1. Your novel seems to draw 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 a message, it comes out to be clunky and forced, which won’t do the message much of a service. I also wouldn’t want to think it was just seen 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.
2. 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 rge 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.
3. How did you come to choose a werewolf society as the centrepiece 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, 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. There are some vampire books I’ve enjoyed, but overall I’m not that interested in them.
4. 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 then 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.
5. Do you consider Bareback 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 Bareback 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.
6. 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, as 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.
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