New Blood for a Blue Lady: Author Nancy Collins on the Return of Sonja Blue

By , Columnist

From the very start, when her first short stories appeared in the early 1980s, horror writer Nancy Collins’ work has commanded attention even as it garnered critical acclaim and an ever-growing cadre of fans. Building on those early successes, she began to write novels, comics and screenplays, winning a number of awards—and the hearts of countless fans scattered across the globe—for her efforts.

Throughout those pre-millennial years, there was one constant in Collins’ career: Sonja Blue. The epitome of cold-blooded punk/Gothic allure, Sonja proved to be more than merely a compelling character—in many ways, she came to represent an ideal manifestation of the apocalyptic femme fatale. In fact, it really isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Collins’ signature creation has influenced not only the shape of modern horror literature, but also has had a deep and widely felt impact upon the look and portrayal of women in music, fashion and film to this day.

However, nothing lasts forever, not even an undead icon, not even Sonja Blue. About ten years ago Collins decided to retire her signature creation to focus on new characters and new challenges, to explore new genres and different modes of horror.

But then, everything changed. And Collins realized that Sonja was needed again. Below, she explains why it’s time for Sonja’s return, and how you can help make it happen.

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Just so we’re all on the same page, who is Sonja Blue and what kind of world does she inhabit?

Sonja Blue is a female punk vampire/vampire slayer. She is the protagonist/heroine of a series of novels and short stories that, so far, include the award-winning Sunglasses After Dark, and [she] also starred in her own comic book series.

Sonja once was Denise Thorne, the daughter of a powerful industrialist. When she disappeared while on holiday, it was assumed she’d been kidnapped, but no ransom demand was ever made. Eventually everyone assumed Denise had either run away or fallen victim to foul play. In fact, she had been attacked by a vampire, who then left her for dead. When she awoke in the hospital, months later, she had complete amnesia, as her identity had fragmented during the trauma, wiping out her memories and creating the persona of Sonja. Although Denise died in the operating room, she had been revived via modern medicine—but not before the vampire 'seed' planted in her took hold. Sonja is technically a living vampire, meaning she has their powers/attributes, but still possesses a soul. Unfortunately, the vampire side of her personality—called The Other—is constantly fighting for control of their shared body, and has a tendency to go on horrific rampages, killing foe and friend alike.

The world Sonja Blue inhabits can best be described as Vampire Noir. She lives on the fringes of society, hunting the supernatural creatures that pose as humans while preying on them—such as vampires, werewolves, ogres and demons—known collectively as Pretenders. She uses her own unique Pretender abilities to identify them and hunt them down, as they are ‘invisible’ to average humans. Sonja views herself as a one-woman hit squad, determined to rid the world of those who prey on humanity—especially vampires. You could say she has issues.

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Where did all of that come from, and what were you trying to accomplish with those tales?

Sonja Blue and the Pretender world were born of a well-spent youth reading science fiction, fantasy and horror literature, going to the movies, watching TV and reading comic books. One of the factors that inspired me to write Sunglasses After Dark was what I saw as the de-fanging of the vampire archetype, thanks to the Anne Rice vampire books. I enjoyed Interview With a Vampire when it was first released, but I simply couldn’t finish The Vampire Lestat. Sonja Blue was a heartfelt response to vampires being turned into effete, navel-gazing fops.

Unless I’m mistaken, it’s been about a decade since you last did anything featuring Sonja. Which begs the question: Why bring Sonja back, and why resurrect her now?

Yes, it’s been ten years since the last Sonja Blue novel. At the time I decided to put her aside, I had written five novels and several short stories, plus a comic book series based on the character, and the books had just been optioned for the movies—which later ended up [trapped] in development limbo. I felt I had done everything I needed to with Sonja Blue, and elected to work on other projects.

But that was a decade ago. A lot has changed for me, professionally and personally, since then. The urban fantasy genre I helped spearhead has flourished and grown, while the horror genre—already seriously impacted by  the major publishers glutting the market in the 1990s—was, outside of [Stephen] King, [Dean] Koontz and Rice, increasingly largely left to independent/small press publishers, not unlike how Westerns were left to rot on the vine. And then came Twilight, and a clan of fangless, sparkling emo-vamps that make Anne Rice’s angsty club-Goths look like the Hell’s Angels.

For years I’d been getting a steady stream of emails from fans, asking when Sonja Blue would return. But once Twilight mania took hold, they stopped asking and started begging. After watching the vampire in popular culture become increasingly watered down, I began work three years ago on what would eventually become Kill City.

