Holly Black Interview: 'The Coldest Girl in Coldtown'
Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series made vampires alluring for the Millennial generation. Now, Holly Black's new book, "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown," is also speaking to young adults in a whole new way. In the near future, an outbreak of vampirism inspires governments to close off quarantined cities called "Coldtowns," where vampires--and the humans who let them suck their blood in the hopes of being turned--live-blog their eternal parties. Even though they're trapped in Coldtowns, vampires are everywhere, from online message boards to T-shirts emblazoned with "Corpsebait" and "I Bite on the First Date." Being Cold, as the book tells it, is cool.
Teenage protagonist Tana is a risktaker, but unlike her hedonistic friends, she has no desire to become a vampire. But, when she wakes up in the aftermath of a house party massacre and must transport vampire Gavriel and her infected ex-boyfriend Aidan to the nearest Coldtown, she becomes caught up in the battle between ancient vampires and the new generation of untrained, attention-seeking bloodsuckers. Bookish spoke with Black to discuss her transition from faerie stories to vampire lore--from the focus on decadent destruction to her favorite book inspirations to hunting for the perfect word to describe otherworldly creatures.
Bookish: "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" began as a short story. What inspired you to develop it into a novel?
Holly Black: When I wrote "Coldtown" as a short story, I hadn't known whether or not I had a lot to say about vampires. I'd grown up loving vampires, I had read a lot of vampire books--and then I had put that all aside and concentrated on writing faerie books and monster books. I thought, "There are so many beloved vampire books out there. Do I really have anything to say?" Then I started writing it, and I was like, "I have a lot to say!"
I feel like there's never a time where vampires either haven't been so big that you'd be crazy to write another book in such a packed genre, or they were so over that you'd be crazy to write a book because no one will ever write a book about vampires ever again.
Bookish: Was there anything about your experience writing faerie stories that granted you a unique perspective on writing about vampires?
Black: I really love folklore. I had read a lot of faerie folklore that informed the books I wrote. I also really love vampire folklore; my eighth grade research paper was on [it]. [With this project,] it was really helpful to think about the way you can use language. When you're writing about faeries, you can't call anyone "fey"; there are certain words that become forbidden because they're actualized in what faeries do. When you write about vampires, you could think the same way about things like the word "red" or "hunger"--it's interesting to think of the ways that the words have double meanings, or different meanings that shifted.
Bookish: What elements of other vampire books, TV shows and movies inspired the culture of the Coldtowns? How were you looking to write something different from all the vampire books that are already out there?
Black: My view of writing "Coldest Girl in Coldtown" was to take every single thing that I loved from every vampire book I had ever read and dump it into one book--everything I like--trying to evoke some of the decadence… Vampires are a high-class monster: They want to dress up. They want to drink a lot of absinthe, or force their victims to drink a lot of absinthe. They have big parties and have elegant rituals. I think that's a thing we associate with vampires--they are the royalty of our monsters. We expect them to be rich, we expect them to be well-dressed. I wanted to have some of that be true because I like it, and have some of it not be true because it's kind of weird.
I wanted to put in the idea of infection, which I was really interested in and which was a big feature of the vampire books I read growing up. And, the fear and desire for infection--the way in which our urge towards loving vampires is nihilistic. Our fear of them is our survival instincts kicking in.
Bookish: Any particular books that hit upon the decadent parties and other elements?
Black: The Anne Rice books are a lot about infection. I read "Interview With the Vampire" a million times when I was in seventh and eighth grade. Also, [writing Gavriel's backstory] definitely came from those books: I sat down and reread them all and thought a lot about… the way in which vampirism is pushing away from humanity in interesting ways, and creating something new from humanity. I imprinted on those books pretty hard.
Tanith Lee's "Sabella or the Blood Stone" was a big inspiration. I absolutely loved her books; when I was a kid, I wrote many bad Tanith Lee pastiches. Suzy McKee Charnas' "The Vampire Tapestry." Poppy Z. Brite's "Lost Souls." Nancy Collins' "Sunglasses After Dark," which sounds like the most '80s title ever. It's about a vampire named Sonja Blue, and she goes around killing vampires. She's the only vampire who's half-alive. It's a really fun, blood-filled romp. It's very "Blade" before "Blade"--with a lady.
Bookish: A major part of the novel is the "ticking clock" counting down the vampire infection once Aidan (and maybe Tana) get infected. Why did you want to focus on this?
