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Interview With an Author: Robert Masello

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Robert Masello and his current novel The Night Crossing

Robert Masello is an award-winning journalist, television writer, and bestselling author. His guide to composition, Robert’s Rules of Writing, has been adopted for many college classrooms, and he has provided articles, essays, and reviews to The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, People, Newsday, Parade, Glamour, Town and Country, Cosmopolitan, Travel and Leisure, and The Wilson Quarterly. He is a long-standing member of the Writers Guild of America and has taught and lectured at colleges and universities nationwide. His most recent novels include The Jekyll Revelation, The Einstein Prophecy, The Romanov Cross, The Medusa Amulet, Blood and Ice and his latest, The Night Crossing. Robert lives in Santa Monica and will be participating in the 2019 lineup for the library's LA Made Programs, presenting a talk called When History Meets Mystery. He recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was the inspiration for The Night Crossing?

The main inspiration for The Night Crossing was, of course, the 1897 novel, Dracula, by none other than Bram Stoker. I wanted to create a kind of origin story for that book, a new tale that I would suggest, in my telling, is what gave Stoker the idea for Dracula in the first place. The one thing I knew for sure was this: I didn’t want it to include a single vampire. And The Night Crossing, as a result, is vampire-free. Which isn’t to say it isn’t scary—I hope it is. But that, of course, is up to the readers to decide.

A number of the key characters are clearly based on real individuals. How much research did you do into the individuals upon which your characters are based? Did you take dramatic license with any of them; other than the trip taken by Bram Stoker toward the end of the novel?

In addition to the author Bram Stoker, there are a whole host of other characters in the book who are—or, I should say, were—real people, ranging from Oscar Wilde’s mother to Arthur Conan Doyle, who bequeathed to us Sherlock Holmes. Stoker worked for the most famous actor of his day, Sir Henry Irving, who was the first actor to be knighted by the Queen, and some say that it was Irving on whom the general appearance of Count Dracula was based. There is also a Hungarian diplomat named Arminius Vambery, who might have suggested to Stoker the character of the vampire-slayer, Professor Van Helsing. All of these characters who appear in The Night Crossing are closely based on their real-life counterparts, though I do of course take liberties by inventing some of their encounters, dialogue, actions, etc. Ninety percent of the history in my books is true, but there’s always that tricky ten percent.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

All of my novels evolve as I write them. I can’t do an outline to save my life, so I just start the story and see where it takes me. This one started out in the craggy mountains of Carpathia, went to London, and by the end had boarded a ship for America . . . on the last boat you’d ever want to be on.

Is Dracula your favorite work of Stoker’s or do you have another favorite?

Dracula is not only my favorite work of Bram Stoker’s—it is far and away the best thing he ever wrote. Most of his other novels and short stories were very gory and over-the-top; his children’s book, Under the Sunset, was positively grim. Any child to whom these stories were read would never sleep peacefully again.

Do you have a favorite Dracula related novel, television or motion picture adaptation/interpretation? A least favorite?

Of all the film and TV representations of the Dracula story, I still think the scariest is the F.W. Murnau film of Nosferatu. The imagery from that silent, black-and-white film, made in 1922, is unforgettable, and because it’s so old, it almost feels like you’re watching newsreel footage rather than an ordinary movie.

In the Author’s Note, you mention that the Carpathian Sphinx is real. Have you had the chance to visit it? If so, what was that like?