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Well, what’s wrong with the paranormal romance genre, generally, and what’s the particular problem with this new crop of friendlier, even loving vampires and other monsters, anyway?

There’s nothing wrong with it, per se. But it shouldn’t be the only thing available to read. But, somehow, that’s exactly what’s happened. If you walk into your typical bookstore and search the shelves for dark fantasy/horror novels that don’t involve zombies, serial killers or Cthulhu, all you’re going to find are young adult novels, paranormal romances, and paranormal romances posing as urban fantasy. That’s it. In today’s market, King’s Salem’s Lot wouldn’t get published, nor Straub’s Ghost Story or [Clive] Barker’s Books of Blood.

As for the new crop of friendlier, “hot” vampires/werewolves/demons—if they’re all like that, what’s the point? Without the predatory, dangerous monsters to serve as the counterpoint, they’re no different than the hunky Native American brave or Regency rogue of the historical bodice rippers—just another “bad boy” to be safely tamed by “true love.” They’ve become MINOs: Monsters In Name Only. But the biggest problem is that they’re no longer scary, mysterious or compelling.

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If I can play devil’s advocate for a moment, couldn’t this all be motivated by a wish on your part to cash in on the current craze for vampires? After all, isn’t this really more about preferences, or even aesthetic choices, on the parts of both the authors and fans of those types of stories? Or might there be more at stake than might be immediately apparent?

Sure, I’d like to cash in. And I already have, to some extent, as I created my own YA vampire series (Vamps) for HarperCollins four years ago, which may have been a little too hard-edged for its marketing strategy, which was essentially “Gossip Girls with Fangs.” But, then again, I was writing vampires before they were “hot” with today’s tween market.

Personally, all I want is to write about the vampires that grown-ups want to read about, and the only way to do that now is to self-publish, because Big Publishing has turned its back on dark fantasy/horror aimed at adult readers. Which is a shame; because I know for a fact that publishers underestimate the YA readers they’re so eager to sell to. I can’t tell you how many letters and emails I’ve gotten from readers who’ve told me they grew up reading the Sonja Blue novels, which were aimed at a decidedly adult audience.

As to what’s at stake—on a superficial level it’s the state of dark fantasy/horror literature. But there is also a deeper subtext at play. Vampires serve a purpose or they wouldn’t be found in all their varied forms throughout the world in the first place. Something in us is attracted to, perhaps even needs, the darkness they represent. They’re the monster that looks the most like us—indeed, they once were us. We see in them the shadows of human greed and exploitation extrapolated to inhuman extremes. They serve a purpose as a metaphor for and reminder of the cruelty that can be found in our species.

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You’ve chosen to use the new crowd funding model to underwrite the costs of Kill City. What influenced you to do things that way, and why go with Indiegogo?

Up until now, if I wanted to get Kill City in the hands of Sonja’s fans, I would have had no choice but to drastically alter the plot until it satisfied the marketing department of the publisher. But that was before the emergence of the Internet and crowd-sourcing. Now I can make my case directly to my readership, and bypass the traditional gatekeepers. Big Publishing may not believe there’s a market for this novel, but I know differently.

As for why I chose Indiegogo this time out, the reason is simple—Indiegogo’s Flexible Funding allows me to keep the money I raise, whether I meet my goal or not. That way I can make headway on finishing the novel, no matter what the outcome.

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For those who might be leery of this sort of system, or even consider it a bit of a scam, how will the money pledged be used? And what happens to all that pledged cash if the project doesn’t make its goal in the allotted time?

A good portion of the funds will go towards production expenses, such as paying my cover artist, Sean Hartter, as well as hiring a copy editor and someone to handle the layout of the book. Then there are the nuts-and-bolts expenses, such as purchasing ISBNs—the identifying numbers needed for physical and digital book sales—and set-up costs with the printer, all of which would normally be handled by a publisher.

If I don’t make my goal, the funds I raise will still go towards as many of these expenses as possible. I will honor my promises to the donors, regardless—such as acknowledging them in the credits and incorporating their names and characters in the story. This book will be published, one way or another.

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Still, I’ve got to ask why self-publish at all? What benefits does taking that route offer you and this project that might not be available from the more traditional avenues to publication?

What spurred my decision to self-publish Kill City was getting the run-around from two major publishers, both of whom had asked to see the proposal and then left me hanging for months before finally admitting they couldn’t get the book approved because marketing couldn’t figure out how to sell it to paranormal romance readers, and it was clearly unsuitable for the YA market. It didn’t matter that I was an award-winning writer with an established character and a devoted following, not only here, but in Europe and Asia. The suits in marketing told them they couldn’t sell it, and that was that.

