The Comic Stop Exclusive Interview: Caitlin R. Kiernan on Alabaster: Wolves, now appearing in Dark Horse Presents

One of the great things about the return of the legendary anthology series Dark Horse Presents is the great tastes of various authors readers get to check out in every issue. Lately, we’ve seen the return Beasts of Burden from Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, along with new stuff from Brian Wood (you can read our interview with him regarding The Massive here). The latest issue of DHP presents a first look at Alabaster: Wolves, the new series from author Caitlin R. Kiernan. Caitlin was kind enough to talk to Biff Bam Pop! via email about the series, its protaganist, Dancy Flammarion, her creative process and much more.

Andy Burns: Talk about a tease – I really enjoyed the first taste of Alabaster: Wolves that appears in Dark Horse Presents #9. What can you tell me about the upcoming series and your inspiration for it?

Caitlin R. Kiernan: Well, I am glad you liked what you saw. As to inspiration, Dancy has always been a certain sort of character in my prose. Whether she’s sane or insane, right or horribly mistaken, she’s always believed that she’s been fighting on the side of the angels. And that nothing is too small to sacrifice in that battle. In this story, I wanted to take that certainty away from her, and see her face the monsters with her faith in shambles. And I wanted to write about werewolves. Genuinely unsettling werewolves infesting a South Carolina bayou. And that’s pretty much what you get.

Andy Burns: In terms of writing the story that appears in DHP #9, how did you decide what you wanted comic readers first experience of Alabaster to consist of?

Caitlin R. Kiernan: What readers get in DHP #9 are the eight opening pages of Alabaster: Wolves #1, which work to introduce the series’ mood. It’s meant to give readers a taste of the tension, who Dancy is, and so forth. To hint that there’s bad shit in store. It’s the calm before the storm. But, really, it’s mostly a preview. It wasn’t written for DHP #9, just excerpted. Not a self-contained story. A tease, as you said. We want to whet the appetites of readers and leave them wanting more, needing to know what happens next.

Andy Burns: For readers who may not know the name Dancy Flammarion, what can you tell them about her? 

Caitlin R. Kiernan: She first showed up as one of the most important characters in my second novel, Threshold, which was published in 1998. Then I sort of reworked her a little, and kept writing short stories about her, mostly what happened to Dancy before the novel, and these stories were collected in book called Alabaster, back in 2006. I thought I was done with her then, but over the years I’ve discovered myself wanting to return to her. Dancy Flammarion is an albino teenager raised in the backwoods of Florida, and after something terrible happened to her family, she was set on a quest by what she believes is an angel, a seraph, to slay a series of monsters haunting various nooks and corners of the Deep South. All of the short stories were set in southern Georgia. But when I looked at doing the series, I decided to give her another reboot. This is an older Dancy, more world weary and less innocent. I moved her to the South Carolina Lowcountry. And it all begins with her having a falling out with the seraph, as her faith begins to erode. In a lot of ways this is a new Dancy Flammarion, not only to readers unfamiliar with the novel and short stories, but to people who’ve been reading me for years.

Andy Burns: One of the aspects of Alabaster: Wolves I really enjoyed was a sense of desolation you managed to establish in a relatively short amount of time. As a writer, how do you go about creating a world – that is, how much is based on imagination and how much is inspired by what you see in the world we live in today?  

Caitlin R. Kiernan: I grew up in the South, and a lot of the landscape in the comic is drawn from my own experiences. There’s a lot of desolation in the out-of-the-way places. Glimpses of the Old South abutting the New South. There’s a lot of ugly and a lot of mean. It can be a harsh place. Dancy’s always managed to traverse this landscape unscathed, one way or another. So, yeah, that part of the world building is based on firsthand experience.  But then, in this story, in Wolves, I decided to ramp up that sense of desolation by placing the story in a ghost town and among the ruins of antebellum plantations. In a way that readers will see, Dancy’s wandered – or been led – into a surreal, devastated post apocalyptic countryside. And it’s here that everything she’s ever known, trusted, put her faith in, her worldview is about to be turned upside down.

