Love at first bite
Karen Essex sinks her teeth into the ‘Dracula’ mythos
In novels like Kleopatra and Stealing Athena, Karen Essex has brought some of history’s most interesting women to life. With her fifth book, Dracula in Love, the award-winning journalist takes on a literary icon: Mina Murray, the consort of the world’s most famous vampire. In Essex’s hands, Mina becomes a woman with unusual gifts and powers, and she must learn to use them. “You must become who you are” is the book’s epigraph, and, as Essex says, it is a quote that can be applied to “all of us, whether male of female. Otherwise, a great deal of suffering ensues.” Essex took some time to answer questions about her version of one of literature’s most compelling stories. Read on for a discussion of headstrong characters, the difference between Stoker’s vampires and the vampires of literature today and the projects Essex is itching to work on.
Most of your previous books have focused on powerful women (countesses, queens)—what was it like instead to turn your talents to a more outwardly average woman?
The privileged characters in my other books lived, by and large, outside of society’s rules, or at least had the money and the power to escape some of those constraints. Mina is not privileged. She is an Irish orphan living in England, trying to assimilate the sort of persona that will yield her a decent life. Traditionally, this is the way it has been for women: play by the rules and we will protect you; step out of line and you will be punished. Mina must choose between protecting herself with her own power and being protected by giving that power up. This story plays out even today in many cultures—subtly in our own culture, and not so subtly in others. For example, the Taliban will protect a woman if she covers herself up and lives in total obedience to their rules.
What inspired you to tell Mina's story?There were many reasons. I wanted to free the female characters from the good girl/bad girl paradigm and see what happened! I wanted to rebalance the story and tell it in a way that portrayed the reality of women’s lives in that era. I also wanted to take the vampire out of the good versus evil religious paradigm he’s been trapped in for 113 years. Also, being an historian and a mythology freak, I wanted to explore all the different mythological creatures and the blood-drinkers of history that influenced Stoker’s creation of the vampire.
It is surprising to many that most of these creatures were female. In Stoker’s (brilliant but) Victorian hands, the victim became the female and the predator the male. This reflected the very real fear of unbridled female sexuality. The vampire became the symbol of the wicked, corrupting male who took the ladies’ innocence. In contrast, I wanted to explore and restore the lost landscape of female mystical power to vampire lore.
You have mentioned that Mina was a very difficult protagonist to write. How did the Mina on the page differ from the one who originally lived in your head?
Oh, she foiled me from the beginning. When she first started talking to me, I resisted her. I didn’t know her or like her. I thought that Mina would want to be “liberated,” but no, she told me that she was in line with Queen Victoria, who did not approve of all this emancipation and thought that suffragettes should get a good spanking! Mina and I battled it out for a while until I realized that I had to let her evolve at her own pace and her own discretion. In the end, she was right and I was wrong. The poor woman goes through her paces in search of her real self. She realizes her power, but man-oh-man, has she paid her dues!
Were there any special challenges when it came to writing about the Victorian era?
The late Victorian era was a time of tremendous change, and society always responds to radical change with great resistance. This was a challenging era to portray. If you make a cultural study of the 1890s, you find that art, architecture and design were beginning to look quite modern; in most aspects of life, what we think of as Victorian was giving way to modernity. Feminist thought was everywhere and was a constant topic of discussion in legislative bodies, in the media and in the home. In reaction to the freedoms and parity women were demanding, “society” or “the patriarchy” or whatever you want to call the keepers of the cultural norm, kept insisting that “good” women were feeble of mind and body and could not handle things like intellectual inquiry, physical exertion or, God forbid, the vote. At the same time, opportunities for women’s education were increasing rapidly because, frankly, they were needed in the exponentially expanding economy and the industrial workforce. Balance this against the fact that women were also being incarcerated in mental institutions for having what we today consider normal sexual desire. It was a time of great paradoxes.
Though they haven't ever really gone away, in recent years vampires have seen a vast increase in popularity. Do you have a theory about why this is so?
Vampires used to reflect our fears but now they reflect our fantasies. My theory is that while every generation has longed for a fountain of youth, today we have many youth-extending tools that enable us to reject the very idea of aging. It seems to me that humans today downright abhor the idea of mortality. And who can blame us? We live in a youth-seeking, youth-worshipping society—on steroids. We have stem cell treatments, hormone therapies, cosmetic surgery both invasive and noninvasive, and loads of medicines that can keep us alive past our expiration date. I sometimes run into people who look younger than they looked 20 years ago! So the vampires of today are not the monsters who corrupt and destroy, but the magical creatures that provide what we lust for—eternal youth and immortality.
We are vampirizing ourselves and at the same time, humanizing the monsters. For example, the vampires of the Twilight series are “vegetarians,” only eating wild beasts and devoting themselves to protecting human life. They are de-fanged, so to speak, and far from losing their immortal souls, have highly evolved consciences. They are not to be feared but emulated.
All of your novels so far have been historical. What is the appeal of the genre for you?
I am fortunate enough to be able to write historical fiction, and I am even more fortunate in that I love every aspect of the work. I love learning, which is a good thing because I practically get a Ph.D in every era I write about. My great passion, however, is to travel to the actual locations and interact with different cultures. The work is exhaustive, and there is no way I could do it if I were not in love with the process.Have you ever considered writing a contemporary story?I have many, many history-based ideas that I have yet to explore in book form. When I run out, I might tackle a contemporary story, but I doubt it.
When you're not writing novels, you're writing or adapting screenplays. What skills from this have you brought over to novel-writing, and vice versa?My novels are very cinematic. I’m just rereading my Kleopatra novels, and I am surprised at how cinematic they are. I was not aware of that when I was writing them. The early readers of Dracula in Love tell me that it’s very cinematic as well. I do “see” in scenes when I am writing.
I also think that screenwriting has taught me to plot . . . I do believe that bringing a screenwriter’s skills to my novels have made them better and more engrossing. Honestly, the process of writing the two mediums is like night and day, using entirely different parts of the brain. Writing a novel is like painting a lavish landscape, and writing a script is like carving a sleek sculpture.
What are you working on next?I am working on a screenplay but the producers and I have decided that we are not going to talk about it just yet. So that is my secret project. I am toying with the idea of writing another book about Mina and the Count, a love story that takes place in parallel time periods. And I am also itching to write nonfiction, perhaps some narrative women’s history that would involve me going in search of certain female historical characters. That sort of book would also satisfy my travel lust. I am never at a loss for ideas. They fight for attention in my brain, which sometimes drives me crazy. In fact, I pray every day that I live long enough to write all of them.