Annette Curtis Klause is the award-winning author of Alien Secrets (Delacorte, 1993), The Silver Kiss (Delacorte, 1990), Blood and Chocolate (Delacorte, 1999), and most recently, Freaks: Alive on the Inside (Simon & Schuster, 2006).
When I last interviewed you, you’d just had a short story, “Summer of Love,” published in the anthology, The Color of Absence: 12 Stories about Loss and Hope edited by James Howe (Atheneum, 2001). It was a tie-in story to your acclaimed YA vampire novel, The Silver Kiss (Delacorte, 1990). Have you continued writing short stories? If so, what can your fans expect on that front next?
I don’t write a lot of short stories, although I have a few stashed away unpublished as yet. Last winter I was asked for a short story for an anthology of teen horror stories called The Restless Dead, to be published by Candlewick Press. I realized I’d been hoarding a title which would be perfect for this theme–“Kissing Dead Boys.”
All I needed was a plot to go with it. I had already jotted down some ideas when I received shocking news–my younger sister, Julie, who lived in England, had died unexpectedly. This was the sister I shared a room with while we were growing up; the sister I shared fantasy friends and adventures with. I began to write the story to try and take my mind off my depression.
I had wanted to write a zombie story, but it kept on insisting it was a vampire story, so I went with the flow. The writing was slow going at first, but then, after a few pages, the narrator mentioned her sister. I didn’t even know she was going to have a sister! That’s when I realized I was really writing a story about my feelings for Julie, and the story took off and almost wrote itself. The editor was happy with what I sent her, and the story will be published next Halloween, and dedicated to my sister.
Your last gothic fantasy novel, Blood and Chocolate (Delacorte, 1999), which featured werewolves, was a smash hit, a Top Ten BBYA, a Top Ten Quick Pick, a Booklist Editors’ Choice, and a School Library Journal Best Book (among other honors). It also received stars from Booklist and SLJ. Is it right that a movie is currently in the works? What can you tell us about it?
Yes, the movie was filmed in Romania this past fall and I believe it’s in post production now. I’m not sure how much it will be like the book, however. They seem to have made the characters older, as well as setting the story in Eastern Europe which kind of negates the whole point of the plot–werewolves could be sitting right next to you in your high school homeroom. I am flattered by the outraged posts on the Internet Movie Database message boards and sympathetic with the posters, but I’m afraid that if you aren’t Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King you don’t get much say in what the film companies do. The producers don’t even keep me up to date–I find my information on the Web.
I knew there was a good possibility that the film wouldn’t resemble my story, but how often do you get a chance to have something you wrote made into a movie? It had to be a laugh, at least, right? A glimpse into a whole new world. We can at least pray that the movie works on it’s own terms, and hope that it inspires the viewers to read the book. It might be fun, despite being different. The script writer is Ehren Kruger (“The Ring,” “The Skeleton Key”), so it’s got a good chance of working. Aiden will be played by Hugh Dancy, who’s done British TV as well as a few films; Vivian is played by Agnes Bruckner; and Gabriel is played by French heartthrob Olivier Martinez (who’s handsome but seems a little short to be a kick-ass werewolf dude, but what can you do?) You can read the full cast and crew on www.imdb.com.
Your soon-to-be released novel is Freaks! Alive, On the Inside (McElderry, January 2006). Could you tell us a little about the story? What was your inspiration for creating this book?
Okay, you asked for it, this is my handy-dandy, all-purpose, sumptuous, far-too-long annotation:
“When a boy’s first romantic interlude is with Phoebe the dog faced girl, he feels a need to get out into the world and find a new life.
“However, the increasingly possessive Phoebe is only one of seventeen-year-old Abel’s reasons for wanting to leave the Faeryland Revue of 1899.
“Abel is born into the world of sideshow performers. His parents, and most of the inhabitants of the entertainment resort they live and perform in, are human oddities—-‘freaks’ many call them—-people with physical differences that set them off from most of the population.
“But Abel has no interesting physical difference, and he feels that he will never have a chance to excel until he goes out into the world among people more like him. ‘Why would someone want to come see an ordinary boy like me throw knives when there are such wonders around me?’
