Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Interview with Clay & Susan Griffith, authors of the Vampire Empire Series

This week, we're lucky to have a written interview with Clay and Susan Griffith, authors of the Vampire Empire series, The Greyfriar and TheRift Walker. Both books we enjoyed immensely and we're happy to fanpoodle shamelessly.

While we wait eagerly for the third installment in this series we have these 10 questions and their detailed answers to whet our appetites

1) Urban Fantasy is very popular right now and there are a lot of variations on the theme but they generally fit similar patterns - yet your world and series is very different from most of what has become standardised in the genre. What prompted you towards paranormal steampunk - and this era in history?

To be honest, we never set out to write either a paranormal or a steampunk book. We had a story in mind, and writing it naturally blended genres that intrigue and excite us. Alternate history, pulps, romance, action/adventure. We are both lovers of Victorian history and fiction. The steampunk and even the paranormal elements came out naturally from tampering with that timeline.

2) How much research did you do - both historic and mythological - for this series?

There is always a great deal of research done by both of us on every project. Being a two person team doesn’t always mean we are both fluent on a subject. Sometimes it is a passion of just one, which means the other has to play catch up. There are a lot of nights in libraries and scouring source books. We love reading autobiographies or travelogues from the period we are targeting. We hope it gives us a unique and more believable voice in developing characters.

3) Vampires are very established in our mythology and you put a new spin on several of the old legends (vulnerable to heat rather than sunlight, the effect of crucifixes, being born rather than turned  etc) When dealing with something with such an established canon, to what degree did you feel bound to follow these established traditions and how closely?

We certainly didn’t feel bound to follow tradition. Vampires have always been very flexible in fiction. Different authors take different paths. That said, we wanted to use many of the most familiar traditions and twist them to create something very new. Our vampires aren’t undead humans; they are a parasitic species bound by natural law. So we determined that our ancestors would have formed vampire myths to explain the mistunderstood behaviors of these strange, elusive predators. This allowed us to play with the mythology and to change it subtly, giving the readers something new but yet something familiar as well.

4) We haven’t seen many books that are written collaboratively - how did that work with you both writing the book? Any epic battles over direction/characters?

Collaboration means having a thick skin and trusting your partner to do what is best for the book and not what is best for them. Both of our egos need to be kept in check at all times during the collaboration. But the thing is, we both bring something different strengths to the table which we can use to shore up weaknesses in our partner. So we have more “oh thank God you thought of that” moments, rather than “why the heck did you do that” blowups. Of course, battles do happen. They occur most during the creation phase and the final editing phase, when we are fighting hard for certain scenes and characters or ideas to be born or not to be cut. Arguments usually occur when one of us doesn’t explain something properly to the other, whether it be a character acting out of the norm or the inclusion of a new scene. We don’t have huge epic battles, more short minor skirmishes. One issue we constantly “discussed” was the gore factor, and our target audience. Although we didn’t intend the book as YA (luckily the YA audience has flocked to it), we wanted to make the book accessible to a wide readership which meant that the gorier we made it, the less likely that could happen. We had to find that perfect balance and that wasn’t always easy.

5) In this genre it is not uncommon to find a vampire that detests his nature and identifies with human beings; however, readers are usually not given a reason for this self hatred whereas in your series, Gareth makes it clear that he is inspired by the ability of humans to create.  Was it important to you give Gareth a specific reason for turning on his own kind and do you did you envision him as a sort of latter day Robin Hood?

All the aspects of Gareth’s past and motivations will not be revealed in the trilogy. Much of his appeal comes from his mystery. But yes, human creativity is a singular key to Gareth’s fascination with his food. Even though vampires live a long time, they leave nothing behind, and Gareth is mesmerized by the fact that while individual humans live short lives, humanity seems immortal.

6) There’s a strong suggestion of conflict between Mysticism and Technology are we looking at conflicts where one must be ascendant or a union where both have their place?

Yes, that conflict will become more central to the story as the trilogy progresses. It’s also reflective of Victorian society, and the retreat of religion as the primary influence and method of social coordination in Western society. Mysticism and technology will always co-exist in some fashion, but it’s hard to imagine a society that even resembles our modern world where mysticism doesn’t take a distant second place to technology.

7) In both books we saw specific social issues being addressed - in Greyfriar we saw a good commentary on class, in Riftwalker we saw commentary on both ageism and elder abuse as well as Adele’s development in a very patriarchal state. Was this intended or is it a happy side-effect of the plot - and will we see more?

It was intentional, in the sense that we wanted a well-rounded world. When you construct an alternate world, you want to deal with the issues that both unite and divide people. If your world has economics, it has divisions. And if it has industrial economics, it has class structure. Fantasy worlds without them seem false. And since we were creating a neo-Victorian world, class certainly had to play a role. We also wanted to draw parallels between the forms of division in human society and those among the vampires; neither is all good or all bad.

In terms of “ageism”, we never consciously thought about the portrayal of the elderly characters like King Dmitri as a statement against “elder abuse”. But we have both cared for aging and infirm parents, so those things are important to us, and fresh in our minds.

