The author has claws: Interview with Kat Kruger

Photo: Edmund Lewis
Photo: Edmund Lewis

There are certain things we take for granted about werewolves — they’re supernatural creatures, they’re either wolfman-type monsters as in the movies or shapeshifters that turn into actual wolves à la folklore and a lot of modern urban fantasy. But in her Madgeburg trilogy, Canadian author Kat Kruger turns all of that on its head. The second novel in the series, The Night Has Claws, is out now.

In the first book, The Night Has Teeth, we meet Connor Lewis, an American student in Paris who falls in with two new Canadian friends, Josh and Madison, and finds out there’s a lot more to the couple he boards with, Arden and Amara. As Connor learns werewolves are real and have a definite interest in him, he also discovers that naturally born lycanthropes, able to shift into full wolves, and the bitten, who become savage humanoid wolf-creatures, are different offshoots of human evolution.

In The Night Has Claws, Connor becomes embroiled in inter- and intra-pack politics that put him — and nearly everyone he cares about — in danger.

Kat was kind enough to take the time to answer my questions about her work, her world, and her werewolves.

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David Jón Fuller: In The Night Has Claws, your second volume of the Madgeburg trilogy, you build on the events in The Night Has Teeth. How do you approach writing a sequel that works as a story in its own right as well as one that deepens what went before?

Kat Kruger: With the help of a very good editor! The early drafts of The Night Has Claws just picked up where The Night Has Teeth left off without very much recap. I write the kinds of books I want to read so, personally, I dislike it when a series provides too much recap in each book. They’re often just information dumps. My editor suggested it would be confusing for anyone who might pick up the sequel out of sequence and gently nudged me to provide an “in.” So I tried to find a balance between giving enough backstory for someone new to the series and not being redundant to those who are returning to it. Even still, I feel like The Night Has Teeth works more as a standalone than The Night Has Claws simply because it’s building from the same story arc.

The Night Has TeethDJF: In The Night Has Teeth, we got the story solely from Connor’s point of view, but in The Night Has Claws, we get some events from Madison’s perspective as well. What made you decide to tell the story in the second volume this way?

KK: I think the beauty (and possibly the curse) of social media is that, as an author, you get instant access to reader feedback. Madison is a divisive character in The Night Has Teeth. Some people love her, while others love to hate her. Because the first book is told solely from Connor’s perspective you don’t really get to see what makes her tick, what her motivations are for doing the things that she does, and how vulnerable she actually is. I wanted to give the reader access to her side of the story. As Connor is an outsider to the born werewolves, Madison is a bit of an outsider to the bitten. I hoped her perspective would provide a yin-yang balance to the story. There are moments where she also provides a bit of comic relief to the serious situations that go down in The Night Has Claws.

DJF: What appeals to you about writing about werewolves?

KK: What doesn’t? I love both the dichotomy and the balance that exists in werewolves. It isn’t so much about a struggle against your inner demons, so much as it is about striking an accord between the wild and “domestic.” I think it’s an idea that applies increasingly to modern society, actually. Humans who grow up detached from forests and nature are losing that balance. In a way I think we need to reconnect. I mean, without at least some basic wilderness training how would we survive the zombie apocalypse?

DJF: The sense of history and evolution permeates the world you’ve created for the werewolves of your novels. You mention a number of sources at the end of The Night Has Teeth, but what drew you to the notion of incorporating Neanderthals, pharmaceuticals, and medieval history into a modern urban fantasy setting?

KK: As someone who enjoys speculative fiction myself I’ve faced enough eye-roll inducing moments in books, TV and movies to know that I wanted to approach my series with at least one foot solidly grounded in reality. Everyone has a different threshold for that whole idea of “willful suspension of disbelief” but for me I really wanted to embrace the challenge of placing my werewolf mythology in the scientific realm. As for the setting, I found the modern urban environment, characters and pop culture references just helped to keep me within the world and my hope was that would carry to the reader. To my mind everything from Neanderthals to the real life figure of Henri Boguet the witch-hunter, and pharmaceuticals was just a natural evolution of ideas. Corporations have a lot of power in modern society so I’ve pitted two biochemical/pharmaceutical giants against each other in a way.

DJF: Your story incorporates both true wolf shapeshifters as well as half-human wolf-creatures — both different kinds of lycanthrope in speculative literature.  What appealed to you about including both?

KK: It was really an organic process that led me to including both types of lycanthropes. Initially, I was inspired by a National Geographic genographic project that maps out human migration across the Earth. My husband submitted his DNA to the project (there’s a hat tip to him toward the end of The Night Has Teeth when Roul mentions Connor’s dad doing the same). Looking at some of the data that came back was really fascinating.

