SAN FRANCISCO HAS a vampire kitty problem.
A giant, bloodsucking mancat is on the loose, turning other alley cats into his undead minions and amassing an army to prowl the night. That is, at least, the secret municipal crisis in Christopher Moore‘s latest novel, “Bite Me,” an imaginative, often hilarious account of the young, the goth, and the fanged in the City by the Bay.
“Bite Me” is the third — and possibly the final — in a vampire trilogy that Moore kicked off in 1995 with “Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story,” about a secretary named Jody who is turned into a dark mistress of the night. Twelve years later, Jody rose again in a sequel succinctly titled “You Suck,” which trailed the “hot redhead” and her newly vamped boyfriend Tommy around the streets of San Francisco.
They are lovers, but these books are not supernatural soap operas like the “Twilight” books or “The Vampire Diaries.” Moore’s books — all of them, not just the ones with fangs — have an absurdist quality that gives them both a sharp humor and an almost tragic gravity, which in this trilogy subverts the self-seriousness of the modern-day vampire.They may have heightened senses, and they may be able to jump, fight, prowl, and hear footsteps six blocks away, but Moore’s bloodsuckers are all freaks in their own way. They retain all their human afflictions — their old fears, uncertainties and pettiness — and they still have to do laundry.
“Bite Me” also marks the return of goth kid and vampire minion Abby Normal — or, as she’s known by her mom, Allison Green — who has a comic obsession with creatures of the night and a handy mastery of sarcasm and slang. A minor character in “You Suck” and a cameo in Moore’s 2006 novel “A Dirty Job,” Abby narrates passages of “Bite Me” as if she were blogging, and her sections are the highlights of the novel, sparkling with wit and spraypainted with OMG’s, WTF’s, kayso’s and a kthxbai or two.
For Moore, writing in Abby’s gothily mannered voice is a tight-rope act: one slip and the entire novel could come crashing to the ground. But he remains surefooted, even as her descriptions grow more and more outlandish: “Do the condemned in hell know the suffering that is a whole day of mom-guilt heaped like steaming piles of bat guano upon my spiky coif?” she philosophizes after being grounded. Of being away from her boyfriend … for a few hours: “I weep, I brood, I grieve — I have sniffed the bitter pink Sharpie of despair and mascara tears stripe my cheeks like a mouthful of chewed up black Gummi bears has been loogied in my eyes.”
Moore’s prose in these and other passages throughout “Bite Me” is hyperactive and inventive. His sentences don’t just sit there on the page, waiting politely to be read. Instead, they get right up in your face and bark at you. That balance of off-hand humor and literary bravado, honed over thirty years of writing novels like “Island of the Sequined Love Nun” and “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Paul,” has established him as a revered cult author with a reputation for gleefully subverting the horror genre with humor, wit and actual insight.
Armed with holy water and necklaces of garlic cloves, Express caught up with Moore in his writing lair and talked about how vampires hunt, how the dotcom bubble nearly burst his trilogy, and why his books don’t make good movies.
Then he bit us.
» EXPRESS: When you had the idea to turn the world of “Bloodsucking Fiends” into something larger?
» MOORE: I would think it almost had to be 10 years ago. You’d love it all to be creatively motivated, but the fact is, publishers would like you to put out a book a year when you’re a popular fiction author. And there are some books that I just can’t put out that quickly. They require too much research. So I thought I could do a big book then a little book. And the vampire books made sense — they’re set in a town that I’m very familiar with and they’re full of characters I’m very familiar with. So I proposed it to my publisher maybe nine years ago as a way to expand it. Now, I always thought I could do a sequel to the original book, which I wrote in 1994 and published in ’95, but I hadn’t actually proposed it as a bigger piece of work — a trilogy — until several years later. But basically, I thought I could write these books quickly enough that I could satisfy deadlines to the publisher.
» EXPRESS: With 10 years in between the first and the second, was it difficult going back to those characters?
