All about werewolves: Part 1

At one point while I was working on an earlier draft of the book, when I was completely stuck on the plot, I wrote this little self-interview. [Edited to remove spoilers]

Where did you get the notion for having two kinds of werewolves — natural born and bite-infected?

When I first realized I was writing a werewolf novel, I spent a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of it. I didn’t want to take anything for granted. Full moon or not? All three days or just one? Can they change at will? Do they remember being the wolf? How do you kill them? Does silver do anything? How vicious are they really? Natural-born or transformed with a bite?

Originally I only had natural born, because I wanted an isolated colony of werewolves going back hundreds of years. Also, I felt that the protagonist needed to be — not having all these things happen because of something new that was introduced, but discovering a potential that was there all along.

So, I had natural-born wolves. But then, during a much earlier version of the plot, I was looking for a reason why her werewolf relatives would be antagonists toward her at first. Then it hit me, what if natural born werewolves sometimes bite people, and that creates a werewolf? Maybe even of a slightly different character? They’d feel the need to contain the outbreak, right? And that might involve killing the infected. Even if the werewolves in general aren’t bloodthirsty, this is something they’d take very seriously.

The instant that idea hit me, I knew it was right. I’m sure it’s not original — nothing is, right? — but I had never seen it done before, myself.

Also, traditional bite transformation werewolf stories have a logistical problem for me — where did the original bite come from? There has to already be a werewolf right? And yet the story is always structured as if “oh, hey, look out, NOW there’s a werewolf!” So, what was the original werewolf doing before the story started? Why didn’t they have the same problem with the bodies piling up?

But if the original werewolf is an adolescent girl who has just barely started changing shape, that answers that question.

Why werewolves?

The genesis of this book was a panel on lycanthropy at the 2009 Norwescon, with editor and writer Greg Cox, who knows as much about both vampire and werewolf fiction as pretty much anybody on the planet. There were two topics that came up that I found really interesting. One, was the question of why it’s always vampires and THEN werewolves. I think it’s pretty obvious why it’s always vampires AND werewolves, because those are the monster tropes that appear to be human most of the time. It makes their stories feel more relevant. But why are vampires always first? Why do they dominate?

The second question, was wondering why there’s never been a truly breakout werewolf novel. There’s no werewolf Dracula or Interview with the Vampire. The closest thing is the later books in the Twilight series, but of course, those followed the model of having vampires first.

We didn’t answer those questions in the panel, but it got me thinking about them. Usually, when I’m thinking about that kind of a question — a question of literary genre or trope — I try to answer it by writing a story. So I was already kicking around the idea of writing a werewolf story when I went to New Orleans and found out there were Cajun werewolf legends.

Bingo! I had all the elements and started writing. Originally I thought it was going to be a short story, but when I hit 8,000 words and wasn’t done, I decided to keep going.

Tell me about Cajun werewolf legends

I first saw them mentioned in a book called Gumbo Ya-Ya, a 1945 compendium of Louisiana folk tales. The section on Cajun legends has a bit about the loup-garou. It’s just a couple of paragraphs, but it shows a few interesting things — you can see how in the older folklore vampires and werewolves weren’t always all that different from each other. For example, the loup-garou have that OCD counting thing usually attributed to vampires (used wonderfully in Bad Blood, one of my all-time favorite X-Files episodes. And, of course, Sesame Street.) It also has the kind of dada-insane stuff that you get from great folklore. Like, the loup-garou can summon giant bats to ride on. Giant bats! And if you want them to go away, throw a frog at them. Why would a werewolf be terrified of a frog? Absolutely no idea.

I continued doing research on the legends, and found out the Cajun loup-garou is often called the rougarou, which was the word I settled on because it distinguished them from a regular movie werewolf.

The next time I went back to New Orleans, I had a swamp tour guide who mentioned the rougarou. In his version, it was a tale his grandmother told, and the werewolf was always female. I think he mentioned them having red hair, which is where I got that part of it.

Are your werewolves terrified of frogs?

No. And they don’t ride giant bats, either.

But that would be awesome!

It just didn’t seem to fit in the modern world. Maybe they rode giant bats two hundred years ago.

So, why do you think vampires usually dominate the paranormal world?

One theory I have is that it’s the movies: vampires are pretty much the easiest monster to do on screen. Werewolves are hard to do right. Even in good movies, the wolf effects are often terrible. And the movies drive our collective pop culture imagination, so it becomes a reinforcing cycle. Fewer books means fewer movies means fewer books means fewer movies.

Another reason might be thematic. Vampires at least since Dracula have been symbols for the parasitic ruling class, and you can see this reflected in a lot of paranormal fiction: their world might have werewolves and vampires and zombies and witches and necromancers and fairies and everything you can imagine, but the vampires always seem to be the ones in charge. They have hierarchies and territories and pseudo-nobility and ruffled shirts and all that.

Werewolves, on the other hand, are often portrayed as rugged vagabonds — they have a pack structure, but it’s primitive and sort of “wild” compared to the vampires.

A lot of our monster stories are concerned with the question of what it means to be human, which we examine by looking at creatures who aren’t. Vampire stories interrogate the relationship between the intellect and the spirit. So they touch on questions of life and death and wondering if we have a thing like a soul, wondering if there is any transcendence, or gods. Vampire stories often have a strong religious theme.

Werewolf stories interrogate the relationship between the intellect and the body, or the animal brain. What I like to call the monkey brain. Humans are obviously animals in a biological sense, but our self concept is uncomfortable with that fact. We set ourselves apart from other animals. We have all these phrases — to be a “mere animal” or “like an animal” is a bad thing.

We perceive the intellect as being in charge. It’s always nattering away up there. But there’s a lot of evidence that our animal brain is really the one driving the van most of the time, and the intellect is just hanging around making up excuses for it.