Interview: Olivia Stephens on 'Artie and the Wolf Moon'
We chat with the cartoonist about finding emotional authenticity in werewolf fiction and how there is no one true lycanthrope.
We've all been there. Our bodies rage with heat and emotion. We feel like we're going to burst, and from that explosion, a gargantuan beast rises and howls. Cartoonist Olivia Stephens has grabbed the monster by the tail and flung it into her graphic novel debut, Artie and the Wolf Moon.
The comic follows Artie Irvin. School is tearing her up. Friends feel impossible, and she's discovered something strange about the mom she used to turn to for advice. Mom's a werewolf. Oh, no. What does that mean for her cuddly and toothsome future?
Artie and the Wolf Moon features several spooky elements you'll be craving this Halloween season, but the genre tropes are not nearly as tantalizing as the rich, passionate confrontation within this compellingly unique family drama. Olivia Stephens loves her subjects, and she fights to inject hope into their lives even when those lives are populated with the most crushingly dark antagonists.
Stephens has put everything of herself into Artie and the Wolf Moon, and she feels exposed. As you'll read in the conversation below, she wants the supernatural elements to distance herself from the recognizable fright plaguing her hero, but maybe those absurdly fictional flourishes only strengthen the connection between creation and creator.
We had a fiendishly fun time chatting with Olivia about her new comic. We discuss the power of young adult fiction, the honesty found within horror genre set-ups, and what exactly a real werewolf would look like if you bumped into them in the forest. The answer is obvious yet seems to infuriate many.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Brad: Lisa and I were talking about young adult fiction early this week and why we love it so much as not-young-adults anymore, sadly. I think what attracts us to this particular type of storytelling is how these stories tend to be sagas that look inward. That's the nature of YA or even their purpose.
Olivia: Yeah. For me, fiction is such a therapeutic vehicle in a lot of ways. So looking inward, that's basically like 90% of my job. But given that I'm a very emotional person in general, when I'm looking inward to craft a narrative, I think I'm drawn to adding in supernatural elements as a way to create sort of a buffer between my very real visceral emotion about real experiences and create a buffer between that and what goes on the page so that I still feel sort of safe and protected in the space of making the story.
But yeah, I really enjoy using fiction as a way to interrogate myself and interrogate things I've done in the past or things other people that I know have done in the past, and yeah, kind of work out my feelings and emotions about the thing and also transform those scenarios into something that's unrecognizable on its face a lot of the time because I am writing about werewolves and vampires and stuff. It's unrecognizable on its face, but there is always like a grain of real truth to what I'm writing about. The emotional heart of the story is something that comes from a very real place even if it is grounded in fantasy and fiction and stuff.
Brad: That's interesting. We were having another conversation about horror fiction in particular. It is October now, the spooky season.
Olivia: [Laughter] Yes.
Brad: I think one of the things that we love so much about horror and supernatural stories is how they allow you to embrace melodrama and intensity and extremity, and in embracing extremity, you're actually achieving an emotional truth, because when you're going through something from a distance of time or perspective, it can look rather small, but when you're living it in the moment, it feels so intense.
Brad: Those intense emotions in horror stories in particular feel the most genuine to the human experience.
Olivia: Yeah, definitely. I think, in the moment, everything just feels insurmountable and overwhelming. As time passes, you start to gain more perspective on what you've been through and the things you've lived through. But yeah, I think another reason that the emotional truth in horror is so vivid and appealing is that...because it's horror, because it's in the realm of fantasy or supernatural fiction, you're able to kind of communicate that sort of feeling that you get, that it's like, "This is impossible. It is impossible to feel this much." There's this quality of just being completely consumed by an emotional event in the moment where you feel like you're bursting out of your skin, where a human being could not possibly get through this. But people have for centuries.
Brad: Right! Right! Right!
Olivia: Your story has happened to countless people, but in that moment it just feels completely consuming.
Brad: But I'm also intrigued by you discussing how the supernatural element allows you to create a distance between what's going on inside you and how you want to communicate it to an audience.
Olivia: Well, for me, I think I'm really attracted to the werewolf in particular just because like I've already said, I'm a very emotional person and it feels like a lot of the time my feelings are too big for my body. So when I go through something or when I'm experiencing something that just makes me feel like I could just explode, using a supernatural metaphor like the werewolf to communicate that feeling of just having so much inside you that you can't contain it and you transform into something else is a very attractive vehicle for me to kind of interrogate those emotions and stuff. Yeah.