» MOORE: It was a lot more difficult than I thought. I think it was 12 years from the first one to the second one. As I said, I hadn’t planned on that. I thought I’d do a sequel in a couple of years, but it didn’t work out business-wise. The biggest problem wasn’t revisiting the characters. The city had changed. That was the 12 years when the Internet happened and in the city where the Internet happened. The area where the characters lived when I did the original research in ’93 was Pakistani restaurants, transmission shops, and artist lofts. And that area — the South of Market Street. area, the SOMA — had basically turned into Internet central. All of the startup companies had gone down there and built these really expensive facilities, and there were a lot of really hip new lofts that had been put in fro the employees who worked at Google and places like that. So I had to deal with the fact that the city had changed. And I actually met with a book group at a San Francisco bookshop called Borderlands, which does science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and I said, What do you guys think? You live in the city. How should I handle this? And they said, Just ignore it. Just act like there was no difference. So that’s what I did. But that was the thing that concerned me the most, how the city had changed. I knew the characters were going to be just like they had been the day before, and then I added new characters that were a little more challenging, like Abby Normal.
» EXPRESS: She has a smaller part in the first book, but she’s such a great central character for the second two books.
» MOORE: She sort of took over in the process of doing the second book, “You Suck.” I gave her a very minor role in the book “A Dirty Job,” which is not in this series but does take place in San Francisco. She’s the best friend of one of the characters in that book. I created her out of reading goth blogs online. As a middle-age white guy, I don’t know anything about goth culture or 16-year-old kids. So basically to create her vocabulary, I was very fortunate — and I didn’t know this until they went away — to have so many articulate funny kids writing blogs where I could pick up the vocabulary and the diction. She became so compelling and people reacted so positively to her that I gave her a much bigger part in the third book.
» EXPRESS: And there’s an interesting contrast between her language, which is part of her own written blog, and the other parts of the book, which aren’t from her point of view. That seems to point to a theme of language as something that we form and that forms us, especially in the subplot about Tommy regaining his humanity.
» MOORE: I always cringe when talking about this. It’s not that I don’t think about these things, but it just seems like a vampire book is not really the vehicle for big themes. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t have something to say. A big part of the subplot is how Tommy can’t do certain vampire things initially because he overthinks everything. He puts words to everything because he moves to the west from Indiana and because he wants to be a writer initially. Language ties us to our humanity, to our analytical way of thinking. There are a lot of people who believe that the human brain is hard-wired for language. So it was sort of a comment on why he wasn’t able to do some of the things that vampires could do, that even cats who had been turned into vampires could do. You’ll pardon me for this shorthand, but the “big teeth” of the human race — the thing that makes us for now the dominant species on the planet — is culture, and culture is completely driven by language. If we didn’t have language, we would still be banging rocks together. That’s all basically I was saying, that a predator tends to be less analytical and more instinctual. Language is almost counter-instinctual. And that makes the different between us and the next species. You might have chimps using tools, but they’re not using language unless they’re being taught by human beings.
» EXPRESS: It’s odd to hear someone say that vampire books don’t have space for these big ideas, because now vampires have become a very loaded metaphor for pretty much anything.
» MOORE: I don’t know what to say about that. I came into writing as a horror author initially, or at least that’s what I thought I was when I first started out. But people were laughing at my horror stories, so I thought, Maybe that’s what I do. I guess maybe it is a loaded metaphor, but I also think that people are applying a lot of importance to it because culturally it’s a big deal right now due to Stephanie Meyer’s books and all the television shows and whatnot. I think people are thinking about it and asking about it and wondering why this is so popular right now. Basically it’s a fantasy. The vampire is the superhero that anybody can become, which is not to say there isn’t a cost to it. I think it’s just an interesting fantasy that people indulge, and I think that’s initially why I wrote vampire stories — it’s an interesting fantasy. The metaphor is easily lent, because there’s death and sex and blood that you could fashion into a metaphor for society and human culture. But I’m not sure they’re not all stretched.
» EXPRESS: The vampire explosion — “Buffy” and “Twilight” — seems to have occurred between “Bloodsucking Fiends” and “You Suck” …
» MOORE: I’m not sure of that. I think “Buffy” may have preceded me by a year or two. I’d love to take credit for making some sort of quantum leap, but I think there was a natural evolution. Anne Rice had been writing vampire books for nearly 20 years by the time I did “Bloodsucking Fiends,” and I think the “Buffy” came out around 1992.
