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Interview with Marta Acosta
by Chris Paige
Photo © Peggy Gough
Marta Acosta is the author of Happy Hour at Casa Dracula, Midnight Brunch, (at Casa Dracula) The Bride of Casa Dracula, Haunted Honeymoon, Dark Companion, Nancy ’s Theory of Style, and the just-released The She-Hulk Diaries. Her protagonist in the Casa Dracula series is a charmingly funny heroine named Milagro de los Santos , which means “Miracle of the Saints”, and she more than lives up to her name. Dark Companion is linked to the series, but has a separate storyline, and a much darker tone, being more in the style of gothic horror, with wonderful chapter heading quotes from classic gothic novels. 

Marta Acosta herself is my idea of a real-life heroine: she graduated from Stanford University , she promotes literacy in under-served populations, and she was a features and op-ed writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Newspapers.

Young Adult/Urban Fantasy is usually given over to angst and dangerous attractions; it is hugely refreshing to encounter stories that bring humor to the mix.  – Chris Paige

Q: What is your new She-Hulk book about, and what prompted the writing of it?

MA: The She-Hulk Diaries is a chick-lit spin on Marvel’s fabulous green superhuman and her human persona, Jennifer Walters. Unlike her cousin, Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Jen retains her intelligence when she transforms. However, her superhuman persona is quite wild, snarky, sexy, and generally rowdy. Both Jen and She-Hulk are attorneys and the book is about Jen’s resolutions to live a more well-rounded life while also dealing with She-Hulk’s responsibilities to save the world now and then.

Marvel had approved the project and my agent asked me if I was interested. I certainly was and I had a great time writing the novel.

CP: Your 4 book series about the misadventures of Milagro de los Santos are some of the funniest urban fiction I’ve ever read, as well as THE most romantic. I have re-read some of the conversations between your main characters five and six times, they are so powerful and gut-wrenching. Your most recent book, Dark Companion, is more somber, because it’s about recognizing and refusing abuse. Both storylines are about communities of vampires, but these are not horror movie vampires at all. How did you piece together the research and imagination to come up with these characters and their societies? What were your sources?

MA: I’ve always been a fan of speculative fiction, movies, and television, because they are “what if?” stories that give you the possibility to do anything. I especially like stories that use humor and scientific explanations for anything that seems supernatural.

I’m frustrated when I see this genre revert to old Hollywood tropes that exist in a world without any socio/political context, including racial/ethnic diversity. I was ranting and riffing about this—Why aren’t there Latinas in vampire movies? Maybe vampires are biased against Latinas? Why are vampires always the same old rich European dudes? Wouldn’t they be very ambitious Type A’s to amass wealth?—and I came up with the idea of throwing a slightly aimless, bright and funny Latina party girl in with a comedy-of-manners with snobby vampires.

I have a special fondness for comedies-of-manners, which are often set in one large house out in the country, where there are lots of opportunities for misunderstandings and shenanigans. Social class is usually a theme in these stories, as it is in mine. Milagro discovers the vampires and they treat her like a tacky gold-digger.

Vampires represent so many things in folklore over the centuries, but they’ve been reduced to “romantic rich gorgeous white guy who’s yearning for true love,” in a lot of popular stories, and I wanted to satirize that. Milagro falls for Oswald, who turns out to be a serial “yearning for true love” kind of guy. (He also thinks Milagro should get a teaching credential instead of larking around writing crazy horror stories and gardening.)

The more I thought about it, the more I saw the connections of their “otherness” and Milagro’s feeling of being outside and desperately hoping that someone would open the door and invite her into their world.

CP: In the first book, Oswald comes across as a gentle dilettante, with lots of time on his hands. By the 3rd book he’s morphed into a workaholic. Was he already a workaholic and just pretending to be so un-busy because he was on a mission, or did he undergo a change, and if so, what motivated it, other than a manipulative author-deity?

MA: Oswald was always a Type A personality. He’d have to be highly disciplined and ambitious to become a surgeon, but he was forced to take time off in Book 1. I know Type A’s who are very relaxed in person, but never stop working. We see what we expect to see, and Milagro assumes Oswald’s a slacker; he enjoys contributing to her misapprehension.

