Year in Review: Speculative Fiction Versus Realist Fiction – from the authors

Alien mountieWell, we have had an amazing year in 2012 on Speculating Canada…. one could even describe it as a fantastic year. Although Speculating Canada has only been around since July, it has been an incredible opportunity to explore Canadian Speculative Fiction and explore the incredible amounts of knowledge that authors bring into the world and lens that they place on exploring social issues.

Re-reading all of the interview posts, I am reminded of how incredible these interviews were and the gems of information and insight that writers have provided. I hope you enjoy being re-enlightened by our authors. Every interview I have done has been an incredible learning experience for me.


Author photo courtesy of Claude Lalumiere

Claude Lalumiere:

”So many authors who work within realism do not realize that they are operating within the confines of a genre with very specific rules and tropes. I’m not a fan of realism’s hegemonic stature in literature and culture in general. There’s nothing inferior about romance (in the classical sense) or escapism. All fiction is literature, all fiction is art. That doesn’t mean that all of it is good, but there’s good stuff and bad stuff in all genres, including realism.

“Fantastic fiction (as I like to call it) does have the quality of seeming to have no restrictions whatsoever. And that journey into the unknown can be thrilling, dangerous, intoxicating, wondrous – or, best of all, all of that at once.”

“My fiction tends to ask questions, not provide answers.”

Steve Vernon:

Steve Vernon with a beaver... so Canadian!!

Author photo courtesy of Steve Vernon

“Monster stories help instill the belief that the human spirit can will out and triumph over the power of evil.”

“I’ve long been fascinated with seeing how ordinary people deal with the face of evil. That’s who my favorite characters are – just regular downhome kind of people. I like to imagine them brave and wild and romantic and full of life – because we all have that potential buried deep inside ourselves. So – when I sat down to write Sudden Death Overtime I just took the toughest people I had ever dreamed of and threw them up against the forces of darkness.”

Ian Rogers:

Ian Rogers Author Photo, courtesy of the author.

Author photo courtesy of Ian Rogers

“I’ve always said that if people are only interested in my work purely as entertainment, then I’m cool with that. I think every story needs to keep the reader amused as the first goal. If your story is full of theme and depth, but it’s boring as all hell, then who cares how deep your work is, or how much inner meaning there is, because no one’s going to bother to read it anyway! And quite frankly, if you are consciously trying to pound a message or meaning into your story, I assure you it’s going to come across that way to the reader and they will be turned off. Guaranteed. The best stories with meaning or theme or depth are the ones that allow the readers to come to those conclusions naturally and on their own terms.”

“When I write a story I’m trying to come up with something that, while entertaining, also makes some sort of sense. It doesn’t mean I believe in ghosts or monsters, but it’s important that my characters do. Part of building a world where these things exist is to cement them in the world I know.”

“I’ve always felt that it’s the little things, and the little “real” things, that truly make a story. Sometimes it’s realistic dialogue, sometimes it’s a strange habit of one of the characters. Whatever it is, it’s usually a small touch, but it goes a long way toward making the reader feel more at home in the story, and consequently more accepting of the fantasy you’re trying to give them.”

“I think most people have an inherent attraction to the fantastical. Ironically, the spec fic stories I like best are the ones that are rooted in some semblance of reality. The ones that seem like they could actually happen. In terms of horror fiction, I find that sense of realism adds to the feeling of terror and dread.”

“I think there’s more to horror fiction that a monster or a supernatural element. Lots of things that may not seem horrific on the surface can be turned into a horror story. That’s one of the great things about horror. It’s insidious in the way it can sneak into a story — a story that might not be neatly slotted in the Horror section at the local bookstore.”

Nancy Kilpatrick:

Photo courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

“We’ve become politically correct, which isn’t always repression.  Sometimes it entails a true acceptance of ‘other’, the ‘other’ being someone or something that is not us and previously was suspect and/or frightening.  Because we no longer see strangers as monstrous, we no longer see monsters as strangers.”

