Mention Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and most readers think of her Count Saint-Germain vampire novels. This successful professional's books concentrate on history, taking vampires through centuries to settings ranging from ancient Rome to modern times. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's work includes sixty short works of fiction, two dozen essays, reviews, and over seventy novels. Yarbro pushes the boundaries, be it in her vampire series, in mystery, historical or science fiction. She's also written westerns and romance, composes music, and drafts maps for other writers and her own books. For over thirty years Yarbro has put pen to paper as a professional writer. She first entered writing by selling short fiction and then, in 1976, her first book.
Yarbro's birthplace is Berkeley, California, where she lives today. For relaxation she has ridden horses, listens to opera, cooks, or sometimes does needlework. She will be the Guest of Honor at A Day with Dracula and other Vampires on June 4, 2005 at the University of Toronto.
How does Chelsea Quinn Yarbro write a story? "Anything over about 15,000 is outlined, but not too stringently, since stories have a tendency to shift around during writing. I do like having a kind of road map to where the story is going, and some idea of how I am going to get there, which the outline supplies. Sometimes a short story will evolve from nothing more than a paragraph of general information, but that is because short stories, by their very nature, are about a single event or character, and those don't require much in the way of road maps."
Yarbro is widely known for her vampire stories, yet she's written much more. "I have written about aliens and world wars—both I and II—as well as earlier wars, in fiction and non-fiction—and occasionally certain folkloric beasties that might be considered fairies. What the public and publishers seem to like best are vampires, and since I have a character with a lot of time on his hands, it suits me very well."
Most speculative fiction writers are talented, open-minded and intelligent people, yet the stigma remains. Maybe some day they'll be taken seriously, just as literary writers are. "I stopped worrying about such things more than thirty years ago. I do get a bit annoyed that publishers don't take genre fiction as seriously as they take 'literary,' 'blockbuster,' and 'mainstream' fiction—forgetting that literary, blockbuster, and mainstream are genres, too."
Vampires fascinate and are romanticized. Maybe it's because they're powerful, live forever, and do something as intimate with the victims as taking their blood. "Often it is a tall dark male vampire who overpowers a woman, bending over and simply seducing her. The answer to that would take several volumes to answer, and would require a long discussion of archetypes and psychology. In brief, vampires have beat the toughest game in town—death—and lived to tell about it. All cultures, present and past, have had a vampire myth of some sort, as they have had a were-creature myth. The oldest recognized representation of a vampire, according to my research, is in some stone carvings in northern India, depicting a leader who is killed, rises from death to prey on the living; it is about 35,000 years old. So something about that image is lodged in the human psyche, and we still respond to it."
Saint-Germain books are classified as horror; they don't seem like they should be. Some believe Yarbro's vampire stories are closely modeled after historical people. She says, "Yes, he is; Le Comte de Saint-Germain was a real man who lived in the eighteenth century. I claim nothing about him that he did not claim for himself with the exception of vampirism. But basing the stories on real history and real people doesn't make the stories outside the horror genre. I call the series, and have from the first book, historical horror. This is because I find human history far more horrifying than the activities of a vampire."
Both Anne Rice and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's books began coming out about the same time in the seventies, and though both write about vampires, their styles are very different. "I have only read Interview when it first came out, at the request of my editor. Since Hotel Transylvania was finished before Interview came out, I would venture to say it had no effect on how I told my story. Back in 1971, when I began work on Hotel Transylvania, I decided that for the purposes of the Saint-Germain stories, vampirism was a metaphor for intimacy. What other writers decide vampirism is about is up to them."
There's a different "feeling" to Dark of the Sun, Yarbro's latest vampire book. It involves desolation, starvation, and thievery. The vampire in this story is the good guy. He saves others. Her explanation of how and why this particular vampire came to be is fantastic. It could easily be mistaken as truth. He is kind to women and makes perfect sense. "If you are a population of one, unlike others around you and without any contact with your culture, and you are going to survive among humans, it pays to be careful: Saint-Germain has intimate contact with living humans through their blood, therefore he is deeply concerned about people. And since you are what you eat, he has learned that pleasant and fulfilling is more nourishing than terrified and angry."
