Sarah-Jane Stratford is a horror and fantasy writer with a difference.
Her novel ‘The Midnight Garden’, subtitled ’a Millennial novel’, is about vampires who have lived 1,000 years. They are called upon to fight Hitler’s Third Reich. The paperback comes out in the US on 28th September.
Sarah-Jane studied medieval history at the University of York in England, where she wrote a thesis about women in the manorial court system which gave her an appreciation for the modern era. Although she loves the UK she now lives in New York City.
She has also written plays and screenplays, and her script ‘The Tale Of The Torturer’s Daughter’ placed her in several contests and got her an agent.
She is a lover of theatre and is currently working on two stage plays as well as writing the next set of millennial adventures.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse, we picked out a bottle of Passac-Leognan, then we spoke about vampires and history.
Do you think that romance always needs a dark flower at its heart?
Absolutely. Specifically, the Amorphophallus titanum, aka the “carrion flower,” which smells like decomposing flesh. And the garden doesn’t get weeded as often as it should. I may be carrying this metaphor a bit too far. Or possibly not far enough?
Tell us about the influence of medieval history on your writing.
While my degree is in medieval history, I would say that my influence comes from a much wider historical scope. History, along with mythology, is the original source of our stories. For me, whether I’m writing something serious or funny, with or without a fantasy element, I almost always turn to the past as a way of limning the present. History, if we pay attention, has to power to inform us as much about ourselves as about our forebears, recent or distant. To take a pop-cultural example, television’s ‘Mad Men,’ about the world of advertising in 1960s New York, has a comparatively small but devoted fan base and inspires discussion in a wide variety of milieu – referenced in op-ed pieces, magazine articles, and academic papers; as well as, of course, advertising. The accuracy of the show’s history shapes the drama and the characters. It also illuminates aspects of ourselves. History, in whatever guise, creates a prism through which to see both past and present with a clarity that can – and sometimes should be – disquieting but also revelatory.
So I set my personal writing bar kinda low.
In truth, my main service is always to the characters and their journeys. And that is where my knowledge, understanding, and love of history come to bear the most powerfully during the writing process. I could in no way pretend to tell a true story about a character in a given period if I did not know the true history. Or rather, I could pretend, but everyone would know it and would – rightly – give me a lot of grief for it. So history helps me get at the truth.
And then, perhaps sounding like a vampire myself, it gives me a lot of material from which to pilfer. It is tremendous fun to take a bit of history and really turn it on its head. I’m not sure what any of my former professors would say about it – I’ve issued a preemptive apology – but I definitely have a very jolly time.
What do vampires represent in your fiction and is their immortality a way of animating history?
Ah-ha, you’ve uncovered my secret! Like many (possibly insane) historians, I’ve fantasized about either a TARDIS or similar means by which I could just go and investigate certain chapters of history first-hand. Preferably without picking up strange diseases. There is something of a piquant appeal in the notion of living repositories of history, right here, who could tell us honest, first-hand accounts of historical events – if only we knew how to access them. Conversely, the vampires are sometimes frustrated by their inability to acquaint the humans with finer points of history – namely, where present activity is repeating steps that lead to catastrophe. The vampires can participate in the human world to great extent, but there is always a distinct, if invisible, veil between the two. If it’s to be penetrated, both sides must be open to the possibility.
Enchanted as I am with the concept of “living” history in the shape of vampires, it’s most crucial to me that they are real characters. While they are not human and the pace of their lives moves differently from humans, they nonetheless have many human attributes. It’s these attributes that guide them through the story. And yet, as non-humans, I find it fascinating to juxtapose them against inhumanity. For me, locating vampires in the midst of World War II creates a prism through which to contemplate the nature of evil, and what it means to be truly “human.”
Tell us about your time in LA writing screenplays.