“I’m focused on readers first.  My readers are not run-of-the-mill people.  They are smart and like my dark take on material.”

Paul Marlowe:

Author Photo courtesy of Paul Marlowe

Author Photo courtesy of Paul Marlowe

“There was a time when it was considered normal to imagine the future of Canada, and to work towards building that future. Now, with it more important than ever to imagine alternative futures, we avoid it, because taking the future seriously would require making drastic changes right now in the lifestyle of affluence and luxury we enjoy, and would require terrible sacrifices – like driving our cars less, or not taking that flight to Florida. We’ve grown used to thinking of sacrifice as someone else’s job.

“Speculative fiction has as one of its goals the imagination of alternative futures. It also reconsiders the past. Not infrequently it raises big questions. By sidelining it, and focusing exclusively on fiction dealing either with the present and the narrowly personal, or resuscitating yesterday’s controversies, we’re avoiding some of the major problems – like global warming, population, distribution of wealth, mass extinction, the ethics of technology, the role of government in pursuing the common good, the increasing alienation of people from their own governments, the individual vs the group, and threats to individual privacy – that will dominate history in the coming generations. While speculative fiction doesn’t exist simply to prophesy or to provide political stimulus, it offers the opportunity for those kinds of explorations.”

“By looking past immediate present experience at possible worlds, good SF can offer what is so needed but so little found: intelligent thought about the world beyond our own little rut. The problem it faces is whether anyone is interested in hearing what SF writers have to say, and whether – in the welter of distraction that we’re immersed in – stories make any real difference.”

“If SF is to have an influence not only on where Canada is heading, but on where humanity is heading, it will have to do something other than shock us will apocalyptic visions, since those have become entertainment. It will have to make us think.”

“If the books contain thought-provoking ideas, too, so much the better. In that environment, SF is not at such a disadvantage.”

“The criticism often levelled at SF by Lit types and by more literal-minded readers – that it is “mere escapism” – has less sting when directed at YA books because adults sometimes condescend to allow children the opportunity to indulge in frivolous pass-times, such as imagination.”


Author photo courtesy of Douglas Smith

Douglas Smith:

“I don’t really differentiate between the human and non-human characters. Writing a story for me means understanding my characters and telling the story via their journeys through it. An alien may be completely different from us in physiology, intelligence, culture, spiritual beliefs, and moral code, but all sentient creatures will be motivated by something, both as a race and as individuals. It’s just a matter of understanding what is important to a character.”

“If there is a social issue that a writer wishes to explore and bring attention to, speculative fiction provides the freedom through its “distorted mirror” to let a writer bring whatever focus they desire to that issue. I really see no limits. Rather, I think that SF&F offer more options for doing so than within the restrictions of mainstream mimetic fiction.”

“Fantasy or SF can use other worlds–future or alternate–to focus on aspects of our real world, our shared beliefs, our conflicting beliefs, our humanity, our inhumanity, our potential, our failings, to let us view ourselves through a different lens, at a slightly different angle. Speculative fiction, by the very nature of its unreality, can make us see our reality in ways that mimetic fiction cannot. How we relate to those views, which messages resonate with us as individual readers, can then tell us something about ourselves.”

“I think that the [Speculative Fiction] genre’s greatest power as a literature is, to paraphrase the great SF anthologist Damon Knight, to hold up a distorted mirror to our current reality, to focus on some aspect of our world which needs to change (in the writer’s opinion). It’s that “if this goes on…” type of story that allows SF to provide a social commentary in a way that mimetic fiction cannot.

“That’s the power of SF and fantasy (and I’d put SF as a specific subset of fantasy)–there are fewer (no?) limitations to the types of stories that I can tell. The stories still need an internal logic and consistency, but I’m not bound by any concerns of matching current reality. That is wonderfully freeing for a writer.”

Kelley Armstrong:

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University's Alumni House

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University’s Alumni House

“The supernatural can be a way of showing people dealing with issues in a larger-than-life fashion. I often have issues of identity in mine—finding one’s true self, accepting the self, finding one’s place in society. Having a character deal with being, for example, a werewolf lets me do that in a fun and entertaining way.”

