An Interview with Nancy Kilpatrick
By Derek Newman-Stille
This week I had the opportunity to interview an author who is often referred to as the Canadian Queen of the Damned, and the Canadian Anne Rice. She is an author who plays with multiple types of vampires and doesn’t confine herself to a singular image or myth of the vampire. Ms. Kilpatrick is the author of 18 novels including Near Death, Dracul: An Eternal Love Story, and The Vampire Stories of Nancy Kilpatrick, . She is also the editor of 12 anthologies including Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead, Tesseracts Thirteen, and Danse Macabre: Close Encounters with the Reaper.
I want to thank Ms. Kilpatrick for being willing to do an interview on Speculating Canada.
Spec Can: Could you take a moment to tell us a little about yourself and introduce yourself to readers?
Nancy Kilpatrick: There’s not much to tell. Writers are boring. We spend an inordinate amount of time alone musing, worrying, talking to ourselves in our heads and sometimes aloud, constantly struggling with the inner angel we need to convince to allow us to destroy characters’ lives and then fighting the devil within to persuade him/her to let us save/redeem a character. We’re the people that look as if we are insane, or always distracted, or angry, or upset, or terrified, unless we’re at a table at a convention signing books where we wear the mask of normality. The rest of the time, if we leave home at all, you will likely find us in a bar, even if we’re non-drinkers. Our world is secret and internal, steeped in paranoia, so there’s little to talk about and most of us are not given to small talk and idle chatter anyway. In fact, sometimes we look pained and sound incoherent because we are so involved in the worlds we create that the reality outside our skin seems a tad confusing if not pale by comparison. As we compulsively jot notes on small scraps of paper in public places, you will often see us looking perplexed when the inevitable request comes: “Tell me about yourself!” Thank God someone invented astrological signs!
Spec Can: Where do you feel Canadian horror is headed?
Nancy Kilpatrick: To a very good place. At the moment, there are two dynamic publishers of Canadian horror. Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy, which got into horror with Tesseracts Thirteen (2009) when David Morrell and I co-edited that anthology, and they haven’t looked back since. ChiZine Publications publishes quite a bit of horror as well as speculative fiction. The covers of horror books from Canada are terrific. I know from the four anthologies I’ve edited for Edge (the others being Evolve; Evolve Two; Danse Macabre) and the one collection of my stories from Edge (Vampyric Variations) that they are very open to me recommending cover art, which I did for three of the anthologies and for the collection. The artist for the three anthologies is John Kaiine, whose work is exquisite, and for the collection the artist is Jimmy Mallet from France, who has a dynamism all his own. ChiZine has wonderful covers. I believe they use the same artist(s) and this creates a consistent line of books with unusual artwork. Both of these publishers release stand-out books and in the horror field, rife with gruesome art covers and stock images, fonts and colors – that is important. I think the work we see on the covers and interiors and the subject matter and presentation of the contents of the books reflect extremely well on Canada as an innovative country, on the cutting edge of books in the dark fantasy/horror genre. This is as it should be and it’s been a long-time coming and we are very lucky to have these two publishing houses in Canada.
I should also mention Éditions Alire in Québéc City, which publishes the French version of my Power of the Bloodseries.
They are very open to horror and dark fantasy, with the genre’s French spin on the covers which obviously works since the books garner attention and sell. There are several noir authors with Alire.
Spec Can: What is different about Canadian vampire fiction from that of other nationalities?
Nancy Kilpatrick: I’d say that in general, Canadians write with intelligence, and that includes the darker genres. They are educated and that becomes clear when you read the stories and novels. Nothing here is slapped together and I suspect that’s because in the past we didn’t have a horror publishing industry so writers have had to work harder, knowing their English-language markets were in the U.S. and Britain, and the French markets in France. Having Canadian publishers with a horror ‘line’ allows writers to feel they don’t need to leave home to get published.
