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Author Spotlight: Nathan Ballingrud

Tell us a little bit about “Sunbleached.” How did you come to write it?

“Sunbleached” is unusual for me, in that it’s a story that never would have existed if not for a themed anthology. Ellen Datlow asked me to write one for Teeth, the book of young adult vampire stories she was editing with Terri Windling. I was hesitant. Vampires had saturated the genre, and they’d become such diluted, boring, vapid creatures that the very thought of them turned me off. I had no desire to write young adult; I had some uncharitable thoughts about the rapid advance of the market, and the way writers seemed to be flocking to this new wellspring of money, rather than following some artistic compulsion. (I admit that those thoughts were reactionary and not terribly well-considered. But that was my mindset at the time.) The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed like a challenge I wanted to meet. I remembered what vampires meant to me when I was growing up, and I wanted to honor that. I thought that if I was a teen picking up a book like this, I’d be excited to find a bloody, brutal story about a genuinely scary vampire. So I took a shot. It’s become one of my most well-received stories.

Vampires seem to go through alternating periods of “beautiful and seductive” and “hideous and terrifying” in fiction. “Sunbleached” features a vampire with a foot in both worlds. Do you have any thoughts on that dichotomy? Did you set out to subvert pop-cultural expectations of vampires (à la Twilight) or was it just what the story required?

Well, the vampire plays both roles so well. It’s an extraordinarily versatile monster. In recent years we’ve seen the vampire become a romantic hero, almost entirely devoid of threat. That’s as boring to me as the vampire which is nothing more than a feral killing machine. When I wrote the one in this story, I was very much thinking of the Dracula paradigm. I even wanted to include the mist and the turning into a bat. Of course there wasn’t a place for that, and that’s probably a good thing. But I was committed to the idea of a vampire being a merciless predator which relied on seduction to capture prey. The challenge was to do that in a way I hadn’t seen done before, and which would also let me heighten the scariness. How would a creature like this still use seduction when it was pushed to its most extreme point? It had no beauty left; it could barely even move. I also wanted to set the story in hard sunlight. So, yeah, I approached it with the intent to subvert the expectations that I would have, were I a reader coming to a vampire story. As the story started to grow around those self-imposed restrictions, I started to get very excited about it.

There’s something terribly sad about the use of seduction as a tool for capturing prey, too. That’s where the vampire achieves so much of its power (and I’m a big believer in the enduring power of old tropes). Everybody wants to be loved. The need for it can ruin people.

What are you working on these days? Any new or upcoming publications readers should keep an eye out for?

I have two stories appearing in anthologies this year: one, “The Diabolist,” I can’t say anything about because the editors have not gone public with the table of contents yet. The other is “The Atlas of Hell,” which will be in Ellen Datlow’s Fearful Symmetries. It’s the first story featuring what will be a recurring character, which I thought would be fun. So it’s kind of a new thing for me. I’m working on a novel which will be finished this year, very different in tone from what I’ve been doing before. There are also more nebulous projects in the works: a tourist’s guide to hell; a scrapbook chronology of a family of monsters living amongst and interacting with a small Southern town over a period of a hundred years; and an idea for turning “Sunbleached” into a novel.

Do you have a favorite fictional vampire?

If I had to pick a single one, it would be Dracula, hands down. He straddles the divide between beguiling and terrifying so wonderfully. That scene in which Harker looks out his window at night, and sees Dracula crawling down the outside of the castle wall like some huge insect, sent a chill through me that probably changed my life. He’s still the ideal vampire in my mind. That being said, the ones that scared me the most were the townspeople of Salem’s Lot. My first experience with them was the Tobe Hooper television miniseries, when I was a kid. Watching characters I’d come to know make that change was profoundly scary to me. I will never forget the vampire sitting in the old rocking chair, his eyes glowing in the early twilight.

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Lisa Nohealani Morton

Lisa Nohealani Morton

Born and raised in Honolulu, Lisa Nohealani Morton lives in Washington, DC. By day she is a mild-mannered database wrangler, computer programmer, and all-around data geek, and by night she writes science fiction, fantasy, and combinations of the two. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and the anthology Hellebore and Rue. She can be found on Twitter as @lnmorton.