The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
15 September 2009
Interview with horror author Terence Taylor
Terence Taylor’s first novel, Bite Marks: A Vampire Testament (St. Martin’s Griffin) debuts today, 15 September. Publisher's Weekly called it “Truly enjoyable and imaginative...sure to delight any vampire fan” in a starred review, and the quote on the cover from New York Times bestseller L.A. Banks says, "Terence Taylor delivers masterful world-building, edge-of-your-seat prose, and characters to die for—his is an exciting fresh voice in vampire literature." In his urban horror story, the vampires of New York hunt a dangerous threat to the secret of their existence: an infant vampire accidentally set loose by a vicious vampire with a serial killer mentality.
Welcome, Terence, and congratulations on publication of your first novel, Bite Marks: A Vampire Testament!
Thanks, Shauna! It’s pretty exciting, especially after all it’s taken to get here. Hopefully it’s the first of many more. So thrilled you could fly us to the gardens of Castle Dracula for the interview. The blooming wolfsbane is especially fragrant this time of year... (since it’s a virtual interview we can have it “virtually” anywhere, right?)
It seems an appropriate setting. Your book has one of the scariest covers I’ve ever seen and makes it clear your vampires hark back to the evil creatures in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Did you have any input into the cover design?
I did not, deliberately. I do design work myself, and I paid bills while finishing Bite Marks doing print and video graphic design and animation, so I really appreciated the final result. I kept myself from making any suggestions ahead of time, even though I’d designed a few mock covers over the years to put over my desk as inspiration while working. What they sent me was wildly original and nothing I would have come up with on my own. I’ve decided that a full-time graphic designer can do a better job than a writer who does it as a sideline.
Contractually, I had an opinion. The background was originally black and white, and I suggested the sepia tint, which they added, so they do listen. I don’t know whether the artist actually read the book before designing the cover, but it captures the tone of the novel perfectly for me.
Why do you enjoy reading horror, and what do you think readers will like about your book?
I’ll answer the second first. While I think it’s great that the vampire has become such a darkly romantic figure in the past decade, I think we have to leaven passion with fear...these are nearly immortal beings that would have to view us as food or playthings. Vampires are not like us, and frankly, I think it’s time to “bring scary back” to the vampire novel. My cover definitely says that! I think there are readers are looking for that again, the same kind of chills they had reading Stephen King’s Salem's Lot or Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. So I’m calling this my ScaryBack Tour, with apologies to Justin. If he can “borrow” Michael Jackson’s moves, I can appropriate his marketing campaign.
With Bite Marks, I tried to write the kind of horror story I enjoy, which is horror as a branch of classic myth, fantasy, and folklore, whose purpose is to give us something we can walk away with into our everyday lives. My life may be bad, things may look bleak, but if I read a story or see a movie about someone taking on horrific forces that make mine look tame, even laughable—and win? I feel better equipped to take on my own real-world demons when I wake up the next day.
I hate movies and books that pile on gratuitous violence based on a slim premise and end with the bad guy just wiping out anyone who’s left. Take the American sequel to “The Grudge.” The original played out the moral roots of the story; the U.S. version just made it a series of grotesque death set pieces, pure gornography, killed EVERYONE, and the DVD extra was the death of the one character we didn’t see die. What does that leave me with as a viewer? As gruesome as “Hostel” was, at least it ended with the one survivor brutally killing the man who killed his friend and started it all for him, as we cheered him on. There was a catharsis of some kind. I need to leave a horror story with a sense that I can win in the world, not that it‘s a hopeless morass of all-consuming evil I can never hope to beat.
My exception to that rule is stories like “Tales from the Crypt,” about horrible things happening to terrible people, which still give you a release. They’re twisted morality plays that still reflect the light, even while they revel in the muck. All I ask of horror writers and directors is that they not leave me alone in the dark when they shut down and go home at the end of the day. The added advantage of promising not to abandon your readers actually gives you the ability to go even deeper into the realm of fear, because your readers trust you to get them back out into the light before you leave.
What writers have had the greatest influence on you?
