GUEST STARRING: LYNN ZUBERNIS – PROFESSOR, PSYCHOLOGIST AND AUTHOR OF BOOKS INCLUDING FAMILY DON’T END WITH BLOOD, FANGASM: SUPERNATURAL FANGIRLS AND SUPERNATURAL FAN PHENOMENA.
Firstly, let’s start with a HUGE thank you to the incredible Lynn Zubernis for agreeing to be Flawkward’s first ever guest interview! We’re thrilled to have you as fandom, nerding out and generally being passionate with abandon are at our core on this blog!
This interview is for anyone who has ever felt shamed into playing down their passions, berated for their enthusiasm, or told ‘it’s only a….’ when swept up in the pure joy of something, be it a show, a band, a sport team or anything else.
It’s no secret to the Flawkward crew (myself and my co-founder, Laura), that we are both huge fangirls, though often of quite different things – but the one thing that unites us in fannish glory is the majesty of Supernatural. For the uninitiated, Supernatural is the longest-running genre TV show in US-TV history and Lynn is a real-life, fandom legend who masterfully combined her professional life with her passion for fandom studies.
If you’re thinking ‘but I don’t know Supernatural’ (we’ll discuss how you’ve managed to miss this at another time) don’t despair – this interview is not just about the magic of SPN (as we call it) but also about fandom, the ways we find our tribe within it and how together, fans have the potential to do so much good.
I know we at Flawkward have had that glorious flash of acceptance and validation in our own fandom experiences, so it’s an honour to delve into that with someone we respect so much.
So get this….
Ok Lynn, first of all you’re our hero. Turning fannish pursuits into a fulfilling and fascinating career is an exciting move and one we’re all going to try to emulate after this interview. So, what made you turn your expertise as a Psychologist to the (sometimes whirlwind) world of fandom studies?
Honestly, I never really intended to change my research area, it just sort of happened organically. When I fell in love with Supernatural and discovered the amazing world of online fandom, my psychologist self became fascinated with the depth of my own fascination! I wanted to figure out WHY I was so besotted and why it felt so validating and core to my identity – why it felt, for lack of a better word, important. The only way to do that was to dive into the research. I did dive into the psychological research first, but it was so uniformly pathologizing that it just made me scratch my head – it wasn’t at all representative of what I was experiencing. So I began to expand my research focus, and that’s when I discovered the (at the time) brand new field of fan studies. Less pathologizing, more accurate, and full of interesting and like-minded people. There weren’t many psychologists in fan studies at the time, so I also felt like I could fill a niche and have something unique to say that would expand the field and challenge some prevailing ideas.
You focus on the positive side of fandom. What do you say to those who perhaps have not read your books (yet) but feel shamed into playing down their passions or are met with those stares we all know from squeeing too much, too loud at the wrong time?
One of the things I always say is that in my clinical experience, the scariest thing is when I ask someone what they’re passionate about and they say “nothing”. All my psychologist instincts immediately go “oh no”. Passion is one of the healthiest, most life-affirming things we can have as humans. It’s good for us – it inspires us, it motivates us, it gives us a reason to make changes and step outside our comfort zones and allow someone else inside to both validate and challenge us. Fandom itself is a healthy thing, over and above being passionate about something. At its best, it’s a supportive community of like-minded people – and that appeals to our innate need to belong and to feel accepted. When we feel like we have support, we can be a lot braver – whether it’s to try something new or to escape something negative or even to try out different ways of being for ourselves. All that comes from love for a television show!
What has been the highlight of the opportunities you’ve had so far, throughout the book research process and just spending time with cast and crew?
Oh, that’s a hard one! I feel incredibly lucky because the entire process has been so fulfilling. I’m grateful that because I was so passionate about this show and this research, I did step outside my comfort zone in a million ways. I mean, this was a person who had rarely even traveled anywhere alone – now I don’t think twice when I need to fly somewhere on my own. I had never felt much sense of self-acceptance before fandom; the support and acceptance of the fan community made me more comfortable with myself, and allowed me to be real in a way I never felt I had permission to be before. This fandom may not always get along or be perfect, but I have found the most wonderful people here – friends for life.
