Vivian Shaw’s debut novel is one of those books with a premise that sells itself: in Strange Practice, Dr. Greta Helsing is a physician to the undead—and to the vampires, and to all the other supernatural beasties running around her Victorian-esque London. This contrast of the magical and the mundane turns out to be what gets the author’s creative juices flowing…which she discusses below.
One of the things everybody asks you, when you become an Actual Published Author, is “where do you get your ideas?” It’s almost a rite of passage: the first time you hear the question, you think ah, I’ve finally arrived.
The ideas question has always struck me as similar to asking somebody, earnestly and without irony, “Are you creative? Are you a creative person?” inasmuch as there is no good answer to it. The more useful version is “what inspires you,” or perhaps “why do you write what you write?” For me the answer is and always has been contrast.
The concept of contrast fundamentally underlies practically everything of interest. Without contrast between two states there is no potential energy, no voltage; without contrast there is no binary language, no chessboard colors, no dynamic range. In the world of fiction, contrast is key—in plot, character, setting, conceit.
This is why I particularly love to write stories that contain very sharply contrasted elements, and why I write genre rather than literary fiction. In the simplest terms, most literary fiction can be described as stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things—living in the real world, with no elements of fantasy—and I prefer to read and write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, or vice versa. I want to read about vampires in dressing-gowns doing the Times crossword in ink, sorcerers standing in line at the grocery store, demons holding strategy meetings over Skype. I want to read about bog-standard humans finding portals to another dimension inside their office closet, going on quests through the realms of the unreal, driving spaceships off the shoulder of Orion. And because I want to read it, I write it.
I want to read about vampires in dressing-gowns doing the Times crossword in ink, sorcerers standing in line at the grocery store, demons holding strategy meetings over Skype.
In my original work, I find inspiration from both fiction and reality, through personal experience, and combining the two is both challenging and endlessly rewarding. Taking characters from classic gothic/horror literature and juxtaposing them with a world very much like our own allows me to explore the dynamic potential of that contrast. One of my favorite parts of the fictional universe in which my books are set is the complex and thoroughly ordinary bureaucracy of Hell, which is run as an efficient civil service with branches including operations, infrastructure, monitoring and evaluation, external affairs, and so on. Similarly, I get an enormous kick out of back-engineering internally consistent explanations for how magic actually works. (It’s enough like physics to share terminology.)
A central element of the classic horror stories from which I’ve borrowed several characters and concepts is that the monsters often lack the slightest hint of common sense. One could be forgiven for thinking that vampires in the literature want to get chased down with pitchforks and torches for all the care they take to avoid detection and pursuit. In some retellings, they also suffer from Villain Monologue Syndrome (see ‘Salem’s Lot for a prime example). As a lifelong horror fan, it had always fascinated me to think about what might happen if the monsters weren’t all completely impractical edgelords, and somewhere along the line the idea of sensible vampires was born. Writing about supernatural creatures—extraordinary people—living in the ordinary world, coexisting with humanity rather than trying to destroy or enslave it, seemed like a delicious opportunity to play with contrast and balance.
In the process of imagining how monsters might cope with the ordinary world I had to consider all the challenges they would face, the intrinsic vulnerabilities which each individual type of supernatural creature is known to possess, and what accommodations they might need to manage those conditions—and that led me to think about what ordinary people, living in this world, might make of their eldritch neighbors. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the magical allows for some unexpected exploration of what it means to be a person, rather than a human, and what fundamental similarities exist between creatures of vastly disparate backgrounds.
The juxtaposition of the mundane and the magical allows for some unexpected exploration of what it means to be a person, rather than a human…
In my years writing fanfiction, I have spent a great deal of time exploring the emotional impact of vulnerability, and the visceral satisfaction that comes from reading about normally powerful and dangerous characters suddenly being forced to experience weakness and needing help. This is part of the appeal, for me, in placing the extraordinary into the ordinary—and it allows me to take an ordinary character, a completely standard human with no special powers whatsoever, and have them experience the extraordinary via providing medical care to the undead. The human and the monster are intrinsically different, and yet there are commonalities between them.
This is the answer to both questions, where I get my ideas and why I write the kind of thing I write: I am inspired by contrast, and by the ways in which different perspectives can coexist with shared experience. The character of Greta Helsing, human doctor to the undead, embodies this contrast and bridges two worlds, and in her I find endless potential for storytelling. Greta’s practice is both strange—and utterly mundane.