An Interview with Amber Benson
Amber Benson is known to millions of fans for her portrayal of Tara Maclay on the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE TV series. But there’s a lot more to Amber than just playing a TV witch. Besides acting in TV and movies, she’s written or co-written nine novels, several comic books, some short stories, and several scripts for movies, animated films, and Webisodes/Internet films. She’s also produced and directed films and Webisodes, sung on a soundtrack, acted in audio dramas, and provided prose for picture books. On top of all this, she’s a huge horror fan with a dark secret: She loves things gory and gruesome!
JG: Amber, let me start by saying thanks for speaking to me and all the HWA members who will be reading this.
AB: Of course, I had a blast at World Horror and the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards® Banquet–anything to contribute to the awesome stuff you guys are doing.
JG: You’ve been acting since you were fourteen, in both television and movies. But when did you get the urge to start writing, and what was the first thing you wrote?
AB: I’ve written my whole life–mostly poems, short stories, and plays. I also kept a journal, which was also a great way to exorcise all the weirdness in my head. Silly little plays were probably the first things I wrote.
JG: You’re not shy about admitting you’re a horror buff, with a deliciously morbid taste for the gory, bloody films and books. When did you first start watching and/or reading horror?
AB: I think FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 1 was my first horror film when I was like seven or eight–and from there I quickly graduated to Stephen King and the YA author Christopher Pike.
JG: It wouldn’t be a stretch to call you something of a renaissance woman. Movies, TV, scripts, books, comics, internet productions, directing/producing, etc.–you’ve been involved in a wide variety of media. Do you have a favorite medium you like to work in, and if so, why?
AB: I love filmmaking because it encompasses all of the things I love: writing, directing, leading troops into battle … but, seriously, making a film is unlike anything else in the world, it’s a real high.
JG: Out of the various novels you’ve written or co-written, some were with large publishing houses and others were with the small/medium press. One of the things the HWA is trying to do is let libraries and schools know about the wealth of material the small press has to offer that they probably never even hear about. What is your feeling about the small press and what they’re doing these days?
AB: I think Small Press Publishing is integral to authors. Many times an author gets their start in small press … without that stepping stone, they would never get the opportunity to have their stuff published. Small press publishers are oftentimes more open to edgy or out-there works. They might publish something odd and amazing that a larger publisher would be too uncertain how to market.
JG: You have a love of blood and guts, but your own novels are much tamer, even the ones that aren’t YA. Do you have plans to ever let some of that bloodthirsty part of yourself out on paper?
AB: I think Christopher Golden and I have some gory stuff in the Ghosts of Albion books, but probably the goriest fun I’ve had was writing a comic book for IDW called Demon Father John’s Pinwheel Blues–something I co-created with Ben Templesmith (who did the amazing art). It’s about a gang of aggressive vampire kids. There are eyeballs and guts in it!
JG: You’ve written several YA novels; do you have a preference for YA or adult?
AB: I think the story dictates the form–some things feel like they’re for younger readers, other things are more adult appropriate. My feeling is that a good story is a good story, no matter how you publish it.
JG: What is your typical writing routine?
AB: I treat writing like a job. I get up in the morning and go to a coffee place where I meet my writers group (we’re called THE SHAMERS) and we set to work. We’re all working on different things, but the camaraderie keeps you going–and they’re definitely shaming you into getting your work done and not futzing around on Twitter and Facebook.
JG: The HWA is hoping to do more with you regarding our literacy program. Have you been involved in any literacy programs before?
AB: Nothing specific as of yet, but I think sharing one’s love of reading with the people you encounter in your daily life is a good start.
JG: As someone who’s written for the YA and middle-grade readers, what do you think we, as writers, should or could be doing more of to get kids and teens to read?
AB: Good story-telling gets butts in seats and books in hands–and making books available to kids, letting them know that there are options other than TV and video games. Start reading to kids early–when they’re little more than babies; that will help them develop a taste for reading.
