A vintage Tollbooth post written by Stephanie Greene
You’ve got to admire a writer who says, “I suspect my creative liberties were not insubstantial.” I can see Cynthia with a rueful (vampire-ish? Gothic-ish?) smile on her face as she said that. But let me back up …
This week on the tollbooth we’re talking about our favorite author websites. (I’ll give a listing of who’s doing what on which day at the end of my conversation with Cynthia.) As anyone in the children’s book world knows, Cynthia’s site, Cynsations – http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/
Now, I don’t read a lot of vampire books. (As in none before this?) But as a writer, it’s impossible in this day and age not to be curious as to why they’re such a sensation. Also, I try to find out something about almost any genre by reading at least one book in it. So I blithely emailed Cynthia to say that if she’d send me one, I’d love to interview her and she emailed back and said sure. And then it arrived. And I started to read it. And I thought to myself, Ha. Great beginning … I like Miranda … wait … what the heck? Really? You can do that …? No. He what …? She what …?
“How does Cynthia DO this, anyway …?”
Turns out, Cynthia does it by doing what she wants. But there’s nothing arbitrary about it. After reading a lot about vampires and vampire literature, and what’s being published today, and finishing ETERNAL, and asking Cynthia a lot of questions about which she was endlessly gracious, I realized that only when a writer is firmly grounded in a disciplline can she strike out into new territory in the way Cynthia did. (So that vague idea that maybe I could write a bunch of these and get rich and famous was out, btw.)
Cynthia knows her vampire history. But, as she gently informed me, she doesn’t write “vampire books,” as I called them. “I consider my novels Gothic fantasies set in a multi-creature-verse,” she said. “When I say ‘multi-creature-verse,’ I’m talking about a fantasy world populated with a variety of types of beings. In my case, these include humans, angels, vampires, shapeshifters, and ghosts.”
“But yes, I am a crazy person,” she said. (Whew. It wasn’t just me.) “It was an ambitious book in terms of “mythology” building,” Cynthia said. “I believe in angels (and ghosts too), but somehow I suspect my creative liberties were not insubstantial. I have a well developed history for the vampires, the shifters (going back to the ice age), and the angels. On the craft front, I also had to develop two voices/protagonists, each with their own internal-external arc, and have them mirror in a way that is thematically resonant.”
Okay. I know when I’m in over my head. I decided to back up and start at the beginning, asking questions that a total neophyte might ask in the hopes of gaining some kind of clarification. Here’s what I learned:
Me: Your previous books were set in the real, contemporary world. What attracted you to write books that take place the vampire world?
Cynthia: I began my writing career by taking the age-old advice: write what you know. I crafted daily life stories of mostly middle class, mixed blood Native families of the mid-to-southwest. I enjoyed that, but the time came when I needed to stretch my comfort zone. So, I took the second piece of classic advice: write the kind of stories you love to read. As a tween/teen, I was an avid horror reader, and I’ve always enjoyed speculative fiction in film and the graphic (comic book) format. “Lost Boys,” which combines the two is one of my fave ‘80s flicks. When writing for young adults, vampires and shape shifters seem to most readily lend themselves to resonant metaphors. The traditional themes associated with the vampire include the outsider, the “dark” other, forbidden sexuality, perceived immortality, selfishness v. self-empowerment, and gender-power struggles. All of which are still burning issues in high schools and colleges today. The shifter mythologies tend to go more to “changing bodies” and “beasts” within. Hormones anyone?
Me: What would a writer need to know about the vampire realm in order to write a book about it?
Cynthia: I think it depends on the writer and to what extent it matters whether she needs to “earn her monster.” Not every genre in which the vampire mythology appears has as intense conventions or as high reader expectations in that regard. In a paranormal chick lit novel, for example, I don’t know that it’s necessary for the author to have spent months pouring over folklore from around the globe. But for me, writing Gothic fantasy, it felt like a requirement. (I say this in no way to minimize vampire-inclusive chick lit, which can be hugely entertaining to me personally—it’s just different in approach).
Within Gothic fantasy, though, I would recommend taking a look at the old stories. Think about what they reflected of the time, what they reflect of this time. Consider the early literary treatments, including short stories that preceded the novel Dracula, up to present day. M.T. Anderson’s Thirsty (Candlewick) is a required read. So is Annette Curtis Klause’s The Silver Kiss. Don’t be afraid to go broader, to film or TV depictions. Joss Whedon’s “horromedy” style and “take-back-the-night” approach to “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” has influenced me and countless other writers for the better. Lugosi’s cinematic depiction of “Dracula” inspired a major thread of Tantalize. When writing the Death Day Gala scene of Eternal, I amused myself by singing, “The Monster Mash.”
