Kim Newman – Interview
Kim Newman is a critically acclaimed English novelist, journalist and film critic. Author of the Anno Dracula series of alternative history stories, he also writes for Sight and Sound and Empire magazine providing film reviews
Kim Newman is a critically acclaimed English novelist, journalist and film critic. Author of the Anno Dracula series of alternative history stories, he also writes for Sight and Sound and Empire magazine providing film reviews and commentary. He is noted for his expansive knowledge of horror fiction, with a particular love of Vampire related fiction being a recurring theme in his works.
With his Anno Dracula series currently being re-released by Titan books and with the second novel, The Bloody Red Baron (review HERE), released this month Kim graciously agreed to answer some of my questions regarding the books, his work, and Vampirism.
DP: The titular first book in the Anno Dracula series was originally published 20 years ago with two subsequent books following in the years after, having been previously unaware of them they’ve been brought to my attention by the recent Titan Books re-release – what was it like for you to go back to material you wrote some time ago?
KN: I’ve found it surprisingly easy to slip back into the world. I’ve left the old books alone (except for fixing some stubborn typos), but added extra materials, including two substantial new novellas (which add up to the length of a new novel) included in The Bloody Red Baron and Dracula Cha Cha Cha reissues. I am polishing a long-in-the-works fourth novel, Johnny Alucard, bits of which have been published over the years as separate stories. I’m starting to see the saga as one long book, which isn’t finished.
DP: What I enjoy about works of fiction is an awareness of what has been done before, and with that knowledge, taking a tangential approach to creating something new – these books embody that idea with their carefully woven tapestry of references. For you, is using these references a reverential experience, are you doing it to pay homage to the wealth of fiction (and fact) that you draw from?
KN: Anno Dracula is, of course, a book which arises from earlier fiction, and so I needed to find a way of representing a fictional world which readers could still relate to or feel like they inhabit. The various specific references are there for various reasons – some are tributes to works I like, some are fond or less-fond satire of the works that bulk out the body of vampire fiction, and some are conveniences for the plot. I need a policeman for a scene, and I consider the time and place then look around for a real or borrowed fictional policeman who would make sense in this context. I think that our idea of Victorian London is composited of so many authors – Dickens, Doyle, Wilde, Wells, Stoker, Stevenson – and other representations that it’s almost a consensus reality of its own. This is true of most of the periods and places I’ve picked for the series.
DP: With so many “hat tipping” moments littered throughout there must be a fairly extensive research period during, or prior to, writing?
KN: Yes. These take a long time to write, much longer than doing – say – a contemporary, less fantastical story. I go to the history and the key works of fiction or biography I want to riff on, and build up library piles and internet caches about the people or places or eras I’m concentrating on. I look at films of the period, or set in the period. I listen to music, read novels, look at advertising material or news items, find out about fashions and fads, etc – sometimes to get material, mostly to get the language or the key concerns of the day. And then I have to factor in the Anno Dracula timeline, the presence of vampires as a significant population, and the underlying intention always to address the present while imagining a fantastic past. Some days, lately, I’ve barely got out a paragraph or two because I’ve had to track down so many facts – or strain to make up so much that fits in with what I’ve said before – before I can even start to write.
DP: When writing do you create characters and scenarios and then research references that will fit with what you’ve created, or do you find characters, names, situations, etc that you want to use and find a way to hang your story around them? Or is it more fluid, with research feeding story and vice-versa?
KN: I tend to start with characters and themes, then develop plots out of them. The actual stories in the Anno Dracula series are almost always seen through the eyes of my own characters, which is to say people I made up (even if Kate Reed, a major character in the series, was named by Bram Stoker). The people I’ve taken from history (like Edgar Allan Poe or Baron von Richthofen) or other people’s stories (like Dracula or Lord Ruthven) go through a process whereby I come up with my own version of them for the purposes of my books. Hamish Bond, vampire secret agent in Dracula Cha Cha Cha, is a different character from his obvious inspiration, but draws on every possible incarnation of that other fellow – with added fangs. In some cases, research shapes the story. The more I found out about von Richthofen, the more his life fed into the plot of The Bloody Red Baron, and the same is probably true of Jack the Ripper, though of course I was free to come up with a fictional culprit for those murders.
