When Furry Fiction Meets Dark Fiction

By Mary E. Lowd

I like animals, and so I write about them.  Early on, I tried to keep the animals under control, off to the side, with plenty of human characters for readers to identify with at the center of my stories.  Eventually, I discovered that there’s a whole genre of fiction for people like me who want to read and write about animals — it’s called furry fiction, and it changed my life.  I stopped trying to shoehorn humans into my stories and fully embraced my desire to write animal characters.

There are a lot of advantages to writing furry fiction.  In 2005, I started writing a NaNoWriMo novel about a down and out tabby cat and the dog goon who’s hired to get rid of her but turns out to have a heart of gold.  It was inspired by watching my dog Patrick bark at my cat Heidi.  It was supposed to be a quick and dirty novel to get the pump primed, and then once I had the animal characters out of my system, I’d move on to writing some serious science-fiction.  Ten years later though, I’m still exploring the world of that novel because it turned out to be so rich.  My fourth novel in that setting, Otters In Space 3: Octopus Uprising, should come out some time in the next year.

When you write about animal species, they’re fun and easy to picture, so a story is almost automatically colorful and compelling on a shallow level.  This is why so many cartoons and animated films feature animal characters.  Animals are fun to look at; animal characters are fun to think about.  But more than that, each different animal species comes with its own quirks — some are predators, some are prey; some live in desserts, some are aquatic; they can have bushy fur, scales, feathers, or even skin that changes color.  Antlers, wings, giant ears, long tails?  So many options.  And all these differences lead to different needs and different priorities.  So, if you take your animal characters seriously, you can end up with a really rich world really fast.  If you’ve seen the movie Zootopia, then you know what I mean.

But ShadowSpinners is a blog about dark fiction, so I want to steer this toward the intersection between dark fiction and furry fiction, because something really interesting happens when those two flavors combine.

Furry characters give the reader a feeling of safe distance — “That couldn’t happen to me; it’s happening to a cartoon character.”  Wile E. Coyote can blow himself up, fall off cliffs, and be crushed by anvils all day every day, and it’s funny.  George Orwell’s 1984 is terrifying, but Animal Farm is cute.  The Netflix show BoJack Horseman delves deeply into the truth of depression.  And Art Spiegelman’s Maus stares unflinchingly at the reality of Auschwitz.  This is a powerful tool.  But there’s a flip side, a double standard if you will.

People will cry over animals like they’ll never cry over other humans.  I have a series of short stories about a tabby cat who constantly runs afoul of his owner’s household appliances — these are lightweight, fun, adventure romps with a supernatural twist.  Yet, I’ve had these stories rejected (once by a YA market that lists The Hunger Games as the type of fiction they like) on the grounds that a cat killing a mouse is too dark.

Is there any way to twist the knife in a story more powerful than killing the dog?  Sure, you can “kill the dog” without writing furry fiction.  But furry fiction gives you a lot more dogs to kill.

If you want to write something truly, deeply dark, imagine combining both halves of that double standard.

I’ll let that idea sit for a moment.

It’s like the salty, nutty taste of peanut butter, undercut by the intense, bittersweet flavor of chocolate.  Complex on the tongue and totally addictive.  Lure the reader in with happy animal characters and make them feel safe — twitching noses, fluffy cottontails, and long ears.  Then leave the poor bunny with its hind foot caught in a snare, twisted and bleeding to death on the floor — hitting the reader harder than they’ve ever been hit before.

The magical blend of furry fiction and dark fiction lends a unique opportunity to dark fiction writers.  If you want to explore the possibilities for fitting furry characters into your own fiction, check out my essay “Writing Furry Speculative Fiction” on Jester Harley’s Manuscript Page where I break down all the standard tropes of furry world-building.  For more information about furry fiction in general, check out the Furry Writers’ Guild website — among other things, the FWG keeps a listing of furry markets and hosts a forum and Slack group with a very active community of writers.

Furry fiction is an exciting and growing genre.  We’d love to welcome more dark fiction writers into our ranks!

* * * *

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.

Interview Series: Interview with author Mary E. Lowd

By Cynthia Ray

The creative process has always fascinated me, and especially how it works for individual artists and writers.  I’ll be delving into this in a series of interviews with authors near and far.   In the first of this series, we meet Mary E. Lowd.  I met Mary in a writing group in Oregon, and I was immediately drawn to her quirky humor, and her warm, insightful stories.   She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish.

Mary_Lowd_author-pic-sq

Mary, what can you tell us about your work, and yourself as an author?
I write science-fiction and furry fiction.  That means spaceships and talking animals.  I have been known to write the occasional piece of contemporary science-fiction, and some of the animals I write about can’t talk.  But mostly, I like to write stories that have spaceships and talking animals.  So, it should come as no surprise that the novel series I’ve been working on for the last decade is called Otters In Space.

I self-published the first Otters In Space novel in 2010.  Then I discovered the furry fandom, and I spent the next year tirelessly trying to sell my self-published novel to an actual furry publisher.  In 2012, Otters In Space was re-released by FurPlanet, and I could not have been prouder of that swirly emblem with two paw-prints emblazoned on the back cover of my book, pronouncing it a FurPlanet book.  Since then, I’ve had two more novels published by FurPlanet, a collection of short stories, and I’ve become the editor for their annual anthology ROAR.  The third Otters In Space novel is in the final editing phases now and will hopefully come out later this year or early next year.