Besides being thoughtful and intelligent, Canadians write from their experience. Cities here are different than cities in the U.S. For example, our citizens don’t carry guns. Our landscape involves a lot of nature, which is important to Canadians, and that allows for a certain type of horror that can be both visceral and psychological. Characters in the stories and novels produced in this country — and I’ve read a lot of short fiction for the four anthologies I’ve edited for Edge (two were all Canadian authors and the other two have a goodly chunk of Canucks) and the eight before those for the U.S. market — read like real people, well-constructed, with depth and lives and thought-processes which aren’t stereotyped. Because the characters are intelligent, even if a tad whimsical, readers can respect them. There’s nothing worse in a horror novel or story than the clichés, for example: “Let’s split up!” Stories by Canadians strike me as having characters who are loners, not necessarily out of some twisted or evil past but more because of the way we live here, a kind of self-sufficiency that isn’t bitter. What I mean is, you get characters who just get on with it and deal with things to the best of their ability. And most of the time they don’t have arsenals at their disposal so they have to use brain-power while coping with the emotions evoked by the horrific situation.
Don Hutchison, who was the editor of the wonderful anthology series Northern Frights, used to say he thought Canadians wrote with a sense of place, and that might be what I’m getting at. But I think it’s more. I think the place shapes the person and their world view and how they cope with everything. What I like about what I’m reading by Canadians — besides the fact that they like to slide between genres, which I find fun — is that they bring themselves to the fore and that Canadianism is recognizable. In my view, we don’t need the government shoving Canadian content down our throats as if it has to be protected or die out, or shoving language down our throats, ditto the reasons. These things already exist and can stand on their own. It’s who we are and it shines through in the writing. When travelling, one can usually spot travelers who are English or French or German because they are distinctive. But you can also spot Canadians because we are distinctive in our way. Canadians are nice, fair, friendly without being in your face, and honest. Why Canadians don’t see and appreciate these rare qualities in themselves, I don’t know, but it’s also in the writing and in the books we’re now producing that are in the horror/dark fantasy genre and that’s one of the reasons Canadian fiction stands out.
Spec Can: Where do you see the Canadian vampire going from here? How is it evolving or changing?
Nancy Kilpatrick: I think my follow-up anthology to Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead really says it all about where the vampire will go and the Canadian authors in the volume Evolve Two: Vampires Stories of the Future Undead very much move the vampire forward in time and space and also advance ideas about how society will evolve and the undead with us.
Spec Can: You are often called the Canadian Anne Rice and are compared often to her. It seems that people are often trying to put you into her shadow. How do you feel about this? Do you find that this comparison ignores your own innovations and the uniqueness of your craft? What are some things that mark your work as different from Rice’s writing?
Nancy Kilpatrick: I think it was a daily newspaper that tagged me with that moniker and so it got onto the wire service and since then many other publications have picked up on Canada’s Queen of the Damned–it’s a catchy phrase, that is. I don’t write like Anne Rice, never have, and our concept of the vampire is quite different. I suppose the idea of calling me that implies that my work is a) vampire and b) well known. I’m prolific and been published quite a bit, having written and edited quite a lot of material–overkill, maybe <snark>.
There are, of course, others in Canada who have written vampire novel series, some of whom have scored major publishing houses, like Tanya Huff and Nancy Baker. And plenty of others with a couple of vamp novels under their belts–Edo van Belkom, Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, and Karen Dales, as well as YA author-stars Alyxandra Harvey and Max Turner. Just to name a few, and there are many others. I suppose I snagged the title because of timing and, again, because I’ve written so much that features this archetype.
I don’t find the title offensive. And the only times I’ve found it annoying are during interviews when, for example, we’re about to go on air and the interviewer admits to not having read my novel and then spends the interview asking me what I think about Anne Rice’s work!
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. For these people, any sort of silly title attached to my name doesn’t encourage or hinder them because they already read me, so I don’t feel ignored or denigrated. Writing is one thing. Marketing is another animal entirely.
Spec Can: What does the vampire reveal about the modern world and our modern obsessions?
Nancy Kilpatrick: The vampire has, tragically, become part of today, with all the shallowness this age engenders. It’s because the creature must evolve with us. That makes sense, since the undead are a construct of our fears and fantasies. I’d like to think that the vampire as predator of humanity still has an edge, despite having become essentially a romantic figure and a sex machine. Not that I’m against romance and eroticism in my undead at all–anyone who has read my work can assure you of that–but there’s such a predominance of those qualities today with True Blood and the books on which it’s based, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and so on. We`ve altered the vampire to fit our interests, it seems.
