Wednesday 29 February 2012

Writing the (un)dead by Anne Rooney

Anne Rooney by Luki Sumner, House of Sharps
Our guest author for February is special in a new way. Anne Rooney has been helping behind the scenes since we started this blog last July. While not listed as one of us, she has performed the valuable role of Technical Support for the whole group, teaching us much and resolving our mistakes and muddles. And believe me, many of us were on a steep learning curve when we started!

So we were delighted to discover that, while not technically a historical novelist, Anne has been introducing some historical characters into her latest series - and a bizarre and fascinating mix they are!

About Anne:

Anne Rooney writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adult non-fiction on a bizarre range of topics. She has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow for several years, and blogs as Stroppy Author. Anne lives in Cambridge with one-and-a-half daughters, a pig, two ferrets, a population of chickens that varies according to the appetite of the fox, a tortoise and possibly a turtle.

Over to Anne:

Thank you, History Girls, for inviting me to guest here. I'm not a real History Girl - I just lurk behind the scenes, bullying the electrons when things go wrong in a digital kind of way.

Although I haven't published a historical novel, I've dragged a few historical characters  into the twenty-first century to feature in my forthcoming vampire series (stifle that yawn, please; these are a very different kind of vampire).

A historical novelist writing about a real figure does a lot of research into the person's real life and times. But what if you want your historical figures still to be alive? You don't need to know just what they were like hundreds of years ago - you need to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century and look at what they would be like now. It's all very well to know how Samuel Pepys or Henry VII behaved then, but how would they be after they'd witnessed the First World War and the Space Race?

Take a step back. Vampires live a long time. Conventionally, they live forever. Mine don't exactly live forever, but because vampirism is a disease that eradicates telomere* shortening, they live for at least ten times as long as non-vampires. Diseases strike at random, so although many vampires are just routine folk, some are not. Amongst my vampire coterie I have [spoiler alert] Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, Louis Pasteur, Elvis Presley and Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper - well, I could do what I liked with him because no one knows who he was. But the others can't be made up.

Anton Raphael Mengs, self-portrait
That's not strictly true. I made up the character Ignace before I decided he was previously known as Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. I'd written the first book in the series and named the principal vampire Ignace. Then I was looking up Guillotin to see if he would fit into the second book, set in Paris, and discovered his second name was Ignace and I had sort of used him already. But I'd use the picture on the right while writing him. On the basis of this portrait, and not any information about the man (it's actually Anton Raphael Mengs, a painter born in Germany in 1728), I'd written a character who was slick, debonair, a bit of a rake, and - incidentally - the chief vampire of the western world. But by happy coincidence Ignace shared a name with Guillotin, and that's who he became.

Joseph Ignace-Guillotin
The task then became not to recreate Guillotin as he would have been in the late eighteenth century, but to develop him as he would be now, in 2012, if he were still alive. So we have a man who invented the guillotine and is a vampire. Why did he invent it (or refine it, actually, though he's generally credited with its invention)? The usual reason given is that he did it to make execution less painful. Why did he care? He needs a motivation. And here it is, all laid out ready in real history...

The mother of Marie Antoinette was Maria-Theresa of Austria. In 1755, Maria-Theresa sent her private physician, Gerard van Swieten, to investigate vampirism in Moravia. He (being a vampire, in my world) reported back that vampirism is a load of b******. So MT outlawed all those vampire-killing tactics people were using. This naturally led to a surge in the number of vampires, and something had to be done. That something was the French Revolution. (And you thought it was all about oppressed peasants and a broken system? LOL! That's what they wanted you to think!)

Guillotin's eyes and nose on Mengs
Because all his aristocratic vampire friends were being killed in rather unpleasant ways and he couldn't stop them dying, Guillotin invented (refined) a way of killing them that would be relatively painless - the guillotine. (Because we all know vampires can be beheaded, staked or burnt.) Indeed, three of the six articles he presented to the National Assembly serve the purposes of vampire dynasties extremely well:
  • Article 4: No one shall reproach a citizen with any punishment imposed on one of his relatives. Such offenders shall be publicly reprimanded by a judge. [So you can't persecute the relatives of a vampire, assuming they are vampires, too - which they probably are]
  • Article 5: The condemned person's property shall not be confiscated. [Vampires have built up enormous wealth over their centuries-long lives; vampire families are not about to hand it over to the state]
  • Article 6: At the request of the family, the corpse of the condemned man shall be returned to them for burial and no reference to the nature of death shall be registered [goes without staking, and if they were not beheaded, it might be possible to fix them. And we don't want doctors looking too closely]

