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Interview: Bruce McAllister on “Canticle of the Beasts”

– Tell us a little about “Canticle of the Beasts.”

The three travelers in this story–who are the main characters in a novel-in-progress–are probably my favorite characters in my own work. They make me laugh and feel a tenderness and a respect for their courage despite their youth, and I appreciate that. As a fantasy writer, too, I’m a mystic at heart, and the animism of their world is one I’ve inhabited since I was a child.

- What was the inspiration for this story, as well as the inspiration for the series of stories from which this tale comes?

Years ago a boy visited in a daydream. When he lived–the period of history–I wasn’t sure. He wanted to find his father–which in the end he did. His father played a crude kind of bagpipe and was able to talk to the great beasts that lived in cold northern lakes like Loch Ness. Over time the boy and his story morphed, as they so often do for writers, and in 2006 he had become Emilio in a dreamy Renaissance where the Drinkers of Blood have taken the Holy City and only Emilio and his two friends–the Child Pope Boniface and the horse-racing girl Catarina–can, with the help of a father Emilio has never seen and a holy infant born at the wrong time in history, defeat the Drinkers on the shores of Lake Como. To do this, Emilio will have to become something other than a boy, which he does…. I wrote a draft of a 100,000-word version of Emilio’s story in a couple of months that year, the final 10k missing, and have been trying to get it finished ever since–with Gordon’s encouragement. Both “Blue Fire” and “Canticle of the Beasts,” the two episodes from it that have appeared in F&SF, are glimpses of that world and story.

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for “Canticle of the Beasts?”

I lived for a while as a child Emilio’s age in Italy, where the past is quite present and informs daily life; and when you’re young, you absorb a lot at an emotional level—which is the key to the kind of “research” a writer needs for storytelling. The Renaissance–both by the education I received and the places my family visited–was very very real, in other words I’ve been doing more formal research since writing that first draft, but the research doesn’t seem to have added much. Either Emilio’s world doesn’t need to be as textured historically as many Renaissance novels would need to be or I somehow got the details right in that draft–a little of both probably. As I said, it’s a dreamy Renaissance Emilio and his friends inhabit.

- In your experience, how do you make a story with vampires as the overall antagonists feel new and exciting?

I tell people I’m not a great fan of vampire fiction—but that’s really to say I’m not always happy with what they are and how they’re used–but I find myself writing it somehow. As someone pointed out years ago, vampirism is simply “a flipped Christianity—one without the possibility of grace but with the same ritual”: You drink the blood, you live forever, and yet you are not forgiven; you are far from divine grace and forgiveness. It’s a powerful metaphor for how human beings have felt in a modern and post-modernist world. In Emilio’s world the Drinkers are the descendents of the Oldest Drinker, who was born the same night as Christ, but to another mother, a harlot, his first meal blood. They’re monstrous creatures, not suave older gentlemen or pale young male models with angst and longing, and evolved from the Oldest Drinker’s story–the feeling of that story. Priests are tempted and succumb, and become Drinkers. Only Emilio–who is an emissary of La Compassione, an enigmatic spirit that may be the Holy Ghost or something else entirely, can defeat them, though, since he is a boy, he needs help doing so…and he needs the courage to become, ironically enough, something inhuman in order to do it.

- You also recently published your first novel in more than twenty years, The Village Sang to the Sea. Is there anything you would like to say about that?

Though THE VILLAGE SANG TO THE SEA is a “fantastic memoir” set in contemporary times, it works with themes and material similar to those in Emilio’s novel. Some day I may write a story about both Brad and Emilio, following them through their separate eras as they pursue their destinies—which are actually quite different in the end.

- What are you working on now?

Mainly, trying to finish Emilio’s novel, but also, as always, short stories and novel expansions of both my Hugo-nominated story “Kin” and the romantic vampire comedy “Hit”–both of which readers and editors have kindly been encouraging. Thanks for the opportunity to chat about Emilio. We appreciate it.

“Canticle of the Beasts” appears in the May/June 2013 issue of F&SF.

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