Interview : Author, Cultural Anthropologist & Larper Jenny Kangasvuo
A while ago, I set about putting together the second issue of Wyrd Words & Effigies Magazine. The theme for the magazine was shapeshifters, so I traversed the internet for people with a link to this fascinating subject area, in some way or another.
I landed upon an article about Finish author, cultural anthropologist and larper Jenny Kangasvuo, whom had, among many other things, written a novel entitled Wolf’s Blood – the story of a family of werewolves in Northern Finland.
Sadly, the second issue of Wyrd Words & Effigies never materialized due to issues which are far to dull to go into here. But I kept hold of the interviews I had conducted, as they were far too precious to let go of.
So my friends, here I present to you the words of multi-talented creative Jenny Kangasvuo. Enjoy!
As someone who has been involved with Live Action Role Play for almost two decades, you must have seen countless changes to the way the game is organised, how people go about creating their characters and communication between players when they’re not in character. What are the positive and negative influences modern technology has had on this practice of interactive storytelling? Is it still possible to get totally immersed in the game when you have a phone in your pocket?
To be honest, I do not think that modern technology and phones have affected that much on larping. Time passing and people growing up with larping have had a much greater influence on the lifestyle – I do not see larping as a hobby or an art form, it is more like a lifestyle. When I started larping, internet was already used to organise events (I have found some character descriptions in my old email dated in 1996), to find information etc. I also think that immersion is disturbed by other things than technology, namely lousy preparation for the larp, bad mood or personal matters. I myself do not keep a phone with me when larping, if the larp itself does not require that: in a cyberpunk larp my phone was a prop that I used to find information and communicate with other characters, just like I would do in real life.
What kind of characters have you brought into existence, and what is the process of bringing a Larp character to life? Do you find that your writing skills and knowledge come into good use?
I have played so many different characters that I cannot even remember them all, so maybe it is best to list some recent characters. In the past year I have played a dollmaker in a steampunk larp, a bodyguard in a cyberpunk larp, a teenager that is a pupil in a wizard school in a Harry Potter –inspired larp, a Victorian young lady in a murder mystery, a noble young woman in a Game of Thrones -larp and a psychopathic witch-Mormon-wife in a larp set in Alabama and inspired by reality TV –series Storage Wars and the tv series True Detective. The steampunk larp will have a sequel in a month and I will continue as the dollmaker. Bringing larp characters into life depends on the character, but in most cases I discuss with the people that play the closest characters to my character, check out some information about the world of the larp and stories of it, maybe find some extra information or inspiration on tv-series, books, music etc. In some cases I have learned new skills. For example in a larp set in 1600th century Bohemia I played a leader of a respected romani family, who had two adult children. Together with other players I learned to speak some romani words and sentences, to sing romani songs and to tell fortune from cards.
For me larping and writing stories are interconnected. As a larper, I have experience on identifying with a variety of different characters, and I can use this experience when writing stories. As a writer I know how stories work and can make decisions based on good drama in larp, even if that would not be beneficial for my character.
As a Larper who has adopted the role of shapeshifting characters, are you able to describe the shifting process on a physical and mental level? Do you find yourself able to easily slip into the mind of an entirely different creature, and adopt their behaviour and traits?
In a recent larp I played a wizard queen that had been spent 100 years as a dog as a result of a bad spell. I started the larp as a dog, but only in behavior, not with any props to make me look like a dog: I had a wizard cloak and other clothes on me, and was dogging around on all fours and the cloak flapping behind me. The inspiration for the character was the game writers’ dog called Inka. Inka seems often to be too intelligent for her own good: sometimes she really seems to be a wizard in disguise rather than a dog. Before the larp I adopted some of her mannerisms, like standing still and staring as if she would see something unseen for human eyes or putting her head on peoples’ thighs to be petted.
