September 18, 2013

Holly Black discusses the myth that just won’t die

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There are words for the vampire in nearly every culture: “Vampyr in the Netherlands, upir in the Ukraine, vrykolaka in the Balkan region, penangglan on the Malay Peninsula.” It is a myth so saturated with literature’s many variations, it might seem impossible to add another, yet with her new young adult novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Holly Black proves that the vampire—and the vampire myth—is still immortal.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown has all the gore and terror of classic vampire fiction but brings the myth into the 21st century. The days of ancient, hidden vampires are over. Vampirism has swept the world like a plague, leaving new vampires to inherit the earth. Walled cities called Coldtowns quarantine new vampires, infected humans and humans desperate to be infected. From inside Coldtowns, streaming video broadcasts the decadent and depraved parties, the gore and the violence to the rest of the world.

A girl named Tana awakes after a vampire attack to find her ex-boyfriend, bitten but not yet turned, trapped in a room with an injured vampire. She decides to drive them both to Coldtown and finds herself sucked in deeper than she ever could have expected.

BookPage caught up with Holly Black at the American Library Association’s annual conference this summer. Sitting in the lobby of her hotel in Chicago, low lighting turning her scarab earrings gold and pink, Black chatted about vampire folklore and her fictional world’s obsession with the beautiful monster.

BookPage: I’m about halfway through, and I have to say, I’m really enjoying it.

Holly Black: Oh, I’m so glad. I had a lot of fun writing it. I really got back to my middle grade, early high school true love of vampires and vampire fiction. My eighth grade research paper was on vampire folklore. I was obsessed, and I had kind of forgotten about all of that stuff, so I got to put all of this stuff I really loved into the book.

It’s obviously influenced by Anne Rice. It’s very much a nod to Interview with the Vampire, especially concerning the relationship between the vampires Lucien and Gavriel, maker and progeny.

[Laughs] I must’ve read that book every night when I was a kid. At night, I would fall asleep reading Interview over and over again.

It’s almost impossible to talk about vampire fiction in YA without mentioning Twilight because it just exploded. But there’s something very sustainable about vampire fiction. It’s been several years since Twilight, and there’s some room again.

You know, I had for a long time thought I would never write a vampire book because there’s so many great vampire books. There’s so many beloved vampire books that it’s this big sort of intimidating genre, and as much as I really loved reading them, I thought, do I have anything to say?

Also, it is hard because it feels like vampires are always in a state where there are so many books that you’d be crazy to write one. Or no one can ever imagine wanting to read a vampire book ever again. And I realized there’s never going to be a time when that wasn’t true. In my life there’s never been a time when vampires weren’t either so big that you couldn’t write one, or so “over” you couldn’t write one. I thought, all right, I’m gonna write the book and see what happens.

You introduce your own version of the mythology, which I think is the hardest part, creating a new story that will mesh well with the established myth. Personally, I think that’s where Twilight ran into some troubles. The sparkly vampire often didn’t sit well with people who have loved the vampire myth their whole lives.

People have very traditional ideas about how vampires work.

Definitely, but you introduce the idea of going “Cold.” When a vampire bites a person, that human becomes “Cold” and has 88 days to sweat out the infection. If they drink human blood during those 88 days, they become a vampire. It allows the ability to come back from the brink of death.

I think it’s different, but I think it has a relationship to some vampire stories we’re familiar with. If we look at Dracula, for instance, there’s a whole period where Dracula comes in and harasses Mina and Lucy in the night, biting them and also feeding them his blood. They are in a liminal state that you could say is an “infected” state, where they’re susceptible to him, where he can influence their minds. It’s not the same as being infected in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, but it has . . . some folkloric precedent.

“Vampires are kind of our best and worst selves. They’re ourselves eternally young, living forever with all the potential knowledge, all the potential strength, power.”

I think it also makes it more possible for that sustainable worldwide vampire state that you were trying to achieve.

I think the idea that you didn’t have to taste the vampire’s blood to become infected was the reason why you can have basically a plague narrative. This is a plague narrative. We are overrun. It’s really hard to halt it because when you have new humans being infected and then becoming vampires, not knowing how to prevent themselves from spreading the infection further, you have a problem. You have your sort of old school, original vampires doing pretty well at keeping infection from breaking out, but now you have no control at all over what’s happening with these idiot new vampires. It’s like, “Vampires these days! God!”

