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A Discussion with Kit Whitfield

Your novel seems to draw a comparison between 'barebacks' and the members of any other minority group--those of another race, religion, economic level, or sexual orientation, for example. Did you write this book with a message in mind?

I didn't start it with a message in mind. To me, the important thing is the story and the effect it has on the reader while they're reading it. My aim was just to write about people, and how it feels to be a person in a particular situation. If you do that with enough sincerity, hopefully some kind of morality or principle grows out of the story organically, but I find if you build the story around the message, it comes out be clunky and forced, which won't do the message much of a service. I also wouldn't want to think it was seen just as a 'message' book. If you boil a novel down to a message, it's usually something fairly straightforward like 'prejudice is bad', which, if you're writing a book about someone who's discriminated against, ought to be your starting point rather than your conclusion. You can hardly write a book about a disliked minority without taking some kind of standpoint on the issue, but I'd rather think that the book gave people the experience of being in a particular situation than that it was lecturing them about it.

How did you put yourself in Lola's place as you were writing the book? Do you consider yourself a member of a minority group?

Well, I put myself in all my characters' places when I write them. Lola's no angel, but she was a good character to write; she has very strong feelings that are not always reasonable, which makes for interesting interactions with other characters. I see her as a woman who by nature is nicer than life has led her to be, but her experiences have exacerbated all her faults; whether or not people actually like her always interests me. There's an expression I encountered recently that rather amused me: 'Don't call the badger a bishop', which comes from the days when sportsmen would 'bait' badgers by setting a pack of dogs on them - it means that just because someone is harried on all sides, it doesn't make them more virtuous than anyone else. Myself, I'd say that the chip on her shoulder is part of the sadness of her life: trauma and depression aren't cute or romantic and don't always present themselves in endearing ways - which of course can cause more depression if it drives people away. But that's just my own opinion, and as long as she entertains, readers are free to think what they like of her.

As far as being a minority myself, I'm a heterosexual Caucasian woman, all of which are majorities where I live - though women can be treated like a minority by a small proportion of idiots. My parents come from different countries, England and Ireland, so I know what it's like to be exposed to different cultures and politics (and in the case of those two places, countries whose interests are historically opposed). I don't believe you have to write what you know, though; that way lies semi-autobiography, which I want no truck with in my own writing. People used to say to me, if you want to write, why don't you travel around the world, get arrested and spend some time canning sardines, or something like that, but I think that's silly. I've never experienced being a bareback, but I've experienced loneliness and frustration and resentment, because I'm a human being. It's not about what you've literally experienced yourself: fiction isn't journalism. It's about how closely you pay attention to what you do experience.

I'm hoping not to offend anyone who suffers from discrimination by making incorrect presumptions, but I think writing from imaginative projection rather than personal experience can give a kind of purity to the story: it won't have the specific trappings of one minority or another, so it becomes more about minority status in general. I was very pleased to discover that when people started reading it, they tended to see their own experiences in it - one person who's gay saw homophobia, for example, whereas another person who's a different race from their partner got very interested in the Lola-Paul relationship. But more broadly, anyone who's ever been sad knows that there are times when you can feel like a minority of one.

You never use the word 'werewolf' in the book. Why is that?

There are too many associations with it. It used to mean something fearful and diabolical; now it mostly means an actor with yak hair glued to his face. The word is firmly linked with pulpy horror movies, and while I've had a great deal of fun watching them, it wasn't the effect I wanted to create. The point about the lycanthropic people in my book is that they're people rather than monsters; Lola is used to them, they're part of her life, and if you use a monster-movie word like 'werewolf', you're making them into something alien. It's the same reason I talk about their 'feet' rather than their 'paws', or say 'a man' rather than 'a male'; I want the readers to remain as aware as she is that this is part of society that we're witnessing. I'm a big admirer of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange , which is written in a made-up slang called 'nadsat': the narrator of that commits some terrible crimes, but he describes them in his own language, which makes you, if not sympathise with him, at least see things the way he does.

How did you come to choose a werewolf society as the centerpiece for your book?

Why werewolves over vampires, for instance, when vampire novels are so popular today?

First, because there's enough vampire stuff out there already. Second, more importantly, my aim was to write a book about Lola and the world she lives in, rather than to write a book about supernatural beasties, and if it had been about vampires, it wouldn't have worked. The vampire has a massive tradition, and there are some vampire stories I've enjoyed, but I didn't feel I could write much of a story about it myself - it just didn't catch my imagination in the same way.

Are the stories you tell about the witch trials true?

Yes, though obviously I'm fictionalising for my own convenience, and I'm only an amateur historian - it's always possible I've swallowed a few stories that proper scholars would know to be apocryphal. People did get tried and executed for 'being werewolves' in the Middle Ages. It was a smaller sub-section of being tried for witchcraft: you could be accused of asking Satan to turn you into an animal. It was an odd set of beliefs, because it mixed two different schools of thought. The notion of the werewolf - or were-crocodile or were-leopard, if that was the dominant predator in your area that kept eating your flocks and menacing your family - goes back pretty much as far as culture can be traced. The witch trials, on the other hand, had a lot of intellectual theory attached to them: they began by going after heretics, then moved on to 'witches', so it was a theological issue, and many of the top minds of the day went into the church. For them, it was heresy to believe people could actually be turned into animals: it went against the notion that only God could work miracles, which was a big no-no. But there were all these folk beliefs, villagers seeing wolves and stories going around. Folk tales are particularly prone to crop up when societies are frightened - and the Middle Ages suffered wars, plagues, famines and, in the areas where more werewolf trials happened, depredation by actual wolves, not to mention the fear of cannibalism when everyone was starving.