I got interested in the genre because of my maternal grandmother, who got me into ‘50s B horror movies, horror comics, Fangoria, but also had Bullfinch’s Mythology, classic fairy tale collections with all the blood intact, The Arabian Nights, Dante’s The Divine Comedy with the Gustav Doré illustrations, books on ghost hunting and flying saucers...you name it. They all merged into one big mass for me, and I saw the connections between my favorite horror movies and classic myths and fairy tales long before I read Bruno Bettelheim or Joseph Campbell. As I grew up I found James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Montague Summers’ books, and a host of other books that expanded the discussion for me.
Oddly enough, most of my literary influences are a variety of writers not read nearly enough today. Most black writers I read when young dealt with social issues, not horror stories, except to the degree that their work detailed real-life horrors. So I tracked down Roald Dahl’s stories after seeing the credits of the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” adaptation of “Lamb to the Slaughter” and read everything I could find. That led me to another British writer, John Collier—BRILLIANT—and recommended reading to anyone who likes a chill and a laugh at the same time. I get much of my twisted sense of humor from him. Then on to Ray Bradbury and Saki...
Ismael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo was a big influence later, along with William Burroughs’ work, in showing me how free you could be with reality and still comment on it. I read Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita when I was ten because it was in the house, never forgot it, and always cited it as an influence. I re-read it recently and moved it up to one of my top five favorite novels of all time, along with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, George Orwell’s 1984, and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. It was weirdly amazing to see that I’d spent twenty years getting back to what he did in the Forties, in blending prosaic reality and social commentary with wildly paranormal events and characters. It locked in a literary template I’ve been unconsciously following ever since.
Now I read Tananarive Due, an amazing writer and good friend; L.A. Banks, another black horror writer whom I know mostly through her work; and a host of new writers coming out. The great thing for me is seeing the rise of so many writers of color in the field of fantasy, when there were none I could find growing up. For years we only had Octavia Butler and Sam Delany to point out in science fiction.
There are so very many more writers of color being published, and wild young voices exploring all the possibilities the field has to offer, and writing for everyone to read. I love the idea that my being in print may inspire new writers who never saw themselves or their sensibilities in horror before, of any age, color, creed, or preference.
Are there certain themes or topics you’re drawn to in your writing?
Loss and redemption, so far. My Catholic roots coming back to haunt me, maybe. I keep finding after I’ve written things that they often seem to address those issues, in different ways. How everything is temporary, but in losing one thing we find another, sometimes greater, good. I suppose it’s been a theme my whole life, moving almost every two years as an Air Force brat while I grew up. It seems to be a bigger issue for me than I thought it was, because it’s always there in the end.
If anything, I get so immersed in the worlds I create as I’m writing that whatever I may have intended to say when I went in often changes. I find meanings in my work when it’s done I never realized I was putting in when writing. It’s a very revealing process and leaves you feeling vulnerable when the book is coming out and you realize how honest you’ve been. If you’re doing it right...
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
Regimen... Yes. Well. That would be a strong word to use. I now sit at the keys pretty much every day, though it took me a long time to get there. My opinion is that writers are always writing, we’re just not always writing it down. You see things all around you that feed the beast, you work in your head on story or characters or other elements of whatever you’re working on while you do errands, spend time with friends, clean house, cook dinner.
What I learned working on the final drafts of the first novel was that the writers who always said you should write every day were right. I used to binge—work out stuff in my head then spend two or three days just downloading everything from my brain into words on the screen. Working on Bite Marks I got into a daily routine—get up late morning and check the news while I eat, do e-mail, read last night’s work and do a little tweaking, then make phone calls, all the while downing cups of hot Assam tea with milk and honey. Go out to deal with the world, do errands, come home, crash, go out for dinner or a drink with friends, or make dinner at home and watch a little TV. Comedy mostly. I need a few laughs before plunging into the dark.
Anywhere from 9 to 12 pm (I have to take a break for the “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report”) I hit the computer and start writing. I re-edit what I did the night before again, to get back into the head and up to speed, then plunge forward until around 3 or 4 am, when I crash into bed, sleep, wake, and start the whole thing over. Walter Moseley wrote a great slim book called This Year You Write Your Novel and he says three hours a day gets a book done in a year, and he’s right. Any more than that I may as well get a day job.
That’s three hours of writing down. Don’t forget, you’re ALWAYS writing, even while at a party or fighting with a lover or friend—a part of you is laying aside lines for a chapter, or throwing out lines to see the reaction for later when you’re alone with the book...your true love...
