The second part of a two-part interview with Suzy McKee Charnas
If you haven't yet acquainted yourself with Suzy McKee Charnas, then get on it, 'cause you're missin' out. An award-winning and highly respected author, Charnas has won critical acclaim for her mastery of multiple genre writing and her overall skill as a storyteller. Join us in the second of a two-part exclusive interview as she weighs in on her recently published Stagestruck Vampires and Other Phantasms, the time she makes for her cat, and her affinity for charming, moody, dashing, and intellectually stimmulating college professors...who also happen to have an insatiable thirst for humanity.
What’s your personal relationship with Dr. Weyland?
Apart from what I wrote above, here are a couple of -- anecdotes?
I once asked a talented psychic acquaintance about this. I said, "What part of my psyche does this creature come from?" She said, more or less, "Psyche, schmyche, the character is based on a previous lifetime of yours in the pre-medieval Middle East. You were a very young soul, lacking in empathy and so inclined to violence as young souls often are. You were a hired assassin for a minor local chieftain, and very good at your work too."
And: having begun writing "Unicorn Tapestry", the third and central chapter of the novel, I found myself stuck in that first interview between Weyland and Floria. Clearly, I thought, this story was a pas de deux that must end in her death because once she knows the truth about him, how can he let her live? But I couldn't see my way there. I also didn't know how in Hell she could find out that he was a real vampire without first going through a lot or dull dancing around his cover story (nervous breakdown). Stuck, stuck, stuck.
Then I had a dream: I look down on a cliffside path high above a sparkling blue sea. The path is blocked high up along its course by a rockfall from the steep slope above, and the boulders have trapped Weyland in a pathside cave. I have to get him out for things to progress.
I see that there's a ship on the water below, a medium sized boat with one tall mast. Somehow, I up-end the mast and use the end of it to pry the fallen rocks apart. Out steps Weyland, who continues walking up the path.
I woke up laughing my ass off: not only had the dream shown me the absurdly simple solution to my dilemma -- the story is not about death at all, but about love -- but it has used blatantly Freudian terms to do so (cave; ship mast; got it?). I've always considered Freud a neurotic who managed to foist the particular kinks of 19th-C Mittle-Europa off on the rest of the world as inescapably true for everybody; so somebody's having a good joke at my expense. Moreover, when I sat down to those few, blocked pages that morning, out on the page came Weyland's answer to my problem of getting past his cover story: "I seem to have fallen victim to the delusion that I am a vampire," he
tells the therapist, skipping a whole lot of flapdoodle about a supposed nervous breakdown and taking them both right to the core of the story right away.
Finally -- if there is such a thing as finally -- Weyland has always looked, to me, like the cover photos of paleontologist, poet, and essayist Loren Eiseley who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and whose book "The Immense Journey" (about evolution) was a major eye-0pener during my college years. I
never met the man, but he was the first one who opened up the idea of the very deep past -- Weyland's past, in fact -- to me. "The Vampire Tapestry" is dedicated to him in thanks for that long-ago inspiration.
I am an avid theatre-goer and a semi-regular professional working actor/director. You detail a lot of the theatrical process in "Stagestruck"; what’s it like seeing someone else’s interpretation of your beloved characters on stage? Has anyone ever come close to "nailing" Weyland in performance? Or Floria? Or anyone else you forged from your own pen?
I *loved* seeing my words and my characters floated out to a new public through the interpretations of artists in another field, all alive and pulsing with energy and their own talents. What a thrill! It was l like encountering the story for the first time again, completely fresh and exciting. Almost all the stage Weylands I've seen have brought to life a vivid and interesting embodiment of the character. I've had two very physical actors do him -- one was a young dancer, one an older man proficient in Asian martial arts. One caught Weyland's physical beauty, alienness, and seductiveness; the other embodied his projection of physical power and menace. Nearly everyone seems to find something they can work with in the character, and it's always fascinating to me to see what that something is.
Floria is more problematic. Everybody wants to play her as smarmily seductive, but she's *not*; she is the one seduced, in spite of herself (and no real, competent therapist ever present that kind of absurd coyness with a patient. I want to see her strong and resisting, not batting her goddamn eyelashes like a brainless cheerleader, and that has happened, but not *enough*. I'm hoping to see some new actors take on the show sometime soon. I always try to attend at least part of the rehearsal process, to help answer questions but mostly to marvel at the way these strong professional egos manage to work together (most of the time. There was this horrible debacle in New York . . . but let's not get into that. It only lasted a couple of weekends, thank God).
Your use of language is skillful, provocative, and poetic. Who or what were your major literary influences?
Who knows? I read everything as a kid; I mean it. I spent all my time at the library, or going to or coming from the library (there was a good branch close to my home), and when I'd finished the kid books I wheedled my way into the grown-ups' books so as not to run out of reading material.
The writers I remember best and most fondly are mostly older ones -- Dumas, Sabatini, Poe, Hawthorne, Buchan, Rider Haggard, Anthony Hope, and of course in earlier days people like Walter Farley, Jack London, Will James and Felix Salten, who wrote about animals. It was mostly adventure rather than highbrow literature, until I hit people like Herman Hesse in my college days, discovered Jane Austin and Hemingway and historical novelists a little more svelte than James Schellenbarger and Mika Waltari -- like David Stacton ("On a Balcony") or, later, the wonderful Cecilia Holland.
