Monday, October 20, 2008
Interview: Fred Schepartz, author of Vampire Cabbie
I’ll be joining author Fred Schepartz at the Barnes and Noble store in Madison, Wisconsin's East Towne Mall on October 27, where we’ll each read from our vampire novels. Mine, Blood Groove, doesn't come out until next spring, so it's a sneak preview; Fred's Vampire Cabbie is available now. The reading starts at 7 p.m.
Schepartz drives a taxi for Union Cab, a worker owned-and-operated cooperative in Madison. He is also publisher and editor of the magazine Mobius: The Journal of Social Change.
Alex: The "cabbie" part is obvious, given your career, but why vampires for your first novel?
Fred: I've always been fascinated by vampires. Originally, it was because they scared the crap out of me. When I was a kid, I couldn't watch a vampire movie. I'd have horrible nightmares. But as they say, one has to learn to embrace what one fears. As a younger adult, I started to really dig vampire movies and vampire books. I love the Hammer vampire films. Christopher Lee is maybe my favorite Dracula. I read Ann Rice, though I stopped reading her after Queen of the Damned. I was so excited about the book coming out, but when I read it, I was majorly disappointed. On the other hand, I started reading Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I have to say that Saint Germain totally rocks. I love all of those books. Having an interest in history, I certainly enjoy reading good historical fiction, but more to the point, I just love Saint Germain. I absolutely love the idea of the gentleman vampire, the heroic vampire. Saint Germain simply has so many admirable qualities, and there's always this tension, no matter the time and place, he always has to guard against having his true nature discovered. He's not a threat to anyone (unless they have it coming to them), but he's always threatened. Truth be told, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has more influence of my work than any other vampire writer.
As to how I came up with the idea of the vampire cabbie, it just simply came to me. I think it was about fifteen years ago. I was in my cab, driving around the west side of Madison when it suddenly hit me that I should write about a vampire cab driver. I wrote a few short stories then decided to write a novel. Actually, what happened with the novel was that I stitched together three of those short stories and wrapped a larger plot around the plots in those stories. If the book has a bit of an episodic feel to it, that's why.
Your vampire Al Farkus hides in plain sight, essentially. Did you consider making him work harder to hide his accent, attitude, etc.?
Al always hides in plain sight and has for hundreds of years. It's only referred to in the book, but he spends most of his time blending in with humans. He basically exists in the human world. He travels. He has lived in various places. Depending on time and place, he lives in a house or he lives in an apartment, just like anybody else. Eternity is a long time, and Al gets lonely. He needs companionship, but isn't always able to confide in humans he knows about his true nature.
I remember during the time when I was writing Vampire Cabbie, I watched the Coneheads movie. It's really a sweet little film. There's this one scene I found touching. It's meant to be comic, but I took it differently. Dan Ackroyd had just finished a round of golf at his country club. He's in the locker room walking to or from the shower. He's buck naked. There's this shot of him walking away from the camera, and there's all these weird horn-like things protruding from his flesh. And no one seems to notice! It's because he's accepted. He lives with his fellow humans. He has a job. He plays golf. He has a house. He has a wife. It's not that people are naive. People accept Beldar because they don't have any reason not to. They take for granted everything that's strange about him because beyond this superficial stuff, he's just like them. Again, I found that a remarkable touching metaphor of acceptance.
The same thing applies with Al at his workplace. Yeah, he's strange. No doubt about that. And the situation is a bit dangerous for Al because he has to show up for work day after day after day or rather night after night after night. This is potentially closer scrutiny than he would prefer. But you know what? He comes to work. He does his job. He's just like anybody else, so they accept him. Of course, the running joke in the book is that his nickname is "The Count" because, well, he's Hungarian and has an accent just like you know who. And during his job interview, when asked what actor should play him if they made a movie of his life, he gets rattled and says Frank Langella. But because he is accepted as one of the guys, all those fellow drivers and dispatchers who call him The Count, well, they would never suspect, not in a million years, that Al actually is a vampire. I mean, think about it. Vampires don't exist! That's totally ridiculous. Right?
An underlying theme here is the notion of "passing." This is prevalent in African American culture where skin tone is a huge issue, along with for some the ability to pass for white. I'm Jewish, and this is an issue in my culture as well, the ability to blend in without losing one's self. For Jews, historically, the notion of assimilation has always been a big bone of contention. For some, assimilation of any kind is not compromise, it capitulation. For others, it's desirable and something to try to achieve. Who want to be the "other"? That's not to say you forget or deny who you are. You just want to be able to blend in. And for Jews, there is the issue of physical appearance. I'm blond (well, used to be, but now my hair is more light brown with some grey) and have blue eyes. My skin is fairly pale, and I have my mom's nose, not my dad's nose. I'm able to pass, but then again, that means I have had to hear the classic line, "Oh, you don't look Jewish."
Anyway, it's not that I really care that much whether I can pass or not, but still I am well aware of the significance of this as an issue for my people. I don't think I was consciously thinking about this when I wrote Vampire Cabbie, but afterward, I can't help but think, we'll, there it is. Now, on the other hand, my new novel, Guitar God, features many Jewish characters. This theme is much more pronounced and self-consciously written about.
Baseball confuses Farkus; what made you choose to have him confront this particular bit of Americana?
The chapter of Vampire Cabbie where Al goes to a baseball game with a few of his co-workers by far is my favorite in the whole book. I love reading it when I do readings, though it is a bit long, so I have to pick my spots. A funny thing about this chapter is that when it went through the critique of my writer's group, one person commented at the end of the chapter, "The plot has stopped dead." I always disagreed with that, though on the surface not much happens. It's just a baseball game, not exactly the kind of thing you would find in a Poppy Z. Brite novel. However, as Al discovers, baseball is a very complex game despite the apparent simplicity of it. In this chapter there's a lot going on, so to a certain extent the baseball game is maybe a bit of a device.
As to why I would put Al in such a setting of hardcore Americana, well, it wasn't part of a big plan. I prefer to write organically. If an idea comes to me, I like to go with it. I can't remember how or why the scene at the baseball game came about. It probably just came to me, and I sat down and wrote it. The chapter is certainly a nice portrait of something very Madison (where the novel takes place) at that time. Back in the 1980s, we had a minor league baseball game called the Madison Muskies. For several years, they really were the toast of the town, though eventually people lost interest and the team moved away. The book has lots of settings and characters that are unique and distinctive to Madison, so that's probably more to the point of why Al goes to a baseball game.
Of course, Al has some great observations about baseball and about Americans at this game. Here's one short thing I'll share with a wonderful observation about Wisconsinites:
It was oddly gratifying to discover that these good Christians were indeed pagans. They worship fish! And why not? Lakes cover this glacier-scoured state of Wisconsin. Fish, the bounty of these sparkling bodies of water, provides sustenance for these good Christians, who, in tribute, make a Friday night tradition of attending fish-eating orgies and make their pilgrimage to Warner Park to pay homage to their Madison Muskies.
Again, I didn't write this scene to be a vehicle for observations and critiques of American culture. However, when you write from the point of view of an alien, well, you're going to get an interesting perspective on things. And in Al's case, there is a great deal of perspective for him to draw from considering that he's 1000 years old and he's lived and travelled all over the world.
A reminder: Fred and I will be at the Barnes and Noble in Madison's East Towne Mall on October 27th, beginning at 7 p.m.