Friday, June 24, 2011

'Alex Van Helsing' author brings rock 'n' roll to young adult lit


In my best Dracula voice, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, Van Helsing!"

Photo by Julia Guzman
No? What? It's actually Jason Henderson (shown here)? Perhaps I messed that one up again, but don't hold it against me. The two are easily confused. After all, the worlds they live in are essentially the same. Henderson has been described as a writer of the supernatural who wears his darkness within. His first young adult novel, 2010's Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising has been named by the Texas Library Association to the 2011 Lone Star Reading List, a list of the top 20 books for young readers.

His character Alex, is described as James Bond meets the quintessential vampire hunter, a 14-year-old badass. Henderson is also the writer of the Sword of Dracula comic miniseries and his new Alex Van Helsing novel, Voice of the Undead is out July 26. I spoke with Henderson to discuss his fascination with vampires, paranormal pop culture and how both impact his work in YA fiction.

Q: What is it that so draws you to horror and the supernatural?

Alex Van Helsing: Voice of the UndeadA: I don't necessarily really even know if I believe in the supernatural at all but I'm drawn to the stories about it. I think I like it because of the opportunity for allegory. I get bored when a story is just about one thing, when it's just about "this woman or this man grapple with whether or not they're going to get a divorce." That's the kind of movie that makes me want to claw my eyes out. But then you say "a man and a woman are struggling over the decision of whether to get divorced and they discover a well that goes to Hell in their living room." That becomes interesting to me. Are they going to get divorced? And also, demons!

Q: So why vampires more specifically?

A: I like vampires because they are these wonderful go-to fantasy symbols of a million different facets of humanity; how we sustain ourselves off of one another, how we can be gangsters, seducers, rapists, killers. You can have a facet of the vampire that reflects all of those or you can be a hero who fights against those.

Q: Do you find that your writing environment influences the kind of stories you're writing?

A: When I'm really busy, on a deadline, I'll go to the University of Dallas - where I actually graduated - and I'll spend my time tucked away in an empty lecture hall or empty classroom. Sometimes it makes me feel very scholarly, which helps me to concentrate more and work hard but on the other hand, if I get rid of that feeling, it can be completely without personality, and so whatever music you start playing kind of defines the experience of writing. So if I'm writing a scene where Alex has to break onto a cruise ship by climbing a chain and knocking out some people, then I can play some James Bond music and the whole place becomes James Bond in a sense. But then if I'm writing a giant motorcycle action scene and I'm playing a lot of Rob Zombie, the whole place has a very rock and roll feel.

Q: A vampire novelist who listens to Zombie? Obviously you're doing something right! Speaking of, your name is starting to come up more and more in connection to your work as far as awards and lists go, what is it about your work that's standing out beyond the action and fangs? What defines it?

A: Well thank you! What makes my work mine is that I like to go several layers deep so that you can read the book and totally just enjoy the action and adventure but the more you know about the subject matter the more you catch little references and dependencies that make the book even deeper and more enjoyable for you the more that you know. If you know more about vampire literature, you will catch all this minor stuff. I really want people to catch a million different Easter Eggs in the book.

Q: Where did Alex Van Helsing come from?

A: Alex was a character in Sword of Dracula, my comic book. It starred Veronica Van Helsing, a woman who was leading a group of commandos - the Polidorum, the same ones Alex was a part of. And it was her chasing the most powerful vampire on the planet, the Osama Bin Laden of vampires, Dracula himself, who was hiding out in France. This was an awesome comic book miniseries; it was very popular. Then a couple years ago my agent said, hey what if we tried to do a YA novel based on a comic book. I intended it to be about Ronnie Van Helsing only she was going to be 14 years-old. But by the time we were done with the development process, we decided to save the Ronnie story for later and left the rest to be about her brother, Alex. So the two stories are in the same universe.

Q: How are you planning on continuing the series? Seven books? Three? A whole series?

A: Well we know for sure that there will be a third book coming out in 2012, but beyond that is up to Harper Collins. A huge part is how well Voice of the Undead does and how much people are looking forward to the third book, so there's no telling. It's up to the readers!

Q: Finally before we go, vampires; do you believe in them?

A: I have not yet encountered an actual vampire. But my mind is open!