“Speculative fiction helps expand the world of possibilities. Readers—and students—see new possibilities for new ways of thinking and living. The fact that it takes place in a fantastical world often makes it easier to consider those challenges and issues, divorced from the emotional baggage of a reader’s own world or experience. For example, science fiction novels often include elements of racism—how does one alien race treat another—and that allows readers to consider the issues in an abstract way and then transfer those ideas over to the realm of their own world and experience.”

Chadwick Ginther:

Author photo courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

Author photo courtesy of Chadwick Ginther

“People call speculative fiction “escapist,” as if that is a bad thing. I live a realistic life. Why would I want to spend my time writing about only the drudgery of everyday. I want things to happen. Things that couldn’t happen to me. But that doesn’t mean good prose has to be sacrificed for plot. With mythic fiction, and really all of speculative fiction, I can have my cake and eat it too. I can have an exploration of deep philosophical issues or the nature of humanity side by side with big, bold ideas and an action-packed read. I can’t think of another art form that blends the two sensibilities better than speculative fiction does. Besides which, all fiction is fantasy. Even if a writer is basing a story on real events or real people, they are inventing thoughts and feelings and the little details. Fiction by definition isn’t true, but it can hold truth—even when you’re writing about the god of lies.”

“I don’t think Mythology will ever stop being relevant. It was our ancestors’ way of trying to explain what they couldn’t understand. At their core, people have the same basic desires, faults and virtues as we ever have, some of us are kind, some jealous; we’ll always be able to see something of ourselves in these stories from the past. Otherwise the myths would have faded with their original tellers.”


Author photo courtesy of Karen Dudley

Karen Dudley:

“[Writing Speculative Fiction] can liberate you! I’ve written four contemporary mystery novels, and when I started to write Food for the Gods, it took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to be limited by reality. Gods crashing dinner parties? No problem. Furies attacking the Athenian marketplace? Why not? It was incredibly freeing. As a writer, speculative fiction allows you to take your characters that much further. They’re still human, of course (well, most of them are), but you’re taking them beyond the normal human experience and seeing how they deal with it. It’s a lot of fun!

“At the same time, of course, speculative fiction has always been used to reflect or comment on contemporary issues and society through the creation of worlds that are different from our own, but still recognizable. While Food for the Gods isn’t intended to be political in any way, it still allowed me to address some timeless themes—including the trials of being an outsider in a foreign land; the need to escape the “sins of the father”; and the complex and sometimes treacherous relationship between people and their gods.”

“The truth is that mythology spells out all the things we want, fear, hope, and dream in pretty basic imagery and themes. These are not timeworn tales with nothing to say to us, because our fears and desires really haven’t changed since these stories were born. They illuminate us, they transform us. That’s why ‘old’ myths still resonate.”

Liz Strange:

Photo of Liz Strange (Courtesy of Liz Strange)

Author photo courtesy of Liz Strange

“The monster is romantic and sympathetic, because it lives in all of us. Human beings are complicated, challenging, frustrating, wondrous beings, capable of many things both inspiring and horrifying.”

“I like my readers to be entertained, first and foremost, but I also like to spark some interest in things they may never have thought of before. I like to intrigue, incite curiosity and challenge people to think outside their comfort zone. The world is a big place, full of wonder, mystery, beauty and misery.”

Helen Marshall:

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

Author Photo Courtesy of Helen Marshall

“Weird fiction, at its best, unsettles us. Realist fiction can also do that, but that isn’t necessarily its goal. I love the idea of a kind of writing designed deliberately to shock, to surprise, to unbalance and unnerve. It has a kind of intensity to it, and it makes us consider ourselves from oblique angles rather than head-on.”

“For me ghosts are terrifying because they are us. What I see when I look at a ghost is myself. And so if the ghost is really just an image of your own future—that is, you when you are dead, the you that you can’t comprehend or imagine—then in some way you are also the ghost of your own future self. We leave things behind, and mostly those things are former versions of ourselves. It seems natural, then, that ghosts are also a figure for something that wants to be remembered, even if we want desperately to forget it.”

