Interview with Kit Whitfield

Owen Jones (OJ): First and foremost congratulations on a fantastic debut novel. How does it feel to see your work in print?

Kit Whitfield (KW): Thank you very much! It feels absolutely wonderful; I couldn’t believe it when I got the news, I was so happy. I’m delighted with how the book has been produced as well; the US and UK editions are in very different styles, but both have beautiful covers and great typesetting, and it’s lovely to see my work turned into such nice volumes. I have to say, having read the book backwards and forwards several times per edition, copy-editing and proofreading and so forth, I’m pretty cross-eyed with the actual words, so just at this moment the outside of the books make more sense to me than the inside, but hopefully I’m the only one who feels that way!

OJ: I guess the first and most obvious question about Bareback is how did you come up with the idea and did it spring into existence so fully-formed?

KW: Well, the germ of it was quite fully-formed. It came out of a late night conversation with a friend of mine; we spent about an hour knocking the idea around and coming up with things, which was marvellous fun, and then a couple of days later I woke up with the rough outline of a plot in my head, and the beginnings of Lola’s voice and personality. After that I started adding things; the Inquisition came out of research that I began just out of interest – people actually did get executed for being werewolves back in those days, it seems – and I kept throwing things in and making it up as I went along. I also found a number of people who drove me crazy with entirely justified questions that I hadn’t thought of but had to tackle (like why don’t countries bomb their enemies during the time-zone lag at night when the enemy is luning and undefended) that led to some rewriting. I’ll get my own back on them some day.

OJ: Despite this being your first novel you’ve written a lot of short stories and non-fiction books, do you feel this prepared you for novel-length fiction?

KW: I think so, inasmuch as anything can prepare you for a full-length novel. The non-fiction gave me a serious appreciation for the freedom that fiction gives you, and the short stories( I’ve only had 3 short stories published, which isn’t exactly a lot…) were good as mini-novels – one of them spans about eight years, for example. But there’s no substitute for doing, really. Bareback came into my head as a novel-length idea, and then there was nothing for it but to jump in with both feet and hope for the best.

OJ: In the US your novel has been called Benighted as opposed to Bareback, is there any specific reason for this? Obviously the word has sexual connotations that make it awkward.

That’s okay; in a way it is because the word has sexual associations, but we’re all grown-ups here . . . 🙂 The reason mainly is that, despite what they say about the English having a schoolboy sense of humour, the Americans appear to be worse! ‘Bareback’ meaning unprotected sex seems to be mostly a gay community word in the UK, but in the States I gather it’s in common use with everyone, so if you say the word to an American, they fall of their chair laughing like a fourteen-year-old. I actually was aware that the word had sexual connotations when I used it; I thought that as it’s a term of abuse, like a racial, religious or sexual slur, having that undertone would emphasise that it’s close to a swear word. However, it seems that it didn’t go across with American booksellers, though my editor did a valiant job of trying to persuade them, and in the end we just decided that it wasn’t worth letting the title dominate the whole discussion. We considered some alternatives, and I came up with ‘Benighted’. I took it from the Christina Rossetti poem quoted at the beginning, ‘From Sunset to Star Rise’, which is a poem I love and read frequently when I was writing the first few chapters and setting the tone for Lola’s voice, as I think it’s very close to how she sees the world. I also liked the fact that, like ‘Bareback’, it had various possible interpretations and connotations. I like the ambiguity of both titles; shades of meaning are always interesting.
OJ: The tone of Bareback is dark and grounded in realism where many similar works are quite kitschy and almost comical, was this intentional or a by-product of the storyline?

KW: More the latter, I think. I’ve got nothing against comic writing, but the way I work depends on the premise that if you’re going to write about something fantastical, you need to take the idea absolutely seriously for the duration of the book. You don’t need to believe in werewolves day to day, but you do need to convince yourself that they exist for the purposes of your story, as real things rather than as gags, otherwise they won’t have enough imaginative weight to convince your audience. I know that when I was writing it, people would occasionally say, ‘So, your book is about monsters, right?’, and I’d kind of blink and think, ‘No, it’s about a character called Lola and her struggles, isn’t it?’ I’d forgotten that werewolves ain’t usual. I also believe fervently that just because an idea has some kooky elements to it, it doesn’t mean that you have to write it ironically, and, conversely, that just because you want to write in a realistic style, it doesn’t mean you have to confine your subject to entirely realistic things. Look at the art world, for instance: Magritte’s fantastical scenes are far more ‘realistically’ rendered than Monet’s natural landscapes; and if it works for painters, I don’t see why it shouldn’t work for writers.

OJ: You’ve immediately grasped characterisation and added great depth to the novel, did you draw on real life experiences to achieve this?

KW: Not literally, but everyone draws on real life experiences all the time. I’ve never been, say, a police officer, a civil servant, a prisoner, or any of the other things the characters go through. However, I have been frightened, frustrated, lonely, in love, guilty, stressed, affectionate, angry, and longing, because that’s what happens when you’re alive. And if you pay close attention to what it’s like to be living, you don’t need exact experiences to be able to write. So, for example, there’s an early scene where someone stares at Lola’s hands on the bus and spots she’s not a lyco. Now, nothing quite like that ever happened to me, so the question wasn’t, ‘What did I feel when that happened?’, it was twofold. First, ‘How would I feel if that happened?’ Answer, resentful, self-conscious and defensive. Which gives rise to the next question: ‘What’s it like to feel those emotions?’ And that, I had an answer to. Factual details you can find in a library: if you can experience and remember your life, you can write anything about character, and the rest is just research.

OJ: Lola goes through a lot in a very short space of time, was it difficult to maintain that level of tension?

KW: I couldn’t say, really. I wasn’t setting out to maintain a particular level of tension; it was more that I was following the story along, and the story kept giving rise to tense moments. It meant I was continually called upon to maintain a tone of high emotion, but that’s stimulating; in a way, keeping the story tense kept me involved.

OJ: How did you add so much richness and detail to the world without obvious info-dumping or slowing the pace of the narrative?

KW: Hmm. I think the fact that I was making a lot of it up as I went along had something to do with it; I didn’t go in with vast amounts already worked out, which is the thing  most likely to lead to an info-dump. Instead, I just took Lola from situation to situation, and every time she hit an issue that would need a world-building decision taken, I took it based on what the story required at that point. Beyond that, I couldn’t say, except that I was more interested in the characters and story than anything else, so they tended to crowd other things out.

OJ: There are rumours about the possibility of a Bareback film, can you shed some light and give your thoughts on this issue?

KW: At the time of writing, a contract is being negotiated with Warner Brothers; as it’s still being worked out, I can’t say anything more at this stage, but more news will follow soon.

OJ: What’s next for yourself? Will there be more works in the world of Bareback or something new?

KW: At the moment I’m working on something entirely different. It’s still fantastical, but again, I’m trying to keep to my own take on it and write as naturalistically as possible. As to whether or not there will be sequels to Bareback, I’m not ruling it out altogether, as I can think of a few things I didn’t include in the book, but just now I’m in the mood for something new. As a novel, Bareback is thematically finished – there’s nothing I felt needed adding to further get across the ideas or feelings – so if I wrote a sequel now, it would have an element of flogging a dead horse; I’m  more likely to come up with something fresh and energetic if I change subject. Some day I might think of something else that could best be handled in the Bareback world, but I haven’t so far. So I’m not planning anything else Bareback-related unless a truly brilliant idea strikes me.

Sffworld would like to thank Kit for her honest answers and insights, we hope Bareback does as well as it deserves!

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