An Interview with Nancy Baker by Derek Newman-Stille
I have been an admirer of Nancy Baker’s work for some time, so I was really glad that she agreed to do an interview on Speculating Canada. Nancy Baker is the author of novels such as The Night Inside, Blood and Crysanthemums, and A Terrible Beauty. I will let her introduce herself and share some of her incredible insights on the vampire, and on horror and fantasy.
Spec Can: To begin the interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Nancy Baker: I’m Canadian, older than I like to think about, have a day job in the business end of the magazine publishing field and can find a thousand ways to avoid writing, including reading other people’s writing, gardening, making jam, and attempting to do a headstand.
Spec Can: What is unique or different about your vampire fiction from that of other authors?
Nancy Baker: At the time I started seriously writing my first novel (the late 1980s, just to date myself more), there was a reasonable diversity of vampire fiction being written, much of it very good. There were scary vampires (Salem’s Lot), sympathetic vampires (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain) and just plain weird vampires. What interested me in the first book was what happened if you were an ordinary person who was transformed into a vampire, when becoming a vampire didn’t automatically make you rich, smart, or amoral. How did you not only survive but have a satisfying existence? How did you make money? What did you do all night? How did you deal with the choices you had to make? What was your relationship with your creator like? If you’re an old vampire, how do you adapt to a world which changes far faster than the one into which you were born? To me, these were interesting questions to explore, which shaped the type of vampires I created.
Spec Can: Is there a “Canadian vampire”, a particular style of vampire that speaks to a Canadian audience or from a Canadian perspective?
Nancy Baker: One reviewer called my characters “kinder, gentler vampires”, which strikes me as very Canadian. I certainly felt that you could not have the kind of violent, predatory vampires in Toronto that seemed common in U.S. vampire fiction – though one New York writer I shared a radio panel with seemed appalled at the idea that I assumed you could leave dead bodies all over Manhattan and no one would care. However, I don’t think there’s any particular type of Canadian vampire. Mine might be “kinder and gentler” but those are the last words you’d use to describe the vampire in Michael Rowe’s Enter, Night. One of the interesting things about that book is that the demons that must be confronted are deeply rooted in the book’s Northern Ontario setting and in a part of Canadian history we’re conditioned to think of as something boring to study in public school. The evocation of nature as a shaping, often inimical, force is one of the things that is considered traditionally “Canadian” and it works brilliantly in that book.
Spec Can: Why is the vampire such a popular figure at the moment?
Nancy Baker: Vampires never seem to be out of style, though how hot they are at any given time depends on what books and films are popular. I think that reflects the flexibility of the mythology, which can be scary, seductive, funny, or tragic.
Spec Can: How does the vampire ‘speak’ to today’s audience? What inspires us about the vampire and what social issues can the vampire express?
Nancy Baker: Vampire fiction has been used to look at issues of addiction, oppression, disease, predation, and sexuality. It’s also been used just to scare the hell out of us. Every new generation of readers and writers has the advantage of looking at what came before (from the classics such as Carmilla and Dracula to Salem’s Lot and Interview with the Vampire to Twilight and The Passage) and reacting to it, either by emulating it or turning it on its head. There’s probably a great social media vampire novel waiting to be written.
Spec Can: How does the vampire relate to our obsession over beauty and youth?
Nancy Baker: As the poster for The Lost Boyssaid “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a
vampire.” The idea of eternal youth and beauty is an ancient one, from Greek mythology to The Picture of Dorian Grey to our own culture’s reliance on surgical intervention. It was important to me in A Terrible Beauty that Sidonie’s beauty was not human beauty and that when she transforms in the end it is not into a flawless teenager but into a woman with the marks of her long existence on her. The peril of perpetual youth is, of course, that you never actually grow up, and that does seem to be particularly common with vampire characters. One of the great strengths of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s series is that St. Germain is an adult and, over the course of the books, you can see him gain his hard-won wisdom and self-knowledge.
Spec Can: What can the monster in literature do to inspire us or challenge us?
Nancy Baker: At its best, horror and fantastic literature can show us the darkness that humans are capable of and to reveal that the reader shares that potential. It can also show us that the “other” is sometimes as deserving of compassion as we hope that we are.
Spec Can: Why is the vampire so often paired with the sexual or with romantic questions?
