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Interview with Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis

Kathy Larsen, a professor at George Washington University, and Lynn Zubernis, a clinical psychologist and professor at West Chester University, have together authored four books on fandom, three of them on the Supernatural fandom in particular. Their most recent book, Fan Phenonema: Supernatural, was so popular it sold out on Amazon in a matter of days.

You’ll hear me say that I fangirl the fandom almost as much as I fangirl the show (almost). As such, I tend to buy books on fandom in paperback instead of e-book because I mark them up. I underline, asterisk, make comments, and write in my own questions. It is to my great pleasure that authors Kathy and Lynn agreed to answer a few of those questions here. My many thanks to them both.

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How did you develop the focus for the book and the topics to be included?

Kathy: We knew we wanted to include multiple perspectives, as we had in Fandom at the Crossroads, and having done that book as well as Fangasm, we were well positioned to know the types of voices we wanted to include from all areas of production – fans, academics and creators. The original impetus behind Crossroads was the desire to allow some under-represented voices some space on the page, and at the time we were thinking of fans as those under-represented voices. It was only gradually that we came to realize that the creators didn’t have an appropriate venue either. Sure there were interviews, but there was no space for conversation between all constituencies.

Lynn: We were lucky enough to have an abundance of submissions for the book, covering a wide array of topics – and frankly, it was really hard not to include all of them, since everything about this Show fascinates me! I think we had an advantage from having been in the fandom ourselves for six or seven years, so we knew not only some of the foremost researchers, but also the fans who wrote equally thoughtful analysis and meta on the Show. We eventually narrowed our selection to include a breadth of topics, but also to select chapters that had a common theme – appreciation of the Show and the fandom. We especially wanted to highlight the idea of family that’s so integral to Supernatural and has become a way of defining the fan community as well.

Cast and crew, as well as fans, contributed to Fan Phenomena. I liked that this was reflective of the participatory nature at all levels of SPN Family, we’re not just a one-sided fandom. What inspired you to put the book together, and how did you choose contributors for the book?

Lynn: One of the first research ideas that fascinated us when we began writing books on Supernatural was the idea of the ‘reciprocal relationship’ between fans and the creative side (showrunners, writers, actors, crew, etc). Supernatural was ahead of the curve in fostering a close relationship between fans and producers, both in the interaction and familiarity the cast had with fans at numerous conventions and in the way the Show began to break the fourth wall and write fans right into the Show’s canon. When we were offered the opportunity to write about why this “little show that could” had become a true fan phenomenon, we knew that was a big part of the reason. By that time, we had wrestled with the place of the “aca-fan” as well, struggling to integrate our fangirl and researcher sides (thus the embarrassing misadventures we confessed in Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls). So the academic viewpoint was added too.
We also wanted to show that there were many commonalities among the three perspectives – fans, academics, cast and crew are all united in their love of both the Show and the fandom. There’s a reason everyone calls us the “SPN Family.”

As we set out to select contributors other than the academic researchers, we had an advantage from having written two books on Supernatural already, which had allowed us to go to the set and get to know the actors. Jared, Jensen and Misha had all contributed their thoughts to Crossroads and Fangasm, and had been tremendously supportive of our books – we still can’t get over the fact that they read them and liked them! We invited Misha to write a chapter for Fan Phenomena: Supernatural because his experience with Random Acts fit in well with the theme of fandom as a family and as something life-changing, and because over the years we’d had some deep conversations with him about the phenomenon of Supernatural. He jumped at the chance to write a chapter, and collaborating with him was an absolute pleasure. We also invited Richard Speight, Jr. to contribute. Richard has transformed the con experience almost single-handedly, and we wanted to offer him the opportunity to share the evolution of the conventions from his unique perspective.
We had interviewed Supernatural’s brilliant cinematographer Serge Ladouceur and spent time on the set with him, so we were very excited to include a chapter with his insights. We knew firsthand how thoughtful he is about the process. The publisher, Intellect, has a focus on the visual appeal of the shows included in the Fan Phenomena series, so who better to interview than Serge?

Everyone in the SPN fandom depends on the accumulated knowledge of the Superwiki – not just fans, but actors, writers, producers, everyone! Asking Jules Wilkinson to pen a chapter was a no-brainer, and her perspective as the ‘keeper of SPN knowledge’ was invaluable. Finally, we wanted to include the perspective of a fan vidder in the book, since there has been less focus on vidding (and fan art) than on fanworks like fanfiction. Having been in the fandom for years, we immediately thought of Ash48, whose videos have made us laugh, cry and squee for years. We were privileged to include her interview, and her artistic eye was a great help in putting together the interview with Serge too.

And who designed the book cover? Did either of you have any say in that, or did the publisher come up with the anti-possession symbol/Impala combination? It reminds me a little bit of the racing stripes on the hoods of the muscle cars, back in the day.

Kathy: The publishers already had an idea of what they wanted the covers of the series to look like. They did ask us for suggestions about what would capture the series in one image. The Impala was a natural choice!

Lynn: All the books in the Fan Phenomena series have silhouettes of iconic images on the covers. What’s more iconic for Supernatural than the Impala? We provided options, and once it was decided to go with the car and the protection symbol, we selected the color, which turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Can you guess why we went with the color we did?

As you were editing the chapters, was there anything you learned or that surprised you? Did you have any headsmack moments or revelations?

