Kendare Blake, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Three Dark Crowns series, is back. Her latest book, All These Bodies, bares its fangs as it lunges for the throat. With a tagline like, “True Crime with A Vampire,” what else could we expect? Sitting down on opposite coasts, Kendare and I turned to Zoom to chat about murder, friendship, horror, writing, and genre hopping.
I hope you enjoy her insights as much as we did here at Dead Darlings.
I found it interesting that you based this paranormal serial murder story on real life events. How did this idea germinate?
It took a really long time. How it showed up, I can hardly remember. It was in my head as far back as 2014, 2015, and it didn’t know what it really wanted to be. There were some inklings about spree killing, teenagers, the Caril Ann Fugate (the youngest female in U.S. history tried for first-degree murder), the spree killer Charlie Starkweather, but it was just a big mishmash of disparate ideas. I put it aside and worked on other books two or three times. And then finally, in 2019, everything started to come together. I got a feel for the characters, the narrator revealed himself, as did Marie Catherine Hale, the girl who, covered in the victims’ blood, is found in a farmhouse full of dead people. I had a vampire and incorporated the Clutter family murders into a kind-of riff on In Cold Blood. So once the main elements of the story made themselves known, then it was just a matter of putting it together.
The story starts at the tail end of a murder spree. One of the things I really liked was that you included a map of the murder sites and placed it before page 1. I thought that was a clever way of giving us backstory.
That was a later addition. Initially I had my narrator lay the timeline down, introduce the victims, explain where and when they were killed, and it was such an info dump. I kept wrestling with, ‘How do I get this information out there without having this extremely boring, hard-to-follow paragraph where I just lay down the murder trail?’ That’s when I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do an info graphic? I mean it’s going to be a published book, and everybody loves a map’. So, my editor and I talked through how to make it visually interesting and we had the idea to stylize it, as if it had been an info graphic that had run in a newspaper of the day. I think it worked.
I agree. Since you mentioned In Cold Blood and its influence on your book, did you always have the timeline set in 1958 or did you ever play with other years that it could have happened?
It’s based on two different crimes. It’s based on the Clutter Murders in Holcomb Kansas in 1959, but it’s mostly based on the Starkweather/Fugate murders, which occurred in January of 1958. Since they both happened in the late 1950s, and they both took place in small, midwestern towns, for the most part, it just seemed that the natural time and place to set the story was in a small midwestern town in 1958.
At its heart, your story is about two friendships: Michael’s friendship with Percy, and the friendship of Michael and Marie. How did you approach those friendships? Did you know what you wanted out of them before you started, or did you let them reveal themselves?
When it comes to characters, I tend to let that happen naturally. One of my greatest joys as a writer is getting to know the characters independently and then shoving them in a room together to see what happens. I did that with my Three Dark Crown series, which is about triplet sisters who are magical queens, and they have to kill each other once their sixteenth birthday arrives. I was just so excited to create three powerful young women and just be like, ‘Go kill,’ and see how they handled it.
It was much the same with Michael and Marie. I knew, she was the crux of the story. She has all the answers locked inside. Michael is the son of the local sheriff, an aspiring journalist, and the only person Marie will talk to about what happened. It’s his job to try to find the truth so he can give the families of the victims some peace. I knew she wasn’t going to want to give that information up and that she was going to be very adamant about telling her own story. And I was just excited to see how Michael would do. Would she string him along? How would they end up? I didn’t know if they’d have a grudging respect for each other, or if they’d be very fond of each other, so writing that was a lot of fun.
When it came to Percy, Michael’s best friend since their sandbox years, that was just a nice surprise. Percy Valentine became one of my favorite characters. He’s just a good, goofy kid. He’s the best friend that I would have wanted growing up. He’s completely loyal. He’s completely supportive. And the two of them together was just a nice safe space for Michael to have outside of his time questioning Marie.
The character that depicted the negative side of humanity the most was Mr. Pilson. He’s the real antagonist of the story. Was he based on anybody, whether fictional or real?
Well, yes and no. Some of the things he says are quotes taken from the trial of Caril Ann Fugate. Caril Ann Fugate was Charlie Starkweather’s accomplice, or at least she was convicted as his accomplice, and she was only 14. There’s a very famous quote by the prosecuting attorney in that case saying something like, “She’s only 14, but even 14-year-old girls have to know that they can’t go on 11 victim killing sprees.” I used that quote in the book, so certain aspects of Mr. Pilson were definitely inspired by real life. In Caril Ann Fugate’s trial, she got railroaded. I’ve done a lot of research into the case, including how she was condemned by the media and journalists. It was very important to me to think about Marie being treated this way and why it became important for her to tell her own story.
Also, it’s easy to villainize Pilson as the antagonist because he comes across as full of fire and brimstone, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement, but he does have a point. If you were in his position, advocating for justice for the victims, and you had a suspect in custody and this was the story she was trying to spin, you’d be just as angry and frustrated as he was. It was a joy to write Pilson, it’s always fun to write the jerk. But after the story was over, I saw his point, I saw his perspective. And it’s important to be able to see that if you want to have a good villain.
The crux of the story is Michael’s interview with Marie. At first, she leads him on, telling him what she thinks he wants to hear. As they go along, they form a friendship. In the end she tells him, maybe not the whole truth, but she tells him a whole lot more of the truth than she originally intended to. And the truth she tells includes the paranormal aspect of the story.
Through the story you keep the vampire an arm’s length away from the reader. Most vampire stories follow the vampire. In this one the vampire hovers around the edges. Why did you choose to go in that direction?