“He is just dependable, kindly Abel, the lad who runs errands into town and who helps back stage, the one who is stuck minding twelve-year-old Apollo, an irrepressible puppy boy who can’t stay out of trouble. Abel doesn’t want to be good, however. He yearns for adventure–the sort of adventure a young man can only have when not surrounded by people who know his parents.
“When the Siamese twins depart the show, one of them gives Abel an Egyptian ring as a gift to remember her by, and Abel starts to have disturbing, delicious dreams of a beautiful dancing girl. She seems the physical embodiment of the adventure he craves, and where would he ever find a woman such as that?
“Not at home.
“That’s when Abel decides to creep out at night and walk across the Maryland countryside to join a traveling circus as the first step on his way to find his fortune. But fortune, in the shape of the voluptuous dancing girl who haunts him in twilight and in sleep, has her own plans for Abel, and through misadventure and mishap (complicated by a little problem he thought he’d left behind) she leads him back to the freaks—a raggle-taggle band of traveling performers very different from the proud, independent souls he grew up with, held in thrall to a manipulative showman and his thugs. They break his heart. Faced with kidnapping, abuse, and murder, it is only by using the qualities he thought were unimportant and mundane, that Abel can help them and, through that, finds his place in the world and the love of his life.”
As to what inspired me–well, I just gave a half-hour speech on that last November and still didn’t fit everything in. I’ll try to summarize. I’ve always been interested in outsiders because I’ve often felt like one myself. My books reflect that. The ectoplasm of this book comes from a variety of sources–my father’s medical books, featuring bizarre illnesses, which fascinated me as a child; the 1930’s Tod Browning movie, “Freaks,” which I discovered in college; two wonderful medical museums I visited as a teenager which featured skeletons of dwarfs and giants, and deformed babies in jars; a book a room mate lent me called Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, originally published in the 19th century; and the wonderful 19th century fantasy adventures of H. Rider Haggard.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
Yikes! You do ask tough questions. The idea for this book came to me probably a little before Blood and Chocolate was published in 1997. It’s all blurry and far away now. I was visiting New York and told my idea to my publisher who then offered me a contract based merely on my vague synopsis. I was stunned.
I’m not sure I should have signed that contract–in one way, it forced me to write the book; in another way, it panicked me and froze me at times. It meant I was committed to deliver a book. WHAT IF I COULDN’T DO IT?
Before that, I usually waited until I had a book to turn in before I signed anything. I think I’m going back to that method, then we will see if that was just an excuse.
Anyway, as you can tell, it took at least eight years to come up with another book. I really, really, really, really hope the next one doesn’t take as long. In the meantime: that publishing executive retired; I am on my third agent with the same agency; I’m on my third computer; my editor was fired; my editor was hired somewhere else; Random House was generous enough to release me from the original contract; and I’m now published by a totally different publisher (and back with my editor). Whew!
Three or four summers ago I took several months off from my job as a librarian in the hopes of finishing the book. Ha ha ha ha ha! You can tell that worked. I did love that taste of being a full-time writer, though. I wish I could afford it. But, as you can tell, my output is a little iffy.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life? I’m especially interested in the research you did on the lives of people who worked in “freak shows” and circuses as well as that related to ancient Egypt.
Well, I touched a little on the psychological hurdles above. The main logistical problem was that I have a full-time job and as I get older, I have less energy when I get home from it.
The other problem/joy was research, research, research. I needed to know the history of the circus and sideshows, and after I decided on my time period, I had to not only find out about everyday life in the 19th century, but the particular life in the shows at that time. I wanted to discover the lingo and the lives of the performers. I was curious about all the physical possibilities there were and how they would effect people’s lives. I obsessed about knowing enough true facts to weave a believable plot within a realistic setting. And I am very hard on myself–I researched tiny details that my readers would probably never catch me out on, but I would know if I was slipshod, wouldn’t I? I found way more information in books and on the Internet than I could ever use in one work. My head was bursting with characters, anecdotes, weird trivia, and a new vocabulary, and my library of strange items grew every day. There are still books in my house that I didn’t get around to reading, and those unbought that I still might pursue, and I own my personal set of throwing knives, although I can’t throw them straight.