OiS1-FurPlanet-front-cover

That’s good to hear.  I’ve been waiting for that book to come out.  It’s themes are very relevant to the environment that we find ourselves in today.  So, why do you write?
I write because I have to.  It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.  Even before I could read, my mom encouraged me to tell stories, and she’d write them down for me.  Two of my earliest works were “Sally Cat and the Six Magic Balls” and “Salamander.”  One was a fantasy story about a cat (so, the kind of thing that I still write) and the other was a personal narrative of the day that I caught a salamander.

Once I could actually write the words down myself, writing became my escape.  Why would you spend a day in middle school when you could use the notebook paper in front of you to escape to the Serengeti where a poodle is trying to steal the throne from a blind lion?  (I believe that story was heavily influenced by Gary Larson’s The Far Side.)  I spent most of middle school surrounded by the cheerful woodland creatures of Great Oak Abbey, a place which bore a striking resemblance to Brian Jacques’ Redwall Abbey.  Then after reading C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, I moved to outer space with a crew of tiger-like aliens and spent all of high school on their spaceship with them.

These days, why would I live in a country that failed to elect its first woman president this fall when I could instead hang out in deep space with all kinds of animal-like aliens?  At this point, I’ve spent so much of my life writing that I get twitchy if I go very long without doing it.  Writing is something that I have to do, so I may as well make use of it.

I like your idea of hanging out in deep space.  I’ve heard they have a woman president on Mars.  But seriously, what does Creative Process mean to you?  What is yours?
There are a lot of ways to go about writing, and a strategy that works for you at one time may be a complete dead-end later.  So, I guess I believe that creative processes are always evolving.  As such, I’ll tell you about a strategy that’s worked out really well for me this year.

Last summer, I’d been stuck trying to finish Otters In Space 3 for so long — tying up loose threads and managing continuity with three previously published novels in the same world — that I was sick to death of writing a long work.  I wanted the freedom of writing something much shorter.  So I started playing something I call The Flash Fiction Game.

I got three decks of cards — two story-telling decks from a toy store (one fairy tale themed, the other robot themed) and a deck of animal guide cards.  In the morning, I’d draw a card from each deck, and by the end of the day, I had to finish a complete piece of flash fiction inspired by those three cards.  Animal + robot element + fairy tale element added up to furry space opera for me, so I wrote several dozen pieces of flash fiction set in my Crossroads Station universe by the end of the fall.  Some days, the cards clicked with each other, and it was easy.  Other days, I’d stare at those cards at a complete loss, and every word was a struggle.  But I’d still finish something resembling a complete piece of flash fiction, and finishing a complete story is a huge rush.

So, overall, I ended up with a bunch of stories — some mediocre, but some surprisingly excellent (five of them have been accepted by Daily Science Fiction) — and a huge boost to my confidence.  If you find yourself feeling lost or stuck, it’s a strategy I’d highly recommend giving a try.  Though, it won’t work for everybody.  That’s the thing about creative processes — they’re unique to each person, and even for a single person they’re always evolving.

Yes, the process is unique for each person; thats what makes it so interesting, but there are similarities, aren’t there?   Let me ask you another question.  What is the hardest thing you have worked through?
I nearly died when my daughter was born — if I’d lived in Jane Austen times, I’m sure I would have.  The recovery was brutal — both physically for myself and emotionally for my family, as my husband was deeply scarred by almost losing me.  Human reproduction is a cruel joke.  Of course, I’ve used those feelings to inspire stories.  One of my most successful stories — “Foreknowledge” (http://www.apex-magazine.com/foreknowledge/) — remixed many of my actual feelings into a fictional scenario.  It’s the story I’ve been most often told is my best; it also makes a lot of people cry.  I couldn’t have given it the same immediacy and power without mining my own experiences for kernels of truth.

Thank you for sharing that experience.  What a positive way to work through it.  What is the most revealing thing you have learned about yourself by writing?

I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.  Or an otter.  I actually didn’t realize this directly from my writing; although, it was right there on the page, staring at me.  Even so, it took a fan coming up to me at a furry convention and telling me that he loved my novel because he’s a cat who wishes he were an otter too.  The main character in each of my novels so far is a cat who wishes she were a dog or otter.  If you don’t speak the language of animal archetypes, this means that I’m particular and persnickety, but I aspire to be care-free and fun-loving.  Though, I think it’s much more elegant and carries far greater nuance in the language of furries:  I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.

And finally, if you were going to tell aspiring authors one thing, what would it be?
It will be hard.  It will get easier.   Write about animals — they’re fun to write, and people like to read about them.

Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Otters-In-Space-Search-Havana/dp/1614500436
https://www.amazon.com/Otters-Space-Jupiter-Deadly-Volume/dp/1614501181
https://www.amazon.com/Dogs-World-Mary-E-Lowd/dp/1614502374
https://www.amazon.com/Necromouser-Other-Magical-Cats/dp/1614502838/