editorThe Cutting Room

“With no dreams left to search for, I have only nightmares to anticipate.”

This is one of the most haunting lines from the tremendous opening story, “The Cutter,” by Edward Bryant. It sets the tone for all the delicious horror in Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology. Disturbing images and the blurring of reality is a common theme in this collection. Stephen Graham Jones’ chilling “Tenderizer,” for example, David Morrell’s “Dead Image” and the wonderfully titled “Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo” by Garry Kilworth.

Anticipate many nightmares within these pages.

All Due Respect Issue 4

Check out the new issue of the crime fiction magazine, All Due Respect, which features a nonfiction piece by yours trADR _4 V3uly. My article is a review of Joe R. Lansdale’s Cold in July, which was released earlier this year in conjunction with the film release. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I highly recommend both.

The issue also includes a powerhouse lineup of crime fiction, including award-winning author Hilary Davidson. Last year, I reviewed her excellent novel, Evil in All Its Disguises, and fans of that novel (and new readers) will enjoy her short story, “A Hopeless Case.”

Review: Justice, Inc.

In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Dale Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to killjustice-inc-cover off the human race, comes to the realization that “…when left to their own devices, they appeared to do a fair job of exterminating themselves.”

And thus the chain catches on the death-coaster, drags it to the summit and lets that fucker drop.

Hang on.

These are masterful tales of human obsolescence, cruel absurdities and species self-deliverance. Albert Camus wrote: “Man is mortal. That may be; but let us die resisting; and if our lot is complete annihilation, let us not behave in such a way that it seems justice!”

He would love this book.

In Bridges’ world, justice is self-imposed, whether or not his characters realize it. You want the convenience and savings of a Wal-Mart? Fine, but you have no one else to blame when you wake up in a world controlled by Wal-Marts. Punishment fits the crime.

This is the type of justice that runs through this collection. The settings are typically dystopian and of our own making. It is human nature to barricade the doors or erect walls to repel that which threatens us, only to realize that we have constructed our own prison cell.

Just ask Poe’s Prospero, whose harlequin fortress was child’s play for the Red Death.

Justice, Inc., published by the formidable Monkey Puzzle Press, manages to be both observational and engaging, philosophical yet lyrical at the same time. You’ll find yourself caring as much for the characters and their plights as for the underlying philosophy within each tale.

The opening story, “Welcome to Omni-Mart,” is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Deer in the Works” updated for the big-box generation. Leonard was adopted by Omni-Mart as a child and now, at forty-two, lives, works and philosophizes within its walls, deathly afraid of The Outside.

It’s a synthetic, corporate dystopia that is, sadly, all too familiar.

“Life After Men” is a sardonic take on dysfunctional relationships and how we, inevitably, are drawn to, and driven by, the things that destroy us. Oh, and did I mention this plays out against the backdrop of some wild, gender-specific apocalypse?

This segues into the darkly comic (and karmic) “The Girlfriend™” in which the protagonist, Derrick, blurs the line between physical and factitious love. For Bridges, the femme fatale has been replaced by the sentient sex robot. (Of all the dystopias in all the dystopian universe, she had to walk into mine.)

Bridges writes not with a pen but a skewer, piercing the absurdity of our cosmic sitcom with clarity and humor. Justice, Inc. is philosophical satire in the vein of Vonnegut and George Saunders—fellow madmen who have stared into the abyss and come away laughing.

Obligatory disclaimer: Bridges is a friend and former coworker. We worked (and suffered) together at the Boulder Weekly newspaper, where he succeeded me as arts and entertainment editor. We also worked together on Transgress magazine, where three of these stories originally appeared.

I can attest to the quality of the man, his writing and his conviction.

I can also warn you, from first-hand knowledge, that Bridges may very well be the madman Nietzsche wrote about—and the bringer of the end times.

Be warned that there is a fifth steed of the apocalypse, and its name is Justice—and Bridges is lashing the whip, breathing fire and coming for us all.