AKA: my lost wilderness. I grew up in LA, and it was not my intention to return, but I surprised myself by making inroads in the film world – surprised because I am at heart a theatre and book person – and wanted to pursue that. I won some contests, got an agent, had a lot of meetings – it seemed to be happening and I didn’t want to question it. Moreover, I didn’t want to question how well the writing was going. I really loved writing screenplays – it’s so disciplined. I’d never worked in such a way, balancing technique and creativity and never losing sight of either. Which is to say, I’d been doing it wrong before, but that’s fine. I was fast, but also efficient. I loved dialogue, but learned not to let it overwhelm a scene. Despite having been writing since childhood, taking classes, and being in writers groups, it was only here when I learned how to embrace the rewrite process and be brutal about cutting anything that wasn’t working – even if I loved it. I soon found that what I wrote to replace the excised text was better because it served the story more completely. This may all be almost revoltingly obvious, but it’s one thing to realize all that in a seminar situation and another when you are angling for a job. Nothing quite like raising stakes to get you on your game.
Ultimately, my theatre-and-book loving heart told me I’d wandered in the wilderness far too long and so I moved to New York – the right thing to do, since within a year of so doing, I’d sold my first book. However, the time spent in LA was not for naught. My former agent, who is now a producer/manager, helped me get my literary agent. Several of the people I knew in the film and TV industry were able to help me in a variety of ways on the road to publication. They always tell you how crucial it is to maintain contacts and not burn bridges – turns out, they’re right.
What do you think vampires represent to our psyches and in what ways is that tied up with their appeal?
Vampires have classically been a representation of human darkness, if not outright evil. They appear human, but are without souls. They live in darkness. At best, because of their animated corpse state, they might be considered simply shadows of a self, but nonetheless malignant.
Being human, that which frightens us also fascinates us. The vampire myth endures because we want to see what lies in the shadow realm. Darkness is foreboding, but tempting. After all, it’s in darkness that dreams occur. Possibly, if we take a step into darkness and survive, we’ll better know ourselves.
That’s in part the idea I had in creating my own vampires – the idea that darkness has the power to illuminate if you’re willing and open to the possibilities. Some of my inspiration is from medieval ideas of the self – the concentric circles thereof. The individual was located within a house and the circles moved out to village, to farm, to forest and then beyond. The forest, as we know from fairy tales, is not a place to venture lightly – and best avoided altogether. It’s dark and one can get lost – forever. One of the ways in which a man must prove himself before he could become a knight was to venture into the forest alone and triumphantly return. You are stronger for having survived the darkness.
The forest is also a place of romance. But it is a dangerous romance, because of all you cannot see. I think a strong appeal of vampires, whether of the classic pure evil variety or those that are more complex and have something that might yet be called humanity about them, is that they are sensual. Dark ages mythology would have us fear the sensual, but we nonetheless wish to explore it.
It’s worth noting too, I think, that in medieval plays, the representation of evil was usually funny. Part of this reflects the idea that to laugh at one’s enemy renders that enemy less potent. It also meant you paid close attention to what evil was doing – perhaps you might envy the devil’s freedom to joke, be rude, be sexual. You could enjoy time with evil, but at play’s end, good was triumphant. These were religious pieces, but they had the same effect as a Greek play – that of catharsis. Our relationship to vampires is an outgrowth of this – we can enjoy them, envy their power, their eternal life when they seem to enjoy it – but we ultimately turn away from the temptations of our darkest selves to live a bit more in the light.
In the modern era, this isn’t religious, but absolutely humanist. We have accepted and even embrace sensuality, so now I think the more specific fascination with vampires is their ability to walk on the edge. The dark remains enticing, as does the notion of this romantic eternity. We know we’re mortal, we know youth fades – so much harder to accept in a youth-driven culture – we know that while we can let loose, we can’t run wild always. The idea of those who can, therefore, will always burn bright. The vampire is in some ways the beast within – and I’ll end by saying that I think it’s an open question as to just how “beastly” that beast is.
You love the theatre and mention Shakespeare as one of your favourite writers. Do you think his enduring appeal lies not just in his poetry but in his insights into the extremes of good and evil as they exist within human nature?
But you probably want me to elaborate. Put most simply, Shakespeare told the truth. The truth about the entire spectrum of who we are as humans, and all of which we are capable. I think that it’s less about the extremes he highlights and much more about the nuances he illuminates that renders him so universal and immediate and relevant, even all these years later. We can see the whole of ourselves in his plays.
