Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has been a professional writer for forty-seven years. She has sold over ninety books and more than ninety works of short fiction, essays, and reviews in a variety of genres. Her novel Hotel Transylvania was among six nominated for the Horror Writers Association onetime Stoker award for the Most Significant Vampire Novel of the Twentieth Century. She lives in San Francisco.
This interview was conducted by email in August 2015, after an unexpected acquaintance at a conference bar.
Vanessa Rose Phin: With the character of Saint-Germain, who first appears in Hotel Transylvania (1978) and in over twenty volumes since, you’ve been credited as having originated the vampire as romantic hero. How do you reflect on that aspect of the genre as it has changed over time? Are you impressed by any of your literary descendants?
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: The thing is, I don’t think of him as a romantic hero, I think of him as a way to look at the lives of women in other periods and cultures—the ultimate outsider by virtue of his nature and his longevity, who can see women’s lives the way their contemporaries, and sometimes the women themselves, cannot. Think of Tulsi Kil in A Feast in Exile.
Because I don’t read in the genre in which I’m writing at any given time, I’m perpetually behind on what’s out there. Just now, I’m not reading mysteries or ghost stories, and, for that matter, vampire stories, and so most of my sense of the genres is out of synch with most readers’. Am I impressed by what appears to be Saint-Germain’s legacy? That’s a long and complicated question, and whatever answer I might provide would, at this point, be incomplete. Check in with me in a decade, and if I’m still here, I may have an answer for you.
VRP: Saint-Germain is thousands of years old. What do you feel adds to or changes writing about a relationship between characters with that much disparity in age?
CQY: He’s a little over four thousand years old, proto-Etruscan, born to a warlord in what is now Transylvania. He’s been rattling around in my head since about 1971, and I’ve learned to go where he goes, as I’ve mentioned already. The age disparity becomes an issue in these stories when it is significant to his partner and less so when the partner isn’t bothered by it, or has other concerns that supercede the age matter—which is most of them. Since Charis has other, more important problems to deal with, she doesn’t worry too much about the age matter, particularly since she doesn’t quite believe him, just as she has lingering doubts about his undead state. On the other hand, Olivia is not as bothered by age issues as some might be, which is why she adapts so well to vampire life.
VRP: When reading the first erotic scene between St. Germain and Charis in Sustenance, I was struck by the multiple times they negotiate consent and verify boundaries. Were you reflecting on the inviting-the-vampire-in aspect? Were you tackling issues of sexual consent?
CQY: Sorry, nope. My work is character-driven, and I go where they go. Charis is a smart woman who has been through a lot of stressful changes, and who is understandably touchy about relationships in general and intimate ones in particular. And while yes, characters are figments of my imagination, if they aren’t “real” to me to the point where they go their own way, there isn’t a chance in hell that they can become “real” to the reader. But if negotiations are what you’ve got out of it, then that’s what’s in it for you. Just bear in mind that what you found is not necessarily what I think I put there.
VRP: In Sustenance, there are many references to the Byzantine empire. You’ve said you love the Romans—do you feel similarly about medieval Constantinople? Or is it that you saw specific parallels between Byzantium and the Red Scare?
CQY: Probably more the latter than the former. Romans were socially extremely secular and progressive in their attitudes; the Byzantines were neither, and their social structure was riddled with layers of power politics that made conformity, or the appearance of conformity, essential to the maintenance of order, which lends itself to cultural paranoia.
VRP: Regarding the Red Scare, I was struck by the connections you drew in the constraints of capitalist concerns on academia, which have resonance with the plight of university workers today. When writing so close to the present, do you freely use and comment on the connections you see, or is it a temptation you try to resist in favor of the worldview of the time period you are representing?
CQY: For the most part, I was drawing on the experiences of my family and friends during the early McCarthy years; I mention some of this in the introduction to Sustenance. In all the books in the series, I try to connect with the actual experiences of the people who lived them, and how they saw themselves in the process. Sustenance, being part of my own experience, was in some ways easier to recreate than the period Saint-Germain is working through just now: the Empire of the Khazars in 814 AD. Not only are there many, many records of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but I had personal experience of tapped phones, being followed by the FBI when I was nine, having two of my relatives under threat of arrest for their political beliefs, watching my friends’ parents lose teaching jobs at Cal (the University of California at Berkeley), learning about the academic foreign connections during those years, which all contributed to recalling that very unpleasant zeitgeist and using it in the novel.
VRP: When researching your historical horror novels, where or when do you find that popular imagination most conflicts with your research? Have you seen a shift of fashion in which historical places readers tend to find interesting or publishers like publishing?