“What I try to do is find a bizarre premise and use it as a way into something that is deeply emotional: every new oddity ought to feel like a natural extension of the rules of the world. It feels like it fits. For me, the process of writing strange fiction is falling into a world where each new revelation comes with a shock—but also with a sense of recognition.”


Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu:

“The literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

“Curiosity is a wonderful trait to cultivate. When you’re curious you step outside of yourself into a wonderful world. One of the things I re-learned from my son was how to stop and look. Really look, as in bend down on hands and knees and peer close, get dirty. Curiosity feeds our souls. It slows us down so we can pay attention. It teaches us to be interested in our world, to observe and feel. It helps us crawl outside the box, peer around corners into dark alleys where thrilling adventure lurks.”

“The science fiction genre is the pre-eminent literature of allegory and metaphor. By describing “the other” (what does not yet exist, what might never exist) science fiction writers describe “us”. Through our POV characters and their world’s reactions to the unknown.

“Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society. Where realist fiction makes commentary on our current society, speculative fiction takes that commentary into the realm of consequence by showing it to us in living colour. It is the ghost of future, present and past to our Scrooge. The arm of speculative fiction reaches far. This is its power over realist fiction and why, I think, mainstream realist authors like Margaret Atwood have discovered and embraced this genre (her latest three books are all speculative fiction). Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

Nancy Baker:

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

Author photo courtesy of 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.”

“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.

Gemma Files:

Author photo courtesy of Gemma Files

Author photo courtesy of Gemma Files

“Because I work primarily in the field of horror, the idea of the Alien—the Other—is a really integral one, one which underlies an amazing amount of human psychology. You see it all through history, and it’s not like it’s gone away: This impulse to say some people are different and therefore lesser, undeserving of sympathy, actively malign—people we can call animals, monsters, and feel perfectly fine about routinely trying to contain, police, punish or even exterminate. But the flip-side of this impulse is the realization that “monsters”, Others, Aliens are almost never as different from you as they seem. That you, in fact, are most often a monster’s “monster”.

“This is a hard lesson, but a useful one, and Speculative Fiction explores it constantly, over and over. And it does that, I believe, because people both know in their gut that it’s true yet hope against hope that it’s not. This tension drives almost everything, and it’s testing this tension which is Speculative Fiction’s most useful quality, potentially: Our ability to tell and re-tell ourselves metaphorical fables about the things that are happening all around us, set in some pleasantly distant future, past or alternative universe, which may possibly help us to make good decisions about the here and now.”

“Magic is a fantasy of ultimate power in a mainly-powerless world, but our own self-knowledge quotient means that we know the shadow lurks underneath everything—that whatever good we do by magic means is bound to sour, especially if improperly paid for. We’ve all read most of the same fairytales, so the principles always seem familiar: Horror is fluid, and just like in folklore, the general principle of horror is not only that things can always change, but that if—when—they do, it’ll probably be something that you did which is the cause of that change. Which is sort of positive, in a way…therapeutic, almost. Monstrosity is not a permanent state, or doesn’t have to be, so long as one understands but doesn’t excuse one’s own nature and takes responsibility for one’s own actions.”

Jerome Stueart:

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

Author photo courtesy of Jerome Stueart

“Speculation is about seeing natural consequences, about thinking about choices and figuring out where they will lead, and about large-scale societal consequences.  I think speculative fiction is the reason we don’t condone cloning, or have nuclear war—science fiction showed us that there are no good ways of having those, and we believed them.  Silent Spring is a “speculative novel” written as nonfiction by Rachel Carson with such an apocalyptic vision of the dangers of DDT and other chemicals we were putting on crops and in the air—with real evidence– that it scared people into regulation.  Carson used speculative tools to give reason to turn the boat around.