That’s part of why my vampire characters are so besotted with Shakespeare. While they remember their humanity and are, of course, keen observers thereof, they find in the plays exquisite delineations of that to which they are so closely bound and yet are so irrevocably not. They have feelings, they can love, but they don’t have souls – and so here is laid bare the human soul for them to truly know.
It’s complex, and I must say I love the contradictions. The vampires love the human world – theatre, art, music, science, literature, mathematics – love and need it. Not just for physical sustenance, but so much more. They love so much in humanity, and yet they kill. But they do condemn war – not merely because it cuts into their food supply, but because they know that humans have a choice. One group does not have to wreak havoc upon the other. Humans don’t need the blood of other humans to survive. We have the capacity to be above such violence, and yet we keep unleashing it.
Which both the vampires and Shakespeare understand, even if they don’t accept it. There is a heartbreaking inevitability about some of our actions. There always has to be the hope, however, that in studying these contradictions of ourselves, we come to comprehend it and from comprehension, we come to find ways to be more of our best selves, as we know exists, and rise above our worst selves, though knowing that exists as well. I think in telling the truth of ourselves, Shakespeare argues that we must strive to be our whole selves, even with our flaws. We are a labor that is worth the effort, even when we fail.
And the poetry is lovely too.
Do you think that at the heart of the vampire myth is a sense of tragedy?
I really think it depends upon your perspective. Someone who was human dies and loses their soul, which is a terrible tragedy. They are then forced to literally prey upon other humans to maintain their unnatural life, which is both tragic and ghastly. Youthful innocence is cut down in its prime, for no reason than to feed the living dead.
Although soulless, vampires need not be void of awareness, and can even be conflicted about the parameters of their existence. I was interested in exploring layers – the idea that they could enjoy their life not because they took pleasure in their evil, but because there were genuine joys to be had in their world. Light in the darkness. In my view, that light is love. While much of the focus is on the love between attached vampires, it can also be the love of friends, or of art. But it’s this that enables you to have a long life, and perhaps grow less monstrous. My vampire characters are mindful about choosing their prey – they stick to the demimonde and anyone whom they think won’t be missed. It’s cynical, but effective. When they find love, the method of maintaining life is rendered unimportant. They have to eat, of course, but it’s the least of their pursuits.
I was also interested in the idea that there might be an element of personal freedom in the vampire world greater than that they knew as humans. That stems in part from the medieval portrayal of the devil, as mentioned earlier, but I wanted to go further. A human woman in ancient Britain would have few or no resources for education, but as a vampire, the world of books is open to her. Jews and homosexuals, persecuted as humans, find acceptance amongst vampires – although on entering the world, they not so much relinquish religion as their faith relinquishes them. They are still part of a group hated and feared by humans, of course, but now they have the advantage of supernatural strength and other abilities, so they are not easily targeted. It’s a kind of liberation, even though they are consigned to darkness. They learn how to see in the dark – and find a lot to see.
Personally, I consider death to be less of a tragedy than a life lived without love or happiness. Overall, the vampires agree.
Do you think that ultimately you are a romantic writer?
Well, I certainly am a hopeless romantic. With all appropriate emphasis therein. But I prefer to eschew labels. If I start labeling myself, then next I might start pigeonholing myself and then where will I be? I’m a writer, full stop. This novel has a powerful romance at its heart, but it’s also historical, fantasy, and a thriller. I’m working on a play that is a satire about censorship and sedition. I’m planning a novel about World War I espionage and theatre, as well as one about a medieval woman’s quest to restore her family’s name and honor in the midst of fighting demons and the plague. And somewhere in there is going to be a jolly comedy or two as well. I like to be open to all stories and write the characters who come to me.
To be honest, I had never expected to write a vampire story. It was very different from everything I had written before. I was more influenced by ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ than I’d thought and was so fascinated by the possibilities inherent in locating vampires in World War II, I put aside everything else and ran with it. Rightly so, as it turns out. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s when characters speak to you that strongly, you do well to listen.
