The Big Idea: Carrie Vaughn
Posted on January 27, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 26 Comments
Werewolves and radio talk shows? Who’da thought they would be two great tastes that go great together? Carrie Vaughn, that’s who, and a good thing that she did. She’s taken that idea an parlayed it into the New York Times bestselling “Kitty Norville” series, in which a lycanthropic radio host has all sorts of wild adventures. The latest in the series, Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand, has just hit the shelves, and in this Big Idea piece, Vaughn explains how the real world informs her fantasy world — and how deciding which of two worlds is the weirdest is not always such an easy thing.
I write a series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty who hosts a talk radio advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged. Your vampire boyfriend’s a pain in the neck? Call Kitty. That’s pretty much the bedrock idea for the series. I figured if vampires and werewolves really did exist, the conventional radio psychologists like Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil wouldn’t have a clue how to handle their problems. They needed their own show.
At first, I didn’t think this idea was all that big. I figured it was good for maybe a short story. When the first short story ended up being 10,000 words long, I should have known something was up. I managed to whittle that first story down and sold it to Weird Tales. But a few years later, I got a novel out of it. And several more short stories. And several more novels. I just handed in the seventh.
Kitty’s radio show turned out to be the perfect platform to examine any topic I wanted. One part of the current wave of urban fantasy novels is asking the question, what would all this magic look like in the real world? What if there really were vampires, werewolves, witches, oh my? I’ve taken that question seriously. I’ve had Senate hearings on the supernatural, an evangelical faith healer who claims to cure vampirism, vampire night shift clerks, a punk band that really is playing the devil’s music, a Broadway star who seems ageless because, well, she is (and she doesn’t do matinees). I’ve made it my mission to scrape the bottom of the pop culture barrel and squish the result through a supernatural filter. Wait till you see the reality TV show I cooked up. With Kitty’s radio show as a backdrop, I can make anything fit. And Kitty, my inquisitive and chatty main character, who at heart is an average person just trying to make her way in the world (So what if she’s a werewolf? Everyone has issues), is a great point of view through which to explore. I still haven’t run out of ideas: I want to tackle Iraqi war vets who are also werewolves, have an international conference of scientists studying the paranormal, show the Filipino vampires that suck fetuses from the bellies of pregnant women, and I’ve decided I must include the Monkey King someday. Because how cool would that be?
I set the fifth book, Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand, in Las Vegas and barely had to make anything up. There really is a production show called “Bite,” featuring a cast of “vampires.” Who knew? And of course I traveled to Vegas. All in the name of research. A-hem.
I’m very glad I did. These days, researching a novel’s location isn’t that hard. You can find just about anything you need on the internet or even (gasp) in a book. You don’t have to travel to a location you don’t know to find out about various neighborhoods, the popular coffeehouses, or where the drug deals happen. Google Earth can help you feel like you’re really there, even when you’re not. But you don’t travel to a place to learn the facts. You travel to learn what no one thought to put in a book. How else would I have learned about the roving packs of bachelorette parties? (Very easy to spot: look for the groups of twenty-something women in short skirts and high heels. The one in the middle will be wearing a plastic tiara with a veil. I counted twelve of these gangs in one night.)
Then there’s the Sirens of TI.
One of the scenes in Dead Man’s Hand depicts a sexy stage show. I thought I had it pretty far on the edge. Then I saw the Sirens of TI. A bit of background: the Treasure Island Casino has a lagoon and pirate ship out front. Pretty cool. Ten years ago, when Vegas was in its “family friendly” promotional phase, the pirate ship was the centerpiece of a slam-bang action adventure pyrotechnic show, with lots of sword fighting and cannon fire, totally free, right on the Strip. Then Vegas realized that family friendly wasn’t selling and “what happens in Vegas” was. So Treasure Island revamped its pirate show. It now features lots of women in “pirate” outfits (assuming pirates wear short shorts and push-up bras) bumping and grinding. The story (yes, there’s a story): the cabin boy of a more conventional ship has fallen overboard and swims to a mysterious, ghostly ship. He climbs aboard — and is suddenly accosted by the Sirens, a dozen buxom women swinging and dancing their way across the ship. They don’t like trespassers, so they capture the cabin boy, tie him to the mast, and…punish him. And that’s just the beginning.
