Thursday, November 20, 2008
Martin Millar on werewolves and Led Zeppelin
Martin Millar's Good Fairies of New York has received no small amount of cult-like status among fantasy readers (including an introduction by Neil Gaiman to its recent Soft Skull edition). I discovered Millar through his werewolf novel, Lonely Werewolf Girl which manages to be as much about a dysfunctional family and loving Sabrina the Teenage Witch as much as it is about werewolves. Here is a bit of my review from my July column:
Millar has done more for the urban fantasy genre with Lonely Werewolf Girl than most authors. He lifts the entire oeuvre of werewolf stories up, in a manner similar to what Joss Whedon has done for vampires. There is far, far more here than killing, although Millar never shies away from realistic violence. But when he introduces Kalix’s older sister as a fashion designer he then spins out a subplot concerning the theft of fashion design and gives it a fantasy element. Her cousins are alcoholic pop singers who can’t hold it together long enough to carve out decent careers and Millar takes part of the plot into their hopes, dreams and addictions. Politics, both in Kalix’s dysfunctional family and the larger werewolf world, are key to the story and the author makes that as exciting as one of Kalix’s many desperate chases through the city. Every detail in this book is rich and deep and thoughtful; Millar gives his characters the time and attention they deserve and because of that, readers finds themselves with far more story then werewolf fans have come to expect.
Martin's latest title, Suzy Led Zeppelin and Me, is an autobiographical novel about Led Zeppelin's 1972 concert in Glasgow and teenage crushes, battling with best friends and what it means to be cool. (As it jumps back and forth in time there's also a bit about being a modern literary fiction judge which will likely make many writers shake their heads and pronounce "I knew it!!"). I am reviewing that book next month but here is some of what Jenny Davidson had to say in August:
It is a work of utter genius and considerable grim hilarity, so that I was laughing out loud as often as every couple of pages. It is a short book, composed in short chapters, about the weeks leading up to the night of the 4th of December, 1972, when Led Zeppelin came to play in Glasgow. Martin Millar is just as funny as Charlie Williams and Cintra Wilson, my two other particularly favorite not-as-widely-read-as-they-should-be funny novelists.
Here are some thoughts from Martin Millar he forwarded my way in the past month.
Chasing Ray: Lonely Werewolf Girl is a big book. Did you plan in the beginning to write an epic about werewolves (everything from politics to romance to music to the ripping off of arms) or did the book’s overall narrative expand as you got deeper into it?
MM: I didn’t expect it to be such a long book; it just seemed to evolve that way. I think that’s probably due to the number of relations Kalix has. She’s a member of a large clan of werewolves. It was quite surprising, finding myself writing such a long book. My previous works have tended to be short.
CR: I know you’re a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – any aspects of the show that affected how you wrote about the MacRinnalchs? Also, what audience were you think of when you wrote Lonely Werewolf Girl? I reviewed it for teens but as an adult I enjoyed it a lot as well. It seems to crossover perfectly (just as Buffy does). Is it hard to create characters that appeal to both teens and adults?
MM: About teens and young adults - I never intended to write for a specific market. After enjoying Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much, I thought I'd like to write something which shared the same sort of general tone. And also, in a way, the tone of various comics I used to read.
So, for instance, there aren't any explicit sex scenes in the book, but that's not because I meant the book to be aimed at a specific audience, it's because an explicit sex scene wouldn't fit in with the tone of the book.
I'm quite happy for Lonely Werewolf Girl to be seen as a Young Adult book - because I seem to be a fan of this sort of thing myself - but I really didn't write it with that in mind. I expected adults to enjoy it too.
Possibly the distinction between Adult/Young Adult has become blurred to an extent where it isn't that important any more. Certainly, if I'd attempted to add any specifically 'adult' scenes to Lonely Werewolf Girl, it wouldn't have improved the book, it would have made it worse. The tone would have been spoiled, all the different strands wouldn't have fitted together properly, and it wouldn't have been believable.
CR: Kalix is not an obviously sympathetic character; in fact for most of the book she reads as more bipolar then you would expect (even for a werewolf). Was it hard not to write about the teen protag as a victim? How did you envision her from the very beginning?
MM: Poor Kalix has a lot of problems, though her highs and lows tend to arrive via anxiety and depression, rather than being strictly bi-polar. Many of the things the unfortunate young werewolf suffers from have been taken from my real-life experiences. From myself and from people I’ve known. Her eating problems and her self-abuse are based quite directly on people I’ve known, as is her depression and anxiety, and panic. Speaking personally, while I’m not prone to depression, I have suffered badly from anxiety at times in my life.
Writing about Kalix, I felt very sympathetic towards her. I didn’t regard her entirely as a victim, because she does have the power to take control of her life at times. When things really get tough, she has the willpower to come through it, just about. As for how sympathetic readers would be, that’s always hard to tell. Possibly I like her more than a lot of readers might.
CR: There is a ton of humor in this book – a lot more than readers have a right to expect compared to most of the urban fantasy out there. How much of this (from Sabrina the Teenage Witch to some major fashion insanity) did you plan ahead of time? Were you always intending to balance the violence with laughter or did some of the characters (such as Kalix) just evolve that way as time went by?
