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Exclusive: Author Leslie Klinger on Annotating 'Dracula'

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Leslie Klinger has made a name for himself as one of the leading annotators of popular fiction. He first won acclaim for his New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which took an in-depth look at Arthur Conan Dyle's timeless detective. And Klinger's followed that up with The New Annotated Dracula, which, while exhaustively researched, has some fun with Bram Stoker's vampire count by treating Stoker's original novel -- which famously uses countless real-world details of the Victorian period to create a startling air of authenticity -- as though it was non-fiction. I recently chatted with Klinger, who's now annotating Neil Gaiman's Sandman, about his love of Dracula, on the fun of annotating classic books, and on what's next for him. Read what Klinger had to say after the jump.

On when his Interest in Dracula began:

"I came across the book when I was in college, a long time ago.  I was an English major and it was one of those books that seemed to be important to read.  I don't remember what course I read it for, but I read it and it was a great surprise.  The surprise was that I expected it to be kind of dry and dusty, but I should have learned by then that the books were reading in college went far beyond one's sort of impression.  So I remember the same thing about Moby Dick.  I thought, ‘Wow, this is really going to be a chore to read.'
But I remember saying, ‘Wow, this was a great book!'  Dracula, I just didn't imagine that it would be scary, and to my great surprise it was scary.  This was back in the dark ages, before we had the current explosion of vampire stuff, but the Hammer films had been around and I had expected this not very scary book.  But instead, I found this very powerful story.  I kind of put it aside.  I read it in college and was a great fan over the years, paid attention to earlier editions of the book.  I was interested in Dracula from the beginning, but I didn't think of doing anything with it until after I finished my Sherlock Holmes books.  My wife said, ‘Why don't you do the same for Dracula?'  I said, ‘Gee! That'd really be fun because it's the same time period.'  I like to envision Holmes and Dracula walking down the street at the same time.  The late 1890s or even 1880s."

On treating Stoker's novel as though it was non-fiction:  

"I come from the world of Sherlock Holmes, where for more than a hundred years, fans would have said, 'Let's examine those stories as if they (and it's a game – we admit it's a game) were true, as if they were biographical and historical documents.'  This leads to a different approach to some of the material; and I thought, ‘Gee! It would be great to do that with Dracula,' because it lets me look at fascinating background material to take Bram Stoker at his word, where he said in the introduction to one of the editions, that it is all true and it is based on one of the papers that his friends gave him.  I said, "It would be fun to look at that and figure out what parts of it are true.  What parts of it did Stoker fictionalize to cover up the truth?  So this led me to look into such things like tide and cables. And the train time tables for Varna to try and figure out whether the descriptions in the book are accurate. It was a lot of fun to approach it that way.  But I also wanted very much to make the book usable by scholars who didn't want to play the game.  Essentially, everything in the notes is true, it's the interpretations that are done with a wink for fun."

On what books he may next annotate:

"There is a certain tension here.  The certain tension is that Norton, the publishers, who I love working with – they are a wonderfully supportive publisher, they have been extremely generous in letting me put in a lot more material than was originally compiled.  In Sherlock Holmes, for example, the book was originally budgeted for about 1800 pages.  It came out at 3000 pages.  They, however, have this really selfish attitude that they want to make a profit.  [Laughs.]  That requires them to sell enough copies of a book to re-coup their costs.  So it has to be a book that has enough of a following that they can see that they will sell a bunch of copies.  For example, we had talked about Frankenstein.  That's a book I would love to annotate, because it's kind of like Dracula.  A lot of people think they know what it is, but they're thinking about the movie version.  They haven't read the book or paid attention to that wonderful book.  But, unlike Dracula, there isn't enough of a market, it appears.  The book, itself, doesn't sell that well.  The same is true for some of the others that I have suggested.  For example, I had thought about doing an annotated version of War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which is another one of my favorite books.  Similarly, the book just doesn't really sell very well.  At this point, maybe some of your readers would like to come up with brilliant suggestions.  I'm kind of stumped about a book that, on the one hand, I would love to do, and on the other hand, there is actually a market for it that a large number of your fans will buy.  I have been asked, ‘How was I such a trend visionary (Sherlock Holmes took almost seven years in writing and Dracula took about two and a half years) that I knew that the Twilight books and films would be so immensely popular right at the time of the release of Dracula?' And at the time of the Sherlock Holmes books, of course, how did I know Holmes was going to be this huge of a film success?  Well, I didn't!  I had no idea!"

On his greatest  fear:

"I guess my greatest fear is to be wrong.  Since I'm a lawyer by day and an annotator by night, I keep asserting things like ‘This is the way it is,' and my greatest fear is that I have done a sloppy job on something and I am going to get caught out to be wrong.  It's a subtle fear, it's not quite like saying, ‘Spiders.' But I think, honestly, that's my greatest fear.  Spiders is number two."

On his favorite film version of Dracula:

"Yes, and it certainly isn't Bram Stoker's Dracula.  I would probably go with Nosferatu, which echoes many elements of the book.  People don't necessarily think of it as a Dracula film; but it clearly was based on Dracula, and it doesn't matter to me whether it was the original or the remake – both of them are brilliant films.  I would probably go with that as my favorite Dracula film.  If it has to be a really strictly Dracula film, I'd probably go with Dan Curtis' Count Dracula starring Jack Palance, or the BBC film version starring Louis Jourdan.  That's a wonderful version.  Very true to the original book, except for Louis Jourdan being so incredibly good looking."

On the latest film version of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr.:

"I loved it.  I would have to disclose that, as a consultant on the [film], I worked with the producers and the actors, so I have a vested interest in it.  But I really liked it because they had their hearts in the right place, they had my books on the set every day.  They were really trying to do the right thing.  There were well over two hundred films of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Dracula are respectably the number one and number two most filmed character of all time.  Nobody, in either case, has really done it right.  In neither case, have they done it in the sense of staying true to the original stories.  Everybody has their own spin on it.  I am very fond of the Downey film; I loved the Jeremy Brett television series of Sherlock Holmes.  The Fox films were good, but the Universal films were so bad; the scripts were so terrible.  Nobody has done it perfectly well.  The answer to the best film in both cases, is the one that plays in my head when I read the book."

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