Because the heart of the story is about belief, I wanted to give the readers enough space to make up their own minds. Some readers have said that there is clearly a vampire, and some readers have said, ‘Well, no. Marie was clearly traumatized, and this is the way that she’s chosen to disassociate.’ And what a reader thinks actually happened in the story tells me more about who that reader is as a person, which I always find fascinating. I wanted to keep the vampire off page because I tend to think that frightening things are more frightening when you don’t get a good look at them. They don’t have as much power when you can’t break them down and understand them. Also, if I showed too much of the vampire it would have slung the narrative in a direction I wasn’t interested in taking. I wanted to present those questions, I didn’t necessarily want to answer them, which is also why the ending was purposely left ambiguous.
Marie remains a likable and compelling character even though some of the things she reveals about herself should make her unlikable. She’s someone whom I think readers could identify with even though she got involved in some very dark stuff. Was that your intention?
It was. Because of the nature of the crimes Marie was accused of, and the unbelievable explanation she tries to pass off, I knew she was being set up not to be liked. This is the kind of set up where a reader might say, ‘Aah, she’s a liar, she’s a little thief, a little killer.’ Seeing Marie through Michael’s eyes, you get to know her as Michael does. The character of Michael was very much inspired by Truman Capote himself and the relationship that Truman Capote developed with Perry Smith, one of the killers of the Clutter Family in Holcomb Kansas. Capote spent a lot of time interviewing the killers in jail. And some say he developed an inappropriately close relationship with them. Their ultimate execution and the role he played in their defense fundamentally changed Capote as a person. So, I wanted that to happen to Michael. I wanted him to go in with all this journalistic intent, very un-biased, search for the truth, be very objective. But, except for maybe complete psychopaths, you can’t spend that much time with someone and not come to see them as a person. Once you see them as a person you’ll empathize with that commonality.
Even though your ending is ambiguous, you give the audience enough to be able to decide if this is a paranormal story or not. It has a bit of a ‘Lady and the Tiger’ ending. Do you see yourself revisiting these characters in the future, or do you think this was a one-off story?
I definitely think this is a one-off story. Someone at my agency floated the idea of trying to develop it into a series of screenplays for TV. While it is always tempting, and it’s always exciting that people would want more of the story, but if I went back into it, I would have to answer a lot of the questions that I intentionally left unanswered. So, I thought and I thought and I thought about it, trying to find a work around, but nothing worked and it all felt like it would be a rip off. No, I think this is it. I think this story is told. Even though the open ending is going to drive some people nuts, I like to think of the open ending as true to life in that in all crime, we are left to make up our own minds. We’ll never know for sure if someone is guilty or innocence unless we have video footage. Even then, a lot of the truth of what happened is encapsulated in the minds of the perpetrator and the victim. Even after a conviction by a jury of our peers, we’re left to feel better about the situation, but the truth of the situation is still hazy.
I agree. You wrote the Three Dark Crowns books as a series. Now you’ve written a stand-alone. Did you approach these differently knowing one was a series and that one was going to be a stand-alone?
I kind of fly by the seat of my pants when it come to that. My first novel was a duology, two books. When I wrote the first book, Anna Dressed in Blood, I didn’t know there was going to be a second book. When we sold it, my editor asked for a second book and I said, ‘Well, sure, this could probably happen.’ So, I wrote that. When I sold my next series, which was based on the Trojan war, I knew it was a trilogy. I had that all mapped out in advance. And then with the Three Dark Crowns, I sold it as another duet, and when I reached the end of the duet, I realized there was more story to tell so I wrote two more books and turned it into a quartet. And that’s when I realized that I had a two-book series, a three-book series, and a four-book series. So, I could write a five-book series or I could go back and write one book. I thought that the smarter move was going back to one.
In reading your author’s note, it sounds like you already have another book in the works that has something to do with history.
It’s a fantasy series, the first book of that releases in 2023. It’s set in a fictional ancient world. Greek inspired, ancient Alexandrian, Macedonian, kind of thing. I had to do some research into that time period. But it’s not terribly faithful. Which is what I enjoy about an ancient world inspired fantasy setting.
A lot of authors can get pigeon-holed into writing a specific kind of story and it seems like you’ve had the luxury of being able to explore different time periods, different worlds.
Yeah, Different genres. I’ve gone from horror to urban fantasy, mythology to high fantasy/dark fantasy, and then back to speculative historical true crime. I think that’s a luxury that young adult authors in particular get to take advantages of. If an adult fiction author comes out of the gate with a hit, their publishers will be like, ‘More of that, please.’ And that makes a lot of sense for them because you’re trying build an audience. And we as readers want to know what we’re getting into when we see a particular authors name. When I pick up Stephen King, I know a little something dark is going to be in there, and if it’s not, I’m going to be perplexed by the end of it. Your Dean Koontz books, your Nicholas Sparks books, they’d better have some of what we expect. If Nicholas Sparks suddenly wrote a speculative slash thriller, that would be really confusing to his fans.
But, for whatever reason, young adult authors are allowed to play in whatever sandbox we like. I don’t know why that is. I’ve talked about it a lot with my young adult writer friends because we all tend to bounce around. And It’s nice. But I do wonder if it effects our ability to build an audience. But still, bouncing around is what I want to do. I don’t think I could only write ‘more of the same.’ I have to keep writing whatever comes to me.
Kendare Blake is the author of several novels and short stories. Her work is sort of dark, always violent, and features passages describing food from when she writes while hungry. She was born in July (for those of you doing book reports) in Seoul, South Korea, but doesn’t speak a lick of Korean, as she was packed off at a very early age to her adoptive parents in the United States. That might be just an excuse, though, as she is pretty bad at learning foreign languages. She lives and writes in Gig Harbor, Washington, with her husband, their cat son Tyrion Cattister, red Doberman dog son Obi-Dog Kenobi, rottie mix dog daughter Agent Scully, and naked Sphynx cat son Armpit McGee.