Interview With Paul Marlowe About The Wellborn Conspiracy Series
By Derek Newman-Stille
Native New Brunswick author Paul Marlowe shares some of his insights on SteamPunk, Canadian speculative fiction, his Wellborn Conspiracy Series, the werewolf, and the role of research in Canadian Speculative Fiction. I want to thank Mr. Marlowe for taking the time to do this interview and share his thoughts with us.
Spec Can: Could you take a few moments to tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
Paul Marlowe: Oh, I don’t know. There’s not that much to tell, really. Hmm. Perhaps a quote? According to Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Oh dear… That’s a depressing way to start, isn’t it? Well, if heredity is anything to go by in personality, I could point to my 9th-great-grandmother, who chose to be hanged in the Salem witch trials rather than save herself by “confessing”. She was no doubt unfamiliar with Plato, the Puritans not going in much for a classical education, but Plato recorded Socrates expressing a sentiment that she could sympathise with: “I much prefer to die after such a defence than to live after a defence of the other sort… it is not hard to escape death; it is much harder to escape wickedness, for that runs faster than death.” Words to live by. Or, er, die by, perhaps. Next question?
Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about your Wellborn Conspiracy Series?
Paul Marlowe: The series name itself, “Wellborn”, is a more or less literal translation of the Greek “eugenics”, which features in the stories, one of the threads running through them being the activities of a group calling themselves the Wellborn Trust, a eugenics-promotion society involved in a lot of unsavoury activities. They’re steampunk stories, perhaps in the older sense of steampunk – that is, having to do with Victorian-type stuff without strictly adhering to historical accuracy, and with some science fiction or fantasy blended in. To avoid any disappointment amongst readers, I’ll warn them ahead of time that no airships, steam automatons, or clockwork corsets appear in these books.
The first volume, Sporeville, is set in a fictional town called Spohrville (the title comes from the characters’ play on words) in Nova Scotia. In it, a member of the Wellborn Trust is controlling the town in order to exploit its labour and resources. He’s a war criminal from the US Civil War, drawn along somewhat Dr Mengele-ish lines, though perhaps with a chirpier personality when in a good mood. It follows two families – the DeLoups and the Gravens – as they discover the true nature of what is happening in their town.
In the second book, Knights of the Sea, the heroes think that they can go back to their more or less normal lives until their old enemy tries to get revenge. At the same time they are discovering the breadth of the Wellborn Trust’s activities, coming to realize that the problem goes far beyond their local trouble in Spohrville. National and Imperial politics are involved (and they have fun at Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, too).
Book three is still a mass of notes. Possibly it might even get written if there is sufficient clamour from my legions of fans. Or cohort of fans (I wouldn’t want to exaggerate). Well, all right – centuriae of fans. Contubernia?
Spec Can: What inspired you to write The Wellborn Conspiracy Series and what ideas contributed to the shape of the series and its characters?
Paul Marlowe: I have to admit that the setting for Sporeville was in small part inspired by how very mouldy the town is in which I live. Apart from the mouldiness, though, the rest is pure invention and, like other stories, was written mostly because I had an urge to write it, probably due to some muse or imp. I’d blame it on inspiration particles, but I’m not sure they exist outside the Discworld. It’s unfortunate for literary criticism and posterity, but I think many writers have their hands so full with juggling the bits and pieces of their stories that they rarely notice when they negligently drop their inspirations and sources into the oubliette.
As for the eugenics theme, for those unfamiliar with eugenics, it was the (pseudo) science of manipulating human heredity in order to supposedly improve the race. That is, eugenicists wanted to do things like eliminate hereditary deafness by ensuring that those with the condition didn’t marry each other. It was meant to be progressive, looking forward to a utopian future when there would be no more hereditary illnesses, but at its worst it led to sterilizing and murdering people in the name of genetic hygiene. Eugenics is (or should be) one of the great cautionary tales in the history of the social application of science, particularly now that we are developing the technology to manipulate the human germ line. Hopefully we will review the record of eugenics before some company decides to eliminate unfashionable hair colours from the gene pool, or to “give your kids the best chance of success with the TeamPlayer gene!” Eugenics seemed like something that had relevance both to the late Victorian era and our own times, and therefore a good subject for fiction.
There are some characters derived from real people in Knights of the Sea (which takes place in real Nova Scotian places rather than in a purely fictional town like Sporhville), such as future prime minister John Sparrow Thompson, Alexander Graham Bell, and Anna Leonowens. Even “Captain Rawlins” is inspired (very loosely) by the real Capt. Rawson of the Royal Engineers, as is the un-named prisoner in the Baddeck Gaol, who comes from a mention in one of Thompson’s letters of an unjustly-accused prisoner.