My sheltered upbringing betrayed me at last. I realized the scene in my book wasn’t nearly edgy enough, so I added whips and chains. Like I said, at this rate I’m never going to run out of ideas because reality just keeps producing more.
Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Read an excerpt from the novel here. Visit Carrie Vaughn’s blog here. Read the very first Kitty story, “Doctor Kitty Solves All Your Love Problems,” here.
I’ve been a Carrie Vaughn fan for quite a while. While it’s easy to imagine her books getting lost in the midst of all the other werewolves-and-vampires-are-just-another-alternate-lifestyle fiction books that are out there, Kitty seems to have an appeal all her own.
This sounds like a very interesting series. So many books, so little time.
I really like “The Big Idea”, it’s exposed me to some really interesting books and authors.
I’d always hoped vampires and werewolves would be too cool to listen to talk shows and watch reality shows. Unlike the undead, they get old fast.
This series does sound interesting. Out of curiosity – does anyone have an idea what the appropriate age level would be? I have a nine year old who is a pretty advanced reader, and she might like this series.
To: Jeff O Comment #4-
These books are definitely not for a 9 year old. They aren’t over the top, but there’s bloodshed/violence and sex. I mean these are werewolves and vampires we’re talking about.
A very fun series, but I would say this is high school level.
I’ve been a fan of Kitty for a while now. Glad you’ve given her some notice. I enjoy urban fantasy, but there is a lot of over the top stuff out there. Also a lot of jumping on the bandwagon where werewolves and vampires are concerned. I would say that Ms. Vaugh’s work is of a much better caliber than a lot of the stuff out there. Another author who I’d call and “If you like Carrie Vaughn’s work you’d like” – is Kim Harrison, different premise, same quality and tone.
for #4 Jeff O: My daughter is a very advanced reader, but she’s only 11, so the balancing act is one I can appreciate. Although there is some violence, I wouldn’t rate it worse than a PG-13 film. The sex is open, but not terribly explicit (it’s not a steamy romance novel in disguise). In the end, I let my 11 year old read them, with the understanding that we would talk about the “mature” elements together. Give them a read yourself: they go fast, they’re fun, and you can make a more informed decision.
I want to … show the Filipino vampires that suck fetuses from the bellies of pregnant women,
Working as an abortionist, natch? ;-)
I know the Anita Blake series started in similar territory, before it devolved into “Monty Haul does Dallas”. Sounds like you’re taking it much more seriously!
Hm. Seventh novel? That means I’ve missed a few!
I have to say, I’ve very much enjoyed Ms. Vaughns novels thus far; and I applaud her for not taking her urban fantasy, into fantasy romance/soft core porn, as so many others in the genre have decided to do.
In what has become an increasingly crowded (and commercially exploited) field, she’s maintained consistent quality of storytelling and characterization, and I applaud her for it.
Just read the first story – this is just my cupa tea! (i like it, i love it, i want some more of it…)
I must now track them all down to read!
This book might be good, but I can’t tell you how tired I’m at seeing werewolves, vampires, etc. marketed as Sci-Fi. Plus, could the whole “tradiotinally evil, but not” urban monster among us be more over done?
Probably not 9 year-old level. IIRC, there’s definitely some profanity, and without giving too much away, most werewolves in the stories rely heavily on physical and emotional domination, both of which sex is a large part of.
That being said, I’m somewhat of a fan of the Kitty Norville books myself, but I wasn’t even aware the next book was imminent, nor that Carrie had a blog. I actually found out about the stories via the TV Tropes wiki* and got the first one. I think I ended up going through the rest in a couple weeks. They’re not quite guilty pleasures, but pleasures nonetheless.
* WARNING: TVTropes.org will eat up way more time than you actually have, due to insane levels of geekdom and misleading name (it covers WAY more than TV, such as comics, movies, literature, even web content!)
And in a marvelous case of good timing, the big brown truck of happiness just dropped “Kitty and the Dead Mans Hand” on my doorstep.
