Stoker’s Wilde is a new novel for Flame Tree Press, co-written by writing partners Melissa Prusi and Steven Hopstaken, that sees an unlikely adventuring party led by Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde battle dark forces firstly in Ireland and then in London, to prevent “a vampire cult from opening the gates of Hell”. Here, Peter speaks to Melissa and Steven about the new book.
Peter Meinertzhagen: It’s an unusual premise for a book; firstly to recast Stoker and Wilde in a fictional supernatural story and then to have the two join forces in their quest (they don’t appear to have been close acquaintances in real life). What made you write Stoker’s Wilde?
Melissa Prusi and Steven Hopstaken: Steve had read in an article that Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula was his boss, the actor and Lyceum Theatre owner Henry Irving. He worked nights, was larger than life and a bit creepy. Steve thought it would make a great short story if Henry Irving was actually a vampire. Having to hunt and kill Irving would give Stoker the inspiration for Dracula.
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But then, while doing research for the story, he found out that Bram and Oscar were friends in Dublin, but they had a falling out when Bram wooed away Oscar’s fiancée, Florence Balcombe. After a scandalously short courtship, Bram whisked her off to London where he had just been hired as the Lyceum Theatre’s manager.
Oscar also moved to London that same year and their paths often crossed in the city’s small theater world, and we thought this would make a great setting for a novel in which Oscar and Bram would be forced to team up to hunt vampires. Their clashing temperaments – not to mention the personal history between them – could provide an additional source of drama as well as comedy.
PM: You have used a similar epistolary format to Stoker’s own Dracula – was this in part a homage?
MP & SH: Yes, very intentional. When we read Dracula, we were both surprised at how modern it was. Stoker had done for the Victorians what Stephen King did for our time; bring the supernatural into the real world. At the time, most horror stories were quite gothic and set in the past. Dracula walked the streets of modern London. Our heroes use modern tech (telegraph, trains, science) to help track down and kill Dracula. And the conceit of the whole story being told by letters and journal entries further gave it a feeling of being set in the present.
PM: It seems very brave to invite comparisons with Stoker and Wilde. Was this at the back of your mind?
MP & SH: Yes, we were terrified of it, especially since they were both writers with such recognizable styles. Using them as characters would certainly draw comparisons. We worked hard at giving each character a distinctive voice that would match somewhat with their actual writing style.
PM: Co-written novels are unusual; how did you both come to write Stoker’s Wilde together?
MP & SH: We had written and sold two screenplays together, so we knew we were compatible as writing partners. And, with having so many characters writing in their own voices, we quickly realized two heads are better than one.
PM: Was it difficult writing a novel with another person?
MP & SH: It can be, but if you put egos aside for the good of the story it often can be easier to split the work. Having another person depending on you can also help keep you motivated and on track. We would usually outline together then go off and each write the scenes we were interested in writing, then the other person would rewrite that scene. Eventually, through numerous rewrites, it starts to feel seamless. In fact, when we look at the book now, it’s hard to remember who originally came up with what.
PM: How did you tackle trying to capture Stoker and Wilde’s quite distinctive voices?
MP & SH: We found a book of Oscar Wilde’s letters and used that to capture how he sounded conversing with friends, which was different than his writing persona, though we drew on his published works as well. We also wanted to be truer to Oscar Wilde and not make him sound foppish like we had read in other novels where he featured as a character.
For Bram, he had written non-fiction books about his life in the theatre where he wrote as himself and that helped us get his voice right.
PM: What research went into this novel? Were you both quite familiar with the life and times of Stoker and Wilde?
MP & SH: We weren’t that familiar with either beyond their famous works. We did quite extensive research both before and during the writing process. Many of the supporting characters were also real people so we had to do research on them as well.
We were a bit more familiar with Oscar, as he’s popped up as a character in so many books and movies. Still, we thought we knew him more than we did. He’s had so much written about him and when we delved into it we learned he had affairs with both men and woman, spoke multiple languages fluently and was a speed writer using Pitman shorthand. His mother, Lady Wilde and his brother Willie were interesting people as well and are also characters in our story.
Not as much is known about Bram Stoker. In his day he was more famous for being the manager of the Lyceum Theatre than as a writer. We had more than one publisher turn us down because they thought most people don’t know who Bram Stoker was. We knew that wasn’t true in horror circles, but we thought it would be interesting to bring more of his early life to light in our story.
During the first draft, we discovered that Quincy, the American character in Dracula, was partly based on a friend of Stoker’s, Robert Roosevelt, who was a naturalist, congressman and uncle to Teddy Roosevelt. So, we added him as a character, thinking that connection to history was too good to pass up.
We also took trips to Dublin and London to do research and immerse ourselves in a sense of the places the story is set.
PM: Besides the works of Stoker and Wilde, did you draw particular inspiration from anywhere else?
MP & SH: In addition to Bram’s Lair of the White Worm and Oscar’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, we have other literary shout-outs to Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Shelley and Arthur Conan Doyle.
We have always liked the mix of horror and humor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are little Easter eggs throughout our novel pointing to the Buffy-verse that we are happy the publisher let us keep in.
PM: Are we going to see more from the Stoker and Wilde partnership?
MP & SH: We are working on a sequel, Stoker’s Wilde West. Both Bram and Oscar came to America around the same time. Bram toured with the Lyceum Theater company, meeting people like Buffalo Bill Cody. And Oscar traveled across America giving a series of lectures on aesthetics. We think it will be fun to bring them to America and have them fight vampires on the Western frontier.
PM: And the Prusi and Hopstaken partnership?
MP & SH: We are also working on a YA sci-fi novel where a teenage girl gets a cell phone accidentally installed in her brain. We are looking for a publisher for this one, as our current publisher doesn’t do YA.
PM: What was the last book you read?
Steve: “I read Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix, a great mix of comedy and horror.” Melissa: “I just finished The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which I’d never read before, though I love the original movie. It’s a great read and really gets under your skin.”