Carrie Vaughn Interview: Kitty Steals the Show

Of Wolf and Woman
Best-selling author Carrie Vaughn discusses the transfiguration of Kitty Norville from diffident lycanthrope to alpha werewolf
by Vince Darcangelo

In 2005, author Carrie Vaughn introduced the world to Kitty Norville, a Denver radio personality who hosts a call-in advice show for supernatural beings. After all, as Vaughn says, “if there really were werewolves and vampires in the modern world, they’d need their own advice show. Dr. Laura just wouldn’t be able to handle their problems.” Kitty, a werewolf herself, picks up the slack, and her adventures have taken her from Colorado to Chinatown, Las Vegas to D.C.

The series, which started with Kitty and the Midnight Hour, has become wildly popular, and has consistently landed on The New York Times’ best-seller list. This summer, Tor released Kitty Steals the Show, the 10th installment of the series, in which Kitty goes transatlantic. Set in London, Kitty is the keynote speaker at the First International Conference on Paranatural Studies. Supernatural creatures from across the globe descend on the great city—and not all of them have good intentions.

Prior to her Aug. 15 reading, I sat down with Carrie Vaughn at the Boulder Book Store to discuss her new book, our cultural fascination with the paranormal and the design and evolution of Kitty Norville through the years.

Ensuing Chapters: You’ve described [Kitty] as Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Howling. Do you want to reintroduce her character for our listeners and readers?

Carrie Vaughn: Sure. The one-line description I’ve been using lately is the series is about a werewolf named Kitty who hosts a talk-radio advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged. It’s very useful having a one-sentence tag line, especially when it makes people go, “What? What are you talking about?”

Ensuing Chapters: What inspired you to set the novel in London?

Carrie Vaughn: I love London. I studied abroad in Britain when I was in college, so I’ve been to London before and a couple times since. Building the novel around the international conference, I knew I wanted to set it outside the U.S. so that I could take a look at what the supernatural elements look like in another country. I was familiar with London, so I knew I could do a lot with it there. I knew where I wanted to set scenes. I had some historical figures that I wanted to reference who are native to London.

And it’s such an international city, such a multicultural city. I could set any kind of story I wanted to there. Basically anything I wanted to have happen could happen in London.

Ensuing Chapters: Were there any places in particular that really inspired you?

Carrie Vaughn: One of the places I had to have a scene was Hyde Park, because it’s so incongruous. It’s kind of London’s Central Park, if you think of how incongruous Central Park is, that you have some of the most valuable real estate in the world smack in the middle of Manhattan, and just by force of will it has remained this amazing open space, open wilderness area almost. And Hyde Park is kind of the same way… There’s a lot of history and a lot of incongruous wilderness area, and it seemed that if I was going to write a werewolf story then I had to put something in Hyde Park.

Ensuing Chapters: How important is setting to you when writing a story or writing a book?

Carrie Vaughn: It’s kind of deceptively important, because it’s not something I necessarily think about a lot. But it does end up anchoring the story. Initially, I wasn’t going to set it in a specific city. I wanted to have it in an unnamed city that could be any city, and my editor said, ‘No, you’ve really got to pick a city and have it be concrete.’ I picked Denver because that was the most familiar, but on thinking about it, Denver’s the perfect city for this kind of story because you have the very urban setting where you can tell urban stories. You’re an hour away from the mountains where you can tell wilderness stories. I’ve got my werewolf characters who are both civilized and wild, and I can tell both those kinds of stories in the same setting.

And I like going to other cities because it lets me tell other stories. I personally like traveling, so it’s in my nature to want to go to other places. But it also really opens up the kinds of stories I can tell. Las Vegas, especially. Making Las Vegas supernatural, I didn’t have to do any work. It’s already there. There actually is a production show based around vampires. It’s called Bite. You see the billboards on the trucks driving through town, and it’s topless vampires dancing on stage. If I had made that up, nobody would have believed me, but it’s actually there. Things like that really add to the world. It makes the world of the novel have that much more depth.

The previous book before this I set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Kitty’s Big Trouble, because I wanted to include some non-western mythology in the world of the novels. That was a really fun way to do it for me, to go to Chinatown and bring in some of the Chinese mythology. And it’s fun. It means I’m never going to tell the same story twice.

Ensuing Chapters: And a clever title for that [Kitty’s Big Trouble].

Carrie Vaughn: Thank you. I got asked a lot about whether I meant to do that. Of course I meant to do that. What do you take me for?