The second wonderful outcome, in addition to the changes in me, is the opportunity to make change in the world and help other people. That’s what I’ve always been pulled to do as a psychologist, obviously, but I never dreamt that writing books could also make such powerful change. Every single time someone tells me that reading Family Don’t End With Blood made them change their mind about suicide and decide to keep fighting, or reading Fangasm gave someone the courage to be real and made them feel validated in who they are, I am profoundly grateful..
When I saw what an impact my first books had in helping fans to feel good about themselves and validated, I had the idea to write a book with the Supernatural actors in which they would share their personal challenges with things like depression, anxiety and self doubt, because what could be more validating for fans than that? That’s how Family Don’t End With Blood came about – Jared, Jensen, Misha, and all the other actors who wrote chapters were incredibly courageous in writing about their personal struggles, and they are all so gratified that the book has had the impact we all intended.
The third highlight is, as you might expect, having the opportunity to get to know this incredible cast. I don’t know how different things would have been if I’d chosen a different television show to research – I suspect very different indeed. Thanks to the casting agency and Kripke’s initial vision, and subsequently the tone that Jared and Jensen established on set (later supported by Misha and other regulars), this is a group of actors who are uniformly kind, caring and willing to challenge the status quo. Early on, they decided to let down some of the barriers that fame and celebrity inevitably create so they could get to know their fans as people – and that has made all the difference. It has been a privilege to know them for over a decade, to have them contribute to all my books, and to work with them while they wrote their chapters for Family Don’t End With Blood. I’m so honored that they trusted me to put that book together, so much that they opened up and shared their very personal struggles in their chapters.
And yes, I’d be lying if I said that every time they’ve invited me to the set, it hasn’t been a highlight of my life. Everyone who works on that show is so welcoming and caring and genuinely appreciative, and it makes for an incredible experience. It’s no secret that I adore the fictional character Dean Winchester – one of my favorite moments, that I’ll never forget, is walking through the beautiful Vancouver woods one day behind Jensen Ackles. He was in character, getting ready to film so dressed as Dean, and I looked down at his feet and those boots and thought to myself ‘I’m walking in Dean Winchester’s footsteps right now.’ It was a powerful moment, as close as I’ll ever get to meeting the fictional character who means so much to me.
Fandom gets a bad rap. The link to the meaning of the word ‘fanatic’ haunts popular culture and breaking down these perceptions is something you’ve worked hard on in your books, through the exploration of what fandom can do, mean to people and achieve. What is the most positive fandom experience you’ve had or been privy to?
Oh my, again so hard – there are so many! At every single con, someone loses their photo op ticket or their book of autographs or something equally precious – and 99% of the time, another fan turns it in and gets it back to them. I’ve seen fans band together to pay for another fan’s surgery. I’ve watched in awe as the Supernatural fandom, again and again and again, rises to the challenge and contributes to numerous charity projects, from building orphanages to rescuing dogs to supporting OutYouth.
For me personally, there have been a few positive moments that stand out. The first time a woman came up to me, sobbing, to tell me that reading Fangasm had allowed her to understand her daughter for the first time. They were at the convention together, and the daughter was behind her, also tearing up. Needless to say, I joined them. The young woman who told me that she keeps a copy of Family Don’t End With Blood on her nightstand, so she can reach for it and read Jared’s chapter every time she feels like she can’t go on. The woman who came up to my vendor table a few cons ago and told me that Rob Benedict’s chapter in Family Don’t End With Blood had saved her life – literally. She had just read his chapter, which takes you moment by moment through the stroke he had at a convention – when she herself started experiencing symptoms. Because she recognized them immediately, she’s 100% okay. I mean, you can’t get more positive than that!
Those are just a few examples of how fandom and the fan community and this SPNFamily, both cast and fans, can make change in the world and in each other.
