Saturday, October 29, 2011

10 Days of Halloween: The Countess by Rebecca Johns Interview and Giveaway

Was the “Blood Countess” history’s first and perhaps worst female serial killer? Or did her accusers create a violent fiction in order to remove this beautiful, intelligent, ambitious foe from the male-dominated world of Hungarian politics?

In 1611, Countess Erzsébet Báthory, a powerful Hungarian noblewoman, stood helpless as masons walled her inside her castle tower, dooming her to spend her final years in solitary confinement. Her crime—the gruesome murders of dozens of female servants, mostly young girls tortured to death for displeasing their ruthless mistress. Her opponents painted her as a bloodthirsty škrata—a witch—a portrayal that would expand to grotesque proportions through the centuries.

In this riveting dramatization of Erzsébet Báthory’s life, the countess tells her story in her own words, writing to her only son—a final reckoning from his mother in an attempt to reveal the truth behind her downfall. Countess Báthory describes her upbringing in one of the most powerful noble houses in Hungary, recounting in loving detail her devotion to her parents and siblings as well as the heartbreak of losing her father at a young age. She soon discovers the price of being a woman in sixteenth-century Hungary as her mother arranges her marriage to Ferenc Nádasdy, a union made with the cold calculation of a financial transaction. Young Erzsébet knows she has no choice but to accept this marriage even as she laments its loveless nature and ultimately turns to the illicit affections of another man.

Seemingly resigned to a marriage of convenience and a life of surreptitious pleasure, the countess surprises even herself as she ignites a marital spark with Ferenc through the most unromantic of acts: the violent punishment of an insolent female servant. The event shows Ferenc that his wife is no trophy but a strong, determined woman more than capable of managing their vast estates during Ferenc’s extensive military campaigns against the Turks. Her naked assertion of power accomplishes what her famed beauty could not: capturing the love of her husband.

The countess embraces this new role of loving wife and mother, doing everything she can to expand her husband’s power and secure her family’s future. But a darker side surfaces as Countess Báthory’s demand for virtue, obedience, and, above all, respect from her servants takes a sinister turn. What emerges is not only a disturbing, unflinching portrait of the deeds that gave Báthory the moniker “Blood Countess,” but an intimate look at the woman who became a monster.


The interview:

1. How did you first get interested in the Bathory legend/case?

I guess I've always been interested in serial killers and other assorted psychos—not in an obsessed kind of way, but curious in a writerly way, how some people are able to convince themselves that murder is justifiable or even desirable.  For me, character is always paramount when I’m thinking of writing a book, and serial killers make great characters.  A woman serial killer, too—a powerful noblewoman with a famous family, locked in a tower for the last years of her life.  How gothic!  Who wouldn’t want to write about her?

My first book was about nice people trying to get by in some not-so-nice circumstances.  I was aching for the chance to write about some not-so-nice people for a change.  Bad people doing bad things makes for good fiction.

2. You have meticulously researched Bathory's life. How long did it take you to write The Countess?

It helps (at least from a time-management standpoint) that there are so few decent non-fiction books in English about Báthory, only two or three really.  A lot of the others read like S&M manuals, and most are heavily reliant on myth instead of fact.  When I finally found some reliable, dispassionate historical sources, I read each two or three times so that I really knew the story, and then I wrote (literally) like a madwoman.  The first draft took about nine months, and then another six for revision.  I can actually write fairly fast once I get on a roll, maybe five pages a day or so.

3. As I read the book, I find myself having a great deal of sympathy for Elizabeth on many occasions. Did you find this true for yourself as well?

Absolutely.  And that was a deliberate choice—not because I believe her when she says she’s innocent, but because I want to believe her.  I keep hoping she’s not going to do the things she’s accused of doing, that it’s really going to be some terrible mistake, but of course it isn’t.  For most of us murder is so foreign to our understanding of ourselves—something we can’t imagine ourselves actually committing—that I think it’s only natural to place murderers in a category as people completely separate from ourselves.  In this book I wanted the reader to get uncomfortably close to her view of the world, see things through her eyes, but who’s going to do that if they don’t like her, at least a little bit?  She starts off in the novel as a child, and it’s hard not to sympathize with a child.  But as the story goes on, that sympathy starts to erode.  It’s a little bit like sitting next to someone on an airplane as he tells you his life story, and little by little you realize he’s completely nuts.  You don’t start out wanting to dislike him, but that’s where you end up.

4. I find it interesting how the Countess relates to women and how she interacts with men. Why do you think she has different relationships with men than she does with women?

