Conversations About Wolves: Suzy McKee Charnas

While conducting research for my forthcoming monograph on Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, I had the pleasure of conversing with science-fiction and fantasy author Suzy McKee Charnas. Back in the late eighties Suzy wrote an award-winning short story called ‘Boobs’, which not only shares strong affinities with The Company of Wolves, but also preceded the thematically similar Ginger Snaps (2000) by over a decade. Like these titles, ‘Boobs’ connects the ambivalent figure of the adolescent girl, fluctuating between childhood and adulthood, with the figure of the werewolf, which fluctuates between human and beast, and draws parallels between menstruation, developing sexual identity and desire, and the unleashing of something wild. It tells of Kelsey, a shy and lonely teenager whose menarche coincides with her transformation into a wolf. She uses her new-found power and abilities to take revenge on a bully who has made her life a living hell and whose cruel nickname for Kelsey, due to her developing body, is the title of the story.

Via email, Suzy and I chatted about her short story, socially constructed gender roles, the paralleling of adolescent and lycanthropic transformation, and the use of the werewolf in tales of female empowerment. Much of what we discussed found its way into chapter 6 of my monograph - which explores the figure of the female werewolf and her increasing presence in tales of (women's) empowerment – but I wanted to share some of Suzy’s other thoughts that didn’t make it into the final draft of the book due to the limitations of a pesky word-count. You can read her thoughts below...

On the genesis of her short story: I’d been reading about bullying in schools, and it reminded me of some experiences of my own back in my own school days. We now understand (I think) that bullying is a form of violence, and women at every age still have to try to figure out how to deal with the kinds of violence routinely directed at them (often by other women as well, but that wasn’t so much on my mind at the time). The idea of simply reversing the physical strength dynamic really appealed to me, so that’s what I wrote about.

On the paralleling of lycanthropy and adolescence: The whole werewolf thing is grounded in our ideas about civilization vs. wildness — the human and the Beast, and how people can slip from one state to the other and back again, particularly in group situations where mob fears and emotions sway people (and, conversely when no one else is watching, so a person is tempted to step over that line to see what it feels like, or for the thrill of the forbidden). More specifically, though, the werewolf concept is strongly grounded in our idea of wildness, which is one of becoming totally absorbed in the present, in our own immediate appetites and desires, which of course includes sexual desires. Since adolescence is so powerfully infused with sexual impulses (or worries about not having sexual impulses, or having the wrong ones), that’s a powerful connection to the idea of the wolf-side of the personality, the raw Id freed from human convention and morality.

Suzy McKee Charnas
In fact, animals are anything *but* Id; their lives are very closely bounded by the stringent demands of doing what their environments require, or dying by making a mistake. But we’re talking here about how humans make use of animals by creating abstractions of them shaped not by observation of the animal as it is, but in an imagined idea of an animal mind-set as being just like our own, only less ruled by morals, ethics, etc. Adolescents are attracted to what looks like more freedom from needing to make choices all the time, with lots of factors to consider. The wolf appears to lead a very simple life of selfish gratification (self-serving nonsense, but that’s our way). Americans are still stuck on the nonsense idea of the “lone wolf” as a predator too powerful to need a pack; in fact, a lone wolf in nature is a sick wolf, a wolf too old or ill or injured to keep up, to feed itself, to survive even if other members of the pack try to share food with it. But with people, fantasy rules if it serves our own longings.

On ideas of werewolves and gender relations: The werewolf idea is appealing because it seems to simplify everything that people have to deal with. Sex? Depends on where you stand in the pack hierarchy and who’s in estrus at the moment. Fitting in? Just live by the rules of the immediate group, which are an imaginative version of “pack” rules, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, handsome or ugly. Sex is central — no disguises or flattering complications. It’s an abstract idea of how many men think they would *like* things to be (with themselves as bigger and stronger than anybody else, of course, how-ever dorkish they may be in reality); some females, too (just pick your guy, give him a whiff, and he can’t help but run after you). A lot of this fantasy is based on the behavior of domestic dogs (which are *not* wolves) or artificial packs of unrelated wolves thrown together by humans.

