The Big Idea: Christopher Farnsworth
Posted on May 5, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
So, The President’s Vampire is about — as the title suggests — a vampire who is in the employ of the U.S. President, and who from time to time does certain tasks that only an undead creature could undertake. It’s a fantastical concept, but as author Christopher Farnsworth very recently found out, even fantastical concepts can be affected by reality. How did current events catch up to a presidential vampire? Farnsworth explains.
I always knew my novels would get tangled in the real world. I will admit, I’m a little surprised at how fast it happened this time.
My first book, BLOOD OATH, was the origin story of a vampire who works for the President of the United States. I am not going to lie: I was stupendously lucky. The WGA Writers Strike hit, and I couldn’t even fail to sell a script. My wife was pregnant and we’d just bought a new house. We weren’t starving, but I considered working at Starbucks just to feel useful.
Then I pulled out an old idea that my agents had hated. Based on an obscure factoid excavated by Charles Fort, the story began with a ship that ran aground out of Boston Harbor in 1867. Onboard were two bloodless corpses and one sailor who was still drinking from one of the bodies. The papers called him a vampire. But for some reason, President Andrew Johnson pardoned him and the man spent the rest of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane.
But what if that was just the cover story? What if the man really was a vampire? What would the President of the United States do with an asset like that? And what would the U.S. have to face to make a vampire the lesser of two evils? The answer I came up with was Nathaniel Cade – a sort of Jack Bauer with fangs.[i]
As much as I’ve been inspired by pulps and comic books and action movies, Cade was born out of the scar tissue of 9/11 more than anything else. In a world where our illusion of invulnerability had been stripped away, we needed someone on our side. Someone who could face our nightmares with his own teeth. Someone who fought terror with terror.
For the second book, I was more concerned about the effect the War on Terror was having on us. The evidence was in grainy cell-phone pics from Abu Ghraib and from Bagram Air Base. In fighting monsters, sometimes we became all too human.
I wanted to set the novel inside one of those Black Sites where prisoners disappear. It wasn’t going well.
I was surrounded by reports on torture, on CIA assassinations, on conspiracy theories – a neck-deep pile of soiled American flags. It was depressing. Worse, it was boring. I felt like I’d won the lottery ticket of a lifetime when I got published. Now I feared I was turning into the guy who wakes up in Reno wondering where the money went.
The only thing that really worked in the first draft was the prologue – a short piece about how Cade tracked down Osama Bin Laden as the al-Qaeda leader escaped the bombing of Tora Bora.
After an intervention by my agent, I realized I had to start over with just that scene – and the tone that ran through it.
I turned Osama into a villain worth fighting. I turned him into an Innsmouth-inspired lizard-human hybrid and put him fang and claw against Cade. The battle ends – spoiler alert – with bits of Bin Laden painted all over the rocks. It was my version of Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw.
The rest of the book spooled out in about two months.
Four days after THE PRESIDENT’S VAMPIRE hit the shelves, my phone began buzzing and wouldn’t stop. Osama Bin Laden was finally dead – less than a week after Cade killed him on paper.
There’s one guy in Boise who thinks I’ve broken Ayn Rand’s rules for writing by including a real person in a fictional work.[ii] But as I learned after 400 pages of dreck, that’s taking fiction completely ass-backwards. People use stories to make sense of the real world.
Writers should gather everything they can: scenery, incidents, people, places, dreams, history – all the things that exist inside and outside our cluttered lives.
And using all that, my job is to take you out of the real world and give it back to you with explosions and humor. My job is to survey the mayhem and try to rearrange the bloody pieces in a colorful manner. Anything else is just description.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are already people who insist that Osama Bin Laden is either alive, or his reptilian corpse has been on ice for almost 10 years. The president insists that Bin Laden was taken out by a U.S. strike team and was not actually a lizard-human hybrid killed in hand-to-claw combat almost a decade ago. That’s fine. I take him at his word.[iii]
But I still think my version makes for a pretty cool story. After all, mine’s got vampires.
