So much has been done with vampires, in all manner of media, that it's hard to imagine they could still be used in any way that's different. Yet that's just what writer Chris Farnsworth has done with Blood Oath, his debut novel about a vampire secret agent named Cade assigned to the President of the United States. I recently sat down with Farnsworth and the screenwriter-turned-author told me how he conceived of Cade, what his plans are for his character, and – now that he's sold the film rights – why he'd like to see Christian Bale cast as the undead spy. Hit the jump for our conversation.
The idea behind this book is one of those that, in hindsight, seems obvious – "Of course there should be a supernatural aide to the President." It's surprising it hasn't been done already.
Yeah, that's exactly how I thought at the time. It seemed just blindingly obvious to me, and I didn't understand why I didn't come up with it, and save myself a lot of trouble, a lot earlier. There have been supernatural agents to king and country before, so Cade, my vampire, is definitely a member of a long and storied tradition in that regard. But, yeah, I'd never actually seen a vampire who was a spy or a secret agent before. And I just thought, "We're the United States of America. We have nukes. We have the best weapons. We have the best army. Of course the President has a vampire."
How long ago did you conceive of the project?
It was right before the Writers Guild Strike of 2007-2008. Which was unfortunate timing as it turned out. I had a baby on the way, and my wife and I just bought a new house. And suddenly I was unable to even attempt to sell anything. Not that I've been wildly successful selling things before. So I figured that this was my half-court shot, and I would try to write it as a book and see what happened. Eight months later the manuscript was done and I went through the process of finding an agent. The shot actually went in, and I couldn't believe it.
As a screenwriter, did you approach this novel as you would a pilot episode of a TV show, considering what type of story would best serve to introduce your protagonist?
Absolutely. Yes. I think the great thing about being a screenwriter is that it focuses you on what your main point is going to be with the story, and who you're aiming it at. The simple way to put that is, they always ask you in the meetings, "Well, what's the movie poster for this? What do you see on the poster? What's the slogan?" For me, it was really very simple. It was "The Ultimate Secret Agent". I was really looking for a way to encapsulate that and put it all there in one pill. Also, I'm a really big fan of Jack Kirby and Grant Morrison. I had just decided that since this was going to be my last shot at making a living as a writer that I wanted everything in this that I wanted to see. I was tired of writing stuff that other people told me I should write, or they thought, "We need this on page 37" and "Can we rastify that twenty percent?" What I was really hoping was to write a book that I would have a lot of fun with and enjoy reading. And if it didn't work out, well, at least I'd taken my best shot and put in the things I liked. So I put in vampires and werewolves and monster soldiers and Doctor Frankenstein, the War on Terror, and everything I could possibly cram in there.
Did you immediately begin thinking of other stories you'd like to tell with the character? How far ahead did you plan?
I think that was the great thing about the character, that it lends itself to a long and hopefully extraordinarily profitable run of adventures. So I became fascinated with the way his world worked, and I wanted to see how much further I could take it. So the books, when I did sell the books, they asked me where I could go with the series, and I had ten ideas already sketched out for them. There's a tremendous amount of self-constructed folklore that we've created in the twentieth century in America, from H.P. Lovecraft to George Romero to all the nameless and mostly forgettable midnight movies and little crappy things you saw on cable at 3 AM when you couldn't sleep. We've really taken and established this entire world, where incredible bad and strange stuff happens. So that's the setting my character gets to play with and gets to operate in. It's pretty limitless right now.
There's a current movement in which writers, particularly genre novelists, consider the whole gamut of media as fair game, from low to high culture.
I think you're absolutely right. Everybody is, to use another term, surfing the zeitgeist, picking out what they can. When I was in grad school there still was that very clear distinction between genre and non-genre. Everyone wanted to write like Raymond Carver and do very tight little stories of angst and domestic terror. There was this sort of disdain for writers like Stephen King. Now I think people are realizing how incredibly difficult it is to do what Stephen King does, and do it really well; and do it consistently as he has over the past twenty, twenty-five years. So yeah, you have writers like Cormac McCarthy, who are just absolutely brilliant, doing stuff like The Road and doing stuff like No Country for Old Men, where the protagonist is almost supernatural in his ability to be malicious. Twenty years ago, that would have been considered "toying" with these concepts. Like Kathy Acker would have done for a joke. My favorite writers have always done that. You look at Thomas Pynchon – he referenced Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel in Gravity's Rainbow; and he went across the entire gamut of popular culture and saw it as fair game for everything. And yeah, if you look at Stephen King, he's got incredibly high-minded literary references in there too. For me the most important thing is to tell a good story and tell it honestly and try not to cheat it.
Are you ever concerned that the market could be flooded with too many vampire stories these days?
Oh I'm absolutely terrified of vampire fatigue. I still worry about that obviously. I think that we haven't hit the crest of the wave yet, because we're still seeing such incredibly enthusiasm for these things. I think that True Blood looks like it's going to come back to bigger ratings than ever, and had the highest ratings for its finale last season since The Sopranos. I think it's becoming a genre unto itself. No one ever says, "Oh man, do we really need another cop show?" or "They're doing a show about lawyers again?" It's almost becoming a profession like that, where it's becoming a genre that has recognizable tropes and an entire style to it. That's the long answer. The short answer is I still think they're really cool, and I think most people do. And we're still scared of the same stuff right now. In the ‘50s there were all these alien invasion movies because people were terrified of the communist threat and the Cold War, and the unbelievable paranoia at home. Today we're using vampires and zombies to address our anxieties.
I suppose their genre's become the western of the 20th century.
That's a good term. I'm now going to steal it. [Laughs.]
Call it a gift. [Laughs.] Can I ask what else you're up to right now?
I just finished the second book in the series and handed it off to my agent, so there will be edits on that. I'm doing a book tour and the marketing for [the first] book. Then hopefully I'll be able to take some time and do something in the off season as well. But within a few months I'll start on the third book. I'm trying to get one of these out every year.
You've sold the film rights as well. Who would you like to see cast as Cade?
I'm so bad at the casting question. I used to go into production meetings and development meetings with execs and they'd say, "So who do you see doing this?" I would always just invariably answer the wrong name, like, "Oh, this guy would be perfect." "Yeah, we can't get him. And why would you even think that?" [Laughs.] But I would love to see Christian Bale in the role. He's phenomenal. He's got an ability to play an unbelievably cold guy, but with a real moral core, which is the center of my vampire Cade as I see him. But honestly, what do I know? I once went into a meeting like that and they said, "Who do you see in this role?" I said," Well, ideally, Steve McQueen." They said, "Yeah, somebody not dead." [Laughs.] I have my wish list, but I know it very rarely works out.
The trick with any vampire character, which is why it's really great when casting is done well, like on True Blood, is you have to find somebody who looks young enough to play an immortal who was turned young, a century or more ago, and can play with the authority they'd have if they were over a hundred years old; and have seen more than any twenty-year-old can see. And that's really tough. That's a lot to ask of any actor.
You mentioned the comic book influences on your work – guys like Jack Kirby and Grant Morrison. Are we likely to see a comic adaptation of Blood Oath?
I hope so. It's gonna be hopefully part of the movie deal as well. But, you know, I've taken an incredibly long way around to get to write comic books. It's like, "I want to write screenplays, then a novel, then hopefully someday, finally, I'll get to write a comic book." Ever since I was a little kid, that's what taught me how to write and how to read – the very visual medium of comics. So I'd say, yeah, if all else fails I'll publish it myself. But if not, it's very likely we'll see Cade in comic book form in the next year or so.
Thank you very much, Chris.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time and doing it. I know it's easy for stuff to get lost, and I really appreciate the attention.