On Kelsey embracing her newfound power: Well, that was the whole point of the story, really. Let me put it this way: I had an argument with a boy while waiting for the school bus one day in, oh, maybe fourth grade: the burning question was who was better, Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. He yelled me down and turned his back on me. I lost my temper and punched him in the shoulder. He socked me in the face. I went home with a broken, bloody nose. My mom said, “You have to learn: don’t fight with boys. They’re stronger, and you’ll never win — you’ll just get hurt.” I wanted to become stronger than them, faster, and more dangerous, so I could hit back effectively and make them think twice about hitting someone smaller and weaker than they were. Kelsey becomes a wolf to do that, and of *course* it feels good! It’s not complicated. She could have done the same to a girl bully who attacked her, but being strong enough to overcome the muscular differences between average boys and average girls was the important point: to hit back and *make it hurt*. To win over your own body’s hormonal treachery — who *wouldn’t* celebrate that?

Adolescent anxiety in The Company of Wolves...

Hormonal treachery and teen angst in Ginger Snaps...

On reader sympathy for Kelsey and her plight:
I just wanted to put the reader inside Kelsey’s feelings and perceptions, where the resentment of unfairness burns bright and hot, not smothered by “nice girl” behavior. I heard from a number of male readers who said that they’d been tormented in school for physical shortcomings, and I’m delighted that the story “works” for others than female readers (I wanted badly to see it published in Playboy, where the people who *need* to read it would find it; no luck, of course, since men are not titillated by seeing the other side of their own crappiest behavior through the eyes of a victim — especially one who hits back, and wins). Interestingly, the negative blow-back that I did get about Kelsey came on two fronts: one was objections that the violence was too extreme and too graphic (for a girl in a story about a girl, a qualification implicit or explicit in the criticism). The other was from people outraged by what happened to the dog.

'Boobs' appears in many werewolf anthologies
On the fairy tale aspects of ‘Boobs’
: This is something that happens a lot with my fiction, whether I plan it that way or not. I read a great deal of folk and fairy tales, and mythology, as a young person. It soaks into your brain. I did some deliberate things, intentional subversions of the folk tropes: the stepmother, for example, isn’t “wicked" — she’s realistic, and trying to help. Kelsey herself doesn’t know anything about werewolves except what she’s seen in horror movies, and she’s glad to throw herself into the sensory rewards of her new body rather than hiding in her room and being scared and worried about hurting people. She’s found power and she dares to use it, which goes against stories like being the girl who spins straw into gold, so she’s exploited by greedy people and bullied by a goblin.

I’ve done a story about the Phantom of the Opera and his unwilling "girlfriend” Christine, treating the original like the demeaning rubbish that it is, and only later realized that in fact that story is at the heart of so many myths and folk tales, not to mention modern romance novels etc. So this sort of re-visioning old tales comes naturally to me, and I tend to do it even when I’m not trying to. There’s a good deal of modern fiction, most of it by women authors, that picks up fairy tale tropes and kicks the stuffing out of them to see what’s in there besides rules to tame and control girls. Angela Carter famously worked this material, but there are many others. Even the familiar Disney B.S. about princesses and mermaids etc. gets challenged now. Some of the female “superheroes” of comics and TV series are attempts to turn misogynistic fairy tales on their heads, and youth culture seems ready to embrace that, I’m glad to say.

On The Company of Wolves and Ginger Snaps: I saw them much too long ago to remember them in detail. I was angry about Ginger Snaps because some time earlier, I’d had interest from people about making an Indie short film of 'Boobs', but the person I entrusted negotiations to turned out to be a blowhard phony who just forgot about it, and the film people gave up. I wuz robbed of my chance (mostly by my own poor judgment, of course, but hey — it could have been the break that story needed). That soured me on the movie [Ginger Snaps], though I think when I did get around to seeing the whole thing, I thought it was pretty good.

Check out Suzy's website here, and stay tuned for more news about my forthcoming monograph on The Company of Wolves.


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