Love You to Death
The Unofficial Companion to the Vampire Diaries
By Crissy Calhoun
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2010 Crissy Calhoun
All rights reserved.
Writing Like Magic: The World of L.J. Smith
"Since I was too young to really remember ... I looked for magic." Lisa Jane Smith read all about magical worlds in her favorite books by C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Smith wanted "to write for kids when I was a kid. I knew the kind of books I liked to read and there just weren't enough of them. Nothing to do but write them myself. I'd been telling myself stories ever since I was four or five, and writing them down was just the next step." With encouragement from a teacher who praised a poem she wrote in grade school (a poem which Lisa Jane now calls "horrible"), the budding writer started her first novel while she was in high school. In fact, the idea for the story came to her while she was babysitting. She took her time writing it, working on it slowly through college as she got her BA in experimental psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Looking back, Lisa Jane can see that she took to writing naturally: "It felt easy to write, I enjoyed doing it tremendously." But her parents warned her that making a living as a writer was a very difficult thing. So L.J. became a kindergarten and special education teacher, and she wrote in the evenings after spending her days at school.
Since she didn't own a typewriter, let alone a computer, Lisa Jane took her first finished manuscript to a professional typist. "She said it was the best manuscript she'd seen ... and asked if I was interested in being agented." The answer, of course, was yes. Though it took a little while, the manuscript for The Night of the Solstice eventually sold to Macmillan, and it was published in 1987. L.J. wrote in a blog post, "I'd started writing a book at 15 and it had only taken 10 years to get it published!" Her editor at Macmillan picked up the book's sequel, Heart of Valor, which was published in 1990. Both books were well reviewed but failed to generate a lot of sales, which L.J. suspects was in part the result of abysmal cover designs. Lisa Jane excelled at her teaching job and was nominated best teacher in the district by her school, but the amount of energy it took to work all day and write novels in her nonexistent spare time was too much. She left teaching behind to become a full-time novelist. "Every fall I get very nostalgic about teaching, but writing is more fun."
With her focus completely on her writing, the 1990s would be an extraordinarily prolific decade for L.J. Smith: she would publish 22 books. The first four novels were a series, The Vampire Diaries, about a beautiful, self-centered teenage girl in a small Virginia town who meets two brothers with a dark secret that leads her and her best friends into the world of the supernatural. L.J. explains, "I was given a call by some people who wanted a trilogy of vampire books [...] and they said that they wanted me, within nine months, to produce three books about vampires. So the idea was that there were two brothers who were both in love with the same girl: one good brother, one bad brother. And I kind of like the bad brother better. That's Damon, and he's one of my favorite characters to work with. So it didn't come out exactly perhaps as it was intended, but it seems that people enjoy the effect, so I can't complain." In 1991, just months apart, Harper published The Awakening, The Struggle, The Fury, and The Dark Reunion known collectively as The Vampire Diaries. "The story is one of redemption," says L.J., "of how a girl who's really kind of a social butterfly and an egoist learns that she's not the [center] of the universe; she's not the thing the world turns around. And she realizes that other people mean a lot more than she does. And it's a story of redemption for the boys too, especially for Damon, who ends up finding himself with a choice to sort of stick by her side or to perhaps go with a greater villain and stay alive."
The next year L.J. had another series for Harper, The Secret Circle, which centered on a young girl named Cassie who finds herself drawn into the world of witchcraft. In 1994 and 1995, L.J. Smith created two more three-book series, The Forbidden Game and Dark Visions. In 1996, the first book in the Night World series, Secret Vampire, was published. L.J. would stay in this world of vampires, witches, werewolves, and all manner of supernatural creatures for nine more installments. In each book, a Night World being and a human are drawn together by the "soul mate principle," which is not dissimilar to Stefan and Elena's initial attraction to one another.
As the 1990s drew to a close, L.J. Smith's personal and professional lives entered a period of crisis. Her focus was on her family — on her brother's serious illness and on her mother's battle with terminal lung cancer. "For 10 years actually, just like a faucet, my imagination was turned off," said L.J. "And you can imagine what agony that is for a writer. I really wanted to write that whole time and was trying to, but I was not able to." After her mother passed away, L.J. began writing poetry about her mother. This helped her to continue writing, first short stories and then full-length novels; in fact, Smith felt this return to her craft was a gift from her mother.
