Interview with Hal Johnson, author of Immortal Lycanthropes

During a road trip across the state this last summer, fellow nerdbrarian Sheri and I entertained ourselves by reading aloud from Hal Johnson’s excellent YA novel, Immortal Lycanthropes, the story of a bullied and disfigured thirteen-year-old who discovers that he’s an immortal were-creature. I won’t give too much away, but I will say that my accent for Spenser the Scottish were-elk was reportedly excellent. Hal was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the book, YA writing, and tabletop gaming for the blog. More information about Immortal Lycanthropes is available on the author’s website.

Immortal Lycanthropes1. We both thoroughly enjoyed Immortal Lycanthropes and want to get the most obvious question out of the way: Where did the idea for the novel come from?

This was an idea I made up when I was a little kid. I’d been reading a book about weasels, and I started to pretend, the way kids will, that the different members of the weasel family could assume human form, and what that would be like. I know this sounds moronic, but I was like ten. Or at most fourteen, I don’t know.

I drew some pictures of the weasel guys, and imagined an adventure or two, wereweasels (you know, werestoats and werebadgers) versus other werecreatures, but I had a problem with the action scenes. The sad truth is that no matter what awesome power you have, you’re probably better off just shooting your opponent. If you’re a martial artist, you can study half a lifetime to learn the quivering palm death touch; or you can practice for five minutes with an M-16, and you’ll be just as deadly. I wanted to imagine a werebadger fighting a wererhino, not the two of them in human form shooting at each other. So I invented the proviso that any of these wereanimals could only be killed by the teeth or claws or horn of another wereanimal. I guess that’s a spoiler, but roll with it.

So that was the idea I had when I was a kid, and I forgot all about it after a while. Years later I was pitching ideas to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and everything I proposed got nixed, until, in desperation, I started dragging up ideas that has stayed buried for decades in my subconscious. Immortal lycanthropes was the one that made him stop turning his head away from me in disgust.

I threw out almost everything from my juvenile flights of fancy except the high concept part of only dying from the claws, etc. This isn’t the book the ten-year-old me would’ve written; it’s probably got a lower body count, and it has more anarchists.

2. Immortal Lycanthropes seems atypical for YA — your 13 year old protagonist embarks on the familiar “hero’s journey,” but the story is told from the point of view of an unreliable adult narrator. When did you know that was the strongest way to tell the story? Was there any pressure from your editors to take a more familiar approach?

I knew from the start that I wanted to tell the story in third person. It was partially because I have some superstitious idea that adventure stories don’t really work in the first person — this despite the counterexamples of Warlord of Mars, King Solomon’s Mines, Treasure Island, etc. — but also partially because I wanted to keep a little distance between the reader and Myron. Myron’s supposed to be a mystery, even to himself, and I was afraid that preserving that mystery in first person would require me to play it coy, in a way that would quickly grow wearisome.

At the same time, I have a bit of a problem writing in the third person. I have a hard time even faking that level of omniscience; or, to put it another way, a third-person narrator affirms the existence of a world in a way I’ve never really certain enough to affirm one. You can get around this by making your narrator as subjective as a character (the Fielding gambit), but I thought it would be more interesting to have him be someone who is in the book, just someone who is rarely present (and who is probably delusional anyway).

My editor was pretty supportive of my weirdness. He was more concerned making the book less violent and vulgar, a mission he only partially succeeded at.

3. The book was also surprisingly rich in geographic detail and historical allusion. What was the research process like for this book? Any road trips or time spent in local libraries?

Honestly, geography is pretty confusing to me, and this is a bit of a source of anxiety when I write. I’m kind of a nit-picker myself, and I don’t want my nits to get picked. But at the same time I don’t want to set everything I write in the few places I’ve lived, because that always seems too obvious. You can’t let the reader smell your fear.

But Google Earth is a great boon in planning everything out, and for local area knowledge I called up distant friends to fact check. The hardest part was finding a place where a cliff face led to deep water, which of course is a necessity for the ending. I consulted with a geographer (these guys exist!) on this, and frankly the solution I found, the place I found, it may be a but of a fudge.

In a way it’s silly to worry about making a blunder in geography, when so much of the book takes place in wholly fictional locations. There’s no such town as Shoreditch, PA. There’s no such corner in New York City as Fifth Street and Sixth Avenue, and even if there were, no secret underground headquarters would lurk below it. For that matter, there’s also no such person as Myron Horowitz. I made him up.