What I think I brought to it was, What if there was just a normal person, just a woman who worked as a secretary, who was turned but didn’t get the instruction book? How would she deal with it as a real person, when all the logistics of real life didn’t stop happening? She still has to get her car out of impound and she still has to do laundry and all the things that nobody else seemed to ever address. That was what I think I brought to it, the idea of an everyman or everywoman being turned. I don’t think I blazed any trails in having the first single-girl vampire story, but that’s become a real subgenre. If you go into the romance section of any bookstore now, it’s dominated by supernatural romance, and most of it’s vampire stuff. I don’t know if I inspired it, but I preceded it.
» EXPRESS: Did you take any of those stories into account when you wrote “You Suck” or “Bite Me”?
» MOORE: I did. And that’s why I wanted to bring something new to it. That’s why I brought Abby Normal into it, because these are people who had really taken the whole wrist-to-forehead aspect of vampires to heart, and I just thought it was really funny. You have to pay attention to the culture. One of the things that had offended me about vampire movies and literature for years, especially after the vampires were brought into the modern world, was that people would just ignore all these victims dying of blood loss with strange wounds on their necks, and it wouldn’t occur to anybody what that might be. They had never seen a movie or read a book. With “Bloodsucking Fiends,” I immediately have my vampires reading Anne Rice to learn how to be a vampire because they don’t know. I wanted to create a world where the vampires were aware of the culture around them. On the other hand, I didn’t want to appear derivative of what was going on, and I’m not a romance writer. These books are all subtitled as love stories, but that’s not the genre I write and I don’t consider myself accomplished in that.
» EXPRESS: Can you tell me about the vampire mythology you’ve created for these books?
» MOORE: The thing about any vampire mythology is that it just has to be internally consistent. There is no rule. Vampires don’t have to be vulnerable to garlic or holy water or anything like that. They’re not real. Soou get to make up your own rules. My mythology was sort of pick-and-choose, an a la carte menu of things that were convenient for telling the story. The things that I may have brought to it that I hadn’t seen before were scenes that give you a sense of what it’s like to see heat and to have hearing that’s so sensitive you have to learn to focus and not be distracted by all the noise. It’s an expanded universe of sight and smell and hearing that we normally walk through unaware of. Which is really the truth. A dog’s point of view is shaped much more by its sense of smell than by its sense of height, as ours is. And that’s got to be a completely different way of perceiving the world. I just tried to put words to that, which again goes back to your other question: You don’t have a vocabulary for all the smells a bloodhound detects. You just don’t have enough words for it, and that’s one of the things that Tommy experiences a s a vampire. I can say as a writer, if I can’t put it into words, it doesn’t exist — it’s no good to me, it’s useless. And suddenly he’s in a position where he doesn’t have words for the things he’s hearing and seeing and smelling because no one has smelled them before, at least no one with language. So the mythology was just about picking and choosing those different aspects.
» EXPRESS: They also seem to have a heightened sense of morality …
» MOORE: Wow. You must have a very decadent life!
» EXPRESS: I mean, the main vampires we follow don’t just kill people. They usually just go after the sick and the old.
» MOORE: Through the whole all of “Bite Me,” you have a kid who’s a scientist and is working on vampires and treating it as science, yet things are going on that are unexplainable. The reason I’m going down the science road is that predators take the weak and the sick. They don’t just kill anything for the fun of it. There’s a certain law to it that’s a part of evolution. And they’re not doing it just to take the weak and the sick; they’re doing it because it’s easier. That’s the best strategy for survival. It’s a different set of rules. Morality is a different way to put it, but I think it’s less imposed by conscience and more imposed by the imperative of surviving. I talk about it in all three books, and Jody keeps saying this is magic, it’s not science. But I think I really fudged on that. I don’t ever answer the question, Is this magic or is this science? It’s implied that it’s magic, but I used a lot of evolutionary and biology language throughout the book. The vampires are animals, they behave like animals, they have the simolar survival instincts. That’s the law of the jungle, the morality you’re talking about. It’s just applied to human beings.
» EXPRESS: I actually appreciated the fact that you never definitively settled the science vs. magic debate. It leaves it as blurry for the readers as it is for the characters.
» MOORE: At some point, especially for the people who have been turned into vampires, it doesn’t really matter. That’s why Jody is a better vampire than some of the other characters. She’s just functioning under the idea of survival, doing what she needs to do to be alive and survive. Tommy overthinks everything, and that gets in his way as a predator. But it doesn’t matter if it’s science or magic. What matters to me as a writer is if it makes a good story.