I’m sure I was using research as a form of procrastination because I was afraid I couldn’t pull the whole thing off–the trick of spinning the straw of notes into the gold of a satisfying story. I finally had to force myself to stop the research and start the writing.
I have a large cast of unusual characters in this book , and while the people in my story are imaginary, their physical differences are often inspired by those of people who really lived, and many characters are composites of people I came across in photographs and accounts. A bizarrely compelling postcard on eBay of a sweet little boy with a huge head dressed in Chinese costume and entitled “Master Handsome—Hydrocephalic Mind Reader” was responsible for my creation of a small child called Minnie whose stage name is Little Beauty and whose powers might be more than carnie bunkum. Mr. Bopp’s appearance is based on a real life performer in the movie Freaks, Prince Randian, who performed as The Human Torso for forty-five years, starting in the late 1800’s. Abel’s father is patterned on Johnny Eck, the Half Boy also featured in “Freaks,” a Baltimore native and already a sideshow star in his own right before the making of the movie, but Mr. Dandy also has a little Eli Bowen in him. I have some wonderful family pictures of Mr. Bowen with his wife and son–physical anomalies didn’t stop many of these performers from finding love and raising a family. And while there was a four-legged woman called Myrtle Corbin, Albert Sunderland, the four-legged man is mostly based on Francis Lentini, a famous three-legged man who also kicked a soccer ball around on stage, and I have photographic evidence of his…ahem…other extras.
Yes, I read up on ancient Egypt, too–the role of women was one of my focuses. I chose an era that suited my needs and gave historical background to a little piece of business I needed for the plot. I was especially interested in the idea of the ka and the ba, aspects of the human soul–the spiritual parts of us that transcend the body. One of my favorite books was a reproduction of a 19th century study of Egyptian magic. The Egyptian ideas about the magical power of words and symbols gave shape to my plot.
Another challenge was writing a book with the flavor of the style of the time without being exactly the style of the time which might have turned off contemporary readers because of it’s complexity. I use slang and expressions of the 19th century and try to convey a certain formality without losing the immediacy today’s reader needs. Writing this book also required suggesting the prejudices of the time without using the blunt language that would be accurate, but make contemporary readers very uncomfortable and open the way for misinterpretation of my motives. My main character needed to be more formal and polite than today’s teens without appearing stuffy or too good to be true. I probably made him more liberal than is strictly accurate but I needed him that way for a modern reader to identify with him, so I had to make his attitude believable within the constraints of the time period.
The book touches on the question of insiders, outsiders, and the relative perspective on who is odd. Abel Dandy, your protagonist, for example, feels that he is unusual because unlike his extended “family,” he is physically like most people. What is your thinking on this subject, and how does the question resonate with you? Why did you think it would be an interesting theme to explore for the YA audience?
Growing up, I was the odd girl teased for her red hair and glasses who never seemed to belong in whatever neighborhood she moved to. I read lots of books, I was shy, I wrote, I had an imagination, and things popped out of my mouth sometimes that I wished I could retract when I saw the wary looks in other people’s eyes. When I came to this county from England at the age of fifteen, I finally found a group of people I fit in with–we all considered ourselves a bit odd and we decided to make it a positive thing. One of the reasons I loved the movie “Freaks” so much when I was a teenager, was that it treated with respect the people considered freaks by the “normal” world. In the 1960’s the media called the type of people I hung out with “hippies,” and less than kind people called us “freaks” so we took on that title of Freak and wore it proudly. We made it our own to say that being different was acceptable. (I used that title for this book in the same spirit and also to pay tribute to Tod Browning who endured much criticism and censorship for his attempt to show that even those who look very different still have the same feelings as we all do.)
I know there are plenty of teens who feel the way I did. It’s a time when we are so painfully aware of our quirks, exaggerate them in our minds even, and yet we bemoan our mundane qualities. It’s when we yearn to be different, yet are embarrassed by our differences. It’s a time when our bodies seem to betray us with every step we take as they warp and change out of our control (although I have to admit that I’m discovering that middle age is rather like that, too), and yet we are obsessed with our bodies and those of the others around us.
Adolescence is a period when a person is trying hard to define him or herself, and I think that teens are naturally inclined to want to make a study of what is considered abnormal and compare themselves to that standard.
