Dracula has always been one of my favorite novels, so it's hardly surprising that any books involving the Count would catch my eye and interest. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the author of Mina also authored Tapestry of Dark Souls, one of my favorite Ravenloft novels.
I've read a lot of different takes on the Count and those around him, but Mina and its sequel, Blood to Blood do something entirely different with the band of vampire hunters of the original novel. And yet, these things are entirely in keeping with history as well as following unexpected but entirely valid premises about the characters.
Now, to satisfy your curiosity, let me here present my interview with author Elaine Bergstrom, author of Mina, Blood to Blood, Tapestry of Dark Souls, and Baroness of Blood!
The interview that follows comes from e-mail messages sent back and forth between myself and Ms. Bergstrom. I've filtered the interview down somewhat, but all with her approval. Enjoy!--XS
XS: I noticed from the biographical material at your website that you wrote Mina and three other novels under the name "Marie Kiraly," which you state is your grandmother's name. Is "Elaine Bergstrom" then your real name?
EB: It is. Actually, it's my married name.
XS: What prompted you to use your grandmother's name for your pseudonym as opposed to writing those novels under your own name?
EB: When Mina was first proposed to Berkley, they asked me if I would mind writing under a pseudonym. The rationale was that this was a "breakout" book for me.
EB: One that would likely sell far more copies than my previous ones. Since paperbacks' main source of sales are to chain bookstores, and chains order books based on previous sales records, the best way to have a "breakout" is under a pseudonym.
XS: Did it work?
EB: Yes, sales were excellent, but sadly I think it took a long time for fans of my Austra series to realize that "Marie" was me, and this hurt sales of subsequent books written under that pseudonym. Berkley has since reissued Mina under my real name.
XS: Is there any way to tell when an author is publishing under a pseudonym?
EB: Here's a hint: the copyright is often in the author's real name.
XS: I'll keep that in mind. Would I be mistaken in assuming that your grandmother holds a special place in your heart? Of course, if I'm being too intrusive...
EB: Not at all. I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house when I was a child and we were very close. It is also a Hungarian name, which made it apt, somehow, for Dracula novels. She died at 94, and lived long enough to see her name in print...but, and maybe thankfully, not to read what her granddaughter wrote.
XS: Now don't take this the wrong way, but I think you may be right. Now, I note from the biographical material that you live in or near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What's it like? Do you enjoy living there?
EB: Cold in winter, hot in summer. Extremes day to day. We are hearty folk! Actually, it's compact and urban but without all the congestion and crime of major cities. We are known for huge ethnic festivals and long-term mayors who become weird and reclusive as they stay in office. I think it's something about the water at city hall.
XS: Hmm, I don't know if I should laugh or worry about that. But, how does Milwaukee compare with where you grew up?
EB: I grew up in Cleveland. The house, the church, most everything got put into the scenery in Shattered Glass. Milwaukee is Cleveland ten years ago.
XS: What was your family life like as you were growing up?
EB: I was born right after the war--World War II, the big one. I was the only child but my cousins lived upstairs from me and we were very close when we were young. My parents decided to move to the suburbs when I was 9. I hated it. It was superficial and bland and I am glad to be back in a city.
XS: What is your family life like now?
EB: I am divorced and have two daughters, 25 and 23. The oldest recently moved out. The younger had Down Syndrome and is deaf and lives with me.
XS: I note from the biographical material that you have a degree in Journalism. What other accomplishments can you boast?
EB: I had always longed to see the world and had hoped to go into international reporting or marketing. Things did not work out as planned, and I suppose my greatest claim to journalistic fame was breaking a story concerning gang activity in Milwaukee in a community paper I was editing. The main news picked up the story two days later. My only other claim to fame was running for state representative on the libertarian party ticket. I got 387 votes, which did let me come in third.
XS: Cool, a politician! But anyway, how has your education contributed to and helped you in writing?
EB: For the most part, I am pretty good on deadlines.
XS: I can see where that would be an asset.
EB: I also have a good command of the English language, though I think I owe that more to the nuns in high school rather than the professors over at Marquette University. In one respect, it did help, however, and that was because when I began writing fiction I was treated as a professional from the beginning.
XS: I also noticed that you do teaching and lecturing. What led you into those areas?
