It's Friday the 13th! Of what are you scared? Check out my guest post on Cynthia Shepp's wordpress, where I compare supernatural villains to more natural ones. It's also part tribute to one of my favorite authors, Anne Rice.
There's a giveaway attached to the post - so read the whole thing and follow the rules for your chance to win!
Please take the time to explore Cynthia's site. Book reviews, author interviews, and editing services to boot - she's a busy gal who knows how to get the job done with tons of style and grace.
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A Friday the 13th Tribute to Mother Rice
How Vampire Fiction Influenced My Writing on Human Nature
I was first ensnared by vampires in 1994 when, like nearly every other lovelorn teenage girl in the world, I ran to the theater to see blonde beauty Brad Pitt star alongside top gun Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire. The film was moving—deep and disturbing, yet inviting. It made me want to be a vampire a little bit, and not just so that I could keep company with two of Hollywood’s hottest hunks.
Since I was about 12 years old, I’ve been one of those people who is deathly afraid of death. To this day, I still have severe panic attacks when I attempt to contemplate the unknown. It’s always been an immobilizing fear that’s more than taken my breath away. So the idea of immortality seemed like a good thing to me. To live forever, to never die or face the unknown, if, that is, one actually faces anything after death—this seemed like a ticket I wanted to buy.
I overlooked a vital component of Interview though. I wasn’t able to see the suffering in Pitt’s pale eyes. All I could see was the promise of something more that his character’s eternal life offered. It wasn’t until two years later, when I decided to read the book on which the movie was based, that I caught a glimpse of the immortal’s inner struggle and turmoil.
A friend gave me a copy of Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire,” which I read in less than two days. In no time, I was off to the store to pick up the second installment in Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, followed by the third, the fourth, and the fifth.
Fortunately for me, I caught word of Rice’s work around the same time that she was coming out with additional books in the Vampire Chronicles and developing another bloodsucker saga, the New Tales of the Vampires. For the next few years, I spent a lot of time with my nose buried deep in any one of Rice’s books, reading, rereading, referencing, and reviewing. I’d say I was hooked, but that’s definitely an understatement.
In Rice’s volumes, I discovered something I’d never known before. The Vampire Chronicles were the first books I ever read for leisure’s sake, rather than as an academic assignment. Rice’s prose was more vivid, more alive, than anything I’d ever read in the classroom. The storylines were rich with flashbacks and side-stories so elaborate, so fascinating, that my jaw dropped several dozen times (per book).
What stood out to me most were Rice’s characters, the depth with which she explored them and the lengths to which she developed them. By far, they were the most intensely real and unquestionably human characters I’d ever encountered.
Keep in mind, however, that they weren’t actually human characters for the vast majority of pages. They were vampires.
But before they were vampires, yes, they were humans. And that humanness, that abstract idea of humanity, did not, for the most part, die when certain characters crossed over; if anything it was merely chilled to an icy cross between distraction and desperation.
The crux of my own mortal crisis was put before me via these beguiling beings. I saw in them a personification of my own greatest fears, and learned that perhaps I’d feared the wrong things.
By the time I was done with “The Vampire Lestat,” I’d already seen more than enough evidence that immortality wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The promise was not a promise, but a curse. The remaining novels in the series went on to prove just that.
The sadness that some of Rice’s characters bled—oh, the sadness! There is no beauty in an immortal life, nor even any life as life implies an end. Sinking but never reaching bottom, falling but never landing, the vampire is burdened to linger in an unceasing decline as all the world around him changes and decays. The deaths of human allies, the troubles of mankind, and disassociation from nature—war, disease, disaster—to these things the vampire bears eternal witness.
So it was that I learned not so much to fear death as to fear life, to fear all the things that one is tasked to tackle during her time on this planet, whether in a finite or infinite frame. This is not to say that Rice’s work made me afraid to live. Not at all. Indeed, it made me want to live as much as I can before my time comes.
Her references to art and music, to history and culture, to sensation and perception, remind me that this life is a mixed bag. For all the darkness one must face, so too there is light.