Supernatural is a particularly wonderful example of a two way relationship between Show and Fans….your books have played a key role for many fans in finding validation in their feelings towards Show, but also bringing a sense of access and proximity to the stars. How has your relationship with the cast changed or impacted your inner fangirl and feelings towards Show?
I think, at this point, I’ve found a way to retain my fannishness and my passion for the Show, which is important to me. When I first realized I had to negotiate multiple identities as a researcher and as a fan, it was awkward – but that was largely my own lingering discomfort with being a fangirl and that internalized shame that used to come with it. I think I’ve worked through most of that in the process of making that argument with everything I’ve written, so now it’s easier to mesh my multiple identities. I value my fangirl identity and would never want to lose that – it’s got all those positive impacts I talked about earlier, after all. When I’m a vendor at a con, I still close up shop and go into the ballroom for every panel. I’m still “working” because I’m live tweeting and taking photos, but I’m fangirling too. I still get butterflies on Sundays before the Jared and Jensen panels, and I hope that never changes.
For most of the other actors, I may not fangirl them with those accompanying butterflies, but that’s been replaced by a genuine fondness for them – and that is also a positive thing. I work hard to tweet their panels and take some decent photos because I know they appreciate it, and that’s a reward in itself. I appreciate all the time and effort they’ve put into writing chapters for my books and doing interviews and I just genuinely like them as people. In fact, unexpectedly perhaps, I like them more the better I’ve gotten to know them. I’m ready to line up in the “elect Misha Collins” brigade for whatever he decides to throw himself into!
As for the Show, I am still happily fandom monogamous and in love with the Supernatural universe and its fascinating fictional characters. I’ve always said that I fangirl the characters even more than the actors, and that hasn’t changed. That’s not to say that I love every episode or story arc, and I’m critical at times in my episode reviews, but overall I am still very much a passionate Supernatural fan.
Now for some fun and make believe. What’s the one thing you would like to see happen in Supernatural – no matter how kooky or unlikely?
I’d love to see Sam and Dean retire and settle down to ‘supervise’ the next generation of hunters or something. Cas is immortal, so he’d be out there hands-on helping, and AU Bobby is back so he’d also be part of the supervising section. Jody and Donna would still be out there kicking ass along with the rest of the Wayward gang and AU Charlie. Of course Rowena is there too, who can stay young and continue to be both an ally and an occasional thorn in the Winchesters’ sides. It’s my kooky fantasy, so I’d bring Crowley back too, because I so wanted more from him and his mum.
Alternatively, just give me a day in the life of the Winchesters – the episode Robbie Thompson wanted to write and didn’t get to and that I would KILL for. Winchesters grocery shopping, or taking a day off to go to the beach for a day, or doing laundry – whatever! No case, no monsters, just doin’ their thing. Now I can’t stop thinking of it, so thanks a lot…
If you could be cast in the Supernatural-verse, who or what would you be and why?
Another long-lost Winchester, I guess. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a Winchester if given the chance? Hopefully one who doesn’t end up trapped in the hell and forgotten…
What’s your favourite ever episode?
That’s an impossible question! I’ll try to limit it to five, because even that is difficult. I adore ‘The French Mistake’, ‘Baby’, and ‘Fan Fiction’ – they’re my go to episodes to watch when I need a shot of Supernatural. But I also love ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ for entirely different reasons. And if I kept going, which I really want to, you’d have ‘Don’t Call Me Shurley’, the pilot, ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’, ‘Swan Song’ and ‘In My Time of Dying’. Oooh and ‘Monster At The End of This Book’ too!
Ok, if you had to create a cocktail to match the personality of a character of your choice, what would it consist of and what would its name be?
I have no clue about making cocktails! I just appreciate what other people come up with. I do think it would be fun to have one to match Rowena’s personality – something close to a Bloody Mary or that one that’s made with Clamato (yummm) because red, of course, but nice and spicy and with some pretty garnishes. Hope that sounds appropriate to you, Ruth Connell!