An Interview with Kelley Armstrong by Derek Newman-Stille
Photo of Kelley Armstrong (centre) with Ellen Bentzen (left) and Derek Newman-Stille (right) at a lecture at Peter Gzowski College, Trent University.
Kelley Armstrong was the first Canadian author of the fantastic that I found and enjoyed. A few years ago, I was able to have Ms. Armstrong visit Trent University to be an author in residence for Trent’s Champlain College and Gzowski College. It was an incredible experience for our students and an amazing experience for myself. I want to thank her for this opportunity to do an interview.
Kelley Armstrong is the author of the Otherworld series and the Nadia Stafford Series.
Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to begin the interview?
Kelley Armstrong: I’m the author of the “Women of the Otherworld” paranormal suspense series and “Darkest Powers/Darkness Rising” young adult urban fantasy series, as well as the Nadia Stafford crime series. I grew up in Southwestern Ontario and I still live there with my family.
Spec Can: One of the things that really impresses me about your work is your ability to get into the psychology of the monster and really understand what feelings and hopes they have. Do you feel that your background in psychology helps you to explore the minds of your characters?
Kelley Armstrong: I like to think it helps me with character development. If I want a character to turn out a certain way, I can come up with a back-story to explain her personality. Likewise I can start with a life experience and decide how it could affect a character.
Spec Can: What aspects of your Canadian identity have influenced your authorship?
Kelley Armstrong: It makes it easier to do Canadian characters and settings [smiles] On the other hand, it makes it harder to do American ones, and that’s where a lot of my stories are set, for the simple fact that I can have a larger cast of supernaturals that way—it’s easier to speculate that so many supernatural beings go unnoticed if the population is much larger. Beyond that, I don’t feel it’s had much impact on my opportunities as an author or how I’m treated.
Spec Can: What is different about Canadian stories of the supernatural from those of other nations?
Kelley Armstrong: There are differences in the markets. What is a bestseller in the US will not necessarily be a bestseller in Britain. That’s the same for all geographic areas—Canada also has differences from both. The literature produced in our country reflects the differences in regional taste. I’m not sure it affects the supernatural aspects of the story as much as the general ones—the tone, the themes etc.
Spec Can: What teaching role can speculative fiction have?
Kelley Armstrong: Speculative fiction helps expand the world of possibilities. Readers—and students—see new possibilities for new ways of thinking and living. The fact that it takes place in a fantastical world often makes it easier to consider those challenges and issues, divorced from the emotional baggage of a reader’s own world or experience. For example, science fiction novels often include elements of racism—how does one alien race treat another—and that allows readers to consider the issues in an abstract way and then transfer those ideas over to the realm of their own world and experience.
Spec Can: What challenges and opportunities did you have when beginning to expand your writing interests into YA / Teen Fiction?
Kelley Armstrong: I’d had an idea for a YA novel for a while (arising from the plot of Stolen) But I didn’t feel ready to tackle a teen narrator until my own daughter was old enough to help me with establishing the voice. Few things are uglier in YA than getting the point of view of a “teen” from an author who obviously hasn’t been a teen in a very long time! That was the biggest challenge. The biggest opportunity was the chance to write for a whole different market, which included my own children.
Spec Can: What were the key differences in writing characters for YA than for adult fiction?
Kelley Armstrong: While I cover a lot of narrator ages in my adult series, teens are much different. There’s the dialogue of course—making the characters sound like teens. But when I’m writing adults, whether they’re 25 or 45, they’re dealing with a similar set of issues (jobs, finances, marriage & children). Teens are at a different place in their lives, and the characters need to reflect that. They also have a limited set of tools for dealing with problems. If I have an adult character on the run, they can empty their bank accounts, get fake ID, hop on a plane and rent a hiding place. Fifteen-year-olds can’t.
Spec Can: What drew you to write about the supernatural?
Kelley Armstrong: I’ve been fascinated by the paranormal since I was a child. I blame it on too many Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo. By now, I have no idea why I’m so attracted to it—I just know that I love writing in this genre.
