Colorado vampire author Jeanne Stein on her latest Anna Strong novel and the future of the series
Forget Edward Cullen and his sparkly friends: If you want a modern take on vampires with a dash of romance and some real bite, check out Jeanne Stein's Anna Strong vampire series. Stein's heroine has starred in eight books since 2006, starting with The Becoming in 2006 through the brand-new Haunted, the most intense to date, featuring a high-stakes fight against Mexican drug cartels and a race to rescue a missing girl. To celebrate the release of her latest vampire epic, Stein will appear at the Highlands Ranch Tattered Cover to read and sign the book on Tuesday, August 28.
In anticipation of that event, we chatted with Stein about her undead heroine's backstory and why you don't have to read the whole series to enjoy Haunted, and also teased out a few hints out about the future of the series.
Westword: You published the first book featuring Anna Strong in 2006, right? And she's a vampire bounty hunter?
Jeanne Stein Exactly. Actually, she was a bounty hunter; that was her day job before she became a vampire. Sometimes people get confused about that. They think she is a vampire bounty hunter -- well, that's true. She's a vampire and her day job is bounty hunting, which she was as a human and that's continued. It's not that she hunts other vampires. It's that she has a business, with a partner, and that's what she did as a human, which of course meant that she's no shrinking violet. She was a tough cookie to begin with, which is exactly what I wanted. I didn't want a "soccer mom turns vampire" kind of a thing. I wanted a woman who had an unusual occupation and was tough to begin with. It was in the course of hunting down a skip that she gets attacked and turns into a vampire.
As tough as she was before, I assume being turned into a vampire hasn't hurt her bounty-hunting business?
Well, because she's so strong and fast, one of the problems with that is hiding the fact that she's become a vampire from her business partner and her family. This is unknown to them. They don't know what happened to her, or that she's a vampire. That's one of the threads that goes through the entire series. All of the books take place in a very short span of time. I'm finishing the ninth book now, and it's just about up to the two-year anniversary of her becoming a vampire. These all take place in a short time period, her transition from a mortal existence to that of her becoming a vampire.
Run us through the rules for vampires in your universe.
Well, they do need human blood to survive. I thought that was an important element. This idea of being able to exist on animal blood or killing rats, I just couldn't deal with that, so she does need human blood to survive. Vampires have adapted to the centuries. She can walk in sunlight. I kept some of the traditional mythos, [like] no reflection in the mirror, which is something I wish I'd never done. In my vampire universe, vampires still have their souls -- they're not soulless creatures. They're the same type of person that they were as a human as a vampire. It's just other things, of course, have changed, like needing blood to survive and not being able to eat food, that kind of thing.
I didn't want to make her a predator, so I came up with the idea of a place in Mexico where vampires go to feed from humans who are paid -- they donate their blood, they're hosts. So that's how she gets her fix when she need it, she goes to this little bar in Mexico and drinks from paid hosts. When she has human relationships with males -- which she often does -- part of the erotic pleasure of having sex with a vampire is if you allow them to feed from you, then that just heightens the experience. That's another way that she can get blood. [Laughs.]
Based on the piece of the Haunted I read, it seems like she occasionally gets opportunities to feed in the course of performing her bounty-hunting duties, as well.
Yes, Haunted is much more violent in that respect that other books have been. There's a reason for it, because obviously she's battling Mexican drug cartels and they're not nice people. They have done terrible things to her friends and people that she's come to care about, so when the vampire takes over, when she's trying to save her friends, she gets to unleash the beast, so to speak. She doesn't mind it. She has kind of some fun with it.
It seems like from what I read that there's almost a split personality thing, where her human side and vampire side coexist within her head, with the vampire side being predatory and almost animalistic. Is that right?
Yes, and as time has gone on, the vampire has become stronger in Anna. That's one thing, in Crossroads, the book previous to this, that Anna had become concerned about, that the vampire is becoming stronger. There's a bloodlust there that's becoming stronger. The human is still in control, so when the human Anna is back, she's back. She does control what the vampire does, and she can reassert herself at any time that's needed. But they are becoming almost two distinct personalities. When the vampire takes over, when she's allowed to take over, then she pretty much reacts as you might think a typical vampire would. She'll go after her enemies and she likes to smash heads together and lick the brains off her fingers.
