WILLIAM FREEDMAN: I’m chatting with Michael A. Ventrella, author of Axes of Evil, a high-fantasy novel from Double Dragon Press. But he’s been busy on a new project.
Mike, I’d like to talk with you about your creative process, and I think that has to start with your motivation to write. Your work in progress is a dark fantasy/political satire. What can you tell us about this project?
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Bloodsuckers is about a vampire who runs for President. Here are the first two lines:
“Norman Mark was a politician with skeletons in his closet.
The main character, a cynical reporter covering the election for a small-time newspaper, finds himself in a life-and-death struggle against a powerful conspiracy. The reporter is a disillusioned liberal, but this new candidate Mark has him interested. Crazies on the right are accusing Mark of not producing his birth certificate, of being a socialist and an atheist, of murdering his opponents in order to get the nomination… and of being a vampire. No one pays any attention to these wackos, of course, since everyone knows vampires don’t exist. (Turns out, all the things they are saying about the candidate are true).
When the reporter gets too close to the truth, he finds himself framed for the attempted assassination of the candidate. He runs and goes underground. In order to prove his innocence, he will have to prove not only that vampires exist, but that there is a grand conspiracy of them who have been running things behind the scenes for thousands of years. There’s more to it than that, though — not all of the vampires get along, for instance. Some don’t want Mark to have such a prominent position and will do anything to stop him. And of course, keep in mind that this is a work-in-progress. As any writer can tell you, it may change in significant ways by the time it’s published.
WF: Have recent events changed your work-in-progress significantly? I’m thinking of Tucson, but the unheralded productivity and cordiality of the lame-duck session also turned politics-as-usual on its head. Either event could make any political satirist nervous about the relevance of the point they were trying to make.
MAV: No, I don’t think current political issues will change the book much, except to emphasize the divide we have in this country right now — which are really over minor, stupid things. I mean, seriously, both conservatives and liberals want a strong economy, peace, justice, and the best America that there can possibly be. We just disagree on how to get there. Compared to the difference between, say, us and Islamic terrorists, liberals and conservatives are practically the same. It’s very sad then when one side treats the other as an enemy instead of as someone who simply has different views.
WF: As an author with strong political convictions, what is the statement you’re making with it?
MAV: A “statement” is secondary to entertainment. I’m more interested in writing an exciting page-turner than an editorial. And I certainly don’t want to preach to my audience. But there are some interesting questions that I hope to address in the book: Would we be willing to put up with some evil if we can accomplish a greater good? Do the ends justify the means?
WF: “Willing to put up with some evil”? Is that a question that even needs to be asked? Don’t we do that all the time?
MAV: I suppose, but the question is the degree in which we do so. Imagine a politician who did everything you wanted, and who would make the country prosperous and fight for the things you wanted — would it bother you that he sometimes killed people and drank their blood?
WF: I voted for Bill Clinton, so I suppose it wouldn’t. Never really put much stock in the character issue. But let’s steer the conversation toward process. Which came first for you: the plot? The main character? Or was it the message?
MAV: The title. I overheard someone commenting that Congress was full of bloodsuckers, so I thought “Hey, what if that was true?” It began with the idea of a vampire running for the Senate, but then I realized that President was better.
My original outline was more political — How would someone who had no problem killing off his opponents and using his vampiric powers to control and charm people win an election? I always wanted him to be someone I’d agree with politically, because I wanted to explore the Machiavellian issue. “Yeah, I kill people and suck their blood, but my opponent is a tool of the huge corporations who is going to ruin this country in ways you cannot imagine. Besides, with my powers, I will bring about world peace. Give me a few minutes alone with our enemies and they’ll suddenly decide to get rid of their nuclear weapons, free their political prisoners, abdicate their position, and install a democracy.”
I also had fun putting real people in there. I have Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow debating the candidate, and a funny appearance on the Colbert Show…
However as I wrote it, I felt that it would have a limited audience like that. And I wasn’t feeling the excitement I wanted. Too much message, too little adventure.
So it went through a big change where the political stuff is still there but now it’s more of a thriller.
WF: I always loved that theme: distinguishing between one’s own best interest and some metaphysical “good”. So now that the story has got
that theme plus the main character to carry it, how hard was it to go from message to adventure? What did you have to do as a writer to turn it into a thriller?
MAV: Mostly I went with my gut. The original book was more “West Wing” than “bat wing.” It had lots of dialog and little action — It consisted primarily of people talking about politics. I enjoyed it, but, you know, this is about a vampire! It should be scary and exciting. It should read like an adventure, not a Huffington Post op ed.
So I did what you should always do in a good book: Take your main character, place him or her in a serious conflict from which there is no turning back, and then throw in a bunch of obstacles the character must deal with. Conflict is necessary in any story — and the more dangerous, the more exciting. A conflict can be something as simple as an unrequited love or it can be the end of the world. Earlier drafts had the conflict merely to expose the truth and reveal the character as a vampire. But even I would get bored reading just that story. My other two novels (and my short stories) are all adventures, with twists and turns, and death always a possibility. That’s what I like to read, and that’s what I like to write. So that first version didn’t last too long.
And trust me, I can still make points about politics while lives are in danger!
Once more, a disclaimer: This book is still being written. It will be a while before it’s available for purchase.
WF: Is there anyone else involved in your writing process before you send the manuscript out into the publishing world? Do you have beta readers or a critique group? Does your wife, Heidi Hooper, read your early drafts? If you do have such a support system, what proportion of feedback is well-considered and constructive, and what proportion do you have to tune out?
> MAV: I think I’ve become much better over the years because I listen to advice from experienced authors and editors. You can always get better after all.
It’s important for writers to get professional advice as opposed to just friends and family. The big difference is that nonprofessionals (like my wife) can give me general advice like “This part isn’t working for me” or “I don’t think this character is acting in the way he should” but can’t always tell you how to fix it. A professional, on the other hand, can offer very useful advice.
I tend to give my first draft to Heidi, who may notice things I don’t, but then I want someone else to do a thorough editing. I had an excellent editor on my second novel, and she has continued to assist me in my new work, which I also appreciate.
This doesn’t mean I agree with all of her advice. When it comes to grammatical corrections and obvious flaws in descriptive prose, I definitely pay attention. After all, if she can’t tell what is going on in the scene, it needs to be rewritten. However, there are times where she may disagree with the plot, and then I say “No, I know what I am doing.” For instance, she tends to want to give away too much information too soon — and since much of my work involves mysteries and plot twists, there is a balance that must be met for it to work. Give away too many clues and there are no surprises.
You need to also have someone who understands the genre as well. You don’t want someone who hates science fiction to analyze your short story “Captain Spike Strongarm and the Attack of the Martian Love Gods.” (Now that I think about it, with a title like that, you might not want anyone to analyze that short story.)
WF: Thank you, Mike. Looking forward to seeing you this weekend at Arisia.