Brad: I love werewolf stories, easily one of my favorite sub-genres. And it's a mythology where you can have a lot of fun, where you can pick and choose through the rules. What was that process like for you? How did you decide what you wanted to keep and what you wanted to ditch?
Olivia: [Chuckles] My favorite question. So, my love of werewolves is actually rooted in my love of wolves.
Brad: Okay, cool.
Olivia: There's such a gap between popular notions of werewolf behavior and actual wolf behavior because real wolves in the wild are just family units. It's the "alphas" are parents and the rest of the pack is their kids. So my version of the werewolf is rooted in me wanting to adhere to natural wolf behavior over werewolf canon. In a lot of ways, I think I might spit in the face of a lot of canon just because the werewolves in my book are intentionally not a threat. They are community-centered and family-centered individuals because that is how I perceive wolves and therefore how I wanted my werewolves to be perceived.
So as far as what to keep, because there are elements from werewolf lore that I have incorporated into the book in my own way, I like to think because, for me, I have no sense of sacredness when it comes to these things because I'm like "It's all made up." Until a werewolf comes forward to tell me I'm wrong, I'm not going to change me wanting to go in a different direction. So, I like to think of past werewolf lore sort of through the lens of, okay, these were like anthropologists who saw these behaviors in a werewolf hypothetically and maybe didn't have the greater context for those behaviors.
So, past werewolf lore can be considered like an anthropologist's best guess. I really like to keep different pieces of lore, but attach a different explanation to it that would serve to explain a greater cultural truth to the werewolf, but also explain how others might have "mistaken" that behavior for something else. The full moon in my book is not a biological trigger to transform.
I wanted to reframe it as a cultural marker. What would it be like if generations of people grew up together as werewolves, that idea fascinates me. How would they acclimate to the real world and what would their holidays look like and all that? That is territory that I'm endlessly fascinated by. So, I changed the full moon to bring about a biological trigger for werewolf transformation into a cultural marker where they're transforming on the full moon but it's voluntary because they're celebrating their heritage. Yeah.
Brad: I love the notion of not being precious with all these rules that have been so-called established, because we are in a weird time, and forgive me to use this phrase, but in fan culture, sometimes we are very precious with what should and should not be. You might find readers who would balk against such changes.
Olivia: [Laughter] Yes, and I have.
Brad: Can you talk a little bit more about those individuals and what you say to them when they bristle?
Olivia: I did actually encounter someone who did not seem happy with the direction I took werewolves. Yeah, they were basically talking about how real werewolf fans might take issue with my book. And they were mad that these werewolves just look like wolves!
Brad: They should really watch An American Werewolf in London!
Olivia: Basically, I got the vibe from this reviewer's response that they were calling me a fake werewolf girl. But it was so funny just to read someone basically tell me, "This isn't how real werewolves act." My response to that is you need to give me the contact information for your real werewolf friends because I have so many questions. I have so much research to get done. I laugh it off, but those attitudes, I understand that people are very attached to their conceptions of a creature that's been around for centuries in fiction.
But if we're going to push a genre forward at all, we have to stretch something until it breaks. That is the place in fiction that I want to reside. How much can I stretch this preconceived idea that's been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, how much can I stretch this until I can't even recognize it anymore? Because I feel that I understand the necessities for genre fiction and categorizing things, but at the same time, I think it can also be stifling creatively.
It can definitely set in expectations for a genre that historically marginalized voices. And interpretations of things can vary wildly from the popular canon because they are marginalized. The adherence to "This is what this is supposed to be" has never sat well with me, because if I adhered to that philosophy for any number of genres, then it'd be like, "Okay, I'm not supposed to exist in fiction, I guess." One of my goals is for people who are purists or who really adhere to their one vision of a werewolf, I want those people to hate my book. [Laughter]
Brad: Well, what I always tell those folks is the thing that you consider, like the purist Batman or whatever, it exists. No one's killing your Batman.
Olivia: Right, no one is.
Brad: Also, in confronting variation, you find what you like about your thing anyway. You refine your idea of what you want your version to be and then you can go write your version.
Olivia: Yes, exactly.