EB: I was writing full time and not making enough to eat, let alone pay my bills, so I thought that teaching would be a good supplement. I did a number of "Introduction to Novel Writing" workshops for Redbird Studios here in Milwaukee, and for Great Lakes Writer's Workshop, then at Alverno and finally, for Writer's Digest School, which is one-on-one via correspondence. As a result of that last, I've also taught at a writer's retreat for Maui Writers.
XS: That's a lot of credentials you have there.
EB: Years ago, I had toyed with being a teacher, but I am terrible with names and so decided to give that notion up. I would like to do more teaching, but time usually does not permit it. In the future, I'd be most open to doing workshops at conventions. There are some good budding writers in fandom.
XS: Oh, if only I dared...er, yes, well, what are your greatest goals and dreams?
EB: And you thought discussing my grandmother was personal?
XS: Well, I--
EB: Well, boring though it may sound, being a full time writer with a bit of major recognition would be a nice goal.
XS: That doesn't sound boring at all!
EB: Winning the Powerball Lottery and setting up a hundred acre writer's retreat in the north woods and a signing group home for my daughter and friends would be a major pipe dream. And though you were too polite to ask, one night of passion--
XS: Stop! Cease! Desist! Thank you! Okay, what drew you into writing?
EB: My mother was likely the beginning. The woman has a total aversion to clutter and rarely bought me toys. Golden Books, however, could be stacked and I had dozens of them. After I had polio, I was somewhat housebound, so books were my companions. Once we moved to those bland suburbs, I discovered the local library and cleaned out the YA section before moving on to the adult books. I was eleven or so...pretty precocious so I had to learn which librarian would let me take out books kids weren't supposed to read in the 1950's.
XS: Imagine what it would be like if you were a kid now!
EB: Needless to say, all the reading affected my writing. Most of my teachers expected me to go into something literary. I made my first stab at it the year I had surgery on my knee...I was about 10, I believe. I taught myself to type and started a mystery. I think I got about 50 pages in when the cast came off. I never finished it. I don't even know what happened to it...but I bet my mother threw it out.
XS: I can sympathize. My mother...but this is about you, of course. Did anyone support you or cultivate your interest in writing, or was it a spontaneous, personal decision?
EB: It was personal and made very early, and the decision was supported, except by my math teacher who thought I should go into engineering.
XS: Are you good at math, then?
EB: I was actually good at everything. I'm not bragging, it was just true. I have a very logical mind and not being given to physical prowess--I am a polio survivor--I was very "bookish."
XS: What does your usual workday look like?
EB: When I am on a tight deadline, I write early in the morning, at lunch, when I have downtime at work, at night. When things are a bit more relaxed, it's usually between about 9 and 11 at night. When I was younger, and more manic, I would stay up to dawn, get up two hours later and go to work, and do that for days on end.
XS: I'd probably keel over if I tried that more than twice! Do you have a preferred situation to write in? You know, a favorite place with a cup of coffee in hand, or something like that?
EB: I need coffee in the morning, wine or beer at night, and silence. A little classical is okay, nothing with words. I suspect a bit of ADD in me, and words are terribly distracting. I do my best plotting on long road trips, and some of my best creative writing in cafes.
XS: That you are "a stickler for facts" was evident in Mina and Blood to Blood.
EB: Thanks for noticing. My need to be accurate may stem from the journalism background, but I've also noticed how much I despise writers who can't--or deliberately don't--do their research. The book, The Blood Countess, comes to mind for its 75 year discrepancy in events on the opening page and for some decision to portray it as factual.
XS: Where do you do your research? Did you go to London and Romania to make it all so real?
EB: The only places I have been to that show up in my books are Cleveland, Chicago, and New Orleans. I have not even been to New York, and maybe New Yorkers are snickering over my mistakes, but since most of the book was set in the early 1900's, I bet they weren't there either. A lot of different things come into play.
XS: Well, if you didn't go there, then how did you do it?
EB: First, a good set of maps--dated, if the novel is dated. Second, old magazines. Third, Foders' guides, recipe books, books on restaurants, and so on. Fourth, novels written in the period--I read a lot of Oscar Wilde and bios of the era while doing the books you mentioned. Last, when necessary, help with language, specific occupations, customs...
XS: That's a lot of work, but I'd say it pays off splendidly. But it makes me wonder. What prompted you to work with established characters, real or otherwise? Why do what is essentially "historical biographical" fiction instead of just historical fiction with completely made-up characters?