She is encouraged from a young age to view the men in her life as her saviors and protectors, and their love as her ultimate achievement.  But if her most important role in life is to secure the love of a man—any man, including her son—to protect herself, then other women are nothing but threats.  Any woman who might prove herself to be too attractive to a man is not someone Bathory befriends.  She surrounds herself with oddities, so that in comparison she always looks better.  Most women of her station would have as her inner circle refined friends and relations, people of equal or only slightly lesser stature, while Bathory’s most trusted confidantes are the ugliest, roughest women in the household, women who don’t threaten her sense of herself.

5. What was your overall impression of Elizabeth Bathory as a person?

I think she suffered from a massive ego and an enormous sense of entitlement that came with her wealth and her powerful name.  And yet she was a loving, even doting mother, and clearly a capable businesswoman.  At a time when most families in Hungary were struggling financially, she managed to build her family’s wealth and influence, even after her husband died.  This image of her as a blood-crazed psychopath doesn’t jibe with the intelligent, well-educated and influential person she was during her lifetime.  I do think she was capable of violence, and of viewing people, especially servants, as possessions, which then would give her the ability to look on their suffering as insignificant.  Remember this was a time when people believed that wealth and consequence were things bestowed by God rather than good fortune—if you were rich, it must be because you were more virtuous.  God would never let the unjust be prosperous, right?

I do wonder, though, if anyone would have cared what happened to her servants if her nephew Gabor hadn't been causing so much turmoil in Transylvania at the time.  The palatine had plenty of reasons for imprisoning her other than murder, which I think the book explores pretty thoroughly.  There are some Eastern European scholars who think she was absolutely framed.  I don't agree with that assessment, but I can see where they'd get the idea.

6. If you could pick music to play while you read this book, what would it be? (Did you listen to anything when you wrote it?)

I always listen to music when I write.  I usually write in coffee shops (if I try to write at home I end up, instead, having the cleanest house in town) so I usually need something on in the background to drown out the sounds of other people around me.  My playlist for this novel included some Fleet Foxes, Sun Kil Moon, and The Shins to get me warmed up, and then I switch to music without words so I can concentrate.  The Cocteau Twins are great to write to.  I like jazz too, especially Miles Davis.

7.  What are some of your favorite authors?

Oh, dear, do I really have to pick?  I think more of favorite books than favorite authors, books like Nabokov’s Lolita and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It.  I can’t say that I’ve read all the books published by those authors, but those books stand out without having read everything by each author.

8. Are you a fan of vampire movies and books? Do you think Elizabeth Bathory falls into their ranks, or was she more a victim of her time?

I would not list Bathory among the vampires.  She absolutely was not a blood-bather or -drinker of any kind—that’s a Victorian idea that got grafted onto her story more than a hundred years after she died, when the witch trials were really gathering speed.  Those claims don’t appear anywhere in the actual testimony of witnesses called upon when the palatine was gathering evidence against her.  Nor did she kill 600+ girls (a claim made by only one “witness” out of hundreds, who heard it secondhand from someone else and reported it as fact, a series of events that definitely would not stand up in a modern court).  Her four senior servants, who were really the only people in a position to know, listed the number of her victims very reliably at between 35 and 80, and really, isn’t that enough?  Part of what interested me in her story was that these “facts” (the blood-bathing and 600 victims) are stated over and over with such authority by so many when really neither of them is true.  I wanted to get at the historical Bathory, not the Bathory of legend.  The historical Bathory is a victim of nothing but her own massive ego.  Like most people, she does the really permanent damage to herself.

As for vampire books, I recently finished The Passage by Justin Cronin, which I loved and which is so different from his first book, Mary and O’Neil, which I also loved and which is much closer to what I normally read.  The Passage is so smart, so well-written and engrossing, I can’t wait for The Twelve to come out.  But honestly I don’t usually read much vampire fiction.  I find Dracula irritatingly Victorian in its treatment of the female characters as poor victims, fainting flowers who must be protected by the big strong men in their lives.  I don’t know any women like that in real life, do you?  Intellectually I suppose I understand the draw in the sensual power of bloodlust and the undercurrent of sex, but vampires are not my favorite monsters.  I’m more interested in humans.

9. Do you find it easier to write loosely or outline your work? Perhaps a combination of the two? Aspiring writers would love to know...

I like to write loosely, with maybe a few “beats” plotted out and an endpoint in mind but not a real firm commitment to any particular plotline.  My stories are driven by character, so I like to be able to surprise myself, to make connections in a story that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of beforehand.  If I write a detailed outline, I am instantly not interested in writing the story any longer.  I write because I want to know what happens, too, and most importantly why it happens.

10. What is your next project?

I think here I will plead the fifth.  I have so many new ideas that I go back and forth every day trying to decide which one to do next.  If I say for certain which one it is today, tomorrow it will be something different.  My husband keeps telling me I need to commit, to stop cheating on all my literary wives.  But I’m hoping to know for sure by the end of the year and have a chunk of a new draft written.

Thank you Rebecca for such a wonderful interview!

Now for the giveaway!

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