A Pale Rider Approaches: Interview with Caitlin R. Kiernan

Caitlin R. Kiernan on Alabaster: Wolves

By , Columnist

The first issue of Kiernan's new mini boasts two covers, a readily available standard edition featuring the work of Greg Ruth, above. The rarer variant version by Michael Oeming appears below.

You never forget your first time.

Your first encounter with the work of Caitlin R. Kiernan, that is.

No surprise there, given her gift for weaving realities both soul-wracking and rapturous out of a handful of well chosen words. Her worlds are peopled by deftly rendered, often difficult characters striving to survive their own personal encounter with the ineffable, the inexplicable, or their own perfectly rendered vision of terrible beauty. And Kiernan makes you love them and their stories all the more for their awful mistakes and fragile humanity.

Now, for the very first time, Kiernan has teamed with veteran comic artist Steve Lieber and Dark Horse Comics to bring Dancy Flammarion, perhaps her most beloved character, to life on the page in a whole new way. Even better, this new miniseries will reveal a previously untold tale of Dancy’s ongoing quest as a killer of the monstrous and demonic.

I recently caught up with Caitlin to talk about her reasons for doing this particular project, how it feels to return to the comics medium after a rather lengthy period away, and her creative process among other topics. As always, her thoughtful answers make for an enlightening and entertaining read.

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For the benefit of those unfamiliar with her, who is Dancy Flammarion, and how would you describe her world?

Dancy is an albino teenager whose believes she’s been set on a sort of holy crusade. A holy crusade in her eyes, to destroy creatures she’s been convinced are evil, or that she sincerely believes are evil, haunting the darkest corners of the Deep South. Whether she is or not, she sees herself as the avenging hand of the Christian god. That said, I think it would be easy for a lot of people to draw wrong conclusions about Dancy. She’s driven. There’s an odd sense of innocence and worldliness about her, and a growing resentment that her life has become this terrible path she never wanted to be set on.

You know, it’s quickly apparent even in the prequel to Wolves: Alabaster in Dark Horse Presents #9 that Dancy is a character with a fair amount of not only baggage, but also a lot of history for someone so young. Will you be exploring that past much in the series, and just how much of that back story do really readers need to know to fully enjoy the new book?

I’m trying to create a book where a reader can come in with no need for back story. Yeah, it begins long after Dancy has set out on this path. She’s already been changed, shaped, by the events of her life. But, through the issues, the readers are shown a lot of what’s gone before, how she became who she is, just how she accumulated all that baggage. I want the reader to learn that, but I wasn’t about to begin with some sort of origin tale.

So, no. I don’t think the readers will find they need to know anything that’s in the prose short stories or my novel Threshold, where Dancy made her first appearance. Also, this is a sort of reboot for the character. This is an older, more weary Dancy than readers have seen before. It’s an alternate Dancy. I did the same thing when I wrote the short stories, changing her just a bit from the Dancy of the novel. Her, we get her slightly reworked yet again. She’s still Dancy, but she’s walking a different road, towards a different fate.

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So how did the book end up at Dark Horse, and who are some of the people who were involved in making this happen?

I went to Dark Horse after a meeting with my editor, Rachel Edidin. I was Guest of Honor at the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, and I had a meeting with Rachel. She wanted me to work for Dark Horse, and I’m a long time fan of their books. So, Rachel is the person who set the ball rolling, and then there was an enormous amount of support from Mike Richardson. Oh, and Jemiah Jefferson, my assistant editor, and Aub Driver, Dark Horse’s publicity coordinator, without whom none of these interviews would be happening.

Well, why bring Dancy and company to comics now? Is this all down to luck, the current resurgence of comics in pop culture generally, or is there something about the kind of life she leads that makes comics a particularly appropriate medium for presenting her adventures?

A very big part of my finally going back to comics was Dark Horse offering me a creator-owned deal. It’s never been a secret how unhappy I was back when I was doing The Dreaming for Vertigo. It was all work-for-hire. It was damaged goods by the time I got the title, and I was expected to make everything right. Readers mostly seemed to want The Sandman: The Next Generation, and they weren’t happy when I gave them something else entirely. But yeah, I think there was a lot of luck here. That I just happened to be in Portland and Rachel just happened to be a fan of my work. A whole lot of luck. People often do not realize how much of being an author comes down to luck. And Rachel and I both want to see many more strong female protagonists in comics.