In the meantime, vampires had clawed their way back to the top of bestseller lists with the enormous success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga (2005–2008), and L.J. Smith's publisher wisely rereleased The Vampire Diaries with updated cover designs. "I was busy nursing my mom, and I didn't know that they had republished my books until they were telling me that the second one had debuted at number five on the New York Times bestseller list," said L.J. in an interview. Though she hasn't read any of the Twilight books or seen the films, L.J. is well aware of the similarities between her and Meyer's stories of human girls who fall in love with a good, animal-blood-only vampires. "There's the floods of mail from people accusing me of stealing, and they list about 30 things from Twilight. I usually write back just one sentence: 'Look at the copyright date.' Actually, I get a tremendous amount of apologies back."
In her trademark style, once L.J. was able to write again, she worked at a frenetic pace and signed up for five more books, including The Vampire Diaries: The Return. "I had been negotiating with Harper to write an adult book for the series, but the YA department didn't want to let go of it. So there was a year and a half which ended with the negotiations going nowhere, but with me writing scenes for an adult book." That work wasn't lost; the world of YA had changed since the first Vampire Diaries books were published, and she could "essentially write my adult epic as three decent-sized YA books." (To compare length, the first TVD book is 253 pages; the first in The Return, 586.) The new group of books tell "the story of Elena falling in love with Damon to the same extent that she is in love with Stefan. So we have a real love triangle."
Though Smith's writing explores supernatural worlds, it's consistently grounded by strong female characters, whether they are of the mortal realm or not. Characters like Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith from TVD and Cassie from The Secret Circle are strong-willed, courageous, and clever. L.J. calls this network of women the "velociraptor sisterhood" — after the "smart, fast, and utterly scary" velociraptors in Jurassic Park — who "[stand] up for your female friends and sisters when they need you most." Her advice for aspiring writers is simple: write, write, write ("Write anything and everything you like, and don't be critical of yourself. Just let it come out and worry about whether it's good later") and read, read, read ("Read all you can and read a variety of books. You'll absorb all sorts of good things, grammar, vocabulary, plot structure — even if you don't realize it. Try the classics, and keep trying them as you get older").
Lisa Jane Smith, who lives in the Bay Area of California, always favors the novel she is currently writing, but when asked to choose her all-time favorite of her books, she reluctantly admits it was "the first omnibus of The Vampire Diaries, because I put my entire self into the Vampire Diaries books. It's like the old maxim, 'Writing's easy. Just sit down at the keyboard and then open a vein.' Singularly appropriate, yes?"
"High School Is a Horror Movie": Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec Turn The Vampire Diaries
"I've had other things optioned before," said L.J. Smith about finding out The Vampire Diaries was to be adapted for television, "so my reaction was at first, 'Okay, another one of those.' But then when they said it was by Kevin Williamson, I realized it was probably a little bit more serious."
Kevin Williamson says he "grew up sleeping in front of the TV. I always wanted to make TV and film. I always wanted to live in a fantasy world." Born on March 14, 1965, in New Bern, North Carolina (not too far from a little spot known as Dawson's Creek), Kevin, his older brother John, and parents Faye and Wade, moved to Texas when Kevin was small, returning to Oriental, North Carolina, when Kevin was in his teens. Kevin's father was a commercial fisherman. Though in early interviews Kevin would joke that he grew up "white trash," he clarifies, "We didn't have a lot of money, but weren't white trash. I had wonderful parents, and they always provided. I always got what I needed." The resourceful 10-year-old requested that his local library subscribe to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, so he could keep up on industry news. He loved reading books and watching movies, but growing up a Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt was difficult for a boy who always knew he was gay. When his preacher spoke about sinners, homosexuals were mentioned in the same breath as murderers and rapists.
A self-described loner in high school, Kevin did his BA at East Carolina University, studied theater arts, and dated his best friend Fannie. He moved to New York City to become an actor and landed bit parts, including a turn on Another World in 1990. The struggle to make a living eventually drove Kevin to Los Angeles to try his luck in the film industry there. In 1993, he decided to finally shrug off the words of a discouraging high school English teacher, who, in marking a short story, had told Kevin, "Yours is a voice that shouldn't be heard." He took a writing class at UCLA and wrote his first script, Killing Mrs. Tingle (a revenge story inspired by that nasty teacher), and it got optioned. Kevin used that money to pay down his college loans, but the script languished with its production company. By 1995, Kevin was 30 and working odd jobs — walking dogs, taking shifts as a word-processing temp, slogging hours as an assistant; he needed a career to keep himself afloat.
