Holly Black’s Tithe came out in 2002, instantaneously positioning her as a major figure in young adult dark fantasy. She’s since produced two sequels to that novel, the three-volume Curse Workers series, and the bestselling Spiderwick Chronicles for younger readers, all to rave reviews. In her new novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (Little, Brown), she takes on a topic that might seem to have been done to death – vampires – but somehow she’s produced another winner.
This isn’t meant to sound hostile, but: after Twilight and a thousand imitators, why a vampire novel?
I think that’s a great question. I’ve loved vampires for a very long time. In eighth grade, I guess, my research paper was on vampires. I’ve read countless vampire books and in all the time that I have loved vampires they’ve either been so over that you’d be crazy to write a vampire book, or so popular that writing one would be a waste of time because there were too many of them. Eventually I said to myself, there’s never going to be a time when it makes sense to write a vampire book, so just write one.
Although vampire novels are by definition bloody, you seem to have gone out of the way to make The Coldest Girl in Coldtown particularly gruesome, at least for a YA book. Why did you do that?
I thought about the things that I really liked about vampire books, the things I really missed, and I felt that there wasn’t as much blood in recent books as I remembered in older ones. I really wanted there to be more blood, the presence of it, the description of it. “For the blood is the life.” I wanted there to be horror elements in the book. I was really going after the vampire books that I had loved as a younger reader.
Which are your favorites?
I loved Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. I found a copy of Interview when I was in seventh grade at a garage sale for 25 cents. It had a crazy cover. On the back Louis and Lestat are in white suits, possibly with pink details, with their faces all painted white. It was a truly powerful cover. I have no idea what made me pick it up except that I guess it looked both intriguing and not that scary. I must have read that book a hundred times, over and over. I also really loved Tanith Lee’s Sabella, or the Bloodstone, and Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry. I went back to read these books because it had been so long and I wanted to remember what it was about them that I loved.
Before this new book, you published a short story called “The Coldest Girl in Cold Town.” How are the two related?
I wrote the story for an anthology, The Eternal Kiss (Running Press, 2009). It was then that I stopped and thought, there are so many great vampire books, there have been so many beloved vampire books, do I really have something to say about vampires? Well, I sat down to write the story and I just loved writing it. I really felt like there was something there and so I filed away the idea that maybe I would come back and turn the short story into a novel. When I got around to doing it, I was going to include more of the characters from the short story, but I started writing and I wound up having to throw out the beginning that I wrote because that was the most interesting thing that was ever going to happen to Matilda. I also realized that it wasn’t the beginning that I wanted to tell. I got the idea for a completely different start for the novel, but I decided to keep the title.
The idea of vampires as reality-show stars is novel. Where did that come from?
Well, I watch a lot of reality shows and I was thinking about the way we experience the world today. We tweet about it, we Instagram it, and by “we” I completely mean “me.” Things happen in your life and you wind up sharing them so easily with other people, so I thought, well, these vampires are going to be sharing things that way as well. If we live in a world with vampires, people are going to follow the vampires. Reality shows are already an extension of our lives. I wanted to have it where the official shows are the vampire-hunting ones, but the shows that people are really watching at home are the ones where the vampires are heroes, or anti-heroes really. People are watching the live feed from the vampire’s house.
Also unusual is the idea that the government would not only set up ghetto-like coldtowns to house the vampires but would also allow uninfected people to join them if they want to. Can you talk about this idea?
The coldtowns were supposed to act as quarantine zones, but they’re a little bit out of control. So you have areas that are cut off, but there are some people in them and also a bunch of vampires. The thing about this world and the way the infection spreads is that there are these old vampires who have their own rules and rituals for turning new vampires, and then you have newer vampires who don’t follow the rules and may not be as smart about it. Now there are too many vampires. The coldtowns work pretty effectively as a way of limiting the vampire infection, and because having uninfected people inside to become victims keeps it working the government is not messing with it.
