Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Author Interview: Douglas Rees on Vampire High

Vampire High by Douglas Rees (Delacorte, 2003)(Laurel Leaf, 2005). From the promotional copy: "Cody Elliot hates everything about Massachusetts . All he wants to do is go back home to California . He thinks that if he fails all of his classes, even homeroom, his parents will see that he doesn't like it and will be willing to move back. Unfortunately, his parents don't see it quite like he does. Instead, his dad decides that changing schools would be best for him and gives him two to choose from—Our Lady of Perpetual Homework and Vlad Dracul Magnet School. Knowing that he doesn't want to attend a school with 'homework' in its name, he opts for the magnet school instead. Once there, he realizes that things are very different. First, he is told that as long as he plays on the water polo team, he doesn't have to do any work in class and he'll still get straight As. Then he finds out that most of the people are vampires. Finally, he learns that the vampires want absolutely nothing to do with the 'normal' kids because they think regular humans are a waste of time. So when Cody makes friends with two of the vampires, it begins to upset the entire school. The headmaster tries to expel him and the other vampires begin ganging up on him when no one else is around. It doesn't take Cody long, however, to decide what's more important—getting a free ride in high school or being a true friend." Ages 12-up.

I'm a great fan of your novel, Vampire High (Delacorte, 2003)(Laurel Leaf, 2005). What was the initial inspiration for creating this book?

I was getting ready for work, and I was thinking about something Ken Kesey had said, to the effect that every novelist should, as part of their development, undertake something in each of the major genres -- Western, detective story, all those --. And I was thinking, “Well I’ve always wanted to write a horror story, but the only thing that’s selling these days is vampires, and I hate vampire stories.” (I dislike that morbid, self-pitying Ann Rice stuff.)

So, as I was getting in to the shower, I thought (for I do sound like this in my head sometimes) “Surely even among the vampires there must be some decent chaps. I mean, they must go to high school--”

And as the hot water hit my back, I was looking at the silent halls of Vlad Dracul, with their tinted windows, sussurant students, and sandalwood-scented doors. And that was how the book began to unfold to me.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I think it took about three years, though that seems awfully short. Not long for publication, anyway. I stopped working on it for six months in the middle of things. Just stopped. It wasn’t writer’s block. Perhaps it was just that when, on my wife’s advice, I cut back to half time on my day job, writing got to be too easy. In any case, I eventually finished the book, and started sending it out. I had two or three rejections, then Karen Wojtyla, who was with Delacorte at that time, called and offered me a contract.

Working with Karen was easy. She had excellent suggestions for changes, and got back to me quickly when I responded with rewrites. Then, when we were nearly done, Delacorte started cutting staff, and Karen was one of the first ones they cut. I didn’t know what the status of my book was for a week or two.

Then Karen called and said she’d been offered a job finishing our work on contract. Was that acceptable to me? It was, in spades. So we did it, and it came out without further hassles.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

This question doesn’t have a very interesting answer. Vampire High was the easiest of my novels so far. The hardest part was just sitting still and waiting for the story to unfold itself.

I drew deeply on my early teen years to write it; more deeply than I knew at the time. Certainly I was aware of basing the story on my one year in Massachusetts, when I went to a brand-new high school in Chicopee. What I didn’t realize until a year ago, was that I also was using the material laid down by my three years in Germany as an Air Force brat. Vlad Dracul is really just my old high school transmuted into a series of palaces. It really did have a student center and dormitories, and was a K-12 operation.

Also, the Air Force had taken over a small palace built by the English fascist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, for use by Amerian youth groups. I think some of my notions of the not-quite-right elegance of Vlad Dracul and the jentis generaly go back to that place.

So there wasn’t much need for formal research. About all I can recall doing is looking up Rumanian and Hungarian names. (Parethetically I have to point out that Ileana is neither. The common form is Ilona. But I liked Ileana better, and as she is quite an exotic creature, even among the jenti, it seemed good for her to have a slightly exotic name.)