One of the things I hoped to do with the series was to recreate the atmosphere of the times as it pertained to literary experience. It was a time when it was as ordinary for educated teenagers to read, remember, and quote from Scott, Poe, Tennyson, and the Bible, as it is for someone today to say “d’oh!” and be understood. We’ve lost that common culture, which is a shame both because it was an enriching influence that tied generations together, making the past comprehensible, and also because nothing of greater value than television has replaced it.
Spec Can: How much did your personal role as a Maritimer influence the story and your writing overall?
Paul Marlowe: No doubt the obsession with dampness and fish can be blamed on my boggy homeland. History, too, comes naturally in the Maritimes, since recorded history in what would become Canada started here (unless you count the odd tidbit in Viking sagas about Vinland, in which case it started in Newfoundland). The place has a colourful history full of battles, rebellion, massacre, ethnic cleansing, piracy, shipbuilding, pickle-making, etc.. In its own small way, the Maritimes now shares some of the romantic, melancholy air of decay that has attracted people over the years to Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, and to post-imperial Britain, places whose time of greatness (such as it was) has come and gone. The Maritimes had their epic battles (some of them with a dozen people fighting in the dark), it had its merchant princes setting out to sea in home-built ships to trade in the Caribbean, or India, or China, and setting up companies like Red Rose Tea and the Cunard Line. The Maritimes kept the Royal Navy in masts during the Napoleonic Wars, but when the age of sail ended it sank gradually into irrelevance, right into our own age of franchises, TV, and homogeneity. You can still find traces of the past – forts, or muddy post roads, or Victorian sea-captains’ mansions – between the Walmarts and McDonaldses, wherever decay, indifference, and progress have spared a few relics from oblivion. Whether that background affects my writing, I don’t know. The place does remind one both of remarkable history, and of our remarkably short memory of it.
Spec Can: What encouraged you to blend the Steampunk genre with figures from dark fantasy like the werewolf or the ghost?
Paul Marlowe: Steampunk is – or, one of its aspects is – Victoriana with a departure from strict reality. That may be in technology, or the laws of the universe, or the historical timeline, or some other element. Ghosts and creatures of Gothic fiction seem to fit into steampunk worlds without undue incongruity chiefly because they were features of the real Victorian imagination, and so like Jules Verne’s machines we have simply to assume them to be real to incorporate them into the world without disbelief, unlike more anachronistic things one might add to fiction.
Spec Can: What inspired you to become a writer?
Paul Marlowe: For many years I felt a growing calling towards poverty and obscurity, but since I didn’t have the vocation to be a monk, not being attracted by the chastity and obedience, I decided that being a Canadian SF writer would work just as well.
More directly, I saw a scientific journal a number of years ago that was offering 20¢ per word for science fiction short stories. And these were American cents, back when they were worth something. I wrote a story, had it accepted, and lived the high life on that cheque for several minutes, thinking “this is the life!”. Later, when the journal folded, I discovered that all the other magazines paid rather less – in fact, about the same number of pennies per word as magazines paid writers a hundred years ago, if you’re lucky. So, it’s been all downhill since then.
All that nonsense aside, I suppose it’s because I keep thinking of stories that seem a shame not to bring to life.
Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian Speculative Fiction is headed at the moment?
Paul Marlowe: Not being a scholar of Canadian SF, I don’t know if my forecast would be any better than those of Environment Canada since their budget cuts. It looks like SF will continue to be sidelined, culturally, for the foreseeable future, since there’s a sort of literary apartheid in Canada (as in other countries), which places SF down in the lowest class where it can be disenfranchised by excluding it from the grants, prizes, reviews, media attention, and the rest of the grease and hot air that lets the literary machine chug along, hoisting books out of the shadows and into the public eye.
Some countries, perhaps, do a bit better than Canada. In the US, where every stage of the Lit Cycle from writing to reviewing to award-giving isn’t subsidized by a federal or provincial ministry of official culture, there seems to be an acknowledgement that literature consists of something beyond self-conscious nation building, lyrical tales of suicide on the prairies during the Great Depression, and other dismally “realistic” but morally uplifting fare. Coincidentally, the US also has a huge SF publishing industry, attracting writers from, among other countries, Canada. And there’s probably a reason why writers like Sir Terry Pratchett appear in the UK, and not in Canada. Despite there being the same tendency to pretentious literary cliques in the UK as we have here, Pratchett was knighted (the equivalent of a Companion of the Order of Canada), his works have been performed as stage plays, as TV programmes, and on the BBC, and he won this year’s Wodehouse Prize (equivalent of the Leacock Medal, but with more pigs and champagne). Writing SF requires imagination, but I’m not sure that I have enough to imagine a Canadian fantasy writer being similarly celebrated by his or her country.
