Writing the Modern Vampire: An Interview with Susan Sizemore
by Moira Allen

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"Fangs. Blood. Night. Immortality. Hunger. Fear. Hunter and Prey."

These, according to Susan Sizemore, are some of the essential ingredients of a vampire tale. Sizemore has staked her claim in territory dominated by legendary authors -- and legendary vampires such as Dracula and Lestat. Her nocturnal hunters, however, avoid the "classic vampire" cliches; her "Laws of the Hunt" series is populated with modern vampires struggling with modern times and modern problems (though some problems are a bit larger than life).

If vampires are immortal, so, apparently, is our fascination with them. Western society's romance with the vampire vastly predates Buffy -- or Anne Rice. Even Bram Stoker didn't "invent" the literary vampire, though he may have codified many of our impressions of it. "Vampires are the ultimate outsiders, and mirrors for a host of fears, longings and fantasies," Sizemore explains. "Vampires are malleable creatures. They can be villains, heroes, anti-heroes, antagonists, and protagonists, dark lovers, parasites, protectors, masters and victims. They are the symbols and stand-ins for the things we fear or the things we want to be. We can use vampires as metaphors for gays or AIDS or foreigners or whatever the era finds most fearful and fascinating. They speak of loneliness and alienation, or freedom without ethics. They can be soulless, or pure soul."

Sizemore's vampires explore the question of how a timeless, legendary creature survives in a modern environment. "The idea of immortal beings with supernatural abilities living hidden in the modern world fascinates me. I was fascinated by the idea of exploring what monsters do at home. Okay, so you're an immortal creature with limited mobility but extrasensory powers. How do you live your life? How do you cope with the fast pace of the modern world? How do you make your living? Who are your friends? Your family? Where do you shop? How do you do your banking? Just because you have a taste for blood doesn't mean you don't have to take out the garbage occasionally."

Sizemore's vampires "live in our world, but also within their own, secret, ancient culture. I wanted to deal with issues of acculturation and assimilation among bloodsucking fiends. I wanted to play with the theme of vampires as an ethnic minority, one with a long history, and lots of taboos and traditions that run smack into the realities of the modern world." The result is three novels so far: The Hunt, Partners and The Companion.

So how does one write a vampire novel that doesn't, well, suck? One key is to realize that one writes from the perspective of one's own time and place. Don't try to recreate Dracula; instead, ask what issues and ideas your vampire may reflect from your own era.

Ancient Abilities, Modern Sensibilities

"The image of the vampire can be whatever the era demands," says Sizemore. While not a particular fan of Dracula, she notes that "Stoker caught the essence of Victorian fears and phobias on so many levels that the book really is a classic." Similarly, the popularity of Dark Shadows suggests that in its day, this, too, struck an emotional chord. "Lord Ruthven introduced the vampire as rock star -- well, as Lord Byron, which is pretty much the same thing -- a lock-up-your-sons-and-daughters amoral bad boy in a straight-laced era. The vampire fiction of any era is a reflection of the society of the time." What does the vampire reflect today? "I think our own era has had a little too much of the vampire as irresponsible whiny victim. That's a reflection of our culture -- glamorous and glossy, but a petulant, greedy child at the core. Yuck."

A good place to start, of course, is by reviewing other vampire fiction. "Read the folklore, read the classics -- Carmilla, Varney the Vampire, etc. -- as well as current vampire books. Watch the movies and the televisions shows. In other words, keep doing what you already enjoy. Then -- forget about everything else you've read and seen and develop the vampire universe that is yours. And remember that you can develop as many vampire universes as you want. You don't have to stick to one type of vampire story, but each universe should be consistent within itself."

Sizemore herself doesn't believe that one must attempt to recreate the "classic" vampire. "Ain't no such thing as a 'real' vampire. Certainly not in the blood-sucking, live-forever magical mystical shapeshifting Bram Stoker Hammer movie Anne Rice et al. definition of the term. Or, if there is, I don't want to meet one. There is, however, legend and folklore in almost every culture surrounding beings that have 'vampire' qualities. A lot of these legends developed in Europe due to religious schisms, burial practices, a lack of knowledge of how bodies decompose, and a lack of knowledge about how some sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis affect people. I think vivid imaginations and the enjoyment of telling and listening to scary stories also played a huge part in the growth of vampire legends. Also, I don't discount some 'simple' peasants telling some whoppers to folklore researchers for the price of a few beers as being the basis for a number of vampire legends."

Vampires Are People Too...