Andy Burns: I’m always interested in a writer’s methodology when it comes down to their actual creative process. What’s your method of writing – is there a particular routine you follow? Do you listen to music at all? Does it change depending on if you’re working on a novel or a comic?

Caitlin R. Kiernan: I always write to music. I’ve said in a lot of interviews over the years, I can’t write without music. It’s a lot harder to write about technique. When I’m writing prose I do what a lot of authors call “sentence-level writing.” I work on one sentence until it’s probably as perfect as I can make it, then move to the next one. I don’t write in drafts. What’s printed is usually the “first draft.” But, doing comics, most of the rules have to change. There are drafts. There’s a level of editing, as the artists work, that takes a lot of getting used to, you know? I’ve always imagined it’s more like making a film than writing prose fiction. And I have to use a painstaking economy of words that is entirely alien to the way I usually work. I don’t have the luxury of taking a thousand words to let a scene play out. I can’t load pages down with exposition. I have to trust the artist as a storytelling partner. I can’t overwhelm the reader or the artist, and I have to keep in mind that the comic, the graphic novel, is a visual medium.

Andy Burns:  You’re working with artist Steve Lieber on Alabaster – how has the collaboration been so far?

Caitlin R. Kiernan: Very good. Very, very good. There were some rough patches at the very beginning, but I think that was both of us learning the strengths and weaknesses of the other. Now, we’ve settled into this odd artistic marriage, as it were. Steve is amazing. He’s doing wonderful things with my scripts, bring them to life panel by panel. Same thing with our colorist, Rachelle Rosenberg, and the covers the Greg Ruth is doing, every one is more beautiful that the one before it.

Andy Burns: The series starts proper in April – can you give a hint as to what we’ll see in the first few issues?

Caitlin R. Kiernan: I don’t want to drop a lot of spoilers, so this is tricky. You’ll see a lot of wolves, obviously, and worse things than wolves. we’ve put a good deal of effort into the creature design. It’s a very Lovecraftian tale of black magic and warped universes. Action! Loads of fight scenes that I’m loving. And we see Dancy evolving into someone – something – jaded and dark, which I never thought I’d do.

Andy Burns: Other than Alabaster, is there anything else you’re working on at the moment?

Caitlin R. Kiernan:  My latest novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir will be out from Penguin on March 6th, and I’m about to start promotion for it. We’ve done a truly beautiful book trailer, which we filmed back in October in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and that’s still being edited. But there’s a “teaser” version of the trailer up at my website. I have my next short-story collection due out in May, Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart. In August, I’ll be writing the second novel in a series that’s very, very different from my usual novels. I thought, what if Robert Rodriquez made a move about a heroin-addicted demon slayer whose a vampire, but also a werewolf, and it was based on a screenplay by Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino. Very over the top, sort of me setting out to subvert the paranormal-romance genre. Which I hate with a passion. Anyway, a series of books that’s fun to write. The first in the series is called Blood Oranges, and will be out in 2013. It’s really my first attempt at straight-up comedy. Plus, I also have a lot of short-story deadlines for various anthologies. Too much work, business as usual.

Andy Burns: Finally, is there anything you’re reading, comics or otherwise, that Biff Bam Pop! readers should be checking out?

Caitlin R. Kiernan:  I go through long spells where I read nothing much but nonfiction. I’m in one of those at the moment, mostly reading science books and journals, mostly paleontology and geology. In 2011, though, there were several novels I read and greatly enjoyed. The Hunger Games, which my agent was insistent I read. Novels by Holly Black, short fiction by Kelly Link. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which Neil Gaiman was emphatic I read. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps and Kit Whitfield’s In Greater Waters. My annual November re-reading of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, probably my favorite novel of the last decade or so. Yeah, that sums up my most recent fiction binge. As for comics, my favorite just now is David Petersen’s brilliant Mouse Guard. And Hellboy. And I’ve been reading Jacques Tardi’s Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec. I highly recommend all these.

Thanks to Caitlin R. Kiernan for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! And, as always, thanks to Aub Driver from Dark Horse Comics for help making it happen. Check out Dark Horse Presents #9 for the first 8 pages of Alabaster: Wolves, available now in shops and online here. Find out more about Caitlin at her website here

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