Government assistance was certainly necessary here to kindle a national book industry and literary institutions. Unfortunately for many “genre” writers, it’s now simply supporting an industry that does little for them but denigrate and ignore their work. Canadian literature won’t be as rich and varied as it might be until the bigotry of the industry abates. I suppose the best way for that to happen might be for more people involved in Canadian SF to sit on grant & prize juries, write reviews, and speak out when they’re discriminated against, not on their literary merit, but on their choice of subject matter (or choice of friends). And in the meantime, Canadian SF writers will carry on doing what Canadians have always done when their country fails to value them: they’ll look abroad for the opportunities that don’t exist here, which is what I did when the CBC brushed off my offer of a (free, professionally acted & produced) radio play to their drama department with “it is not something that we have interest in for CBC Radio at this time”. I offered it to US stations, which broadcast it, and now the CBC drama department has been cancelled. Not that the cancellation was caused by their rejecting me… I’m sure it was simply the curse that I put on them afterwards that did it.
Young adult SF books, on the other hand, are in a better position to grow in variety, quality, and popularity, because children’s & YA books have their own publishers and institutions that are somewhat removed from Lit cliques. There is a certain amount of insistence, in books for young people, that their place in libraries and schools must be justified by educational content, or popular moral or other issues, but unlike with much adult literature there is an acknowledgement that children should be able to find things to read that are fun and entertaining (like fantasy and science fiction). If the books contain thought-provoking ideas, too, so much the better. In that environment, SF is not at such a disadvantage. Possibly this greater freedom is the reason why more and more adults are buying YA books.
The criticism often levelled at SF by Lit types and by more literal-minded readers – that it is “mere escapism” – has less sting when directed at YA books because adults sometimes condescend to allow children the opportunity to indulge in frivolous pass-times, such as imagination. I was a little surprised to find a condemnation of escapism in Charlotte Otten’s A Lycanthropy Reader, which I was browsing recently. In it, she said that “Today’s obsession [she was writing in the 1980s] with the occult and werewolves is frequently an escape mechanism, not a route to sanity and healing” (my emphasis). I think this is a more common – and more harmful – attitude than we usually recognise. That is, the attitude that literature, or other cultural works, need to be educational, or therapeutic, or morally uplifting, or socially utilitarian, to justify their existence. Otherwise, they’re mere frippery at best, or socially destructive at worst. There is rarely an acknowledgement that literature can be worthwhile in itself, even without teaching a moral or other lesson – without helping us cope with X, or serving some other purpose. Ottens further elucidates the contrast that she sees between “escapist” and “realistic” literature by explaining that the “literature of lycanthropy in the Medieval and Renaissance worlds is not escapist: it is realistic. It helps to clarify the needs, hopes, aspirations, and commitments of a human being and of a society. It addresses the problems, struggles, conflicts, anxieties, triumphs, and joys of human-kind.” which is an impressive list of literary achievements, and a rather heavy burden to place on werewolf stories, if they are all expected to bear such ponderous sub-texts to avoid the charge of “escapism”.
It’s simple to offer a pragmatic defence of escapist literature, in that such works meet a human need that isn’t satisfied by a continual diet of moral allegory. Most of us need, regularly, to take a break from problems and anxieties, whether they be real or symbolic. We need to rest, and to dream, so that we can return to what passes for reality sane and rejuvenated. We need fantasy for relief from an artificial reality that society has created, and which we are often bullied into believing has no alternatives. We need in our imaginations to experience things beyond our office cubicle, because not to do so is to become a machine, or a thing not quite human. And we need, whether we are children or adults, to play, not in a world with fantasy window-dressing on top of the same dreary array of problems we face every day, but in a world that lets us simply play for the joy of it, and because play lets us grow outside the limits of artificial (or natural) reality. One might not care to go so far as Wodehouse did in saying that “the object of all good literature is to purge the soul of its petty troubles”, but he does have a point.
