As the author of the “Kitty Norville” urban fantasy series Carrie Vaughn has built a career and a following, and her origin story as a writer includes the 1998 Odyssey Writing Workshop and a long string of short story publications, including a Hugo Award nomination for “Amaryllis” and multiple appearances in George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards superhero book series. In 2011, Tor published her superhero novel After the Golden Age, and now Vaughn is out on tour for the January 7, 2014-published sequel, Dreams of the Golden Age. That tour reaches Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Friday, January 17th at 7:30 pm [Facebook event]. In conversation with Hillsborough author James Maxey for the “Coming to Town” interview series, Vaughn talks about the novel, larger than life heroes, comic books on television, and more. Enjoy!
Interview by James Maxey
In After the Golden Age, you construct a world with several powerful superhuman heroes, but they turn out not to be the focus of the story. Instead, you tell us the story of Celia, the daughter of a pair of famous superheroes, who has no powers and no grand heroic intentions and is trying to make a career as an accountant. What appealed to you about Celia that you chose to make her the heart of the story instead of one of the costumed do-gooders?
To put it simply, Celia’s story was the most interesting. There are more than enough stories out there about costumed do-gooders. Thousands of stories. There are even quite a few stories about the children of costumed do-gooders. I wanted to do a couple of things with Celia: first, overturn the trope where the child of superheroes doesn’t have powers but then acquires them somehow — Celia never gets powers. And second, tell the near-universal story of the person who has never been able to live up to her parents expectations. I wanted to tell the story of someone living in a superpowered world, who is trying to reject that world. Most superhero fans dream of living in a superpowered world, but Celia is a person who has had entirely too much of that world.
Since Dreams of the Golden Age is set twenty years after the first book, are any of the heroes from the first book still active? Or has Commerce City been hero-free for a while? Or does the city even need these heroes, if the Destructor is finally safely locked away?
The novel deals with a lot of these questions. Yes, there are still active superheroes, even a few of the ones from the first book. But one of the questions raised is if the city will ever have another superhero team like the Olympiad — or is a team only necessary to confront the worst of the supervillains?
Tales of larger than life heroes with extraordinary powers were a staple of pulp novels prior to the 40’s, but this type of hero nearly vanished from novels as superheroes became almost inseparable from comic books. Now, though, there’s at least a dozen novels I can name that have appeared in the last few years that explore the lives of costumed adventurers. What do you think explains their return to prose? Do you think that we’ll one day be able to go into bookstores and find whole shelves for this genre?
I’m not sure larger than life heroes ever entirely vanished from prose — I’m thinking of Ian Flemming’s James Bond and any number of science fiction heroes. Superheroes in prose have been around for quite awhile as well — I cut my teeth on the Wild Card series of shared world novels edited by George R.R. Martin, which have been around since the mid-1980s. I’m not sure comic book tie-in novels count, but those have been around as well. But yes, there’s been a noteworthy surge in superhero novels over the last ten years.
I’m lucky that I grew up in a time when superpowered characters were not limited to comic books — that wonderful golden age in television when I got to watch Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, the Incredible Hulk, the Superfriends, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and even The Greatest American Hero. It always seemed natural to me to see superheroes in other formats.
If superhero novels are particularly popular now, I think it’s because superheroes in general are enjoying a huge amount of popularity, with all the recent spectacular movies, and TV shows like Smallville, and now Arrow (which I’m a huge fan of). The classic comic books seem to have become more insular, more weighed down by their history and less accessible to casual fans. But novels give both authors and readers a lot of fertile new ground to play in, and give us an access to the interior lives of superheroes that comic books and movies can’t provide.
I also love Arrow. I notice all the tiny links to the DC universe, like how Jean Loring (the Atom’s wife) is the Queen family defense attorney, but I also see how my wife, who isn’t a huge comic book fan, just doesn’t get the same thrill when a name like Slade Wilson first gets dropped. In some of the current crop of heroic fiction, it’s easy to make connections between the heroes and established comic book figures. I worry today’s comic books have fallen into the trap of writing only for fans who are already deeply familiar with the characters, since these fans are the ones who can be counted on to shell out money. And, not to overgeneralize, I think it’s safe to say that this existing fan base skews somewhat heavily male. On the other hand, I think it’s also safe to assert that readers of urban fantasy, the genre you’re most famous for, tends to skew female. Do you see this novel as straddling a divide? Providing a story that will appeal both sets of readers? Or do you think my question is way off base to start with?
See, I don’t watch Arrow for the references and links to the DC universe. I watch it because it has a great cast of brilliant women characters, because the Queen family really loves each other and I love watching their relationships develop, because I want to hear what Felicity says next, because John Barrowman is a scrumptious villain, and because of Stephen Amell’s biceps. My non-comics friends like it for all these reasons too. We have a comics friend who watches with us who annotates every episode for us when it’s done. But really, we like the show for itself.
I think plenty of women love comic book stories and know the histories and the rest — a whole generation of us grew up watching Lynda Carter, after all — they’re just sick of having to put up with a medium, comic books, that doesn’t seem to love them back. The audience is there, they’re watching the movies and shows and reading the books. And the thing about urban fantasy — it’s a myth that the audience skews female. My readership is actually close to 50/50. 45/55, tops. I see it at my readings and events, in the emails I get. Heck, look at my Facebook page to see how many male fans and readers I have. I’ve heard this from other urban fantasy authors as well. Men read urban fantasy, and for the same reasons as women — they like the supernatural, the action and adventure, and the powerful main characters.
So, not to be too forceful about it, I think repeating these ideas that these various genres are segregated by gender doesn’t reflect reality, and doesn’t do anybody any good. I don’t think about appealing to either men or women or trying to straddle any divide — I just try to write good books, with the assumption that a good book will appeal to anyone who likes the topic I’m writing about.
Going back to the first question: If the first book is about the universal feeling of not living up to your parent’s expectations, and the second book moves forward twenty years in time, does that mean we now get to see Celia dealing with the other side of that equation? The near universal sense among parents that their children don’t appreciate just how hard the job of raising them has been? What was your major motive in making such a big time jump between books, instead of following the more typical pattern for sequels of picking up shortly after where the first book wrapped up?
Yes, after all the trouble Celia had dealing with her parents, it only seemed fair to see how she does as a parent, and her hyperawareness of wanting to do things differently, of not having unrealistic expectations of her children while still wanting great things of them, and trying to protect them while also trying to let them have space to be themselves. With superpowers.
I did the big jump forward because that was the interesting story. I didn’t have a story for directly after the first book. In fact, I walked away from an early deal for After the Golden Age because the editor insisted that readers wouldn’t stand for the big jump in time, and I should set the sequel directly after the first, and essentially turn this into another typical urban fantasy series. That wasn’t what I wanted to write. So far, reviews of Dreams seem perfectly happy with the jump in time. In fact, one review stated that if the sequel took place directly after the first, she probably wouldn’t have read it at all.
That goes back to why I wrote about Celia in the first place, and not one of the superpowered characters: I have to write what I think the most interesting story is, not what people “typically” expect. So far, readers haven’t complained.
James Maxey is the author of the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn, plus two epic fantasies, the Bitterwood trilogy and the Dragon Apocalypse series. More information about his work can be found at dragonprophet.blogspot.com.