Me: One reviewer said that “the traditional vampire conventions include the role of human characters and the sexualized experience of the vampire bite.” But your book involves the relationship between Miranda, a vampire, and Zachary, her guardian angel. Is this a departure from those conventions, and if so, why did you choose to write it this way?
Cynthia: Big picture, the vampire is largely—though not entirely—about “the penetration” and “exchange of bodily fluids.” When Stoker Dracula says of Jonathan Harker, “this man is mine,” boy, he’s really saying something (and to the audience of 1897, no less). But an unwanted bite also is an assertion of dominance, a form of sexually-charged, potentially fatal violence. A vampire who, say, enthralls a potential victim is roughly analogous to the date rapist who slips something into a drink. With Eternal, I intentionally minimized that dynamic to focus more fully on the parent-child relationship and redemption theme. I’m not saying there isn’t room for a fresh blood, so to speak, but we’ve seen that “first bite” story a time or two before. I was interested in sort of taking the idea of star-crossed to the next level. This is heaven in love with hell. Think: pre-apocalypse dating scene.
Me: Are there limitations as to how far a writer can go in terms of the horrific?
Cynthia: It’s a judgment call. I’m not going to tell other authors where to draw the line.My feeling is that I do nothing that’s gratuitous, and I honor the humanity of my “victim” characters and costs to them. It’s sometimes said that evil is seductive, and more recent twists on the vampire mythology play into that (Anne Rice before her recent epiphany). But no matter how good he may look in black leather pants, some *thing* that exists by forcibly taking the life’s blood of others should be revealed for what it is—a monster. For me, where it gets interesting is in the descent from neophyte to full-blown and irredeemable bloodsucker. Here, we’re on a sliding slope, where “monster” is more of a work in progress and arguably even matter of opinion. There’s also something to the vampire’s memory of having been something more, a human being, a longing to return to it, even for those who’ve embraced their undead status.
Me: You told one interviewer that your themes are redemption, gender, and the dark “other.” What did you mean by this?
Cynthia: I’ll let readers of Eternal discover for themselves how the first manifests. But redemption is not an uncommon theme for recent books that touch on vampire mythology. It was a driving force behind Whedon’s “Angel” series. But horror—often still today—tends to go for the virgin victim or the sexually empowered and therefore demonic “vamp.” Forget that. I’m taking a more 21st century approach. My female protagonists are not “Buffys” or the preternatural butt-kicking leads that you sometimes see in urban fantasy (though I enjoy such books). Yet they are smart girls who have typical adolescent hormones and (sometimes) passionate love interests. They can ultimately stand in their own two boots without being defined by the boys in their lives. The “dark other” is a refutation of Stoker’s—back in his day, the “dark other” was Eastern European. It’s the idea of the stranger, the perceived threat or invading force. The vampire is often a stand in for this ongoing societal issue. I play with it quite a bit—especially with my shape shifters, sometimes in a more up front way, sometimes more subtly.
Me: This is the second book that takes place in a world you specifically created. What are some of the conventions of your world?
Cynthia: The setting is contemporary, a multi-creature-verse. It’s essentially our world with humans, vampires, angels, ghosts, and shifters (among others?) in the mix. Everyone knows that vampires and shifters exist—though they’re generally believed to be scarcer than they are. Shifters are essentially an oppressed minority, largely living in hiding and passing as human. They’re naturally born people who trace their lineage to the Ice Age. Not just Wolves—many different kinds of shifters. The vampires are ruled by a Dracula—it’s a title passed down or forcibly seized—who oversees an international aristocracy, enforcers, gentry, and peasantry. Establishment vampires prefer to be called “eternals.” The royalty, aristocracy, and some gentry have human servants. There are rogues who resist the oversight and the occasionally clueless neophytes who’re out of the loop. Some werescavengers associate with vampires because the “leftovers” are hearty. Every natural living being with a soul, including shifters, has a (usually invisible) guardian angel who attempts to guide/nudge them in the right direction, but not in any way that’s traceable. The guardians are managed by the rather cranky arch angel Michael, who in turn works for The Big Boss.
That’s as far as we got. I’m very grateful to Cynthia for explaining things as clearly as she did. She’s working on a third book in the series now. I know that I’ll go to that book as a much better informed reader than I was before. Thank you, Cynthia.
The post originally appeared in the Tollbooth on March 2nd, 2009.