Mark Engels || Interview with a werewolf

What got you into werewolves / werecats and how old were you when you discovered them?    

I’ve been a fan of anthropomorphic characters since I was a wee lad. Disney’s Robin Hood, Tesuka’s Kimba the White Lion, O’ Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. But I always felt like an outsider looking in. I thought “what would it be like to be like them? Experience the world the way they do?”

Fast forward until I’m twelve years old. My mom had subscribed me to the Weekly Reader’s Book Club, and every month a fine new book would show up that I’d tear into. One fine day came ‎Gene Deweese’s “Adventures of a Two Minute Werewolf!” I must’ve read that book cover to cover a couple dozen times at least.  Because Ronald Fritz’s illustrations helped me really identify with Walter–your average kid who realizes he and his whole family share secrets like no other. Finally, with Walter as my guide, I could navigate the space between the human and the animal experience. Even if the latter was a cartoony and slapstick.  Though Walter’s mom was badass toward the end!

I’ve held up every anthro and shifter book I‎’ve read since up to these. Including my own. If they leave me as least as entertained, then their authors have made the time I’d invested in them eminently worthwhile.

Do you share the same love of other types of shapeshifters? 

Yes, for some I do. Werecats are my faves, which is why I decided to feature them (and *only* them) in my paranormal sci-fi thriller novel series.  I’ve known other authors to feature other werekin based on dragons, bears and fish, though.  I wish them well but those are just not my cuppa. Drawn more to werekin which have one alternate form and one only myself, as opposed to shapeshifters who can become whatever they want, whenever they want.  As a reader I have limits as to how far I’m willing to suspend disbelief.  And now, as an author, I expect my readers do too.  Which is why my weres live among us in a contemporary, present-day setting.  As they have for generations. 😉

What do you think it is that attracts you to werecats?

Oh, geez, that’s tough. Kinda like asking me why I choose vanilla ice cream over chocolate. Dunno why, I just do?  But I respect the chocolate lovers in their choice. ‘Cause if they’re out of vanilla, I’m glad to have chocolate!

More to the point, I’ve always identified with the underdog (bad pun, I know.) Why not werewolves? Because many others have done them and done them well.  I didn’t know if I could add much to that body of work.  Why does my book draw from Polish and Korean culture, customs and folklore?  Because I come from a German family and am a fan of Japanese anime and manga. I knew a lot about those things already, which many others have used and used well to tell their stories. Where could I find fresh ground to till?  Tell a story that might’ve been told a hundred different ways already from a fresh perspective?  Poland and Korea secretly warring over a forgotten werecat clan remnant now in the United States, hiding in plain sight?  For something that I’d enjoy and believed my readers would too, it was the best my poor brain could up with.

Besides, some of my favorite anthro characters are felinoids.  Erma Felna, the titular character from Steven A. Gallacci’s cornerstone-of-the-genre work.  Another titular character, this one from Waller/Worley’s Omaha the Cat Dancer (with which I include her lover Chuck).  The Khajiit from the Elder Scrolls franchise.  Flora and her kin from Tom Fishbach’s Twokinds.  Brett Brooks’ reimagining of the 40s-era Pussy Katnip comic in novel form.  Nearly the entire cast of Keiron White’s White Shadow.  Tracy Butler’s Lackadaisy—‘nuff said!  A number of these served as inspiration for my characters, in part the reason they ended up being werecats and not another species of shifter.  And having come to read STRAY by Rachel Vincent and BLOOD OF THE PRIDE by Sheryl Nantus, I’ve come to realize other authors must have felt similarly.

Do you prefer a gory werecat tale or a more serene, nature loving version? 

Well as you may have guessed already from my discussion earlier about my influences, I’m not what one might think of as a “typical werewolf fan”.  Horror really isn’t my jam, though psychological thrillers like Clive Barker’s short story “Dread” (later adapted into graphic novel form by Fred Burke) still send shivers down my spine.  The works are studies in something I find eminently interesting:  what exactly drives people to do the things they do and why they ultimately choose to do them. 

 So while my book includes graphic depictions of what happens to foolish humans when werecats get into their claw/claw/bite groove, they’re not there simply for their own sake.  They’re there to convey to a reader just what frame of mind my werecat characters are in at a given moment, including those where they rip out a man’s Adam’s apple without a second thought.  Nor one whit of remorse.