Do you have any other advice for my readers who are working on their first novels?
Finish it. Whatever you do, no matter how awful you think it is while you’re doing it, finish it. That’s when the real work begins. You have something from beginning to end, you know what it is, and why it sucks, and if you see the problems, you can identify and fix them.
How do you balance writing children’s television shows and writing adult horror novels? Do you ever get confused and add an inappropriate element to one or the other?
People always look at me funny when I tell them I wrote kids' TV for years before going into horror, but some of the scariest stories in the world are written for kids. I always remind people—they killed Bambi’s mother. Blam! Right in front of us, I don’t care how subtle and artful it was! Was anything more horrifying than that? How could I top that?
What I learned in twenty years of writing for kids of all ages was how to write moving stories with fully drawn characters, containing conflict and resolution with social issues layered in along the way. Some were funny, some scary, and both abilities come into play when I work on my horror novels. In short, I learned how to screw with people’s heads, and if I can keep a three-year-old child quiet and locked to a screen, involved in a story about socializing and sharing with others, thinking it’s a funny story about colorful characters they’d like to hang with—scaring the crap out of a grown up is easy.
I actually stopped writing kid’s TV when I seriously started to finish the book because I was afraid of bleed through. When I spent my days working on happy upbeat moral fables for young minds, what I wrote at night was relentlessly grim, the far side of the coin. There was no balance of light to dark. Doing graphics while I worked on the book involved a different part of the brain, and I didn’t have to switch hats in the same way. I think if I had tried to keep writing the kids’ shows at the same time, it would have been a very different book. Much smaller words for one thing, and no vampire baby. Or a very cute one.
That’s not to say I’ve abandoned writing for younger audiences. I have a scifi teen book series I am working on with a friend in L.A., and one day could see doing some Halloween-based kids’ special or series.
When will your next book come out, and what will it be about?
The next book will be out in April 2010, Blood Pressure: A Vampire Testament, the second in the Vampire Testaments trilogy, which sets the stage to continue with books set in almost any time period. That’s done, so no one needs to worry that I don’t know where to take the story next.
It was great fun to write, even if I took seven years to write the first one and had one year to write the second, because I rolled right into it from the first. I was up to speed, and I got to revisit characters I had to leave behind when I finished the first book. It was like a reunion! Twenty years older they are at least a little wiser...but there are still a few surprises. I can’t say more without spoiling the first book.
Right now I am working on a novel called Lucid Tea, which I keep calling “Faust meets Orpheus and Eurydice.” It’s about a freelance graphic artist who comes back to New York for his uncle’s funeral a year after losing his fiancée in a car crash. He’s wracked with guilt, and as he faces the one-year anniversary of her death, he begins to see her in dreams, along with his dead uncle, who’s trying to pull him into a plan to save the world from an early Apocalypse.
It’s my anti–Chosen One novel. I got tired of seeing characters born into destiny, who were always intended to do something great. This book is about the also ran. He’s not the chosen one—the chosen one was his dad, but they lost him—so Carlton’s the guy they could get. That’s how I felt a lot of times working in TV—I wasn’t the guy they wanted, but a lot of times I was the guy they could get, who got the job done.
Then it’s on to the third of the Testaments in January. I’m still working on a title...All I know for sure is that it's going to open in Shanghai, 2027, with a family of survivors from the second book about to return to New York to settle the escalating war between vampires and humans once and for all. My sister just moved there for three years because of her husband's job, and while I made plans to go visit next year, it occurred to me I could do some research, some writing, and even deduct everything! ;) The oddest things affect art...and I get to pull in and create a whole new Chinese vampire myth.
Terence, thanks for visiting my blog, and good luck with your new books.
Thank you for inviting me, and best of luck with yours! Is Transylvania Air sending a car to get us back to the airport before nightfall? Or are we running for the border from the wolves over there? Just hand me a branch of that wolfsbane, will you?
You can learn more about Terence and Bite Marks: A Vampire Testament by visiting his Website at http://www.terencetaylor.com. He also blogs twice a month at Novel Spaces at http://NovelSpaces.blogspot.com. His book is available at your favorite bookstore as well as online at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.
I'll be posting twice this week. Come back Thursday for a chance to win a book by anyone I've interviewed at this blog in my second annual Birthday Bash Contest.