Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Vivian Shaw?
At the moment, an expat Brit living in Baltimore with her wife, the author Arkady Martine. I was born in Kenya to a couple of scientists, and my family moved a bunch of times when I was very young, following the trail of postdoc positions, but I’ve been in Maryland most of my life.
Your debut novel, Strange Practice, will be published by Orbit in July. It looks pretty interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
The easiest way to explain it is probably, “Dr. Greta Helsing sees dead people, every day from ten to four and by appointment, at her Harley Street clinic.” Strange Practice is set in a world quite like our own, but with one crucial difference: monsters exist, and magic is real. Greta has inherited her father’s extremely specialized medical practice, catering solely to the supernatural, and gets a lot of satisfaction out of the job – she enjoys performing reconstructive surgery on mummies in particular. Everything’s going along fine when out of nowhere a sect of strange, blue-eyed monks appears and starts attacking both the living and the dead, whereupon Greta and her friends – an accountant ex-demon, a couple of vampires, and a museum curator – have to work together to save the city. The second book is set in Paris, and features a rather different sort of vampire, and the third will be set at a mummy spa and retreat just outside Marseille, following Greta’s adventures.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
In fact the book that would become Strange Practice began its life as a National Novel Writing Month entry back in 2004. My premise at the time was twofold: to get as many characters from classic vampire lit as possible into one story, while also getting to explore the wonderfully creepy world of underground London. I’d just read a SubBrit urban exploration post all about the deep-level shelters connected to Tube stations, and one thing in particular had caught my attention: the 1941-era mercury arc rectifier that was still in place and still in use at the Belsize Park shelter. I knew at once that I had to use that for something, and then the rest of it just kind of clicked into place and I had the bones of the story. I finished it in less than the thirty days NaNo allows, and then over the next decade it sat around while some of the characters in it went on to appear in other stories, grow and develop and become more sophisticated and multidimensional, and finally in 2014 I thought I’m going to strip that down and rewrite it properly, and maybe one day someone other than me will read it. A lot has changed since the initial version of the book – several of the classic-vampire-lit characters had come out; I cut Carmilla and Dracula and his wife completely and ended up using only Lord Ruthven and Sir Francis Varney, but the others will probably show up somewhere later on in the series.
I draw inspiration from almost everywhere. I have a strange kind of memory that hangs on effortlessly to passages of writing or images that I find particularly stirring or meaningful, and so my internal library of subjects is both quite large and extremely varied.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
The same way many people are, I think – by having stories read to me when I was very small, and then reading them myself as soon as I could actually do so. It took a while for me to get introduced to literary fiction, because there weren’t enough interesting people in it and nobody could fly or turn into dragons or anything, they just stood around talking. I’ve always been fascinated by the fantastical, the realms of the unreal, because – well, the ordinary world is beautiful, but it is also ordinary, and I spend my time there anyway. I’d rather, when I open a book, have the opportunity to go somewhere quite different.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I only just got here! All of this has happened in a little over a year, it’s been a little dizzying at times, but I absolutely love the people I’ve been working with. My agent Stephen Barbara and my editor Lindsey Hall – in fact, the entire team at Orbit – have just been fantastic throughout the entire process. It still feels a little surreal to think of myself as a published author.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Do all the research. There’s nothing that drives me up the wall quite so quickly as reading a book for which the author has not done their research and gets basic things dead wrong, and then doubles down on them. I won’t write about a thing unless I’m reasonably confident I actually know what I’m talking about, which is why I use Google Street View to scout locations for book scenes: I want to know what my characters would be seeing if they happened to be walking down this particular street. It’s been invaluable to me with the second book – did you know there’s an entire Google Street View tour of the Paris Opera building, including the lake? Plotting what happens next is so much easier when I know what’s actually physically there to describe.
I don’t try to do a certain number of words a day. Mostly I’ll have what happens next outlined, which helps me get past blocks. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve found it is incredibly freeing to skip over a scene or section that won’t come out – just put “[X SCENE GOES HERE]” in the text and move on to the bit that you actually want to write, and come back to fill in the gap later.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I don’t know exactly, but I was quite young – probably ten or eleven – and I started to write a trilogy that was in retrospect a hilarious pastiche of about three authors I particularly liked, but wasn’t bad for a kid’s first attempt. They weren’t novel-length, probably about twenty thousand words each, and I know I was working on the third book at age 13 because there’s specific references to the car we bought that year. After that I did something a little more original, a fantasy set in a particular world which I continued to develop and do at some point want to do something with, and then there was an unfinished sequel and a similarly unfinished spinoff. I never really read short stories other than episodic stuff like Sherlock Holmes, or ghost stories, so I simply never thought of trying to write them. I read books, so that’s what I defaulted to writing.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Well, if you mean the SFF genre, that’s an impossibly broad question – there’s hard sci-fi, there’s high fantasy, there’s speculative fiction, there’s urban fantasy, there’s YA, there’s horror, and so on and so on. I’m not really familiar with a lot of it, because the stuff I read still tends to be novels rather than short stories, but I want to learn more.
What I think my book brings to the urban fantasy landscape is something I haven’t really seen there before — an exploration of what it might mean if, rather than being sensationalized (and hypersexualized) predators, vampires were just people, with an admittedly inconvenient condition. One thing I’ve noticed as a consistent trait in many vampire stories is that the vampire lacks any hint of common sense, and generally behaves in a reprehensible and dangerous manner such that they require to be hunted down and slain by the heroes, etc.; what if, instead of running around killing everybody and making a nuisance of themselves and attracting attention, they simply got on with it and stayed under the radar, along with the other types of supernatural being? To quote Pratchett, “Undead, Yes! Unperson, No!”
The only vampire-centric narrative I’ve read in many years that really addresses this question is Twilight, and while I have significant problems with other aspects of that series, I think the way Carlisle and Esme Cullen carefully integrate themselves and their adopted family into society and take care not to hurt the humans (or alert them to their presence) is well handled. With my books I’m going in a slightly different direction: my monsters don’t have ancient feuds with one another or lurk in teenage girls’ bedrooms to watch them sleep, and the ones who do behave badly and tear out people’s throats are in the minority. Sensible vampires: an idea whose time has come?
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
Other than the two other Greta books I owe Orbit, there’s a lot more in that universe that wants to be told; additionally, I’ve written a hard sci-fi horror short and have ideas for more (one about practical necromancy and air crash investigation, and one about the plutonium Demon Core that killed two scientists during the Manhattan Project), and there’s the popular history of manned spaceflight which I’ve been wanting to write for years and years, and a collaborative science fantasy epic, and – the list goes on.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I just reread the Bair translation of Phantom of the Opera again to refresh my memory, because some of that is going to be referenced in the book, but before that it was rereading Apollo 13 and before that I went on a King binge. I read extremely quickly, and I love revisiting old favorites, no matter how many times I’ve read them before.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
This depends entirely on the person – but I think Stephen King’s Misery. Not only is it a wonderful story, it’s an incredibly insightful exploration of what it means to write, and some of the ways in which it’s done. The game of Can You? is exactly how plotting works for me, and Paul Sheldon’s breakthrough moment when he figures out how it can be made to work is something I’ve experienced myself: there’s nothing like the rush of a “Misery’s sister” moment when you suddenly get the answer to something that’s seemed impossible. It’s like electrical discharge, energy finding its path to ground all at once. (Also, I want to read the whole Misery series. I always want to read books within books.)
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I have never before been published in my life – never sold a story to anyone – except for writing and posting a lot of fanfic on the internet. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened to me.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Being done with book two! And celebrating with my wife.