And I needed to be reminded of that light, and recall familiar characters to whom I could relate, when my own life’s story began to unfold. Losing my mom, my only sibling, my father, and my grandmother within seven very short years, I felt like Louis, Lestat, and a handful of my other favorite characters. I was alone, neglected, forgotten. Forsaken, perhaps. The immortality I once craved would not remedy this. It’d only make it much, much worse.
Rice’s words helped me grow, from a teen to a woman, from a happy-go-lucky idealist to an open-minded realist, and from a reader to a writer. They allowed me to take a look at the human experience, as enlivened by nonhumans, and ground my perspective as an individual and a creator.
When I began writing novels, I couldn’t help but write according to how I read. It became my goal to see the complex plots, realistic characters, dramatic story-telling, and cross-genre style of Mother Rice’s work reflected in my own fiction.
Note that the stories I write are not Horror, at least not in any traditional sense. There are absolutely no paranormal, other-than-natural elements in my work. I write about people, human beings, some of whom are far more monstrous than any preternatural inhabitant of Rice’s literary world.
Through the Vampire Chronicles, I was able to hone my understanding of what does and does not constitute a real “monster.” Lore and legend, along with pop culture notions, would have us believe that vampires are dirty, rotten beasts of prey. Evil. No good. Mean-spirited, depraved, inclined to do only harm.
This is not the typical Rice vampire. Rice vampires border on being tragic heroes, for whom the reader cannot help but feel empathy and compassion. These characters are troubled creatures. They simply are not monsters.
But some of my human characters are. Dirty, rotten beasts of prey. Evil. No good. Mean-spirited, depraved, inclined to do only harm. Yeah. These words are better suited for my characters than for Rice’s.
Take, for example, Bender, the male antagonist in my most recent release, “pig.” He’s not a very nice guy. He beats his wife, calls her despicable names, and makes her live under his thumb. He drinks too much, shoves chewing tobacco in his mouth every chance he gets, and is generally pissed off because he never found fame.
Let’s look at Louis now—the vampire who was interviewed in the first title of Rice’s series. Louis didn’t too much like the idea of killing humans for blood, so he’d drink from rats when he had the chance. With limited exception, he never wanted to pass his Dark Gift on to others, because he didn’t want another to suffer as he’d done for centuries without end.
Louis could deliver a world of hurt if he wanted to. But he doesn’t want to. Now, Bender, on the other hand, he’s lookin’ to give far more pain than he’s willing to receive. Louis’ immortal existence brought suffering and torture mainly to Louis himself, while it was others who suffered and were tortured during Bender’s mortal stint. So who’s the loathsome swine here?
This post is live online as of Friday, July 13, 2012. That’s right—Friday the 13th. It’s a day we think of Jason Voorhees, the undead, and other things that go “Boo!” But these aren’t the scariest things in this world.
We, the humans, must endure a human condition not unlike the inescapable humanness and humanity embodied in the plights of the vampires in Rice’s series. Life, loss, death, upheaval, decline, and lots of other scary shit goes on around us, unstoppable forces eroding our very existence as if we stood as timeless pillars on a plane of perpetual fast motion.
We, the humans, have in our genetic code a primal disposition toward the gruesome, an uncanny ability to turn human circumstances into inhumane situations. Abuse, adultery, alcoholism, asshole-ism run rampant on this planet. We are the victims and the aggressors of the most heinous acts imaginable.
A scorned wife cuts off her cheating husband’s penis. A militant extremist storms into a youth camp and opens fire. Shoe bombs on airplanes and child molesters next door. You name it. The world of supernatural fiction suddenly seems so much more appealing. It’s easier to assign such base emotions and actions to something that is not human or living. We don’t want to confront the realities we are capable of, or have already committed, so we look for a scapegoat, something nonhuman to absorb our more prurient human inclinations.
Vlad Tepes had a penchant for impaling his captives on wooden stakes and is rumored to have feasted on their remains. Countess Elizabeth Bathory liked to take nice warm baths in the blood of young virgins. History has noted these blood-lusters, and they were human. But talking about Dracula as a fictitious supernatural character, rather than as none other than Vlad Tepes, heir to the Dracul reign, allows us to think that we humans are better than we really are.
