The Big Idea: Jeri Smith-Ready
It’s a two-fer week for Big Ideas, and today we have Jeri Smith-Ready, who brings you: vampires! And not just any vampires. No, her vampires have better musical taste than you do, and in Jeri’s latest book Wicked Game, they’re not afraid to prove it. But how does exquisite taste in music combine with an exquisite taste for blood? I’ll let Jeri spin this tune for you.
Have you ever met someone who’s still stuck in the 1960s? Or the 80s? Someone who hasn’t changed his or her worldview or tastes in decades? People who believe, for instance, that no decent music has been created after their own glory days?
The vampires in my new novel Wicked Game are culturally and psychologically stuck in the era in which they died. They speak the slang and wear the fashions of their original lifetimes. This intimate connection with the past makes them excellent disc jockeys, each with his or her own show on independent radio station WMMP-FM. But it also makes it hard for them to cope with our modern world.
Challenge #1: This ‘frozen-in-time’ idea seems ripe fodder for sitcom-style schtick, but a novel (especially a series) requires characters to grow and change. So I needed a catalyst. Enter Skywave, Inc., a communications conglomerate that wants to buy WMMP and turn it into another hit-playing clone (the tragedy of media consolidation is another of the book’s Big Ideas, but we won’t go into that here).
Why is this a problem? Without a musical link to the past, the vampires would be doomed to eventually “fade” into insanity, becoming little more than mindless, bloodthirsty ghouls. Thus a routine corporate takeover becomes a matter of life and un-death, shaking the characters out of their complacency and comfort.
Another catalyst comes in the form of Ciara Griffin. Ciara is a recovering con artist who takes a job at WMMP in sales and marketing (go ahead, say it: con artistry to marketing—not a stark career transition). To boost ratings and save her undead friends, Ciara rebrands the station as “WVMP: The Lifeblood of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and asks the DJs to “pretend” to be vampires as a marketing gimmick.
The increased public exposure forces the vampires to stretch their minds and interact more with the contemporary world. (Luckily, their jobs already require them to stay in touch with current events by reading daily news reports on the air.) Faced with new people and ideas, the vampires begin to feel alive again, and younger than they have in decades. They might not be comfortable, but they’re happy.
Due to his younger age, 90s grunge DJ Shane McAllister is less fossilized than his colleagues. Ciara schools him on new music and teaches him to drive stick shift—she’s determined not to let her new boyfriend ‘fade.’ Shane, who once thought himself incapable of learning and changing, takes the monumental step of introducing new music on his eclectic ‘Whatever’ broadcast (no affiliation with the illustrious ‘Whatever’ blog).
Of course, not everyone agrees that change and growth are such great ideas. A posse of ancient vampires (who live in a cult-like compound near Camp David) will shed as much blood as necessary to keep the station from revealing the truth disguised as a lie. The choice between ‘dangerous freedom’ versus ‘safe suffocation’ plays out in the conflict between the two cadres of vampires.
Challenge #2: The characters could have easily fallen into clichés of their eras, so I did my best to buck the stereotypes. Jim the hippie DJ, for instance, sports the trappings of peace, love, and understanding, but it’s just a façade he took on as a mortal, mainly to get chicks. Out of all the DJs, Jim is the most materialistic and holds the least reverence for human life. Reggae vamp Noah, on the other hand, remains true to his Rasta religion by making his bites as painless as possible and by never drinking blood-bank blood (no processed food allowed). Most people only know Rastafarians as pot-smoking, reggae-playing slackers, but Noah manifests deeper, less familiar aspects of the Rasta faith and way of life.
How many of us over the age of thirty are stuck in time, convincing ourselves that staying young means staying the same? The vampire DJs embody this “back in my day” attitude, this existential fossilization. Since vampires “die” at a certain point in time, they provide the perfect representation of this psychological glitch. Werewolves just wouldn’t have had the same resonance.
So my Big Idea for this book? I believe that we can be more than mere products of our backgrounds. I believe that the ability to grow and change, to have the freedom to reinvent oneself, is what being human—what being truly alive—is all about.
And isn’t this exploration of what means to be human—and alive—ultimately what speculative fiction is all about? It’s a genre of ideas, and that’s a big reason why I love reading it, writing it, and sharing it with other fans.
As they say on the radio, thanks for listening!