And all along, of course, I read SF/F authors avidly, loving the usual assortment.
Favorite authors in horror literature?
Oldies -- Poe again, A.E. Coppard, R.W. Chambers, Bierce, Saki, Machen -- primarily those whose forte was suggestion and manipulation, rather than the more modern "gross-out" stylists, the "Smelly Zombies Suck Your Eyes Out Through Your Armpit and then Feed Them to You" school. Truth to tell, I generally avoid modern horror because it's -- uh -- how can I say this nicely? BORING? I realized this when I found myself skimming the gorier bits in books by Steve King, John Shirley, Kris Rusch (I think -- ?), and Clive Barker -- not because the work was nauseating (it wasn't-- just more squirting guts, ho-hum) but because I wanted to get back to *the story*. To me that means the *effects* that drastic events have on characters I care about: that's how you know the weight and power of the horrible events, not by counting blood-spatters and screams described on the page.
When I do indulge in more mainstream horror, I have embarrassingly simple and retro taste. I like ghosts, ancient tombs and graveyards, haunted ships and lighthouses (Fritz Leiber -- great stuff!) -- or, better yet, something deeply subtle and twisted, but *interesting*, damn it, not just physically deconstructive, if you know what I mean. For example, I loved "The Silence of the Lambs", but not for the physical mayhem, which was just -- more physical mayhem. I loved it for the character of Clarise Starling and for how well her reactions interpreted for me the horribleness of Hannibal Lecter by his effect on *her* (he, on the bare facts is ludicrous -- about as convincing a "psychiatrist" as I am a trapeze artist). And I loved her for the realistic care with which she was drawn: a woman in a man's world who nonetheless had women friends and colleagues who are important to her, as real women do. Her realness made up for Lecter's clownish devilishness and for Buffalo Bill's pattern-book nuttiness, and made them register as real-like and, so, effective. I also loved it that the kidnap victim worked out at least some of her own salvation by her wits instead of waiting around to be rescued (or skinned). So -- how typical is that reaction among readers of this book who love horror? Probably not very.
Guess I'm just -- weird.
Cool. We like weird people here. What advice could you give to young upstarts interested in a professional career in one of the sixty-eight things you’ve mastered in your lifetime? Alright, you got me... narrow it down to a career in writing.
Oh, you don't want to hear this -- you really don't. But if you insist on the truth (and there's not much point in anything else, is there?), my advice is to do *anything* else that you have some interest in or aptitude for, with writing as a last, last resort. I got into this game in the early seventies, thinking it was what it maybe was, a little of the time anyway, in the thirties -- talented mavericks working with skilled and devoted editors to bring really good stuff to eager readers, even though nobody made much money at it: had but rewarding creative work done for love and achievement.
Well, that was already nonsense if it had ever been other than myth, and since I was first published more and more of the fun and the love has been sucked out of writing decade by decade. The major culprits are the corporate monsters which devoured independent, high quality publishing houses and crushed their
creative spirit, such as it was, with bottom-line accounting tailored to produce profits on the scale that corporations are used to. This meant that all but guaranteed best-sellers have been increasingly pushed to the wall if not ejected outright from the system. Then the independent bookstores got eaten by the big box bookstores (B & N, Borders, etc.), narrowing possibilities even more.
Now, with the advent of electronic publishing (that has yet to pay off in any serious way, but people are so desperate to write publish they'll gladly do it for nothing), there is so much competition for readers' attention that you can't make a living without spending at least half your time on publicity for your own work, which means you become less and less a creator and more and more a publicity machine, part salesman, part performer. Meantime, the reading public has become more and more hooked on sloppy junk fiction like "The Da Vinci Code" or the latest Danielle Steele formula fluff, while the younger people who might have become addicted readers have less and less time for books as visual story-telling on various sizes of screens bid successfully for their attention *and* coarsens their sensibilities with obvious plotting, fake character, and relentless "excitement" for its own sake.
There are *always* exceptions, but frankly I see the smart talent moving into computer games even as SF and fantasy fiction becomes more and more game-like. If you love games and stock characters made out of mix-and-match "qualities" and "powers", this may be the world for you. Or you can stick to your guns, get a day job, and keep on writing in your spare time until the new crop of small presses (who've been trying to pick up the quality fiction dropped by big-name, big-profit publishers) become markets that a writer can sustain herself on. Or -- this was the latest market buzz I heard -- go for cross-over fiction, fantasy and romance/erotica. Seems to be the big new thing going, or anyway that's what I've heard some editors say.
Oh, and read; hunt out good books, old and new, and keep on reading, just in case. That's how people learn to write: by reading. "Creative writing" courses are strictly supplemental.
This is not a happy business right now, at least not among writers in and past middle age. Before anybody takes my advice on all this, go and talk to younger writers, preferably not newbies but "recentlies", and find out how things look to them. Could be a whole different picture from their point of view.
We at bellaonline's horror literature site are extrememly appreciative of Suzy's time in answering our questions. Once again, you rock. Don't forget to check out Suzy's captivating Stagestruck Vampires and Other Phantasms and weigh in with your own thoughts about this author's work.