Just as blind faith has been argued as an opiate for the masses, so too can be unyielding interest in the preternatural. We need something to dilute the truth and shade us from the inevitable, the unsavory, and the unknown. Immortality quashes the quandary of an afterlife. Nonhuman monsters allow us to sidestep human accountability, while simultaneously engorging the ever-present imp of our universal perverse.
But what of the fictitious bad guys like my Bender?
Writing him does the same thing that writing a vampire does, by putting real fears into fiction. But it does something else as well—or, rather, doesn’t do something else.
It doesn’t allow the reader to shift focus away from human instinct and incident. It tells the reader that shit happens, and that it happens because of people just like you and just like me. People. A man whose artistic ambitions failed, who is unhappy in his marriage, who looks at sex as a disgraceful and distasteful act is capable of cruel things. And his battered wife is capable of murder.
Have you ever cheated on a significant other? Ever slapped or hit a loved one? Ever wished somebody dead or called them a foul name? If you did these things, how’d you feel afterwards? I’m guessing you probably felt bad. Maybe you felt a little freakish, kinda like a monster.
And if you felt that way, if you did these things or merely contemplated them, guess what: You’re not alone. You’re one of millions upon millions of other likeminded people, though you’ll find only a small fraction willing to admit to these primitive impulses.
You can step into my fiction to confront those parts of yourself that are human, that you don’t necessarily like. Find a character to relate to—a victim or a perpetrator—and hunker down with human nature. See real life threads mimicked and woven into fictitious elaborations. Embrace what you are, what you were, and what you never want to be. Hide from yourself no longer.
In closing, I feel the need to issue a disclaimer. I love me a good vampire novel! The first half of this post should show just how much I’ve been influenced and affected by the work of the mother of all vampire yarns, the Queen of the Damned herself, Anne Rice. So don’t think for one second that I’m dismissing the subgenre. We need these types of stories to function as a society. Alls I’m sayin’ is that we need my brand too.
I made another virtual stop today, at Bryce Beattie's StoryHack. This time, my guest appearance consisted of an interview. Bryce asked some really good questions, and I revealed some pretty interesting personal information. Click below to read or e-exchange.
Bryce's site features a lot of cool stuff for writers and readers alike. He also built and maintains http://blogtour.org/, where writers and bloggers can find each other to plan the very best virtual tours - for free.
Check it out.
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What are three things about yourself that everybody should know?
My email signature reads:
sbr martin author, journalist, and mother
So I guess these are the three things everybody should know about me. I am an author. I am a journalist. I am a mother. I’m a lot of other things, too, but let’s not get into all that right now. I list these three things in my signature because they are my callings. They are the three things I was meant to be, the three things I am.
What is one thing that almost nobody knows?
Well, I’m a married lady. Everybody knows that. What a lot of people don’t know is that it was I who popped the question.
I proposed to my husband when we were partying like rockstars at Thunder in the Valley, an annual biker rally held in Johnstown, PA. I don’t know many married couples who started out this way, where the lady got down on her knees. I thought it was an interesting occurrence, a twist on the common approach. So I tossed this fact into my fiction.
In “pig,” the main female character proposes to her man, much like I proposed to mine. But the circumstances surrounding their storybook engagement are entirely different than those surrounding mine.
Incorporating a real life event into my work is something I do from time to time. Where fact is stranger than fiction, I use it to my advantage. I take a tiny bit or reality and spin it into an elaborate, exaggerated, fictitious yarn.
What’s the best part about living in Pittsburgh?
My home. Believe it or not, I’ve lived in the same house since I was born. When I went to the University of Pittsburgh for undergrad, I stayed in the dorms for a while, shacked up with a fellow for a year or so, but those places were just rest-stops on my life’s road, a road which always led back to where I’m sitting right now.
Once upon a time, I was the little kid running around this house, breaking all the rules, tearing everything apart. Now I’m the parent here, the one trying to exercise control—raising my voice, making the rules, and cleaning up all the messes. At times, it’s somewhat surreal.
