Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Karen Essex

A 1/2 Dozen with novelist

(and former film executive
and current Londoner)

Karen Essex

who talks about research,
insane asylums,
and Stoker.

Here goes:

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

London! I moved here temporarily to research Dracula in Love because I wanted to breathe in the atmosphere of late Victorian England, which is very much alive in this city, and I never left! After so many years of living in Los Angeles, which represents everything new, I am having a great awakening living at the intersection of history, of which London has an immense amount, and the very multi-cultural, vital present. I am having the time of my life simply immersing myself in London's many aspects and hope to write about my personal experience here too.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I'd read Bram Stoker's Dracula when I was fifteen years old, and even at that time, I was sure that the character Mina Harker was dissatisfied with her role as the passive, cooperative Victorian virgin. Then, several decades later, strangely—inexplicably—I was sitting at my computer one night staring into space and the thought popped into my brain. What if I retell the original Dracula myth from Mina Harker's perspective? The idea just descended on me. Now that said, I had my "vampire epiphany" long ago. I used to race home from grade school on my bike to catch "Dark Shadows" on TV. I grew up in a family of spooky women in New Orleans, which is a haunted city, . I adored Anne Rice's books, and then later, as a screenwriter, adapted Rice's The Mummy or Ramses the Damned for James Cameron and 20th Century Fox (sadly, the film remains unmade!). So while the idea seemingly just "occurred" to me, I have loved vampire lore for a very long time, and moreover, my novels retell the stories of women in history in an empowering way. So empowering the vampire's "victim" was a natural for me.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

This will sound childish and hubristic but when I read a horrible review, I always picture the person who wrote it as morbidly obese and sexually frustrated. I also tell myself that this poor creature, who is generally lambasting me on some point on which they are entirely wrong, usually an historical detail, is not smart enough to understand the complexity of my book or its higher themes. The truth is—and every writer no matter how successful will attest to this—criticism always hurts. It's important to revel in the good comments and minimize thinking on the bad.

As far as criticism from the people who support me, such as my agent and my editor, I put my faith in these folks, and I try very hard to listen carefully to their comments. I don't blindly take every suggestion, but I do put my ego aside and try to objectively consider and address everything they bring up. Writers are buried so deeply in the minutia of our stories that we often cannot see the big picture.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

Like almost every writer throughout history, I was a child who loved to read. My parents used to call me for dinner 100 times before I actually heard their voices because I was so engrossed in a book. "She's come back from the planet Venus," they'd say when I finally showed up at the table. Also, my early years were spent in my grandmother's kitchen, where she, her sister, and their mother, my amazing great-grandmother, told stories all day long while they cooked for the family and for the men who worked in my grandfather's barbershop. They did not censor for the ears of a child, so it was a very rich experience, and I believe, the reason I am a writer today.

The Dracula in Love video tells the whole story of how my childhood influenced my tastes and the writing of Dracula in Love, so please take a look! (See all links below.)

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I love research almost as much as I love writing, which is a good thing because research and historical fiction are symbiotic. The most harrowing research I have done was in the archives of Victorian mental hospitals, reading the accounts of the really bizarre treatments given to women in the early days of psychiatry to help "settle them down." A good chunk of Bram Stoker's Dracula takes place in an insane asylum. I wanted to use the same setting in my novel but portray the asylum as it actually was at the time—full of women incarcerated for having what we today would consider normal sexual activity. My conceit for Dracula in Love was that women in the 1890s had a lot more to fear from their own culture than from vampires! I am told that the scariest parts of the book take place in the asylum scenes, which were recreated from painstaking research. People always say to me, "You must have made that stuff up!" But no, everything that happened in those scenes is based on reality. Research will always demonstrate that truth is greater than fiction.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

My first career was as a film executive in Hollywood. I am ever grateful that I worked in a real business, albeit a creative one, before I quit and dedicated myself entirely to writing. I write literary novels and have never written anything "for the money," but from day one, I approached writing with an eye to publishing and to earning my income through the endeavor. Publishing is a business and many writers fail to understand that, which is why many writers fail to publish, or fail to maintain a career as a writer once they are published. I took my "career" as a writer as seriously as I took my career as an executive, which meant learning the mechanics of the industry along with learning the mechanics of the craft. I knew that I had to invest in my writing on every level, including the financial. I made great financial sacrifices for my writing but I considered it an investment in my future, or my "business." Anyone who thinks that publishing is not a business, or that good writers do not think of it that way, is very naive.


Karen Essex is the author of five acclaimed historical novels, including the national and international bestseller, LEONARDO'S SWANS. Her latest novel, DRACULA IN LOVE, retells the story from the perspective of Mina Harker, the vampire's eternal muse, turning the original tale inside out and exposing the shocking truths that could not be told in the Victorian era. She lives and works in London and Los Angeles.

"An intensely erotic story of romance and obsession...Lusciously sexy and outrageously chilling by turns."—The New Jersey Star-Ledger

“Required reading. Essex retells Stoker’s Dracula entirely from heroine Mina Harker’s point of view…meeting the ubervampire face to face, not to mention fang to neck.”–New York Post


Watch the DRACULA IN LOVE book trailer by clicking HERE

Visit the DRACULA IN LOVE Facebook page HERE

Don't forget to follow Karen on Twitter: @KarenEssex


To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.

Laurie Foos

Susan Henderson

Chantel Acevedo

Caroline Leavitt

Danica Novgorodoff

Rebecca Rasmussen

Laurel Snyder

Tatjana Soli

Julie Buxbaum

Randy Susan Meyers

John McNally

Justin Manask (agent)

Melissa Senate

Steve Kistulentz

Christopher Schelling (agent)

Dani Shapiro

Jeff VanderMeer

Catherine McKenzie

Emily Rapp

Stephanie Cowell

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Paul Elwork

William Lychack

Leah Stewart

Michelle Herman

Lise Haines

Benjamin Percy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Kim MacQueen

Crystal Wilkinson

Michael Griffith

Laura Dave