[i] I’d like to take credit for that but Geoff Boucher came up with the phrase.
[ii] Which, if they’re anything like her rules for dating or economics or sex or child murder, might not be a bad thing.
[iii] Seriously, I do. If there’s any justice, the guys in Seal Team Six will never pay for a meal or a drink again in their lives.
The President’s Vampire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt of the novel. Visit the author’s Web site. Follow him on Twitter.
Do you have a link with more information on the 1867 incident? Sounds interesting.
Looks like a very fun read. And I think that James Michener might have more relevant things to say about including (many) real people in fictional works. It doesn’t seem to have affected his writing quality, or his ability to sell cracking good historical novels.
Or Lev Tolstoy.
In more than 40 years of fiction reading, I have never been able to develop the slightest interest in werewolves, vampires, zombies, etc., even as mystery or comedy. If I were trying to write & sell book-length fiction, I might find it an insurmountable challenge to break into a market where such topics are seemingly de rigueur. Our host has, of course, done so in a characteristically different way (that is, if you construe ghost brigades as a clever variation on zombies), but show me a book with Vampire, Zombie, etc., in the title and I will go looking for something featuring spaceships, even if it’s a story from the 1960s. (I know, probably someone will say SF actually taking place in space is old hat, and that may well be true.)
Ayn Rand actually wrote a sort of writer’s guide? Sheesh. My rule would then be: “Read this and do the opposite.”
There are a lot of books which put historical figures to good use. Fiction is inherently imaginative, so why not use Lincoln or OBL or JFK or George Patton? Piffle and fie upon rulemakers! Mr. Farnsworth’s book looks to be a very imaginative telling of a tale.
The most complete recounting of the 1867 pardon by Johnson is in a book called, coincidentally enough, THE PRESIDENT’S VAMPIRE by Robert Damon Schneck. Charles Fort initially found the news report, but Schneck actually did the investigative reporting over 100 years after the fact. It’s a fun read, and Schneck also includes well-researched chapters on other deeply weird incidents in American history.
I’d pay something to see a Rand Guide for Writers.
This is one of those articles where the footnotes are, if anything, more entertaining than the body of the article, which is always a treat!
I loved Blood Oath. It was fast-paced, interesting, and didn’t romanticize vampires in the least. It felt like urban fantasy for men, I’d say, and it was awesome. I recommended Blood Oath to a friend the other day and now here I see the sequel is out. It must git itself to my Kindle asap!
Wow, I’m not normally into vampires (or at least, I’m picky about them), but this sounds really awesome. I missed Blood Oath so I’ll be getting hold of that. Or at least a Kindle sample.
And WTF is with that supposed Ayn Rand writing rule? Of all the reasons I can think of not to include real people in one’s books, the fear that people will forget that person is the worst. Unless, I guess, you’re using the real person as a cipher for something he/she represents and the story won’t make sense if that person is nothing more than a person… in which case that’s just poor writing. (That’s clearly not what Christopher Farnsworth is doing, though. I mean, lizard-man Bin Laden is clearly far more than just a person.)
Except no one knows who the members of Team six are, as “they don’t exist”!!
Penny@10: Team Six? There is no Team Six. (Seriously. Their real name is classified.)
@gottacook I couldn’t agree with you more concerning vampires, zombies etc but the footnotes here were GREAT!
There’s one guy in Boise who thinks I’ve broken Ayn Rand’s rules for writing by including a real person in a fictional work
So, writing a novel about the French invasion of Russia, should you include Napoleon as a character? Ayn Rand says no. But freakin’ LeoTolstoy says yes! Who’s right? Gosh, it’s so difficult to decide.
There is no Team Six. (Seriously. Their real name is classified.)
Not very successfully.
I loved “Blood Oath” and plowed through it and both sequels by audiobook in a week.
My only regret is not discovering the series after more books were added. Now I have to wait for the next.
Please write quickly!