The Big Idea: Caitlin Kittredge
I wish I could tell you something about Night Life, the dark fantasy novel by Caitlin Kittredge, but I can’t, because I haven’t read it. And the reason I haven’t read it is that when it came in, my wife looked at it, thought it looked interesting, and took it. And since then she’s entirely consumed by it — reading it pretty much at every available opportunity. At one point I tried to approach the book to take a look at it, and she snarled at me. And so I had to back away slowly, palms up. Okay, I made up that last part. But on the other hand Krissy is really digging this book, and I don’t think it would be wise for me to try to take it from her.
As for me, I think the book has werewolves in it. At least, I think that’s what it says on the back cover, which I have read, from a distance. I think I’ll shut up now and let Ms. Kittredge talk about her book.
My mother—an ex-hippie who protested the draft in Washington when she was my age—always taught me not to take any crap. More importantly, she told me that if I saw someone else getting hassled for who or what they were, I should lend my support, or at least draw attention to the fact.
So it’s probably no shock that when I grew up and started writing novels, the thing I included, which I’d found missing in a lot of urban fantasy I’d read up until that point—was how, exactly, all of those disparate groups of supernatural and human creatures fit together, what the friction of rubbing the Other against the Normal exploded into.
Now, the idea of prejudice against fantastical creatures in a fantastical world isn’t the core of my book, but it’s the thing that informs my heroine, Luna, the most. She gets the double whammy—she’s a woman who works as a homicide detective (and not in one of those departments where you get shipped off to sensitivity training, either) and she’s a werewolf in a world full of humans. Humans, as a rule, don’t care for creatures that can tear their faces off once a month. And the humans can be real dicks about it.
First, I thought about the mechanics of prejudice—the fear and the insular communities and the resentment and anger and the plain ignorance that lead to a climate of hatred. I examined both sides in the novel—I had Luna, the victim of a lot of human attitudes towards shapeshifters, up to and including physical assault, and the other side, the male human cop who embodies most of the more visible traits of the prejudice.
Honestly, when I started, it came off sort of cartoony. I wondered if I wouldn’t be better trying to write a happily integrated world than struggle with this issue of backlash against the Other and the climate of mistrust it spawned, a climate that made the main thrust of my plot possible. No, I decided. I was gonna push through it. I was going to write the ugly side of what a community of supernatural creatures suddenly exposed to the norms would look like. Because honestly, I had a hard time believing it would happen any other way.
It was tough, in the first book. Bigotry weighs you down, and there were times when the words on the page got ugly enough that I stepped away. I wrote about institutionalized sexism and racism in the police force, by taking my cartoony cop and making him much less cartoony and much more insidious, with his small undermining words and his overtly demeaning actions. I wrote about shadow minorities, using werewolf prostitutes, and how their ignored plight leaves them vulnerable to every kind of atrocity you can imagine, with little or no recourse.
Did I have to use fantasy to shine a light on this stuff? No, but it’s what I write, and I try to keep it grounded in reality, odd as that might sound. The reality is, the world can be a hard place to live in when you’re not Everyone Else. I also began to realize that the situation I had set up—general hatred and fear of shapeshifters after a series of riots in the 1960s, with the resultant upswing in crime and poverty among the shapeshifting community—was pretty bleak. I couldn’t end the book with an “everyone learns a valuable lesson about tolerance” bit (because, keeping it real, remember?), but I realized that I desperately wanted a message of hope. I’d already used the story to show how ugly two groups at odds can get—I wanted to show I believed there could be a resolution, because I do…at least in my books.
Luna, in my novel, deals with her situation in a way that isn’t always the most productive—she gets angry a lot. She has rage in her over what she knows is injustice, but I knew I had to write an arc of her coming to terms with what she is and finding a way to cut through the attitudes of those around her. I’d been examining my own attitudes towards bigotry over the course of the novel and I ended it in the way I want to see situations end and so rarely do—Luna ends up feeling okay about who she is, and allowing herself to trust a few human allies. It’s not much, but it’s a start.