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Women Destroy Urban Fantasy: An Interview with Carrie Vaughn and Kelley Armstrong

I’m a big fan of Urban Fantasy. I read it, I write it, and I admire many of the authors in the genre. Urban Fantasy has been around for a long time, under different names, with varying surges and dips in popularity. I wondered if women writing in this sub-genre felt targeted by those who would say women are destroying fantasy. To find out, I thought I would go straight to the source.

It’s my pleasure to bring you a conversation with two of the top authors in Urban Fantasy, Carrie Vaughn and Kelley Armstrong, with their take on the genre. These two women have been highly influential in my own writing career, both as New York Times Best Selling Authors, mentors, and examples of prolific, successful, and professional women.

Our Panel

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, the most recent of which is the twelfth installment, Kitty in the Underworld. Her superhero novel Dreams of the Golden Age was released in January 2014. She has also written the young adult novels Voices of Dragons and Steel, and the fantasy novels Discord’s Apple and After the Golden Age. Her short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com and George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Colorado with a fluffy attack dog. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.

Kelley Armstrong has been telling stories since before she could write. Her earliest written efforts were disastrous. If asked for a story about girls and dolls, hers would invariably feature undead girls and evil dolls, much to her teachers’ dismay. Today, she continues to spin tales of ghosts and demons and werewolves, while safely locked away in her basement writing dungeon. She lives in southwestern Ontario with her husband, kids, and far too many pets. Learn more at KelleyArmstrong.com.


What reaction do you have when you hear people say that female authors are destroying science fiction and fantasy?

Vaughn: Well, I kind of want to laugh. Women have been part of science fiction and fantasy all along, and that we’re even still having this conversation speaks to the way that women’s work is constantly marginalized. It’s so ironic that you’ll hear people talk in one breath about how women are better at writing fantasy and men are better at science fiction, and in the next breath talk about how of course men write better epic fantasy, and women really only write that “girly” fantasy. There are some folks who’d squeeze us out entirely if they could. As I said, we’ve been doing it all, all along, and it’s annoying that we have to keep pointing that out.

Armstrong: How exactly does anyone “destroy” a genre? The categories exist because readers say “I like this sort of book,” and a genre emerges or shifts to satisfy that market interest. There will be fluctuations within it, as interests change and the audience changes. That’s what keeps a genre alive, not what destroys it. It is destroyed when people stop reading it, and somehow I don’t think female authors are out there campaigning for people to stop reading fantasy and science fiction.

What stereotypes do you encounter in regards to Urban Fantasy as a genre? How do you respond?

Vaughn: I once did an interview where the first question I was asked was “How do you handle writing explicit sex scenes?” I responded with, “Ask me how I know you don’t read my books.” Because I don’t have explicit sex scenes in my books. I was also at signing once when someone walked up, looked at my books, and asked me if I wrote “that porn stuff.” So, yeah: People take one look at those hot covers with the sexy babes, and immediately think it’s all sex. These days, I just kind of sigh and shake my head.

Armstrong: I think it’s like any other genre—people who don’t read it are certain they know what it is and often have a very narrow definition. The stereotype I usually encounter is that UF is all overpowered, kick-ass chicks who are supposed to be saving the world but spend more time trying to pick a mate from the dozen guys pursuing them. I have never written that plot. I have never read that plot. It’s more common to see paranormal thrillers with capable women—sometimes fighters but often not—and long-term romantic relationships, with those relationships taking a backseat to the action and mystery.

Why do you think UF seems to be a female-dominated genre? Or is a statement like that perpetuating more stereotypes? Does the genre need more male authors?

Vaughn: The statement is perpetuating stereotypes, because it is a myth. (Like so many statements about women’s writing and women’s genres.) I’d guess something like forty to forty-five percent of my readership is male—this surprises people, but come to one of my signings or book events and you’ll see. Look at the comments on my Facebook page. Or any UF author’s page. Lots of men read this, and lots of men write this—if you see a UF book whose author uses initials, it’s often a male author trying to hide his gender. Just like so many female authors have done when publishing science fiction.

