Q and A with INCARNADINE author R. H. Greene

The following Q and A was conducted just before the publication of INCARNADINE: The True Memoirs of Count Dracula,  a new novel by R. H. Greene. The book is available in hardcover via both Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com and in select bookstores, with a special electronic edition available via the Amazon Kindle Store for $6.49 per download.

Q: We seem to be in the midst of a major vampire fad. Did this factor into your thinking when you wrote Incarnadine?

R. H. Greene: I wish I could credit myself with so much forward thinking, but no, it didn’t – not at all. The first rather complete draft of Incarnadine was finished in the summer of 2007, mainly to fulfill some psychological needs of my own I would say. As presumptuous as it sounds, my intentions were literary, although it’s up to others to decide how close I came to deserving that rather imposing adjective. When I started shopping the book in 2008, others more “in the know” explained to me there was a movement of sorts underway – I read a lot, but cancelled library books and oddball historical works mostly, not the bestseller lists. I had good agency responses to Incarnadine at a very high level, in particular from some very nice people at CAA, but they were reluctant to take the project on because of potential conflicts of interest. Catherine Hardwicke, whom I’ve met and even hosted for a classroom discussion about her film The Nativity Story, turned out to be a client of the agent I talked to, and to show you how out of the loop I was, I didn’t even know Twilight existed at the time. Other people mentioned The Historian to me later on – a book I’d not heard of despite its raging success, and thankfully a very very different piece as it turns out. So Incarnadine was written in complete and blissful isolation – literally, since I holed up in Bulgaria to write it. I think this makes it a very different book than it might have been if I’d had one eye on market trends – a better one, I hope. So I wrote with other models in mind.

Q: If you weren’t aware of Twilight and The Historian, what “models” are you referring to?

Greene: Well, Stoker of course, although virtually nothing in Incarnadine other than the coda has any antecedent in Dracula. I’d never be cheeky enough to mention myself in the same breath as a brilliant artist like John Gardner, except to say that I read Grendel back in high school like a lot of people, and the book still haunts me to this day. Gardner’s conceit – of telling the story of a legendary monster from the monster’s perspective, and then using that space as a new way of looking at human behavior – was a master stroke, and I think it’s the reason why that particular work is the one of his that seems to endure. I was also resonating to a certain moment in my own life, one that everyone confronts eventually I think. My mother died at Christmas time in 1997, followed by my father a few years back, and it changed my thinking, as it does for a lot of people. It’s summed up in the quotation from Paul Auster cited at the front of the book, about how when you reach a certain moment in life, you find yourself spending as much time with the dead as with the living. He’s talking about memory, I think – how some people never leave our thoughts, and how this is both comforting and a wound that never heals. And what character out of literature is more suited to dramatizing that conflict than Stoker’s Dracula – someone who is both living and dead simultaneously? So this is where the idea came from, I’m relatively sure.

Q: You also cite Milton in your frontspiece, and I noticed your Dracula figure refers to God as “the Adversary,” which is Milton’s term for Satan in Paradise Lost.

Greene: Yes. There’s no better argument in literature for the law of unintended consequences than Milton’s Lucifer – a monster people like Blake and Byron later took to be the hero of the work. I don’t think Milton meant his epic to be read that way, but I do think he was a great writer whose greatness was similar to Shakespeare’s, in that he was open to the vast internal complexities of all his characters, not just the characters he agreed with. Milton refused to make his villains into strawmen by using them as mouthpieces for easily refutable arguments, so Milton’s Lucifer is persuasive, multi-layered and fully explicable, and the verse he’s given is as beautifully expressed as anything else in the poem. But if we gravitate toward Satan when he says things like “Evil be thou my good” or “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n,” this probably says more about our changed relationship to moral authority than it does about Milton’s intentions. My Dracula figure –who isn’t Vlad the Impaler, though he’s designed so he can co-exist with the extant historical data if that makes any sense  -- is like Milton’s Satan in that he’s both at war with God and the hero protagonist in his own vision of the universe. The Prince of Darkness approach doesn’t really speak to me, although my Dracula figure certainly does horrific things. But he has his reasons, and they’re legitimate, and I think that makes for a kind of drama that’s subtler and more relatable than having him pop in like the shark from Jaws every time your prose needs a goose.

Q: You keep saying “my Dracula figure,” as if you’re reluctant about it. Is he or isn’t he Dracula?

Greene: Well, he is actually. But he refers to himself that way exactly once in nearly 400 pages, and then only in the introduction he’s written to his “memoir,” never in the body of the work. Partly this is out of respect for Bram Stoker as the “onlie begetter” of a literary classic that’s still inspiring readers and writers the world over. HIS Dracula figure not only needs no qualification but also will always belong to him alone. Also, while my Dracula figure is aware of his infamous reputation, the word itself is redolent of things that go bump in the night, and this isn’t how he sees himself, as he makes clear from the start. And since I’m hoping to get the reader to sympathize with someone they’ve likely been conditioned to view as both entirely fictional and evil incarnate, I’m also trying to get them to forget some of what they already know. I firmly believe that every time that word appears, they’re reminded of… something. Who knows what? Lugosi maybe, or Christopher Lee – both of whom are great by the way, my twin brother and I used to devour their films when we were children, even if they have nothing to do with this book. But the character is so pervasive in movies and everything else it may be impossible for anyone to approach Incarnadine without preconceptions, and so I tried to limit those with a subtle trick of voice. Hopefully, my Dracula figure is more like one of Poe’s narrators, who gives you a reasonable and thought-provoking view of life for five pages, and then, when he’s got your allegiance, starts page six by saying, “So you see, there was no alternative. I had to kill him…” He draws you into his view of things, and then you have to question your response to his actions without the simple comfort of saying, “He did it because he’s something other than me, he’s bad.” And then, going back again to Grendel, the trick of perspective allows you to propose, through the character, that there are different kinds of monsters in life, not only unnatural ones.

