Home / Interview with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Author of the Saint-Germain Series

Interview with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Author of the Saint-Germain Series

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Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has been writing professionally since 1968 and has more than eighty published books to her credit. Her work extends across multiple genres, including science-fiction, westerns, and young adult adventure. In 2003, Yarbro was named Grand Master of the World Horror Convention, and in 2006 the International Horror Guild named her a Living Legend. She has been nominated for the Edgar, World Fantasy and Bram Stoker awards, and served as the first female president of the Horror Writers Association. Her diverse skills sets include extensive musical training and a long study of the occult. She worked as a Tarot card reader and palmist during the 1970s.

Yarbro is best known for her meticulously researched works of historical horror fiction, especially the novels and collections featuring her character Count Ragoczy Saint-Germain. One of the first completely sympathetic and moral vampire protagonists to appear in literature, Saint-Germain broke popular vampire fiction away from the Dracula model and established the foundation for the modern vampire romance. Since his debut in Hotel Transylvania in 1978, Saint-Germain has appeared in more than twenty books, with Number Twenty-two, Dangerous Climate, scheduled to be released by Tor in September, 2008.

Saint-Germain’s story stretches across 4,100 years of human history and spans the globe, from the Carpathian Mountains in Etruscan times, to ancient Egypt, classical Greece, Asia Minor, imperial Rome, dynastic China, Medieval Europe, Russia, colonial America and the modern world. The Saint-Germain novels carry the reader through war, catastrophe, tragedy and loss, but consistently affirm the courage and hope that strengthens the human spirit.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has been interviewed many times, and most of “the basic questions” are answered on her website. Having recently reviewed Lost Prince and The Saint-Germain Memoirs for Blogcritics, I decided to bypass the basics and ask Yarbro some deeper questions about writing, publishing, Lost Prince and her immortal (in every sense) character, Saint-Germain.

Your 1983 novel, The Godforsaken, was reissued by Borderlands Press twenty-five years after its first publication, as Lost Prince. Why did you decide to reissue Lost Prince? Why was the title changed, and did you do any revisions to the book itself?

I'm trying to get as much of my backlist as possible back into some form of print, and used book dealers have been raising prices on The Godforsaken. As to why the title was changed, the original title of the book was Infante Perdido, but Warner didn't want that, and The Godforsaken was a compromise title, not one I was fond of. Tom and Elizabeth liked Infante Perdido, but in English, hence Lost Prince. I didn't make any revisions in the work.

Werewolves have become almost as popular as vampires since 1983, but the basic concept has changed quite a bit. Were-animals are now seen as powerful, sexy and complicated. It could be argued that the current paradigm is closer to folklore ideas, in which were-animals were seen as transforming voluntarily and forming secret cults that threatened society. What do you think of the more recent treatments of fictional werewolves?

Cults and societies of were-creatures is a trope of late eighteenth-century shudder fiction, as the Germans, who came up with it, called it. Folklore almost always depicts were-creatures as being solitaries, and transforming either through religious ritual or exterior influences. For some, the transformation is totemic, for others, it is a sign of psychological difficulties. The archetypal function of these two figures is folklorically consistent: in western traditions, the vampire is a seducer and a sociopath, the were-creature is a rapist and psychotic.

Did it ever occur to you to have Don Rolon use his power as a werewolf instead of being a victim?

No, it didn't, because it would be inconsistent with the vision of the times. In this setting such a positive figure would be inconsistent with the society and the belief-systems in place. Environment is a tertiary character, and one that affects every character and every action in the story.

Werewolves and the Spanish Inquisition aren't the most obvious combination. What inspired you to set a lycanthropy story in 16th century Spain?

You can call it a challenge from the editor who bought it, Kathy Malley. As to sixteenth century Spain, it seemed to me to be the height of religious paranoia, and the place where the werewolf would be at highest risk in both his normal and his transformational state. Secondarily, it was a homage to Giuseppe Verdi, though Verdi has no Lugantes in Don Carlo.

