Interview With Author Damian Serbu

# Please introduce yourself and your books!

Hello! My name is Damian Serbu, and I write gay horror/speculative fiction. I currently have two series in print, The Realm of the Vampire Council and the Simon the Elf series. My vampire series follows a set of vampires beginning during the French Revolution until today, with a special look at a Council that governs vampires. These stories weave together some horror/vampire elements, romance, and an exploration of the human condition. A reviewer once described me as writing in the spirit of Anne Rice, but with gay vampires. Simon the Elf brings a series of dark satirical works, in which Simon exposes the true nature of Santa Claus as a vicious vampire who preys on innocent people. You can check out all my books and the latest news about me at DamianSerbu.com.

# What are the real-life stories behind your books?

One way my stories incorporate “real-life stories” comes from the emotion and questions the characters explore about themselves. I pull from my experience and what I observe in others to ponder romance and love, or to dig into deep fears and think about what could liberate a person from worry. Even in supernatural beings such as vampires, I want readers to contemplate their place in the world and what it means to live in human community. I also use personality traits from myself or people I know in my characters. I never take one person I know and make them a character because I think that would be unfair to both the character and the real human. But my characters represent various parts of people to become their own unique individuals. I hope my stories feel authentic and relatable, even when they delve into the supernatural or other worldly.

A good example of the personality trait idea comes in two of my first characters, Thomas and Xavier from The Vampire’s Angel and subsequent vampire books. Part of Xavier includes a deep sensitivity and uncertainty about his place in the world, while part of Thomas deals with a rage at how he’s been treated by others. These are not the entirety of the characters’ personality, but portions of them – and all of those are emotions and feelings I’ve dealt with personally. So I drew on my own experience as part of their journeys.

Sometimes, of course, the “real-life” stories that pop into the books are more concrete. In The Bachmann Family Secret, my young adult ghost story, a pivotal scene in the book occurs with a ghost attack that I based on a nightmare I had repeatedly in high school. I also utilize locations and places where I have lived or visited because I find it easier to create authentic atmosphere when I can draw upon my memory or experience in a place. Thus I’ve set stories in almost every place I’ve lived (Colorado, Nebraska, Cleveland, Chicago) or favorite places I visited (Paris, New Orleans, Sonoma County, CA).

# What inspires/inspired your creativity?

Stories pop into my head at all sorts of crazy times, and have been dwelling there for as long as I can remember. Sometimes watching a movie or TV show will inspire a plot that matches the genre or feel of what I observed on the screen. Or I can be walking/jogging along and a character or event materializes in my head with a story or scene in a book I’m writing. I even dream ideas. Then, whatever the inspiration, the notion expands and rumbles around my empty noggin until I write it down. If it pertains to a current project, I make a note in my outline or put a note on my desk to use the new revelation the next time I write. If a new story comes into my brain – I have to get a sheet of paper out and sketch the overall story arc or it won’t go away and allow me to move onto something else.

Here’s a good example of how the creativity comes into being from a number of different places: after publishing The Bachmann Family Secret, my first young adult novel, I thought about writing another YA book because I enjoyed the first one so much. My brother and I grew up big Star Wars fans, and around that time he asked why I never wrote about space fantasy since I enjoyed it. And I had a conversation with my doctor, non-medical related – we were just chatting – that brought an idea into my mind. (I know that’s way vague, but if I tell you more it will giveaway the major climax of the plot!) Those three things, with more stuff lurking nearby, fused together into one of my currents works in progress. I don’t have a title for it yet, but it’s a YA novel about aliens invading earth.

# How do you deal with creative block?

I am so lucky to never have experienced creative block. I sometimes suffer from the opposite: too many stories and ideas run around in my mind and want to be freed onto paper! I have to control how many novels I think I can write at one time. In fact, my reference above to making notes plays a part here, because I can let the story go if I write it down and place it in a file, as opposed to telling myself I need to concentrate on something else or finish my current stories first. Then the new idea shouts in my head, worried I will forget its existence.

# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

For my money, here’s a million dollar mistake authors can make: not editing or listening to editors, readers, and other people. I think an essential part of writing includes finishing what the authors sees as a pretty polished draft and then giving the manuscript to people for feedback. Not to people who will return the pages and simply say, wow! Great! Publish it! Rather, to gain insight from outside readers to improve your work. Others can fix small errors, such as the main character’s car being blue in one chapter and turning red in another. But they also can push you on bigger problems, like telling an author when a character does something that bothered them as a reader because it felt out of place. Maybe the writer intended the jolt to happen, so keep the section there! But if you have a character and a couple readers say, “hey – why did this person do a 180 here from how they usually act? It distracted me – then you have to think as an author about altering that part, or clarifying the discrepancy for the reader. Beta readers can also tell you when a paragraph makes no sense. If you write and read your creation and think you love it but, again, a reader tells you they found it garbled, you need to fix it because chances are other readers will think the same thing. It can be hard to listen to criticism, because you pour so much time and energy – a part of your soul – into writing. Authors must learn to see the editorial process as taking this precious creation and making it even better, not as a personal assault.

# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

I’ll deal with covers first because it’s “easy” for me. I have always used a publisher, and they hire the covert artist who creates the art for my books. I awe at their creations. In each case, I give basic background about the story and content, and the artist uses this feedback to generate amazing covers that portray the feel of my books. I love seeing the cover art and rarely even make tiny suggestions for change. Anyway, the cover is a fun part of my publishing process but I have little to contribute here on tips for choosing a cover because experts do the work for me.

As for titles, I agonize over titles! In general, picking a title takes me eons and feels like a months long process of giving birth to an elephant out of my ear. For some reason I struggle to come up with a title to reflect my story. Even after I read and reread and edit and edit, sometimes a title remains far away. One tip, though, based on failed experience, is to not force the issue. Oh! I suppose this is an area of creative block for me! I didn’t think about titles when I answered the question up above. Anyway, at one point I sat myself down and said, read and read until the title pops into your mind. Never worked. Forcing the issue only made the journey worse. Eventually the title materializes for me – but only when I relax, let it go, and it takes a long time in my case. I think I struggle in part because the title must mean something to me, but also work in a marketing sense. That’s a difficult balance to find.

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I learned a long time ago to let them go, and especially not to take them personally. Human nature propels us to read them and then either defend ourselves or dwell in the misery, thinking about how to solve the problem in the future or dispute the claim. It can cripple you and hurt. Instead of this misery, I see the release of a novel as a piece of art. Once you put it on canvas or sculpt the statue, you place the art in the public realm. Some will love the piece! Some will see your inspiration and embrace it. Others will enjoy your creation but see something you never expected to say. And yes, critics will emerge and make cutting statements. Let them have their say and be done. Because you won’t change their mind, and one person’s hate does not mean everyone will hate. We now live in a world where every person has at their fingertips the chance to rip someone else apart – writers must protect themselves from falling into the abyss. I never respond or engage in critics because that would only have me relive the agony again and again, as well as call attention to what they said so other people see it.

# How has your creation process improved over time?

I think my creative process has been pretty steady but with a slight improvement, in that I can sit and write without building up to the moment these days. At first, I would spend some time considering my story and getting into the minds of the characters, and then moving over to writing. Often I can now plop into my chair and I’m already there. I think experience helped me to live the stories more often than just when I sit in my chair to write. I also know that the more you write, the better you get. So this has made the editing process easier, because I have less to fix than in the past.

# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your books?

The best: The sense of satisfaction when I complete a story and it comes together. I have this sensation when I write “The End” to the first draft, and again when I finish editing, see the proofs, and when the hardcopy arrives in the mail. I feel accomplished and as if I let my baby into the world for others to experience.

The worst: Marketing. I have never worked in this field and it does not come naturally to me. So getting the word out about my novels is where I feel the worst because I am a fish out of water, wondering what to do or what will work. But it is possible to learn to get better, so I’m plugging away at it!

The most surprising: I am pretty shy and introverted, so I’m not sure why this surprised me and continues to surprise me, but I am often embarrassed when talking with others about my novels. Which, by the way, is a horrible attribute for an author when we should be plugging ourselves and singing from the rooftops about our books! When friends or family praise me, my first instinct is to run and hide. Or when I meet people and they ask what I’ve written, I feel self conscious about telling them my titles or about my website. I’m getting better about it but I still pause and feel a little awkward. I love writing and thinking about how readers get to experience my stories, but something about confronting that reality head on makes me nervous!

# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I can’t comprehend a world where these two don’t merge. Frankly, and this may make me sound like a selfish jerk, but I cannot conceive of a world in which I “serve my readers” alone, if doing so displeases me. I doubt I could generate the excitement and creativity to write something outside of a world that brings me personal satisfaction. At the same time, I think my sense of being satisfied will help readers because they will “feel” my enthusiasm and excitement. And it would be just as self-defeating if I got so far into my own head that I pleased myself and everyone else thought I wrote crap or had lost my mind! I think a balance must exist here, now that I ponder the issue. Or, at least I hope I find that balance. But an author must start with their own authentic self or I believe readers will see through the ruse.

# What role do emotions play in creativity?

I find emotion central to the creative process. I aim for my novels to explore a variety of emotions and conditions. In fact, I think readers connect to books because of these emotions. What brings someone to relate to a book? Usually a feeling, a connection to a story or character based on experience, desire, fear, love – whatever. But the best reads draw you in as a reader because you have a personal connection. I use emotions a lot and find them central to my stories. In fact, the concept of emotion allows readers and writers alike to dive into speculative fiction and worlds of wonder because, even when dealing with beings, places, or entities that don’t really exist, emotion roots you within yourself and offers an anchor to reality amid the unreality.

# What are your plans for future books?

I am in the process of writing three books. My latest vampire book will be The Vampire’s War, in which a sinister vampire threatens to bring down all vampires and conquer humanity! But speaking of emotion from the last question, the story also has Jaret, the main character, learning amid the war about himself and who he wants to be. Simon the Elf will also return in a new dark comedy, The Easter Bunny Is a Werewolf. I already mentioned my young adult sci fi novel, though I still haven’t come up with its title. Oh, see, like I said earlier, figuring out titles takes me a while.

# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

My husband could probably give you a better list of quirky me! Here’s a quirk related to my writing: a lot of times as I am writing the story, I mumble what I am writing out loud to myself. I don’t know why, and I never consciously decided to do it. It just happens! Maybe the characters have taken over my mind and are doing the muttering.