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Seth Grahame-Smith: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Seth Grahame-Smith broke onto the classics scene with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Now he's taking on the biography genre with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

By the title, one might think Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a cash-in on the monster mash-up novel idea. Sure, the title sums up the book in four words, but like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it's actually more intelligent than its sensational name. Lincoln's life diverges from the records of history when his mother is killed by a vampire, inspiring Abe into becoming a vampire hunter. It's as an adult that Lincoln discovers vampires buying slaves as a food supply. As we all know, Lincoln rises to political power to become one of the most famous presidents of all time for his fight against the injustice of slavery (and vampirism).

The separation of fact and fiction is not obvious in this "biography", with the vampirical information introduced via a secret diary of Lincoln's. What percentage of the book, would you say, is factual Lincoln information? We've seen news agencies pick up stories from The Onion, so are you worried about this being someone's first biography of Lincoln, and them getting their fact and fiction mixed up?

I'm not sure about the percentages, but I tried to include as much real history as possible. To me, that was the fun of writing (and hopefully of reading) the book: blending fact and fiction as seamlessly as I could. I spent a couple of months reading Lincoln's letters, speeches, reviewing his timeline, reading descriptions of his surroundings and studying photos and paintings related to his life—not enough time to become a Lincoln expert by any means, but enough for me to get a solid grasp of the real life story. As for someone mistaking this as fact? Man, I hope not. That would be truly, truly sad for the individual in question.

Did you have a pre-existing appreciation for Lincoln before writing this book?

Absolutely—but nothing like the appreciation I had for him after I wrote it. As I researched, I was struck again and again by the amount of suffering the real Lincoln endured in his life. Burying his mother. Burying his older sister. His first love. Two of his sons. Coming from absolutely nothing—no money, no education, no family name—and through the sheer power of his mind and strength of character, achieving the highest office in the land (and using that office to save our country from self-destruction).

How did you choose what characteristics your vampires had? They are tolerant to the sun, for instance.

I didn't want Abe's vampire-related activities limited to darkness, so I altered the vampire DNA a little and allowed them to build up a tolerance to sunlight through years of gradual exposure. As for the other characteristics like black eyes, claws, superhuman strength and telepathic abilities? Those I blatantly ripped off from other vampire books and movies.

Vampires were interested in keeping slavery legal, because of the obvious benefits to being able to purchase humans. This dovetails with Lincoln's existing passion for emancipation. In a book that is humorous, were you worried about bringing up slavery? What about slavery can we learn through the telling of your version of the Lincoln story?

I tried to be very sensitive about the treatment of slavery in the book. Even in this alternate history, slavery is a pre-existing evil in America—an evil that tempts some of Europe's vampires to come to the New World and take advantage of the fact that they can feed on slaves without fear of reprisal. I knew early on that I wanted vampirism to represent the idea of slavery. Being a slaveholder and being a vampire are (to me, at least) the same kind of evil—one predicated on stealing another person's life from them to enrich your own.

What do you think of the current wave of vampire lit? Please tell me you read some Stephenie Meyer and Kim Harrison as part of your research.

I haven't read any of the Twilight books (though my wife loves them, and I make constant fun of her for that fact), but I think that anything that breathes life into books and gets people reading is a good thing. There are so many other ways for us to spend our free time now, so when somebody like Stephanie Meyer connects with a huge audience, I applaud them—even if my vampires don't sparkle in the sunlight.

I've talked to a number of English teachers who are still wary of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I assume you now get to add history teachers to that list. What point do you make, about the use of parody and humor in books aimed at students who may pick up your books, but not have read Austen or of Lincoln?

I understand their wariness, but the fact is, I've met a LOT of people (male and female, young and otherwise) who tell me they would've never picked up a Jane Austen book to save their life before PPZ—and that the experience of reading it has led them to read other non-zombiefied Austen books. I hope the same will be true of Lincoln—that reading about his vampire exploits will get people interested in the real man and his real life.

If a reader likes Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and wants now to read another Lincoln book, which of the many would you suggest?

Well, if you really want to delve into his later life (politics; the Civil War; assassination) nothing beats Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. For a broader look at Lincoln's life from boyhood to manhood and so forth, I enjoyed Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.

What are some other vampire books you'd recommend?

I'd start with the ones I loved growing up: Salem's Lot by Stephen King, the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice (to be fair, I've only read Interview With the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat) and the original Dracula by Bram Stoker.

This is the first book where I've downloaded the accompanying iPhone app (a vamp-killing game which I lost by accidentally beheading Mary Lincoln). There's also a book trailer. As someone who's published in the pre-2.0 world, what do you think of these extra features?

I think they're a sign of things to come. Books have to find a way to compete for attention in the Digital Age, and unless you're a Stephen King or a James Patterson or a Janet Evanovich—someone with a surefire built-in audience—you have to find a way to get noticed. YouTube and iPhone Apps are a relatively inexpensive, effective way to do that. I think we're only seeing the very, very beginning of "added content" with regard to books. As more people begin to buy books digitally, you're going to see things "behind the book" video featurettes and "deleted pages" menu items.

I hear you're working on a new book, one not tied to an existing book. I know it's early on, but have you noticed any differences between writing an original tale?

Writing an original tale is both scarier and more fulfilling. Scarier because you don't have the training wheels of a pre-existing text (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) or a real life story (like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), which means that if you lose your balance, you're going to fall hard and scrape the hell out of your hands and knees. But it's also more fulfilling, because if it works, then there are so many more places you can go as a writer.

What's on your bookshelf?

Most of the hardcovers on my shelves fall into the four food groups: all things biographical (Walter Issacson, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and the like), all things Stephen King, all things political (Bob Woodward, Joe Klein and so on), and all things classic. Throw in a little Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, and there you go.

—interview by Sonya Green

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