Ours is a society (in North America) obsessed with being young at all costs, which ultimately translates that we are fearful of losing power and control, of dying, and of no longer being valued. YA (Young Adult) vampire fiction (in fact, YA in general) has boomed and not just with teenagers. Many older women read the Twilight books and see the films (and I won’t even go into the popularity of mommy-porn Fifty Shades of Grey, which began as Twilight fan fic!). The vampire has had to adapt to our desire to stay youthful and vital and since the nosferatu tends to live eternally and look young and attractive and sexy, those traits fit right in with what many people want. This is why you’re not seeing or reading much about the old resuscitated corpse anymore, although that’s changing a bit and we’re getting a little more of the corporeally corrupted, hideous and fetid vampire you have no desire to date. The vampire is cursed and its main curse is to conform to the age in which it’s presented in fiction, film, television, art, etc.
Spec Can: Your work is both erotic and deals with vampiric topics, what brings the vampire specifically and the monster more generally together with the erotic?
Nancy Kilpatrick: The vampire in fiction has always been compelling and in early English lit has always been erotic. In Thomas Preskett Prest’s (or Malcolm Rymer’s, depending on your research source), Varney the Vampire, the vampire is a creature tormented who ends up despite his best intentions in the bedroom of Victorian women nightly. Dracula has a taste for the ladies, so to speak. Carmilla is a rich woman fond of younger women and she makes them swoon. And the earliest story in English, “The Vampire” by John Polidori (Lord Byron’s physician who took a scrap of a vampire story Byron wrote and expanded it) features a cruel and callous vampire who seduces and kills the sister of his ‘friend’, so this offers both eroticism and viciousness.
The vampire has always been seductive. This is a creature that can mesmerize us, manipulate us, and knows we like sex and uses that to control us. Vampires used to want just one thing: our blood. Now they want sex too and because they are handsome or beautiful, youthful, persuasive, hypnotic almost, we are happy to succumb to their charms, it seems, since supernatural romances featuring the undead are very popular.
Spec Can: What vampire myths and legends to you draw upon in your work?
Nancy Kilpatrick: There are plenty of myths and legends out there and I’ve collected vampire literature and mythology for a few decades now, so I’m fairly aware of from whence this creature derives. Still, and although I’ve written a variety of types of vampires, most of mine are blood drinkers. For me, there is something both intimate and intimidating about a physical attack that I don’t associate with a mental or emotional attack. I guess that’s because I can protect myself from the last two by simply vacating the premises, but I can`t just up and leave in the face of a physical onslaught. A mental attack screws you up for a while, and an emotional attack can leave you overloaded with feelings and in tatters. But you can survive these. A physical attack is the more dangerous. It leaves you weak but also vulnerable and the great danger is that it can lead to death.
There’s a site online that specializes in vampire mythologies: shroudeater.com run by a friend of mine, a serious student of these myths. I often check that site for myths and news stories that reflect unusual aspects of the undead.
Spec Can: Why do you think we, as a society, have move toward an interest in a more sympathetic monster image rather than the horrifying monster of the past?
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.
Spec Can: What inspires you to write?
Nancy Kilpatrick: Anything can inspire me. Most of the time I don’t know what that is. I can say that seeing a person might inspire me, or remembering something, experiencing something in the here and now. All of that is true, but not the whole story. I have emotional urges to sit at the computer and crank out fiction for no discernible reason. Of course, if I’m asked to write a story for an anthology, I think along the lines of the anthology’s subject. But otherwise, it’s a kind of psychic free-for-all state that eventually settles down a bit and my intuition takes over and manages (remarkably) to focus on something that excites me mentally and emotionally enough to do all the work involved to take this inspiring nugget and create from it a story or novel.
Spec Can: Do you find that readers try to see you as similar to your characters? Do fans typecast you before meeting you?