There is no doubt much excellent literature that addresses problems or shows individuals their place in society. What there isn’t, sadly, is enough recognition that literature is a vast field in which there are many worthy varieties. Tempting as it might be to imagine it so, literature isn’t a progression of better and higher forms with, at one end, a shambling, hirsute Edgar Rice Burroughs stooped over his stone-sharpened quill, while at the other end a well-groomed Margaret Atwood walks boldly erect, signing copies of her non-SF SF using her patented hygienic LongPen, and sparkling with twinkly (but respectable) magic realism. A healthy literary ecosystem is one where many writers explore many niches – without apology, and without pomposity – discovering what is possible with words. It’s the antithesis of the Lit monoculture that’s cultivated in Canada by the mass of publishers, journals, reviewers, awards, and CBC coverage.
Apart from problems arising from attitudes to SF, Canadian writers of SF are also going to have to deal with the same upheavals that are, and will be, affecting all writers as the industry goes through spasms of adaptation to economic, cultural, and technological changes. Partly the problems are due to the continuing drift away from literature to other forms of entertainment (and the concomitant drift towards lower levels of literacy). As well, we still don’t know what effect the internet and e-books will have on publishing over even the next ten years. The internet has become not only a tremendous communications medium, but also a virtual kleptocracy, where books are stolen more or less with impunity – a curiously reactionary development that is shifting already hard-pressed writers back to Victorian times, when the lack of international copyright law meant that their work was exploited by pirates in other counties almost as soon as it was published. The current situation is a classic example of what laws exist for – the protection of a small group (writers) from exploitation by a large group (pirates), but so far law is failing. Probably consumerism is partly to blame for creating the environment of selfish exploitation in which piracy thrives. Also, we live in a culture that combines fear and self-righteousness into a potent cocktail of self-delusion. It’s used to justify pointless, bloody wars. It’s used to excuse the erosion of civil liberties. And in a different way it’s used by pirates to spin a self-serving Robin Hood fantasy in which they’re Fighting the Big Evil Corporations by exploiting writers, stealing their work, and profiting from it through online advertising revenue on piracy sites, or simply by getting something valuable for free – something created by long, hard, unpaid work. In this strange, retrograde return to pre-copyright days, pirates are the new capitalists living off the labour of others, and along with corporations like Google (remember the Google Books lawsuit?), they’re using the internet to strip-mine our culture for every exploitable piece of creative work.
Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about Canadian Steampunk from that of other nations?
Paul Marlowe: Theoretically, steampunk has been around as a (named) genre for twenty-five years or so. Practically, though, most publishers have only heard of it within the last few years, so it’s probably premature to begin identifying what, if anything, differentiates Canadian from international steampunk. If its popularity survives for more years, then a comparison might be worthwhile.
In some ways, the real history of Canada is kind of like an alternate history of the United States – we were the part of British North America that chose to stay British. Those who didn’t want to become republican Americans came here as Loyalists.
Once you get past the superficial bric-a-brac of steampunk that is common in books from various countries, the Canadian angle has interesting opportunities, since it places the reader in North America, and yet also in the greatest multinational empire that has ever been. Some writers may want to play with the opportunities that exist for adventure in an only semi-realistic version of that world. Some will be interested in the progress and optimism of the times. Others may wish to dwell on the obvious injustices of the Victorian era. It’s easy (and too common) to either romanticize the empire as a golden age or else to demonize it as a sort of ultimate evil, with a cackling Darth Victoria grinding the helpless proletariat beneath her diamond-studded, hook-and-eye-laced heels. The truth, I think, is far more interesting, which is that the empire was something that evolved higgledy-piggledy over generations, in the midst of a constant discussion as to what it was and what it should be. An honest appraisal of it needs to encompass things like the Opium Wars and the Amritsar massacre along with the banning of slavery and of suttee throughout the empire even before Victoria’s coronation. For a writer of fiction, the fluid, evolving nature of the empire that Canada was a member of provides plenty of opportunities to imagine what it might have become, for better or worse, had its evolution proceeded differently.
Spec Can: There are a lot of Canadian historical figures and places in your series. Was this to help get teens interested in Canadian history or from your own interest and passion for history?
Paul Marlowe: It wasn’t primarily to be educational. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be delighted if the book stimulated interest in history, only that when a writer puts literature in harness, under the whip of a pedagogical coachman, it tends to take readers on a rather plodding journey. When the writer’s own interest in history is showing through the story, though, I think that can be more contagious for readers than when a book is consciously constructed to teach a curriculum. With Knights of the Sea, I kept finding interesting things that could appear in the story, even in a fairly short window of a few weeks in 1887. The ship railway, the Jubilee celebrations, and A.G. Bell’s locations and activities at various times are all historically accurate, some down to the time of day. There’s a considerable amount of detail that’s drawn from research, right down to the stories in newspapers that people are reading. Whether or not that will end up interesting readers in history, only the readers can say. I think there’s a certain pleasure, though, in reading a work of fiction and then discovering, perhaps later, that something you took to be backdrop or invention is real.
