Wolves In My Skin

As November draws to an end, I thought I would update you a little on my NaNoWriMo project this year — although I have to admit that ‘werewolves and gay yearning’ still doesn’t have a real title. But then, I have books that I drafted in 2013 which remain untitled, so that isn’t particularly unexpected. Perhaps a title will come to me soon.

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For those who didn’t see my earlier post about it, this novel is a retelling of the medieval French story of Bisclavret. Medieval retellings aren’t unusual for me — in the past couple of years I’ve written a YA SF Arthurian novel called Bard, as well as a literary retelling of the medieval Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge called To Run With The Hound. What’s more unusual about this novel is that it’s… fairly heavy on the romance compared to what I usually write, and that I plan for it to have a happy ending. The latter is mostly because the original story does have a happy ending (at least for Bisclavret himself), but also because I’ve grown somewhat tired of bleak stories these days, when everything always seems hopeless.

I’m not entirely sure what genre this book is — possibly it’s the closest to “literary fiction” that I’ve written so far. Certainly, I made a few experimental choices with the writing style. For starters, Bisclavret is the only character in the entire novel who has a name — everybody else is merely ‘the king’, ‘the courtier’, ‘his cousin’, ‘the duke’s son’ and so on. An inevitable result of this has been fewer dialogue-heavy ensemble scenes, because it would get too confusing, which has probably made the book shorter than it would otherwise have been.

There have been a few times where I’ve sat looking at a scene, getting tangled in pronouns and descriptions, and gone, “Well, that sure was a choice that I made, wasn’t it…” But I also enjoy the ambiguity of it — and how medieval it feels. I didn’t give them names because Marie de France didn’t give them names, either, because in her story they are defined by their specific roles in relation to Bisclavret.

And Bisclavret’s name is in itself a kind of title: the bisclavret, presented in opposition to Norman garwolves, who are vicious and violent werewolves of a more familiar sort. Until his werewolf nature is revealed in the text, he’s only known as ‘the lord’, though I decided to call him Bisclavret throughout to avoid too much confusion.

Another somewhat experimental approach I took was in the use of perspectives. The book has three POVs: the king’s, Bisclavret-the-man’s, and Bisclavret-the-wolf’s. The last of those is in first person, fragmented and lacking in punctuation, and appears more sporadically than the others. Bisclavret-the-man’s is in third person, while the king’s is in second person.

The decision to write a large proportion of the book in second person was the one that seemed to surprise people the most. I’ve only done it before in short stories, such as True Love of Mine, a short story I wrote inspired by the folk song Scarborough Fair. But I really enjoy the ambiguity it creates, and the intimacy. It allows no distance between the reader and the emotions or actions of the character, and I find as a writer that I feel able to be more bold in expressing those than I would if trying to worm my way inside the king’s head enough to use “I”.

At the same time, it allows for more ambiguity. The king can be nameless without much difficulty: the ‘you’ removes pronoun confusion with the numerous other characters described as ‘he’. There is no need to describe his appearance particularly. And I don’t always have to be inside his head, the way I would be in first person, nor always outside it, as in third. If I want to describe only his actions and let the reader draw their own conclusions about what he’s feeling, I can do that — in fact, the you encourages them to project, to understand, to engage with him.

Whereas Bisclavret’s chapters are in third person, because that seemed the best way to express the sense of distance he feels between himself and his body, himself and his actions, himself and his life. It lacks some of the intimacy because he isn’t present enough in his own skin to have that immediacy — but then Bisclavret-the-wolf’s chapters show that distance collapsing, the first person almost forced on his narrative, because he can’t keep himself at arm’s length anymore.

How I write Bisclavret is informed at every moment by my experiences as a trans person with chronic pain, which my beta readers have picked up on from the extracts I’ve sent them. Feeling out of control, unstable in your own skin, at the mercy of your own body — these are all feelings I live with. When I write his transformations into the wolf, I find myself thinking about my own chronic pain flare-ups, especially the ones that come after long periods of better health.

screenshot of a Word document, reading: 

it has the air of an abandoned thing, that cloying desolation that chokes the surrendered, so that there is
despair that’s what it feels like that’s the taste in the back of my mouth it can seem a little like bloodlust sometimes but it’s only despair that old friend old enemy come back to mock me it knows when I’ve lost hope because I have
nothing left to hold him, nothing left to keep him real, and finally
I slip out of my skin one last time and leave the man crumpled by the altar invisible and unremarked except to ghosts but I know he’s there I saw him fall and I am just wolf and I cannot undo the shattering of my bones and I cannot knit back together the sundering of my flesh I am just wolf even if I remember being something else 
and it feels like grief 
being wolf
it is so much like grief so much like loss so much like kneeling abandoned beside the body of something destroyed 
I am just wolf just grief just wolf just grief 
all lost
“it is so much like grief”

It’s given me new ways of talking about my pain, about the wolf inside my skin. Some of how I’ve written about Bisclavret was accidental, especially earlier in the book, but as the novel has continued it’s been cathartic to lean into those associations. I’ve given some of my own feelings to the king as well, different ones; I always find my books are better if the emotions are real, even if nothing else about them resembles my own experiences. But it’s primarily Bisclavret I’ve been working through.

There was a scene I wrote early in the book where he talks about his hands, and how they’re always what he misses most in wolf form, and of course that makes sense — opposable thumbs are a very human thing, that one would miss if they were taken away. But for me, also, it means more than that. Because my own hands are so often the centre of my chronic pain: for six and a half years, my disability has manifested as inability to use my hands the way I want to. I have spent more than a quarter of my life never knowing whether or not I will have hands to use tomorrow, next week, in an hour, or whether pain will take them away again.

And these associations have also affected how I intend to write the ending — because yes, it will be a happy ending, but when this story ends, Bisclavret will still be a werewolf. As I said to a friend of mine:

I WISH Bisclavret could get cured because I wish I could get cured and I wish I didn’t have a wolf inside my skin that likes to turn my bones inside out and rob me of my hands. But I can’t. So he can’t either. We have to live with our wolves.

We have to live with our wolves. But he will be happy, eventually. He will be safe, eventually. Because I’m so very, very tired of hopelessness.

I hit 50k on November 21st. The novel isn’t finished yet, and I’ve been suffering from a bad fatigue flare-up this week, so I haven’t written much. But I’m still going, and I’ll get to the end eventually, and that ending will give Bisclavret hope.

What have you been writing or working on this month? Tell me about it.