Ensuing Chapters: Let’s talk a little bit about the area where you work, what a lot of people call urban fantasy, or a variety of cross-genres you can put it in with. When we spoke last time, vampires were really big, and now zombies have really taken over. What do you read into our fascination with these iconic creatures? Is it something that’s always cyclical? Or is there something particular to the creatures we become fascinated with?

Carrie Vaughn: These creatures have been around a lot longer than we think, than a lot of people give them credit for. People talk about the current wave of urban fantasy, and I have entire rants about this because even the term urban fantasy has changed a lot over the last 20 years.

Twenty years ago, the term referred to Charles de Lint, and Emma Bull, Neil Gaiman’s work that brings mythology and folklore into a contemporary urban setting. And now it’s come to mean a lot more: These adventure-oriented, sexy stories about, usually, women, the kick-ass women with all the weaponry and the vampire romance on the side. But that’s very restrictive, so I don’t like to just focus on that.

But the thing is that vampire stories are not new. They’ve always been popular. They’ve come in waves in what they’ve focused on, but you can go back. Before Laurel K. Hamilton, there was Anne Rice. In between there was P.N. Elrod and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and other people who were writing vampire stories. Before Anne Rice there was Dark Shadows. And then there were the Universal horror movies. You can go back and back and back and there have always been vampire stories.

Zombie stories, they aren’t new, but once again it depends how you define zombie. That’s where I kind of get tripped up a little bit because the modern, Dawn of the Dead, monster-type zombie is a really modern creation. The traditional folkloric zombies aren’t anything like it, if you go to the origins of the Haitian folklore. I’ve recently re-watched The Serpent and The Rainbow, which does a pretty darn good job for all its sensationalism. In that folklore, zombie meant something very specific, and they weren’t interested in eating brains.

That’s a very new addition to the mythology. And I’m not sure where it comes from. I have heard lots of theories, and probably parts of all of them are true. Modern fears with things like radiation and food production and epidemics, disease. The mass-produced culture where we don’t know where things come from, and we don’t know how things spread. We can’t trace the trajectories of that, and so the idea of the mindless monster that is a product of our own society coming back to destroy us all, that’s the base metaphor and it’s a very powerful metaphor. So I can understand why it’s popular.

But as a cultural movement, the fact that there are people who are out there forming their zombie apocalypse plans and building their bunkers and stuff. I’m not sure what I think about all that.

Ensuing Chapters: What is the fascination with the werewolf? Maybe a theory on what, culturally, the fascination is, and personally, why you chose a werewolf?

Carrie Vaughn: I can tell you what traditionally the werewolf is, and the werewolf is interesting because for about the last 130 years it’s been pretty much the same thing. It hasn’t changed. The vampire has changed a lot. It’s become this other creature representing sin and decay coming from outside the community, and now it’s a symbol of power and immortality and forbidden pleasures and all of these highly sexualized, highly powerful metaphors. So the vampire has changed a lot.

Werewolf stories just have never gotten their time in the light. There have always been werewolves, but culturally, they’ve kind of been stuck in this ‘beast within’ type story. I’ve been calling it the Jekyll and Hyde story. With a few exceptions, every werewolf story—that has focused on werewolves specifically—has been the Jekyll and Hyde: Somebody who’s been overwhelmed by their base instincts and the beast within bursts out and destroys everything and then it dies. The end.

There’s just not a whole lot you can do with that. If that’s the story you’re focusing on, it always has the same trajectory and the same end. You can tell really good stories with that. I think An American Werewolf in London is brilliant, but it’s the same. You get infected, you struggle with the beast within, which bursts free and does horrible things, and then you die. Ginger Snaps, which is another great, recent werewolf movie, the same kind of thing. Even though it kind of turns it on its head. I feel like culturally, people haven’t gotten past the idea that werewolves represent the struggle with base nature, and it’s always the struggle with the beast within. And the beast within always has to lose.

One of the reasons I decided to make the main character a werewolf was to try to get past that metaphor. We can have good stories about werewolves if we’d just get past the idea that werewolves are always doomed to fall victim to this beast within dichotomy. Let’s pretend that you can actually be a well-balanced, functional werewolf who is in control of the beast within and you can actually function in society. What happens then? That just opens it up. Werewolves can then become characters rather than these metaphors, which is what they end up seeming to be in most of the stories that you see them in.