MM: You’re giving me too much credit for planning. I’m a terrible planner when it comes to writing, and always have been. However, I did set out to write Lonely Werewolf Girl with quite a specific tone in mind, and that was always going to involve humour. I think in general I find it difficult to write without being humorous to some degree.
Agrivex, or Vex, is really a character straight out of an American teen comedy. I have, for some time, been a fan of American teen comedies (This may be unusual for a British author of my age) I think this started with the film ‘Clueless’, which the first time I saw it, affected me quite a lot. I was very impressed that anyone could make such a sharp, funny film, using a Jane Austen story as the source (I am a great fan of Jane Austen, though I have never attempted to emulate her style, obviously.)
Queen Malveria is another humorous character. However, I don’t know where the inspiration for her came from, she’s not based on any other character I’ve encountered.
CR: What aspects of the story did you enjoy writing the most – the political maneuverings, the fashion crisis, the music crisis, the coming-of-age moments and friendships or the cut-throat violence? And how hard was it to bring all of this together into one story? Did you ever worry that there were too many threads or do you think maybe we (as readers) just aren’t used to reading books that combine so many characters into one coherent (and thrilling) tale?
MM: That’s difficult to say. I’m not sure what I enjoyed writing the most. I like writing anything about Kalix, because I like her, and apart from that, probably the scenes between Malveria and Vex. I liked writing about Thrix and Malveria and their fashion obsessions, though that was difficult because although I sympathise with people who are very keen on fashion, I don’t actually know anything about it. So really I was relying on copies of Vogue bought from the local newsagent.
As for the werewolf violence, I quite liked writing that too. (I wouldn’t say it was on a very high level – I’m not fond of gore or horror) It made for a change. I’ve never written about fighting before but possibly, having read a lot of comics as a youth, I had a secret desire to do so.
I wasn’t worried about including a lot of different threads. I thought that they were related enough for people to follow. Though there are a lot of characters, most of the story is driven by the feud about the succession to the leadership of the werewolf clan, so it’s all going in the same direction. As for the balance of the book, with its humorous parts and serious/violent parts, I have the general feeling that if you write these parts all properly, they should fit together well enough.
CR: Switching gears a bit, Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me reads more as a memoir than novel in a lot of ways – could we call it a fictionalized memoir? How much of your own story (past and present) is found in the book?
MM: Most of the significant events in the book are true, so in that way it’s a memoir. However, I re-arranged them all, added in pieces of fiction, and I had no qualms about shuffling events, places and times around to make it into a better story. So I think of it as a novel rather than a memoir.
CR: How much do you think we bond with the music of our youth? In a lot of ways you’re written an entire book around this subject – how significant do you think music can be over the course of someone’s life. (Or in other words – is it more important during the turbulent teen years than to adults?)
MM: We definitely bond with it. When I was a teenager there was nothing so important in my life as music. Actually, that lasted beyond my teenage years, though it’s faded a little now, which is natural as you get older. New music doesn’t resonate in the same way, and you find yourself more attached to the music you’ve always loved.
I regret this in a way. It would be good to hear some new music now and think ‘This is fantastic! It’s changing my life!’ But that doesn’t seem to be possible when you get older. Shame really.
However, when you do get older, and find yourself keener on the music from your youth than the music that people are listening to today, you should take care not to assume that the music you love is somehow better. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just that it means more to you.
CR: Part of what really appealed to me about Suzy was that it seemed like the ultimate coming-of-age story. Readers bond with Martin as he struggles with first love, fragile friendships and significant relationships and then see, basically, how he ended up. Is this sort of the ultimate (and most realistic) sort of coming-of-age story – one that does not stop with a moment of teen awareness but continues right through to adult nostalgia?
MM: I needed to find some way to write about my extreme excitement at the thought of Led Zeppelin coming to town, but I was too aware of how life went on afterwards to end it like that. So I wrote it from the viewpoint of an older person looking back, and that naturally took the story on after his coming of age moment. Possibly, if I’d been writing about some fictional characters, I’d have let them just end happily at the Led Zeppelin concert. I’m not against a happy ending, even if life isn’t really like that!
From my own point of view, it was interesting looking back in detail at the concert, and my life at the time. I got in touch with various school friends, asking what they remembered about the gig, and I learned a lot of details I’d forgotten. Also, to my amazement, I found a bootleg CD of the actual gig, which I bought from Japan. I was astonished that a recording of this concert in Glasgow in 1972 existed, and it was strange listening to the concert again, and thinking about being there, such a long time ago.
CR: So what sort of book do you prefer writing – the big sweeping epic with a dozen main characters and confrontations or the short chapters in a tightly focused story about one singular event in the narrator’s life?
MM: Short books. I said In Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me that I have a short attention span these days and it’s true. My attention span has been destroyed by cable TV and the internet, no doubt. I can offer no cogent explanation as to why I suddenly wrote something as long as Lonely Werewolf Girl. And, as I'm writing a sequel now, I’m doing it again. But I have vague plans for my next book after LWG 2, and that will almost certainly be short.
Cross posted at Chasing Ray.