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Interview with Robert Masello, Author of Blood and Ice, Bestiary, and Vigil

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Robert Masello is an award-winning journalist and television writer, and the author of the bestsellers Bestiary, Vigil, and the recently-released Blood and Ice. He was kind enough to take time to chat with us about his writing, and his latest novel.

How would you describe Blood and Ice to a reader who is unfamiliar with your work?

It’s not an easy book to describe (which may be one reason, of many, I don’t have a movie sale!). I’d say it’s a big, supernatural thriller that spans three centuries, and five continents. It’s really two stories – one set in Victorian England and the Crimea, and the other in the present-day Antarctic. Eventually, the two stories come together, and we can see that they’re both really about the search for love, against impossible odds.

Would you agree that Blood and Ice is the “least dark” of your novels? Why or why not?

The funny thing is, I’m really not a dark guy at all, except when I write. Then I do go to a dark place, and I don’t know why. (Perhaps if I saw a therapist…) On some level, I guess I’m obsessed with questions of mortality, the meaning of life, etc., and I’m trying to work them out through these stories. To be honest, I keep trying to write something light and amusing. I do sort of manage it in my nonfiction books, like Robert’s Rules of Writing, but I can’t seem to get the hang of it in fiction.

Unlike many thrillers, there isn’t truly a “bad guy” in Blood and Ice. Did you find it challenging to craft your plot in this way?

Yes, and I wish to hell I could come up with more straightforward “bad guys” and simpler, more streamlined plots. But I tend to see things in shades of gray, and although a lot of times I start out writing a villain, over time I start to see him or her as a more complex creature and develop a kind of fondness.

I’m fascinated that you were able to take a setting that’s been done to death in the thriller genre (the Antarctic) and a heavily saturated genre (the vampire novel) and combine them into a positively original tale. How did you dream up that combination?

“Dream up” is a good way of putting it, because I am incapable of outlining or thinking through anything too much in advance. I have fragments, scenes, ideas, and gradually they coalesce. I had that idea for the opening, where the Victorian couple is bound and thrown over board, and I also knew I wanted to write something about the Charge of the Light Brigade. Somehow, that got coupled with this other notion I’d had about an Antarctic adventure, like the Howard Hawks’ movie of The Thing, that had made a big impression on me when I was a kid. Before you know it, I had this big soup on my hands that, frankly, I thought could never be sold. Fortunately, my agent thought otherwise.

You convey the perils of the Antarctic in a very believable way. Have you visited there?

Although I have never been to the Arctic or the Antarctic, I challenge anyone to come up with a colder place than the shore of Lake Michigan, where I grew up.   Waiting on the corner in Evanston, Illinois, for the school bus to arrive, you could lose fingers and toes and never even know it.  If kids knew there was a better way to live — if they knew there was a Florida or an L.A. — they'd hitchhike out at their first opportunity. Once, when I was in Finland, standing on a windy plain, a local reporter asked me if I'd e ver felt anything so cold, and I had to explain about the Hawk — the wind off Lake Michigan and how it mocked even the downiest of down coats.

On a more serious and specific note, for Blood and Ice I read up on the effects of the sub-zero temperatures and the constant sunlight on the men and women who work in Antarctica.  Apparently, it's quite easy to lose track of time altogether — not only the day of the week, but whether it's day or night.  People who go completely off-schedule can develop something called “the Big Eye,” wandering around like zombies with big, glassy eyes, untethered from any normal quotidian rhythm. I thought it was also important to convey the sheer deadliness of the terrain.  The South Pole is a place where, if you don't keep your wits about you, you can disappear or die anytime.  There are deep crevasses hidden by fragile bridges of snow, and there are blinding snowstorms that can make your tent — even if it's only three feet away — utterly invisible.  If you should get wet, body parts can freeze solid in seconds; the wind can get so cold and harsh that if you keep your mouth open, your teeth can crack. But I'm one of those armchair travelers — I love to watch movies and read books about brave people enduring incredible hardships — Ernest Shackleton, Edmund Hillary, Johnny Knoxville.  Personally, I have no sense of direction — I get lost on the way to my office (and it's just upstairs) — and my physical stamina allows me to make, and keep, dinner reservations, but not much more.

What made you decide to write parallel story lines?

Apart from necessity, I have no idea what drew me to that parallel story structure.  Nor do I know how I came to yoke a Crimean War romance to a present-day Antarctic adventure.  Stories, such as they are, build up in my mind incrementally — I had always wanted to write about the Victorian era, and specifically the Charge of the Light Brigade (which occurs as a centerpiece of sorts in the book), and at the same time I had this notion of a present-day polar adventure — revolving around a pair of frozen bodies found in the Antarctic ice — and gradually, the two ideas came together.  But the only reasonable way to keep up the tension, and keep both stories in play, was to go back and forth between them, and I must admit, I rather enjoyed writing it that way.  When one story line got stuck, I could go right back to the other one and move that one along for a while. I got into a kind of contrapuntal rhythm, and oddly enough, I found writing the period details and historical portions easier and more enjoyable than the contemporary scenes.  My heart, I fear, belongs to Victorian England.

By writing parallel story lines, you created two sets of sympathetic characters which were destined to come into conflict. Did you have a difficult time deciding who would live and who would die?