Of course, if the theologians and jurists had been reasonable, they would have said to themselves, this is a folk belief, it's a way of expressing fear of wild animals and fear that those around you can't be trusted. But they were already on the hunt for witches, so they twisted their powerful brains into some extraordinary logical knots, and came up with the conclusion that Satan could induce the illusion in everyone present that someone had turned into a wolf, but they hadn't actually transformed. Which was no excuse: to the stake you go for even trying it, heretic. It's one of the most frightening things about the Inquisition, to see just how intelligent the minds that bent themselves to this nonsense really were. Even at the time, there were some sensible people who spoke out against it; there are always sensible people, just like there are always crazy ones, but the right side doesn't always win.  

Something that you don't see much discussed in horror movies nowadays, though, is that many of the famous 'werewolves' of the day were what we would call serial killers. To take a famous example: if you do an internet search, you can find a historical pamphlet on one of the most notorious 'werewolves' of his day, crisply entitled 'A True Discourse Declaring the Damnable Life of one Stubbe Peeter'. It was written in 1590, and it's basically a miniature true-crime book about a man who had been recently and gruesomely executed. According to the story, Peter Stubbe (sometimes spelled 'Stumpf', 'Stube' or 'Stumpp') sorcerously summoned the Devil, and when the Devil asked him what he wanted, he said he wanted to be able to hurt people in the form of an animal, being a cruel man more interested in sadism than profit. The Devil thought this was a great idea and gave him a wolf belt - a 'girdle' that allowed him to turn into a huge predator - and with this as a disguise, he raped and murdered for twenty-five years before they finally caught him. Now, this story comes from his confession, which was given on the rack; if the trial account is to be believed, they didn't actually rack him, but performed the traditional first stage, which was to strap him to it (the rack being generally understood as the most horrific torture device of a bloody-minded age), and told him they'd start turning the handle and dislocating his limbs if he didn't 'fess up. Not unnaturally, he confessed. So obviously, it's perfectly possible that the real Peter Stubbe was an innocent victim who was tormented into confirming false accusations - he also confessed to molesting his daughter, so they burned her as an accomplice, which shouldn't exactly raise your opinion of his executioners, besides which, the rack was often used as a last resort, so it's possible he'd already been tortured by that point - but the accounts of what he supposedly did read rather like the story of a prolific serial killer, only with the wolf girdle thrown in. You get rapists and murderers in every age; whether Stubbe was one or not, lycanthropy was a way of thinking about them. In modern horror stories, the thing that directors usually take most interest in is the fact that someone transforms at all and how they cope with it; in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the point was that they killed people after they'd transformed. We still have stories of serial killers - I'd say Hannibal Lecter is more of a descendant of Peter Stubbe than, say, David Kessler of An American Werewolf in London . And we take as much interest in them as people used to do in witches.

Is your DORLA (Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activities) a metaphor for the witch-hunters of earlier times?

No. It's posited as a descendant of them, but the Inquisition is a long way in the past. It's passed into the position where we use it as a metaphor, rather than use metaphors for it. The 'Satanic Panic' in 1980s America, for example, got compared to the witch-hunts - accurately, as far as I can tell from my research. There's a terrible tendency in people to decide that this or that group is the enemy, then believe all sorts of evils about them that they'd never consider if they actually knew the people they're so frightened of, and it's something we'll never get too civilised to fall prey to. The medieval witch-hunts are over, the time for making metaphors for them is gone. What we need to do is look back into the past, see how horrifically wrong the witch-hunters were, and then remind ourselves that the people in that era considered themselves just as modern and clever as we do - and then take a close look at what we're doing.

Do you consider Benighted to be a horror novel, or a dark fantasy novel?

Neither, really. Describing a book as this or that genre is mostly useful for booksellers: they've got a fixed amount of time to convince bookshops to buy copies of each title on their list, and if they can say, 'This is that kind of book and it'll go on those shelves over there,' it makes things easier. What it doesn't do is make things better for either readers or writers. A reader who says 'I don't read chick fic' or 'I only like science fiction' is missing out on some books they might love if they saw them in another cover on a different shelf; a writer who says, 'I'd love to throw in a supernatural twist, but I can't because I'm supposed to be a thriller writer' is stopping themselves from using all of their imagination. If I had to give Benighted a label, I'd probably call it magic realism, but I'd rather just skip the whole issue and call it a Kit Whitfield book.

There is apparently a mental illness known as lycanthropy. What is that?

Basically, the delusion that you really do turn into an animal. People have recurrent fits where they're convinced that they are no longer a human being, but have transformed into a wolf, tiger or whatever. It's seen as a psychotic illness nowadays rather than a capital offence, fortunately. There are a number of medical conditions some people think may have to do with the werewolf myth; porphyria is another one, because it can produce an allergy to sunlight, afflictions of the skin, hair growth on the face, reddish teeth and fingernails, and other symptoms that in really severe cases can make the sufferer look not unlike a movie werewolf - though that doesn't necessarily mean that the legend originated from porphyria; I suspect it's more likely that the symptoms of porphyria can remind some people of the legend.

It's interesting to note that nowadays there's also a subculture of people who identify themselves as 'therianthropes' and claim some kind of spiritual connection with animal-human transformations. I don't really know enough about that to comment; I gather there's debate about whether there's a connection with clinical lycanthropy or whether they're separate issues, but you'd need to be either a psychiatrist or a member of the subculture yourself to have anything like an informed opinion, and I'm neither. Legally, at least, as long as 'therians' aren't attacking anybody, it's their own business. Which is a definite step forward from Inquisitorial thinking, I'd say, because they would have been in deep trouble with the witch-burners, but let's not kid ourselves that we're too advanced. Our grandchildren will only laugh at us later.  

  This interview is available in the US edition of Benighted , published by Del Rey, Random House.