Spec Can: What myths of the monstrous and magical do you draw on when you write?
Kelley Armstrong: I cherry-pick from as much existing folklore as I can find, to create creatures that best suits my vision, always looking at which traits would make the most logical sense if such creatures really did exist undetected in contemporary society.
Spec Can: What is distinct or different about the supernatural characters you create?
Kelley Armstrong: Nothing is uniquely my own. Where I deviate from the more common myth (like needing silver bullets to kill werewolves) I make those decisions based on what I consider most plausible. If werewolves needed silver bullets to die, what happens when they’re involved in what should be life-ending situations, like being run over by a transport truck? Do they just get up and walk away? Wouldn’t someone notice? For me, in the world I created, it made more sense if they could be killed by any means a human can be killed. But there’s plenty of folklore where werewolves can be killed by any means, so I’m not distinct there. I’m just selecting a less common trait.
Spec Can: What werewolf myths do you create and how are they different than the werewolves of other authors?
Kelley Armstrong: The most common werewolf in the twentieth century was the “man-killing beast,” some guy who changes into an ape-like or bear-like creature every full moon and ravages the countryside killing everything in sight. That’s scary, as monsters go, but it doesn’t really explain why such a creature is a werewolf. Wolves avoid humans. Wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. I chose the portrayal that re-asserted the “wolf” in “werewolf.” Variations on it have been done many times, so it’s nothing new.
Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian supernatural fiction is heading from here?
Kelley Armstrong: I don’t think it’s heading anywhere different than supernatural fiction in general, which is beginning a downswing. It will never go away completely, but the market will be smaller.
Spec Can: What is the role of “Otherness” and the figure of the outsider in your work?
Kelley Armstrong: Well, the series is called “The Otherworld.” [Smiles] That’s a common term for a supernatural subculture within a contemporary society. It emphasizes the otherness of the people there. They form their own culture, based on that which makes them different from others.
Spec Can: What is the role of gender in your Otherworld series?
Kelley Armstrong: My goal is to let it play as small a role as possible. Of course characters are male or female, and shaped by that, but otherwise, as characters, they are equal—just as likely to be strong or weak, good or bad, intelligent and capable… or not.
Spec Can: Your character Elena is the only female werewolf in the world of the Otherworld. What significance was there in creating a single female werewolf? What issues did you want to explore by focusing on her femininity?
Kelley Armstrong: In a lot of the folklore, werewolves are male. This seems to arise from the use of werewolves to explain brutal behavior by people—they did it because they’re really part beast. Women represent a small percentage of serial killers and mass murderers (and, if they are responsible for multiple deaths, they usually use less bloody methods, like poisoning). So most werewolves in folklore are male. That made it easy for me to postulate a male-line genetic basis for it, and therefore have a single female, then explore what it would be like to be a woman in that very male-dominated world.
Spec Can: What is the role of characters hiding themselves and ‘passing’ as human?
Kelley Armstrong: My characters struggle with the same problems as everyone else–family, romance, career, friends. While it’s fun to create a vampire rock star, it takes a fantastical being and puts him in a “fantasy” lifestyle. Readers can relate better to supernaturals who are programmers, lawyers, journalists, professors etc. It’s also possible to create a world where everyone knows about the supernaturals, but that opened up problems and scenarios that didn’t really interest me. I was more interested in the identity issue of hiding one’s true self rather than the issues of fitting into society when you are openly different.
Spec Can: Even though your characters are supernatural, they reveal a lot about the natural and the human experience. What is the role of the supernatural for revealing things about human beings and society?
Kelley Armstrong: The supernatural can be a way of showing people dealing with issues in a larger-than-life fashion. I often have issues of identity in mine—finding one’s true self, accepting the self, finding one’s place in society. Having a character deal with being, for example, a werewolf lets me do that in a fun and entertaining way.
Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places that you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?