DP: The characters in the series (I’ve only read up to The Bloody Red Baron) are compelling; it’s nice that each chapter switches viewpoints so the reader can experience more of each of them. Dracula though, whilst lending his name to the series, is never really a central character in so much as we see from his perspective – he’s more of a troublemaker, the antagonist at the eye of the storm, and we see the ripple effects around him. Do you intend, or have you already done so in the following novels, to focus more specifically on Dracula’s perspective, or is he merely a catalyst for you?
KN: In Stoker’s novel, Dracula talks to Jonathan Harker at length but isn’t a viewpoint character – everyone else in the book writes reams of diary entries, but Dracula just dashes off a few notes. This helps make him a monster, and allows us to project our fears, neuroses and prejudices on him. Other books – and some films – have tried to humanise him or give his point of view (I like Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tape, especially) so I didn’t feel a need to do that. Indeed, I wanted to make Dracula a monster again and put him back in the shadows. Dracula appears differently in each of the books, but always at one or two removes from the action except for a few crucial appearances. Johnny Alucard, the fourth novel, has a viewpoint character who is at least slightly mindlinked with Dracula – or thinks he is – so he gets to show a little more of himself in that. I think I’ll hold off doing Dracula’s point of view – it’s easier to have him as the incarnation of everything bad if we’re outside his head.
DP: I was particularly struck by the character of Manfred von Richthofen, the Bloody Red Baron himself, portrayed as a distant, calculating, embodiment of a psychopath. It’s quite telling that a state of war elevates a man who could be viewed as a state sponsored serial killer into a hero – did that have bearing on how you portrayed him?
KN: Nearly a hundred years on, von Richthofen remains a mystery – which is part of why I wanted to do an Anno Dracula novel about him. The air aces of WWI, on both sides, were peculiarly elevated as heroes – in Germany, there were collectable cards featuring fliers – as a propaganda rather than a strategic device. The purpose of the air forces in that war was mostly reconnaissance, and fighting other pilots was a distraction from photographing gun emplacements. As was said at the time, the aces’ tallies of victories weren’t that impressive when ground war was racking up enormous anonymous casualties. The way that the lives and deaths of fighter pilots estranged them from even fellow soldiers, which was romanticised into a knightly pursuit, also tended to encourage psychopathic or even sociopathic behaviour – and not just among Germans. What struck me was that most aces, certainly including von Richthofen, were fatalist: they acted like the living dead, knowing that no matter how many dogfights they survived they were pretty much doomed to die in the war. Of course, this fit in with the world I’d imagined.
DP: Though the world of the books is rife with Vampires you take pains to portray them, in many ways, as no different from humans (more of a divergent evolution with enhanced capabilities), distinguishing them from the vast myriad of depictions in other books and films. What do you think it is about Vampires in general that fascinates people?
KN: Vampires are the coolest of all monsters, partly because there are so many ways of depicting them. Most people who write vampire novels or movies set out their own set of distinct rules, picking or rejecting aspects that suit them: whether or not their vampires can survive sunlight, turn into bats, turn other into vampires, survive without human blood, lack mirror reflections, sleep in coffins, etc. Greedily, I just thought of a world where everyone else’s vampires could co-exist, different from each other the way species of animals or nationalities of people are different. Given that Anno Dracula is in a subset of stories where vampires proliferate, they had to be taken down a notch in general – so the run of vampires aren’t quite as fearsome (or powerful or self-confident) as other books make them. Some are just regular people trying to get by despite a condition which tends to encourage monstrous behaviour… while a few individuals, like Dracula, are so far removed from the norm that even other vampires are afraid of them.
DP: I found the new novella, Vampire Romance, to be a greatly enjoyable country house murder mystery romp set in the 1920’s. It was great to have Genevieve back, but the character of Lydia was almost blitheringly insipid, with her over-stylised idea of what constituted Nosferatu. Was she a response to more recent females of Vampire fiction – specifically the alarmingly obsequious, wet rag, belle of a certain successful dusky series?
