Interviewed by Gina Wisker
Interviewer (I): Elizabeth Miller, thank you for talking to me.
Respondent (R): OK.
I: What, as an academic and a scholar on vampires – and in particular Dracula studies – got you into vampires?
R: Well, I’m the last person in the world that anyone would have thought would have gotten into this field, because actually my bent is very realistic. When I was growing up, I always enjoyed realistic fiction. I don’t know if I ever saw a Dracula movie as a child. I’m not a candidate at all for this. Up until 1990, if anyone had told me I’d be a Dracula scholar, giving lectures on Dracula, I would have laughed, laughed them off altogether. What happened was a combination of two or three things. I had done a master’s thesis many years ago on Byron and Shelley, and in the late ’80s I was asked to teach a senior course on the Romantic Poets. When I went to look at what had been done before – there’s Byron and Shelley and Keats – I said, ‘Well, where are the women?’ I decided I was going to throw in Mary Shelley. So during the course of teaching Frankenstein as an anti-romantic novel essentially – that’s how I did it, as a critique of romanticism – I ran across something that I never knew before, about John Polidori and the first vampire story. Isn’t this interesting? I just tucked it away for the time being. Now, two or three years later, about 1991, I was teaching a first-year course on the novel. All of our students had to take first year English.
I: They were all taking the novel....
R: Yes, and there were quite a few students in the class, of course, who didn’t want to be there. So, again, I tried Frankenstein, because most of the unwilling victims were science students and I could give it the science slant. The next year I thought I’d try Dracula and just a one-off, and it was so popular – the students just loved it. Some of the students came up afterwards – one engineering student came up and said it was the first novel he’d ever read, and now he was going to read another one, because it was so good! There was not a lot of critical analysis – not theoretical criticism at that level. But I did think, ‘Well, if I’m going to teach this I want to investigate it for myself.’ Because I didn’t know enough about the subject, any more than the Mary Shelley thing. I started to do some very, very intensive research on it, started to read up on what had been done. Meanwhile I kept on teaching it to first years, then in a Gothic Lit course, and finally even in a graduate seminar – the latter allowing me to get deeper and deeper into the criticism. Then it struck me: there’s been much written on Dracula but, God, a lot of it is darn sloppy, and this novel deserves better than that. If you excuse sloppy treatment, you’re undermining the academic validity of teaching the darn thing. So I started to do some serious research on Stoker’s sources and discovered that what was being stated as fact was quite often either totally contradicted by facts or else was pure speculation just tossed out there as fact. And so it went on from there, that’s the short answer!
I: And it built up?
R: And it’s built up from there. I just kept at it and kept at it and kept at it. And I’m still not into the wide range of horror fiction – just Dracula. Other vampire fiction interests me mainly insomuch as that Dracula informs it or influences it in some way.
I: But that’s the hallmark of a particularly scholarly approach.
R: Exactly, yes. I do try for eclecticism when it comes to reading, a way of reading Dracula. I always used to tell students, especially graduate students, ‘Do not approach this novel looking for feminism or looking for Marxism. Approach it with a tabula rasa and just see what comes.’ Because this happens so often. People are told that all literature is feminist political text, so therefore you have to go and read a novel from this perspective and you miss all the other stuff! Don’t close down a text – open it up! Dracula lends itself to that so well. I think that’s one of the reasons, one of the things, that validates the novel. I have a former PhD student who is now teaching a course in critical theory for third year students. Now you know how students just love critical theory! So what she does is, she teaches Dracula, and then she introduces all the theorists, using Dracula as the text. And the students love it.
I: Instead of teaching the theory and abstract she lets it grow out of the novel.
R: That’s right, lets it grow out of the novel. Because one of the frustrations I found with university was over-emphasis on critical theory. You never looked at the literary text, heaven forbid, it was all the theoretical stuff, which is fine....
I: And then you’ve got to apply it.
R: Yes, exactly. What’s the good of all this stuff? It has no meaning unless you have a text in the mix.
I: So, your teaching of horror – because you’re talking about a colleague – would be what? You talked about the engineering student – how would you engage them?
R: Well, I taught mainly at the first year level. I would do things like – ‘OK, Bram Stoker was a mathematics major.’
I: Oh, he was?
R: Yeah. Now just look at the novel and see if you can see the signs – when you’re reading it. See if you can see the signs of a mathematical mind operating there. You know, just something as basic as the use of dates and times, as well as the structure of the narration. Look at all the different ways of narrating and look at how Stoker uses modern technology.
I: You’re going in through their interests?
R: Trying to, yes.
I: And hooking them in. And, changing the angle of this for a minute now, you were saying that you’re backing up – is it a Dracula opera or a Dracula ballet? Or a musical?
R: There’s a ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada, who premiered a version, an adaptation of Dracula in 1998, and ever since that – I was there for opening night – whenever they bring it back, resurrect it, and take it on tour they invite me to go on tour with them to do what they call the pre-show chat. The audience comes 45 minutes early, and I give a short talk on Dracula – because most of the people going to a ballet don’t know anything about Dracula, they probably haven’t read the novel. I give them a little crash course in Dracula and how Dracula is suited for ballet, and how the music of Gustav Mahler works with that. And they keep bringing me back. I just love it. It’s such a fun thing to do.
I: In a sense that’s teaching the novel as well, isn’t it?
R: It is teaching the novel to another group in another context. You can tie it in so many different directions.
I: So this is a real popular cultural link-up for you – well, not really popular culture, I suppose, semi-popular culture, isn’t it, because it’s quite high brow.
R: Yes, the ballet, oh yes, certainly very high brow, yes.
I: Well, Dracula’s popular culture.
R: But it’s wonderful because again it validates the novel and they take it seriously.
I: OK. I think we’ve just about finished. Thank you very much.
R: Oh, you’re welcome.
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