“Unfortunately, speculation in the wrong hands can just be fear-mongering.  Recent commercials against Obama speculated a world four years from now full of apocalypse!  Without any evidence.  It was cheap scare tactics, but they worked on some people who couldn’t extrapolate from evidence, or who couldn’t question the premises or the evidence.  I saw that in both political parties.  If we don’t “produce” thinking minds—in every place in society—fear mongering will work, evidence won’t count.  That scares me.

“Climate Change has to find a way to alert people to change without becoming alarmist—but we have a society less-inclined to think for themselves now, and less-inclined to value knowledge and preventative measures.  We’re all about reacting now.  We’re all about consuming.  We’re living like it’s the last days on Earth and we want our feast.  Anyone who says we have to “cut back” which is the message of climate change—restraint—is taking away “our fun.”  We are such a Mine Culture, not a Mind Culture.  We may live together, but we don’t think together.

“I would put MORE speculative literature in the classroom starting with Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate change series, Science in the Capital—or his Three Californias. I would teach kids to imagine their own futures—what will they be doing 20 years from now, and what will society be like.  What do they WANT society to be like?  And where do they see the forces in control trying to lead us?  Kids can be taught to think speculatively and use it wisely. “

“I think SF can help us get ready for change, and see change as positive and desirable.  We get in our ruts.  If we want the Star Trek universe—we’re gonna have to work for it.  LOL.  But I think it can examine multiple paths for us—examining all possible scenarios and showing us a positive path.

“The danger of SF, though, is that it inherently likes NOT so positive paths.  They present more of what readers desire: conflict, danger, suspense.  So we get much more apocalyptic SF which shows us what NOT to do, but rarely shows us HOW to get to the change.

“The challenge for SF writers is to imagine us a path to get to the change and show it as a positive one.  And that I think is the most fun.  Star Trek cheated a bit by shooting so far in the future that all those things like poverty, greed, violence, were all gone by the 24th century.  We’ve been spending the last 45 years trying to figure out how Gene thought that might happen!  But at least it modeled diversity for us.  I recall Nichelle Nichols’ wonderful story of her encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. just before she was about to quit the show.  He encourages her to stay on because he too believes that SF is the literature of change.  He saw her presence on the bridge as a model for behavior and hope for a positive future beyond Race.  So in this way, SF is a model for change—it models good behavior, even if it doesn’t have all the answers.”

“Maybe that’s the greatest strength of SF—it has a wide angled lens.  SF is about commenting on societal problems more than character problems.  Maybe that’s why the characters can be more universal, and sometimes flatter, because SF is interested in the “what if” of the story—the what if of the society.  It can handle a universal character because the society is what we want to examine in SF, and the choices a society makes.

“But again, it also has a chance to be more society-scaled prescriptive—and model societal behavior and model change that realistic fiction can’t.  SF is the quantum reality of realistic fiction.  While realistic fiction might concentrate on individuals and their changes, SF goes wide to take the choices and changes of a large group.“

Noah Chinn:

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

Author photo courtesy of Noah Chinn

“You’re not constrained by reality to get your message across. You could write a story about banning books in a realistic fiction story set in modern day, sure.  But what if you wanted to take it further to get your point across? It would be of hard to write something with the impact of Fahrenheit 451 without creating a society in which all books are banned.  You need to think not only of why, but what form that world would take, how people live their lives, the consequences of that culture on people’s behavior, and so on.  You need to create a world that doesn’t exist, but you can believe could – even if only for the duration of the story.”

Interview with Nancy Baker

An Interview with Nancy Baker by Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

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

Cover photo of A Terrible Beauty courtesy of Nancy Baker

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

Cover photo of The Night Inside courtesy of Nancy Baker

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.

Spec Can: Captivity features very strongly in your novels The Night Inside and A Terrible Beauty. What is the significance of captivity in your work?

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 .

Upcoming Interview with Nancy Baker On December 5th

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 fantastic novels such as The Night Inside, Blood and Crysanthemums, and A Terrible Beauty.

Author photo courtesy of Nancy Baker

Check out our interview on Wednesday December 5th and hear Nancy Baker’s insights on the nuances of vampire characters, infusing vampires with normal lives,  the use of the vampiric subject to explore social issues, sexuality, and the role of horror in giving voice to the ‘Other’.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

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.