CQY: Usually I find that a TV series or film about a given period tends to color the general understanding of most readers. Such as the series The Borgias, which takes a lot of liberties with the period and the people. For example, Rodrigo Borja y Lara (Italianized to Borgia) was a rotund man, far from handsome, and spoke Italian and Latin with a strong Spanish accent. And don’t get me started on The Tudors. It’s hard to say what influence these trends in TV and film have on publishing, due to the publishing lag, which tends to run eighteen months to two years behind the public interest. That lag is the primary reason not to try to chase the market, since it is already slow. If it were possible to know which period/culture/society would take the interest of publishing, writing historically based fiction would be a much stronger genre than it is.
VRP: Are there historical periods you won’t touch?
CQY: Not so far, but I won’t rule it out.
VRP: You’ve noted that you’re a single draft writer. How has that influenced your relationships with editors over the years?
CQY: It depends on the editors. The single most difficult thing for most editors to grasp about how I write is that I can only make major changes in the storyline before I start to work on the story. After I begin, the characters are established and most of them already have the bit in their teeth, so significant changes are difficult to adapt to. It is also why, when I’ve been told a manuscript is too long, that I ask to be the one to do any cutting, since I rely on the characters to know what is necessary and what can be excised without too much damage to the story, although I find that those cuts often throw off the internal rhythm of the work.
VRP: How has your exposure to art influenced the way you write? Do you consider maps and other images part of your work on a story?
CQY: Since my mother taught art (and painted, too, but that’s a different issue), I was exposed to it before I could read (age four) and it was part of my growing up. The same thing with cartography (my father was a cartographer, and I worked for him for seven years). My use of art and cartography are an automatic response for me. I often make maps of the settings of what I’m working on, even if it is a matter of only a few blocks, just to orient myself. I have a great many reference works on things like clothing, domestic decoration, transportation vehicles, saddlery and tack, boats and ships, automobiles, planes, farming and livestock husbandry, medicine (many of historical treatments are hair-raising to read about), education, military structure and equipment, entertainment, dance, music and musical instruments, ceremonies, and almost everything else that could be part of daily life in the period of a story.
VRP: You mentioned to me that you’re particularly fond of a painting of Saturn devouring his children. What do you like about it?
CQY: The painting is pretty grisly—Saturn, the god of time, crouching down to eat a naked male figure only slightly larger than his hands, his children, the years—was one of Goya’s favorites. He had it hung in his dining room. What I like is the macabre juxtaposition of that painting with Goya’s own dining room. I’ll put it this way—I wouldn’t have chosen the dining room for its home, but I have ironic admiration that Goya did.
VRP: Most people know you as a historical horror novelist, but you’ve written in several genres beyond history and horror, including fantasy and science fiction. Last October, you published the YA fantasy novel Arcane Wisdome (Oct 2014). As a tarot reader and a self-described “skeptical occultist,” what was the experience with this novel like for you?
CQY: It started with a conversation with an editor asking me what I thought of Harry Potter. I said I liked the quirkiness of a prep school modeled on the grand old schools in England and Scotland that could mix with modern sensibilities. She asked me if I thought it would be possible to do something like that in America, and I said I doubted it because we lack those long-established traditions in education that are still functioning in England. She suggested that I might like to try to come up with, not an American Hogwarts, but how a modern American student might handle the concepts of magic. About six months later, Arcane Wisdome began to take shape. Since neither Tarot nor palmistry enter into the structure of the story, it is much more the result of careful research rather than any specific personal experience.
VRP: You began writing in a time when women were barred from many of the literary strongholds. You yourself were the first female president of the Horror Writers Association, and have spoken on the status of women in genre fiction. What do you see as having changed, and what do you see as the challenges as we move forward?
CQY: What do I think has changed? Not nearly enough. What do I see as future challenges? Not losing any of the ground we have so precariously gained. Unfortunately the tenor of the times does not give me much reason for optimism.
VRP: What’s the last book you read that you enjoyed?
CQY: I recently reread Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, and as I usually do, I found myself laughing out loud, as I do for a lot of Chris’s work.
VRP: As I do believe you originated the practice, when’s the last time someone asked you to read the dreaded "Eye of Argon" aloud?
CQY: Oh, dear, how the sins of one’s youth return to haunt one. It’s been about 20 years since my last venture into those . . . um . . . unique pages. But who can forget flaming red emeralds, or our heroine kicking the shaman squarely between the testicles?