When I first heard my friend Joe Young had written a vampire novel, my first thought was, “Seriously?” It wasn’t something I’d ever have considered as something Joe would do. First of all, the longest work I’d ever read by Joe was his excellent collection of microfictions, EASTER RABBIT. Joe writing a novel wasn’t something I could comprehend. After I got over the astonishment, however, I was totally jealous. I knew if Joe had written a vampire novel it would be terrific, and that’s something I’ve never been able to accomplish.
Well, Joe’s novel NAME is excellent, so at least I have the satisfaction of being right. I think of NAME as “vampire realism” if there is such a thing. You know how vampires are either romanticized or turned into animals? How they either glow or are surrounded by gore? Well, NAME takes a different path. It addresses what it would really be like to be a vampire, to find yourself with a different identity from what you spend most of your life with.
It was NAME’s unique take on identity that prompted me to ask Joe to join me in my quest for answers about naming characters.
BREATHE: Obviously, the concept of identity is very central to your book. Is this something you have explored before in your writing, or is it something that emerged in this longer work?
JOE: I answered this first question after answering your second, and I think I kind of talk about this there: the non-naming of my characters in my microfiction is a sort of playing with identity, both the fixedness and the fluidity of it. So, yes, I have explored it before. Of course, in NAME the concept is more central and more overt. In the novel, your identity is attached to your name, and this attachment allows someone (in this case, vampires) access to who you are; by finding out a victim’s name, the vampires gain power over him or her. Also, having a name seems to stabilize a character in the book, and those characters with more than one name, Daniel and, in a way, John (who is misnamed when we first meet him), are the more volatile and even unstable of characters
BREATHE: Looking through your microfictions, I find a lot of pronouns and few names except sometimes in titles. Do the characters in your microfictions have names, even if they’re never stated?
JOE: They don’t have names that I ever think about. I don’t say to myself, This is Michelle and Pete, but I’m just not going to call them that. Therefore I guess the answer is no, they have no names. I think most of the time the he’s and she’s of my microfictions are the same people, even if they change ages or life situations or whatever. So, maybe not naming them lets me have fluidity over their identities in certain ways even while keeping them as the same basic people in my imagination—they are both fixed and fluid people.
BREATHE: Was it difficult to name characters in your first novel? If so, how did you overcome this? If not, why do you think it wasn’t?
JOE: No, it wasn’t difficult at all, the names came to me and I wrote them down as the characters appeared in the story. I didn’t plan them out ahead of time or change them at all. For instance, I came up with “the rabbit” earlier in the book and didn’t know his real name was Daniel until Robert encountered him later on. I don’t think it was difficult because I didn’t put much stock in names in particular, not consciously anyway. The fact that they had names, that they were identified by them, and that the vampires used those names to seduce them, was more important than the names themselves. It occurred to me much later on though that Lena was several times associated with ducks and swans in the book, and I think that perhaps I had unconsciously associated her with Leda, the woman who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan and who then gave birth to Helen of Troy. Those who read the book might notice when the character of Helen appears. Some of the other names, John and Daniel, for example, have Biblical associations that perhaps were working subconsciously for me as well.
BREATHE: Do you feel a character’s name affects the way you write him or her?
JOE: I think so. Something about who a character is suggests a name, even if, as above, that suggestion is less than conscious, and then once they have that name it becomes part of their identity, influencing who they are and what they do. It could be an interesting experiment that when you revise a story you change the protagonist’s name and see what changes you make to his or her character as a result.
BREATHE: Are there any names that you absolutely will never use for a character? Why or why not?
JOE: I can’t imagine there are. If a character needs a certain name, whatever that might be, then he or she will likely get it. There aren’t certain names with certain associations that I wouldn’t allow myself to use or anything like that.
Here’s a taste of Joe’s novel NAME to whet your appetite:
Robert, a vampire, the novel’s protagonist, and Lena, his vampire love interest, go out hunting together for their victims. They come upon a pair of young lovers, about 14 years old.
Robert led them toward the woods, the pair of them, Lena and he. The other pair was up ahead, holding hands as they went. The girl and boy walked awhile, and then they stopped, a wide spot in the path, and put matches to their cigarettes. The boy propped one foot on a log, the girl’s hand on his knee. She said something at which he smiled, small and ironic at first and then opening out, into joy. He took his cigarette from his mouth, put it in the girl’s lips, took her cigarette and put it into his. She leant against him and exhaled, long and noisy, eyes closed.
Robert looked and it was so near the surface. It was clear and bright, at the bright surface of her thoughts. It was there, her name, as unclouded as her eyes, as if she’d just spoken it aloud. It was as if the boy had said it to her and she’d taken it into herself, her own name, like a gift. It was a small package, dressed in blue light and clear water.
“Maggie,” he called, and the girl looked up. And from Lena, “Ryan.”