The other thing that happens is if the author is a man, it may not be classified as UF, even if it has all the hallmarks of the genre. And if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the statement—”Well, I don’t really like urban fantasy—except for Jim Butcher’s books, of course.”—I would have a lot of nickels. We’re in Joanna Russ territory, here, in her analysis of the ways women’s writing gets classified as different or lesser, even when it looks just the same as men’s writing in the same category.

So yeah, I’d really like to stop with the “UF is female-dominated,” because in my experience it simply isn’t true. The perception has clouded the reality.

Armstrong: I’ve been around since the current flavor of UF began, back when these books were called paranormal suspense. Laurell K. Hamilton had been writing them for a few years. Then Jim Butcher started his Dresden Files. Charlaine Harris started the Southern Vampire series a year later, at the same time I started the Otherworld. So of the four, three were women, and not everyone included Butcher’s books in the same category. Those three also wrote female protagonists. The audience then was largely female—guys being less likely to read female protagonists, especially in first-person narration. When publishers went looking for more books “like these,” they actively sought out female authors. Women who already wrote fantasy were pointed in this direction, and that’s where many of the “next batch” of UF writers came from. It’s not surprising then that it became a female-dominated genre. And, yes, it would be great to see more guys writing it, of course!

What do you think the future holds for Urban Fantasy and its authors? Is Urban Fantasy on its way out as the rumors profess, or will women continue to “destroy” this genre?

Vaughn: You know, I’ve been predicting the end of urban fantasy for something like six years now, and I’ve been wrong all this time. That said, all the major series seem to be wrapping up, and there does seem to be a slowdown—I get the feeling it’s a lot harder to break in with UF than it used to be. But as with anything, a really great idea, a really new take on it all, will find an audience.

Armstrong: The form of UF that arose in the last decade is fading. Charlaine Harris has ended her series. I’ve ended mine. Kim Harrison is on her last couple of books. The list goes on. So far, though, the authors who are ending their series aren’t getting out of fantasy altogether. They’re just taking a slightly different approach. My new series is more mystery, less paranormal—incorporating folklore and superstition rather than werewolves and witches. I think this is how the genre will continue, evolving rather than dying out.

What advice would you have for other female authors of urban fantasy, paranormal fantasy, or fantasy that may be facing challenges based on their gender or their chosen genre?

Carrie: From a writing/craft standpoint, I have to get this off my chest: Be aware of the tropes you’re working with, and be very aware of stereotypes and pitfalls you might be falling into. It makes me sad that a genre that is supposed to celebrate powerful women so often perpetuates patriarchal patterns/clichés, and doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.

And then, stick to your guns. UF has a huge, devoted audience, and cling to that to keep you going when the rest of the genre community seems to be sneering at you.

Armstrong: Ignore it and focus on your own path. That may not be a popular answer, but I was a computer programmer in the days when it was a rare career choice for women. I got used to being the only woman in the office other than the receptionist. I got used to being treated like an interloper or, worse, the product of affirmative action. I knew that wasn’t the case—I graduated at the top of my class—so I said “screw it” and focused on the work, and let the results prove that I’d earned my position. That’s what I do as an author. I write whatever I want and I ignore the noise. If I get snark from a male author, a look at his Bookscan figures kills the sting, because it’s the same thing I encountered in programming—the guys who outperform me aren’t the ones taking those shots, so I can chalk it up to sour grapes and move on.

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Sandra Wickham

Sandra WickhamSandra Wickham lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two cats. Her friends call her a needle-crafting aficionado, health guru, and ninja-in-training. Sandra’s short stories have appeared in Evolve, Vampires of the New Undead; Evolve, Vampires of the Future Undead; Chronicles of the Order; Crossed Genres; LocoThology: Tales of Fantasy & Science Fiction; and The Urban Green Man. She blogs about writing with the Inkpunks, is the Fitness Nerd columnist for the Functional Nerds, and slush reads for Lightspeed Magazine.