Vampires may reflect the issues (and phobias) of their authors' generation -- but they would not "come alive" for us if their authors did not also invest them with sympathetic (or at least interesting) characters and characteristics. Sizemore points out that the key difference between a vampire horror novel and a vampire fantasy tale is the question of focus.

"A horror story's job is to evoke fear, while a fantasy evokes a sense of wonder. A horror story can have magical elements in it, but a fantasy must have magical elements. A horror story that features vampires must, of necessity, show the vampire as the Evil Adversary -- a menacing, terrifying creature whose purpose is to dominate, subvert, pervert and destroy mortal victims. Mortals are required to fight the good fight against the vampire villains, as well as be used as their victims and tools. A horror novel's job is to be horrific. Sometimes the humans win in horror novels, sometimes they're overcome by the evil vampires, but win or lose, the vamp's the bad guy -- no matter how glamorously portrayed. In fantasy, dark or otherwise, vampires have a more ambiguous role. They can be good, bad, or neutral, depending on how the fantasy world in which they live portrays them."

In other words, fantasy writers have an obligation to portray vampires in as much multi-faceted detail as any other type of character. "Fiction writers need to take a stance about whether their vampires are the good guys or the bad guys, to give their stories a moral point of view, to decide whether mortals encounter vampires as friends or enemies or in ways more complex and ambiguous. You have to decide whether your readers should love or loathe your vampire characters. Of course, your readers won't always see what you were trying to do, or agree with your point of view. What you might think of as the sick, evil, twisted vampire villain, your readers might think of as dark, dangerous and deliciously sexy. Or, as I've had occasion to find out, the way I see Valentine (in The Hunt) is not the way many readers see her. I think of her as a gentle, if a bit daffy, and mostly harmless... except for the ability to rip the hearts out of other vampires. Reader comments on her, however, have generally been that she's dangerous and crazy."

While Sizemore's vampires face many typically human problems (keeping relationships together, raising "gifted" children), she also brings an added "human" dimension to each novel by including a human character "who is involved emotionally with one of my enforcers (the vampire cops who are the protagonists of each book). This viewpoint character automatically brings a human aspect into the vampire world. My vampires live parallel lives to humans. They have a holiday in December, but instead of Christmas or Hanukkah, they have Blessing Day, originally known as Blessing of the Knives. Most of my vampires live in family groups, abide by a code of law, and are punished for disobeying those laws." Of course, in Sizemore's world, the punishment isn't going to be a slap on the wrist -- more likely, it involves having one's heart torn out and eaten. (Sizemore's enforcers don't ask what they're eating, but whom.)

Have Fun

The most common mistake authors make with vampires, Sizemore believes, is to take them "way too seriously." She points out that "Just because your characters are dead doesn't mean they have to be depressing. The most important thing to do is establish the rules of what your vampires can and can't do, and live by those rules. Strive for consistency. Remember that Anne Rice didn't invent vampires, she invented her vampires. You get to invent your own."

The key word in vampire fiction, says Sizemore, is 'fiction." "I'm a fiction writer. As such, I get to make things up. Many things that have become 'canon' about vampires were first introduced by various fiction writers, and the movies. If you're going to write vampire fiction, enjoy the fiction that's out there, study the folklore, then pick and choose how you want to portray your own vampires, what supernatural aspects you want to give them, how they are alike and different from other fictional/folklore creatures of the night. You don't have to follow too many rules to write about something that doesn't really exist. You do have to be consistent within the world you create.

"In my own fiction I took the premise that vampires exist, then I developed the type of vampires I wanted to write about. My mythos isn't Joss Whedon's mythos, or Anne Rice's or Laurell K. Hamilton's or Tanya Huff's or Stephen King's or Bram Stoker's... I read one review of The Hunt that called it derivative (but great fun) and I couldn't help but laugh. Of course it's derivative (in certain aspects): I'm writing satire! In order to write satire, you need to have something well known to satirize. Apart from social satire, I'm more interested in writing about a culture and urban fantasy in my books than I am in writing horror (though if I don't scare the reader occasionally I haven't done my job right). What all vampire fiction has in common is that we tell stories about beings who drink blood and have an above-average sensitivity to sunlight. Everything else is up to the writer to reinvent and reimagine."

For more information on Sizemore's "Laws of the Blood" novels and other fiction, visit: http://www.susansizemore.com/.

Find Out More...

Do Werewolves Wear Shoes? Building Successful Horror Characters, by Shaunna Privratsky
http://www.writing-world.com/sf/werewolves.shtml

Shapeshifters: When It's Time to Shift the Story's Shape, by Paula Fleming
http://www.writing-world.com/sf/shape.shtml

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen

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Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

 

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