Intervew with Doug Rees

This is a legacy post from a now-defunct books blog.

I’m trying something new in Outside of a Cat — a five question Q&A with the author of today’s book. Douglas Rees, author of Vampire High, was willing to be a guinea pig in this experiment. Vampire High is also the latest book in the month-long series of scary books.

Cody Elliot is trying to flunk out of school after his dad moves the family from California to the weird New England city of New Sodom. Instead of convincing his dad to move back to California, Cody just finds himself transfered to the mysterious and exclusive Vlad Dracul school. He’s accepted on the condition that he goes out for water polo, despite no history of success in that or any other sport. If that isn’t weird enough, his guide on his first day of school is a well-trained wolf named Charon.

Given the title, it’s not exactly a suprise to find out that the school is run and populated by vampires. Things don’t go the way you might expect, though. Instead of being treated as prey, Cody finds himself merely an outcast among the elitist jenti, the vampire clique that runs the school. At least if he were prey, he might eventually become one of them. Instead, he’s left alone to be human, out of necessity necessessity: it seems vampires hate water, and need just enough non-vampiric students to field a water polo team, due to an obscure state law. As an athlete, Cody can coast through the system, getting straight A’s, and do pretty much whatever he wants, and enjoy special privileges — even though his team never wins. Why, it’s almost like being an athlete at the Big 10 school where I work! (Roll the laugh track.)

However, Cody decides pretty quickly he doesn’t want a free ride: he wants to do well in school because he’s earned it. He even wants to win at water polo. Interestingly enough, he’s probably going to the only school where trying to get good grades and excel at sports is a kind of death wish. When he wins the respect of nearly everyone by helping a friend, though, the real trouble starts.

Vampire High is more of a comic send-up on teen vampire stories than a scare piece — there’s very little in the way of blood, but there is the universal high-school experience of inpenetratable cliques and hapless outcasts (there are even outcasts among the jet-set vampires), impossibly hard classes, a hopeless crush on someone who seems to be way out of one’s league, and the few reliable friends that make the whole experience less dreadful and survivable.

Five questions for Douglas Rees.

1. Your book is really rich in historical and literary allusions. For example, the town is named “New Sodom,” after the story in Genesis about the town of Sodom (destroyed by God because it is evil), and the school is named after “Vlad Dracul,” the historical inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You explain some of the allusions, but not all of them. Did you make these up as you went, or did you do a lot of research to come up with them? Do you have any favorites? Maybe inside jokes that most readers won’t get?

Actually, all the research I did had to do with water polo. I used to play a lot of it in swimming class in college. but that was some time ago, and as it was not a water polo class we didn’t have all the judges and things.

But in-jokes that other people won’t get: Yes. A lot of them. Here they are. All the teachers at Vlad Dracul are based on real people. Mr. Mach the math teacher (and Mach was a German/Czech physicist) is my friend Art. Mr. Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, etc.) and Mr. Shadwell (poet laureate in the late 18th century; Byron despised him) are both me, in different moods. The fiercely erotic Ms. Vukovitch runs a coffee place that makes the best double cappuccinos outside Italy. And the red-haired lycanthropic library lady who is just a tad over the top is my wife, JoAnn. (Yes, she knows that.) As for Coach Underskinker (an underskinker is an assistant bartender in Elizabethan England) he is Everycoach. He is certainly ever coach I ever had. He has Miller’s alcoholism, Ryan’s stupidity, Piecca’s arrogance, Budenkiwicz’s — but why go on? You had them, too. We all did.

2. You have a lot of fun with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the vampires attitude about it. It’s required reading at Vampire High, but to be called a “stoker,” in vampire slang is an insult, and to be called a “bram,” is even worse. What inspired this preoccupation your vampire characters have with Dracula? What other vampire novels do you think would be required reading for vampire scholars?

Dracula is an amazing book. It’s one of those cases of life imitating art. Before Dracula, vampires were a low-rent working-class kind of thing confined to rural areas pretty much. Bram Stoker’s story made vampires into what they are now in pop culture. Ann Rice is inconceivable without Bram Stoker. The jenti resent this for a couple of reasons: one, it raises their profile and they seek safety in anonymity. Two, Stoker was made the recipient of a good deal of inside information by his friend Dracula, which he then distorted into his tale of horror. As to what other vampire fiction they’d read, I think they wouldn’t. At least not as a requirement. They read Dracula as a warning. That is why they get three times in school. “This is what the gadje are like,” is the message. “Be very careful areound them. They will betray you.” One book is enough to make the point.

3. I love the scene where Cody is inspired by Chaucer to write an epic poem. Was there a writer like that for you? Somebody you set out to imitate, when you were first starting out as a writer?

No one writer. And certainly no one as impressive as Chaucer. I was led to writing by being a reader. And I still recall finding that occasional story, like Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, or Edward Eager’s Knight’s Castle, which was so wonderful I trembled with joy as I read the first pages. But there were so many who were nearly as good. As I write this, I can feel that warmth and pleasure again.

4. Cody plans out a wonderful birthday present to the vampire girl he’s in love with. Did you ever give, or get, such a great present yourself?

If there is anything useful in Vampire High, it is that lesson: How To Come Up With a Present. Back in my twenties, when I had more time and less money than I have now, I was a superb present maker-upper. And the technique is exactly what Cody does: put the person in your mind, wander around for a while, and see what ideas come up. Set a budget. You will surprise yourself, and please the recipient, particularly if it is a female. After that, you’re on your own.

5. What’s the pet situation at the Douglas Rees home? Dogs? Cats? Wolves? Goldfish?

I’ve owned all kinds of animals over the years, but for the last twenty or so, it’s been confined to cats. At present there are four: Bob, who is biligual in English and Spanish and hates to go out, Wilson, a 15-pound monster whom I rescued as a kittten when he dumped at the library where I work, and two new acquisitions of my wife’s, Natasha and Our Mrs. Reynolds (Firefly fans will recognize the allusion). Since we got them three months ago, they have spent most of their time lurking under furniture, muttering curses in Aramaic, and making Molotov cocktails. They are absolutely persuaded that we are aliens who have taken them to our mother ship where we mean to perform experiments involving innocent cats and anal probes. The only other livestock is my wife, who has never actually turned into a werewolf but, I am convinced, could if she wanted to. Jo can do she sets her mind to.

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