This may be a man’s world, but the horror genre wouldn’t be the same without Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Perhaps best known for her Saint-Germain Cycle, an epic 25-book saga showcasing immortal hero Le Comte de Saint-Germain, Yarbro is a literary force. And not just because of her vampiric contributions.
As one of only two women to ever be named Grand Master of the World Horror Convention and as the first female Living Legend named by the International Horror Guild, Yarbro has secured herself as a powerful voice in a genre traditionally dominated by men. And now she’s got us under her glamour, too.
Lucky for us, she was willing to take a break from creating some of today’s most dynamic tales to share with us her writing process, who those two furry friends are on her Facebook page, and what it means as a woman to thrive in a boys’-club genre. Plus, she shares a truly spine-tingling ghost story. So without further ado, readers, please meet Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.
What attracts you to the horror genre?
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve liked folklore and scary tales; I suppose it comes from my personal world view: A great many people think of the world as essentially rational with occasional outcroppings of irrationality; I tend to see the world as vastly irrational covered with a thin veneer of rationality, which I suspect inclined me to horror from the beginning.
When writing about your characters, you say you “go where they go.” Tell us more.
Writers tend to be either character-driven or plot-driven. I belong to the former group. To me, stories are about what happens to the people—and they needn’t be human—in them. When I am writing about actual historical persons, I learn as much about them as I can and then try to get a handle on what they were like. When I am inventing people, they often come to me as whole cloth. I’ve had characters sit in my head for years without stories attached to them. Tony in Hyacinths was one such character, and so was Jason Everard Nicholas Russell, the hero in my Westerns.
Where does the idea for a new character come from? History, film, art, Goya?
All of those and more. Almost everything is fuel for the story fire. If I’m developing a story, I usually have a character or two already, and I start to see what’s going on with them and go from there. For example, I have a kid who is unhappy setting up in my imagination, so who around him is making him unhappy, and why? Is it the intention of those around him to make him unhappy, or are other circumstances contributing to his/their unhappiness, and if so, what is it?
To practice developing characters, I trained myself more than 50 years ago to watch people when I’m in a line almost anywhere, trying to decide why he/she/they are there, what they do during the day, how they live, what kind of relationships they have, and so on. I have no idea if I’m right about the people I’m watching, but that is not the point of the exercise, which is to create a believable, coherent, cohesive character.
You write a lot of historical horror. What makes the past so alluring?
History fascinates me. That’s the short answer.
The long answer is that it is filled with persons and events whose actions echo down to us directly, indirectly, and culturally, and impact what we are today. I find how that happened tremendously engaging, particularly since there is always the dichotomy that they-are-just-like-us/not-at-all-like-us to flavor any historical story. As to horror — history is full of it. You don’t have to look far to find a horrendous period in which people are being dreadful to one another; the roots of those ghastly events, and the aftermath, in terms of storytelling, are very fertile ground in every sense of the word.
What is it about vampires that piques your interest?
Vampires are wonderfully ambiguous figures: Neither truly alive nor truly dead, they have great power but tremendous weakness, they are the ultimate outsider but wholly dependent on humanity for their survival, and they are as close to universal as any archetype can be. So far as it can be determined, there is not now, nor ever has there been a culture that did not have a folkloric figure who died improperly and maintained his/her apparent life by drawing on the living one way or another. Not all vampires drink blood, although that is certainly the preferred substance; some drink spinal fluid, some drink bodily warmth, some consume their victims’ feces, some soak up energy, and so forth. In most folklore, incidentally, vampires are solo hunters for the most part — they don’t go around in packs — which increases their need to interact with humans.
Tell us about your writing style. We hear you’re a one-draft writer.
What I write is about 85 percent first draft. I find the story is never so clear as it is at the first go-through, and I scramble to get as much of it on the page at that first go-through. After the first draft, I begin to lose the sharp focus, so even editorially requested revisions can be problematic.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I have a number of writing routines but few rituals. I sit down to work around 8 a.m. most mornings, take care of e-mail and other business, then open up my current project file. I knock off at noon for lunch. I watch the news, sometimes run errands, and get back to work between 2 and 3, go through to 5 p.m.; toward the end of a book, I often go back to work around 8 or 9 and work until 11 or so.
I find I usually do my best work when there is classical music playing, and I can see something green outside my window. Just now, there is a stretch of open land just beyond my side garden, out the window on my right, and a flock of wild turkeys often comes parading through it. The cats (strictly indoors) love to watch them with slaughter on their minds.
As one of only two women to ever be named Grand Master of the World Horror Convention, what are your thoughts on today’s status of female writers in the genre?
The problem facing all female writers in any genre whatsoever, including the genres of blockbuster and literary, is to be taken seriously as a professional, not only by male colleagues, but some females as well. Being able to develop a serious literary reputation as a fictionalist is difficult at the best of times for anyone, but to do so in generic contexts is doubly so for women. I don’t say this in a “woe is me” way, but of an acknowledgment of the reality of making a career in this business. I have often said that I love writing, but I hate publishing, which is a bit of an overstatement about publishing. But in my experience, writing is the enjoyable part, and publishing is the hard work, for the reasons mentioned above.
What are your thoughts on being named the first female Living Legend by the International Horror Guild?