Q: Why write the book as a memoir, and why is it a “prequel”?

Greene: It’s funny, I don’t really think of it as a prequel, but rather the first part of a single extended work. I actually sat down to write a wildly different variation on the event structure of the Stoker Dracula – which is coming soon, it’s called The Charnel House, and it was half-finished last summer and going well until someone I love was hospitalized and I dropped everything to be with her because people are more important than things. But as I started working on the first book, I realized I needed to get to know my character better, as something distinctly separate from Stoker since that’s what I had in mind. So I wrote Incarnadine first as a way of getting to know and understand my own creation. Also, he’s at war with God, and the Victorian notion of what that means is very different from the Middle Ages’ one, and it felt like two different struggles that needed to be in their own separate books. Darwin hasn’t happened yet to the Eastern Europeans of the 15th and 16th centuries. And then as Incarnadine developed, I also wanted it to belong to a more primeval world, and to feature aspects of the lore Stoker’s research didn’t have access to. So we have a couple of more influences I suppose. Old folktales as well as the Brothers Grimm. I did a lot of historical research as well. That’s why I was in Bulgaria, the most Ottoman of the Eastern European countries in some ways, even to this day.

Q: And the choice of writing it as a memoir?

Greene: A variety of reasons. I was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan as a child – the second book I ever read was The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I was so enchanted by it I subsequently read every single Holmes story in publication sequence. It’s funny what starts to waken inside your head when you write a long work – after a few weeks of serious work on Incarnadine, I had a positive craving for Conan Doyle, which I resisted indulging out of a fear it would get into the voice I was writing in. But although it arguably goes all the way back to Defoe, it strikes me as especially Victorian, this idea of putting multiple frames around a work. And although Incarnadine is set in the Middle Ages, the dual conceit is that it’s either a contemporaneous Victorian forgery from Stoker’s era or, if you want to believe it’s a “real” memoir, that it was written in the first person during one of the gaps in Stoker’s narrative. I literally picked a period from Stoker’s timeline when Dracula is missing from the action for a few days and had my Dracula figure assign a completion date to the manuscript that corresponds. Conan Doyle used Dr. Watson as his amaneunsis, and the conceit was that the stories were written by a real person about a real person, except for the handful of stories written as if by Holmes himself or in the third person. And of course Stoker’s Dracula is written in this very complicated epistolary voice, by Harker, and the captain of the Demeter, and Mina, and Lucy -- everybody except Dracula. So I thought it was his turn.

Q: What do you think of the original?

Greene: It endures because it’s compelling. Psychologically, sexually, morally and, folklorically, Dracula is a compelling piece of work. There are better written books from the same period that are forgotten, and other ones that are remembered but are only read when they’re force-fed to students. It’s a tribute to the strength of the idea and the conception that contemporary readers are willing to struggle their way through a very dense and in some ways antiquated piece of writing because its ideas are so good. We don’t remember Varney the Vampire or Polidori in the same way, even though they got there first. Stoker was trafficking in areas of the id so potent they still enthrall readers today. He’s as much a precursor to Freud as he is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So I think despite some blemishes, Dracula is literature. My own purposes and needs are very different from Stoker’s, but it would be presumptuous of any writer to aspire to more than footnote status where the original is concerned.

Q: What about The Charnel House? The “re-imagining” of Stoker?

Greene: Coming soon – perhaps finished as you read this, if anyone does read this. There’s a piece of it already available as the coda to Incarnadine, if anybody wants a small taste of a much larger work. Again, the book is designed to co-exist with the original, in that a conceit of the “memoir” structure is that Mina, Jonathan Harker and Stoker were historical contemporaries, and that Dracula might be the official story as Harker wanted it to be told, rather than the complete truth. Unless my book is all a forgery perpetrated on Mina Harker in her dotage. There’s that Victorian addiction to frames again.

Q: For the curious: who are your favorite authors?

Greene: I go through phases – I’m in a T.C. Boyle phase right now, sparked by a belated reading of Drop City. Recently I was reading a whole bunch of stories by a Canadian writer named Morley Callaghan, who was a protégé of Hemingway’s until he knocked Hemingway down in a boxing match refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald – they really lived back then. As a kid, I’d say it was Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and comic books, until my brother Jim gave me a box set of Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks for Christmas and my head exploded. I was a precocious tween fan of E. L. Doctorow, although I haven’t been able to get through anything major written after Billy Bathgate. Sentence for sentence, I don’t think anybody has ever written American English better than Flannery O’Connor or F. Scott Fitzgerald. For recreational reading, I used to go to James Ellroy until he turned into a screenwriter. Nowadays it’s John Le Carré, who in my opinion is the Nobel laureate of genre, and has also written two of the best books about the post 9/11 predicament and what it’s cost us all while we weren’t looking. I’ve read a lot of Anthony Burgess’s stuff, and come to think of it, Nothing Like the Sun may be an unconscious influence on Incarnadine, though again I’m not in any way putting myself in the same league by saying that, just the same sentence. For what it’s worth, I think Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater is one of the scariest and funniest novels I’ve ever read – his King Lear, and he’s one of the few writers I can think of who probably deserves to have one.

Q: What was the first novel you ever read?

Greene: Dracula by Bram Stoker. Honest and for true.