Vampires continue to be all the rage, and for her latest novel, Just Wanna Testify, Pearl Cleage is happy to take her fans back to the West End, a fictional neighborhood in Atlanta, to give readers a healthy dose of bloodsucker fun. Here, a group of female vampires—dubbed the “Too Fine Five”—survive on tomato juice instead of blood. But they do need some men to mate with, and therein lies the conflict. We talked with Cleage about her latest vampy romp.
Read more great books, some with a supernatural bent, by African-American fiction authors.
Are these the first African-American vampires in print?
No, they have been introduced by Tananarive Due and Octavia Butler, to name just two. My own creation of vampire characters grew directly from encountering high fashion models in Vogue several years ago and realizing they all looked like vampires to me. What if, I thought, somebody dropped a half dozen of those girls into the West End community that is the neighborhood featured in many of my novels? What if they were strange and sexy and evil? How would my longtime hero, Blue Hamilton, deal with their presence and with their mission?
I found the whole idea of such interaction impossible to resist, especially since Blue and several of my other recurring characters speak frankly about remembering their past lives, so the idea of supernatural beings was already a part of the fictional community's folklore.
Why the thin, elongated bodies?
The vamps’ tall, thin bodies grew directly out of my experience of those Vogue models. Page after page of amazingly tall, incredibly thin, dead-eyed, red-lipped women with their hair skinned back and their mile-high heels, selling me clothes I couldn't wear on a dare.
These women are like another species of being to me, sort of a cross between beautiful birds and wild giraffes. I have actually met some legendary models and the experience of meeting them in person is at least as weird as encountering them in [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour's glossy pages. I wanted these vampires to stand out immediately as different from human women. Even the people who saw them on the street and did not immediately know they were vampires, knew they were something strange and mysterious. Sort of like standing behind Lady Gaga at Starbucks.
Why have the vampires drink tomato juice? Was it in an effort to humanize them?
The thing about vampires that always makes me a little queasy is that drinking of the human blood from the human neck thing. I didn't want my girls to have to prowl the streets of West End looking for potential victims just to sustain themselves, so I had to come up with an alternative source of whatever it is they need to live.
I thought the idea of tomato juice was funny because it's red like blood, but completely harmless and easy to come by, especially since they pride themselves on growing such wonderful tomatoes. The thing that was fun for me as an author who is usually grounded in such realistic settings and stories—my past life characters notwithstanding—was that since I don't really believe in vampires, I could make up any characteristics without worrying about whether or not it could really happen. I never wanted to humanize the vampires. I wanted to emphasize their strangeness. They are, after all, the undead. The whole arc of the book is that the only thing that can overcome that undead-ness, that potential for evil deeds, is love.
Was the vamps’ mother overprotective or acting on their best interests?
Their mother was acting in their best interests, based on her own story with men, which included only bad and abusive relationships. The deal she made on their behalf was done to protect them, although it could be argued that turning your daughters into vampires is not the best solution to abusive male behaviors.
They clearly adore him—do you think the vamps would re-elect Obama in 2012?
I don't think vampires would participate in the political process, even though I think they would love to have President Obama visit their island. From what I know of our First Lady, this is not a possibility.