CP: The alpha male of the series turns out to be Ian Ducharme, who also shows up briefly in Dark Companion. Does that story take place before the end of Haunted Honeymoon, given Ian’s elliptical reference to Milagro?

MA: Yes, it does, but I didn’t set a specific time frame for it.

CP: Ian Ducharme also seemed to undergo a sea change after the first book. In Happy Hour at Casa Dracula Ian and his sister Cornelia reminded me of the brother and sister in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the ones who selfishly derail everything for their own amusement and don’t care how much harm they cause in the process. Did you have the outcome of the later books already in mind, and if so, how do you square his appalling behavior? Was he testing Milagro? Did he expect her to be a go-to-hell gold digger? Or did you change the direction of the plot arc somewhere along the way, and the characters along with it? 

MA: Happy Hour was written as a single novel, and it hadn’t even occurred to me to write a series until my editor at Simon & Schuster asked for a second, so I had no idea of a series arc. Yes, Ian and Cornelia Ducharme were inspired by Henry and Maria Crawford in Austen’s Mansfield Park . I’ve always thought that Fanny should have married Henry because he saw her value before anyone else.

But Ian doesn’t actually reform. There’s a line in Book 4, when Nancy addresses Milagro’s idealization of Oswald, by saying something to the effect that, yes, he’s a nice man, but does she really want a nice man? The answer is, no. Milagro wants someone more complex than Oswald.

In Book 1 she says that a part of Ian terrifies her and that she enjoys the challenge of being with someone who terrifies her. She doesn’t want to be comfortably settled in the country; she lives on excitement and rushes into crazy situations.

Ian expected Milagro to be a gold-digger and also easy to control, which she’s not. They discuss this in Book 3. Ian says that the Vampire Council thought she could be bought off, but that Milagro really wants affection, and he should have offered her a kitten instead. In my mind, he’s pretty self-satisfied and does what he pleases in Book 1 and continues to be self-satisfied and act as he pleases through Book 4.

CP: Ha! So the original ending WAS that Milagro ends up with Oswald! That’s how it felt, and that was why I was puzzled by Oswald’s behavior later on. But that’s realistic too, isn’t it? When the honeymoon stage of a relationship is over, dissatisfactions and frictions and agendas can surface. And if what you originally fell in love with was illusional, or delusional, or compensatory to begin with… well. That is one of the themes of the next two books in the series, isn’t it? Figuring out whether you are responsible for living up to other people’s expectations for you, or living out your potential. And I like what you say about Henry being the first to see Fanny’s worth; Ian is that way with Milagro. You do an excellent job of providing Ian with a dark horse backstory, and linking him with your rascal Don Pedro.

MA: In terms of Milagro and Oswald, in my first version, she says to him, “If you ever decide to grow up, give me a call,” but my agent said she could never sell the novel and asked me to change it. But I really felt that Milagro was staying with Oswald because she desperately needed a maternal figure, and she had that in his grandmother.

CP: Yeah, that comes across. It’s the scenes with Edna (or Ian) I like to reread, not the Oswald scenes.

 It is a most un-fun topic in a series that has a lot of fun and humor, but you do include torture, with malicious intent, as opposed to consensual and mutually enjoyed dom and sub behavior, in the 4th book.  Milagro is taken prisoner. It’s brilliant the way Milagro uses musical and literary sources to confound her interrogator/torturers. There is a scene in a Miles Vorkosigan book, Brothers in Arms, where he does something similar, subsuming his identity in a role to protect it. Had you read that series? Or how did you hit upon that dodge?

MA: No, I haven’t read Brothers in Arms, but now I will. People talk to their interrogators, and I thought that Milagro would use her loquacious nature to baffle them while telling the truth, too. She’s a fictional character inspired by other fictional characters who connect to us in a real true way.

CP: I got many of the references to songs and books that Milagro uses as red herrings, but can we go over them? There’s Billie Jean, from the Michael Jackson song. Then Jane from Jane Eyre, and Maggie May from the Rod Stewart song. Is Brandy the “fine girl” of that Motown song? “My Sharona” is the next song of origin; then Elizabeth Bennet form Pride and Prejudice; but who’s Bridget? Is she from a Fitzgerald story?