Did any particular fictional or movie treatments of werewolves serve as models for Don Rolon?

Just Don Carlo, which doesn't have a were-wolf in it, only a bi-polar prince and an obsessive-compulsive king. The only supernatural element is the ghost of Charles V. I make it a point when I'm writing in a particular genre not to read in it, to avoid any chance of literary cross-pollination.

Your character, Ragoczy Saint-Germain, has witnessed four thousand years of human history by now. At the conclusion of Dark of the Sun, he (like many others) genuinely believed that the world might be coming to an end. Would he be worried by the state of affairs in the twenty-first century, with the human population so high, nuclear war still quite possible and the prospect of devastating climate change? Would he be attempting to intervene in some way?

The world — which until very recently meant the heretofore normal conditions for a given region or society — is always on the brink of coming to an end, and there is always some place in the world that such a belief is very strong. Unfortunately, Christianity has latched on to the apocalyptic view of things, and ever since St. Paul, has been certain that the end is near. We have better communications now than ever before, so we're constantly aware of the perils this planet can offer. We can see instantly the results of the earthquake in China, the starvation in Africa, the disease in India, the warfare everywhere, and that brings home the certainty that if this goes on… Personally, I am of the opinion that overpopulation is the single most basic problem facing us as a species, and I am often shocked that so many people reject the notion of reducing our numbers.

That said, Saint-Germain would probably not get actively involved in any of the various movements afoot; he tends to do his work up close and personal, and to approach his science in the same way, working toward a specific goal on his own. He learned a long time ago that mass movements inevitably lead to trouble politically, and outsiders — and he is the ultimate outsider — are usually the first to be thrown to the wolves.

In a number of the novels, Saint-Germain gains the trust of rulers and kings and tries to steer them toward more humanitarian choices. Would he be attempting to form relationships with world leaders now to advise them and influence their decisions? How would you envision him doing that?

I wouldn't.

In her 2005 interview with you, Linda Suzane stated, "There aren't too many vampires in Saint-Germain's world, only those who he has created, for we learn he is the last of his breed." But there have certainly been other vampires from time to time in the stories. Csimenae's tribe in Come Twilight, Mr. Lorpicar in "Cabin 33," and James Tree in "Renewal" are a few of them. Why doesn't Saint-Germain encounter more of these vampires?

Lorpicar is a descendant of Csimenae's; James became a vampire through Madelaine de Montalia. Generally, Saint-Germain avoids the company of other vampires, because one vampire can function fairly safely, but more of them increases the chance of being noticed by the living around them, and that leads to unpleasant consequences for the vampire.

I've wanted to know this since 1983: just how did Mr. Lorpicar become a vampire?

Lorpicar is a Sicilian name; Csimenae got to him on a walk trip.

You describe yourself as a "skeptical occultist" and you've been a Tarot card reader and a palmist. But the Count seems to be an agnostic about mysticism and the supernatural. Would Saint-Germain be "an occultist" or is his outlook completely rational and scientific?

He's an occultist. So was Isaac Newton. And what constitutes rational and scientific changes over time, both in expression and desirability. Saint-Germain, like Newton, is an empiricist. Modern empiricism is a product of the Age of Enlightenment; classical empiricism was the hallmark of Imperial Rome. Most times and most cultures were not so relentlessly left-brain as modern technologically sophisticated societies are, and their range of rationality was more broadly defined than what is presently accepted.

With all the loss that Saint-Germain has endured, does he believe in any kind of afterlife or non-material reality? What does he think happens after "the True Death?"

He thinks he'll be dead. For Saint-Germain, who died about 4,100 years ago, this is the afterlife.

As the Saint-Germain series has progressed, it's seemed to me that the Count has become more and more constrained by his own principles. Do you ever sometimes feel that you've "written him into a corner" and limited his reactions to situations? Will Saint-Germain ever "break out" again like he did in Tempting Fate?