One night, alone in his apartment, Kevin heard a strange noise and, as he went to investigate it, he noticed a window standing open that he could have sworn he had shut. A little spooked, he locked the window and called up a friend. The two started throwing horror-movie trivia questions at each other, and with that, the opening scene for Scream was born. Williamson wrote the script very quickly, reportedly in three days. As he says, "The movie just came out of my youth. I grew up with a VCR; Blockbuster was my friend. The dialogue in the film comes from conversations I had with my friends about films from that era." He hoped to at least use the script as a writing sample; he did not expect Scream (which was originally titled Scary Movie) to provoke a bidding war. Dimension Films, a division of Miramax started in 1992, picked it up, and the legendary horror film director Wes Craven signed on.
Kevin was nervous as he began his working relationship with Wes Craven, mostly thanks to "all the Hollywood stories about directors mutilating scripts." At their first meeting, however, "[Craven] handed me back the script and there were pages and pages of notes. It turned out they were all typos. He said to me, 'I'm sorry, Kevin. I used to teach English and this sort of thing bothers me.'" The two would go on to work together again on the other Scream films and on Cursed.
Released on December 20, 1996, Scream became the highest grossing slasher movie of all time, a rank it still holds over a decade later. Williamson was widely praised for revitalizing a tired genre, and he won the 1997 Saturn Award for Best Writing. It was a huge change for the formerly unemployed writer, who was now considered one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood. "Suddenly Miramax was looking for any Kevin Williamson project. I wasn't writing them fast enough, which I didn't understand, because I was writing them as fast as I fucking could." A year after Scream's release came I Know What You Did Last Summer, which performed well at the box office but didn't receive the glowing reviews Scream had. The film's villain was modeled, in appearance only, on Kevin's fisherman father. In December 1997, the same month that Scream 2 came out, Kevin signed a $20 million contract to write, produce, and direct movies and TV shows for Miramax. Bob Weinstein, then cochairman of Miramax, said, "Writers that don't pander [to teens] win the game. Kevin understands this brilliantly, and he's got the talent to go with it."
As Kevin Williamson readily admits, "Everything I do is autobiographical," and nowhere was that more evident than in his first television series, Dawson's Creek. First pitched to Fox but picked up by The WB, the teen drama centered on Dawson Leery, an idealistic wannabe filmmaker obsessed with Steven Spielberg films and struggling with his first romances in Capeside, a fictional Massachusetts town based on Oriental, NC. "I love the teen experience," said Kevin. "There is something very potent about teen drama in the sense that everyone is dealing with their first love." The show's teenagers talked about sex and feelings in an explicit and nuanced way not heard before on TV, and Dawson's Creek garnered a lot of attention for its language, content, and for that season 1 affair between Pacey Witter and Ms. Jacobs. The WB wisely slotted the show at 9 p.m., rather than during the 8 p.m. "family hour," airing it after Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dawson's Creek premiered on January 20, 1998, to great ratings in its core demographic. Part of the show's magic came from filming on location in Wilmington, North Carolina. It "forces the cast to bond because we don't know anyone else," said Katie "Joey Potter" Holmes during Dawson's first season. In season 2, Kevin introduced the character Jack McPhee, a gay teen, whose experiences in a small-town high school were informed by Kevin's own. While discussing Jack's coming-out episode with the media, Kevin seized the opportunity to publicly confirm his sexual orientation. (He had come out to his parents back in 1992.)
Kevin Williamson didn't leave horror movies behind while working on the Creek. On December 25, 1998, The Faculty was released. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Williamson's story of a high school whose faculty is taken over by water-starved aliens was a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Breakfast Club. As Kevin said, "That whole theme of conformity versus individuality fits perfectly into the high school metaphor. I got into that and tried to create the characters that interweave in a Breakfast Club way and then left all the cool alien shit to Robert." (In fact, a viewer familiar with the films of John Hughes can spot the alien-in-disguise among the main cast right away: there's the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal, and the sweet-as-pie new girl. Hmmm.) (Continues...)
Excerpted from Love You to Death by Crissy Calhoun. Copyright © 2010 Crissy Calhoun. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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