It seems everything under the sun has been done to the Robin Hood story. Yarbro created a mind-blowing version. "If I knew where I get my ideas, I'd package it and sell it." Her recent novels about Robin Hood are very different than the traditional tales. "But I realized long ago—in junior high—that Sherwood Forest was a protection racket, and that probably started me on the way to Trouble in the Forest. Actually, I hope the novels provide a lot of history. I'm old-fashioned enough to do most of my research from books. I have a large research library, and, living in Berkeley as I do, I can find experts fairly easily. I buy them lunch and ask questions. I do relatively little Internet research, except for timelines and matters of specific events, such as what day did Karl-lo-Magne leave for Rome and his coronation? I don't usually go to the other country, because what is there now is not necessarily what was there in the period I am describing. I try to find descriptions of the period from the period itself, and rely on those for my settings, not only to get the place right, but to reflect the attitude of the people of the time about their environment.
"I'm character-driven, so I let the people tell me what the story is about and how it works. The characters inevitably know better than I do, and I respect that. I don't know how I do it—I just think that way."
Yarbro says she isn't sure what draws readers to her books. "I haven't the faintest idea. I do know that what I put in is not necessarily what readers get out of them. That isn't a mistake—what a reader gets out is what is in it for him or her—but I am often dumbfounded by what readers discover.
"Good writing requires a comprehension of language that is extensive enough that it makes the story so clear that the words don't get in the way. The late Richard McKenna said that the reader should fall though the words to the story, and I second that heartily. This means that the style should be readable and appropriate to the story, that the language should support the narrative and the dialogue reflect the characters as persons. I personally dislike self-conscious artsyness: fiction isn't about the writer, it is about the characters, and showing off with clever parallelisms or extended passages of philosophical editorializing by the writer I find intrusive, which means it pulls me out of the story —something no novelist should want. I work six days a week, about six hours a day at the machine. I like to be contracted three books (one year) ahead, but that isn't always possible. Deadlines make pretty good goals, I find."
Yarbro doesn't know what obstacles or challenges will pop up when she's writing until she finds them. "They are comparatively rare, since I can't get to work on a story until it's 'hatched,' which means that it is 'set' in my almost-conscious mind and the characters are strong enough to tell me where they're going, which is when I start to write. I do try to find something new or different to explore in each new work, but that is so I stay alert."
She's written novels, short-stories, chapbooks, and now e-books. She sums up the transition when switching from one to another by saying, "Market opportunity has a lot to do with it. For me, a story is a story is a story—how it is presented to the public is all after-the-fact.
"My e-books came out as e-books because I couldn't find a print publisher who wanted them. Magnificat was almost sold to a publisher back in 1992 but the publisher became part of a merger and the new upper management balked at a 240,000 word novel about the Catholic Church, so Mike Ward at Hidden Knowledge brought it out—length wasn't an issue for him, and then brought out In the Face of Death, which has a print edition from Ben Bella in Dallas, and Alas, Poor Yorick. I'm hoping that a viable electronic backlist will evolve, so that the increasingly brief shelf- and in-print life of books can be circumvented enough to make up for the shrinking initial sales opportunities.
"I think almost all writers are aware of the pressure to keep books under 110,000 words, which is a third fewer words than in the average Saint-Germain novel. This is in response to pressure from the big book chains that want to be able to put more books on the shelves, and therefore like narrower spines. And the big chains are shortening the length of time they'll keep most books on the shelves, and that impacts sales time. Of course, big-advance leads, or books with media tie-ins have different parameters, but that has been the case for a quarter-century. I don't think any working writer can like having his or her work relegated to the same commercial niche as a box of Rice Crispies, with the implication that all books are interchangeable, just like the cereal.
"I'm half-way through Saint-Germain #19, Roman Dusk; I'm working on a proposal for a suspense novel; I've got another T.C.F. Hopkins book in progress dealing with the military history of the Middle East; my agent and I are looking for a home for a fantasy trilogy-or-series; and Trystam Kith is working on another once-a-week book—I always have a book I work on once a week, one that I do for my enjoyment and satisfaction: Magnificat was a once-a-week book, as was Trouble in the Forest. This one is about a young man in Restoration England who is in love with a dangerous young woman."
Currently many SF and fantasy movies are being made. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro thinks it would be neat to have one of her books made into one.
