The Big Idea: J.F. Lewis

Vampire novels: ever get tired of reading the gothic angst of the undead? J.F. Lewis did — a minor issue, because, you see, he sort of wanted to write a vampire novel himself.

So what do you do when you’re in a situation like that? You go back to first principles and re-examine what it is that makes a vampire a vampire, and how the blood-sucking undead deal with it all. The result for Lewis: Staked, his debut novel, casting vampires in a new light. And the result for us: A Big Idea that goes for the jugular known as “reinvention.”

J.F. LEWIS:

There’s a post-it note on my cubicle at work. It reads, “There is something terribly wrong with Jeremy”. I’m proud of that note and I suppose, after a fashion, it’s true. One of my co-workers (grinning all the while, I might add) stuck the note to my desk after reading the first few chapters of an early draft of Staked. It was pretty much the reaction for which I’d been looking.

You see, the Big Idea for Staked came as a response to what I was reading at the time. I don’t remember exactly which vampire book it was, but I recall throwing it down in disgust as the vampire protagonist whined about his horrible fate one time too many. It was all so terribly tragic and romantic and suddenly, to me, totally boring. Don’t get me wrong, that kind of gothic ennui-laden vampire can be written well (check your local listings), but I needed a break.

I also needed a fresh idea. To be actually published for the first time, particularly if I was going to be foolish enough to try my hand at the undead wheel, I needed a new take… something different. Something fun, but gritty. Oh sure, being a vampire gave you immortality, but it had to come with a bigger price than sun block and a restrictive diet. In that rough idea, I had the essence of everything my vampire protagonists needed to be, to be the kind of vampires I wanted to read about.

First: Blood. Being a vampire revolves around blood right? Then why be squeamish about it? I needed to take that further. Could a vampire taste? Why would they? If vampires can’t taste anything except blood, how would that affect them? Would they be repulsed by the idea of food? Maybe, but it seemed more fun to have them drawn in by it, to have solid food, the act of watching someone eat it, become a voyeuristic thrill… in short, food porn. Pleasure tinged with regret and embarrassment. I pictured vampires salivating at the thought of a nice juicy steak, then I stopped again. Could vampires salivate? If everything about being a vampire centered on the blood, then it would make sense that a vampire had no fluids other than blood coursing through him… or her. Being a vampire needed to be viscerally unpleasant, a high price to pay.

The implications cascaded their way down through the book. I wanted to take away the typical easy outs. Vampires would all have souls; there could be no getting off easy on that one. Just because people become undead doesn’t mean they instantly stop being who they were alive. There was no room in Staked for any demon that made vampires start drinking people to live… it had to be mere survival instinct, the same kind of instinct that might cause perfectly normal people to consider each other as food sources say… when a plane crashes in the snow covered mountains.

I had a hard time with the weaknesses until I realized those needed to change as well. The sun, holy water, a stake through the heart… oh sure, those all needed to be huge inconveniences, but for my vampires the biggest weaknesses need to be their own human foibles and character flaws magnified by their immortality. Over time, they wouldn’t become less than themselves. Instead they ran the risk of becoming unbridled caricatures of who they used to be. How fun is it that? Immortal blood junkies frozen like the addicts they were at the emotional maturity level they’d reached before becoming “addicted.”

That decision led to another one. Vampirism needed to be a very personal hell for the newly dead, so that how powerful they became was a variable. Being turned would be the ultimate Rorschach test. The strength of the newly dead’s core personality would determine which level of the vampire feudal system they landed on: Drone (Peasant), Soldier (Knight), Master (Lord), or Vlad (King).

Of course, another piece of my big idea was to keep things fun and entertaining, so my protagonist (or co-tagonist once my secondary point of view became stronger) had to be a person who could pay that price and not whine. He needed to know that he was a monster and yet still be a basically good guy at heart… a vampire John McClane, if you will, willing to get beat up, knocked down, and ground through dirt, but still come up swinging with a mouthful of witty reparte. He couldn’t be a young twenty-something either. My protagonist needed to have lived a while. That had to be one of his defining traits. He wouldn’t identify with the pretty young things that were young and immortal forever. By the time he was turned, Eric would have lived through World War II and Korea – an itinerant undead member of the greatest generation.