Kelley Armstrong: I’ve had several characters that didn’t turn out the way I envisioned them in the plotting stage, usually minor characters. One was Zoe, the vampire thief in Broken. I’d originally pictured her as a possible romantic interest for my bachelor werewolf, Nick. Their personalities would have gone well together. Except that once she came alive on the page, she was a lesbian…which was a bit of an obstacle to my matchmaking plans [Smiles]
Spec Can: What is the role of race and ethnicity in your work?
Kelley Armstrong: My work is more concerned with supernatural race—how does being a witch or a sorcerer impact your life, how do you deal with those prejudices and expectations. Otherwise, it’s like sexuality. The characters are what they are, as they appear to me when I create them. They aren’t homogenously white and heterosexual, but I’m not checking off boxes either, to make sure I’m accurately representing modern society. In these books, it’s the supernatural type representation that’s more important for the stories I’m telling.
Spec Can: What is the virtue of creating characters outside of the mainstream?
Kelley Armstrong: They’re more interesting! [Smiles] You can explore different types of situations and explore them in unique ways. Of course, it’s also interesting to take a mainstream character and put them into those “outside of mainstream” situations, but I’ve found that my readership responds better to the outsiders.
Spec Can: What do you hope your readers will take away from reading your novels?
Kelley Armstrong: I hope they enjoyed it. That’s really all any writer can hope for—that a book did what it was supposed to and entertained them.
Spec Can: Several of your characters express a desire to learn about themselves and the feeling of not belonging. What makes characters who feel that they don’t belong so interesting?
Kelley Armstrong: I think it’s an issue that many readers deal with themselves. Most people feel that they are different from the mainstream in some way, which I think just means that mainstream is a far more narrow category than mass media would have us believe. Even the simple act of fiction reading isn’t often depicted in mainstream media—how often do characters seem to sit down with a book. Even if they do, it’s usually literary or “book club” not genre.
Spec Can: Your book Bitten has been picked up as a television series. How involved will you be in the writing process?
Kelley Armstrong: They’ve been keeping me informed and asking my opinion on various matters, but I’m well aware that this is their version of my story rather than a televised copy of it.
Spec Can: What makes supernatural characters so interesting to today’s audience?
Kelley Armstrong: They allow us to stretch our imaginations and ask “what if” beyond our normal reality–what if we could change into wolves, what if we could speak to the dead? With supernatural fiction, it’s less of a stretch than traditional fantasy because we’re dealing with concepts most of us already understand (werewolves, vampires, ghosts)
Spec Can: What is the most challenging thing about writing the supernatural?
Kelley Armstrong: I used to say the world-building, because that’s a huge part of the work. It’s fun, but it is a challenge. Now, though, I’d say that an equally big challenge is standing out in a crowded market. In a way, that’s tougher. With world-building, I’m in control. I just need to do the work. I can’t control the market, though.
Spec Can: What was it like to be an author in residence at Trent University? Is there anything that you want to share about the experience with other authors?
Kelley Armstrong: I loved it! I always enjoy the chance to speak to young writers, and this was the
Photo of Kelley Armstrong with Jess Grover at Trent University’s Alumni House.
perfect opportunity. Everyone was wonderful and eager to learn, and that made it a very positive experience that I won’t forget.
Spec Can: What new projects are you currently working on? What new and exiting things should we be looking for from you over the next few years?
Kelley Armstrong: I’ve sold a new adult trilogy that has some supernatural elements, but is more mystery. The first book, Omens, comes out in October 2013. I’m also trying my hand at middle grade, having just sold a Norse-myth-based trilogy that’ll be co-written with Melissa Marr. Both will start in 2013.
You can find out more about Kelley Armstrong at her website http://www.kelleyarmstrong.com/ . You can read some of her free online fiction at http://www.kelleyarmstrong.com/free-online-fiction/
I want to thank Kelley Armstrong for taking the time to do this interview and for letting readers know about her current projects. It has been a pleasure to talk to her again.