The Night Has ClawsI took a leap of imagination from there and developed a theory that suggests Neanderthals didn’t actually suffer from an extinction event but rather evolved into werewolves due to a virus among the domesticated canine population. Further research into human evolution brought me to an article and Ted Talk suggesting that a small percentage of humans actually have Neanderthal DNA from intermingling some 30,000 years ago. Naturally werewolves would have evolved separately from humans but the humans with the Neanderthal DNA could still be affected by the virus (in the form of a bite).

To me, it makes sense that bitten humans wouldn’t turn into full-fledged wolves and that born werewolves are a different species. It was the research that brought me to having both types in the series though.

DJF: In this novel, Connor’s world grows far beyond the Paris student life he knew in the first book, as he must navigate the politics and conflicting loyalties his friends, allies and enemies are wrapped up in. How did you develop the ethics and laws that govern the different strains of werewolves, and how it might play out in the modern world?

KK: In terms of the born werewolves, I mostly based their governance on wolf pack society. Neanderthals, from what I understand weren’t highly socialized, so it works to have them in small groups led by an alpha. They’re not exactly emotive so they thrive more on instinct and fight or flight. That said, the Parisian leader, Rodolfus “Roul” de Aquila, has had the foresight to modernize and innovate in order to keep his pack safe. The tattoos that are so integral to their image are based on Neolithic Eurasian practice that include facial tattoos.

The bitten werewolves have a society based loosely on the Benandanti which figures frequently in werewolf fiction. While researching that group I stumbled upon testimony from a witch trail by a man named Thiess of Kaltenbrun who admitted to being a werewolf. He stated that werewolves were “Hounds of God.” When something like that falls into my lap, I usually run with it. I developed a legal system based on Judeo-Christian religious tenets, mixed in medieval punishments, and the story of the Wolf of Magdeburg and came up with a more heavy-handed (arguably necessary) approach to governance than the born werewolves.

Because I felt it would only be realistic to have humans involved on some level, I also developed a secret intergovernmental agency based on a wolf catcher society in Europe that was known as the Luparii. Charlemagne created this office to control wolf populations in the Middle Ages. In my modern adaptation, werewolves are considered no different than wolves so there are culls and other dirty work that this task force is assigned to oversee.

DJF: One reason I ask about the ethics and “rules” is that not only does Connor confront the violent impulses in himself (and its consequences for him in his own life), but the different groups of werewolves in your books seem simultaneously on the verge of open war while striving to out-manouevre each other on a political and technological level. What inspired this kind of “Cold War”?

KK: Real life. While I’m not unsympathetic toward the bitten humans in my series, it’s the born werewolves who are the underdogs (pardon the pun). In The Night Has Claws, pack leader Roul has a heart-to-heart with Connor in which he explains how they live in an “economy of power.” That’s how I see the world. You look around now or in history and it’s the downtrodden who spark the revolutions. The “Cold War” of the Magdeburg Trilogy exists because each side has been looking for a way to overturn the other. It’s only with the technological advancements of this modern era that the scale begins to tip. Every character has their own motivations for what they do and whose side they fall on and whether they’re good or bad is up to the reader to decide.

DJF: What did you find most challenging about writing the sequel?

KK: I think the biggest challenge when writing a trilogy, let alone a sequel, is ensuring there’s a standalone story arc — one that fits within the story arc of the first and last books. What I didn’t want was a book that was just filler leading up to some epic finale. At the same time, I really and truly had to set up the last book. In The Night Has Claws there are multiple story lines going on, each one needing to be tied up to a certain extent yet leaving room for more action in the last book.

DJF: What did you enjoy most about writing it?

KK: Besides all the scientific and setting research, I loved writing in Madison’s voice. Even though she’s working through some serious traumatic experiences of her own, her modern teen snark was fun to write. Also I really enjoyed developing the relationships among the characters, particularly between Arden and Connor. Their reversal of fortunes forces them together as unlikely allies and I think both of them come out of it stronger for it.

DJF: What surprised you during the course of developing the world and the characters?

KK: My characters often surprise me with what they do, Madison in particular. I’m not one for thoroughly plotting out my books so sometimes things happen that are natural progressions but take me unawares. The biggest surprise for me was the end of The Night Has Claws. I wrote it about midway through the first draft and was shocked. I guess I can’t say anything more about it without spoiling it for everyone!

DJF: Finally, what’s next for the series?  Is the third volume going to be the last we see of these characters,or this world (If you can say)?

KK: The final book, The Night Is Found, is hard to discuss without posting a massive spoiler warning. What I can say is that Connor makes his way back to New York in the final installment and the epic battle that readers are expecting to go down between all sides, does in fact, unfold. Beyond that, I plan on taking a break from the world of the Magdeburg werewolves. Eventually, I’d like to write some graphic novel prequels that delve deeper into the backstory of the secondary characters. And, as I’m working on completing The Night Is Found (even though I told myself this would be it for these characters), I stumbled upon some research that tells me I may revisit the world in the future.

Kat Kruger’s Madgeburg trilogy is published by Fierce Ink Press.  For more information, you can also visit her website.

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