So, with Alabaster I’ve set out to write that sort of character. But, at the same time, I want a character that appeals equally to guys. So, it becomes this endeavor to close a sort of gender gap in comics. Is Dancy especially suited to this medium? I think so. I’ve always thought so. She’s a sort of anti-Buffy. And I say that as a Buffy fan. But here’s the monster slayer with no superpowers, hounded either by a seraph or possibly insanity, and every time she goes up against the demons, she’s on her own. Defeat or victory is something determined by her own inherent strengths and weaknesses.

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One of the really interesting aspects of this character, which you’ve alluded to already, is her belief that she’s being guided by an angel. So, is she blessed, cursed, insane or a bit of all three?

It’s a problem that’s going to be explored in the book. A lot. It lies at the center of much of the book. Especially the fact that she’s begun to doubt everything. But it’s also something I intend to leave up to the reader to decide. As I have often said, one good mystery is worth a thousand solutions. Hell, I might not even know the answer to this question. At least not yet. So, let’s wait and see.

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Given your fairly well-known antipathy for many organized religions, I was wondering if working with this character offered you any unique challenges—or opportunities—as a writer?

I was raised with this very strange mix of Catholicism and Methodism, with dashes of Southern Baptist and Pentecostal Christianity thrown in for good measure. Mom was a Catholic, my stepfather was a Protestant. But, also on my mother’s side of the family, I had an uncle who was a snake-handling faith healer who spoke in tongues. My religious upbringing — and I was raised a Christian, and I was faithful back then — it was a syncretic hodgepodge. Then, when I was in high school, I found myself drifting away from all this.

By the time I was in college, I was a pretty devout atheist, and religion became this thing I studied through the lens of The Golden Bough, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell. And then, about nine years ago, I found myself becoming increasingly interested in neo-paganism, Wicca, Hermeticism, Thelema, Aleister Crowley, etc. But, then…well, I don’t believe in the supernatural or magick in any traditional sense. I could never get past my rationalism or my training as a scientist, whether or not I wanted to. So, these belief systems are just other ways I can look at the world. Perspectives.

But, blah, blah, blah, getting back to Dancy, writing her I went back to that fusion of Catholicism and Protestantism and the wild energy of the Pentecostals. She’s walking all three paths at once. But she’s very Old Testament. Her god, if he exists, is angry and vengeful and not terribly interested in redemption. Yes, it’s very weird going back there and writing her, going that far back into the beliefs of my childhood. And I don’t want readers to think that the path that Dancy is walking is anything like my path. It’s not. Don’t confuse the author and the fiction.

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I know you often do a fair amount of research before you really begin writing your novels and short stories. Well, how much research has this series demanded of you so far?

With the Dancy, there’s a lot less research on my part than there is for Steve Lieber. This is the world I grew up in, that kudzu-draped Southern landscape, all the tiny towns and back roads and tumbledown churches and what have you. I know that world. It’s second nature. For Alabaster: Wolves, I honestly can’t think of any research I’ve had to do, except I needed a Welsh name, and I had to find just the right one. And not knowing anything about Welsh, that was a little work. But not much. One reason I’m enjoying writing the book is because I know her world. I can just sit down and tell the stories without having to do all that research I normally do.

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While you’ve done a fair amount of comic work in the past, unless I’m greatly mistaken, it’s been a while since you last did any work in the field. So, how easy was it to get back into writing for that particular medium? Was it like riding the proverbial bike, or did it take a little while to find your balance, so to speak?

The last time I did comics work, work that came to fruition, was the Bast mini-series, Bast: Eternity Game, and I wrote that in 2002. So, yeah. Ten years ago. In the intervening years, there were talks with Vertigo about other projects, one called The Chain and another called Bullet Girl. But neither happened, because the editors and I could never see eye-to-eye, and I felt myself getting sucked back into the same morass I’d escaped when The Dreaming ended, the same problems that made such a mess of the Bast book. Oh, and I actually had a deal in place with Marvel to do an alternate-universe steampunk X-Men book. That was in 2005. My pay rate had even been approved. But then my editor lost her job at Marvel, and the book was immediately shelved, dropped, whatever.