MA: Yes, you’ve got Brandy right, but it’s not a Motown song; it’s by a band called Looking Glass. I’ve always heard it on the radio and the lyrics got stuck in my head because it’s catchy, but also ridiculous and that makes me like it even more.

Bridget is Bridget Jones, another aimless, well-intentioned girl.

CP: After liberating herself and getting to a safe place, Milagro focuses very intently on seeing not just the good in ordinary, prosaic things, but seeing them as wonderful, delightful, magical. I really liked that passage.

MA: I do, too! I wanted to leave readers with that feeling of joy and wonder at the world.

CP: It’s very clear that Milagro almost orchestrates her amnesia after she gets back to “Casa Dracula”. It’s real, and it is more than justified by preceding events, but her wish for a second chance precipitates the solution. Please say a bit more about that.

MA: In my first outline for the story, Milagro feigns amnesia in order to stay with Oswald and have another chance with him. Then I thought: wouldn’t it be more interesting if Milagro really does get amnesia? People always wonder about lost chances and roads not taken, but I think we tend to make the same decisions. We can’t live in the past, and Milagro is essentially always Milagro; she’ll never be like the sincere and serious young woman in Middlemarch that she admires. Of course, she’s admiring a fictional young woman, so make of that what you will.

From Book 1, Milagro is very aware of what she’s not: she’s not the accomplished blonde, well-dressed, well-behaved young woman held up as society’s ideal. By Book 4, she fully embraces who she is.

CP: Yeah, and that is the real triumph of the series, and that is what I hope readers are inspired to emulate: that combination, that dynamic balance of improving yourself in ways that you yourself truly admire, and still being yourself. Milagro “betters herself” at first in part to be acceptable, and those are the changes she eventually sheds to a certain extent, but she also betters herself because she genuinely loves being smarter, and more competent, and resourceful, and those are things you become through efforts. You can’t just game yourself into being competent.

But Milagro is not the only one who needs – and gets – a second chance. She doesn’t need to recreate herself, it’s more like a reboot, but other characters had distorted themselves quite thoroughly, usually with a lot of ‘help’ from others. Some of these bent out of shape characters unfold and get happy, but others seem addicted to their distortions. Silas and Sebastian come to mind. There seems some chance for Silas at least to outgrow his distortions. What are the differences between a person like Silas and one like Professor Poindexter? (it was a nice touch the way you indicated the degree of the Professor’s hubris by his vanity plate.)

MA. Silas is your basic power-mad jerk, using victimization of the vampires as an excuse to victimize humans. The Professor believes his superior intellect entitles him to continue his monstrous research with no regard to consequences.

There are parallels in our contemporary world, whether it’s the way various peoples are dehumanized to justify torture, imprisonment, and land-grabbing, or how individuals hide behind companies to profit from the war machine. In the end, it’s usually all about the money, honey.

Milagro wants to go back to the way she was before, but other characters want to move forward and embrace a new persona. Edna was once Dena Franklin, a flashy young novelist and girl-about-town. But my favorite character with a new identity is Don Pedro, a former car mechanic from San Bernardino who reinvents himself as a spiritual leader from South America . I love Don Pedro.

CP: Does Silas as a musician ever perform at My Dive?

MA: No, there’s no way Mercedes would allow him there. She’s made sure he doesn’t even get venues at SXS.

CP: I had hoped creative outlets transformed him into a nicer human being. But some people stay jerks, don’t they?

MIlagro survived an… interesting childhood as an unwanted child. One of my favorite scenes is when Milagro is describing “my mother Regina ” to Edna, and the two of them end up howling with laughter. I am sure some readers are horrified, appalled by this scene; I see it as an example of laughter as medicine. But how on earth did toddler Milagro survive falling into unattended the swimming pool? You explain all the other near misses, but not that one. Since I was an infant pool-plopper myself, I am intensely curious. When I fell into all that lovely blueness, my grandfather hauled me out. Who or what saved Milagro?

MA: I’m glad your grandfather was nearby! I figured she made it to the edge and grabbed on. She’s a survivor.

CP: You take a very laconic, elliptical approach to the issue of surviving torture. It seems to me that Milagro, who is very resilient, does not regard herself as or even feel fundamentally damaged by anything that is done to her, but she takes very seriously what she does to others, and why. Can you talk about this a bit, please?