What can be extracted from his story to draw Guillotin as he would be now, if he'd continued to live? Well, he took credit for inventing something he only appropriated and improved, so that suggests a certain degree of self-importance, selfishness, opportunism, even arrogance. He has turned his not-inconsiderable intellect to the task of working out how to kill people with minimum pain. Though the aim is compassionate, the task is gruesome. Perhaps it takes a certain amount of detachment to tackle this problem? Perhaps it takes so much detachment that this character is rather lacking in empathy. And from this, I developed Ignace as he is now, two hundred years later.

Ignace is a psychopath. Using Simon Baron-Cohen's Zero Degrees of Empathy as a handbook to  psychopathy, I made him type zero-positive: someone whose psychopathy is not deliberately turned to harm, and often produces flashes of inventive, scientific or mathematical genius. The interest in solving the logical problem of how to kill people with minimal pain that he showed in the 18th century has become, in the 21st century, an obsession with discovering the scientific nature of vampirism. He runs a research centre in Russia; he is ruthless and some of his methods are less than ethical. But - like many psychopaths - he is superficially charming and sexually attractive. He seduces the Jack Wills model vampire when she is newly-turned vulnerable (and 350 years his junior). He excuses the awful things he does (such as buying slaves from the flesh markets of south-east Asia for his experiments) with a cool logic. He wrong-foots his wife into killing her lover to prove a point. And he keeps a very high profile prisoner in his castle for 800 years. (The prisoner's identity will be revealed in series 2, but HG readers will guess from the clues.)

So much for Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur is also a vampire, working in Ignace's research centre near Yakutsk. In life, Pasteur was a passionate scientist. He was so keen to find a vaccine to protect people against rabies that he sucked the saliva from the mouths of infected dogs with a pipette. I took this passion, and his portrait (right), and made a man who is jovial, compassionate, has a sense of humour and is fiercely intelligent. He is still dedicated to science, but he's a realist. He's found that he can't prove vampirism is a virus, and is biding his time, doing pointless experiments so that Ignace continues to fund his research while he hopes for inspiration or luck. Luck comes in the form of a young Iraqi refugee and Pasteur instantly recognises the boy's brilliance. Pasteur doesn't look very jovial in this photograph, but of course people didn't smile for photos in the 19th century.

Dmitri Ivanovsky

Another 19th century scientist I've recruited is Dmitri Ivanovsky, the Russian biologist who first identified viruses. The Dutch scientist Beijerinck is usually credited with the discovery of viruses - but he did eventually concede Ivanovsky's prior claim. So I made Ivanovsky a modest man who is kind and helpful, unassuming and self-effacing. He's also rather fragile - as he looks in this photo. Maybe he wasn't like that - maybe he was very cross that Beijerinck got the credit first off, and should have been motivated by bitterness. But I don't read Russian, and there don't seem to be any accounts of Ivanovsky's character in languages I do read, so I reckon he's fair game. He and Pasteur are foils to Ignace's ruthlessness.

There's nothing much historical to say about Jack the Ripper except what we can deduce from his crimes. I've made him a zero-negative psychopath following Baron-Cohen again, as that seems fairly consistent with what he did. My editor wanted him to be a ridiculous,  figure - more a John Christie - but that didn't seem in keeping with the accounts of his crimes. So he's tall, strong, rather handsome and very frightening. He's also calculating and ambitious. There will be more of him in the second series. He started as a minor character, but - appropriately - has claimed a larger part and won't be pushed away. I'm not brave enough to mess with him.

Elvis Presley
How would Elvis Presley be if he were alive now? For one thing, he works in a chip shop (in Eastbourne). We know that because Kirsty McColl said so ('There's a guy works down the chip shop swears he's Elvis'). He's still a talented musician; overweight, with a tacky hairstyle and too much hair dye. Elvis has only been a vampire since the 1970s, so there was no need to consider how his character would have matured and crystallised over centuries. But he's still dealing with his fate.

Elvis is very resentful of Ignace, who insisted he disappear with a fake death because an Elvis who didn't age or die would be a serious embarrassment. (Vampires who refuse to disappear with a fake death have to be disposed of. J.F. Kennedy is a prime example of this sort of stroppy vampire, addicted to success.)