EB: Because I love biographies. One of my favorite characters was Elizabeth Bathory--from Daughter of the Night--where every fact about her, with the exception of the story in that book, was verified before I used it. As for Poe--and Madeline--I greatly enjoyed using the "journalistic" voice for narration. I have always been a huge Poe fan and had the opportunity to tap into a local Poe expert's library of Poe bios, some from the early 1900's with recollections of people who actually knew him. Many of these were not available in our library system. Having seen how often Poe has been trashed in popular literature--one book I read had him coming back a la Freddy, another showed him as a hopeless drunk--I was pleased to portray him as simply human, and caring, what the bios I read showed to be true. Of course, the Poe Society immediately noted one small mistake on rail service at the time and said I portrayed Poe in an untraditional way.
XS: "Untraditional" may be an understatement, given what I know--or thought I knew--of Poe
EB: I have also plotted a Russian trilogy which is nearly all historical characters in a huge "what if" sort of plot, but I so far haven't found a taker. I would love to write it and it would be the best thing I have ever done, but it will take 3 to 4 years. Grants, anyone?
XS: Not me! Since you first started writing, has it become easier or more difficult for your as your experience increases and your standards change?
EB: It has become much easier and this is fortunate since I do not have the luxury of full time writing and a lack of deadlines. I don't think my standards have slipped, but I often feel that my work has lost its "edge." This could be due to growing older, or mellower. I'm not sure which.
XS: What kind of problems did you have starting out as a writer?
EB: I started much later than I should have. Once I started, I had few problems except getting noticed. It's still that way. I often remind myself that Dean Koontz wrote 15 books before he got into hardcover.
XS: That's a lot of books!
EB: An ongoing problem has been my inability to negotiate. I think Mina should have been a hardcover book--and Madeline, too. So does my current agent, but at the time I proposed it, I was going through my divorce and needed the money FAST.
XS: What would be the easiest and most difficult things about writing for you?
EB: The easiest is sitting down and writing. Harder is agreeing with my editor on what I should write about. I am not terribly prolific--that full time job in advertising has something to do with that--and I am probably one of the few writers out there who wants a two or three book contract so I can just keep going once one is done rather than negotiating for six months or more on what the next title will be. Hardest yet is finding the time to write. Sigh.
XS: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
EB: Do your best to establish yourself somehow. I am not a believer in writing short stories as a prelude to a career as a novelist unless you are good at them...but book reviews, feature columns in local papers, all of these simple little things will show you are a professional. I'd also suggest that anyone writing in a genre attend mystery, sci-fi, horror cons and meet some fellow authors, agents, and editors. If that's impossible, go to local book signing and schmooze the authors. Not only do those of us who don't attract a crowd really love the attention, but you may find a friend and mentor there--just don't be too obvious about it. And READ, READ, READ! Preferably everything in your chosen genre, and whatever you can find on your chosen time period.
XS: I've read Tapestry of Dark Souls and Baroness of Blood and enjoyed them both. How did you feel when you wrote, reviewed, and read them?
EB: They were my first foray into the realms of fantasy and I truly enjoyed writing them. Tapestry was an exercise in fast writing as, I believe, they were very backed up in the series and I had only 6 months to write it. Baroness was even more interesting as they decided to use the background information on my "darklord" rather than the plot I had presented as the novel. I had hoped to be doing a trilogy for them on the nasty girl and her poisonous potion, but that was not to be due to some rather odd personality conflicts.
XS: I won't go there. But how would you describe your experience working in a "shared world?"
EB: There were a lot of plusses to it, actually. When I said I had never played a role-playing game, my editor's reply was "Great!" He meant it, but he did send me all the Ravenloft materials, which made my research easy. The main restriction I had was that once I created the outlook and backgrounds on the characters, I could not go too far astray. They did actually make me tone down one scene, which considering some of the other books in the series was surprising. For those who read Tapestry, it was the goblin eating scene.
XS: All things considered, that is surprising. One writer I interviewed also worked in the Ravenloft line and expressed some resignation about writing for TSR, in that what she produced became TSR's property and that she couldn't use the characters she created for them without their permission.
EB: And where else would she market it? I had no problem with it. They were quick writes, came out very good considering the constraints, and paid good royalties until Ravenloft was phased out by Wizards of the Coast. Now those quarterly checks are almost enough to buy coffee at the local 7-11.
