Every generation has a plethora of vampire lore, and there never seems to be room for another vampire tale until someone comes along with the latest re-imagining. This is what Holly Black kept telling herself as she worked on The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the book she promoted last night during a talk at the Cambridge Public Library (the event was hosted by Porter Square Books). Yes, there are vampires in Coldtown, and it’s a good thing I didn’t know that until she started reading aloud, because otherwise I might never have gone. But Black’s book seems to be the World War Z of vampire books, more concerned with vampirism-as-a-disease and the societal implications than fanged love. She read a suspenseful, chilling excerpt, and like any good author, stopped just before Something Really Important happened, which means I’ll have to read the whole thing now. No arguments here.
Black has a long, obsessive history with vampire books and movies. When she was little, her mother terrified her with so many vampire stories that she turned her Barbie dolls into vampires, the better to vanquish her fear (there’s nothing like an army of good plastic vampires to beat back the blood-sucking monsters under the bed). Later, when she asked the audience to share their favorite vampire books, she seemed to recognize them all. Since the only ones I’ve read are Bunnicula and Team Human, I got a bit lost, thought it was fun hearing people’s attempts to describe the plots of books whose titles they’d forgotten (there’s a babysitter! who’s a vampire! and his remains get washed up on shore! etc.)
She then answered a lot of questions about writing, and it was reassuring to hear that every book is “a magic trick”–something doomed to failure until, with sweat and tears, it turns out okay. Black’s writing style seems torturous: she starts by writing three chapters, then revises while writing the next few chapters, and repeats, so the quality of the draft drops the closer you get to the end. It means she rarely plans out her stories ahead of time and has to rewrite like mad. That’s perseverance. Her answer to how her writing has improved with time is also insightful: as a novice, she was so close to her characters that she could only see the situation from their points of view. When the protagonist was faced with a choice, she too faced the same decision; sometimes she chose wrong and had to rewrite a scene to fit the story. Now she’s able to keep some distance between herself and the characters, so she sees the whole arc of the story instead of limiting herself to the protagonist’s headspace.
As a fan of The Doll Bones, I had to ask during the book signing whether she’d creeped herself out writing the book. She didn’t, because she loves dolls, and has a collection of dolls on her desk (they’re some kind of special brand dolls with swappable body parts. Yikes.) Further proof of her fearlessness is the fact that her favorite fairy tale while growing up was The White Cat–a story so obscure we thought she was making it up as she enacted a hilarious summary (a prince parties for a year with a cat in a dress. That’s all you really need to know). I wish we could’ve taped it–it would win awards at oral storytelling contests. And that wasn’t even the biggest laugh of the night. That belongs to Black’s answer when asked if, in this era of vampire and werewolf books, if there are any mythical creatures doomed to literary failure. Her answer? The leprechaun.