"It's never easy to be a professional writer, but it is harder today than it was even a decade ago, in large part because publishing has become enmeshed in the corporate world, which looks for fast profits before everything else. The smaller markets have all but disappeared, and so, hard as it was to move out of the smaller markets in the past, that stepping-stone is gone now, and there are more hurdles for the beginning writer to leap before reaching publication. I get to do the work I love, because I do love writing. Publishing is crazy-making, but writing is still worth the hassle."
Yarbro doesn't think she's the right person to say what it means to be a writer. "I write because that is what I do. I've been doing it since I was four; I suspect it's something in my DNA."
A special moment: "I'm always delighted when I discover that someone I admire admires my work."
Yarbro often writes under pseudonyms. She has her reasons. "I did Trouble as Trystam Kith because I didn't want the story to be under the Saint-Germain cloud—some of his fans would probably brain me for doing such rapacious, unsympathetic vampires. The 'Quinn Fawcett' name for Bill and me was created at the insistence of the original publisher, who believed collaborations don't sell. The name was an obvious compromise. I think, since I list the books in my bibliography, that there is no secret involved."
The biggest influence on her work has been "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, then music, particularly Italian and Russian opera. No one has ever done characters or language as well as he."
Horton Hatches the Egg was one of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's favorite books as a child. So were Kalevala, Shakespeare, The Little Lost Lamb, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and Classics Myths from Ancient Times in order of exposure.
Environment and upbringing can color an author's writing. Chelsea believes this is the case wth her, too. "No doubt there are elements that are more obvious to others than to me, but the impact of culture and cosmology has always fascinated me, coming as I do from a family that was mostly Italian on my mother's side, and completely Finnish on my father's. It made for confusion in childhood, but has stood me in good stead most of my life."
The Pope is who Chelsea Quinn Yarbro would change places with for a day if she could. "There are some important issues that need to be addressed throughout the world, and it won't happen so long as the Church remains entrenched. As a lapsed Quaker, I would like the chance to shine a little light into the deliberate darkness.
"I don't look for niches; they are brought to me. In fact, I think many beginning writers hamper themselves by gentrifying their work too early in the game. I think you have to write stories—just stories — before you start doing mystery stories, or science fiction stories, or romance stories, to see where your strengths really are.
"From the time I started writing short stories until my first sale was just under three years, and I was doing about twenty-five stories a year. It took persistence, and the pay was all of $20.00. Yes, that bought more in 1968, but it still wasn't much. The first novel sold eight years later, and by then I had an agent and a foot in the door. It was still hard, but I had a buffer in the form of the agent, and that helped. My first and second novel sold in the same week, and I had a moment of panic about deadlines intermixed with the euphoria."
Words of wisdom? "I don't know about the wisdom part, but I'd recommend avoiding writers' groups when you're getting started because you will tend to write for the group, not an audience the most of whom you will never see, never meet, and who have no interest in you beyond the words you put on the page, which is as it should be."
"Publishers' pixie dust" is what Chelsea Quinn Yarbro believes sets well-known, multi-published authors apart from the unknowns, those who have published very little or nothing.
If she could leave readers with one legacy, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has this wish: "That would mean that my readers would have to get out of my work what I put into it, and with my understanding, which is a very unreasonable stance. Still, I'd like to think that those who read my work think their money was well-spent; as was the time it took to read the story."
She wouldn't change a thing if she had it to do over again. "I wouldn't know what I know now, and the ripples would lead to somewhere other than I am now, which would mean I wouldn't be doing it over...And so on in spirals and fractals."
Chelsea's official website has just been re-launched.
Latest New Books
- Dark of the Sun (Saint-Germain)
- Messages from Michael: On Nature of the Evolution of the Human Soul (Michael)
- Midnight Harvest (Saint-Germain)
- World Fantasy, Best Novel nominee (1980): The Place
- World Fantasy, Best Short story nominee (1981): Cabin 33
- World Fantasy, Best Novel nominee (1981): Ariosto: Ariosto Furioso, A Romance for an Alternate Renaissance
- World Fantasy, Best Novella nominee (1986): "Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?"
- Bram Stoker, Best Novelette nominee (1992): "Advocates"
- British Fantasy Society, Best Novel nominee (1999): Communion Blood
- World Horror Association Grand Master (2003)
- Transylvanian Society of Dracula Order of the Brasov Citadel (1997)
- Quinn Fawcett (with Bill Fawcett)
- Trystam Kith
- Terry Nelson Bonner
- T.C.F. Hopkins