Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Author Interview: Deborah Wilson Overstreet on Not Your Mother's Vampire: Vampires in Young Adult Fiction

Deborah Wilson Overstreet on Deborah Wilson Overstreet: "My father was in the Navy, so I didn't grow up in one spot, although we did stick to the east coast (everywhere from Newfoundland, Canada to Orlando). I always thought that I wanted to be a college professor and write books, although I had no idea what kind of professor or what kind of books! I changed my major six times as an undergrad at the University of Central Florida, but finally settled on education.

"Eventually I got a Master's degree from the University of Georgia, briefly joined the Peace Corps (serving in Liberia), and finally taught seventh grade English in a small town in Georgia. My doctorate is in English education, and so I teach pre-service teachers about children's and young adult literature and how to teach English (University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, University of Louisiana, and now University of Maine at Farmington).

"Now I live in a tiny town in Maine (less than 100 miles from Stephen King!). I have a huge English mastiff named Truly and two cats, Jude and Lilah (I had to get a Buffyverse name in there somewhere)."

It appears that you are likewise in the thrall of the fanged ones. Could you tell us about your fascination with the undead?

This is always an interesting question, and yet I never know exactly how to answer it. I didn't grow up as a vampire fan. I never really chose to watch horror movies (although on occasion some cousins and I would watch old black-and-white horror movies on television), and I don't enjoy being afraid. Vampires, however, seemed different. They were intriguing and maybe evil, but not scary.

Perhaps the fascination is that vampires, as we know them, are a literary creation (of course, there were folkloric vampires centuries before this, but they were very different). While vampires have always been interesting figures, vampires now are more fascinating than ever. I believe that this is because of their infinite variety. Even from their beginning in the early 19th century, literary vampires resisted homogeneity. Lord Ruthven (the first literary vampire from John Polidori's 1819 novella, The Vampire) was a rake and a womanizer. Carmilla (from Sheridan LeFanu's 1872 novella, Carmilla) was a lesbian. Dracula (from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula) was legitimately evil.

Since then in books, movies, and television, vampires have become even more diverse. Some are erotic; some reluctant; some good; some conflicted; some predatory; some are even villainous, but rarely are they evil. This post-modern construction of morality where a monster isn't necessarily bad is enthralling.

Congratulations on the publication of Not Your Mother's Vampire: Vampires in Young Adult Fiction (Scarecrow Press, 2006)! For those who've yet to sink their teeth in, could you offer an overview of the book?

Chapter One (Vampires 101) is an examination of the evolution of vampires. I looked at changes in vampires, changes in types of vampire narratives, and changes in vampire metaphors.

In one of the bigger sections of this chapter, I isolated ten classic vampire narratives (five books, five movies) to examine how today's young adult vampires fit within the tradition. Finally, I took the twenty novels in the study and divided them into three categories based on their narrative structures: "Becoming a Vampire" novels (which usually have as a main plot the possibility that a character is becoming a vampire, often against their wills), "Power Negotiation" novels (which usually focus on humans and vampires trying to find their way in life, often specifically in relation to their larger communities), and finally "Romance" novels (which focus on romantic relationships with vampire partners).

Chapter Two (Undead and Unmasked: The Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, about Vampires) contemplates vampires in all their glory. Vampires from all three categories of books, "Becoming a Vampire," "Power Negotiations," and "Romances" will be explored. Specifically, I focused on how the vampires themselves are represented, the conventions that bind today's vampires, the inherent sexuality of vampires, and the interestingly post-modern figure of the good or reluctant vampire.

Chapter Three (Meet, Fight, or Possibly Even Love a Vampire: The Human-Vampire Connection) focused on the humans in vampire narratives. I was particularly intrigued by what humans who are involved with vampires were like. Humans who fight vampires as a calling or vocation or even in a vigilante situation were explored. The circumstances under which humans enter into romantic relationships with vampires were of distinct interest. I also examined how gender issues played out between humans and vampires.

Chapter Four (Welcome to the Buffyverse: Vampires, High School, and the Hellmouth) addressed the cultural phenomenon created by the television shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997-2003) and its parallel series, "Angel" (1999-2004). While "Buffy" and "Angel" don't exclusively concern themselves with vampires, these television shows have made a huge impact on a wide-ranging audience and have brought vampires to a very mainstream audience.

Chapter Five (All the Titles that Bite: Vampire Novels and Scholarship) is a detailed annotated bibliography. Contained here are the detailed summaries of all twenty novels used in the study. Brief summaries of other young adult and children's vampire novels, as well as summaries of vampire scholarship, and other resources are included.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?

Initially, I had thought to just write an article. It was the summer of 1999, and I had just reread The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte, 1990)(author interview). I was again struck by how much I loved the book.

Vampire narratives often have a romantic element, but the idea of an actual, blatant romance with a vampire was a new one to me. I found the idea intriguing and started to seek out other books like this. I came across Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt, 1995)(author interview), loved it too, and began to wonder if there were enough romance-with-a-vampire books out there to write something about.

I also toyed with the idea of just writing an article analyzing romance-with-a-supernatural-character books. This way, I could include Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte, 1997), which is, without question, the most erotic and romantic young adult werewolf book ever written. Ghost stories could also be included, like The House Next Door by Richie Tankersley Cusick (Simon Pulse, 2002). Lisa Jane Smith's Nightworld series, which exclusively features human/supernatural romances, would have also fit. Alas, despite Blood and Chocolate, vampires drew me back. I finally read my first adult vampire books, the Anita Hamilton series by Laurell K. Hamilton. Eventually, I succumbed to the inevitable lure of vampires and realized that not only was I entranced enough but that there was enough material for a whole book.

