What do you do with a PhD in history? Write fantasy fiction, of course.
Andrea Cremer (pictured) did that in her debut novel, Nightshade. She used her scholarship and research to incorporate social issues about gender, power struggles, and sexuality into her book. We caught up with Andrea to find out a little bit more.
Q: Nightshade is about a werewolf. How do you stick to conventional werewolf canon and mythology and how do you deviate?
A: One of the things about Nightshade that I think is really different is that it’s described as a werewolf book, but I often tell people it’s not a werewolf book because it does break so much from werewolf convention. I grew up in the north woods of Wisconsin. I’m literally right on Lake Superior and in the middle of a national forest, so the wilderness to me was something that was really wonderful. I spent most of my days as a young girl out making up imaginary worlds and imaginary people with my brother and my best friend in the forest. That was the way we liked to spend our days.
Wolves and other wild animals to me were always fascinating; they weren’t something that were scary or monstrous, they were just cool. And so, I never pictured myself actually liking werewolves in terms of people picking teams for either vampires or werewolves. In all my reading, I had always firmly been in the vampire camp. I couldn’t figure out why it was that I didn’t like werewolves.
So when I got the idea for Nightshade and it was inspired by the main character, Calla [Tor] who is the alpha female wolf of the pack, I knew she was a girl and I knew she was a wolf. I felt just stuck because ‘Well, I don’t like werewolves so how am I going to write a book about a girl who’s a werewolf?’ And I realized what I needed to do was to create a new mythology of wolves that matched the way I felt about them.
That wasn’t wolves who were half-man/half-beast and its hideous mutations where it took an awful amount of time to change that involved the cracking of bones and lengthening of snouts and left you with something that was just awful to look at. But, was actually a creature that was fully wolf and fully human; Calla and her pack love their ability to change into wolves. That it was an instantaneous change and something they considered to be a gift; that it wasn’t a disease or a curse the way so many werewolf mythologies have been portrayed.
Q: How do you handle writing about touchy subject matters like the violence, gender issues, power struggles, and sexuality featured in Nightshade?
A: I have a “day job.” It’s definitely more than a day job; I’m a history professor. I have a PhD in early modern history and my research specialization is the history of sexuality and violence, particularly the way it ties into warfare and religion. So just in studying the history of gender politics and sexuality for the last ten years, it was what I wrote my PhD on. It’s something that I have just been aware of in all the historical research I’ve done as a major under-fitting of the construction of human society. To write a story that was largely about power and struggles for power. It’s a coming-of-age story about this girl’s sexual awakening and her struggle to maintain her identity despite external forces that are trying to limit her strength.
It was so important for me to have those issues at the forefront because I think books offer a really important safe space for people of all ages, teens especially because they really need those spaces but I think adults as well. To be able to reflect on the way society puts expectations for sexuality and gender out there and try over and over again to thwart them. Sometimes it’s in very subtle ways through media and pop culture. Other ways it’s very overt in actual forms violence for people who step out what are considered to be societal norms. I really wanted to not be afraid to touch on those issues, not just even touch on them but really explore them.
In the book, I really wanted to address sexual double standards for young men and young women. It’s such a huge, huge problem that’s infuriating. More and more women are strong and in positions of power in society, yet still we have an attitude of girls have to be responsible for their sexuality but boys will be boys. I just feel like that happens over and over again. The recent slew of stories about texting scandals and bullying in schools towards LGBT students, but also straight students, the blame is almost always put on the girls for not being sexually responsible and not acting like good girls. And for boys it’s just, ‘Oh, boys will be boys. Of course, they’re going to spread around this scandal because they’re boys.’ I feel like that is something that hurts our society so much and sends a terrible message to girls about trying to figure out who they are and what their place can be in the world. I just really wanted to hit on those issues without fear.
Q: What courses do you teach at Macalester College?
A: I teach courses on violence in early American history (colonial through the Civil War), gender and sexuality, Native American history, historical philosophy and methodology, and religion in early modern history (1500-1800).
Q: Describe your writing process.
A: My writing process is really chaotic. I don’t write chronologically. I write scenes as they come into my mind. So what I do is, the key conflicts and key points tend jump into my head as I’m thinking about the story. I just write them down as I feel them. I feel like I almost go into a trance when I write; it takes over my entire life. When I’m in the middle of writing a first draft it happens very quickly. I wrote the first draft of Nightshade between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. There’s a lot of revising that happens after that, but the initial process is just all consuming. I’ll do things like pour orange juice on my cereal, throw clothes into the trash instead of the laundry hamper, or get into the shower and get right out again having totally forgotten to wash my hair because I’m just so lost in the story. When I write, I basically create those major scenes and then it’s almost like a web of thinking about how they’re connected. I refer to myself as jigsaw puzzle-writer because I end up with all these pieces and then it’s fitting them together to make the story.
Q: What are the differences between writing academic papers and fiction novels?
A: In academic writing you make an argument and defend it using evidence that other scholars can track, vis a vis footnotes. When writing a novel I’ve found that my process is much more about being carried away by the story rather than deconstructing its content.
Q: What plans do you have for future projects?
A: Nightshade is a trilogy. The second book Wolfsbane will be published in July 2011 and book three, Bloodrose, is due out spring 2012. The fourth book is a prequel to the series that chronicles the origins of the Witches War in the 1400s. I’m working on a steampunk trilogy that I describe as historical dystopia about an alternate 19th century where the American Revolution failed. The steampunk is not as yet under contract.
Full Disclosure: This GalleyCat Correspondent has been an intern at Penguin Group (USA) in the past.