Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Were-fore Art Thou

Today's guest blogger is New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis who is  a princess, a fairy godmother, a force of nature, and a mess. She is the author of Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark-Hunter Companion, as well as the AlphaOops series of picture books. Alethea's debut YA fairy tale novel, Sunday, will be published by Harcourt Books in 2012. You can find her short story "Sweetheart Come" in the Werewolves and Shapeshifters anthology, edited by John Skipp (Black Dog & Levinthal, 2010). 

Long before full moons and silver bullets, the animals were talking. They have been talking since before your alphabet was invented. The Celts had Pan, the Egyptians had Bast and Anubis, the Mayans had the Howler Monkeys. Polytheistic or monotheistic pantheon--it mattered little. Your god or gods could take the form of an animal at any time and lead you to either divinity or disaster.

Humans have a long and honorable history of animal worship. In some areas of the world, certain species are revered above others. In other areas, one pays tribute to the animal whose attributes best meet the needs of the individual or community. The fox is cunning. The coyote is a trickster, or the spider. The bear is a leader and protector. The wolf is independent, but loyal.

Lycanthropy has also been around since the days of Ovid, but one did not have to be a were or a wolf to be a monster. Whether cursed or bitten, werewolves were at the mercy of their animal side come "that time of the month," and could not be responsible for their cruel and violent actions. I was never a fan of the monster, but I was always a fan of the wolf.

In Turkic mythology, a young boy--the lone survivor of a terrible battle--was raised by a she-wolf. The two of them eventually had ten children, all half-wolf/half-human. This litter gave rise to the peoples who later became the Turkish nation. This myth (or one very much like it) has been the basis for many popular wolf stories in today's pop culture and comics--my personal favorite is the origin story of Wendy and Richard Pini's wolfriders in Elfquest.

When I was first approached about writing a story based on a Nick Cave song, I was told I could pick whatever song I wanted...so long as it wasn't one somebody else was already using. I asked my little sister for advice, as she had far more of Nick Cave's discography in her iTunes than I ever would. "I only really like one Nick Cave song," Soteria said. And to my delight, "Sweetheart Come" had not yet been chosen by another author.

I was home from Soteria's for about a day before I had to fly out to New York for BEA. While I was stuck in the airport waiting on my flight, I decided to listen to the song over and over until it sparked something in my brain, some vague image or memory, a link to anything I could start from. During the first run through, I listened to the words. As in many of Nick's songs, there were troubles and magic, but ultimately it was about love.

The second time the song played, I listened to the tune. There was a lot of repetition--especially in the chorus (which is nothing but "Sweetheart, come" over and over). Such repetition is very indicative of old fables and fairy tales. There are also two violin solos. I listened to the violin and tried to imagine what the song was saying there, without words, for sometimes what isn’t said is even more powerful.

Halfway through the third repetition of the song, I stopped my iPod. I pulled out my notebook (don't you always carry a notebook?) and wrote "Sasha was fourteen when the villagers threw her to the wolves." These were not werewolves but something older, perhaps some descendants of that Turkic she-wolf, or perhaps another ancient god-pack altogether. These creatures of wind and air would have the ability to take human form when the moon was full, and they would force a young brother to leave his new family and choose between life as a wolf or life as a human.

"Sweetheart Come" is a little eastern mythology and a little Tam Lin, all in one, and it's still one of my all-time favorite stories. The fact that it appeared smack-dab next to Neil Gaiman in the Werewolves and Shapeshifters anthology was just icing on the cake. 

Alethea performs the "Princess Alethea's Fairy Tale Theatre" weekly podcast, and she is the SF book reviewer at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. You can find her online at: www.aletheakontis.com


Princess Alethea said...

Thank you for having me, Evelyn! So glad I could be a part of this.

Evelyn M. Byrne said...

Thank you for guest blogging. Your a great asset.

Maggie said...

I always love learning how a writer's story evolved! Very neat post. Thanks for teaching me a little about the history of lycanthropy too! :)