XS: If they asked you to, would you write for TSR again--or I guess they're now Wizards of the Coast? And since it seems that the Ravenloft line won't be coming back anytime soon, would you feel comfortable writing one of their other lines?
EB: By all means, but I don't do elves, dragons, or knights in armor. Ravenloft, though, yes. Actually, at the last Gencon--held here in Milwaukee--a lot of people were asking for more Ravenloft. Vampires go in and out of style, and they are in again. WotC should take note.
XS: Yes, they should. Now, what inspired you to write Mina and Blood to Blood?
EB: Mina actually came about following a phone interview with a woman doing an article on the then forthcoming Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula. During the interview we discussed how boring Mina's life would be after that huge adventure where se was the equal of the men. And suddenly, the light went on! I sent a one sentence proposal to my agent: "A novel which describes Mina Harker's attempt to live in Victorian society following her experience with Dracula and his destruction." I had a verbal contract in two days.
XS: What kind of research went into Mina and Blood to Blood?
EB: This was also the era of the first women's rights movement in Britain, and I found that an interesting addition. And let's be honest, purity, goodness, modesty, and all the other marvelous traits all the men saw in Mina were what they chose to see. Mina was a much stronger woman than that. Stoker hinted at it, but at the time he could not SAY.
XS: If I recall correctly, Harker in comparing the vampire women to Mina said there was no comparison between their wantonness and Mina's purity. Yet in your handling of Mina I see, although the same woman strong enough to endure the hardships brought about by Dracula's emergence into the modern world, a woman more rebellious and independent than she seemed in Stoker's novel.
EB: What convinced me she was different was an odd quirk in the original novel. Mina's point of view is largely absent after she begins to change. Stoker was implying something. As to Jonathan's statement, what would a good Victorian man say? "They really turned me on"? Remember, this was an age that gave us some of our best and most memorable erotica and then covered their piano legs lest they give someone sexual thoughts. This is not coincidence.
XS: What was your inspiration for Lord Gance? A real person or...
EB: Partly, he is based on his famous relation, Lord Byron. Mostly, he is made up. I needed a vampire to tempt Mina and not wanting to put a real one in the story I settled for one who was human instead. He is one of my favorite creations, the egotistical libertine who has to live up to his own lofty opinion of himself.
XS: You made Joanna into something of a sympathetic character, less the bloodsucking monster and more the tragic heroine, to the point that one who had every reason to hate vampires fell in love with her instead. What prompted you to draw her in that direction?
EB: That notion had actually begun at the end of Mina. With her the only creature left, I decided to go for the tragically flawed heroine rather than merely a caricature of the vampire. Having her draw on her human past to find a soul--or at least a conscience--for her new existence was far more interesting. Perhaps to some extent, I also felt the power of women--or lack thereof in that era--was too strong an issue to ignore. Had I made Joanna just another monster, there would have been no growth for any of the other characters. Instead, I forced them all to think long and hard about what is good and what is evil. As to Arthur, overcome by guilt for what he believes he did to Lucy, he would of course be drawn to Joanna. I should add that often I do not plot my books too tightly. I let the characters move the story for me. At the risk of sounding like a flake, this was the story they "wanted" me to tell.
XS: That doesn't sound flaky at all. Now, before I run out of space, are there any chances of a third book? I seem to recall from somewhere that there was also a Mircea in the Tepes bloodline, and a lot of vampire writers suggest that Radu also somehow became a vampire.
EB: I'm not certain there is a third book. If there is, it might be Mina as the vampire or a crossover book with characters from both my vampire series. For many years, I've longed to put Stephen in the same room with Van Helsing, but outside of a war of wits, and possibly a dousing with holy water that would have no effect on Stephen, I'm not sure what sort of plot I would go with.
XS: I'm out of space, but thanks!
EB: You're welcome.
I hope you enjoyed learning more about this outstanding author. I know I did. You can find out more about her by clicking here. And, don't forget to read my reviews of her novels. You can find links to them through the Author's Archive. You can also purchase these books via the Cosmic Tome Bazaar in association with Amazon.com.
Comments? Suggestions? Just click here to send me e-mail.
Also, if this interview prompted you to read some of Elaine Bergstrom's works, then let me know. I appreciate knowing I made a difference in somebody's life.
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