Kathy: Not so much revelation as confirmation. It’s been clear to us for a long time how very special this fandom is and what a unique relationship exists between fans and creators here. Editing the collection certainly brought this home to us again. It also confirmed how much meaning the series has for fans and the wide spectrum of reasons it resonates. It’s easy, I think, to get comfortable with the way you view something and forget that there are so many other reasons why people love the same thing you love.

Lynn: Working with Misha and Richard as writers was a treat – we knew they’d be good at it, but it was more fun than we expected. I also loved hearing Jules’ perspective on the history of the Show and the fandom – I had heard many of the facts before, but had never seen them laid out so coherently. Several of the academic chapters made me think, which engaged my researcher brain – and several of the fan-penned chapters made me reach for the tissues as I got all emotional. I think I learned the most from interviewing Ash48 – I’m a writer, not a vidder, so the process fascinates me. I was surprised to find that our creative processes were not all that different!

I don’t know if there’s a question here, but I was struck by the interview with Serge Ladouceur. I’ve seen so much fan discussion on the symbolism in Supernatural’s cinematography, yet I noticed that in this interview Serge focused on the technical nature of his work. I imagine that with Supernatural’s tight shooting schedule there isn’t a lot of time for debate on how to set up lighting to symbolize X, Y, and Z, or which camera angles will highlight parts A, B, and C of the story. Yet Serge delivers a product that is fodder for much discussion and dissection. Where the viewers look for meaning in every detail, much of what Serge talks about in his interview is truly photography in action—using the light you have and the composition to create a mood, what needs to happen technically to get the shot you want. The rest just seems to be instinct, and his instinct is spot on. For example, when he’s asked about the power poles in Clap Your Hands If You Believe, if breaking up the shot was symbolic of Sam’s imperfection without his soul, his response pretty much was, Well – the poles were there and I had to work around them to get a good shot!

Lynn: Serge has incredible instincts, but I also think he’s quite aware of the important part that lighting and color play in telling the story. I was struck by what he said about the entire process of creating the Show being a collaboration, and by his inclusion of the viewers as part of that collaborative process. We all create meaning from what appears on the screen – actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, viewers.

Whenever I’ve had the privilege to be on the Supernatural set and watch Serge work, I’m impressed by how that spirit of collaboration plays out. They are the hardest working group of people I can imagine, but they work smoothly and seamlessly, everyone knowing their part and doing it, everyone clearly invested in turning out the very best show they can make. Serge jumps up and down even more than the director, constantly going back and forth between the ‘circus’ and the set, making sure everything is exactly as he wants it. That sort of attention to detail and investment in the process are behind the way his shots just seem to “work”, I think.

Mary Dominiak wrote a chapter on how the SPN Family will mobilize behind social causes and charities. In fact, the Supernatural Fandom site is dedicated to raising funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. What do you think it is about the people of the SPN Family that makes them quick to help others?

Kathy: I don’t necessarily think that SPN fans are quicker to help, or more charitable. I do think that in this fandom there are so many opportunities to demonstrate that kindness. We come together online, at conventions, we are brought together via the generosity and kindness of the creators. We have really become a family (at times a little divisive or dysfunctional but a family nonetheless) and family pulls together. It’s also the underlying message of the show.

Lynn: I think Mary and a few other contributors make an important point about how the Show itself inspires caring about and helping others. I also think that many of us who identify as genre fans or geeks or whatever you want to call it see the world a bit differently – many of us haven’t always been “the norm” and so we’re very aware of anyone else who is “othered” or disadvantaged in any way. Fandom has an ethos of doing something to help, not just talking about it – and the many charitable causes that have been organized help us do just that. I also think that many of us feel that Supernatural has given something valuable to us, and we’re very grateful – and thus, we want to give back.

Summer hellatus is almost upon us. How do you survive a hellatus?

Kathy: Catching up on all the work I didn’t get done while the show was airing. It’s cruel that academic calendar and the broadcast schedule are contiguous. It’s also my time to catch up on a lot of other series that I’ve missed. Summer is a time to write and power-watch. It’s also a time to re-re-watch the previous season. I find I often see things differently when I watch episodes back to back. Things that didn’t feel right before suddenly make more sense, connections I didn’t make before are easier to make.

Lynn: Hopefully this book and our ‘fangirl roadtrip story’, Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, will help relieve the boredom of hellatus a bit. That and lots of episode rewatches.

Sarah House, aka Ash48, said in the book you can enjoy the creative process and making something for yourself, but ultimately you are creating something with your audience in mind, hoping they will get something out of it. What are you hoping the readers of Fan Phenomena will get out of reading it?

Kathy: My hopes are a by-product of the original decisions that were made about the scope of the book. I hope the book will provide some insight for all concerned. Fans will see what academics are doing with the series, academics and fans get to hear from the producers, producers hear the fan side and the academic side. My hope too is that all this dialog across these boundaries contributes to even richer conversations all around. We all have a lot to learn from each other.

Lynn: I hope readers will feel a sense of joining in the celebration of this amazing Show that’s changed so many lives – that fans will see themselves reflected in this book and remember all the reasons they fell in love with Supernatural. I also hope the diverse perspectives will give some insight into how the people who make the Show feel about it, and about the fans. I think readers will be pleasantly surprised to find that we really are all SPN Family.

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We do all have a lot to learn from each other, and I certainly feel a sense of celebration when reading about SPN Family, how we celebrate the show, and how we celebrate each other.

You can follow Kathy and Lynn online at:

@FangasmSPN

fangasmthebook.wordpress.com

fangasmspn.tumblr.com