Nancy Baker: Entire treatises have been written on this subject so I’ll just touch on a couple of points that interested me. There’s the obvious sex without consequence element – no choice therefore no guilt and, practically, no pregnancy. For more traditional vampire fiction, the eroticism is all about foreplay and anticipation, which has an appeal for female readers. It’s also lots of fun to write. Most vampire novels that I’d read focused on the romantic/sexual prelude but very few seemed to deal with the fact that vampires end up turning their partners into themselves, and therefore the same relationship is no longer possible. What is fidelity to a vampire? These were some of things I wanted to play around with in Blood and Chrysanthemums, through the evolving relationship between Ardeth and Rozokov.
Spec Can: What is the role of the outsider in your work? Why do social outsiders make such great stories?
Nancy Baker: I’ve always thought that my vampire novels were actually quite conventional, by the standards of many of the other books in the genre. The “outsider” status of the characters is mostly self-imposed or psychological. Ardeth [from The Night Inside and Blood and Crysanthemums] is not really an outsider, though she perceives herself as one, because she’s an introverted grad student. When she becomes a vampire, she doesn’t feel “cool” enough to fit into the Goth scene that emulates the thing she really is. Matthew in A Terrible Beauty lives a self-consciously Bohemian existence but he always has the safety net of his family.
This was a conscious choice on my part, because I was tired of reading about cooler than cool punk vampires and the general
assumption that becoming a vampire automatically made you sexually transgressive and adventurous right away. Ardeth was a conventional heterosexual woman as a mortal and she’s a relatively conventional heterosexual as a vampire. Of course, she’s a very young vampire, so her horizons will undoubtedly broaden as time passes.
Even Rozokov [from The Night Inside and Blood and Crysanthemums] and Sidonie [from A Terrible Beauty] are actually fairly sedate, as vampires go, mostly because they’ve had time to get their wilder desires out of their systems centuries earlier. By the time of the novels, they’ve settled into being essentially who they are. Their challenge is to continue to find a reason to exist, to be more than simply predators who must keep consuming or die.
Spec Can: Your novel A Terrible Beauty features an artist who eventually paints a vampire. The image of mirroring, reflecting, and representation seem to figure very significantly in this story. What is the role of reflection in your work? How does the vampire challenge us to reflect on things that we take for granted?
Nancy Baker: In all the books, I was interested in the gap between the popular image of the vampire and the reality that the characters were living. Ardeth’s recreation of herself as a vampire is unavoidably shaped by Goth, by Dracula, by Louise Brooks, by a thousand media images she’s seen and associated with seduction and vampirism. Without Rozokov to teach her how to be a vampire, she goes by the only guides she has – movies and books. In Blood and Chrysanthemums, Fujiwara filters all his real experiences as a vampire through the literary conventions and popular culture of many eras. This was partially because that was the only way I could handle a thousand years of Japanese history but it worked very well for his character. In the absence of any folklore to name him, he has to use the ghost stories and mythology of his world to construct a definition of what he is. It also conveniently cast his truth as fiction, should his diary be exposed.
The art in A Terrible Beauty was based primarily on fin-de-siecle painting and was heavily influenced by the book Idols of Perversity, which deals with the ways in which women were defined through art in the 19th century. Painting is Matthew’s method of dealing with his captivity and exploring his reactions to Sidonie. Sidonie has not seen her own face for thousands of years and takes his representations for the truth though, ironically, they’re not.
Nancy Baker: I’m not sure there’s any specific significance. The Night Inside grew out of a short story idea. Interestingly, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine begins with almost exactly the same scenario in a completely different context and I love what she did with it. The situation in A Terrible Beauty was driven by the source fairy tale. I think in both cases the captivity gave me a way to force the characters to confront each other in a situation that required them to move beyond their preconceptions.
Spec Can: What do you hope your readers will take away from your stories? How do you hope your stories will change or inspire them?
Nancy Baker: I hope that readers find something of value to them in the stories – a character they like, a phrase that resonates. I suppose the biggest compliment for a writer is that a reader wants to read your next book as well – or your old ones again. I’m also thrilled if someone says that one of the books made them want to try writing something of their own.
Spec Can: Is there anything further you were interested in mentioning to our readers, anything I haven’t covered?
Nancy Baker: Thanks for all the interesting questions. It was a pleasure to think about these things, since when you’re in the throes of writing, many of these things happen organically and it’s not until someone points them out to you that you realize you’ve done them.
I want to thank Nancy Baker for this fantastic interview. Much like her books, this interview shows her extensive knowledge of the vampire subject and her passion for providing new insights about vampire fiction and its relationship to society and I was pleased to be able to interview her and share these insights with readers.
You can explore more of Nancy Baker’s work at http://www.nancybaker.ca/ .