I do think, though, that there is a stronger common thread in all the various projects on which I’m working than might be immediately evident. I tend to prefer historical settings – the past gives us so much about the present. I also like the clothes. I’m interested in strong characters trying to navigate complex situations, whether that’s defeating an enemy or falling in love. My goal is always to tell their stories as completely as I can.
And of course sometimes, I just want to go a bit mad and have some fun.
Given the impact of feminism in the modern era, do you think as a medieval historian, that if modern men behaved as Castiglione recommended in his book ‘The Courtier’, it would work nowadays?
I think the first thing that must be pointed out is that men did *not* behave as Castiglione advocated – the book is instructional but also idealistic. Chretien de Troyes was romanticizing the world of the knighthood, not documenting it. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace are considered as writing mythology, not history. The reality of behavior in so far as love and marriage are concerned (and the two did not coincide as often as one would like), was far less romantic.
It should also be pointed out that “courtly love,” to the extent it existed beyond the poetry by which we know it, took place expressly outside of marriage. Marriage, particularly for anyone attached to a royal court, had nothing to do with love. While some couples did end up loving each other, it was usually by luck. The marriage of Edward III and Philippa of Hainult was widely documented as a happy one, but he still took a mistress. Courtly love may have had a sexual aspect, although this would have been very dangerous for the woman, but is generally viewed as aspirational for all. It’s a charming idea – giving poor knights a chance to rise by their virtue and women in loveless marriages a chance to enjoy admiration.
While there have been those quick to criticize feminists for prompting a coarsening of behavior and manners – criticism women have endured since at least the nineteenth century – I think this comes from those who would idealize and romanticize history, rather than actually know it. The institutional inequality of women, much the same as that of other minorities, created much damage. In the middle ages, a man might beat his wife half to death and, if punished, was usually just levied a small fine. Eleanor of Aquitaine was Queen of England and powerful in her own right, but Henry II still had the power to imprison her. We swoon over the romances as portrayed in the novels of Jane Austen, but must bear in mind that she was often being highly satirical of her social sphere. While she clearly saw the best marriages as those where the couple are truly in love and have as the basis for that love an equality of emotion and intellectual capacity, if not education, there is no question but that the husband is very much the head of the household and the superior. The wife may be a partner to him, but she is always his dependent.
More recently, as we’ve just marked 90 years of women’s voting rights in the States, we are reminded that one of the arguments against equal suffrage was that a married woman did not have legal standing of her own – her husband represented her. And if I may bring up ‘Mad Men’ again, whilst of course it’s fictional, it’s still an accurate portrayal of behavior and women’s standing and options. A man might have courted a woman with lovely manners (which didn’t tend to display themselves so much after the honeymoon), but neither of them were conditioned to think of themselves as equals.
I’m of the opinion that lovely manners and equality needn’t be mutually exclusive. To the extent society has allowed the teaching of manners and expectation of polite behavior to go by the wayside has been to its detriment. But to blame feminism for as much is, at best, inaccurate. I’m a strong, proud feminist, but I value manners too. I and all the women – and men – I know want to be treated with respect and consideration. Being of a literary and theatrical bent, I also love when someone sings to me, and would be thrilled with a poem. Heck, I even love to cook and wear slut-tastic heels – occasionally at the same time. Which I regard as highly deserving of poetry! Bottom line: equality is erotic and manners are hot. Let’s all get on that, people!
Do you think that for very different reasons to those intrinsic within the history of modern gender liberation, many women in the West are enjoying loveless marriages, and if so why?
Good grief, I hope not! What on earth would be the point? I suppose there are very odd ducks of both genders who “enjoy” loveless marriages, and far be it from me to judge if they’ve found something that works for them. That sort of arrangement is referenced in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ – “A husband on a low light, that’s what they want, these supposedly unsuspecting wives, the man’s lukewarm attentions just what they married them for.” Which used to be a standard arrangement for both men and women who had few other options if they wanted to be respectable or safe – especially if they were gay. The whole point of fighting for gender equality – and now marriage equality – is so that we’re all free to choose the lives that make us happy. I think what most humans want, wherever they are in the world, is some measure of happiness, peace, and love. I reference that in the book, actually. The individual can define as much for themselves. I’m hardly being original – there’s a reason Thomas Jefferson included “and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, and John Locke before him, were being quite radical. We sometimes forget that Enlightenment thinking remade the Western world. The very notion of all humans, no matter their social stratum, being endowed with unalienable rights, and one of these being the right to pursue their personal notion of happiness, had never before been part of a common dialogue and was certainly not the part of any national document. This was part of the shot heard round the world, I think, because it’s this idea of individual human rights that have prompted people to struggle against oppression of all kind.