I made up most of the historical parts, too. These details are “inspired by” history, as they say in Hollywood about “true stories.” I guess most of them aren’t even inspired by history, they’re inspired by a madman’s faked-up version of history, with alchemists and secret societies and all the things that aren’t really there but should be. I love this stuff, so I was just tossing in or riffing off random tidbits from a lifetime of reading. I tried to restrict myself to plagiarizing from the dead, because the dead can’t sue.

Or the short answer is: All of my time is spent in local libraries.

4. We saw that Cory Doctorow reviewed Immortal Lycanthropes on Boing Boing. How amazing was that? Did the air around your computer momentarily twinkle with the golden dust of a thousand Internet Validation Fairies?

I was actually super lucky here. The day the review came out, Cory Doctorow was doing a reading at the Google offices in New York. I run a D&D game at Google, and I know some people who work there, and one of them got me in to see him. After the reading I went to talk to him, and — look, I don’t want to sound like a starstruck tween weeping into my copy of Tiger Beat, but the point is, he was really nice to me, I mean nicer than by any standard he had to be. I gave him a copy of my book that I’d sketched in and personalized, which was probably stupid, because I’m sure the last thing he needs is a book he’s already read. Ah well, maybe he can sell it on ebay.

Having Cory Doctorow compare the book to Daniel Pinkwater’s oeuvre was the cherry on top.

5. Another question related to our stalking you on the internet: We see that you’re also interested in games. Do you find that your gaming has any influences on your writing? Any great games you’re into right now?

I’ve been gaming — by which I mean tabletop role-playing — for most of my life. I still run two Dungeons & Dragons games weekly, both set in the same campaign world. They’ve been running for over fifteen years now, so the game has gotten pretty elaborate. I know it’s more interesting for me to talk about the game than it is for you to listen, so I’ll only very briefly mention that the campaign takes place near the end of the first millennium, in the real world, or at least an approximation of the real world, with giants and dragons lurking in the fringes. We’re still using second edition rules because when we started that was still the latest.

Almost everything I know about history I learned from researching this game. I’m the dungeon master, so if the party goes to Constantinople, I have to learn not only who the current emperor is, and what war he’s fighting in, but also what legacies previous emperors may have left — what ancient dungeons may have been left in the area — what magic items sit in the Byzantine treasury — and so on. My players are always trying to catch me out in an error, so I have to read a lot to keep one jump ahead of them.

Writing a book is very different than being a game master, of course; readers may collaborate, in a sense, in interpreting the text, but they can’t collaborate the same way players can. Also, readers can’t force you to look up rules. But running a game is great practice for writing: any experience that requires you to tell a group of live humans a story is going to encourage you to keep the plot moving. And in the same way that a dungeon master has to thwart all the players’ plans, a writer has to thwart all the reader’s expectations. Nothing’s less fun than a monster that’s too easy to beat or a plot twist that’s too easy to spot.

I don’t want to make too many facile comparisons; although it’s fun to do, I probably shouldn’t reveal what an antagonistic relationship I have with my hypothetical readers as I write. After all, players and readers both get mad at you when you kill their favorite characters, but it’s all for their own good, isn’t it?

So instead I’ll just mention the other thing I learned from gaming, which is that wherever you go, there’s always something there. This is something I learned from researching my game, but it’s something you can induce from reading TSR modules. Every small town has some kind of sinister legend about a bottomless well or a sinister cave or a haunted tarn. There’s always a ghost from some ancient murder; there’s always a +1 dagger buried in somebody’s hearth. This is very handy to know when plotting a book: That no matter how boring a place may look, something was invented there or massacred there or lost or found there.

6. Finally, what are you working on now? And when can we read it?

There’re several projects in the works, but I don’t want to curse anything by talking about it, so let me mention the things I wish were next, but aren’t: a verse translation of the tenth-century German-Latin epic poem Waltharius; a modernization of the scatological story collections about the trickster rogue known in English as Owlglass; a books for kids about the idiosyncratic Norse mythology reconstructed by Viktor Rydberg in the nineteenth century. If anyone’s interested in publishing any of these books, please let me know. All agents and editors seem to think I’m crazy for even proposing them.

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