 I don’t see the options above as an “either/or” proposition anyway; instead, more along the lines of “and/also”.  Both portions of a complex and compelling whole.  Poland’s majestic Białowieża Forest, where buffalo roam amongst some of Europe’s last remaining stands of old growth timber, serves as a backdrop for one of the book’s most tense and violent scenes—between werecats!  Violence, nature, serenity and the emotions that accompany them are all facets of our collective human experience.  Seemed only right to me to share them with my readers.  And I dig it when other authors do the same.

What does the ideal werecat look like in your opinion? Give some Cinematic examples if you have any.

Part of the reason I wrote was because I couldn’t find the kind of thing I wanted to read! So answering your question will be something of a challenge, but I’m up for it.

My weres don’t change completely into feral form like the leading lady did in either of the Cat People movies but are more like the anthro beasties you saw in Sleepwalkers. Think of Michael Jackson’s character in the Thriller video, with maybe a whole lot shorter fur. 🙂  But note they aren’t your garden-variety horror fodder either.

In my books, I focus on three generations of main character Pawly’s family going back to the height of the Cold War. But her ancestral line extends to the days when the Teutonic Knights‎ dominated much of Eastern Europe.‎ I’ve already mentioned my weres’ character designs were heavily influenced by the Khajiit from the Elder Scrolls/Skyrim franchise, and like them my Kindred are a race unto themselves. They have lived in secret for generations, though their interactions in regular human society goes virtually unnoticed. Much like the Wesen from the Grimm TV series, whose transformation sequences, anthro forms and special abilities have much in common with my characters.

What should a werecat NOT look like in your opinion? Give a cinematic example of a werecat that didn’t quite meet your expectations.

I apprenticed in the trades and have a sizeable collection of hand tools.  Even today I still group them by task—wiring, digging, troubleshooting and so on.  A tool may not be suited to all three jobs and that’s fine, if it performs its intended function well enough.  So too, I believe, with werecats.  The ‘cats in Sleepwalkers and Cat People were intended to be mysterious, other-worldly and frightening.  They were key characters in a horror film, and their differences from “regular people” exaggerated for maximum scare and shock value.

 Not so with mine.  Can my ‘cats be vicious killers?  You betcha.  But their anthro forms resemble the Khajiit.  They look like that just because they look like that, not because I intend them to look intentionally horrific.  Like the Khajiit, my weres live in a structured society, frequently keeping to themselves and abiding in their own (like the “Forest Clan” inhabiting the wooded areas of Poland and Belarus surrounding Białowieża National Park.)  Akin to the Wesen from Grimm, the Kindred live among us without anyone even knowing.  And they’d just as soon keep it that way.

 That’s how I wanted to depict werecats.  Indistinguishable from your neighbours in human form. Their anthro forms? A moot point, because they’d endeavour to ensure their neighbours never see them. For their own good, of course.

Stepping away from the cinematic side of things, what is your favourite werecat novel and why?

 Sheryl Nantus’ series BLOOD OF THE PRIDE from Carina Press.  Romance isn’t my jam either, though over the four books of this series author Nantus introduces us to a vibrant and very secretive community of werecats.  Their families have long histories fraught with love and loss, just like I had in mind for my own characters.  And her leading lady, a werecat herself though cast out by her own clansmen, seeks to find her way in life alongside her human lover–a loveable dope of a guy she never would have expected falling for.  Though as the series progresses he too enjoys crowning moments of badassery.  I came to read the series while preparing to query my own book, wondering whether it would be a suitable comp.  Yes it was, and I became a fan in the process.  Win-win.

 The only criticism I have was that author Nantus ended the series after four novels leaving sooooooooo many plot threads to twist in the wind.  I can appreciate that maybe she or her publisher felt it was time to move on, though I’d be ecstatic to find out she plans to continue the series.  (You listening, Sheryl?  🙂 )

Back to cinema, what is your favourite werecat film?    

Can’t really say I have one.  Strange, I know.  I mentioned the other movies and TV shows primarily to compare and contrast my characters and my creative intent.  And in large part the reason I wrote the book.  Because the story I was looking for I simply couldn’t find anywhere else.

Do you have any werecat/werecreature related songs to recommend?

