With Dracula in Love you take us back to the very dawn of vampire literature, namely Bram Stoker’s groundbreaking novel Dracula from 1897. What inspired you to revisit this old classic and recreate the horrible events of 1890?
I’d date the dawn of vampire literature to John Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre,” written on that fateful weekend in 1816 when Mary Shelley began Frankenstein. But you’re right, it was Stoker’s Dracula that gave birth to the vampire novel and spawned hundreds, if not thousands of incarnations and variations.
I have loved all-things-vampire since childhood, when I first saw “Dark Shadows” on television and fell for Barnabas and Quentin. All my novels are loaded with mythology, and all my novels present a different side of, or tell a new story about iconic women. Plus I was raised by very spooky old ladies who conjured spirits and dabbled in the occult. Given all of those factors, when the idea of writing the Dracula tale from Mina Harker’s perspective descended on me—and that’s literally how it happened—I found it irresistible.
I don’t think a literary writer has taken on Dracula since Elizabeth Kostova’s enthralling book, The Historian. There’s a lot of hastily written vampire fiction out there (I don’t mean the Twilight series, which for my taste is imaginative, page-turning YA material), which will never appeal to more demanding readers, self included. I love genre-crossing, and I love the fusion of high and low art. I wrote something I wanted to experience; something I would want to read.
In Bram Stoker’s novel, Mina Murray was a secondary character, but you have made her the heroine. What is it about her that makes your Mina so much more interesting than Bram Stoker’s Mina?
I revere Bram Stoker, so I am reluctant to say that I have given the reader a “better” Mina. But from the first time I read Dracula as a teenager, I knew that Mina was not satisfied with her role as the quintessential Victorian virgin. I wanted to give her more breadth and dimension and place her firmly in the reality of women’s lives in the 1890s. Bringing the late Victorian period to life, with all its paradoxes, constraints, and massive societal shifts was one of the great joys of writing this book.
Another motive for re-imagining Stoker’s novel from the female perspective was the hyper-misogyny of the original. Today, the book is often read as a cautionary tale against the unbridling of female sexuality at the end of the 19th century. In Dracula in Love, I wanted to turn the original story inside out and expose its underbelly or its “subconscious mind.” I wanted to deconstruct the good girl versus bad girl paradigm that Stoker’s females, Mina and Lucy Westenra, embodied—a construct I would personally like to smash to bits before I die. Frankly, I would like to become a vampire so that I could devote an eternity to eradicating it. Women will never, ever be happy and fulfilled if we have to live this dichotomy.
As inexplicable as this sounds, from the moment that the idea descended on me, Mina started revealing her secrets. Believe me, when this kind of provocative material is whispered in your ear, you naturally want to reveal it to your readers.
One of the fascinating things about Dracula in Love is that the line between monster and man is blurry. In fact, some of the most monstrous scenes of the book take place at a mental asylum. Can you tell us a bit about the research you’ve done, and why the asylum in your book has become such a terrifying place?
Mina says in the prologue that we must fear monsters less and be warier of our own kind. My literary conceit for the book was that women in the late Victorian era had a lot more to fear from their own society than from vampires.
In Stoker’s novel, we meet only one inmate at Dr. Seward’s asylum, the insect-eating Renfield. I wanted to portray these asylums as they were—filled with women incarcerated for exhibiting what we today would consider normal sexual desires. Victorian asylums for the insane were convenient dumping grounds for women whose husbands wanted to be rid of them, or children who wanted to control their mother’s fortunes. I read many books of psychiatry written in the period, and I also went into the archives of these asylums where I discovered case after shocking case. The thinking about women’s bodies and women’s sexuality, and the “treatment” for female “hysterical” maladies are as shocking as anything I have ever read—much more horrific than anything I have researched or studied in any other period of history.
What is it about unbridled female sexuality that is so appalling to men?
Appalling and intoxicating, of course, which is a difficult combination to bear. I think it’s important to separate “men” from “society.” We cannot blame “men” for the power arrangements that have evolved through history. We must factor in biology, geography, psychology, warfare, survival, technology, agriculture, and a host of other elements that have led us to where we are today.
Societies seek to control female sexuality because it’s the easiest way to keep hierarchal structures intact and to control the culture at large. Nobody wants to give up power, and let’s face it, on top of that, women are scary creatures! We literally think with our feelings, which is unfathomable to that other sex that values logic and fact. Sexually, we mystify men in ways that they are drawn to and are also repulsed by. Men feel quite vulnerable to women’s sexual power, and as the “stronger” sex, they do not like being defenseless. Who can blame them? I’m not so fond of it myself.
In your book it takes Mina a while to understand her own psychic powers, and quite often, the spirit world looks suspiciously like her own subconscious mind. How difficult was it to enter that grey-zone and describe her erotic encounters with her shape-shifting lover?
Honestly, nothing is easier and more natural for me. I spend a good amount of time exploring the spirit world as well as my own subconscious landscape, so I can slip into that dreamy space at will, although describing it on the page can leave me quite spent, as it were. I also have no problem writing about sex. Though I am a fairly understated person, and can also be quite old-fashioned sometimes in my thinking about gender arrangements, I am not at all mortified to write about erotic sexual encounters of all kinds. I just reread one such scene in my first novel, Kleopatra, and I thought, wow, how did I have the nerve to put that in there? I’ve just written a piece for Publisher’s Weekly about the absence of visceral, transporting descriptions of sex in literary fiction, which I specifically wanted to challenge in Dracula in Love. I don’t know why we still feel the need to heap shame and self-loathing upon female characters (and our actual female persons) for their sexual experimentation, but we do. I think that as writers, as readers, and as a culture, we need to examine these things.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published more than a century ago, and yet readers never seem to tire of the vampire theme. What is it about the vampire that makes it such a compelling monster?
The role of the vampire has shifted dramatically in recent years. Vampires used to reflect our fears but now they reflect our fantasies. My theory is that while every generation has longed for a fountain of youth, today we have many youth-extending tools that enable us to reject the very idea of aging. It seems to me that humans today downright abhor the idea of mortality. We live in a youth-seeking, youth-worshipping society—on steroids. We have stem cell treatments, hormone therapies, cosmetic surgery both invasive and noninvasive, and loads of medicines that can keep us alive past our expiration date. We are very close to being vampires already. I sometimes run into people who look younger than they looked twenty years ago!
The pop-culture vampires of today are not the monsters who corrupt and destroy but magical creatures possessing what we lust for—eternal youth and immortality. The vampires of the Twilight series are glamorous “vegetarians,” only eating wild beasts and devoting themselves to protecting human life. They are de-fanged, so to speak, and far from losing their immortal souls, have highly evolved consciences. We are vampirizing ourselves and at the same time, humanizing the monsters. Fascinating, no?