With its glitz and excitement, and of course the potential for immortality, Coldtown does have its attractions. Given the choice, would you like to live there?
No. I’m not sure that at this point in my life I need to make that kind of bargain, but I might have, sure, when I was young. I might at some later point in my life.
Immortality would certainly give you plenty of time to write. Still, you’re quite productive. Do you write every day? Tell us about your process.
First of all, thank you very much for saying I’m productive, because some days I don’t feel that way. Yes, I try to write a thousand words every day. I’ve actually put up my daily word counts online for my last several novels. I do this to keep myself honest, saying exactly when I wrote what part of the book. Certainly the comment I most often get is, “That’s not really a lot of words,” but it goes to show that just steadily working will get you a book. I try to make a thousand words a day, but that isn’t always the reality.
Your novel Doll Bones, a ghost story for younger readers featuring a china doll, came out just a few months before Coldtown. Did the writing of the two overlap? How did the two tales affect each other?
They did overlap. I stopped writing one to edit the other. So I finished Doll Bones before I finished Coldtown. One of the great things about writing middle-grade books is that it’s really a nice break, when you’re writing super intense stuff like Coldtown, to be able to write something a little lighter – calm down and do something different.
You’ve done a number of collaborative projects with artists. How have those gone? How does it feel to get someone else’s view of what your characters look like?
Growing up, my mom was a painter, my best friend was a painter, my husband is a painter. For a long time I knew artists and I didn’t know any writers. Later, I had an idea for a book and ended up working with Tony [DiTerlizzi, on The Spiderwick Chronicles]. He was a really good friend of mine, so it was great to have it be as collaborative as it was, to have it be as collaborative as it could be. With Ted Naifeh [the artist on the graphic novel The Good Neighbors], I didn’t know him as well. It was great to get to know him, but our collaboration was different. I think there’s this moment when you think you know your characters, but then you see someone draw them and you feel, “Oh! I didn’t know that about them!” I remember when Tony sent me a sketch of some of my characters and I immediately thought of them in a totally different way.
You’ve also worked with Cassandra Clare, a fellow writer. What’s that been like?
I’ve collaborated on two stories with Cassandra, and we’re doing a middle-grade project together, The Iron Trial [first in the Magisterium series, due out from Scholastic in fall 2014]. Part of the reason we’re doing it is because of how much fun we had on the short stories. We have a kind of crazy collaborative method, which is that we will sit in the same room and pass the computer back and forth. It’s amazingly quick because whenever I’m stopped – that moment when you don’t know what happens next – I can hand the computer to another person. The other person goes over whatever you wrote and messes with it a little so it may be hard for people to tell who wrote what. It was nice that the voice seemed to work. We’d talk about what might happen and then maybe I would write a rough draft and we’d hand it back and forth so it would come out a very different way. Having someone like Cassandra, with whom I share influences, really helped because we had a vocabulary. Also she’s different from me and can do the stuff I feel that I struggle with. I know we’ve had a really easy time.
Any other projects in the offing?
I’m working on a fairyland book. I wanted to be able to use what I wanted of fairy folklore and so I set it in a different place. It’s called The Darkest Part of the Forest. I’m trying to finish it right now.
And what about Coldtown? The book ends with your protagonist’s immediate problems solved, but many other issues left up in the air. Do she and her vampire lover, Gavriel, have a future? Are the coldtowns ultimately stable or is a vampire-human war inevitable? Is there a sequel in the offing?
I don’t know! I don’t know. I’m sure they’ll do fine. A friend was saying, “These coldtowns, I feel like they’re not sustainable.” I responded, “You could be right, but don’t feel bad.” No, I think one of the real pleasures about writing a book is that you can walk away. Will I ever do a sequel? Maybe at some point. What I really like about the ending is that the questions about what’s happening to the main characters are pretty settled for now. Should I come back to the book, I’ll have to answer those other questions.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. Little, Brown, $19 (Sept.) ISBN 978-0-316-21310-3