Spec Can: How much research did you have to put into your book? What is the value of research for authors?
Paul Marlowe:It varies according to the needs of the story. I generally like to research, and think about the research, until I have, as it were, the mental stage dressing to know how the characters will be thinking and reacting. The place, their pasts, their interests, current affairs, social customs, and so on. Not that I necessarily have to be bound by the constraints of the real world when writing steampunk or alternate history. (Interesting, isn’t it, that while no-one would insist that all the visual arts be realistically pictorial, the moment a writer adds a non-realistic alien or airship to a story they become artistically suspect, i.e. non-Literary). And when one is writing about eccentric people, which for some reason comes naturally to me, one is not quite so confined by social customs, since eccentrics, like Harry and Kate (not the naughty scamp and his sister-in-law that you may be thinking of) can say “you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion: we are the makers of manners…” Well, it probably applies to the other Harry and Kate too.
In Knights of the Sea, there was a lot of careful timing. You’ll notice, for example, that the phases of the Moon are indicated, for obvious reasons – those were the real lunar phases. Things like the position of the Milky Way when they’re at sea were the products of research as well. I found out about early submarines, light bulbs, when the Eaton’s catalogue first appeared, and what the political stories of the day were. There was no doubt a lot of discarded research, too, that had no place in the book, but it all helps to shift the writer’s mind into another time.
For anyone writing anything other than their own immediate experience, research is pretty much indispensable. Even those writing secondary-world fiction (set in a purely invented world) generally do a lot of research, since it’s only by knowing about the real world, its history and its peoples, that one can have enough understanding of the borders of human behaviour and culture to invent a plausible imaginary society.
I find research one of the great pleasures of writing. I suppose it satisfies my latent academic, as it gives me the excuse to read widely in subjects that interest me. As a result, writing a short story can be very much like taking an exam – it’s the culmination of a long period of thought and study. Bigger projects take more research. I’m often reading for projects that I don’t plan to work on for years yet.
Spec Can: What is it like as an adult author to write a book featuring young people? Is it tough to move into the headspace of a young person?
Paul Marlowe:It would be harder if I were writing stories set in the present day, because they’d be expected to contain more of the slang and pop-culture Shibboleths that are the signs of generational differentiation. In Victorian-era fiction it isn’t such a problem, since the phenomenon of generations being defined by a narrow, ephemeral collection of clothes, music, and other products is a relatively recent one. Victorian youth was more integrated into the general culture of books, music, and activities. Apart from that, I haven’t yet reached Methuselah’s years, so I still recall many of the ghastly and wonderful features of teenagerhood.
As with adult fiction (at least the kind whose authors don’t think “Eww! Heroes… that’s so, like, passé and genre…”) teen fiction often has heroes who are people not exactly like ourselves, but like the people we would wish to be if we weren’t so restrained, or self-doubting, or helpless to act.
Spec Can: Your series features children who are often ignored or whose opinions and perspectives are downplayed. Could you tell us a bit about the message being portrayed about the importance of youth voices and the tendency for adults to ignore the voices of young people?
Paul Marlowe: I think that the exclusion is a natural outcome of the social dynamics of age, and the different roles of adults and children. Adults want to (and have an obligation to) protect children from danger, and so they don’t normally involve them in anything they think is perilous or beyond a child’s abilities. Children, picking up on the fact that something is being hidden from them, want to find out what it is, and part of growing up is learning about the limits of your own abilities – knowing when you can do something yourself, or when you should get an adult to help. Especially with older children on the brink of adulthood, they will test those limits, and sometimes step over them, with disastrous results at times. If they don’t explore those limits, though, they won’t grow or develop their own judgment.
We tend to get a lot of passive heroes in fiction these days (consider Harry “Tell me what stupid thing to do next, Professor Dumbledore” Potter, for example). I like to see heroes being active, making their own decisions and mistakes. Kids were probably more capable of acting independently in the Victorian era simply because they grew up being expected to do things, rather than to be passive consumers who get heart disease at sixteen because their parents are terrified to let them walk to school or play outdoors.