Things have changed so radically over the last few years. The publishing industry today is completely unrecognizable from the one in 1988, when I first sold Sunglasses After Dark. Back then there were at least 25 large to mid-size publishers in New York. Now there are four. Back then, self-publishing was beyond the economic reach of all but the most successful writer.

It is somewhat ironic that the digital age that seriously impacted the income of published writers via piracy has also provided us with a means to take the reins of production into our own hands and given us direct pipelines to our readerships. Why should I share 85% of the 35-50% or the 35-70% Amazon and the other online platforms pay out? Granted, it requires quite a bit of time and effort on my part, but at least I can see my sales figures instantly, and not twice a year, and then only then when I supposedly ‘earn out’.

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What about distribution? Doesn’t doing this yourself ultimately limit your ability to reach a wider audience, or even restrict the book’s access to more traditional outlets like bookstores?

If you’re someone like Stephen King or my friend, Neil Gaiman, publishers are more than happy to spend money on promoting your book. But if you’re someone like me—a “seminal writer” with a “cult following,” all they do is send out advance reading copies and tell me to push the book via social media. Since modern publishers are effectively dumping 90% of the PR duties onto the writer, why should I do their work for them for free? What’s the point of even having a traditional publisher if all they’re going to do is throw out x number of copies into the market and let the title sink or swim, depending on how hard the author flogs it on Facebook and Twitter?

As for the distribution issue, I’ll be using Create Space, which is owned by Amazon, to print the trade paperback editions of Kill City, and there will be eBook editions as well, which I will be releasing via Kindle, Nook, iTunes, Kobo, and any other platform that may emerge. I don’t see distribution as a problem.

What kind of schedule do you have in mind for the book?

I hope to have it finished by the middle of 2013, which would give me ample time to get it copy edited and the layout finished. Ideally, I hope to have it ready for sale by Christmas 2013.

So, how can readers help make Kill City a reality? Is it just about pledging and monetary support, or might there be some other ways that they can help the cause?

Pledging money is preferred, of course. However, I’m well aware how bad the economy is right now, and that people who’d like to help might not be in a position to do so monetarily. If you can’t give money, then at least help get the word out to others.

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What do you get from writing, generally? How about tales featuring Sonja Blue?

Writing is what defines me. I always wanted to be a writer, for as far back as I can remember. It’s what I do for a living, and I like to think I do it fairly well.

As for the Sonja Blue stories, I’ve used them to mix the tropes from classic noir and horror together, while exploring the fringes of modern society. I’ve been writing stories about Sonja, in one way or another, since high school, and I view her as an old friend—one I know inside and out. Falling back into her ‘voice’ after all these years was as easy as breathing.

What do you hope that readers get from your work? Is it all about those all-important chills and thrills, or might there be a hope that they find a little more substance in your work, if they’re so inclined?

I learned, long ago, that whatever my readers ‘get’ from my work differs from individual to individual. Some read them for the action, or the violence, if you will. Others read them for the characterizations, while still others for the ‘ideas.’ Sonja Blue seems to particularly resonate with those who view themselves on the fringes of society, on the outside looking in, both separated from and a part of modern culture. There’s something about how she struggles with herself, as well as with society, that speaks to people.

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Anything else to add before I let you get back to work?

I’d like to add that the deadline for contributing to the Kill City: Return of Sonja Blue Campaign on Indiegogo is Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 11:59 PM Pacific Time 2:59AM Eastern/1:59AM Central.

Also, keep a look-out for Absalom’s Wake, a serialized dark-fantasy e-novel in six installments. It’s set on a whaling ship in the 1840s, and the first two installments have already been released by Biting Dog Publications. They’re available on all the major platforms. And the first hit’s free, kiddies!

I’m also working on the third installment in the Golgotham series, Magic and Loss, from Penguin/Roc, which will be out later in 2013. And there will be a Sonja Blue graphic novel from IDW as well that will reprint the original Sunglasses After Dark miniseries I did with artist Stan Shaw in 1995-1996. It will be completely re-colored and re-lettered. We’re calling it the “Full-Blooded” edition.

I’ve also recently released a number of audio books via Audible’s ACX service, including Lynch: A Gothik Western, Hell Come Sundown, Judgment Night, the Lovecraftian Thing from Lover’s Lane—it was nominated for a Stoker Award—and Return to Hell House. If you’re looking for some weird and spooky stuff to listen to, I’ve got an earful for you, and more on the way.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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