PW: The Last Vampire is your first novel in nearly a decade. Why have you returned to fiction?
WS: I started out as a writer of fiction, and I think of myself as a fiction writer. I'm 55, and I'm ready to return to this exploration.
PW: By "exploration," you imply you're doing something through your fiction that you're not able to do through your nonfiction books. What is that something?
WS: The interesting thing about fiction from a writer's standpoint is that the characters come to life within you. And yet who are they and where are they? They seem to have as much or more vitality and complexity as the people around you. To me, story is very much secondary to character, and I'm fascinated with creating characters that are at the extreme, like Miriam Blaylock [the vampire protagonist of The Last Vampire]. In a sense, the whole Communion experience [Strieber's encounter with the Visitors—aliens?— detailed in several of his bestselling books, beginning with Communion] is about having such characters emerge into what seems to me to be the real world. Now I'm going to address it indirectly by evolving characters that are just as strange but are part of the context of our own mythology, like vampires.
PW:The Last Vampire is a work of literature, but it's also a horror novel. When its predecessor, The Hunger, came out in 1980, the horror genre was in a very different state than now—it was just beginning to pick up speed, and it became immensely popular, but then its popularity faded.
WS: I'm not so sure that horror should be dismissed as something less than literature. I think that the characters in this book, especially Miriam, demand to be addressed with the same kind of care and intelligence that you would address a character of what's called a "mainstream" novel. I think that the fractioning of fiction into different genres by publishers in order to market it has created artificial separations. The truth is, everything ultimately comes down to the relationship between the reader and the writer and the characters. Does or does not a character address moral being in a universal and important way? If it does, then it's literature.
PW:The Last Vampire has been sold to the movies. Who would you like to see play Miriam this time around? Who can you find who's as beautiful as Catherine Deneuve?
WS: I've thought of the Chinese actress, Gong Li. She was in Shanghai Triad and Raise the Red Lantern.
PW: You've been publishing for a long time. What do you think of the state of publishing today?
WS: I'm very worried about it. I think that the community of publishers has dwindled in numbers, and it is a disaster for the culture. Publishing was never a business that was designed to produce ever greater profits every year—until it became attached to big conglomerates where a person's success is defined by their contribution to the bottom line. Publishing was a business that reliably produced a 6% to 10% profit every year and every once in a while a big fat profit when you got a bestseller. But now, when a publishing company is part of a bigger organization with many different irons in the fire, what they look at is how much profit did a given unit produce each year—and that always has to be more, or the company sees the publishing organization as a failure. So there's tremendous pressure on editors to go for the blockbuster.
PW: There's a certain irony here because you yourself helped contribute to that mentality. Because you're capable of producing blockbusters,
WS: But I'm kind of a loose cannon as far as that's concerned. They never know what I might come up with. I've got lots of books sitting here that have never been published because nobody could make any marketing sense of them. I wrote a western set in Texas in 1871 that nobody will publish. I wrote a thousand-page, very serious novel about an extraordinary love affair that can't be published for the same reason. They just don't fit anyone's concept of how to market Whitley Strieber. I'm going to write what I write, and I've never been stopped by marketing considerations. I'm in it for the adventure, and that does not necessarily involve money. The adventure is an intellectual adventure, an emotional adventure. I got to the point when, after all this weirdness in my life, I could make Miriam new again, getting to levels of her that I never before knew existed. That's why it took 20 years to come up with the sequel.