8) Adele is one of the most powerful, intelligent, independent and strong female characters we’ve seen in reading urban fantasy (especially since we’ve seen numerous attempts at strong characters that missed the mark). Did you set out to have such a good feminist protagonist?

This book began its infancy with an idea that I (Clay) came up with before Susan and I started writing together. But it never worked. When we started teaming up, I asked Susan to look at the premise and sample chapters, and “fix it.” So she did. The primary problem was that the early versions of Adele were wrong. She was either too whiney or too manly. Susan brought not just her sense of character writing, but also the fact that she is the toughest, yet most sensitive woman I’ve ever met. It’s a difficult combination of character traits to manage, but she does it. And she made Adele into a similar figure.

9) Have you any intention of including any GBLT characters or is the lack an intentional statement of Equatoria? Similarly to how most of the Persian, Black and Indian characters, except for Adele herself, are in subservient roles - also a statement on Equatorial culture?

The Greyfriar, and Vampire Empire in general, delves little into the sexuality of any of its characters, with the exception of Adele and Greyfriar. In that sense, the sexual preferences of most characters won’t come into play. That’s not as much an intentional statement about Equatoria as it is a reflection of the “Victorian” sensibilities of the day, and more, it simply suits the overall themes of the trilogy.

The issue of race equality is more complicated and textured. The following answer is very long, but remember, you asked!

We actually disagree with your assertion that most non-whites or non-Europeans are “subservient”, particularly in The Rift Walker. Perhaps the issue is more what is the definition of the term “subservient”. As you point out, Adele is half-Persian and is the imperial heir. Colonel Anhalt, a Gurkha, is the commander of an elite military unit, not Adele’s manservant. Major Stoddard is Senator Clark’s right hand man, and serves as a voice of reason for the American commander. We also feature Sanah, who is Persian, and Nzingu, who is Zulu, and Mamoru, who is Japanese. There is also the mention of Equatoria’s top admiral being from east Africa; and there are several other such references to political/military figures who are not northern European stock.

But granted, the most powerful figures at the heart of the Equatorian Empire – Emperor Constantine, Lord Kelvin, Lord Aden, etc. – seem to be of European descent or at least claim to be, and the courtly style of Equatoria is largely an import from Britain with Near Eastern overlays which, we would argue, demonstrates forces at work subconsciously within the society. We never envisioned Equatoria as an old comfortable “raj” society trapped in some quaint colonial amber, but rather a vibrant, multi-cultural society in transition.

At the time of the Great Killing in 1870, the refugees who escaped the vampire attacks were primarily the dominant political, business, and military classes of northern Europe and North America, and Japan. They came south with their ships and guns, and landed where they had bases in place, or where northern influence had some history, such as Alexandria, Egypt.

In real history, imperial conquest and administration of Africa, and much of the tropical world, was accomplished with surprisingly few men due to technological superiority in weapons and communications, and the biological aid of disease. In real history, 19th century colonialism was undertaken primarily for the extraction of natural resources from the tropics, but in the Vampire Empire world, the northern refugees were desperately seeking new homes to escape the horrors of the north. Similar to the Mongols in China or the Normans in Britain, northerners imposed themselves as live-in warlord rulers in areas such as Egypt, and forced room for the waves of fellow refugees who came after them. These northerners brought with them not just their guns, but their ideas of social organization and their skills in scientific research and the production of technology. This knowledge allowed them to maintain a certain degree of control in the areas they seized, and in some cases, even to expand that control. However, this layer of “northern” domination remained relatively shallow over the ensuing century, while the majority of the refugees were blended and absorbed into the changing tropical populations.

Now, this “warlord invader scenario” doesn’t apply in the vast majority of the tropical world where there wasn’t a swamping by northern refugees. For example, in The Rift Walker, we see the nation of Katanga in central Africa, which developed without the taint of northern rulers, although the Katangans did eagerly adopt and adapt “northern” productive technologies because it suited them.

Furthermore, as the trilogy progresses, we will see how societies like Equatoria are changing. While many of the elite in Alexandria love to tie their heritage to the old lands of Europe (just like many Americans insist on connecting their family tree to the Mayflower), in fact, that shallow layer of self-proclaimed “northerners” is being eroded and replaced rapidly by the polyglot society that Equatoria has become over the 20th century. We try not to be overly obvious and make the point, “Hey look, a Euro leader is being replaced by an Arabic/Turkish/African/etc. leader”, but the events will occur nonetheless. Adele herself will help to push her society in that direction. But it won’t be easy. No group or class gives up power and privilege willingly.

All that said, this trilogy was created to be an action/adventure story with a unique world setting. All of the social issues are subtext, important subtext, but still subsidiary to the main tale of derring-do, romance, and sacrifice.

10) And to finish we’re avid readers of the genre - what other authors are among your favourites?

Clay: I like a lot of the classics of fantasy such as Robert E. Howard and H. Rider Haggard. Among more contemporary writers, I like Jeffrey Ford and Mark Hodder.

Susan: I’m a long time fan of Madeline Brent, Bernard Cornwell, Elizabeth Peters, and pulp writers like Maxwell Grant. Currently I’m reading writers like George Mann, Suzanne Collins, and Jon Sprunk.