Ensuing Chapters: And we’ve seen not only the difference with the Kitty character from the old storyline, the old metaphors, but also her evolution through the series. She started off more reserved and behind the microphone to becoming the alpha of her pack. You’ve done a great job of balancing those different sides of her. What do you think of her evolution and how she’s progressed over the years?

Carrie Vaughn: That was pretty intentional. I get asked about that a lot because one of the big complaints with the first book, Kitty and the Midnight Hour, is that she’s so passive and she’s so submissive and she’s not very powerful. People say it like it’s a criticism, and then I come back and say, ‘I actually meant to do it that way.’ I wanted the first book to be a story about someone without very much power learning to take care of herself. That seemed to me to be a really powerful story that would resonate with people.

Back to the urban fantasy thing. That’s so far outside the normal trope in urban fantasy, where you start out with the powerful kick-ass woman who spends the first chapter strapping the stilettos onto her forearms and sharpening her katana, and going out and kicking ass. And Kitty doesn’t do that at all. I think it was just something that people weren’t used to seeing.

But as the series has gone on, it’s been my intention to have her power, her sphere of influence, I guess, increase. It’s expanded just a little bit every book. She learned to take care of herself. Then she has to learn to stand up and declare how she stands on certain issues. Then she has to learn to take care of the people around her. Then she has to learn how to take care of the pack and her family and as her power has grown, her responsibilities have also grown. Those have gone hand in hand. First it was her pack, and now she’s become the spokesperson for supernatural creatures everywhere in her world.

Is she going to rise to the occasion? That’s been a lot of her arc. It’s not, ‘What is she going to beat up this time?’, but, ‘What is her responsibility this time?’ Will she be able to handle it? I’ve wanted to have her grow in strength so that she can handle it each book.

Ensuing Chapters: How would you describe Kitty Steals the Show to folks who haven’t picked up the book yet or heard you talk about it?

Carrie Vaughn: So there’s this international conference, and Kitty has been appointed to give the keynote address because of her notoriety with the talk show. She’s become well enough known that she’s seen by the international community as a spokesperson. This is her chance.

One of the shticks of the book is that she doesn’t really know what she’s going to say at the speech until the very last minute. And that’s one of the themes of the book: What is she going to say? She faces all kinds of conflicts. She gets a front-row seat. She gets to see really what’s at stake here, and then she has to stand up and try to rally people to seeing things her way. It is kind of a political book, as you might expect. It really is trying to move her up to the next level. Now she’s on the stage, and she can’t step back off again.

Ensuing Chapters: There’s a passage in the opening chapter that I really enjoyed. It’s after the hunt, and everyone’s waking up and Kitty says: ‘I stretched, straightening legs and arms, pulling at too-tight muscles, reminding myself of the shape of my human body after a full-moon night of running as a wolf.’ We get this discomfort in her and the others as they’re returning to their human form, which I think captures a lot of those dichotomies or the dissociations that we’ve had with her struggling with assertiveness. Could you talk a bit about the inner conflicts and complexities of Kitty and how you portray these? Does it feel schizophrenic when you’re writing her character and dealing with the transformation from wolf to human?

Carrie Vaughn: Not really because that’s been part of my point, to depict her as fairly well integrated. To me that was one of the problems with the werewolf as a creature. It was always either-or. They’re either a person or a monster, and the struggle was between the two. But in order to be a functional werewolf, you would have to, at some point, integrate the two of those. I’ve always seen it as a scale. No matter what form they’re in, a werewolf is always going to be a little bit of both. The challenge is to write a scene like that with language that isn’t necessarily negative or positive, that’s just a neutral description that doesn’t see one form as negative and one form as positive, but sees them both as part of the same being.

And the other thing is having her be part of the pack and bring in some of the wolf biology, actual research into wolf behavior to think about what a pack would be like. Ultimately, the pack is something that helps them all stay human. They’re acting like wolves, but it’s enough of an anchor that it keeps them from becoming monstrous.

Ensuing Chapters: What are the political themes that you’ve really been passionate about, that you’ve explored, and how do you balance the politics with the entertainment and the narrative story line?