I’ll tell you, right up until the time I wrote it, I did not know the answer to that question; I did not know how it would turn out. In fact – stupidly in retrospect – I turned down a movie company that wanted to option the material early on because I refused to answer any questions about what was going to happen in the rest of the book. (AND because I honestly didn’t know.) For me, a book is like a fever dream, and if I break the fever, I can lose the impetus and the idea altogether.

Is the creature that bites Sinclair based on any “real world” legend?

Not that I know of. There were indeed some Turkish legends, of blood-sucking creatures, but I pretty much made them up for the book.

How much of the science in your book is grounded in reality, and how much is your creation?

Believe it or not, almost all the science is real, and pretty accurate. There really are fish in the Antarctic that live below the cap and freeze over if they come into contact with ice. Obviously, I took some liberties with what could be done with their blood, which is hemoglobin-free, but there’s a real basis for everything else I say.

You present Sinclair and Eleanor’s condition largely as a medical one, thus avoiding the pitfalls of the traditional “vampire tale.” Why did you make that choice?

I’m neither an expert, nor even a big fan, of vampire fiction, and I wanted to try, if I did go there, to do something new. I hope it is, but I honestly don’t know. And as for those people who’ve said to me, “Jeez, so you glommed onto the Stephenie Meyer bandwagon,” I can only say I started the book years ago and had no idea it would be landing in the middle of this craze. That’s the thing about publishing – it’s a long ponderous business, and even if you tried to catch a wave, you couldn’t.

Had I known ahead of time that there was a vampire component to the plot, I might not have read it, and I was very happy to see you avoided the trappings of the typical horror story. Was that your objective?

I'm so glad you thought the book was able to avoid horror kitsch, as that was very important to me.  I barely breathed the word vampire, even when I was pitching the book.  I did not want it to fall in to that category and be dismissed. (Not to mention the fact that while I was writing it, vampires weren't as hot as they suddenly are again now.)  As with previous books I've written, I wanted the book to feel, and seem, real.  I wanted the characters to feel as real as I could make them, and their lives as believable.  I think that if you've done that — as Ira Levin, for instance, was able to do way back in Rosemary's Baby – then the reader is willing to accept, and is much more effectively shocked by, the intrusion of something supernatural or fantastical. I try, with whatever degree of success, to figure out what the actual human reaction would be to even the most amazing revelations.  What would a doctor do today when a patient claimed to have been born in 1837 — and there was every evidence that she actually had been?  What would a journalist do, when confronted with a story like that, but then found himself conflicted, knowing that exposing such a person would turn her into a circus freak, an unholy cross between Britney Spears and David Blaine?  (Especially if the journalist, against all his own instincts and principles, was falling in love with her?)

You are the second consecutive thriller author I’ve interviewed who has a background in journalism. How has your journalism career impacted your fiction writing?

Writing a lot — and I mean a lot! — of magazine and newspaper stories taught me to treat writing like a job: you didn’t wait for inspiration, you just did it, because your editor had assigned it and they were waiting for your copy to come in.  I think it also allowed me to research many different subjects — which I found fun — and even taught me some dialogue tricks.  You had to learn to get the essence of someone’s voice down, quickly and fairly. What writers inspired or influenced you in your youth? Whom do you read now? I was a huge fan of the traditional English ghost story writers, with M.R. James being my favorite far and away.  I also loved Shirley Jackson, Robert Louis Stevenson, W. Somerset Maugham.  Today, I read everybody from Jane Smiley to Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, David Lodge, Tracy Chevalier.

Describe the very beginning of your creative process in writing a novel. Does sudden inspiration strike you? Do you gather ideas and let them simmer?

I was looking over some computer files the other night, and I actually found a brief note to myself — from 2002 — about something that would later figure into Blood and Ice, which, as you know, only recently came out.  So I guess the answer is, they simmer. But at some point, even though many things are still vague in my mind, I get this overwhelming urge to start writing it down, to start telling the story and seeing where it takes me. I know where a book starts, and I know, sort of, where it’s meant to end, but the middle is usually very unclear.

As a reader, what do you love in a novel?

I love novels that take me into another world, where there are characters I come to believe in, and keep me there.  I’ve never been a short story writer – once I get started, I like to keep rolling along at some length.  And I love novelists, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who have a very distinctive music in their voice.

What’s a typical day like for Robert Masello when he’s not writing?

A typical day usually revolves somehow AROUND the writing. I’m in a crabby mood until I’ve got my quota for the day — 1000 words — and then I can relax a bit.  Of course, relaxing usually just means more reading, for research purposes, and then maybe some busy work, like e-mails, etc.  I lead the most unexciting life you can imagine.  In the afternoon, I take the dog for a long walk on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean; I’m lucky enough to live close to the beach (though they won’t allow dogs on the sand). And if I’m feeling flush, my wife and I go to some local dive for dinner.

Any parting words for our readers?

I’m going to borrow an idea from Roy Blount, the president of the Authors Guild, who advised people to buy books as gifts for every occasion – Christmas, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day.  It’s up to us to keep bookstores alive, and book sales healthy.  Oh, and when you read something you like, think about sending the author a note, on the internet or via his or her publisher.  I just got one of those today, from an 86-year-old World War II vet, and it made my day.  Writing is such a lonely job — I hate that about it — and it really helps occasionally to hear a voice from the void saying something nice.

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