But was it hard to return to the medium? Just a little. Not as much as I expected, but enough that it can be frustrating. Mostly, I’m having to learn to trust the artists. I find myself repeating stuff in the text that readers will see in the artwork, and I have to go back and cut. The biggest difference between my prose work and comics work is that in prose I do not write in drafts. Lots of people don’t believe that. But the book you buy or the short story you read, that’s essentially a “first draft.” However, in comics, there’s no getting it perfect the first time. I don’t have to rewrite the scripts, but there is constant fine tuning, tossing out dialogue, adding new dialogue, figuring out fight choreography that can’t be figured out until Steve starts drawing.

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Could you give us a brief description of your writing process? And do you still generally work without an outline, or do the demands of the monthly comics format, including such things as the predetermined page count, dictate a more structured approach?

I don’t do outlines. Or, rather, I almost never do outlines. With the novels, my publisher usually wants a synopsis. “At least tell me the broad strokes of the story. The bare bones of the plot.” That sort of thing. So, I write something, a paragraph or two, but almost always the book I write, it looks almost nothing like that proposal. Stories happen as I write them. I can’t tell an editor what happens in a story because it hasn’t happened yet. It only happens as I write it. This is one of my few mantras as an author.

Now, with comics, it’s a different story, in that I am working with a strict page count and so forth. But I still find myself deviating from the outline, going off in unexpected territories. I’ll email Rachel and say, “You know what the outline said, well that’s not what happens. This happens instead.” So far, she’s always been cool with those changes. To quote one of my favorite fantasy writers, Kelly Link, “Stories shift their shape.” And they do that as you’re telling them, and if you try to force them not to shift their shape, you destroy them.

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You’re working with Steve Lieber as the artist on the series. What about his work makes him the right artist to bring Dancy to life in comics?

He’s very responsive. That’s a big part of it. It was a little rocky at first, because I think we had to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We auditioned several artists, but Steve’s the one who nailed Dancy and her environment. In the beginning, he said, “If you could cast a dream Dancy, the perfect actress for Dancy, who would it be.” I said, “Elle Fanning.” And we went from there. Also, there’s a wonderful dynamic in Steve’s work, and he’s versatile. For example, fight scenes are obviously very important to this book, but so are the lulls in between, the constant quiet-before-the storm moments, and he gets both right.

What do you hope readers get from your work, be it Alabaster: Wolves, or your other writing?

Well, with Alabaster, I hope they get a kick-ass book they love. I hope they fall in love with Dancy, and are always dying to know what happens next. But, with my writing overall? That’s a much more complicated question. I want to convey a sense of the weird, an other-worldliness that pulls readers into the books and that they have a hard time shaking off. I want to show them alien minds, outsider personalities, alternate sexualities, the minds of the mentally ill, and I want readers to be sympathetic to these people and beings who are different from them. I’m trying to expand mental and moral horizons.

I also want readers who are themselves outsiders to find comfort, to be able to say, “Hey, it’s not just me.” That part is very, very important to me. In the end, I want to write the best books I can possibly write, and I push myself as hard as I have to make that happen. Otherwise, what’s the point? A paycheck? Paychecks are nice, sure. I don’t want to end up living in a cardboard box at the corner of No and Where, but that can’t be the only reason I’m in this, or I’ll just churn out crap. There’s already enough crap on the shelves without me adding to it.

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Anything else you’d like to add before I let you get back to it?

Stepping away from comics, my next novel — and by far my best novel — The Drowning Girl, was released on March 6. In May, my latest short story collection, Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, will be out. And I just made a deal with Penguin, a three-book deal for a series of books beginning with Blood Oranges. It was pitched as “What if Robert Rodriquez directed a spoof of what urban fantasy has become, from a script written by Quentin Tarantino and Joss Whedon.” I wrote the first book last August, and it was a lot of fun. I rarely have fun writing. Blood Oranges is the first time I’ve really tried to do humor, and I’m very happy with the results.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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