“No Other Life” sits at the crossroads of short fiction. You blend contemporary western ideas of vampires with the history and culture of Istanbul in the 1500s, horror with romance, a same-sex relationship of longing and desire with the gentle resignation of established, cultural norms of marriage and heterosexuality. Did you find it difficult to blend such seemingly disparate elements into one cohesive story?
Writing this story was far more difficult than I anticipated. I first came up with the idea of writing a story about vampires in Istanbul while writing a research paper for my PhD four years ago. I was bewitched by the idea of using a vampire’s long lifespan to explore the city’s history. How wonderful would it be, I thought, to have characters living in the so-called golden age of Ottoman Istanbul who remembered the rise and fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba, or who remembered the Byzantines, and who brought centuries of memories and diverse cultural influences the story?
In practice, it’s a research nightmare.
I have spent four years on-and-off working on the worldbuilding and trying and failing to pull together a strong story. I fully expected this story to be another Ottoman vampire failure, especially when I realized the two main characters would fall in love. I primarily write YA, and I have matured as a writer in a publishing era where vampires and romance are seen as having been done to death (so to speak). I felt skittish, I stalled, I doubted myself, but in the end, week three of Clarion West was drawing to a close and I had a deadline to hit. I finally said to hell with it and leaned into the romance. The pieces fell into place after that.
Tell us something of what inspired this tale, in particular the imagery of likening the vampire to the city itself.
Clarion West is a high-pressure environment, and as someone who usually allows stories to gestate for months (or years) before finally whipping them into shape, I felt incredibly grateful for the advice and inspiration provided to us by the weekly Mystery Muses and writers who agreed to Skype with us. One of the latter was Sofia Samatar, and it was after our class’s Skype conversation with her that I read her story “The Huntress” in Tin House. I had also been reading poetry by Michael Ondaatje, and was very, very tired of the male gaze. These three ingredients—Samatar’s huntress, Ondaatje’s language, and exhaustion with the male gaze—melted together in the July heat of the Clarion West house. I poured them into my memories of Istanbul, a city where I have spent some of the happiest (and most harrowing) summers of my life, and got to work.
Since I first lived in Istanbul ten years ago, every story I have set there has turned into a love letter in one way or another. I knew from the start this story would be no exception.
One of the many things I appreciated about the story was the way you blended elements of works such as Dracula, Carmilla, and Interview with the Vampire. Are you a fan of vampire fiction? Do you have a particular vampiric favorite?
The first time I read a vampire novel was when the Twilight craze hit. I was about seventeen, and begrudgingly decided to read the book when my younger sisters wouldn’t stop talking about it. Reader, I was hooked. I have my frustrations with the series, but I deeply appreciate what Stephanie Meyer did for YA fiction. Later that year I read Dracula for the first time and absolutely could not put it down. I reread it every few years and am always floored by the mastery of Stoker’s suspense. While I love fresh, diverse takes on vampires (“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara in Uncanny Magazine took my breath away) and am fond of the unabashed self-absorption of Interview with a Vampire, the classic big bad will always have a special place in my heart.
You allow the main character agency in both how she first encounters the vampire and when she says “Let me be the one to choose my life’s path.” To me this is a vital conceit of the story, and all the more important given how often young women are cast in the role of victim. As a writer, how conscious are you of writing a “strong” character?
I am more conscious of writing characters with agency than I am of writing “strong” characters. This is in part due to the fact that many of my early drafts flounder when the main characters lack agency, which I then need to address in revisions! With this story, however, I knew from the start I would intentionally give my main character a voice and a choice in her fate. I decided this for two reasons. First, women, especially those who were not members of the elite, are often silenced in the historical record due to the nature of the sources that survive from the pre- and early modern periods. Giving them a voice in fiction is very important to me. Second, female victims who lack agency is one of the great tropes of classic vampire fiction. Writing vampire stories in the post-Twilight era is a deft game of trope-tipping, and I absolutely wanted to knock that trope in particular on its head in a way that felt organic in a historical setting.
You are a PhD student and a Clarion West graduate. Are there any projects you’d like to tackle in the future?
By the time this story is published, I will have proposed my dissertation on the medieval Seljuk Turkish romance The Epic of King Danişmend and will be hard at work drafting the first chapter… otherwise known as taking highly-detailed notes for a historical-fantasy novel project I am planning based on that text. I also have an outline for a novel set in the world of “No Other Life.” Unfortunately, that project isn’t at the top of my list of works-in-progress, due to the general reluctance of editors in the YA world to look at vampire novels. However, there are whispers that the tides will soon turn, and I plan to be ready with a manuscript when they do!
Spread the word!