On a broadly practical level, loveless marriages are a major feature of history. Marriage for most people was conducted strictly as a business arrangement. If you were royal, there were crucial political factors to consider. This was why those who could sought at least an idea of romance elsewhere. Even by Jane Austen’s time, when more people could marry for love, practicality was still an issue. In ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ Charlotte Lucas marries the pompous ass Mr. Collins because it’s the only way she can gain a measure of independence. She knows full well she is entering into a loveless match but explains that she’s not romantic and “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” While this says a great deal about her as a character, it says just as much about the realities of the time period, especially for women. Later, at the height of the Victorian era, studies suggest that there were four prostitutes for every man in London. This is also the time when love and the sanctity of marriage and children begins to prevail in British and American common philosophy, but single men were not enough to keep those prostitutes in business, so however much some husbands were extolling the virtues of home and motherhood, their money was definitely somewhere other than their mouths.
What liberation movements – economic, as well as social and political – have accomplished is giving women the ability to leave such unsatisfactory arrangements without open stigma or the risk of total poverty. I rejoice to say that I don’t know anyone who feels they must enter into, let alone stay, in a loveless situation because there are no other options. That can often be the case in circumstances *without* liberation movements, but not in places where women have equal rights and protection under the law.
I do think that relationships can be complicated, to say the least. I think a lot of people don’t recognize that marriage, or just long-term exclusivity, requires effort. There are those who say that when it’s right it’s all easy, but my own opinion is that it’s not so much that it’s easy but rather that it’s work you both enjoy and thus it feels easy. There’s a reason why so many plays, books, and movies end when the couple agrees to be together, whether we see a wedding or not. Once you shift into the business of being together, it’s different. Different in a better way, when it’s a real commitment and both people are completely in the room, but that place of being more serious and really forging a life together is just that – serious. Even Shakespeare doesn’t showcase that many married couples. The Macbeths are certainly a strong, loving couple, but perhaps not good role models. Gertrude and Claudius love each other, but…yeah. Both Othello and Desdemona and Leontes and Hermione were happy couples until in each case the husband turned into a lunatic douchebag. And Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus need to kickstart their romance to remember how happy they are.
Honestly, despite how deep some of the cynicism can run, I think the modern artist who’s best delineated the hard truths about living lives together is Stephen Sondheim, another of my artistic heroes. His musicals are brilliant, but they’re only “light” in the sense of being illuminating. The lead character in ‘Company,’ who is so frightened of commitment, at last sings about what that means:
“Someone to need you too much,
Someone to know you too well,
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell.
Someone you have to let in,
Someone whose feelings you spare,
Someone who, like it or not,
Will want you to share
A little, a lot.”
Among other things – and it’s right that the song is called “Being Alive.”
Which is a tad ironic when I reconsider my vampires in that frame. The love between Brigit and Eamon in ‘The Midnight Guardian,’ is deeply romantic and stays strong even over many centuries. Like swans, when they find the right partner, they mate for life. It’s been suggested that I depicted their love as too idealistic, without showing the natural ups and downs they would have, but although they can love with the intensity and depth of humans, they are not human and that does make a difference. They don’t have to worry about much in the way of life’s business. They don’t get sick, they don’t age – they can even still fit into the same clothes they wore when they met, and that was in the 12th century.
Still, it’s love that can give them so much strength and longevity – “gives to every power a double power” – and that’s a big part of what inspired me. It’s the candle they light instead of cursing the darkness. And that is some happiness worth the pursuit.
‘Midnight Guardian’ will be available in November in the UK. Click here to pre-order at amazon.co.uk.
Follow Sarah-Jane Stratford on Twitter at twitter.com/stratfordsj