MA: I think that too often fiction writers treat torture as a plot device: it’s always some demented genius conducting the torture and this detaches it from the reality that ordinary people do horrible things. What is the point of providing everyone with a queasy rush from describing torture, especially when it is done without a greater context? “Because he’s a genius murderer!” is not a greater context. Milagro says that one of her torturers looked like the “guy next door,” which he was. He was also brutal.

Milagro was already damaged before she was tortured. She’d been raised by a sociopathic mother and had learned to survive by throwing up a wall in her emotions. In Book 2, her friend Mercedes says, “I never know if I should take you seriously because you keep making jokes,” and Milagro says, “If I didn’t make jokes, I’d never stop screaming,” and that’s the way I feel about humor: it helps keep us sane in the face of life’s overwhelming sorrows.

The books address political themes, using humor to make points, so there is the reoccurring theme of abuse of power and exploitation of others. Evil can have a banal face and men wearing expensive suits commit appalling crimes and are excused by virtue of their social class. The political content of my books is always overlooked, but I hope that I’m making points on a more subliminal level.

Milagro deals with the torture the same way she dealt with being an abused child.  Her friends recognize that she needs the emotional wall and humor to survive and to be who she is.

Milagro is always aware of those less fortunate and earnestly wants to make the world a better place. She thinks she does this with her political horror stories and she also does this by her actions. In Book 1, she helps defeat a corporate cabal intending to extradite and imprison vampires and exploit their genetic mutations. In Book 2, she helps defeat the Project for a New Vampire Century, a spin on the Project for a New American Century, which led us into the Iraq War. In Book 4, she again helps prevent a multinational corporation from their war profiteering by creating “pre-dead” soldiers, aka zombies.

CP: I appreciated the political critiques. SF is one of the few genres that does take on issues of political complacency, corruption, cruelty and ineptitude. Writers like Ben Bova hold politicians and media sycophants to account for their malfeasances. You do too, and I like that.

Have you another sequel in mind? I confess that while I enjoy a good plot, it’s your characters more than anything else I wish to spend more time with. I love Edna and her snarky remarks, and I want to see if Milagro’s um, fertility influence extends to others besides Sam and Winnie.

MA: I’ve got other writing projects, but I occasionally think that I’d like to write one more story about Milagro and Ian. I see them solving crimes, cracking wise, and flirting wildly a la Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series. I’m letting the idea marinate. When I think about Milagro now, I see her muddy and engrossed in gardening at her new house with her puppy Sweet Pea scampering around while Ian comes out to ask, “Will you be there all night, or are you coming to Gigi’s party with me?” I also imagine her on a beach somewhere relaxing…for the moment.

CP: I like the sound of that. It is good to show that there can be life in a relationship after marriage. What does “happily ever after” look like, after all?

Okay, on to the literary influences questions. You pay lovely tribute to Jane Eyre and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Books in Haunted Honeymoon. What were other favorites of yours, and why?

MA: There are too many, but I’ll mention a few of my favorites that are referenced in my books.

Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse are mentioned in Happy Hour, and I love their use of self-deluded narrators, humor, and banter.

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a favorite novel because the protagonist truly wants to make her life meaningful to others. Milagro is inspired by Middlemarch to try to be a “sincere and serious young woman.”

I’ve read Jane Austen’s novels many times and love the characters, the sharp edges,

Evelyn Waugh’s satire is a favorite, and f his novels and stories are featured in Midnight Brunch.

Shakespeare’s plays and poetry are mentioned in every novel. Milagro attends a performance of Othello and she also finds creative inspiration from The Tempest.

Henry James is frequently mentioned and I love his themes of young innocents running wide-eyed into traps set for them by jaded, duplicitous associates.

CP: Who are some of your favorite current writers and topics? What books do you have on your shelves – or on your tablet?

MA: After a lifetime of obsessively reading novels, I’m taking a break from reading fiction. (I remember being 15 and sitting down and reading Dune in a day.)  I read and listen to a lot of general news and contemporary affairs. I’ve recently discovered wonderful storytellers on radio shows and podcasts like “Snap Judgment” and “The Moth.” I love hearing the different cadences of spoken word. I’m hooked on “Tech Nation” hosted by Dr. Moira Gunn and her in-depth discussions of science and technology.