You're also a writer of picture books. In Grandy Thaxter's Helper, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Atheneum, 2004), your hero faces Death himself. How did this story come to you?

Once again, the library is involved. I was scheduled to work one Sunday at the main branch, and somehow they had given me the Children’s Desk for the first hour. They never put me on the Children’s Desk, possibly because they knew I was interested in
children’s books.

Anyway, it was very quiet, so I did what we were supposed to do in those days, which was to familiarize ourselves with some of the new picture books set out on display. I saw one that, from its title, made me think that it was the story of Grandy Thaxter. The whole thing came to me at once, and I opened the book excitedly, expecting to read the story I’d just imagined. Instead, it was some lame thing about a dog that wouldn’t stop barking. So I thought, “Well, I’ll write it then.” and I did.

What did S.D. Schindler's illustrations bring to the story?

I can’t understand why Schindler hasn’t won the Caldecott yet. I suspect it maybe the same reason they say Cary Grant never won an Academy Award--he made it look too easy. Moreover, Schindler doesn’t have one recognizable style. Each of books is resonant with the the text in a wholly individual way. Perhaps that makes it harder for librarians (God bless 'em) to see the quality of his work.

Anyway, I think that his pictures for Grandy Thaxter are the best work he’s done yet. I still remember the first time I saw them, how beautiful the colors of the evening were, how much I laughed when I noticed the portraits in Grandy’s house following Mr. Death with their eyes. I couldn’t be more pleased with them.

What do you think is at the heart of the enduring appeal of gothic fantasy, especially for young readers?

At a certain age, usually about twelve, we --most of us--begin to perceive reality in a whole new way. It’s the moment Ray Bradbury records in the beginning of Dandelion Wine when Douglas realizes “I’m alive!” With that realization comes a new fascination with death. In my case, it took the form of collecting plastic skulls for a while. All perfectly usual.

Horror in general is another way of confronting this great unknowable. Horror movies are strongly associated with the teen years. It also has something to do with the onset of that other great mystery, sex. We’re not sure exactly what it has to do with castles, monsters and slithering vampires, but we sense there’s something there.

But I would say parenthetically that I don’t think Vampire High has much to do with Gothic fiction. It’s actually a comedy of manners: East Coast vs West Coast; the old, popular American theme of the get-it-done outsider who comes in and changes an intractable situation into a better one. Vampire High has as much to do with Destry or Babes in Arms as it does with The Castle of Otranto. Perhaps more.

Could you also tell us a little about your most recent book, Smoking Mirror: An Encounter with Paul Gauguin (? WWatson-Guptill Publications, 2005)hat drew you to that story? How did you go about the research?

Ah. You’re asking me for my war stories.

I had more trouble with Smoking Mirror than I did with all my other books combined. Even more than with Grandy Thaxter, which essentially went to press unedited because the editor had, apparently, sort of quit without mentioning it to anyone.

Anyway, the decision to write a novel about Paul Gauguin didn’t have any deep roots. Jackie Ching at Watson-Guptill called me one day and told me that she was starting a new series, Art Encounters and she’d read my first book Lightning Time. On that basis, she wondered if I wanted to write a novel for her. We talked about a couple of ideas, and, after much back-and-forthing, Gauguin was settled on.

At the heart of my interest in the story was a single event: the first moment when Gauguin arrives in Tahiti, wearing a gray suit and a cowboy hat, which he’d acquired just before leaving Paris at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He starts up the street from the docks to the military officer’s club, with his long hair flowing down his back, and all the Tahitians start laughing at him. He doesn’t know why. Later someone, perhaps his friend Jenot the marine lieutenant, advised him that, in Tahtian culture there are mahus, transvestites. Now Tahitians don’t think transvestites are funny, they think they’re sacred. But mahus don’t just grow their hair long, they dress and live completely as women. They thought Gauguin was some kind of weird French intermediate transvestite, and that tickled them.

