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A Q&A with Jay Kristoff on Empire of the Vampire

Posted on 23rd June 2021 by Mark Skinner

One of the world's foremost proponents of gothic fantasy, Jay Kristoff has become a literary phenomenon due to his unputdownable Nevernight sequence. In September Kristoff returns with the first instalment of a brand new series, Empire of the Vampire, and in this Q&A the author tells his armies of fans exactly what they can expect.    

Has your writing changed since the Nevernight Chronicle? Anything new that fans should look out for?

Less footnotes? In terms of style, Empire of the Vampire is totally a spiritual successor to Nevernight. It has the same goth aesthetic, the same black humour, the same snark. But Empire is larger in scope. More epic. If Nevernight was my Hobbit, Empire is my Lord of the Rings. It’s bigger and bloodier and heavier. I mean literally heavier. You could beat a burglar to death with this thing. 

Can you sum up Empire of the Vampire in 5 words or less?

Bloody, sweary, smutty, angsty. Maybe funny? I used to think it was funny, but I’ve read it so many times now that I laugh in all the wrong places. 

Who is the illustrator and why did you choose to work with her? Can you tell us a bit about her style?

Her name is Bon Orthwick, aka Monolime. She came to my attention when she began drawing Nevernight fanart in the book community – I have a bunch of fanart in my study, and her original Nevernight piece is still hanging up there. On the back of fanart, she started getting professional work, and her fame blew up from there. Her aesthetic is hard to describe. She’s like no-one else in the game. You can look at her work and instantly tell it’s a Monolime piece. Her style feels almost like post-modern medieval illumination – it reminds me of art you’d find in manuscripts and scriptures from the Middle Ages. So she was a perfect fit for Empire. Bizarrely, she’s Aussie too, which I had no idea about when I proposed we work together. 

What felt different about producing a novel with illustrations?

In terms of writing, I didn’t change up the game much. I didn’t want Empire to rely on the illustrations, since some people will get it in audiobook form. But I love books, I love the thought of making something beautiful, something with permanence. So the illustrations are the cherry on top of the book that is Empire. And Bonnie has done the best work she’s ever done here. These pieces are just stunning. In text, the illustrations are being drawn by the vampiric chronicler recording Gabriel’s story. So they also give a little insight into that chronicler himself, a reminder of his presence in story. I wanted readers to feel like they’re in that cell with Gabe and Jean-François. I wanted the illustrations to serve a purpose beyond pure aesthetics. 

What vampire lore inspired you - and what elements of the mythology did want to you stay away from or change?

There’s so much to choose from among that lore that everyone’s take on them is going to be a little different. I suppose my main goal was to make vampires monstrous again. I grew up with terrifying vampires. Salem’s Lot and Interview with the Vampire and Fright Night. I wanted to make vampires feel old school. Medieval. In touch with an epic fantasy world. But more, I wanted to make them frightening. Alien. Things that look at people with the same dispassion that you look at the steak you’re about to eat for dinner with. Time is a huge theme in Empire – the fact that nothing is permanent, that it eats us all alive. And one of the things it eats in my immortals is their morality. So don’t come into this thing expecting the Vampire Diaries. I love me some tVD, don’t get me wrong. Team Damon for life. But this isn’t that. 

Were there any challenges about adding to the vampire pantheon?

Once I had the rules set, the biggest problem was geography, strangely. My vampires can’t cross running water, so once the sun fails in the Empire of Elidaen, rivers are the only thing keeping their armies in check. Drawing Empire’s map almost drove me maaaaad. Thinking up the power sets was also interesting. Each vampire bloodline has a different feel – the Voss for example are preternaturally resistant to harm, but the older ones can also read minds. So figuring out how that would affect their behaviours, the way they view the world, keeping them alien while making them feel authentic, that was fun. 

You were raised religious - was that a big part of the preparation for this project?

Religion and faith loom large in the book, no doubt. A lot of Gabe’s struggles with his faith are ones that anyone raised religious will be familiar with. The question of how God can claim to love us while allowing awful things to happen is brought into sharp relief by the events of Gabe’s life, and the events in the Empire he grows up in. I’m not an author who likes getting on soapboxes. But a lot of the questions asked in this book are ones that have been kicking around in my head most of my life. 

Why do you love to make your readers cry so much?

Because they love it. And their tears maintain my youthful complexion. But seriously, I do take that kind of thing as the highest compliment. I write about imaginary people with imaginary problems, and the idea that they can make real people feel anything at all—sad, happy, angry, whatever—is still amazing to me. If I made you cry, I did my job. 

Who is your favourite blood sucker?

Wow. Hard question. I think it’d have to be Claudia from Interview. She makes that whole book come alive. And the idea of a vampire who was turned too young to remember being anything else is a cool one. She’s terribly tragic and a pure monster. She’d eat Edward alive.

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