Today I am delighted to have an interview with M. L. Brennan, author of the wonderful Generation V series! I realized I had come across something special when I read Generation V, which is an excellent first book, and I’ve only come to love the series more with each book I’ve read. It’s entertaining—and often hilarious!—with excellent characters and an interesting twist on vampires. Dark Ascension, the fourth book in the series, was one of my most anticipated books of 2015 after I found out it was coming out this year, and I started reading it soon after its release last week (and, like the previous books, I am enjoying it immensely!).

Generation V by M. L. Brennan Dark Ascension by M. L. Brennan

Fantasy Cafe: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions! The first three Generation V books are some of my favorite urban fantasy books, and I’m very excited about Dark Ascension—and, of course, also that you are here today! First, I was wondering about your earlier experiences with discovering fantasy and science fiction. You credit War for the Oaks by Emma Bull as the book that led to your love of genre fiction even though it wasn’t your introduction to it. Why did this particular book resonate with you so strongly? Did you immediately want to start writing genre stories or did that come later?

M. L. Brennan: Thanks so much for having me! I enjoyed genre fiction for many years, but I do credit Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks as being the book that first got me very excited about urban fantasy as a particular sub-genre. I think what made the book stand out so much was that Bull’s protagonist isn’t a detective, or a private investigator, or in any way initially connected to the mystical world – which, up until then, was pretty much the only mold that I’d seen urban fantasy cast in. Bull’s protagonist, Eddi, is a small-time musician in local bands – and getting unwillingly hauled into a conflict between warring faerie courts isn’t going to distract her from her life, her desire to make a band hit it big, and her pre-existing friendships. There’s such a great focus on character and scenery in this book. I stumbled across War for the Oaks about fifteen years after it was initially published, but I found it just electrifying – just as electrifying as it was to urban fantasy as a whole, because there are a lot of big series that owe a tip of their hats to Emma Bull.

At the time that I read War for the Oaks, I was an undergraduate in college. At the time I was writing fairly seriously, and had already had some of my short stories published in well-respected magazines, but I was working in literary fiction. I continued working in that field through grad school, and actually wrote one literary fiction novel after I’d received my MFA – a novel that, rather thankfully, was never published. But as a writer you’re always accumulating ideas and storylines, so after I’d come to the unfortunate end of my two-year push to get my existing novel published (and realized that it wasn’t going to happen), I decided to write something that would be fun and a palate-cleanser – and that book was Generation V, the first in my series, and War for the Oaks definitely cast a long shadow while I was writing.

FC: One particular feature of your series that I (and many other readers!) enjoy is your unique twist on vampires. What do you find appealing about vampire myths and what are some of your own favorite stories about them? Were there any vampire tropes in fiction that you especially wanted to skewer when you began writing the series?

MLB: Something that I enjoy so much about the vampire as a character type is how flexible, yet at the same time permanent, they are in the public consciousness. If you read up on classic vampire myths you see an amazing progression in how we regard them and what we believe – but they have a resilience in books and films. There’s the Stoker presentation of Dracula (significantly less sexy in the book than in any film, by the way), then the film presentations of Stoker’s Dracula, then Anne Rice’s vampires in book and film, then the behemoth of Meyer’s Twilight vampires. Then there are, easily, a dozen high-profile writers in urban fantasy alone who have vampires of some type. Many are very different, yet we all seem to agree on almost all of the basics (undead creatures, changed by another vampire, fangs, blood-drinking, attraction to teenage girls).

When you look into older vampire myths, so much of what we take as common ground is actually part of our modern creation. Something as basic as how a vampire is created, for example – in a lot of older stories, vampires are the result of a sin on the part of a child’s parents. Sometimes it’s not even a sin – one of my favorite old vampire stories is that a vampire is created when a woman does not ingest salt during her pregnancy. (talk about something that What To Expect When You’re Expecting failed to mention!) Or even what a vampire is will come up. My absolute favorite old vampire belief involves gourds – don’t leave your picked gourds outside overnight, or they will become vampires. (Twilight would probably play a little differently if it was about sparkly gourds)

In terms of tropes – I was a bit tired of the whole vampire presentation. Sexy, brooding, ageless, hanging around for centuries doing not much of anything until the day comes that they fall in love with an attractive and moody teenage girl. To me, there didn’t seem to be much particularly interesting about it, and worse, it just didn’t make any sense to me. A non-aging creature of the night that can reproduce itself with just a few drops of blood? That’s what we call a population crisis just waiting to happen! They’d be worse than rabbits in Australia! Plus, if a creature is never going to die a natural death, then most of life’s basic impetus is taken off of them. There’s no urgency, no worry – just wait around another forty or four-hundred years!

So putting my own twists on vampires really grew out of my own desire for them to not only make sense, but to make them more interesting to me as a writer. That led to the creation of a life-cycle, a parasitic-appropriate reproductive system, and also my own particular nod to the logical outcome of a vampire bride.