Not that it didn’t go wrong a few times. Okay. LOTS of times. Getting Eric right was the hardest part by far. I shudder to think of one or two real crapfests I came up with… say the version where Eric owned a Opera house (Phantom of the Opera much?) or the version where his language wound up sparkly clean as if he’d been attacked by the lady from the Orbit Gum commercials working in tandem with insane ADR (automated dialogue replacement) technicians. And let’s all agree not to mention the tommy-Gun-Toting-Eric. (“I need your blood, see, and I’m gonna take it. Yeah. See? Yeah.”) Pardon me while I shudder.

Lastly, of course, the Big Idea affected the setup for the city – Void City. It became a place where the general populace couldn’t know about vampires, but where the local government knew and made vampires, oni, and other assorted supernatural ghoulies foot the bill for any cover-ups that the Void City Police Department (VCPD) and the Mage Guild had to employ. Essentially, I wanted a setting in which my vampires could be super powerful, but still have to pay parking tickets and worry about the electric bill. I think it worked.

***

Read J.F. Lewis’ blog here.

15 thoughts on “The Big Idea: J.F. Lewis

  1. Mr. Lewis needs to pick Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt books. Seriously.

    Already Dead
    No Dominion
    Half the Blood of Brooklyn

    No gothic whining ennui. It’s Vampire Noir, and it’s excellent.

  2. I’ll have to check those out, Jamie. Sounds like Mr. Huston’s work might be right up my alley.

    And to Jonathan M, as a matter of fact, I’m working on an epic fantasy series too and… ;) Heh.

  3. Huston’s take on vampirism and it’s a effects is a bit different than what you’ve described above, but something that comes through is that the monster is still the man. Huston’s world lacks alternate races and magic in general, though there is a side bit of mysticism. It’s set in modern NYC.

  4. Yes, sounds a lot like Huston, but I like some of the twists you’ve given it a lot and will definitely be checking Staked out. Personally, I can’t get enough a of a well constructed vampire story.

  5. Jamie,

    Thanks for the info. I’ll have to put Charlie Huston in the reading queue. I just started the complete Hammer’s Slammers (David Drake) yesterday, so it may be a while…

    Alan,

    Re Vampire Clergy: I wouldn’t rule that out, but mostly it’s the shapeshifters that are religious… at least in Void City.

    Hobbyns,

    Great! Be sure to let me know what you think.

  6. Having just read “Staked”, I can only say that Lewis’ elves – uh, vampires – are different.

    I’m also heartily tired of the “too, too, tragically hip” vampires in most books. Why does becoming undead suddenly make you young, attractive, sexy, suave, debonaire, and a good dancer? Is it part of the whole drinking blood thing? What happens if you were short, fat and bald in your former life?

    In Lewis’ world, when you become a vampire, you’re still the same person you were, only more so. Eric was pretty much a nice guy, and he’s still (despite his protests) pretty much a nice guy – for a blood drinking monster.

    Lewis has a dry wit that reminds me a lot of Denis Leary, and Eric strikes me as a guy you’d like to hang out with – as long as he’s had dinner first.

  7. This sounds exactly like something I’d love to read.

    I love vampires, and yet I’ve overdosed — OVERDOSED — on the tragic, whiny, emo variety of vampire.

  8. Two authors (off the top of my head) who have nailed the junkie aspect of vampirism are Nancy Collins and MaryJanice Davidson. In the first chapter of Undead and Unappreciated Betsy goes to an AA meeting and talks about the thirst, connecting solidly with her audience. Of course they don’t know what she really means, which is why its such a funny and terrific scene.

    I keep hearing about all these whiny vampires but I haven’t encountered any. Does anyone want to name any names?

    MaryAnn – “What happens if you were short, fat and bald in your former life?” – I wrote a script about this very thing four years ago, except my character is an insomniac instead of being bald. Now she can’t sleep and she has to hide out in a crypt during the day. She had a bad temper before but now…

    Jeremy – I’ve put a hold on your book from my local library. They’ve got five copies, all in library headquarters. I think it’s time they shared the wealth.

  9. Georgiana — well Anne Rice started it with Interview With the Vampire, but I love that novel. And I’d hate to butcher a pioneer!

    But as far as recent examples go, Twilight by Sephanie Meyer is a grand example of whininess. And just about every paranormal romance centering on vampirism has the same problem. I’ve picked up a few, their names escape me, as I didn’t finish them or even manage to get half through, but my god… the angst.

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