I think many authors keep a “play list”—songs that inspire them during the creation of their concept and their resultant novels’ drafting and editing phases.  For me, it’s less about songs relating to werecats in general and more about my inspirations for my books’ characters and their individual stories.

As I read through my manuscript, I can, for example, tell you scene-by-scene which song on Def Leppard’s 1996 album Slangeach correlates to.  The album was, in fact, one of my primary inspirations for this book and the ones to follow.  The fact that the band’s name is derived from the name of another big cat?  Purely coincidental.  Though strangely apropos as one of the werecat fight sequences will be forever choreographed in my own headcanon with Guns ‘N Roses’ 1987 hit “Welcome to the Jungle” from Appetite for Destruction.

Other tracks which inspired portions of my book include da Lepp’s “White Lightning” from Adrenalize, “Miss You in a Heartbeat” from Retro Active and “Gods of War” from Hysteria.  Dire Straits also fostered my creative processes with several tracks off their 1985 release Brothers in Arms, namely  “Ride Across the River”, “So Far Away”, “Why Worry”, and the titular track.

Do you have a particular favourite werecat artist, what is it about their art that you love?? 

My favorite artists are the ones who’s art appears on my web site.  Can you blame me?

They’ve done for me what the creators of Two Kinds, Lackadaisy and White Shadow have done for their respective series—instill my characters’ anthro forms with endearing human emotions and physical characteristics.  I enjoy and appreciate artwork from all those artists who do likewise.  Astute readers may also notice a strong anime/manga influence in the artists’ work.  That’s not by coincidence.  Another way I pay tribute to fandoms that have been such a large part of my life for so long.

Tell me something that makes the werecats in your works unique. What makes them special?

The werecats in my book are based upon different feline species, a function of  where a given character’s clan originated. The werelynxes, for example, originated in Eastern Europe’s old growth forests. Weretigers, on the other hand, came from the mountainous regions in North Korea and China bordering Russia. But that doesn’t necessarily make them enemies. Being on either side of a global shadow operation to exploit their deadly talents, does.

What are you other passions within the horror genre or out of it?

Two from an early age were trains and electronics—I now make my living as an electrical engineer designing and commissioning railroad and rail transit communications and signaling systems.  I also came to be a “boat nerd” and love Great Lakes shipping lore and legend.  And my book is actually my way of giving back to the various anime/manga/anthro fandoms that have given me such joy these past three decades.

Tell me about your most recent werecat related work.

The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats is torn apart by militaries on three continents vying to exploit their deadly talents. Born in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood following her family’s escape from Cold War-era Poland, were-lynx Pawly flees underground to protect her loved ones after genetically-enhanced soldiers led by rogue scientist and rival werecat Mawro overrun her Navy unit in the Gulf of Oman. Pawly’s family seeks her out in a desperate gambit to return their ancestral homeland and reconcile with their estranged kinsmen. But when her human lover arrives to thwart Mawro’s plan to weaponize their feral bloodlust, Pawly must face a daunting choice:  preserve her family secrets and risk her lover’s life or chance her true nature driving him away forever.

Who is your favourite character within your own work and why?

Ooooh, that’s a little too much like asking a parent “which one of your children do you love most.” Or the same for a pet owner who has more than one. All of my main cast are my favorite, though each in different ways. Some I love because they’re quite like me, allowing me to process my own foibles and regrets through the things they do (or *don’t* do.) Others are a sort of wish fulfillment on my part: not so much in a Mary Sue/Gary Stu but the kind of people I wish I had known. Or an idealized version of the family I wish I had had.

But Pawly, my female werecat main character, encounters them all. Has to learn what context to put them all in, especially when the story reveals challenges to her assumptions. She is my favorite among the entire cast of my favorites, simply because she was the first of my characters to reveal herself to me. (Remember that clawing away at the inside of my head thing? Yeah, her. Jerk.)

Do you have any big upcoming plans relating to werecats? Any new works on the way?

Well, there IS the August 10 release of my debut novel, a paranormal sci-fi thriller and first in my werecat family saga series!
Purchase a copy here.
When I sat down to outline my story, I included events spanning three generations’ worth of this werecat family’s struggles from the height of the Cold War to the present day. Friends who reviewed it strongly advised me trying to cram all that into one book lest it rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace for use as a doorstop! So I wrote the first book and started writing the second while I was shopping it around.