» EXPRESS: Do you have any plans to ever revisit these characters?
» MOORE: I had originally proposed it as a four-book series, but I like the way this wrapped up, so if I don’t revisit them, I’m fine with it. I don’t have a plan to do another book with these characters. As soon as “You Suck” was out and I had been touring, I had dinner with my publisher in New York and I said I thought we needed to do another one. And she said yes, absolutely. But this one seems to be a lot more complete. It has a much more satisfying ending. The short answer is, I don’t plan on doing another one, but I’ve written a lot of books that I hadn’t planned on. In interviews I think a lot of author pretend that there’s no real life, that it’s all these high-minded things, but a lot of times it’s simply, Wow I only have seven months to deliver a book. I can’t exactly do an exotic research trip. I have to write about something I know. That was one of the reasons I wrote about “Bloodsucking Fiends” in the first place and set it in San Francisco. I was only a few hours from the city, so I could research it without traveling across the world and spending a ton of money.
» EXPRESS: “Bite Me” doesn’t read like it was written very quickly. With all those shifting points of view, it seemed very logistically comp;ex.
» MOORE: When I say quickly, I mean seven or eight months. There are some authors who can write a draft in a month. I’m just not that person. I’m astounded that people can do that. So when I say I wrote it quickly, usually it means that I don’t have to take six months to a year researching it. I wrote a book called “Lamb,” which is the life of Christ that’s not written in the Gospels, and it was a huge research project. My last book, “Fool,” was Shakespeare’s “King Lear” told from the point of view of the fool. Again, maximum amount of research. I had to familiarize myself with and almost become fluent in English history and the work of Shakespeare, and I had to create my own diction for the character because it had to sound Elizabethan.
» EXPRESS: Will your next book involve a lot of research?
» MOORE: I’m working on a book about French painters in the 19th century, set in Paris. Yes, it’s funny — I hope. Yes, it’s fiction. And yes, it’s going to have some supernatural things, but it’s also going to feature a lot of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters and the world of Paris from the 1860s to the 1890s. And as you can guess, that’s a massive research project, and once you get all that information, you’ve got to make all that stuff accessible and funny, which takes a bit of time and effort. Setting goals like that I think that makes you get better at what you do, at least up until the point where I just implode and they find me rocking in the corner, beating my head against the wall, and drooling.
A book like “Bite Me” may read very quickly and seem very fluid, but it’s hard to write because it’s very crafted, especially the way Abby Normal talks. Even though it’s very ungrammatical, it’s still a grammar. It’s a diction that’s specific. It’s like method acting: I have to get into character when I’m writing her or my character Pocket from “Fool,” because I can’t craft how they speak mathematically. I have to think in goth-kid talk. And that’s hard. The short of it is, I try to pick challenges, I try to pick things I’m not sure I’ll be able to do, at least on the big books. On the smaller books, I try to take something very complex and give it momentum, make it not seem so complex. When you find out it’s complex is when someone options it for a movie. Then they start to take it apart and make it into a movie, they’re like, Oh my god, if you take this part out, the entire thing collapses on itself. Which probably explains why all my books have been sold for film and none of them have been made.
» EXPRESS: You seem to get that question a lot.
» MOORE: Every place I go. I think the initial presentation of the books is that they seem a lot easier and simpler than they actually are. I don’t make them complex on purpose. I think they just end up that way because I get in the middle of a story and think, Oh my god, how am I going to get out of this? And it’s not always a direct route.
» EXPRESS: Well, if you can make it look easy …
» MOORE: So far so good. When I published my first book 20 years ago, one of the reviews said, This is a needlessly complex plot. My answer was, Well you should have been writing it! For you it was just reading a book, but it was ruining my life. Like I said, I don’t try to make them complex. If it looks easy, it never is. Sometimes when I’m proposing a book, I think I’ll be able to knock this out in no time. And then when I’m writing, I’m like, Oh my god, why did I agree to do this? I pretty much think everything I will e the end of my career. It’s all over and I’m going to die homeless and alone in a cardboard box, cradling my remainders.
Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo by Victoria Webb