CP: 150 years ago, mas o menos, there were hundreds of Spanish newspapers printed and read by the Hispanic populations of the southwest. Hispanics were more literate than most northern Europeans in the areas. But almost all those newspapers were eradicated. An educated populace is still the thing most feared by people who want to control others.  Is the internet replacing any of these lost venues of literacy? Is there a rise in Hispanic and Latina participation in journalism, other than in NPR?

MA: Not to my knowledge. I listen to NPR every day and think it’s one of the most valuable news sources we have, but I’m frustrated by cable news, including stations that brag about their diversity, because none of them are representative in terms of Latino journalists. Race/ethnicity is reduced to black/white issues. Latino pundits are only invited to speak about immigration, and don’t even come close to being representative proportionally to our percentage, 17%, of the population. We can discuss issues besides immigration, and diversity brings different perspectives of issues we all face.

I think local news stations are more representative, but those stations are all “if it bleeds, it leads,” programs about murders and car crashes.

CP: Well, I hope your books and articles help change that sorry state of affairs.

I’d like to ask about your choice of narrative voice.   Usually the first person style voice limits the narrative in a way I find unpleasant; it is like having blinders on, or being stuck in a small room with someone who has B.O. and a limited vocabulary. There are so few minds I care to occupy that intimately. Milagro, however, is a joy and a revelation, even – and sometimes especially – when she is misinterpreting a situation. You actually make the first person narrative serve the plot turns, as well as serve up delicious moments of dramatic irony. Did you pick that up from Mark Twain?

MA: I was certainly influenced by Twain, and his cheerfully deluded narrators have had me in hysterics since childhood. I especially love the deliciously deluded narrator of The Innocents Abroad, his travel essays.

You’re right about the limitations of first-person. But let’s say that the narrator is in a private car on a train, talking to you on the phone. The narrator has a limited view of the changing landscape outside and also has visitors in the private car. The narrator can misinterpret what she sees, or it can pass by too quickly, or the train can stop, and she can describe at leisure what’s happening. Does she wildly exaggerate, or does she seem to miss clues as to what’s going on?

As the reader, you’re dependent upon the narrator, but begin to understand her and how she sees things. The more you know about Milagro, the more you know what might be outside the window and where the train may be headed.

As a writer and humorist, I’m drawn to first-person and finding the voice of the narrator. This takes us back to your question about my current favorite stories: in spoken word, I’m the voice: the cadence, the vocabulary, the imagery, the flow.

CP: I love the way Milagro gets quotes wrong. From that slight misquote of the Stephen Crane story “The Open Boat” onward, I had a blast spotting them. It’s realistic and very funny, and it gives you a way to tailor a mangled quote to better serve the storyline.  Does Milagro mangle them all on her own, or do you ever consciously prune them to fit a scheme?

MA: Ha! There’s a story to that. I’d lost a job and my best friend took me out to a lunch. As the waiter brought opened a nice bottle of French rosé, because that’s what we like to drink at our lunches, he said, “What are you celebrating?” and I said, “I just lost my job.”

He said, “As the Dalai Lama says, ‘When one door closes, another opens.’”

It was really Alexander Graham Bell who said that, and I kept hearing the quote attributed to different people and thought it would be funny to use incorrect attributions as a running joke. Milagro and her friend Nancy also intentionally mangle quotations because they think it’s funny.

CP: At one point Milagro rereads a favorite book and decides that, whereas it had seemed to have a perfect happy ending when she was younger, she now sees room for improvement. I figured the book was Pride and Prejudice, but I’d love to know which one you had in mind. And I think this is an important turning point: waking up to the realization that romances tend to have a dark side to them. How did her perspective mature?

MA. I can’t remember exactly, but it was possibly about Jane Eyre. I don’t remember if I ever thought Mr. Rochester was wonderful, but now I think he is fairly abusive to Jane Eyre. He torments her and uses his power and position to manipulate her emotions.

CP: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten from readers?