Carrie Vaughn: Once again, I do have an intention. I have an agenda with some of this. The whole thing has kind of grown out of some of my observations with other vampires and werewolves in the real world-type stories. One of them is the real world in a lot of those stories doesn’t actually look like the real world. They didn’t tackle politics. People didn’t have jobs. If I was going to set stories in the real world, I wanted to have them be about the real world, and I wanted to have it be recognizably our world.

Part of that was having the crazy politician who has their pet thing that just sounds absolutely crazy to everybody else, and yet somehow they manage to keep getting elected and keep trying to pass legislation. I have that kind of character who shows up every now and then. There’s not one topic that I’m necessarily passionate about, but I do want to bring in as much of that as I can because it makes the world seem more real.

Kitty Goes to War was one that I wanted to do for a long time, and I finally got to do it. That was the issue of war veterans, returning veterans with some post-traumatic stress issues. And just the idea that if there are vampires and werewolves and supernatural creatures, the military is going to find a way to use them. That seemed to be a really obvious thing to deal with. And other writers have dealt with that. The typical way is to deal with them in the field. What would a troop of werewolf soldiers look like and set the story there? Well, Kitty is my main character. I can’t send her off to Afghanistan and have her embedded. Maybe I could have, but I don’t think that would have been as good of a story.

The story I wanted to tell was bringing these soldiers home and their struggles with trying to reintegrate when they’ve got not just the post-traumatic stress but being a werewolf. Having been out of regular, normal society, how do they integrate all these different aspects? That’s the story I ended up telling. It was a more meaningful story to me, really, than actually showing the battles.

Ensuing Chapters: A lot has been made of the presence of [supernatural] characters in fiction, historically, as a representation of people who feel, or are, outside of regular society, be they in some way different or as an example of a war veteran who’s been changed by a certain experience. How do you feel about that as a psychological deconstruction of these characters?

Carrie Vaughn: It’s an obvious metaphor, so I think it’s perfectly good to tackle that metaphor and tackle those issues. As a writer, it’s useful for me to use some of that as a model. In Kitty’s world, the existence of the supernatural is slowly being revealed to people, and politicians are slowly getting involved and awareness is coming about slowly.

One of the models I used for how that would actually work is AIDS awareness in the early ’80s, which was a really kind of fraught thing. It wasn’t something that people even bought into for a long time. It was something that the government didn’t want to acknowledge for a long time. If you were directly involved, you knew everything there was to know about it. But if you weren’t involved in the community, if you didn’t live in one of the major hot points where the disease was really gaining ground, you wouldn’t know anything about that.

From the writing side, that’s where it becomes useful. We actually have real-world examples of what it’s like to be an outsider or what it’s like to be an object of hate. And from the other side of it, it would be really nice if writing about it could give somebody from perhaps a community that’s looked down on, if it could give them something to relate to. That’s a plus. It’s representation. You have to try to represent as much as you can in the world, because you never know who you’re going to be talking to, and who you might relate to, who might see themselves in your books. You want to be as truthful as you can.

Ensuing Chapters: Have you been surprised at all, or touched in any particular way, by some of the responses from fans?

Carrie Vaughn: I think 99 percent of the responses I get are great. One of the things that surprised me is, I don’t know if you’ve heard of something called therianthropy, or therianthropes. It’s a condition where people believe that they are more canine than human. There are people who really do identify more with dogs and wolves than they do with people. They see themselves that way, and, as much as they can and still function in society, they model their lives that way.

I’ve gotten several e-mails from people who identify as therianthropes, and one of them I got said that reading the Kitty books was the first time he’d ever read a book where he related to the main character, which blew me away. I know how powerful it can be to read a novel where you identify with the main character. To never have that in your life until my book came along, that was just astonishing to me. And I felt very humbled. I’ve gotten several, and it’s really interesting because you can sit here and think well, that’s kind of weird, people thinking that they’re canines, but when I get the e-mails, they all start off the same way: You’re going to think this is crazy, but, I identify as therianthrope. They’re very aware that they don’t fit into people’s normal conception of what people should be, and they’re very touchy about that. So it’s just really great to be able to talk to them and say, ‘That’s really cool that you’re reading the books. I’m really glad that they speak to you and that’s great.’

For more of Carrie Vaughn and Kitty Norville, or to subscribe to Vaughn’s blog and learn about her other books, visit http://www.carrievaughn.com/.