With teenagers, being ignored or dismissed can be very galling, particularly when they know something is wrong but no-one is doing anything about it. It’s a scenario where taking independent action is a logical alternative, since unlike the adults – who may rely on their experience, which tells them “that can’t be happening”, or “there’s nothing that can be done” – the teens, lacking experience, may find it easier to believe anything is possible. Which, I suppose, is one reason why generals send teenagers to charge machine-gun nests.
Spec Can:What mythologies of the werewolf do you draw on in your work?
Paul Marlowe: In these first two books the werewolfism is very much treated as something unusual, about which the werewolves don’t speak, so there isn’t a lot revealed about their origins or the explanation of how werewolfism works. I’m saving that for the third book, so… it’s a secret!
Spec Can: How do your werewolves differ from those of other authors?
Paul Marlowe: There are a few things that make them different from some werewolf stories. Firstly, they can’t transmit their condition by biting, but can pass it to their children. Secondly, the strain of werewolfism has been very diluted over the years through outbreeding with ordinary humans. Thirdly, and perhaps anachronistically – at least from the point of view of tradition – the silver that’s so dangerous in werewolf movies isn’t deadly to my werewolves, but instead is inebriating.
Spec Can: What does the werewolf symbolise for you?
Paul Marlowe: There are a variety of possible significances to werewolves, many of them contradicting each other. In Sporeville, the werewolves are not meant to be prescriptive of a specific symbol, though they do emphasize the gulf that exists between the DeLoup family and others in their town. They’re outsiders, they’re of another class, and they’re well educated. To go back to the question of Maritimerness, these things have, perhaps, a special significance in the Maritimes, where outsiders can be called “come-from-aways” (sometimes down to the nth generation), where there are long memories of whose family used to be important long ago, and where in small towns you’re likely to get along a lot better if your goal is to become a hockey player, as opposed to say, an intellectual.
The nature of the story also makes it possible to interpret Paisley’s werewolfism as a power to take action, a power that has long been considered embarrassing or worrying; one which can become desirable – even essential – given the right circumstances. The overcoming of one’s shame, or of one’s impulse to conform to the expectations of others, frees one’s abilities. In Knights of the Sea, Paisley saves Elliott’s life a couple of times as a wolf, whereas she might have hesitated or failed had she remained human, choosing not to draw upon the other side of herself.
Often the shedding of clothes and transformation into a wolf is considered symbolic of a forsaking of civilization for the brutal savageness of a beast. Admittedly, this unleashing of animal violence is one of Paisley’s concerns. (She also, not surprisingly, is not unaware of the undeniable aesthetic drawbacks of being a canid.) In the actions of the story, though, while there’s talk of “running amok”, Paisley never harms anyone innocent. What she actually does is prevent two terrible crimes from happening, which is compatible with either the view that she is a wolf protecting her pack or mate, or that she is a good Victorian, fulfilling a duty to defend the innocent, thwart evil, and uphold the law. The latter is something not always associated with Victorian ladies, but it’s worth remembering that special ladies’ pistols had been made since the flintlock era, and Paisley’s day was a time when suffrage and other questions were in the air, questions that would have been accompanied by the issue of pairing rights with duties and responsibilities. In the case of Knights of the Sea, disrobing also divests Paisley of the silver that had been acting as a kind of werewolf Valium, dulling both her anxieties and her perspicacity. Interpret that how you will, when it’s removed she sees what needs to be done and acts without dithering about the proprieties.
Spec Can: Is there something distinctive about the werewolves that Canadian authors create from those of other nationalities?
Paul Marlowe: You’re the werewolf specialist – I should be asking you! I haven’t surveyed the corpus of werewolfian Canadiana, but I suppose one of the most distinctive things would be the French Canadian loup garou tradition. While a lot of European supernatural elements can seem out of place in the New World, I guess the loup garou is an example of one that came with the colonists and settled in.
Spec Can: Your amazing sense of humour is clear from reading your work. How does humour help to support a good story? What can humour add to a story?
Paul Marlowe:Thanks! Usually I think of humour as anything but a prop or add-on. If it doesn’t rise naturally from the scenes and characters of the story, then it will seem forced. If it’s done well, then I think it brings a vividness and intensity to situations that would otherwise be flat. For example, a dinner might be tedious and commonplace, but if an absurd case of mistaken identity is making characters off-balance, then they can be propelled into doing things that are both entertaining and significant for the plot. Humour has a verbal side that comes from a delight in playing with words – flirting with language itself – that (to be dourly utilitarian) is more than fun. It’s a reminder that words have many shades of meaning, a lesson that leaves us in a wider mental world, one where we can communicate more effectively what we mean, where we can avoid misunderstanding others, and where we are better equipped to counter those who would paint the world in black and white, or who use language as a smokescreen, or a blunt instrument.