Hi everyone. Thanks for reading and the comments.
I get asked about the age-appropriateness of the books all the time, and it really depends on the kid. My stuff is way tamer that Laurel K. Hamilton’s, so if they’re reading that then mine are just fine. But they’re definitely on the PG-13 side.
That said, I remember very clearly the age I was when I just stopped asking whether a book was okay for me to read and checked it out of the library without anyone looking at it. I was probably reading books my parents would have preferred me not reading at that age, had they known. It doesn’t seem to have damaged me too badly. Except I did become an SF&F writer…
Yay, book comes out!
I love how this is the one feminist werewolf series I’ve ever seen. Seems like every other series out there really emphasizes “only men can be pack leader, women have to submit to them.” Kitty, on the other hand…well, I won’t spoil, but the series doesn’t go that way. Huzzah.
I appreciate how in most every other fiction series people are killed and the law doesn’t become involved. Carrie has written these where necessary actions have unpleasant but real world style consequences. It’s odd to say I want some verisimiltude with my vamps and weres, but dammit, I do!
I actually just finished reading this book this afternoon, fun stuff.
Jennifer @16, try “Bitten” by Kelly Armstrong and sequels. Great female werewolf and the author really seems to capture the wolf mentality in her werewolves.
These days I’m violently allergic to most urban fantasy. I particularly dislike vampires, and I don’t think that supernatural immortal spirits of serial rape and murder should be allowed to live among us (stake and grill, baby!). In most urban fantasy books, I end up rooting for the opposition – whatever “backwards” usually-fundamentalist anti-monster alliance is out to get the protagonist. This makes them difficult to enjoy, except in an indignant sort of way.
However, judging from the chapter excerpts, Kitty Norville seems like one of the few urban fantasy protagonists I might be able to actually support (the other is Harry Dresden. Mm, what about crossover fiction? I’ll call it “When Harry Met Kitty”. :D). I’ll keep an eye out for the books.
Fletcher, The Kitty books are really great. I don’t think you’ll regret reading them. Much better than most urban fantasy. Not at all like LKH. I also really like Patricia Brigg’s Mercy series. Both the Kitty and Mercy stories have really well-thought out worlds and the characters are great.
I’ve been reading the Kitty books since day one, and look forward to each one! I started reading the series because I thought Carrie had struck upon a unique concept, and these days that a really hard thing to do. What keeps me reading is the quality of her writing and stories. When I’ve loaned out my copies to my friends – they’ve all liked them, another rarity.
However, I’m not sure I’d let my 11 yr old read them, but that’s just me.
You can also check out her latest short story in the anthology ‘Mistoe and Wolfsbane’ – that was a great holiday read.
You posted this yesterday and today all her books were requested items at the library. Thanks for the circs.
I’m a big fan of Carrie’s and while I despise endless series novels with all the passion of a thousand betrayed sons, I love reading all the Kitty books. I mean, they’re great fun. I’m so glad I ran into her at the NASFiC in 2005 and she convinced me with 5 words to buy her first book, which hooked me.
Yay! Carrie and Kitty! I’m a huge fan. Is it time for me to raid the bookstore?
Chris: Out of curiousity, were those 5 words “Werewolf with a radio show”?
How else would I have learned about the roving packs of bachelorette parties? (Very easy to spot: look for the groups of twenty-something women in short skirts and high heels. The one in the middle will be wearing a plastic tiara with a veil. I counted twelve of these gangs in one night.)
Don’t we have these in Denver, too? Floating along the 16th St. Mall on a cloud of alcohol, giggles, and tulle? I mean, it can’t be prom night every Fri/Sat/Sun.
(It certainly would explain some things.)
The five words, as I remember, were ‘sexy werewolf talk radio novel’
That was enough to sell me.
So it turns out that not only does the local library not have Carrie Vaughn’s works (except for the collection /Wolfsbane and Mistletoe/, which is edited by Charlaine Harris, whose heroine Sookie Stackhouse is worthy of all my scorn for the genre) but this city’s three best bookstores don’t either! Borders offered to order it in, but c’mon. That takes aaages.
Time to shove some money on my credit card and hit Amazon.