Black: The idea of writing vampirism as a plague narrative opens up some story possibilities. It sets up the whole idea of Coldtowns as quarantine zones. Like in "True Blood," where you have this idea of, "We have vampires now--what are we going to do about that?" This is a situation in which there has to be a response to stem the tide of the infection--it's out of control. It also means that while there are old vampires who have power, there are a ton of new vampires who don't even know or understand their power. It's a culture in revolt. Vampirism itself has been tossed on its head.
[The vampires] had really elaborate, old, baroque ways of bringing people in, of controlling their [initiation]--a very elaborate hierarchy, as you might expect from ancient beings. And then, all of a sudden, there are all these whippersnapper vampires who don't care about them, who've never even heard of them, who don't understand the rules and don't want to play by them…. You have these old vampires who really are… Dracula-esque--something other than human, almost, because they have been alive for so long, because they've been through so much, because they operated by these totally different rules. Then, you have these young vampires who are very human--who are still trying to figure out, "How do I have my old life? What does it mean?"
Bookish: They're deciding what they can bring over from their old lives and what they have to abandon.
Black: Right. They're trying to act how they think vampires are, but they still need to figure out for themselves what it means to be a vampire. Some of them don't make it, which is why you have [suicide spots] in town square, where vampires are coming out in the daylight and burning up because they can't handle it, because [being a vampire] is way weirder and way worse than they expected.
Bookish: Why did you make dares and taking risks so central to Tana and Aidan's relationship and their decisions throughout the novel?
Black: I wanted to create a lady protagonist who had some of the kinds of baggage we often give in YA to boy protagonists or boy love interests--a truly terrible thing in their past that happened, that made them the person they are today, who is a little bit nihilistic and a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. That's really who Tana is; in Aidan, she thought she found someone who was like her. But Aidan really wasn't! Aidan is not at the level she is, at all. I think she had a very specific idea of what they were doing, and I don't think he did. He kept expecting her to back down. He was the fake bad boy who gets into trouble and has girlfriends who yell at him. The idea of a girlfriend who challenged him was at first intriguing and then terrifying. She was like, "I can play this game" and he was like, "I can't! Oh God!"
Bookish: Gavriel is clearly more of an ancient vampire. In constructing his backstory, which classic archetypes did you look to?
Black: It was intimidating to write the historical parts. The book is organized by long chapters that are in the present and then short chapters where I could do whatever I want--they're flashbacks, they're explanations for the magic system, they're blog posts. They're strange, little things that were fun to do... a place where I could give you stuff you otherwise wouldn't have. A few are about how Gavriel was made a vampire; they were tricky to write. But he was a hard character to write, because I wanted to make him mad, but fun-mad.
Bookish: The disjointed, oddly poetic language he uses is fascinating. Were those literary allusions?
Black: Some of them are Shakespeare. Some of them are just crazy.
Bookish: He seems part mentor, part love interest--he's interested in Tana, but he could still snap her neck.
Black: At some point later in the book, he says that she is the only person who came back to save him, and that's not something people have done in his life. I think what he likes about her is that she's steady in this world. He's like, "OK, I don't really know what's going on. I don't really trust myself or anyone else, so I'm going to go with what she says."
Bookish: What can you tell us about your forthcoming "Magisterium Series" that you're co-writing with Cassandra Clare?
Black: We are pretty much done with the first book--we're refining it--and ready to jump into the second. It's been so much fun. We live pretty close to each other; we've been good friends now for 10 years, so it's really, really fun to get to write together. We actually love a lot of the same books; we both are big Tara Bray [Smith] fans, so we have a lot of shared stuff we like. A lot of the time, when you're a writer, you go off by yourself and have to figure stuff out by yourself--so [here], another person is contractually obligated to help you. [Laughs.]
Bookish: Do you find that you both come up with similar plot points and arcs, or does one of you surprise the other?
Black: A little bit of both…. We spent a long time trying to figure out what the magic system was and really refining it, figuring out what it was based on and how it will work... how to keep it simple but interesting. We spent a lot of time and a lot of texts and emails trying to figure that out…. It is element-based; we used alchemy as a jumping-off point and then tried to go from there.
Bookish: Is it correct that the teenage protagonists are dark sorcerers?
Black: It's about a kid named Callum, who really, really, really, really doesn't want to be a mage because he's heard about how terrible they are. So, he needs to make sure that he's not chosen. He and his dad go to this trial--"The Iron Trial," if you will--and he has to make sure he doesn't get picked.
Holly Black is the bestselling author of contemporary fantasy novels for teens and children, including "Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale" and the #1 New York Times bestselling "Spiderwick" series. She has been a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award and the Eisner Award, and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award. Holly lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Theo, in a house with a secret library. Her website is blackholly.com.