Spec Can: Can humour be used to say serious things?
Paul Marlowe: In George Orwell’s phrase, “every joke is a small revolution”. The difference, perhaps, between humour and other revolutions is that while every successful revolution becomes a new establishment and orthodoxy, humour is perennially revolutionary. That’s what makes it the most subversive art form. An aristocrat like Olivia might say “there is no slander in an allowed fool”; dictators, bullies, demagogues, commissars, the self-important and the self-righteous, though, never tolerate laughter at their expense, because they rule through fear, intimidation, authority, and shame, all of which melt before a good laugh. Orwell got himself hated by right and left alike due to his unwillingness to tolerate the evils of either his political opponents or of his own political allies. Humour, too, has no fixed political allegiance. It tends to take the side of truth and common sense over ideological dogmas, since all dogmas have a morbid seriousness about them that blinds adherents to their own self-serving viciousness and hypocrisy.
By showing us familiar things in their true absurdity, satire overcomes the habit of ignoring everyday foolishness, opening up an opportunity to change the world to make it saner. How often do we listen politely to a politician, academic, broadcaster, businessperson, or some modern-day Dogberry torturing language in order to say little or nothing in the most impenetrable and grotesque manner possible? At least when things like that crop up in literature you can freely laugh yourself sick over them, unless you’re reading on a bus.
So, humour can do a lot of serious things, from pricking wind-bags, to mocking pretensions, to debunking someone who wants to scare us into a war or a police state. Literary humour is usually carefully thought out, because of the importance of timing and the selection of exactly the right words; everyday humour is by contrast often an honest, spontaneous expression of an individual who sees the world as it really is, instead of how we’re supposed to see it. And it’s also good fun. As Walpole said, “The world is a comedy to those that think.”
Spec Can: Your werewolf character Paisley DeLoup seems to experience a lot of concerns about the interaction of her gender identity and her werewolf identity. She seems to view the werewolf as the fundamental opposite of everything a girl in the Victorian era should be. Could you tell us a bit more about this and the gender identity conflict that female werewolf characters often experience in literature?
Paul Marlowe: Particularly in Victorian society, being a werewolf is a serious faux pas for a girl. Expected to be mild and polite, with poise and elegance, turning into a monster that rips out throats might make many well bred ladies of one’s acquaintance think twice about stopping by for tea. Gentlemen would begin to look elsewhere for matrimonial prospects, and Society would tut-tut. Men would experience many similar difficulties, as is demonstrated in medieval tales where a werewolf’s wife leaves him when she discovers with horror his true nature, a point that is made in Knights of the Sea when the wife of Paisley’s werewolf tutor offers advice to Elliott, saying that when they were courting she assured her future husband that “whether he was a man or beast, whatever he was he was all she wanted.” That unconditional acceptance is what those who are different usually want.
Being a werewolf is really the opposite of what not only a young Victorian lady should be, but of what a young Victorian gentleman should be, too. If we think of a gentleman as someone whose emotions are under tight control, who is the epitome of civilization, who is respected by the community, who only fights honourably, with fair play, and who dresses impeccably, we can instantly see the difficulty presented by turning into a slavering carnivore. The main difference between the sexes in this regard is in the idiom in which the characters express their discomfort with the implications of their transformations, and characters will vary in the extent to which they allow themselves to be guided by the expectations of society. They look at those expectations and see different ways in which they fall short of the ideal for their sex. Not surprisingly, Paisley looks at it from a girl’s point of view. She feels that no-one who knows her werewolf side could feel amorously attracted to her, because women are meant to be more genteel (and not as hairy), and she suffers the universal fear that as a wolf she may hurt someone innocent. In the former concern, she’s not unlike many teenagers who fall in love with someone and, because of the low self-image they have for some reason, are unable to believe that their beloved could possibly requite the love. It’s something that both sexes encounter, just for different reasons because of there being different ideal images for the sexes. Leaving aside the use by some of werewolves to symbolize “masculine violence”, etc, it’s not in any way plausible to imagine that a typical man would be any more happy at the prospect of turning into a monster than a typical woman would be. Just ask Dr Jekyll.
Spec Can: What is it like to write about a female werewolf?