Nancy Baker: “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.”

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.”

Nancy Baker: “The evocation of nature as a shaping, often inimical,  force is one of the things that is considered traditionally “Canadian””

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.

Nancy Baker: “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.”

Nancy Baker: “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.”

Nancy Baker: “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.”

Nancy Baker invites readers of this interview to ponder the vampiric subject further and asks her readers to delve deep into questions about vampire stories and what they can reveal about the world that creates them. She invites readers into the process of postulating over the vampire.

Ms. Baker shares her extensive knowledge of vampire literature on Speculating Canada on Wednesday, December 5th. If you are anything like myself, you will probably be reading this interview and taking notes about what to read next. I hope you enjoy it.

You can check out my review of Nancy Baker’s A Terrible Beauty on September 12th on Speculating Canada. You can check out Nancy Baker’s website at 

The Predatory North and the Cold Lick of Vampiric Frost

A Review of Nancy Baker’s A Terrible Beauty (Viking, 1996).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Nancy Baker plays with misdirection and ambiguities in her novel A Terrible Beauty. Her characters are not immediately morally good or bad, but straddle a grey line that allows them to dip into darkness and come out shadowy. Like many of her vampire stories, this one is not formulaic, but questions the boundaries of the vampire. She mirrors this modality in the image of her vampire protagonist/antagonist Sidonie, a woman whose own shape is changeable and whose morality is equally shifting and uncertain.

Baker pairs her starving vampire with a starving artist, trying to discover his own path, motivations, and self and trying to escape his own dark reality in the worlds his mind creates while awake; seeking to hide from the dark dreams of memory that spin tendrils through his mind and keep drawing him back to a family that can’t accept him. Matthew is the embodiment of the power of art for both delusion and revelation. But, his attempts to escape through drugs and alcohol keep bringing his dark memories into sharp focus and his paints begin to shape a reality that he has hidden from himself. Like most artists, it takes a friend looking at his art to discern the hidden meaning behind his paintings, the hidden depth of feeling that he is unaware of while painting like he is in a dream.

This is a novel about entrapment, about the confines of family and reputation that spin a web around a person, capturing their essence and keeping them from finding themselves outside of the threads of the past. And it takes Matthew’s physical entrapment and the revelation of the inevitability of his role as prey for a vampire for him to start to question himself, to pull away the confining net of the past and uncover what has made him who he is. He can only gain a separate identity and awareness by being truly trapped.

The image of the island, as it does in many narratives, serves for Baker as an image of isolation, but it is also one that is surrounded by water, a reflective surface and it mirrors back things lost to the depths. Matthew has a fear of water, and water represents the repressed memories and guilt that ride his soul.

Death, darkness, and seduction intertwine in A Terrible Beauty, luring the reader in with promises of sweet kisses before he or she notices the blood on their lips. Her novel is set in the North, without a specific image of nationality, and this Northern clime is the perfect setting for a vampire novel; the vampire reflecting the cold that sucks the life out of the body, the lurking dangers when the natural takes precedence over the facade of the civilised, and the perilous beauty of the untamed. The North is predatory. It is an escape that hunts us.

To find out more about Nancy Baker, you can visit her site at

Books You Can Really Sink Your Teeth Into: A Reading List for Vampire Week

By Derek Newman-Stille

These are a few of my favorite Canadian vampire stories (note that I say ‘a few’, I want to save several for Vampire Week next year). Some of these stories challenge the genre, pushing it into new areas, and some represent those classic vampire ideas for a Canadian audience. There is something about the Canadian vampire that differs from others, and something about the modern vampire that appeals to Canadians: it’s ambiguity, its ability to raise questions without providing answers, its ability to transcend cultural divides and express multiculturalism in one body, its ability to represent the repressed, and its ability to embody the fringe, the outsider, the abject.