JG: In the BUFFY series, a lot of controversial and serious subjects were covered, ranging from attempted rape to murder to suicide to physical abuse. Do you think having real-life issues in YA movies and books is good for kids, because it helps them relate or learn how to handle these problems, or do you think it’s better to leave that sort of realism to the nonfiction realm?
AB: Kids are getting exposed to all kinds of stuff on TV and the Internet–I can’t imagine what’s in a book would be any worse, but I think it’s up to parents to decide what their kids can be exposed to and at what age.
JG: As an author, where do you decide the lines are when it comes to sex, violence, and language in a YA novel? And after drawing those lines, how close do you come to crossing them?
AB: I try and stay true to the story. I think that dictates the content of what’s in the book. I try not to be too raw and mature when I’m writing for a younger audience, but I don’t shy away from difficult subject matter.
JG: Let’s talk about your Calliope Reaper-Jones series. In those books, you make a switch from YA to what they’re now calling “new adult.” This allowed you to take on some issues, such as sex, violence, and sibling rivalry, in a different fashion. Your heroine transforms from someone who would be more at home with Paris Hilton or the gals from SEX IN THE CITY into a smart, tough, independent woman who cares about more than shoes or hot guys. Many of the situations Calliope finds herself in–even the supernatural ones–are allegories for things young people experience in real life. Do you set out to create those parallels, or do they just happen because of the themes horror and dark fantasy tend to work with (death, loss, seemingly insurmountable problems)?
AB: I wouldn’t say I had an agenda when I was creating these books … but I definitely wanted to write a strong, yet human and fallible character. When you do this, you automatically start dealing with all the bigger issues. Imperfect characters–like all of humankind–make mistakes and (hopefully) learn from those mistakes. All the big ticket issues go part and parcel with delving into the insanity that is the human condition.
JG: Speaking of Calliope, you’ve said in the past that those novels originated as a modern mash-up of Dante‘s Divine Comedy. And then your three-book series became a five-book series. Did you know before you wrote book three that there would be two more? How did the extra two books affect the ending to book three and where you took the plot from there?
AB: I like to say that if you mushed together Neil Gaiman and The Devil Wears Prada then you’d get my books: silly, fantastical and irreverent. When my editor wanted three books, I jokingly said the series was my homage to Dante‘s Divine Comedy because one book takes place in Hell, one in Purgatory, and one in Heaven. Of course, when they wanted two more books, I had to let that go. No more Divine Comedy homage for Amber.
JG: Before you made a career of acting and writing, you considered studying Mythology in college. Do you still have an interest in that area, and does it still play heavily in the plots to your books?
AB: World Mythology plays heavily in my work, as does World Religion. These are two subjects I am endlessly fascinated by, so it only makes sense that I would want to use what I’ve learned about them in my writing. You can discover so much about humanity by looking at how humans believe. Belief, faith … these things define us culturally and personally. Studying this stuff gives me insight into how people tick. It’s invaluable stuff for an author.
JG: Many writers are also research-a-holics. How about you? Do you ever get so caught up in your research that it steals away from your writing time?
AB: I go down the rabbit hole all the time. I love to research and, invariably, I find myself reading all kinds of crazy stuff when I should be writing. It’s bad.
JG: Your new series of books involves witches in Los Angeles. What kind of research did you do for this project?
AB: I’ve been doing a lot of reading … visiting botanicas, talking to people who practice the trade. Just soaking up the atmosphere as much as I can before I dive in to the writing process.
JG: There are many types of Wicca; which one did you choose for your new heroine and why?
AB: My take on magic/witchcraft is a bit different. I wanted to create a world in which magic could be real or coincidence based on who is reading it. I wanted to leave the choice up to the audience.
JG: You’ve been very active in Webisodes/Web video projects. How do you see that medium growing and changing in the next few years?
AB: I think the Internet is our future, for better or for worse. So, we better learn to adapt or face getting left behind.
You can follow Amber Benson on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/amber_benson), at her blog (http://amberbensonwrotethis.blogspot.com), and at her YouTube page (http://www.youtube.com/user/aloanhere?feature=guide).