Researching the story of Gauguin’s life in Tahiti was interesting. There’s plenty of information about him -- though there’s a great deal we’ll never know, but opinions about him are so varied that deciding who the man actually was is hard. Was he a self-promoting cynic,or an artistic genius trying to get a living from hi work? A wife abuser, or a husband desperate to reunite his family? A child molester or a lover? The answer to all the questions, I decided, was yes. So, using the novelist’s prerogative, I wrote a Gauguin seen through the eyes of one character. My Gauguin is Joe Sloan’s Gauguin. Joe Solaon’s and nobody else’s.

What advice do you have for beginning writers? What about those authors looking to build a career?

Let me answer those questions in reverse order.

I would love to build a career writing my books. Maybe I’m doing that. But I’m pretty much in the dark about how. I don’t have an agent and have never been able to get one. I don’t go to conferences, and don’t know which ones to go to. I try to get readings in bookstores and usually get turned down by the events coordinators. What I mean is, I am definitely not the guy to ask for advice about building a career.

On the other hand, I am an expert at what to do before that first set of contracts hits the mailbox. Here’s what worked for me.

Recognize that your conscious mind is the servant of your unconscious. I really believe that, by the time your conscious mind “has an idea,” your unconscious has already done most of the work. But the thing is, the unconscious mind doesn’t deal in words. It deals in pictures and feelings. It’s up to the conscious mind to translate it into a form that a reader can absorb consciously, through reading. Now there’s one problem with that: these two parts of the self don’t readily communicate. You have to find the way to facilitate that.

There’s an image I like. In the part of the country I come from, there was a job title called zanjero. It’s a centuries-old Spanish term that means "ditch attendant." His job is to keep the irrigation ditches clear of brush and dirt so that when th rains come the water can flow. Every writer needs to be a zanjero.

Drinking and drugs are both recommended by those who don’t know what they’re talking about. The best way, the most reliable, productive and cheapest way, is simply repetition. When Daniel Pinkwater decided to try to write, he didn’t know whether or not he could. But he knew he could stare at a piece of blank paper and a pencil for an hour. So he did that. Gradually, as he stared, ideas began to come. Within a year he was writing.

You need to find a way to have the courage to be rejected without being devastated by it. In my case, the key was to get several manuscripts incirculation. My goal was to have “One on the gun and three in the air,” an artilleryman’s phrase from World War I. It meant that, when the French 75 was banging away at its usual rate of fire, three were three spent shells flying backwards as the fourth round was being fired. When, eventually, I achieved that happy state, I found that individual rejections meant very little to me. "Oh. Did I sent that one there? Forgot about that. Now who gets it next?” It was a good day when that happened.

It’s also important to reduce the amount of egotism involved in your work if it gets in the way of producing. For years I gave up on things because they weren’t as good as I thought I was capable of doing. The problem with that is, whatever you’re writing at the moment probably is the best you’re capable of producing at that moment. Write it, and you will probably get better. And don’t worry too much about publication. Everyone wants that -- and why not? All I’m saying is, don’t let the desire hurt your work.

There’s a passage in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons in which Sir Thomas More advises a young man named Richard Rich to become a teacher.

“You’d be a good teacher, perhaps a great one,” More tells him.

"Who would know it if I were?” Rich asks.

“You. Your students. God. Not a bad public, that,” More replies.

Writing is hard at any stage of the game, and it’s hardest by far when you’re starting out. No one wants your work, and the walls of the publishing houses seem as impregnable as the Siegfried Line. It helps to be able to think “Me. God. My friends. Not a bad public, that.”

What can your fans look forward to next?

The Janus Gate: an Encounter With John Singer Sargent (Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006), will be out this April. It’s less a historical novel than a ghost story. Only the thing in the shadows is something stranger than a ghost.

Cynsational Notes

See more author interviews as well as recommended young adult titles and YA book links.

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