Nowadays I don’t care how weird people think I am, so I thought I’d share my obsessions and make people think about them. There’s a certain repulsion-attraction mechanism in humans. The “oh gross” response compels them to pay attention and gives me the chance to plant the seed of thought. Maybe my book will help people consider the right of people to control their own destiny; confirm for them that it’s character that counts not looks; reassure them that to be unique is valuable; or guide them to a sense of wonder where they least expected it, and bestow a fascination with the mystery of the human body and the strength of the human spirit.
I noticed that Freaks is marked for ages 14-up, which is a relatively new designation in YA, signalling that the book is targeted at the YA/Adult crossover market. What are your feelings about this 14-up category? What are the challenges today in writing, publishing, and marketing upper YA?
I think that this category is right for this book. I would feel uncomfortable offering it to someone younger because I don’t think as many younger kids would enjoy it on the level that it is intended to be enjoyed. I require a certain level of surging hormones in my readers. *grin* I was a little annoyed when one review placed the book at 12 and up. I wondered if the reviewer had read the book properly.
I don’t feel that upper YA is a challenge for me to write–it’s just where I land, both feet together–plop. I do think it’s a tightrope walk for some, however. I think it’s a matter of knowing how far out to push the envelope so one can be honest and true to the kids without alienating the gatekeepers because, no matter how we may not like it, there are adults between the writer and the teen audience who may be more conservative than the teens and may not give the kids enough credit for what they can absorb.
A writer has to remember, too, that there isn’t just one generic teen. People are people, and they have differing sensibilities, they mature at different rates, and some people are just not going to get you however old or young they are. Another challenge is the YA category itself–some teens who are the perfect age for the category are going to reject it as childish just because it is marketed for teens. I would have been one of them. A good cover can help that, and subtle placement in bookstores and libraries. That is out of the writer’s control, however. Another frustration.
What advice do you have for writers who’re interested in crafting horror or gothic fantasy novels?
Be aware of the genre and don’t ignore your predecessors: learn from them, and then make a style of your own. Write in those genres because you love them, not because you feel the genre will sell. You can’t fool a true fan. All the rules of good writing apply–they are not waived because you are writing genre fiction. Remember, the more fantastic your plot, the more important it is to ground the story in reality so your reader believes everything. Your characters must come alive, the details of your setting be real, and your facts based on accurate research. Yes, even fiction needs to be researched.
How has your writing changed over the past few years? What are your goals for the future?
I haven’t a clue as to how my writing has changed. Perhaps it hasn’t. I don’t think my style has changed much, but I do hope my writing has improved. I’d hate to think I was stagnating. (There’s nothing grosser than a green and slimy writer.) My goal is to write faster. LOL! I haven’t gotten very far on that yet. My last short story came out rather fast, though–I do hope the next book I have in mind will, too. All I have are a bunch of notes and a sound track in my head so far. I’m setting it in the here and now so that should give me a head start, but I have to do some research on demons. Ahhhhhhhhhh! Research. Here we go again.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Think about writing. Work full-time as a children’s librarian at the management level. Think about writing. Make a fuss over my six cats–three of which are Siamese but none are Siamese twins. Think about writing. Hang out on a Siamese cat Internet bulletin board. Think about writing. Listen to music that is probably too young for me but who cares anyway. Think about writing. Read when I can but mostly mess about on the computer. Think about writing. Never get around to renovating the house that needs it. Think about writing. Fall asleep on the couch watching TV with my husband. Dream about writing. Sorry, I don’t do extreme sports or travel the world and have adventures–I do stuff in my head.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I didn’t expect to learn old songs when I began Freaks, I didn’t know I’d be printing out glossaries of circus slang, and I didn’t know I would fall in love with my characters as much as I did. I may have started reading about unusual people out of curiosity, but what I brought away was respect—respect for people who fought the odds against them and created lives for themselves. They made the best of what they had, earned a living, loved, married, had children, and left a legacy when they could—just like anyone. We are all different—and how boring life would be if we were all the same—but some of those differences may be more obvious than others, and present greater challenges. Yet one thing unites us—we are all human. Let’s treat each other that way.