Although the Carpathian Sphinx, featured in the first chapter of my novel, is indeed real, I have not actually had the pleasure of visiting it on in its windswept mountain perch. I’m not even sure I could climb that high anymore. I’d need sherpas.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Currently on my nightstand (a total mess, if you must know) is a stack of books by and about H.G. Wells, the author of such sci-fi masterpieces as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. He also happens to be the hero of the novel I’m writing right now.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I’m not sure I had one favorite book as a child—I had so many! My parents were great that way, keeping my bedroom stocked with everything from storybooks to Landmark Books, a series focused on history. I do know that my favorite single story was The Flying Dutchman—I knew every word by heart.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I never had to hide a book from my parents, though they did try to hide books from me—I found Lady Chatterley’s Lover shelved upside down behind other books by D.H. Lawrence, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint tucked away in a bolster.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I’m not sure who has actually influenced me as a writer but growing up I read everybody from James Fenimore Cooper to Edgar Allan Poe. I always loved books by W. Somerset Maugham, and today I enjoy Nick Hornby, Tom Perrotta, Martin Amis, Jane Smiley, Hilary Mantel and Pat Barker, whose novels of the First World War are often brutal, but totally absorbing.

What is a book you've faked reading?

No matter how many English classes I took, I was never able to plow through Finnegans Wake. Like many other undergraduates, I could get on board with Dubliners and Ulysses, but the Wake was just too much.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

A book I bought for its cover was called I Want It Now, and it featured a beautiful blonde on a pink satin bedspread, talking on a white telephone. But the book was by Kingsley Amis, so trust me—it was much funnier than it was sexy.

Is there a book that changed your life?

I wish I could say that a single book changed my life, but I don’t think one ever did. What did change my life—and made it way better than it would have been otherwise—was a love of reading, which my parents, who were both readers, instilled in me early. My father read historical non-fiction—about wars—and my mother read Gothic novels, about young governesses working in forbidding English manor houses for mysterious aristocrats.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I’m not an evangelist for any one book—there are simply too many great books, and too many people, with too many differing tastes, to pick just one—but it’s reading that makes all the difference. When you read, you enter into a silent space, a kind of communion with the author of the book, and with its characters and story, and you cannot help but come away with something new in your own perspective and understanding of life.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

If I were going to read certain books over again, they’d probably be some of the novels by John Updike, such as Couples, and Richard Yates, such as Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade. I think that when I read them the first time, I was simply too young to understand much of the anguish and ennui, the frustration and constraints and dilemmas, experienced by the various characters.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

For me, a perfect day would require, first, a suspension of all dietary restrictions, so breakfast would be a tray of cannoli, lunch would be a Trader Joe’s cheesecake with assorted berries, and dinner would be Chicago-style pizza with everything but anchovies. (I’m from Chicago.) In between meals, I would go through Disneyland’s Haunted House and Pirates of the Caribbean a few times and finish up a with a Beatles reunion concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Curling up in bed that night, I’d read aloud some of my favorite, racy passages from the work of Ian Fleming to Scarlett Johansson, who would be hanging on my every word. Then lights out.

What are you working on now?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on an untitled novel—another historical thriller, with a supernatural twist—about H.G. Wells and the First World War. In fact, now that I’ve finished this marvelous questionnaire, I have no excuse for procrastinating any longer and have to get back to it. I expect to emerge, blinking at the sunlight, with a finished manuscript sometime next fall. (If only I could figure out how to write a book without spending so much time alone at my desk. If anyone knows the answer to that, text me!)

Masello, Robert, 1952-

The second book this year to speculate about Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula is The Night Crossing by Robert Masello. In The Night Crossing, Masello weaves a marvelous alternate history that blends historic people and events with the fantastic. He masterfully uses the Egyptomania that was sweeping London during the late 1800s to marvelous effect, drawing fascinating connections between Egypt, London and Eastern Europe that result in an exciting, and sometimes harrowing, adventure for Stoker and a young female Archaeologist. The result is a rollicking adventure, filled with great characters and events that push just to the limit of believability. It is a page-turning novel that readers will want to believe happened—even when they know that what they are reading did not actually occur.

So, we have The Night Crossing, a wonderful historic adventure novel with supernatural thrills and/or Dracul, a classic gothic horror novel with its feet firmly planted in the “native soil” of the macabre. Both novels are brilliant! Pick one and dive in! Or, better yet, read them both and see how a similar idea can be developed so differently by gifted authors.