The shapeshifting from a dog to a wizard happened in an early part of the larp, but I continued using the dog mannerisms for the rest of the larp since I felt that the character had some difficulties in adapting to human life again. This character was interesting to play on a mental level, since most other players saw it only as a bit goofy human-dog-hybrid that did funny things, and not as a powerful wizard queen. At first I concentrated on things that a dog would find interesting (like sniffing butt or licking hands instead of listening what people say), but later on I started to use my dog persona as a disguise that enabled me to just sit and listen important conversations. There was a significant shift in my consciousness from trying to adopt the dog persona and performing it to using the dog persona for my benefit, and it also reflected the change in my character, as she was gaining her powers again.
I read that Nordid Larp and American Larp differ in their approaches. Game researcher and editor of Nordic Larp Jaakko Stenros said Nordic Larp is a tradition that views Larp as a valid form of expression, worthy of debate, analysis and continuous experimentation, whereas in the US, Larp is approached more as a sport, reflecting a more competitive culture. Is this something you would agree with? Have you had firsthand experience of Larp in counties aside from Finland?
I have no experience on larping in other countries than Finland and do not know anything about the larping scene in US. However Stenros’s description of Nordic larp tradition sounds familiar. I do not find larping as competitive, it is more a form of storytelling and experiencing, and sometimes it is more interesting to “lose” than “win” in larp, if there is some kind of competition, since it is more deep emotionally.
Have you immortalised any of your characters in your creative writing work or do you have plans to do so?
I have not, yet. But there are some characters that have stayed with me and I have thought about using them as minor characters in stories. I could not use my old larp characters as protagonists in my stories, since the characters are too close to me. Also, the characters that I have played have been written by other people, and sometimes larp writers are a bit jealous of their creations, and I would not like to upset any of my game masters. Once I thought I would write a story as a homage for a good larp and as a present for a certain game master, but did not, because I realised that she would feel like the story written by me would somehow change her story and push it somewhere it would not fit. So I did not write that story.
Larping can be an expensive hobby. How do you accommodate your character with costumes, props and weapons? Do you find that you regularly need to part with heaps of cash, or are you hands on with the DIY approach?
In most cases I make all my props, clothes and stuff by myself or borrow them from someone else. I have sewn a lot of clothes from different historical periods, and making new clothes is actually a part of the fun of larping. Our larp community is also very tight knit and loyal to everybody involved, and the larping association has also a lot of props for the members to borrow. I have bought some expensive items (mostly corsets and recently, a purple top hat), but in general I do not think that larping is an expensive hobby. I know some larpers that almost never make or buy any props but borrow them from other people or from the larping association. And it is perfectly fine: larping should be financially possible for anybody. In any case, even if I make most of my costumes by myself, the fabrics, laces, buttons, etc. may cost a lot of money. Often it may be more expensive to make stuff by oneself than buy it. But usually clothes and props made by oneself fit better to the characters than bought items, and are also of better quality, neater and more beautiful, so they are worth the time and money spent on them.
I read that you wrote your novel Wolf’s Blood – the story of a family of werewolves in Northern Finland – because you were dissatisfied with how werewolves were being portrayed in other works of fiction. What was it about the work you read that disappointed you so, and what did you want to do with Wolf’s Blood so that your tale would be set apart from the rest?
Most werewolf stories treat werewolves as mythical beasts or allegories, and stories are often horror stories (or recently, paranormal romances). However, I was interested in a wolf as a biological species and how would it affect on identity if one could be both human and a wolf as a biological creature that hunts moose and hare, marks turf, mates, plays with puppies. I tried to depict my werewolves realistically as biological wolves. I read a lot of research on wolves and pondered what kind of life choices one could have if one could choose to be a wolf. My story is a story of several generations of werewolves tackling with Winter War, modernization of Finnish society, changes in school system, emigration to Sweden due to lack of work in 1970’s, urbanization etc. So, Wolf’s Blood is a realistical story about generation gaps, changing society and identities – with werewolves. The greatest horror in it is the power that ancestors and parents have on people and how it affects their lives.