Nancy Kilpatrick: Years ago, Don Bassingthwaithe and I co-wrote As One Dead, in the White Wolf Vampire the Masquerade world. That world breaks down characters by generation, by clan and by sect and then the personality of the individual character under those three umbrellas of identity. That was about the only time anyone implied I might be like my character, or wanted to know which gen/clan/sect I was part of.
I think readers always suspect that a character is from the writer’s personality or experience, and I suppose to some extent that’s true. But I’ve written so many different types of vampires–and other characters–that it would be hard to peg me as any of them. At the same time, I think there must be a kernel in me that leads to each character I write, although sometimes even I can’t identify the source.
Spec Can: What is dark or vampiric about our urban environments? Why are cities attracting so much attention by horror, dark fantasy, and other authors of the macabre?
Nancy Kilpatrick: I think it’s because cities have gotten so big so quickly. Populations have doubled in two decades. This throws people who remember how it was into chaos. Suddenly there are too many people, too many cars, too much noise. Jobs are harder to get, transportation is slower, people from elsewhere have different ways that conflict with the common standards of courtesy and etiquette. This makes for tension for everyone and that means cities are balls of tension. Tension breeds paranoia and suspicion, dark fears. People become less trusting, more judgmental, and definitely defensive.
Environments like this are breeding grounds for horror stories. Here is where we are alone and anonymous in a potentially hostile environment. Our neighbors don’t know us, and don’t seem to care. We could be the victim or the perpetrator of a crime, it’s all the same. Trust is a huge issue and that sometimes leads to trusting the wrong person because everyone is a stranger. A perfect environment for a vampire to take advantage of an unsuspecting human who is needy and afraid.
Spec Can: What do vampire stories say about ageing and social ideas about getting older (or not)?
Nancy Kilpatrick: Vampires give us hope that we can live forever. Science gives that same hope that, one day, this will be so: we will be disease free, and maladies of the flesh can be cured, allowing us to continue into infinity. But that’s Some Day. The vampire represents the fantasy that it can happen now, to us, in our lifetimes. The popularity of the vampire assures us that many would exchange a lot for this prolonged existence, and that speaks directly to our fear of demise and our lack of religious or philosophical belief in an afterlife or another life. A lot of people these days take the ‘this is it’ stance about existence, one life, get it while you can and while you’re young and attractive enough to enjoy it. But the vampire promises eternal youth, beauty, and no nasty death awaiting us. It’s a fantasy most people have toyed with, if not in the form of the undead in some other form. A chance to get it right. A chance to have it all. And look and feel good while doing it.
Spec Can: What is distinctly Canadian about your work? What specifically Canadian ideas or themes do you bring into it?
Nancy Kilpatrick: I think my work is multi-national, multi-cultural and encompasses a lot of attitudes and values that Canadians hold to like gender equality and equal pay for equal work. For example, I’ll use fairness. Canadians like to be fair and that leads to that stereotyping of people from this country always apologizing. But really, it’s not so much apologizing out of guilt–as the Americans imagine–as Canadians being polite, acknowledging the other person’s existence and that they, too, have rights. I think my writing incorporates that even in the conflicts of the story, even when a character is obnoxious. I try to give the characters the chance to do the right thing. If they do, they are holding to my values and the values I see around me, despite how much the current climate tends to try to erode those values. If my characters fail to hold to these values, then I see them as from elsewhere. (laughs).
With the anthologies I edit, I don’t go looking for a balance of half male, half female contributors and yet the anthologies seem to be that. I think it’s mainly because I like a lot of types of writing and am eclectic. I’m looking for a good story, clever, intelligent, with some depth, and well written. Those are general words and all anthologists use them, so really they have little meaning. I know what works and trust my judgement about short fiction. And I also have a refined sense of how to make a good story better. All this culminates in me liking a story and not caring if it’s by a male or a female–as long as the story is good.
Spec Can: Why is the vampire such a versatile monster? Why is it so able to adapt to new cultural representations?