MA: I had a 16-year-old plagiarize Milagro’s self-description for her online bio. I wrote a note to her and said, “Gee, I think I was the one who wrote that.” She replied, “But I am Milagro! This is me.” So I told her to go ahead and keep the bio on her page.

A lot of readers tell me that Milagro feels real to them. She feels like someone they know, a crazy cousin or sister, and that they’d love to have a drink with her. I love when they say that and also when they say that they cry for her when her heart is broken or she’s alone and trying to go on. I’m so happy that I was able to create a character who resonates on that emotional level.

CP: You got your degree from Stanford. Do they brag about you yet and fete you and invite you to lecture and give commencement speeches?

MA. As Milagro would say, ha, ha, and ha. No, they save that sort of thing for presidents and Nobel Prize winners. One, it’s Stanford, and, two, no one takes comedy seriously.

CP: I bet the students would appreciate an address from you! I remember my eyes rolling up in the back of my head at most of the addresses I had to attend. And you strike me as more politically savvy that most professional politicians, at least about actual issues.  How about conventions? Do you attend SF conventions? Any upcoming ones? 

MA. I haven’t been to an SF convention since way before they were trendy and hip! I wanted to go to Comic Con, but my publisher wouldn’t pony up the dough. They said I could watch it online. I kid you not! I got to see Joss Whedon interviewed in front of a display of my book, The She-Hulk Diaries, though, and that was swell.

Events are stressful because I find it difficult to go more than five minutes without saying something appalling.

CP: Ha! I would LOVE to hear your appalling. You transitioned to self-publishing, and in the process made revisions. What is the best way for readers, inspired by this interview, to get the revised editions?

MA. I was able to get the rights back to three of the books in the series, but the publisher still holds the rights to book one, Happy Hour at Casa Dracula. All of the revised editions are available at Amazon on Kindle and as print books. Be sure to get the revised editions that are issued by Badinage Press because otherwise you’ll get the old editions (and Amazon makes my new editions very hard to find in print):

Midnight Brunch (Kindle, Print), The Bride of Casa Dracula (Kindle, Print), and Haunted Honeymoon at Casa Dracula (Kindle, Print).

I’ve also got a revised version of Happy Hour at Casa Dracula available outside the US .

CP: I found your books to be very visual; I could see almost every scene in my mind’s eye. Has any studio expressed interest in acquiring the rights to film these stories?

MA. A kazillion years ago, some producer did. These books never sold well enough to get Hollywood ’s attention. They’re quirky, which is the contemporary euphemism for “you’re weird and please go away.”

CP: I wish producers would wake up to the fact that humor doesn’t have to be stupid to attract audiences. I think these books would make brilliant rom-coms. How about pitching them to Jenifer Lopez and Drew Barrymore?

One reason I “see” these characters so clearly as I read is that you describe them vividly, and you pay especial attention to attire. Are you a costumer yourself? Are clothes a happy part of your life?

MA. My first editor told me I had to write more descriptions about clothes, so I did, and while I’m not a costumer, I’ve studied theatre and worked in theatre companies, so I have an understanding of the role of dress in illuminating character. I always tried to make Milagro right on the edge of hip and trashy.

CP: Yeah, I love that about her. I only have to picture her zebra striped luggage to improve my mood. So, if a series were made based on these books, who would be your dream cast?

MA: I see the characters in my mind and they look like themselves, not any specific actors. Milagro describes herself as having a look common to Latinas and she says that when she sees a girl who looks like her on the street, she imagines she’s a long-lost cousin. That’s how I feel when I see these girls on the street: they could be Milagro.

I wanted her to be an Everygirl…a really funny, cheerful self-deluded, well-intentioned, brave and bright Everygirl who is more like the wonderful young women we know in real life, and not like a glossy Hollywood image. Milagro is messy and that’s why I love her.

CP:  I like that you have a Latina heroine whose appeal leaps over boundaries of race and class with spirited abandon. There are many, many ways of being deemed “less than” or “other”, and most of us have some experience of that. So it is less the nature of the difference than how the protagonist asserts himself or herself that matters, isn’t it? 

Thank-you so much for your time, and thank-you for writing such splendid stories!

MA. Thank you so much for the great questions and letting me yammer on about my Casa Dracula books!

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