I fell in love with the title and the jacket of The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires before even opening the book. Happily, the read more than lived up to the promise of the package, and we voted it one of the best books of April. The plot is simple: a handsome man with pale skin and a taste for blood tangles with the wrong group of steel magnolias in his quest to infiltrate their book club and their lives. But in author Grady Hendrix's hands that simple premise is expanded to include 1990s-era sexism, classism, and feminism. All that, and it manages to be funny too. Of course, I had some questions for Grady.
Vannessa Cronin, Amazon Book Review: Book clubs and vampires—how did you put these two together? How did the book come together overall?
Grady Hendrix: I’ve wanted to write this book for years, but it took me a long time to get good enough to attempt it without falling flat on my face, and it also took a long time to convince my publisher. Writing a book about middle-aged women is still a tough sell, but that’s also the reason I wanted to write it in the first place. I grew up hating my mom’s book club. To me, they were just a bunch of lightweights — middle-aged housewives who sat around, ate all the cake, and yapped about books. When I got older and started knowing them as people, I realized they had dealt with things I’d never known about, and things that I’m not sure I could have handled. As far as I was concerned, they were secret superheroes. I wanted to write a book that replicated that experience for the reader, going from dismissing these women as nobodies, to being in awe of them.
The book captures the feel of the '90s with a myriad of little details, even the books they choose for book club are peak '90s. How much fun was it to research those details or was your recall of the '90s really that perfect?
The ‘90s are far enough in the past to be another planet, but close enough to not have an identity yet. The ‘40s are the Greatest Generation, the ‘50s were squeaky clean, the ‘60s were the Love Generation, there’s the Swinging ‘70s, the “Greed is Good” ‘80s, but the ‘90s are often referred to as “the decade when nothing happened.” So I drowned myself in the big books of the ‘90s, the movies, the TV shows. I read every issue of my hometown paper published in 1993, I read as many copies of Southern Living magazine as I could from the decade, I skimmed all the TIME magazines from 1993 and 1996, and what I found was that everything we’re living through now had its roots in the ‘90s: the Anita Hill hearings, Clinton being impeached, the banks being deregulated, the first attack on the World Trade Center, the first Iraq War, it’s when Wal-Mart took over America, and reality TV was born. The ‘90s were the cause and the 2000’s are the effect. Also, Beanie Babies. So many Beanie Babies.
I love Slick in the book—especially when she asks, indignantly, “some man who’s never felt his baby crown—is stronger than me?” Is she based on an actual person? Are other characters?
I grew up in South Carolina and I’ve always been bummed out that every time I see a religious character in books they’re treated like a joke. I’m not particularly religious but I grew up around a lot of churchgoing women and learned the hard way not to underestimate them. Do not let their Southern accents and love of the Bible deceive you — they will skin you alive if you get on their nerves. Slick may be passionate about potpourri, she may spend a lot of time in church, she may believe there’s a War on Christmas, but she’s a warrior who will take you down if you mess with her friends.
Readers can’t help but notice the book highlights racism, sexism, and a Southern strain of feminism—was that a conscious choice and how did it jibe with writing a funny horror novel?
The vampire in my book has a perfect plan. He realizes that things are changing in the ‘90s and computerized recordkeeping will soon mean you can’t slip through the system anymore. Even a vampire will need photo ID, a credit card, and a home address. He decides that the perfect place to put down roots is a small Southern town where a white guy with money will be taken at face value. Plus, as long as he feeds on marginalized people his neighbors will never notice. What he didn’t count on is that white women in the South of the ‘90s relied on black women to help raise their children and take care of their homes, and they spent a lot of their time with each other. They got to know each other’s families and, while there are always extremely fraught issues of race and class at play, they knew each other as people, even as friends. And they helped one another. Of course, white or black, they were still women, and the ‘90s were not a great decade if you were a woman and you wanted someone to take you seriously. That was the reality of the situation, and I couldn’t write an honest book about that time and place without addressing it.
In an author’s note you mentioned that you wanted to pit Dracula against your mom—what does your mom think of the book?
She feels like Patricia really could have made some better meals for her family, and she wishes the book club read better quality books. She takes a dim view of true crime.
The book would make an amazing movie—any dream cast picks?
Before I started writing Southern Book Club I bought a run of Southern Living magazines from about 1993 through 1995 and I spent days looking at the layouts, the interiors, the recipes, even the ads. And I clipped out pictures of five different women and taped them up over my desk as models for my main characters and I can’t see them as anyone other than the women in those clippings anymore. So to me, they’re my perfect cast. I can’t see them as anyone else.
You have my favorite author photo of all time up on Amazon—a little Tom Wolfe, a little Stephen King. Please tell us how that came about!
Like most of my career, that photo came about by accident. I didn’t even have an agent until last year so clearly I’ve been doing this all wrong. But the photographer is a guy named Albert Mitchell. I’ve worked with a theater company since 1992 that has a lot of drag and trans performers and Albie takes all their publicity shots. He knows how to make everyone look like a superstar, so I was thrilled to finally have my turn in the spotlight.
What horror titles/authors have you read and loved lately?
Alma Katsu’s The Hunger was the most fun I’d ever had with the Donner Party, so I was psyched to get ahold of her new book, The Deep, about the Titanic with ghosts, before I had to isolate. I just wrapped up reading my advanced copy of Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, which is coming out in July and it’s one of the best horror novels of the year, full stop. And I just re-read Bari Wood’s The Tribe, which I helped reissue with the small press, Valancourt, last year. It’s a big, sprawling 1981 novel about New York City and it reminds me of what this place looked like when people thronged its streets. Also, it has a killer golem at its heart, and I’m a sucker for a golem.
How are you entertaining yourself while self-isolating? What are you reading?
Besides horror, I’m re-reading a lot of really fun books that I truly love. Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is a funnier, more real version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s relocated to France. I can’t get over how well Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield holds up, even though it was written in 1930. It’s basically Bridget Jones's Diary set at Downton Abbey, only better. And Shirley Jackson’s 1953 memoir about raising her family, Life Among the Savages, is comedy gold and had a huge influence on my book. There’s even a sequel, Raising Demons, in case we have to keep social distancing for another month.
Grady Hendrix, author of one of our best books of April, "The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires," talks about the book, "Southern Living," potpourri, Beanie babies, and what he's reading right now.