The second book’s draft should be completed by the end of this year. Huzzah! Maybe by this time next year it’ll be ready for release? Publishing is a fickle enterprise so it’s hard to say.

In between promo for the first book and editing for the second‎, I plan to begin drafting the third book. That should be the final one, but I reserve the right to split Book 3 into Books 3 & 4 if tying up all the loose plot threads requires it.  Because it’s hard to know how many words it’ll take me to do that before, you know, I actually write them. Genre word count conventions are a *thing*, you know–just look at how long the Harry Potter books got as the series progressed. So I’ll be taking the same story I’d envisioned to completion, but as of this writing can’t say exactly how much real estate I’ll need to do that.

Will you be available to meet other werecat lovers and fans in the near future, are you doing any outings or signings, or attending any conventions?

Oh, yes!  ‎I’m glad to make new friends in the fandom, either in person or online. By the time this interview goes to press I’ll have been a guest on S. Evan Townsend’s Speculative Fiction Cantina, an internet radio author interview and call-in show. August 13 two fine fellows from South Africa who go by Scratch and Ivic Wulfe will feature me on the South Afrifur Pawdcast, a podcast serving and celebrating the furry fandom with listeners worldwide.

As of this writing I’m schedule to attend writer’s panels at Furry Migration in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA the last weekend in August. The Furry Writers’ Guild has been invited as a Guest-of-Honor; several members including me will be on hand to represent.  I’ll be attending all or part of several more furry conventions across the United States in the coming ‎year, culminating with The Big One, AnthroCon (held every July in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.) The cons I plan to attend all have programming tracks for writers, where Iook forward to sharing stories about our works, our characters and our processes. At a coupe you’ll find me at table doing actual signings!

For anyone interested in meeting me in person or online, be sure to sign up for my mailing list using the link on my web site. My social media contacts are all there too! All your readers are welcome to look me up. I’d love to hear from them.

Do you have any places online where other werecat fans can contact you to discuss your work or anything werecat related? ‘real world’ or would that level of trust not be possible?

Why yes!  I would love to hear from your readers, especially to yak about my characters and their stories.  I am active on Twitter., though I also have accounts on Facebook, deviantArt and fanfiction.net, though I don’t frequent them much these days.  I’ve had a LinkedIn account for years, but that’s mostly related to my day job as an electrical engineer designing and commissioning railroad and rail transit signal & communications systems.

I like to refer people to my web site where they’ll find links to my various social media.  There they can also learn more about me and my books.  And marvel at a gallery chocked full of astonishingly good artwork depicting my characters!  All are welcome to contact me using the form on my web site, or sign up for my mailing list using the form below that.  I keep my listers up-to-date on my writing/publishing progress and scoop them on live events I plan to attend.

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Vampires and zombies have both become seriously popular within the horror genre in movies, do you think that as technology continues to improve werecats and other types of shapeshifter will eventually reach the same kind of status?

I think the technology is already here.  Animation can always do what live-action is unable or unwilling to.  Like it did in Zootopia, for example.  But the bigger issue I see is will.  No one is going to make movies they believe no one wants to plunk down hard-earned coin to see (or, at least, not enough somebodies to make it worth the producers’ while.)  I encountered this pitching my paranormal sci-fi thriller book, first in a werecat family saga series.  I lost count of how many literary agents and publisher in this post-Twilight world included big, bold letters spelling out in their submission guidelines “no vampires, no zombies, no werewolves.”  Which I found out the hard way also applied to shifters of any kind.

Paranormal romance was still taking shifter stories, though, but that’s not the kind of book I had in my heart to write.  (I think it was both antecedent to and a product of the success of the Twilight movies.) I think the same was true for movies in general.  Even before Twilight the market had been saturated with zombie books and zombie movies.  Now after Twilight, the same may be said about vampires and werewolves.  Media runs on a cycle, though.  Successes like Zootopia I think help pave the way forward for an ascendant anthro and shifter genre works.  (A Rocket Raccoon movie? Yes, please!)  I think the book-buying and movie-going public will one day seize upon shifter work and work featuring anthros to snap them up.  Especially offerings by indie publishers and indie moviemakers, willing to do “different” things and unbeholden to the burdens of blockbuster expectations.  Though in the market now with a shifter book of my own and more coming, I hope that day comes soon.