My father had a heart attack in this house—the heart attack that killed him. My mother’s heart failed here as well, when she fell on the basement floor, attacked by sickness inside her body. Congestive heart failure. Our Chihuahua crawled to sit atop her distended belly as we bustled to call the paramedics. Several hours later my Mama was dead.
It was in this home that I took care of my grandmother as she was dying, and it was in this home that I woke up at 4:15 a.m. on a June morning to find her dead. She’d died that exact moment, the moment I woke up.
But it was also in this home that I had oodles of birthday parties and found excessive amounts of presents under the Christmas tree. My mother left me notes and poems on the bathroom mirror, one of which I included in my first novel, “in wake of water.” My father sang me lullabies. My sister and I played on the front porch. And, here, right here, is where I brought my newborn babies home as an adult. I walked through the door with my children the exact same way my parents must’ve walked through the door with me.
This house is alive with what life is. It’s seen loss. It’s seen gain. It has become an accessory to my existence, a brick box that stores all of my memories and holds a future yet untold.
As per Pittsburgh itself, it’s a great city, and it’s all I know. I live close to the heart of the ‘Burgh—20 minutes from this, that, and the other place. I know the streets, the neighborhoods, and the personalities they hold. Living here is familiar and convenient for me. And, hey, we got a stellar football team. Go Steelers!
Do you have any strange writing practices or quirks?
Indeed, I do. I read most of what I write… out loud. I like my writing to have a certain rhythm or meter to it; it has to sound a certain way when recited or I won’t use it.
I’ve been told before that I speak this way, that there’s some type of tempo to my talk. And I try to put that into my work. I imagine myself as the narrator. I am the one telling you the secrets, the one letting you know what’s really going on. My voice reveals what’s between the lines.
Grammar and punctuation are the tools I use to bring my talk to my text. Those commas? That’s where I pause. Those complex sentence structures? That’s where I shift the speed of my conversational machine. I break some conventional rules of syntax here and there—and it’s all for the sake of semantics, my friend. I want my books to be lively and have a spirit that cannot be overlooked. So I try to put as much of myself into each book as I can, in hopes that my readers will read more than mere words.
And, for the record, I just read my response to this question aloud. I think it sounded pretty good.
What are a couple of your favorite novels? (Doesn’t have to be the top two per se)
My favorite book of all time (so far) is “Grendel” by John Gardner. I love the story, but love the writing even more. Another favorite is “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire. The story is so intense. The plot is so thick. I really enjoyed every aspect of that novel.
These two books, my two favorites, share a common theme. They both reinvent antagonists from other works. “Grendel” is written from the perspective of the beast in the 8th century epic poem, “Beowulf.” And “Wicked” centers on Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.” Both works look at characters who were dismissed as “bad guys” in the original works in which they appeared. They were characters who didn’t get a lot of attention in the first place—all that was shown was the trouble they caused. But each of these books steps into an already-established literary world and takes a closer look. As you read these masterpieces, you discover that these “bad guys” aren’t really all that bad after all. They have redeeming qualities, extenuating circumstances, and struggles of their own. You get a full picture, a well-rounded perspective.
This is something that I have carried into my own writing. There are some flawed characters in my tomes. But, just as they are flawed, so too they are gifted with some good. I try to make my characters as believable and sincere as possible. To do so, I must tell the whole story. Humans have peaks and pits in their personalities and behaviors. We are heroes and villains alike. I want my readers to see both of these sides in my characters, to feel compassion for the antagonist once in a while, or to feel disgust at the protagonist when she steps out of line. My books don’t have “good guys” and “bad guys.” They have characters that will strike you as surprisingly real.
I see on your many pages around the net that you went to law school. Were you ever a lawyer?
Nope. I realized, at some point in my second year of law school, that I did not want to practice law. But I finished school, mostly to finish something I’d started.
I had the degree, but nothing to do with it. Then life stepped in. My Gramma was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and I spent my time caring for her. After that horrific ordeal, I found a man, got married, and had two precious babies who’ve brought me tremendous joy.
I learned a lot from law school about reading and writing, and it was my experiences as an editor and contributor to Pitt Law’s Journal of Law and Commerce that got me hired for freelance writing gigs. I soon developed a fat portfolio of articles with media outlets such as AOL’s Patch Network and CBS Local Media Pittsburgh.