Vampires aren't the only supernatural beings in your universe, right? Anna has to deal with other creatures of the night from time to time? And there's a shapeshifter in Haunted?
Yes, and there's another shapeshifter she's very close to that doesn't appear much in this book. A shapeshifter by the name of Daniel Frey, who shapeshifts into a panther. He and Calebra, who shapeshifts into a snake, are two of her closest friends in the series. They've been with her since the beginning. Calebra, the snake, actually owns the bar in Mexico where Anna goes to feed.
Are there werewolves or other familiar creatures? Or is that something you haven't addressed yet?
Yeah, there have been other supernatural creatures, but those are basically the main character, though, that are reappearing. Sometimes the other creatures are enemies, or villains, antagonists. Sometimes they become friends. I used vampires and werewolves and shapeshifters. Those are mostly the supernatural characters. I've [also] used witches. Whatever supernatural creature appeals to me at the time I'm plotting a book is kind of what I go after. In Crossroads I had taken a trip through Monument Valley and I was so taken with the Indian culture and the feeling in that place -- it's such a spiritual place -- that it became the genesis for the idea for Crossroads. She was traveling to see a shaman who was rumored to be able to return mortality of the undead. I get my ideas for my creatures I use from whatever interests me. It's kind of fun -- that's the fun part of writing a series like this, is that there are no rules. You can explore whatever you want to explore.
So this brand-new book, Haunted, has her facing off against Mexican drug cartels, which is high stakes, but you mentioned you were working on a ninth book. Is there an end in sight?
I'm working on the ninth book, yes. The ninth book is supposed to be the wrap-up book for the series. I say "supposed to" because I'm not sure. You know, publishing is so in a state of flux right now. Your contracts from one book to another depend on how well your previous book did. My editor said to me, "Okay, I think it''s time to starts something else, so let's wrap up this book but leave it open-ended." In other words, don't kill Anna off, don't kill anyone important off, because you just never know. Besides, the way things are, I have a lot of people who enjoy Anna, reading Anna, as much as I enjoy writing her. The way things are now, I'm sure this will not be the last Anna story, whether it's published by Penguin or someone else or published by myself; I am too invested in this character and I've lived with her for too long. I really can't imagine my life without Anna in it.
As far as Haunted goes, can new readers feel safe jumping in with this book, or do we need to go back and start at the beginning?
That's one of the things I've tried to do -- I've tried to make each book be able to be read as a stand-alone. There are of course some references that people who've read the previous book are going to pick up, but I've always tried to, when I bring characters in, give a little bit of their background without it being an info dump, so that people can pick up the books. One of the greatest thrills for me is getting a review of one of the books from someone who hasn't read the other books and when they say, "I know this is seventh or eighth book, but I was able to get right into the story." That means I've done my job. It means I've laid the groundwork so that if you do happen to just pick up that book, you're not going to be lost. Not like Game of Thrones, where there are 5,000 characters and you don't know what's going on if you don't read them in sequence.
If someone does read this and wants to go back and start at the beginning, are the previous books still available?
Yes, they are. They are all still in print. They're all still out there, which is, let's be honest, the reason I keep getting contracts.
So you'll be reading and signing the new book, and also answering questions for fans as well, correct? Do you enjoy that part of it?
I do, once I get over the stage fright. No matter how many times I do these things, there's always.... Our critique group, which is Mario Acevedo, Warren Hammond, just a lot of local authors, we go out beforehand and have dinner. I need that. No matter how many times I do that, I still get that, "What if I go up there and can't think of anything to say?" [Laughs.] So many of the people that come to these signings, especially at Highlands Ranch, come for every single signing, so I always try to come up with something that's a little different to say at the beginning. [The fans] are so great, they come to all the book signings and I don't want them to say, "Oh, I've heard that story seven times!"
Anything else you want to say before we wrap up?
I just want to say, to aspiring writers, keep writing, keep at it. I know that sometimes it's really hard, and I always get questions from aspiring writers at the signings about "How do you get published?" Well, you just have to keep writing, you just have to keep sending it out there, because perseverance really does it. I wrote for a long time before I got published and if I would have quit I would have missed this great experience.
I think some aspiring writers, too, don't understand: This is a business. This is your work. You really have to do it. You have to do it for a certain number of hours every day and you have a product you need to produce.
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