How would you describe the process of writing Wolf’s Blood? Did you meticulously plan every chapter before you started? Did you have a set daily schedule? How many drafts were written before you were satisfied?
Writing the book was a long winding road. I started writing it in 2003 as part of National Novel Writing Month, an annual project for writers around the world. I did not plan the story meticulously, or had any daily schedules (I am not a “daily schedule” –person in any other projects either), but wrote it on bursts, sometimes 12 hours a day for few weeks and then left the project alone for months. I wrote three versions: the initial NaNoWriMo version, the second version that I submitted to publishers and the third that I submitted a fantasy novel competition held by the publishing house Teos. The second version was not accepted by publishers but it was favourably commented, and one publisher was interested in publishing it, but at that time my personal life was a mess and I had no energy to polish it. Finally, I was awarded the second prize in the competition held by Teos and the novel got published in 2012, almost ten years after I started it.
Did you find out any lesser known (ideally terrifying) facts about werewolves during your research? Anything that made your marrow freeze in your bones?
No, not really. I read a lot of werewolf myths and stories, but most of them were not that terrifying. Some historical depictions of real werewolf trials and the convictions the accused got for being werewolves are quite disgusting though. A certain man called Peter Stumpp was found guilty, tortured and executed as a werewolf in 1589 near Cologne. There are some engravings of the event that give me chills, and it is even more disturbing to think that stuff like that happens still all the time in the areas governed by ISIS, Boko Haram and North Korea.
Anyhow, there is a funny werewolf fact: in western in Baltia werewolves were keen to drink beer and broke into beer cellars, and you could be turned into a werewolf if you drank beer from the same keg with a werewolf. This information was written down in 1555 by Olaus Magnus in his Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (The History of the Northern Peoples).
When you were growing up, you spent time living in Lapland. How important was this part of your life in your development as a writer, and why did you feel the need to move away?
My family is not from Lapland, but I spent my childhood and teen years there, living in a small wooden cabin without running water, sewage system and the first years without electricity also. There is no real reason or any sense in this. My father just had a midlife crisis and decided to solve it in a more radical manner than most men usually do and take his wife and five children from an apartment in city to nature – or to place that he felt to be “nature”. Since we lived a very small village (population around 20 people, most of them children) in the middle of nowhere (my preliminary school was 40 km away, the high school 120 km away) and did not have a television or a computer, I read a lot as a child and also started to write stories right away after I learned to write. I guess it was a way to escape also.
There was no other option than moving away from there, since there was no possibility to get education or work there. Many people whose families are from Lapland move away and study somewhere else and then move back there when they have graduated, but I did not have strong ties to Lapland so I did not have any reason to move back. My brother, however, moved back to Lapland, but not to the same village that we lived as children, but to a small town where he works as an army officer.
Aside from Larping and writing, you’re also a maker of traditional handcrafts. What project are you currently working on? Do you make use of old tools in your practise and what would you say is your favourite part of the crafting process?
Currently I have one project of tablet weaving that has been dormant for a year and another with inkle weaving. I should finish them and start a new project, since my roommate has promised to teach me some new patterns. We are also planning to learn naalbinding again, since both of us have learned it earlier but forgotten the skill. A friend will teach us to make posaments next week – posaments are Vikig Age decorations made from metal wire and sewn into clothes. I should I also make a new medieval dress before summer and before the faire I have promised to attend and where I should perform. The dress will be useful for larping also. And I should be making a long Victorian skirt before April for the aforementioned steampunk larp soon… I guess that my favourite part of crafting process is planning and starting projects, but finishing all of them is more tedious.
Can you see yourself writing another novel concentrating on the theme of shapeshifters or are you moving in a different direction entirely?
Currently I am writing a story set in Iron Age Finland, and it may have some shapeshifting scenes, since the protagonist is a shamaness, but shapeshifting is not the main theme like in Wolf’s Blood. I suppose I might write about shapeshifters later on, since I have written short stories on the subject, and I guess that I cannot get rid of the theme.