You ask as if I am putting constraints upon him: I can only write when my characters come alive and tell me who they are and how they act. I don't tell Saint-Germain what to do; I choose the setting and do the research and turn him loose in his environment; he does what he does and I write it down. That's true of all my characters. I don't know if he'll ever have another episode like the one in Tempting Fate. He surprised me then and he can still surprise me now. Minor characters are as autonomous as the main ones; if they aren't real for me, they haven't a prayer of being real for a reader. That's the most enjoyable part of writing, that sense of the characters becoming real.

In the small publishing field, there are many gloomy predictions made about the decrease in reading and book sales. Do you think that people are really less interested in written fiction, as pessimists say, or do you think people still love to be told a good story as much as ever?

I think publishing as an industry has got itself away from its practices that have worked for over two centuries, and tried to follow a model based on new cars and breakfast cereal, and almost all writers are paying the price. But storytelling is still an appreciated art form, and people like to read, albeit in changing forms. Electronic publishing is offering all manner of ways to read, and in time that will only increase.

Eight years ago, when Magnificat was published as an e-book, you made some very prescient statements. You told Publisher's Weekly, "Big change will happen when someone comes up with the equivalent of the Walkman–the Bookman. The day may come when a full-service bookstore will have books on display and you can choose the format: disk, printed and bound, audio, etc., or you bring in your Bookman and they go "twang" and you're all set up." Now we have the Amazon Kindle, and "book kiosks" that print and bind books for the customer in minutes. As the owner of a new small press, I am keenly aware that books now have to be packaged in many formats–audiobook, podcast, e-books that can be read on iPods and cell phones, it's a whole new world. What new trends do you think have potential for authors to get their stories to the eyes and ears of their audience?

I hope the present downturn in the economy doesn't slow the expansion of the electronic marketplace, because this clearly is the place where the developments are happening. For the time being, though, print is still the place where writers get serious notice, and that may be the case for another five to ten years, depending on how the technology evolves. The problem I've seen with beginning writers publishing directly online is that they don't go through the editorial process, which forces the writer to see his or her work through external eyes–a prelude to a readership. This includes dealing with the realities of grammar, some of which is chaotic in online works.

Pat LoBrutto, my favorite editor, early on in my career sent me a list of possible revisions on the book I had just turned in, one of which was truly invaluable to me: he said that on a particular page, it was difficult to follow the action because the dialogue was oblique, and he suggested that if I wanted it more direct, I should clarify it, and if I was trying to obfuscate, I might want to increase the obfuscation. He didn't tell me which to do, but he gave me the advantage of other eyes. Since then, I have made it a practice at the conclusion of a book, to provide copies to three recreational readers who don't know me (my friends find them for me) and aren't familiar with my work, with instructions not to tell me what they like or dislike about the book, but where it isn't clear. I never use a recreational reader more than twice, and I try to find one musician among the three–musicians always know when the pacing is off.

If one reader is uncertain about a section of the book, I'll have a look at it, but may not change anything. If two share similar concerns, then I have a go at making it clearer, and if all three have the same problem, I will rework the section in question. These are crucial processes in making a work genuinely accessible, and with the current state of electronic publishing, it is a step that is all too often overlooked, and that results in a great deal of bad writing showing up on the Internet. Over time, if electronic publishing is to gain serious respect as a publishing venue, it will have to bite the bullet and start improving its product. At least, that's my opinion in 2008.

Why aren't your own novels available in more formats, after you broke ground in 2000 with Magnificat? What formats might you be interested in experimenting with?

Hidden-knowledge.com has three of my books in e-form, two of which are only available in that format. Some of my print publishers are starting to offer my books in electronic form. As to other formats, since this is how I make my living, I'm interested in whatever comes along that has some reliable method of accounting.

You are known to have strong objections to fanfic, which you have described as stealing ideas, "copyright infringement, misappropriation, and a federal crime." While I totally agree, the legal definition of "copyright" is arbitrary.