KN: One of the things I wanted to address with ‘Vampire Romance’, the first new piece of Anno Dracula fiction I’d written in ten years, was what had been going on in vampire fiction since I left off – and the teenage or adult vampire romance was the most obvious, most controversial addition to the field, which more or less demanded that I try to get inside it. I do poke fun at Twilight, True Blood and the wilder romps of Anne Rice, but I also tried to tease out the roots of the genre in Sheridan LeFanu. I might even take some responsibility myself, though the love stories in my novels have tended to feature vampire women involved with living men. I notice female authors tend to fantasise about male vampire love interest so maybe I’m just doing what they do from a straight male perspective, even if I tend to make the vampire at least an equal viewpoint character with the living lover. I actually like the drippy Lydia Inchfawn, who’ll be in one of the non-Anno Dracula novels I’m working on (Kentish Glory). In the process of writing, she changed in a way that interested me. At first I did just want to make fun of the swooning vampire groupies of recent franchises, but then a relationship I’d not envisioned from my story outline cropped up and became a way of waking her from her misconceptions but also to explore female friendship and cultural misconceptions. She’s still funny, to me, though.
DP: There’s a fantastic scene in The Bloody Red Baron where Attilla, Dracula’s airship, descends onto Schloss Adler accompanied by Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (and again later when it’s in battle to organ accompaniment) that is so deliciously ludicrous, it’s like a twisted mix between Apocalypse Now and the Emperor’s arrival at the Death Star in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Writing for Sight and Sound and Empire Magazine you obviously watch a lot of movies, are you always aware of possible references in your work, or do some just leak through?
KN: I refer at least as often to films and books, but it’s usually complicated. That scene is also my homage to Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror, the whole turn of the century genre of airship science fiction (like George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution) and the film of Jack London’s The Assassination Bureau Ltd (which is one of the key influences on the whole series). Plus I read up a lot on actual zeppelins. Apocalypse Now is one of the key films of my life and work – in a way that Return of the Jedi isn’t, though I have pointed out that John Milius’s Conan and George Lucas’s Jedi both end in a manner similar to Apocalypse Now, which was originally their project – and I’ve returned to it often. In Back in the USSA, which I co-wrote with Eugene Byrne, there’s an alternate history where Britain fought the war in Vietnam and Michael Powell makes a film analogous to Apocalypse Now. In Johnny Alucard, Francis Coppola makes a film of Dracula in the manner of his Apocalypse Now, and a whole section plays with his filmography (Dracula’s brides as the Playboy bunnies, Renfield as Dennis Hopper, etc) and the making of the movie as seen in Hearts of Darkness.
DP: Do you think the Anno Dracula series will ever make it onto the big screen, and if so would you want to write the screenplay or would you be happy to relinquish it to someone else?
KN: It’s been optioned a couple of times, and very soon after the book came out I did a draft of the script. I’d certainly want some involvement in any production. There’s been interest lately, so watch this space …
DP: Has there been anything recently, book, movie, or otherwise, that has really caught your attention and that you would recommend to our readers?
KN: I loved Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress – probably my favourite film of the year so far. The books I’ve enjoyed most lately are Ramsey Campbell’s Ghosts Know and Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter.
DP: What can we expect from you in the near future, what’s in the pipeline?
KN: First, more Anno Dracula. I’m working on a 1968-set story to go in the reissue of Dracula Cha Cha Cha, and then will do the final edit on Johnny Alucard, a big book set in the ‘70s and ‘80s. After that, I’m planning a ghost story (An English Ghost Story) and a 1920s school superheroine story (Kentish Glory).
DP: Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, and end with just one more: If the world of Anno Dracula was real, and you were faced with the opportunity to either stay warm or become a vampire, would you turn?
KN: Having written that decision both ways, I still don’t know which side I’d come down on.
Both Anno Dracula and The Bloody Red Baron are available now from Titan Books, with Dracula Cha Cha Cha coming soon.