Paul Marlowe: It’s really very much like writing about any other character. Being able to empathise with another person (or animal) sufficiently to imaginatively enter their mind is one of the basic characteristics of humanity, and being able to do so with a variety of characters in a story is the sine qua non of a writer – at least, a writer of fiction – and is particularly important in SF writing, where a character may not even be human. It may be possible for someone to write television scripts, action plans, or speeches while having a total inability to imagine the mind of another – in fact, that often seems to be the case. But such a person tends to make me want to lock up the sharp objects when they’re around, because the inability to imagine another’s mind is something we associate with psychopaths.
Spec Can: A lot of your characters show an interest in their heritage and in discovering parts of their own past. What inspired this and how important is heritage and history for you?
Paul Marlowe: Our history is very significant and illuminating – the past is another dimension of reality that has to be understood if we are to truly understand the present. Particularly in a country like Canada, whose laws, institutions, and constitution are evolutionary rather than the product of a revolution that can be pinned down to a certain moment, it’s essential to learn history.
It’s important to remember, too, that we are not our heritage, and that our families’ pasts are not the same as our own pasts. Honour and culpability are attributes of individuals. We’re here because of our ancestors, but we are not better people because an ancestor did something remarkable, nor are we worse people because an ancestor committed an atrocity. Most of us are likely to have a few heroes and monsters in our family trees. To know a little about them grounds us in history, and puts our own lives in a thought-provoking perspective. It tells us that the world was not always as it is, and perhaps too is a reminder of how precarious a thread of cause and effect led to our own existence, and the existence of the world we know.
Spec Can: Your work shows an interest in political concerns and social ideologies. What role do you see Canadian Speculative Fiction having for critiquing politics and social ideologies?
Paul Marlowe: There was a time when it was considered normal to imagine the future of Canada, and to work towards building that future. Now, with it more important than ever to imagine alternative futures, we avoid it, because taking the future seriously would require making drastic changes right now in the lifestyle of affluence and luxury we enjoy, and would require terrible sacrifices – like driving our cars less, or not taking that flight to Florida. We’ve grown used to thinking of sacrifice as someone else’s job.
Speculative fiction has as one of its goals the imagination of alternative futures. It also reconsiders the past. Not infrequently it raises big questions. By sidelining it, and focusing exclusively on fiction dealing either with the present and the narrowly personal, or resuscitating yesterday’s controversies, we’re avoiding some of the major problems – like global warming, population, distribution of wealth, mass extinction, the ethics of technology, the role of government in pursuing the common good, the increasing alienation of people from their own governments, the individual vs the group, and threats to individual privacy – that will dominate history in the coming generations. While speculative fiction doesn’t exist simply to prophesy or to provide political stimulus, it offers the opportunity for those kinds of explorations.
Because stories are about individuals, not generalities, and because only individuals experience pain, pleasure, hope, and disappointment, stories can examine and critique society in ways that statistics can’t. By looking past immediate present experience at possible worlds, good SF can offer what is so needed but so little found: intelligent thought about the world beyond our own little rut. The problem it faces is whether anyone is interested in hearing what SF writers have to say, and whether – in the welter of distraction that we’re immersed in – stories make any real difference. It’s said that by twelve the average child will have seen eight thousand murders on TV. How many times have we watched the world end (or nearly end) on Doctor Who alone? Clearly, if SF is to have an influence not only on where Canada is heading, but on where humanity is heading, it will have to do something other than shock us will apocalyptic visions, since those have become entertainment. It will have to make us think.
If I can depart from the standards of civil debate for a moment, I would suggest that in a country where anti-intellectualism is on the rise – where anyone interested in technology or SF is branded a geek, and where a political leader such as Stéphane Dion can be discredited amongst the public by being called “professor” by that weird gang of mediocrities, cranks, embarrassing amateurs, control-freaks, spin-doctors, and corporate sock-puppets comprising the Government – the question facing Canadian SF is: how many of us want to think?
Spec Can: Is there anything further you would be interested in sharing with our readers?
Paul Marlowe: As the author of Knights of the Sea: A Grim Tale of Murder, Politics, and Spoon Addiction, I would like to add the following: just say “no” to spoons, boys and girls. I know you may pick up a sterling silver teaspoon and think “I’m only stirring my tea with it. I can take it or leave it. It’s just a social thing… everyone is using teaspoons…” but then it’s two spoons, then six, and before you know it, you’ve got dozens of the things. Stop now, before it’s too late for you. Thank you. Oh, and the trick to getting the milk mixed in without a spoon is to add the milk first, then add the tea.
I want to thank Mr. Marlowe for taking the time to do an interview and for his incredible insights. You can explore more about Mr. Marlowe and read some of his notes about The Wellborn Conspiracy novels at http://www.paulmarlowe.com .