Actually, no, it's not; it is defined in federal statutes for the purpose of reserving the claim on intellectual property to its creator.

Derivative fiction is derivative fiction whether the source is "public domain" or not. When I wrote the submission guidelines for my small press, I stated that I would only consider original work. I instantly alienated about half of my friends because they are writing, and publishing, stories based on Dracula and Phantom of the Opera. Fanfic writing, and publishing it online, has become a hugely popular recreational activity. Amateur fanfic writers feel that they're doing nothing wrong, and they even get profiled by reporters.

It is still theft, and actionable if the creator decides to act.

How can fanfic writers learn to respect intellectual property when they see fine authors like P.N. Elrod, Fred Saberhagen and Jeanne Kalodogris publishing derivative Dracula spin-offs, and authors such as Christopher Golden writing tie-in novels based on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer?"

Tie-ins are not copyright infringement because they are done with the license of the copyright holder. Dracula is a special case, due to Florence Stoker's actions after Bram's death. Had she not chosen the course of action she did, anyone using Dracula today as a character would have to have the written permission from, and appropriate acknowledgement and payment to Stoker's heirs, because although the novel Dracula is in public domain and may be reprinted as written without permission, the characters remains the property of the heirs as long as there are heirs to claim them. When Bill Fawcett and I did the Mycroft Holmes mysteries for Tor, we had the permission of the Doyle estate, with appropriate acknowledgment and payment to Dame Jean Doyle. The alternative would have been a lawsuit for infringement.

Should we set much higher standards for originality and respecting the integrity of all existing work?

Absolutely. On those unhappy occasion when a fan sends me his or her suggestion for a Saint-Germain story, I always tell them that now I can't use that period in that context ever, since the claim could be made that the idea was not original with me.

I have not met a writer who permitted derivative fiction who didn't in time have significant difficulties because of it.

Do the fanfic writers have a point when they argue that even Shakespeare's plays are derivative?

And there were no copyright laws in Elizabethan England.

Where do we draw the line, and how can we encourage young authors to use their own imaginations?

I wish I knew.

Cory Doctorow is one of a group of writers who argue that fiction should be "open source," and even given away wholly free of charge to readers. What is your response to this idea?

In this culture, we value what we pay for, and that which is free is also generally perceived as worthless. There was a time when a storyteller would be given lodging and food for telling stories for nothing (although tips were always a possibility), but that was in a largely barter economy. Today, like it or not, we use money to show value, and this is true for telling stories, too. I, like all writers, have bills to pay, and AT&T won't take a novelette for my DSL bill. My grocery store doesn't accept novellas for a week's worth of food. Therefore, as a full-time professional who is self-supporting, a job I've had for forty years, I'm not in a position to give my work away gratis, and I think it unreasonable to expect me to do so.

Do you think that some "free samples" (first chapters posted online, Amazon's "Search Inside This Book" feature, and so on) help authors make more sales, or hurt them?

I haven't seen enough information on buying patterns to have an opinion.

You've written fiction in a number of genres, including science-fiction, fantasy, horror and Westerns. When you get a chance to read for enjoyment, what kinds of fiction do you like reading the most?

Most of the time I read mysteries for fun. The day I sell another mystery novel is the day I set mysteries aside. I recently reread Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness, and loved it as much as ever. I've also been rereading Saki's short stories.

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About Vyrdolak

Inanna Arthen (Vyrdolak) is an artist, speaker and author of The Vampires of New England Series (http://vampiresofnewengland.com): Mortal Touch (2007), The Longer the Fall (2010), and All the Shadows of the Rainbow (2013). Book 4 is currently in progress. Inanna is a lifelong scholar of vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and nonfiction. She is a member of Broad Universe, New England Horror Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE). She holds an M.Div degree from Harvard and is an outspoken advocate for the Pagan and LGBT communities. She is minister of the Unitarian-Unitarian Church of Winchendon, MA.