Nancy Kilpatrick: The vampire is one of the few supernaturals that is human. They look and act like us; they can pass. Consequently, a writer has a lot of room to use them to reflect humanity. You can’t do that easily with zombies because they are so one-dimensional, brainless, if you will. With zombies it’s the human characters that have to be the focus and how they react. Werewolves are hard on modern readers, since we have few wolves outside zoos, none larger than life, and in humans, the bad behavior of the feral is not only frowned upon but can lead to incarceration. Most of the other preternaturals are not human, like trolls. Ghosts were human, so it should be possible to work them into interesting stories but for the fact that they are so intangible and we can’t really understand where they are or what they’re doing there and since they have no physical body they have few needs–usually it’s to scare us, or to reconnect–which isn’t likely. Vampires have it all. They wear makeup to disguise their pallor, although paleness is back in fashion so they don’t need much Mac foundation. They can be night people–plenty of shift-workers and ravers are. If they are still allergic to garlic–rare now–that’s easy–hold the garlic! Most are not repelled by crosses, at least since the goth sub-culture grew so strong in the 1990s. Ditto not seeing their reflection–there are so many mirrors around these days that such a limitation would be impossible to work with creatively. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro took care of the sleeping on native soil thing in Hotel Transylvania (1976)–her character St. Germain lines his boots with his native soil so he can walk around in daylight and fall asleep anywhere.
The bottom line is, if they weren’t predators preying on us, we wouldn’t know them as anything but human. And that makes them, like us, adaptable. But they are predators and they are dangerous.
Spec Can: A lot of vampires are portrayed as aristocratic and there is increasing interest in the zombie as the “poor man/woman’s undead”. How can the changing vampire speak to diverse classes?
Nancy Kilpatrick: Early vampires in English lit were aristocrats because the writers writing those novels and stories–Stoker; LaFanu; Prest/Rymer; Polidori–were either of that class, trying to say something about that class, or aspiring to be that class in a time when there were two classes in the UK, rich and poor, with a just-emerging middle-class.
Clive Barker nailed zombies in his introduction to Skipp and Spector’s Book of the Dead (#1 I think) when he said they are the masses you’d love to love who come to your house with their faces falling off. Zombies can be sympathetic–but not for long. As Clive went on to say: ‘and you’re trying to be as humane as you possibly can, but they are, after all, eating the cat.’
Zombies are mobs. Hoards. Overwhelming, overrunning, mindless. Hard to love, though we might see the humanity in one occasionally. This has always been our fears: of foreigners–you don’t know what they’re like so you don’t know what they’ll do, hence they are not predictable; of the revolting ‘peasants’ storming the castle–they get an idea into their collective heads and run with it and reason dies as quick a death as does anyone in their path. It’s clear why zombies have become the everyman/woman, the masses, and why they are frightening. Individuality is lost but for obsession.
Because vampires look and can act like us, and can reason and charm, we tend to use them as fantasy fodder. Part of the fantasy is that they are sexy, alluring, mesmerizing. Another part requires them to be rich. After all, they live eternally and like most people who hope to figure out the stock market one day and make a killing, vampires should have amassed some wealth by the time they have survived a lifetime or more. Besides, people respect wealth tremendously while hating the wealthy.
Spec Can: Could you tell us a bit about current projects you are working on?
Nancy Kilpatrick: For the last year I’ve been working on seven novels at once. Yes, that sounds insane. And?…
In terms of The Pitch, I do have the collection Vampyric Variations on the shelves, subject matter obvious. And also a new anthology I’ve edited which is not vampire, but it’s close: Danse Macabre: Close Encounters With the Reaper–not one vampire, per se, in this book!
If you buy these books, the publisher can go on to publish more books. That’s always the bottom line so put your good intentions into practise–both are available in print and ebook form.
It is great to know that being a horror writer is as wild and fun as I imagined it to be. I want to thank Nancy Kilpatrick for taking the time to do this interview and for sharing insights with us about her own writing craft and the nature of the monster as it is evolving in Canadian society. You can explore more about Ms. Kilpatrick at http://www.sff.net/people/nancyk/ .
This has been an incredible opportunity to gain insights into the vampire and into the Canadian vampire particularly (and the society that created this monstrous reflection of ourselves).