Writer’s Corner for September, 2005
It’s not too often that I get totally bowled over when I read a book, but I was knocked off my feet when I read Susan Squires’ first book Danegeld. Here was an historical novel that felt real. The setting, the mood, the characters, the writing – all of it wove a spell around me and I was lost in the book in a way that doesn’t happen very often to a Constant Reader like me.
Susan Squires went on to write more books, including Body Electric, which was an unusual science fiction romance, and No More Lies, a thoughtful romantic suspence novel with a scientific background. Her latest book, The Companion is the first in a series about vampires (to be followed next month by The Hunger). Susan Squires’ vampires are not just guys in tuxedos who roam the night – her vampire society is one of the most unusual ones I have ever encountered. Normally, I am not a big fan of vampire stories, but the world Susan Squires has created for her vampires is logical and intriguing and The Companion is one of the best paranormal reads for this year.
In a time when so many books are bland and interchangable, it’s a real treat to read one by an author with a distinctive voice.
Let’s talk about your first book, Danegeld. The word I’ve seen most often used to describe it is “gritty”. The trend now in historical romances is toward the light side with history as wall paper and not much grit to be seen. Was the rise of the lite historical romance behind your change to paranormal – or was the paranormal genre always your first love?
Well, I grew up reading historical fiction, as well as science fiction/fantasy. As I look back, what I liked about both genres was the idea of “entering another world”, be it an historical world or one made up. When I decided to write, I always knew I wanted to do the kind of book that took the reader away from their everyday life, not only with sympathetic characters and a compelling story line, but also by creating an interesting and perhaps unfamiliar world. That requires detail. I love reading fun romps only lightly dusted with real history. But what I strive to do is use both real historical detail and made up but consistent rules of paranormal (not only sci-fi, mythic creatures like vampires, but magic and psychic ability) to make the book an intense experience. I call it “really going there.” You don’t have to make the detail intrusive, but it has to feel “real.” And of course, when I decided on Saxons and Vikings for Danegeld, that automatically meant “gritty!”
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Body Electric and No More Lies both had strong science fiction elements in them and you used those to explore ethical issues current in society. Could you give us your thoughts on genre fiction and how it is often the first to deal with new issues, especially those that grow out of science.
This is a really interesting question (and I like that!) First, ethical issues creep into all of my books, not just the sci-fi romances. It’s part of “really going there” for me. What would it be like to be made vampire and have to drink blood, to actually create an AI and need a body for it, to be a psychiatrist who thought she was going mad? And part of that is always, how would the characters in the book feel about what they were doing? Would they think what they are doing is right? What are the consequences of the actions or plot development that occur? So I like ethical questions. That said, if you think about it, genre fiction are pretty much the only kind of popular reading that deals with the consequences of science. De facto, it ends up being the first to deal with the ethical issues that grow out of science. A wonderful exception to that rule, by the way, is The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweill, which I read while writing Body Electric.
Vampires. What is it about vampires that makes them so fascinating? I found out that Dracula is the second most popular character in movies (after Sherlock Holmes), and vampires are very popular in romance novels right now. What makes this blood sucking fiend so popular?
First, they are figures with immense power. That makes them automatically attractive. Wouldn’t we want to have immense power, when sometimes we feel weak and put upon in real life? (They’d never kick sand in my face if I was a vampire!) Second, there is the lure of eternal life. Nobody likes the idea of dying. And finally, there is the notion that these gifts of power and eternal life exact a terrible price. You must give up daylight and drink human blood and become what people consider a monster. So, this terrible bargain creates conflicted, tortured heroes (or heroines) automatically. And then there’s the fact that, with these terrible choices, dark needs and incredible power, a vampire hero is without doubt a real “bad boy,” and a truly dangerous man. All these elements combine to make us return again and again to the vampire as hero, villain, or some twisted and delightful combination of the two. We love playing with fire.
If I remember correctly, Frank Langella made the vampire a romantic figure on Broadway and then later in the 1979 movie Dracula. Why is the vampire such an erotic figure?
I loved that movie. Saw it until I wore out the tape. And what this shift of the vampire to a romantic figure did was to downplay the horrific aspect of vampirism, and play up the tortured hero version of the vampire. Now part of his allure was the magnetism of the powerful but misunderstood dangerous man who can still give you eternal life if you have the courage to take it. That gives you a shot at real “eternal love.” And what woman doesn’t want to believe that she can tame that ultimately dangerous bad boy through love? But the giving and taking of the most personal of fluids is also very erotic. That element has been there from the first, even in the novel.
Where did you get the idea to link vampirism to disease?
This idea goes way back, long before I wrote Sacrament, my first vampire book, to the time when AIDS was first being described as a disease. It seemed to me that we vilified people who had this disease because we didn’t understand it and were afraid. And it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t the first time we had done that. What if vampirism was a disease, and we had made vampires into monsters in our minds all these years when really they were human beings just trying to live with something that changed their lives forever?
Your vampire world is meticulously laid out and all the rules are very clear. I’ve heard your books referred to as the thinking woman’s vampire novels. Did you plan all this in advance, or did your vampire world just grow?
Well, it continues to grow, and I continue to refine elements of it. If you look closely, there are some things that have changed since the first books (I won’t spoil the fun by telling you which ones.) That said, when I was first writing Sacrament, I had a long commute to work (about an hour each way on LA freeways). I used to amuse myself to pass the time working out how some classic elements of the vampire story could be incorporated into my books, and which were going to be labeled “myths”.
Beatrix in The Hunger is a female vampire and looks like the lead character. Most of the time when a vampire is the character he’s male. How did you approach having a woman as the vampire?
This was a real departure for me. I too usually write the vampire as male. Several people I know told me that they didn’t find female vampires interesting. Well, I always try to find something challenging about each project to keep my interest for the nine months or so it takes me to write one. So for this project I thought, why not make a woman the vampire and let the challenge be to make the story interesting? I found that thinking about being a female vampire brought up a load off questions I wanted to answer. What would it be like to have those powers? She’d be fascinating to men. She’d have seen everything. What would induce her to fall in love again? What kind of man would appeal to her? How would a man react to the fact that she was that powerful? Beatrix was actually a character from Sacrament who was cut for length. My husband mourned her passing, so I was glad to be able to bring her back from the cutting room floor. So I had a good time with this book. I loved Beatrix. I loved John, who has almost as many secrets as Beatrix. I hope you love them too.
What’s next for your books – will we see more vampires, more science fiction, more gritty historical romances? Or do you have something totally different for us?
I think you will see more vampires for a while. Vampires are everywhere these days, which means people might get tired of them, and I have several more stories I’d like to tell before they do. The third in my series, The Burning is out in April of 2006. I’m just finishing a novella which will go in an anthology with Sherrilyn Kenyon, L.A Banks, and Ronda Thompson next year. And after that? I can see two characters from The Burning who are currently at loose ends. One especially, a tortured Scot, seems to be calling. My editor really liked Body Electric and would like to see me do more in that vein as well. After that? Who knows?
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