I don't think there's anything quite comparable to keeping historical figures alive and functioning until the present. It's not like a time-slip or having someone wake from a coma, as they have experienced all the intervening years. There's no surprise at modern technology, no ignorance of the social and political scene. (Indeed, the vampires have all the time in the world, so they're rather good at keeping up with developments.) Instead it's a question of intensifying the normal maturing of characters - finding the key traits of a person and distilling them far beyond what would happen over a normal lifespan. It's a very unique kind of challenge - and thrilling. I think I'll be trawling history for people to drag out of the grave for a long time. Just off to polish my spade...

* telomere = a bit of spare chromosome at the end each chromosome. It doesn't code for anything useful, but each time a cell divides and the chromosomes reproduce, a bit is lost from the end of the chromosome. For most of our lives, it's a bit of useless telomere that's lost, but eventually the telomere is all gone and the useful part of the chromosome starts to be eroded. That's why old people go wrong easily - their chromosomes are getting cut off.

The first six Vampire Dawn titles are published in March 2012 by Ransom Publishing: Die Now or Live Forever; Drop Dead, Gorgeous; Life Sucks; Every Drop of Your Blood; Dead on Arrival; In Cold Blood. They are short, intended for readers who can't tackle a full-length novel. (Age 12+)

Follow Anne Rooney on Facebook or twitter: @annerooney. Follow the vampires, if you dare, on Facebook or twitter: @vampiredawn.
Websites: Anne Rooney; Vampire Dawn

February competition

Two History Girls have new books out now and we have some to offer as prizes.

To win one of three copies of Marie-Louise Jensen's The Girl in the Mask, answer this question:

"If you were a notorious 18th Century highwayman (or woman in disguise), what alias would you give yourself?"

To win one one five hardbacks of Katherine Roberts' Sword of Light, try this one:

"If Lord Avallach gave you one of his fairy horses, what would you name it?"

Leave your answers in Comments below, mixed in with comments on Anne Rooney's blogpost.

Closing date 7th March.As usual, only UK entrants. 


adele said...

Found this really fascinating and by a SPOOKY coincidence, Guillotin is name-checked in my post of the 7th this space, as they say!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

I'm so in awe of you IT skills and so grateful for the help you give us History Girls. Now I find you're morphing historical figures into 2012. Now that's scary!

Unknown said...

Hi! I'm SO excited about this one, because these are both books I've wanted to read for ages!
"If you were a notorious 18th Century highwayman (or woman in disguise), what alias would you give yourself?"
I love this question! The alias I would give myself would be; Night Lock , because I would lock my identity and who I really was to myself, so that nobody would find out my true identity, and would hide my secret identity and secrets between myself, and the night I rode away in. There is also a deadly plant called Night Lock, which is not to be played with and is very dangerous - like myself, as I ride away, my secrets locked, in the dead of night, with just my secrets for company.

"If Lord Avallach gave you one of his fairy horses, what would you name it?"
This question's really cool!
I would call the fairy horse Diamond, because it would be as enchanting, beautiful and rare as a diamond - it would be sought after, precious and not many people could get their hands on it!

madwippitt said...

oooer, this is all a bit scary. All these people you wouldn't think of as being vampires. The notion of Elvis as one made me smile - what a great idea!

As far as fairy horses go, I think I woulfd have to be very boring and obvious and go with Ariel.

For a highwaywoman, probably 'Sweet Kate' as a dual reference to being a woman and my luscious flaxen yellow locks ... (I think Sir John tradescant is about the right time poeriod. See, I'm useless at names AND history!)

Chloe S. said...

"If you were a notorious 18th Century highwayman (or woman in disguise), what alias would you give yourself?"

The Black Diamond - Because I would most probably be famous because of my very dark clothes but very bright accessories. Ha!

"If Lord Avallach gave you one of his fairy horses, what would you name it?"

I'd probably name it Forma. I know its a strange name but its Latin for beauty and I think it sounds marvellous and would therefore be absolutely perfect for my majestic stead!

Lorelei Bell said...

New comer to this site. Loved this post, having published two vampire novels myself. I found it extremely interesting and shows what a writer must do when faced with a personality who has lived for centuries.

Loved the bit on Elvis.

This was really fun to read and I'm following both The History Girls and Anne... I'm going to stalk you guys from now on--just a warning LOL!