What was it like going back to your roots and getting in touch with a former self?

I sat down and reread all of the old books that I had loved. I reread Tanith Lee’s Sabella. I reread Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls and all the Sonja Blue books and the original, the first two Anne Rice books to try and remember what this stuff was really like, how much of my memory was close to what it really was, and so that was part of what I did. Then I just tried to think, what are the parts I really love? I think infection is a big part of ‘90s vampire fiction, the fear of infection.

There is a very established literature surrounding the vampire myth, but YA in particular has really latched onto it. Why do you think that is?

There’s something about the vampire that really catches us. I think part of it is the way vampires are kind of our best and worst selves. They’re ourselves eternally young, living forever with all the potential knowledge, all the potential strength, power, fabulousness, good clothes. They’re also our most horrible selves, our most base, our most bloodthirsty, our most cruel. I think in that juxtaposition we find endless amounts of stories.

With vampire folklore, we start out with the vampire as a villain, as the creature we fight, the truly terrifying thing, closer to a zombie. In our current incarnation, we have embraced the vampire and brought them from antagonist to protagonist over the course of our literature. But it’s a cycle. You can put them right back to antagonist, and then you can have your antihero, and then you can go to protagonist again, and I think that cycle too keeps us really interested.

It’s also more complex than just your typical monster. There’s an intelligence to the vampire.

We think of the vampire as our most sophisticated monster. They’re our aristocracy of monsters. We think of werewolves as our blue-collar monsters. [Laughs] I’m not sure why. We have set up the vampire as our aristocrat. Our ruling class. I think there is something to that—the elegance versus the real crudeness of what they’re doing, which is, you know, drinking blood.

There’s a great moment in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown when Tana is on her way to Coldtown with her infected ex-boyfriend and the vampire Gavriel. They stop at the Dead Last Rest Stop and meet an elderly lady headed into Coldtown, a migration typically dominated by teenagers. The old lady says, “What? You think dying is just for the young?” Throughout the book, the obsession with death does seem reserved for the young.

I feel like there is a spirituality to being a young person and trying to figure out how the world works, not just the seen world but the unseen world. I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I’m much more obsessed with the day-to-day. I remember really being fascinated with mysteries of the universe and thinking that perhaps there was a way that things could become knowable.

There’s also something about teenagers that makes it so easy to obsess.

The things I loved when I was younger, I have loved more than anything. They meant more to me. And I think it was, at least for me, because I was defining myself at that point. I was learning what I liked, and by learning what I liked, I was learning who I was. And maybe that’s also why it was important for me to think about the mysteries of the universe, because if I figured out what I believed, I figured out who I was.

The kids in this book are defining themselves by being obsessed with death, which is such a dangerous obsession. With this book, you’re exploring how far that obsession can go. There is a point of no return.

I was thinking a lot about reality television and a lot about the way that we both blog and livestream, and I was thinking about how bad things often are the things that get people famous. People are often famous for the truly embarrassing thing that happened to them online, or that truly terrible thing that someone recorded them doing. [It’s interesting how we] tune in to that, and we experience . . . a mixture of envy—like, look, this person is out there, they are doing this thing, they are experiencing life, they are doing whatever—and also, “Haha! Look! A terrible thing has happened to them.” And it’s sort of the balance between our desire to experience something like that and our feeling that we would make it—cause they sure didn’t. It’s part of the pleasure of watching, and I thought it would be interesting to have it writ larger and darker.

You definitely took it to an extreme. You put death on reality television.

You’re watching it and you’re going, “Wow I hope they make it, and I sort of hope they don’t.”

Put yourself in your book. What would you do if this happened to the world?

I would like to say that I was not the person that would watch this on livefeeds, but I’m sure I would.

Would you go to Coldtown?

No. No, I’m old. [Laughs]

Would your younger self go to Coldtown?

Probably. The desire for something to happen and something to change is, to me, the defining thing I remember about being a teenager, just wanting something to happen. Anything happening would’ve been better than the nothing happening that I felt like was omnipresent in my life.

Is this a book you’ve been waiting to write?

This is a book I never knew I wanted to write until I started writing it. It’s funny, because I started writing it, and my husband—who’s known me since I was pretty young—said, “You know, I always thought you were going to write a vampire book.” I didn’t! I didn’t know. But it was a ton of fun.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

Get the Book

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

By Holly Black
Little, Brown Young Readers
ISBN 9780316213103

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