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

I began thinking about writing something analyzing vampires in the summer of 1999 while I was a professor at the University of Louisiana. I got too busy at work and eventually wrote an analysis of labor history in young adult novels instead ("Organize! A Look at Labor History in Young Adult Novels," The ALAN Review, Fall 2001). Even though I was still interested in vampires, they got pushed aside. In 2001, I became a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. I always used vampire books in my children's and young adult literature classes (often In the Forests of the Night (Delacorte, 1999) and Demon in My View (Delacorte, 2000) both by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes and The Silver Kiss, of course). So even though vampires weren't in my writing, they were still on my mind.

When I moved to Maine in the summer of 2001, I started watching "Buffy" and "Angel" (my cable in Louisiana didn't carry the WB) and immediately became obsessed. This kicked my vampire interest back into high gear. Finally in the Fall of 2002, I proposed a book analyzing young adult vampire fiction to Scarecrow Press, and they accepted. Because of our very heavy teaching load at UMF, I was really only able to research and write during the summer and Christmas breaks.

In the spring of 2004, I proposed my Buffy studies class to my university, and it was also accepted. The intense preparation for the Buffy class also helped me write Chapter 4 (Welcome to the Buffyverse: Vampires, High School, and the Hellmouth). I submitted the manuscript to Scarecrow Press in November of 2004, and the book was released in August 2006.

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

Honestly, this was an incredibly difficult book to write. I loved reading the young adult vampire novels. I especially enjoyed reading vampire scholarship since this was the intersection of several things I love--literary and cinematic analysis and criticism and vampires!

My first major challenge was trying to decide which books to use. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of titles. I had originally isolated 60 fairly current young adult vampire books to use. But since I needed to have a more manageable number, I pared that down to 20. There was no particular formula that I used to choose one book over another; these were just books that seemed to represent the best and most interesting writing and the widest range of characters, narrative structures, and plot lines.

One I decided on the books, trying to decide how to organize the analysis proved to be the most difficult task. Most of my writing involves the analysis of representations of history in literature, and this type of work always seems very straightforward. How to analyze vampires, on the other hand, just didn't come to me quickly. Honestly, there were several times along the way that I almost quit. I sat at my computer for sometimes 10 hours a day and was producing very little. Eventually though, I came upon a structure that seemed to make sense, and things got a little easier (but not that much easier because I really hate to write!).

The Buffy chapter was also especially difficult to write. I'm an associate editor for Slayage, an online, juried, journal of Buffy Studies at http://slayageonline.com, so I'm used to Buffy scholarship being written for Buffy scholars, an audience already completely familiar with the entire Buffyverse. I really felt that this chapter needed to be written for people who may never even have heard of Buffy (are there people who have never even heard of Buffy?).

You teach a class in Buffy studies! (I want to take that class!). What was it about Buffyverse that elevated it to not only a pop culture but also a scholarly iconic series?

What makes Buffy so great? That's easy, the writing. I firmly believe that Joss Whedon (the creator, and occasional writer and director of "Buffy," "Angel," and "Firefly") is a modern-day Shakespeare. His writing is effulgent (to quote Spike) and is nearly matched in quality by the rest of the Mutant Enemy writers. "Buffy" and the parallel series, "Angel," read like a 254-chapter novel. Not only do the story lines manage to be dramatic, comic, romantic, heart-breaking, erotic, suspenseful, and occasionally horrifying, the dialogue is by turn hilarious, gut-wrenching, ironic, and literary--and sometimes all the same scene! The actors, and there's very little attention given to them in the field of Buffy Studies, also contribute a great deal. Without their skills, all the distinguished writing in the world wouldn't have made the series work.

What is the timeless appeal of vampires, especially to teens?

I can point to two studies that really seem to answer that question for me. The first is a wildly fascinating book, Our Vampires, Ourselves by Nina Auerbach (University of Chicago Press, 1995). She chronicles American (and her own) culture and history and how vampires have been portrayed at different times. She hypothesizes that each representation of a vampire is influenced by the prevailing social and sexual mores of the time in which it was created. Therefore, each generation has the vampires that it needs.

In his 1997 article, "Vampire Literature: Something Young Adults Can Really Sink Their Teeth Into," Joseph DeMarco explored the natural connection between vampires and teen readers, believing that vampires represent many of the problems that young adults find themselves working through. Vampires can also appear to be an idealized version of what young adults might admire. DeMarco speculates that vampires represent things that most teenagers are not, but might like to be--fearless, attractive, powerful, cool, independent, unsupervised, and intelligent.

Teenagers sometimes find the path to adulthood rocky and intimidating. Empathizing and identifying with a powerful creature or with the humans who associate with these powerful creatures can be a means of both escape and growth. Literature in general, and horror literature in particular, is a place for young adult readers, who are frequently in the midst of trying to establish their own identities, to try on roles that generally wouldn't be acceptable in real life.

And, of course, vampires are cool!

Cynsational Links

Author Update: Annette Curtis Klause from Cynsations, January 2006.

Gothic Fantasy, Horror, and Suspense for Teens and Tweens from my web site. Annotated bibliography with links to author interviews and much more.

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