Interview with Eric Muss-Barnes, author of “The Vampire Noctuaries”
Novelist and author Eric Muss-Barnes was born and raised in Ohio. His grandest literary work to date is an epic 294,000 word vampire duology entitled The Vampire Noctuaries, beginning with The Gothic Rainbow and concluding with Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival. He has released a “vocational autobiography” detailing the humorous ups-and-downs leading him from his hometown to Hollywood, in a book entitled How You Can Get a Job at Walt Disney Studios Without a College Degree. In addition to his work at Walt Disney Studios, he has written, directed and produced an award-nominated, critically-acclaimed short-film entitled The Unseelie Court, a movie screened in numerous film festivals across the country and is available on DVD. His writing has been published in numerous magazines around the world and within multiple anthologies, such as Tales From The Dark Tower and The Skateboarder’s Journal – Lives on Board, while his professional photography has been exhibited and sold in art galleries from Cleveland to Los Angeles. His second book, entitled Schooling Your Boss To Not Suck, regales amusing tales of unfortunate managers at various jobs he’s held over the years while Forever Loving You is the tongue-in-cheek title of his book of poetry and axioms. Eric Muss-Barnes lives in Los Angeles, California.
The Gothic Rainbow is a novel story set in a dark, faeriepunk version of the 20th Century underground nightclub scene. With a bit of surreal embellishment to enrich the tale, this novel was inspired by the parties, the places, the people and the atmosphere encompassing my exposure to several years of the gothic/industrial counterculture.
Written in first-person, the tale is focused upon dreary chasms of the human condition and tells the journey of a young male vampire and his relationship with a teenage mortal girl, Helle. Thinking he is only a spirit that communicates with her in dreams and rituals, Helle slowly comes to discover that he is very real and will change everything in her life forever. The sequel is Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival.
Q. Although you began writing “The Vampire Noctuaries” in the early nineties, many of the experiences of the characters bring to mind the goth and death rock scenes of the mid eighties. How much influence did that scene, and the nineties goth scene, have on the formulation of your characters?
A. The gothic/industrial/underground clubscene was a massive influence on the books. In fact, it was so influential, the title of the first book, The Gothic Rainbow is an eponymous reference to a goth/industrial nightclub in the story. Even the climax of the sequel, Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival takes place at a festival concert inspired by the first Lollapalooza in 1991. In my personal life, I got into that music in 1987, but I didn’t really start clubbing and going to shows until about 1989, so for me, the 80’s and 90’s eras blended together in a single time. I don’t really differentiate the decades. Thankfully, I was living in Cleveland at that time and, as anyone familiar with the history of that music can tell you, a majority of the most influential American bands in the scene were born in those rustbelt towns between Chicago and New York. Many quirks of characters and events in the story were based upon actual experiences I had during those years. So, yes, The Vampire Noctuaries duology is very much an allegorical history of that time period, with fictionalized vampires thrown into the mix.
Q. Would you consider Helle DuBois, the point of view character for the second book in your series, “Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival” to be a strong female protagonist?
A. Fundamentally, that depends on one’s definitions of strength and weakness. What kind of female is stronger? The girl who fights off her attacker and is never abused because she kicks so much ass? Or the girl who survives abuse and endures the aftermath? Would a girl be weak if she completely gave her heart and soul to love, and all the vulnerability that such a resignation entails? Or would real weakness be to shut yourself off from people and never feel love for anyone? I see Helle as all of the above. Despite her great power, she frequently uses it in ways that are violent and cruel and psychotic, and I think that’s inarguably a weakness. She’s also completely consumed by an obsessive and almost symbiotic love for Elric. To me, giving that much of yourself to another, and being subservient to that passion, is a sign of great strength and fortitude. Others would disagree and say it’s a weakness to weave your own identity so deeply into another. Thus, ultimately, her “strength” or “weakness” is relative to your own point of view. As far as I’m concerned, her strengths and weaknesses manifest in different facets of her personality, thus, I see aspects of Helle as both a “weak little girl” and a “strong and confident goddess”, all wrapped up in one. I feel that dynamic, and those contradictions, make her endearing. She’s not always a strong girl to admire. She’s not always a weak girl to pity. She’s both. She’s basically the amalgam of every goth girl I ever dated… if they had been megalomaniacal vampires.
Q. The book cover text from your first novel “The Gothic Rainbow” states that it is “a story carved from the part of your soul that knows more agony than all.” – do you think that your story relies heavily on psychological aspects and the internal life of it’s character to tell their stories?
A. Definitely. I would often create promotional fliers written in second-person, in an appeal to connect with the fanbase I knew would appreciate these books. This is for the kids who are the outcasts and the freaks. This is for the goth kid with no friends. But this story is also for the popular cheerleader, who has never told anyone about the horrible thing that happened to her at the frat party. It’s not about who you are on the outside. It’s about what has happened to you inside. I constantly emphasise to people that The Vampire Noctuaries does not have any of the typical cliches of vampire stories. These characters were invented in 1991. That’s before Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before Twilight, before True Blood and all these other trendy vampire books and movies. The Vampire Noctuaries follows none of those trends, because it existed before any of those trends were written. There are no vampire hunters, or love triangles, or werewolves, or quests to cure vampirisim, or wars between vampire clans, or a “chosen one” set to change the world. This is a story about the real pains and heartaches of life, set against a backdrop of betrayal and bereavement and vampires who revel in their power instead of lamenting it. Those are some damn fun characters to take to a Nine Inch Nails concert.