FC: When doing research for Tainted Blood, you found Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures by zoologist Bill Schutt a great resource and wrote that “Many scenes owe their existence to Schutt’s excellent book” in the acknowledgments. What are some of the most surprising or interesting pieces of information you learned about sanguivores from this, and what scenes resulted (if you can say without spoilers)?

MLB: I do owe a great deal to Bill Schutt’s excellent and riveting book, which also has a particularly sly sense of humor that made for great reading. Some things were just wonderful little pieces of practicality – for example, Schutt was in charge of tending to the vampire bats at the Cornell bat lab, and that involved feeding them. Simple, we think – not so. The lab was supplied with blood from a local stockyard, which Schutt and another grad student would go down and get. But it turns out that you can’t just stick blood in a freezer – the clotting factors will turn it into a messy lump that will just thaw into a solid, not a liquid. The solution is that the clotting factors have to be manually removed – and that is done by agitating the blood with little hand colanders, then scooping out the clots as they appear. (hospitals get around this by adding trisodium citrate, btw) This turned into one of my favorite scenes of Tainted Blood, where Fort’s sister Prudence walks him through the process of creating defibrinated blood in her kitchen.

There was another particular tidbit that I learned from Schutt’s first-hand experience with vampire bats that became a scene in Dark Ascension. I won’t give away too much, because I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but let’s just say that being an obligate sanguivore is just about the most inefficient feeding system on the planet – lots of liquid intake with low nutritional value. There’s only so much that the stomach can fit at a time, and most of that is just useless water. I won’t say any more, but bats have developed a certain bodily tactic to address this that rather adds insult to injury.

FC: One aspect of your series that I love is how each book reveals a little more about the world and myths surrounding it, and I think you achieve just the right balance between too much and too little information: there’s enough to be satisfying but there are still some tantalizing mysteries to look forward to learning more about in future volumes. What is your process for achieving this balance?

MLB: I tried my best to never overload any particular book, but at the same time I didn’t really want too many things to suddenly just crop up. One of the ways that I approached this was in terms of creatures. The elves, for example, are key players in Iron Night, particularly their use of modern technology to address their population crisis. I knew I was going to be working with them, so I included a scene in Generation V that introduced them in broad terms – that way, when they came up in a bigger way in the next book, there was an element of recognition rather than them being something completely new that I had to introduce from the ground up. For the most part I’ve also tried to do that with the other elements that are important to the story – whenever Fort is going to have a particular issue with his family, or if something is going to be an important plot point in a later book, I try my best to lay it in as a tertiary scene in the present book. That’s worked pretty well when I knew for sure where I was going – other times, when I came up with a great idea while I was elbow-deep in the book I wanted it to go into, it hasn’t quite happened as smoothly!

FC: How many books do you plan to write in this series? Have you considered writing any prequels about any other members of Fort’s family?

MLB: There are six books planned in the series. Dark Ascension is probably the book that I was the most excited to write, since it’s really setting the stage for the major thematic conflicts in the last two books, and in a lot of ways it’s the book where the safety net suddenly gets pulled out from under Fort.

I’d enjoy writing a short story here or there about Fort’s family – they’ve got a lot of history and backstory that right now is existing primarily in my notes – but I’m not sure there’d be much interest in a full novel. What I do get near-weekly emails and questions about is when I’m going to write a book that puts the kitsune center-stage! That’s actually something that would be much more likely to happen.

FC: I love reading your book recommendations on your blog and want more! But, let’s get more specific. What books or series would you recommend people read if they loved these particular aspects of your own books…

  1. The narrative voice and sense of humor?
    Definitely Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. Lish and I have joked that Fort and Sam would be best friends.
  2. The different spin on vampire mythology?
    Richelle Mead’s Georgina Kinkaid series has a very fun spin on the whole concept of creatures like vampires or succubi. It’s a very fun series with an excellent payoff in the last book.
  3. The inclusion of some mythological beings not commonly occurring in fantasy fiction (such as kitsune and metsän kunigas)?
    War for the Oaks includes a phouka, which I’d never seen featured in that form before, and it’s hilarious.
  4. Character interactions that keep one glued to the pages?
    Patrick Weekes’s The Palace Job.
  5. A mysterious history/background that is fun to discover as the book/series progresses?
    Stephen Blackmoore’s Eric Carter series has an amazing series of mysteries and reveals – I’m eagerly awaiting the third in that series!
  6. Endearing characters (like Fort and Suzume)?
    Uprooted by Naomi Novik.
  7. Characters that are interesting because you find yourself liking them one moment and disliking them the next (like Chivalry and Prudence—or, at least, that’s how I feel about them!)?
    A: Max Gladstone’s Craft series. Lots of twists and turns, and I think that Two Serpents Rise was his strongest character book.