If the recent raft of horror genre mash-ups — Jane Slayre, Android Karenina, Wuthering Bites — is any indication, you never want to retell a classic unless you can bring something new to the party. Historical novelist Karen Essex's contribution to the literary potluck, Dracula in Love, retells the bloodthirsty count's tale from his victim (and No. 1 crush) Mina Murray's perspective. Essex's book, however, owes more to the elegant, postmodern tradition of Wide Sargasso Sea than to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
“What I thought I could bring to this story was a vivid re-creation of life in the late Victorian era for a woman,” Essex says, settling into a booth at Fraiche in Santa Monica on the evening of her book-release party.
One hurdle was erasing Winona Ryder from her mind. Ryder is the Gen X actress who played Mina (saucer-eyed, petulant, bad accent) in Francis Ford Coppola's operatic 1992 film. Essex started with the name Mina Murray and tracked down the Murrays' ancestral town in Ireland. Inasmuch as the mystery of the writing process can be quantified, Essex's begins with research and ends with hearing voices.
A former journalist, she first embarks upon “a study of the culture.” In this case, she read The Woman's World, a magazine edited by Oscar Wilde, and The French Lieutenant's Woman.
“Because I am slightly obsessive, I moved to London last spring,” Essex says. “I got a place in Chelsea that was built in 1890, because that's where the book takes place. It was walking distance to the Victoria & Albert Museum, where all the artifacts are.”
In London, she wrote for 10 to 12 hours a day, a practice she describes as trancelike. She talks about the isolation process, the need to create a protective space to generate the novel's other world. “I've spoken with other novelists about this. They go through the same thing. We get a little afraid,” she says. “We know it's coming. This time to withdraw. We love it, but we fear it, too.”
In London, Mina emerged. Black hair, green eyes, gorgeous pale skin. A posh voice, conscious of elocution and grammar, eager to sound like a lady. A traditional angel of the hearth, not the suffragette Essex wished her to be.
It's a literary cliché that writers hear their characters speak. Essex, though, hears them as if they were sitting in the room next to her. “In the end, I know this sounds insane,” she says, “but I can't stop the voices. I can't stop the dialogue.”
When she was writing her book about Cleopatra, for instance, she heard a man talking to her and realized it was Julius Caesar. The idea is not so crazy coming from a woman who describes writing of past eras as akin to “the quantum theory of time,” where all times happen simultaneously.
Even Bram Stoker makes an appearance in her book, a novelistic twist of fate. He runs into Mina and her friend Lucy and becomes fascinated by them, but gets their story wrong. Essex, who first read Dracula when she was a teenager, was always bothered by Stoker's depiction of Mina. “I knew she wasn't satisfied with her role as a Victorian victim.”
With so much revamping of the original 1897 story, Essex is relieved Dracula in Love is being embraced by “the vampire community.” The film rights are being negotiated as we speak. “It would be great to get someone's daughter to direct it, Sofia Coppola maybe?” she says. “Hey, now that's an idea.”
In the backroom, where the party is being held, the Vampire Vineyards wine is flowing. The “Bloody Mina” cocktails — vodka and pomegranate juice — are being mixed. Watching the beautiful people come and go, Essex says that humans have always sought a fountain of youth.
“We have never come as close to it before as now,” she says. “We're making vampires out of ourselves, and making vampires more human. Especially in Los Angeles. I run into people here who look younger than they did 20 years ago.”