Q. One reviewer of “The Gothic Rainbow” on Goodreads said that appreciating the book required a prior understanding of the goth scene – do you think that’s true?
A. I certainly hope not. Years ago, I read a fantasy novel by a woman who wrote very confusing and complicated battle sequences. When I finished the book and read her biography, it said she was a career Marine. That explained a lot! She knew a little too much about military strategy and therefore, she couldn’t describe it in layman terms. Trudging through her terminology and descriptions was arduous. The rest of the book was fine. The rest of the book was accessible. The great irony was, the facet of the story that utilized her most abundant expertise, was the most poorly written part of the tale. Ever since that experience, I’ve always wanted to remain cognizant of such mistakes in my own writing. I never want to get so immersed in showing off my knowledge of a topic that it alienates readers who are unfamiliar with it. So, no, I don’t think readers need to be intimately familiar with the goth scene to appreciate this series, because when you get right down to it, although there are tons of references to the goth scene in the novels, this is a story about love and loss and heartbreak. I think everyone can relate to those emotions, even if they don’t own any Click Click albums.
Q. Do you consider “The Vampire Noctuaries” a paranormal romance, and what do you think of that particular genre label, and of genre labels in general?
A. Can The Vampire Noctuaries be a paranormal romance when there are no overbearing fathers forbidding lovers to meet, no girls torn between picking two guys, and no lovemaking in horse stables? The back cover of the original Gothic Rainbow categorized it as Dark Fantasy/Literature because I felt my work had every right to be granted the same respect typically reserved for the category of literature. Just today, saw an interview with Harlan Ellison, who is one of my writing idols, and he spoke about walking out of a television interview in 1980, because they introduced him as a science fiction author. He argued that he wanted to be respected as a writer and not labelled and compartmentalized. I hate granular genre labels too. I view The Vampire Noctuaries as fiction. That’s all. Since people insist upon being a bit more explicit, I can conceded to call it a “fantasy” book. In fact, I remain willing to continue calling it “dark fantasy” because, it does get pretty deep into the anguishing sides of life. But I still view it as literary too. Once you start calling a book “dark fantasy/ urban fantasy/ paranormal romance/ young adult/ new adult/ self-help /vegan cookbook” why bother to read it anymore? I think when books become “overly categorized” it can work against them, because people start making too many assumptions about what the story entails.
Q. Not all supernatural fiction is scary… you have categorized “The Vampire Noctuaries” as dark fantasy. What do think dark fantasy has in common with horror, if anything, and where do you think they diverge?
A. As I said, I hate getting too granular with labels and categories. One of the reasons I find the labels annoying is because they never serve their purpose! Labels are created to define and categorize stories, but you ask every author, every publisher, every reader, what their definitions are, and you’ll get a different answer! Some of the fools, you can see them online in forums and Twitterchats, debate with each other over definitions of a category. No one knows! So you go to all this trouble to compartmentalize a book and in the end, people still have no clue what the hell to expect when they read it! So, I can give you my opinion of what those categories mean, but that doesn’t mean anyone else will agree, nor will it mean any of us is correct. It’s all arbitrary. It’s all ambiguous. However, in answer to your question, I view “horror” as being fairly bloody and gory. That’s not my style. I’m not into that. That’s not to say there’s no violence in my story. There’s a ton of violence. I just don’t hold the camera on the carnage, so to speak. I don’t linger on it. I cut away quickly. I’m fond of saying, “I don’t write about darkness. I write about shadows.” That’s “dark fantasy” to me. “Horror” is when the thing in the woods graphically rips your throat out. “Dark Fantasy” is when the thing in the woods is just staring at you, and you feel those eyes on the back of your neck. I’m the type of person who hates horror films, but I love episodes of The Twilight Zone. Eerie and spooky turns me on. Gory and bloody doesn’t interest me.
Q. At 190k words, your first novel is a hefty tome… twice as long as some novels. What made you decide to issue your story as two books instead of three.
A. The Gothic Rainbow was supposed to be a single book. I outlined my entire story in 1993 and I started writing it in a linear fashion, beginning to end. When I hit about 300 pages, I looked at how much of my outline remained and I went, “Oh, crap. This thing is going to be 900 pages long!” I didn’t want my first novel to be a 900 page behemoth and take 5 years of my life to complete. Therefore, I picked a point about 3/4 of the way through the story where I could divide it into a 600 page book and a 300 page sequel. That’s how The Gothic Rainbow turned into The Vampire Noctuaries. The Gothic Rainbow: Beginning Volume of the Vampire Noctuaries came out in 1997 and Annwn’s Maelstrom Festival: Concluding Volume of the Vampire Noctuaries came out in 2013. Since the story was never intended to be divided into multiple books, the structure didn’t really support a trilogy or a tetrology; it became a duology simply because two books was the easiest way to divide the tale, without doing a major restructuring to the entire outline.
Q. Do you have anything else you’re working on that you want our readers to know about?
A. The writers I have always admired are the ones who write many different styles and genres of fiction. My ambition has always been to do the same. Ray Bradbury is a great example. He’s often regarded as a science fiction author, but he always saw himself as a writer of fantasy. If you read his body of work (the man published 27 novels and over 600 short stories, so you won’t read them all) you will see he wrote much more than science fiction. So, yes, I have a novel I’m working on, that I am hoping to have finished by December 2013. I’m keeping the details secret for now, but it has nothing to do with vampires or spooky things hiding under the bed. I’ve always maintained that the telling facet of storytelling is the most important part. So, hopefully, any fans who appreciate my storytelling in The Vampire Noctuaries will also enjoy the way my next story is told.