So I ain’t a lawyer, but the law school thing helped me get where I am. I’m grateful for the time I spent there, not so much for the money though.
Tell everybody a bit about your book, Pig.
“Pig” is a cross-genre novel of contemporary psychological fiction. It’s the story of a woman named Lily who’s lived a life filled with ups and downs. From domestic abuse and alcohol addiction to motherhood and amazing sexual encounters, she’s seen it all and bore both misery and redemption each in her own special way.
The entire novel takes place at her husband Bender’s funeral, where she sits alone on a couch in the corner, desperately clinging to a scrap of paper she refuses to reveal. It’s that same scrap of paper that holds the truth about what really happened the night her husband suffered his fatal “accident.” And it is through flashbacks invoked by the familiar faces of funeral home patrons that the rest of Lily’s story and secrets unfold—including a very big secret that’ll make your jaw drop.
What should I have asked you about, if only I knew you well enough to ask?
You don’t have to know me well to ask about this. All you’d have to do is read through my answers to the previous questions to see that I’m partial to something that’s nowadays disfavored.
The serial comma—I love it! I’m a strong proponent of its perpetual use.
I employ the serial comma in my fiction, and in my multi-site online presence. I do not, however, use it in my journalism assignments. I’m not allowed to, as the Associated Press Stylebook condemns its usage except where why-so used for clarity in a complex series.
Kinda irks me a little, having to change something that I consider an integral part of my style so that I can conform to an official Style. But I gotta follow the rules sometimes to get that paycheck, right? I don’t think that’s selling out. It’s just making ends meet by doing what’s expected. Rest assured though, when I’m not under somebody else’s thumb, I stick that puppy in there every chance I get!
Just like me, JDT has some mighty cool initials! But that's just gravy. Take a look at his blog and you'll quickly discover that he's more than just a cool name - he's a name to know.
His site features a "Short Stories" section that'll keep your jaw dropping for hours. And, once you're done exploring his free content, don't be surprised if you find yourself on Amazon purchasing his books, which are only $2.99 a pop (http://www.amazon.com/J.-Dane-Tyler/e...).
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Writing as a Reader: My Novel Approach to the Novel
I have been fortunate enough to study under the greats when it comes to literature and the art of writing fiction. Chuck Palahniuk schooled me on plot twists and the intentional consequences of inserting highly technical medical jargon into otherwise smooth text. Anne Rice educated me on the finer points of character depth and development.
The idea that one character can be both a protagonist and an antagonist at the same time was taught to me by John C. Gardner, as well as by Gregory Maguire. From Mr. William Faulkner, I learned how to further broaden a narrative’s “God” perspective. William Shakespeare, Jean Racine, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were but a few of my other instructors, joined by nonfiction scholars such as Sigmund Freud, Bruno Bettelheim, and Howard Zinn.
Needless to say, though I’ll say it anyway, it was not directly under these greats that I studied. Practical considerations such as time and geography aside, I can’t even begin to fathom the tuition cost of a fabled institution that had all these famed artists on staff!
Every writer is first and foremost a reader, and I am no exception. It was through my academic and personal studies that I discovered and dissected my own writing curriculum. By reading the works of others—from the backs of cereal boxes to the most brilliant works of fiction—I learned invaluable lessons that have influenced the ways I live, learn, and write.
That said, I have had no formal, official, or university-approved training in my art. In college, I took only those writing courses required for graduation and the completion of my psychology major.
I am what some would call a self-taught writer/author. But what beauty I now create came from once-upon-a-time rocky soil. Writing was not always my strong point.
When I started high school at The Ellis School in 1992, my first English assignment was to write a critical analysis of Beowulf. After working at my typewriter for hours, I submitted a paper I thought was pretty damn good. My teacher, however, did not agree.
When the paper was handed back a week later, it was returned without a grade. The words “See me” appeared in the front page margin. What I had considered damn good was, in fact, a crude and poorly-written book report that lacked analysis and sentence variety.