Here are a few Canadian vampire stories that are chilling even in the Canadian summer. This is only a short list – there is a lot more out there lurking in the dark.

Nancy Baker’s A Terrible Beauty

Plays with the image of entrapment and seductive beauty. This novel brings starving artist and starving vampire together in the cold of the North, forcing them to confront themselves and the self-perceptions and delusions that have guided their lives.

Nancy Baker’s The Night Inside

Delves into the monstrous appetites not of the vampire, but of the human beings who exploit them. What happens when a research student, driven by schedules, control, and predictability suddenly is cast into the ultimate unpredictable role? Put into a cage next to a vampire at a research company, Ardeth must expand her understanding of the human experience, question her own judgment and change everything about herself.  This book illustrates the dangers involved in the mixing of science and the supernatural and the exploration of the cold rationalism of science encountering the cold body of the vampire.

Tanya Huff’s Blood Books Series

Positions the vampire as a figure of ambiguous sexuality, willing to engage in homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Huff’s vampire is the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, having to explain his odd behaviors by constructing an identity as a romance writer (to explain his eccentricities and unusual hours). He and detective Vicki Nelson, a detective who is going blind due to retinitis pigmentosa find a balance for themselves on the fringe and Huff shows that by touching the abject, the ignored, one can see a whole world of reality around oneself that is often unseen.

Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel

Challenges the all too dominant image of the white, aristocratic vampire by creating a native vampire, dispossessed and removed from his land by colonial invaders. He is robbed of his identity with his culture, and his humanity, paralleling the experience of many indigenous people who were torn from their homes and forced into residential schools.

Lynsay Sands’ A Quick Bite

Looks at Toronto as the perfect environment for vampires with its longer winter nights and prevalence of covered walkways. Her vampires are a holdover of ancient Atlantean society: an nano-technological experiment in longevity that has resulted in a blood lust as a cost for immortality. It is a fusion of dark fantasy and science fiction. But, what happens when a vampire has a phobia about seeing blood?

Short Stories

Kelley Armstrong’s Learning Curve In Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead

Zoe is being stalked, and she is tired of it. She knows she is going to have to fight her stalker, but she doesn’t like releasing her dark side. But, what is a vampire to do when confronted with an angry teen who wants to be a Vampire Slayer? Armstrong explores the Buffy phenomenon from the vampire’s perspective, quipping while dodging blows like the best Buffy sidekick.

Kelley Armstrong’s Twilight In Many Bloody Returns

Despite the title similarity, there is nothing in common between Armstrong’s vampire Cassandra and any of the sparkle-covered vampires of that OTHER twilight story. Cassandra is an aging vampire having to face the notion that in order to stay alive for another year, she is going to have to sacrifice the life of another human being. Birthday for this vampire is deathday for a human being and Cassandra has to face her own conscience as she decides whether another year of her own life is worth a human life.

Nancy Kilpatrick’s The Vechi Barbat In By Blood We Live

The vampire in this story is only revealed to the reader through the words of a mental patient. This story explores the battle between tradition and modernity, age and youth, and myth versus the medical profession.


Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick

Evolve Cover Courtesy of Nancy Kilpatrick

Explores the altering form of the vampire in Canadian literature. This volume is an all-Canadian set of vampire stories and gives a great introduction to the nature of the Canadian vampire. It explores a diverse range of vampires, diverse mythologies, natures, and relationships with the vampire – it stretches the nature of the vampire.

Evolve II: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick

Is a precognizant look at the future of the vampire and the way the vampire is developing in Canadian literature. Where does the vampire go from here? Kilpatrick and the authors in this volume look at the changing nature of society and how that is reflected in the vampire – what are the trends for the future of Canadian society and how is this reflected in the vampire as a representation of Canadian fears and speculations?

Nancy Kilpatrick

Of course, in preparation for my Interview with Nancy Kilpatrick later in Vampire Week, I strongly recommend reading any of her fiction. She has also written some brilliant essays on the Canadian vampire as introductions to the volumes The Vampire Stories of Nancy Kilpatrick, Evolve, and Evolve II