It’s lovely to get awards, particularly endurance awards, which both the Grand Master and the Living Legend awards are—my ego loves it. But I do understand that awards are flattering forms of thank you and that having them does not magically improve the work that earned them. The words are still the words that were on the page all along, and that, at the end of the day, is what counts. Incidentally, at one time, I held the record for World Fantasy Award nominations without ever having won one, which is certainly a dubious achievement.
Do you think there’s a notable difference or a trend you can spot when reading horror written by a male as opposed to horror written by a female?
Often the author’s name is a dead give-away, but yes, often there is a different tone in the presentation of characters in stories by men than there is in stories by women. One of the most prevalent tells for men is the small number of female characters and the roles they play in stories by men. It’s almost traditional in adventure stories—genre unimportant—by men to have a token woman, usually a kind of female Boy Scout, who is so tough that she can be mistaken by a male until (as usually happens) somebody kills her or she wins the love of the hero as a reward for her being able to (almost) keep up with him.
There are rare exceptions of men writing romance novels, a field generally relegated to women. One of them was my old friend, the late Charles L. Grant. Charlie wrote romances under the name of Felicia Andrews, and a romance I did pseudonymously is dedicated to Felicia Andrews—takes one to know one.
Count Saint-Germain stars in much of your work. Tell about what draws you to him.
The historical man interested me, and when I decided to do as positive a vampire as I could come up with, I had intended to use him as a major secondary character in the book. But since the real man claimed to be 4,000 years old and also claimed that he kept his youthfulness by drinking the Elixir of Life (and the real man was an alchemist, among many other things), I soon realized the character I was looking for was that man himself. The descriptions of him in the books—five foot six, stocky, with unusual dark-blue eyes with light-blue striations—are the descriptions of the real man. I’m working on the 28th book in the Saint-Germain Cycle, Orphans of Memory. In addition to that, I have finished up the first of what I hope will be a new series — Haunting Investigation, a Chesterton Holte: gentleman haunt mystery, and am about half through book #2, Living Spectres.
What do you feel is the best representation of vampires on either the big or the small screen? And how so?
I very much enjoyed Buffy, but Angel disappointed me in that it never seemed to know quite what it was. I also like The Fearless Vampire Killers, an affectionate satire on vampire films. But I don’t go to vampire films or read vampire books when I am working on a vampire story, so I have comparatively little to choose from. Christopher Lee remains my favorite Dracula so far, with Jack Palance coming in a strong second.
According to your Facebook page, you have a feline friend.
Actually, I have two: Crumpet and Butterscotch. They’re sister and brother, 11 years old. I’ve had them since they were 9 weeks old. Crumpet is the most earnest cat I have ever had: She’s a classic calico, black, white, and russet; she weighs about 12 pounds and likes to sleep on the pillow next to mine. Butterscotch is a tabby, his color is the color of—surprise!—butterscotch, with white paws and underside. Larger than his sister, he weighs in at 19 pounds. He’s a gregarious fellow who often comes to sit on my desk between me and the screen and then to gaze seraphically off into the distance. He’s more talkative than she is.
If we were going to recommend the CQY starter kit to a friend, which novels should she start with?
Oh, dear. I am probably the last person you should ask about that. For one thing, it takes me almost a decade to have an assessment on any work I have done, which means that it is hard to mention anything recent. I will admit I have a degree of special fondness for False Dawn, Ariosto, A Mortal Glamour, Magnificat, Alas, Poor Yorick, and The Law in Charity, all older titles.
The Saint-Germain Cycle is probably what I’m best known for, and since it is such a large stack of titles, I’d be hard-pressed to know which is preferable to any other. Some of my readers are fond of the four Mycroft Holmes books I did with Bill Fawcett as Quinn Fawcett; I’m not keen on doing derivative fiction, but these seem to have turned out fairly well.
Advice for aspiring female horror writers?
It’s the same for men or women: Don’t restrict yourself to a single genre, think of yourself as a writer, and let the story choose the genre it is to be sold in. Also, never, never, never imitate; imitation means that you must always be second best. Resist the urge to rewrite; if you can’t bring it together in three drafts, you are probably trying to make it perfect, which it can never be, since the act of writing a story changes your perception of it as you do it. There will always be a phrase that might be improved or a description that needs a little trimming, but no reader will recognize them, because the only person in the world who has the full, complete, and perfect story is you, and it’s only in your head. Repeated rewrites tend to leach the life out of the story, and that is far more deadly than a few awkward sentences. Do your best job, and when the characters shut up and leave, write The End and send it off to earn its keep.
For women writers in particular, learn to behave like a professional and keep the line, or you will be seen as a hobbyist and will be more easily dismissed than if you present yourself in the most professional light you can manage.
And, lastly, everyone has a ghost story they like to tell. What’s yours?
When I first visited England in October of 1967, I went with a friend to take the tour of Warwick Castle. About halfway through the tour, I went on ahead of most of the group—there was a loud Texan among the visitors, who constantly demanded to know the age and the price of many items—into a room that had a bit of the Earls’ art collection. I’d been looking around for about five minutes when a middle-aged man in Tudor clothes came in and made his way around the room, paying no attention to me. When the rest of the tour caught up to me, I asked the docent if all the servants in the public part of the castle were dressed in period clothes. The docent—an older woman with a very calm demeanor—asked, “Exactly what did you see?” I described the man to her, and she smiled and said, “That would be the ghost.” I was delighted.
Photos: (feature) Courtesy of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; Christina Rose Howker / Flickr; The UK Peter Cushing Appreciation Society; Courtesy of Open Road Media