Rather than conceding to my inadequacy, I confronted it, determined to equip myself with stronger skills. Though I embraced help from my high school teachers and a faculty tutor, I placed the brunt of the burden on myself. The scholastic guidance I received was but the first step in a long process that lead to my proactive adventure with the English language and my own understanding of the elements of artful and effective writing.
I honed these self-taught skills and put them to use in my undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, receiving stellar marks in courses requiring essay work.
It was in my junior year that I again met a familiar situation. After working at my laptop for hours, I submitted a psychology paper I thought was pretty damn good. When the paper was handed back a week later, it was returned without a grade. “See me” appeared in the front page margin.
What I considered damn good was, in fact, so damn good that my instructor questioned whether I had actually written it and dismissively accused me of plagiarism, requiring me to defend myself in front of the head of the Psychology Department before penal action was taken.
Armed with samples of my writing submitted to other professors, I met with the department head, who thoroughly reviewed my work before tabling the claim and calling the instructor into her office to begrudgingly apologize to me for her false accusation.
The next scrutiny my work received was of a far more honorable sort. I was given an English Composition Award for a piece I’d written in an undergraduate legal writing course, a remarkable feat as such awards are rarely doled out for professional writing coursework.
After college, I studied law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where my writing was recognized by publication in the school’s Journal of Law and Commerce and by an invitation to speak at the 54th annual Conference on College Composition and Communication.
Having tackled critical composition and legal analysis, I next moved on to wrestle other forms of writing. Since 2011, I have worked as a freelance reporter, accumulating journalism experience with media outlets such as CBS Local Media Pittsburgh and AOL’s Patch Network. At Patch alone, I wrote approximately 150 articles over the course of ten months.
My debut novel, In Wake of Water, marked my entry into another genre of writing—fiction. Less than four months after its publication, I finished my second novel, Pig, which was honored as a Second Prize Quarterfinalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest.
Of my manuscript, Publishers Weekly wrote: “The ultimate resolution of the story makes for quite a surprise… (Martin) is able to build good characters, flawed and believable, yet familiar; so that at the end one is saddened, but also, in a strange way, enriched.”
A review like that is evidence that I’ve been doing something right. But what?
I’ve been asked about my writing process countless times. My answer is always the same: I write with the intention of writing a good story. To some, this seems like an evasive answer, like I’m purposefully trying to conceal my trade secrets.
Dagnamit, I’m not trying to be cagey! I’m being perfectly candid.
I don’t sketch out a plot. I use no outlines or plans other than those in my head. I just think about what I want to write until I am ready to write it. And, as I write it, more thoughts come to me.
When penning (or, rather, typing) Pig, I started off with a general idea of the story I wanted to tell, the story of a woman reflecting on the loves and losses of her life. My main objective was to have her be a well-rounded person who endured both pits and peaks during her existence. She, as well as the cast of supporting characters, was to be both beautiful and flawed, just as we real people are.
I decided to have her life recounted in a setting where reflection is quite common: at a funeral home. I have experienced the deaths of many family members, and, therefore, understand and appreciate how the faces of funeral home patrons can stir memories, both good and bad.
Along that vein, I formulated the general structure of the imminent novel. I set out to alternate present tense happenings at the funeral home with past tense recollections of the main character’s life.
At the beginning of my writing process, that’s all I had in mind. I didn’t yet have the specifics of the story. I let those come to me, one chapter at a time. I’d sit down, write a chapter, and then think about what should come next.
What else would I want to know about this character or that event? What would shock me? How about a red herring, something that seems important but is nothing more than distraction? Where can I hide a clue to a secret I’ll reveal later? Can I make my characters any more believable? Any more compelling? Why did she do this, he do that, or they do the other thing?
Etc., etc., etc. until completion.
And, speaking of completion, I wrote the end of my novel when I got to the end. I didn’t have the ending in mind at the beginning. The conclusion flowed from me as the chapters before it had done, in a natural, coursing manner. In many ways, I think the resolution was there all along. It was just waiting for me to find it.
Perhaps my approach to the novel is novel, although I doubt I’m the first person to ever write this way. Given my background, or lack thereof, I write the only way I know how—as a reader. It is my greatest hope that my work will affect other readers as strongly as reading others has affected my work.