Werewolf Wednesday: Rhiannon Held on the modern werewolf

It’s my pleasure today to host urban fantasy author Rhiannon Held, writer of werewolf novels Silver (2011) and its sequel Tarnished, which is out now. I asked her about a possible writing soundtrack, but also about what she thought of the werewolf’s place in culture today. As befits a writer whose werewolves’ social dynamics are rich and complex, she had some fascinating thoughts to share. Take it away, Rhiannon!

Rhiannon HeldWhen David invited me to do this post, he asked for my thoughts on an interesting topic: What does the werewolf mean as a monster in today’s fiction? I don’t know the answer myself — but while we’re overrun with vampires and zombies, the werewolf seems stuck — at least in the popular consciousness — in old tropes, and doesn’t seem to have the same impact on pop culture.

I think at least part of the answer lies in an idea that I’ve held for a while: we seem to use or discard our monsters based on what kind of metaphors they’re good for. What do I mean by that? Let’s take vampires as an example. Back in history, when they were hairy-palmed ugly monsters, they seemed like more of a metaphor for the unknowable evil that jumps out at you from the dark.

Nowadays, we have less of a need for a metaphor for unknowable evil. Most of our evil is known. When I peer into shadows while walking alone at night, I’m picturing muggers, not slavering monster-things. Vampires are only good to people if they speak to something people are actually concerned with. Enter the sexy vampire, more of a metaphor for temptation. There’s a terrible price paid by the vampire character — but it’s for some great rewards. Many modern vampire characters are a way of thematically exploring whether the rewards offered by the evil paths in our lives are worth it.

So what about modern werewolves? I think the reason that werewolves are stuck in old tropes is that there isn’t a strong answer to that. They haven’t evolved to a new metaphor yet, though I (among others) am pushing them that direction, which I’ll talk more about below.

A lot of the scholarship I’ve encountered talks about historical werewolves representing humans’ “animal side” or animal qualities, and the idea that those qualities will come roaring up and take us over. Much like slavering beasts in the shadows, I don’t find that’s something that speaks to modern me. There’s no evil quite like human evil, and our bad qualities are as much a part of us as our good.

Modernize that metaphor slightly, with werewolves coming to represent the temptation of giving in to our baser urges… and you end up with something vampires already have covered. Both make good anti-heroes, but I’m not sure there’s enough difference between the themes they represent to make people choose werewolves for a specific purpose. With vampires so popular, it’s no wonder then that people reach for them first.

That said, I went into my series knowing that I wanted to do something different with werewolves. My werewolves are born, not turned, and therein lies a key difference that completely changes the suite of metaphors they’re useful for. Vampires and turned werewolves are fundamentally about a choice: to join a lifestyle they weren’t born into.

Maybe it was a coerced choice, but it was still someone’s choice, even if it was made for the main character. That’s why they’re good for temptation metaphors. Born werewolves can’t change what they are. At some point you have to ask why the heck they’d want to. Mine certainly don’t even consider whether they would rather be human. They are the species they are. They aren’t tempted.

But because they were born into a minority culture (Were) that has to hide out from a majority one (Western human), they can represent all kinds of issues that readers might struggle with, like the feeling of being an outsider, or an immigrant, or weighing family traditions against pop culture.

I don’t know if that metaphor will be the one that werewolves really settle into, but I think rejuvenating them as creatures depends on trying lots of different metaphors until we find the one that really speaks to our modern minds!

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TarnishedMy writing playlist may seem a little strange, I’ll warn you right now. I have the quirky habit of hearing a song on the radio, deciding it suits my mood, and then putting it on continuous repeat for two or three hours at a time during a writing session. That way, I know I’m getting exactly the mood I want, and there’s no chance that something that’s the wrong mood or even almost the wrong mood will distract me. I wander back to the same song and stick it back on repeat on and off for a few weeks, at which point it’s “used up” and I rarely write to it again.

Here are some of the ones I found in my play history recently and from the period when I was writing Tarnished:
Ke$ha, “Die Young”
Ellie Goulding,
 “We are Young”
Mumford & Sons,
 “Little Lion Man”
Florence + Machine,
 “Shake it Out”
Arcade Fire,
 “Abraham’s Daughter”
 “Set Fire to the Rain”
Crooked Fingers,
 “Luisa’s Bones”

Lots of good, strong beats, but also a feeling of a richer story hiding behind the lyrics. I also hadn’t consciously realized until I assembled them, but I apparently gravitate to music with a particular theme. All of these have aspects of how, in this life, things fall apart. You fail, others fail you. Things aren’t as you wish they were. But you pick yourself up and stumble on. And maybe that’s not so bad.

Observant readers will also notice that theme in my writing.

David Guetta, “She-Wolf”

A wolf-themed song that I liked—the music video is also a lot of fun in that respect.

Monsters and Men, “Little Talks”
These last songs are the ones that spoke to me about specific characters. This one belongs to Silver and Andrew, talking about conversations with people who aren’t really there.

Phillip Phillips, “Home”

I can’t give away what happens, but every time I hear this song, I think of the end of Tarnished.


Tarnished is out now, and you can find out more about the new book and Rhiannon at her website or visit her on Facebook.

UPDATE: Corrected release date of Tarnished, which is May 21 (ie. it’s available now! Go buy it!).

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