Horror and the Holocaust: An Interview with Helen Maryles-Shankman

The author of ‘The Color of Light’ talks about her debut novel, which is part romance, part supernatural thriller, and part Holocaust fiction

By: Zak Edwards

Published: February 13th, 2014 in Culture » Books » Interviews
Horror and the Holocaust: An Interview with Helen Maryles-Shankman

Vampires have been a part of our culture and stories for centuries in some form or another. Even Jewish mythology has creatures that resemble vampires, stalking and threatening to steal our life force. For Helen Maryles-Shankman, her love of the supernatural and her desire to understand her own parents’ experiences in the Holocaust have come together in The Color of Light, her debut novel.

The story follows Tessa, an art student, and her school’s founder, Rafe, who turns out to be a vampire. Part romance, part supernatural thriller, and part Holocaust fiction, Maryles-Shankman’s book takes vampires back to their scarier roots, before the glittering Cullens. We had the chance to talk with the author about her book, what makes vampires so interesting, and her own literary journey.

Shalom Life: For those unfamiliar, why don’t you tell us about yourself and where The Color of Light came from.

Helen Maryles-Shankman: My parents are Holocaust survivors. Even in my earliest memories, I knew my parents were different; they had accents, we didn’t seem to be part of a larger community, and there was this sense of fear, of mistrust, of the world at large.

To learn about that world, I plunged myself into books. My aunt Marcy would come visit us from Montreal, trailing a treasure trove of great literature in her wake. I read Slaughterhouse Five in this way, Peyton Place, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird—all by the time I was ten.

Then, when I turned thirteen, I read The Great Gatsby. I was too young to understand why it spoke to me, but as an adult, I empathize with that sense of yearning Fitzgerald describes in so many ways. It all thumped home with terrible clarity. I have since discovered that it is a popular book with the children of immigrants. We share a common dream with Gatsby.

That was also the year I discovered the work of Stephen King. In the next few years, I would read The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. As crazy as it sounds, taken together, these authors would form my literary sensibility: Horror and the Holocaust, dysfunctional family dynamics, art, romance, and a little bit of speculative fiction, all tied together with a gallows sense of humor.

Shalom Life: What drew you to writing? Can you see your background in the novel?

Helen Maryles-Shankman: You can definitely see something of my background in the novel. My parents are Holocaust survivors—my aunts, uncles, and grandparents. And art was just something I was born knowing how to do, the way other kids are naturally good at sports or science.

Like Tessa, I worked for an artist, a famous illustrator, then got a job working in a magazine art department and we were supposed to be redesigning SELF Magazine. My task was to keep Alex Liberman, the editor and famous artist, supplied with all kinds of wonderful things he could cut up and collage with—and to look adorable at all times. It was an extreme couple of years.

After I left SELF, I went to graduate school to study classical painting. I went to the New York Academy of Art, where I learned how to paint like Raphael and Rembrandt. When I describe the studios in my fictional American Academy of Classical Art, I’m basing it on the studios we shared in the school’s old building on Lafayette Street, near Astor Place.

Every generation gets its own epoch-appropriate version of vampires. Until Dark Shadows, the 1960’s soap opera, vampires were considered to be monstrously evil. With the invention of Barnabas Collins, vampires became romantic and misunderstood. In the 70’s, there was the brooding, suffering Louis in Interview With The Vampire. In the 90’s, there was Buffy’s hot vampire boyfriend Angel, atoning for his misdeeds and longing for redemption. Followed in the first decade of the 21st century by the innocuous teenage vampires of Twilight.

I think vampires work because they are the ultimate outsiders. Once, they were us; alive, breathing human beings with hopes, dreams, futures, a circle of friends and loved ones. In the blink of an eye, just one wrong step, and they lose it all and become pariahs. Sometimes, it’s due to tragedy, sometimes it’s someone who is just in the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes it’s someone undone by grief. The situation Rafe finds himself in is of timeless, universal appeal. Who doesn’t know someone who has been so crushed by circumstances that they consider ending it all?

After years of running away from my parents’ Holocaust past, I’d become fascinated by my mother’s war experiences. At the same time, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel that took place in an art school. Like a bolt of lightning, it struck me. With the use of a vampire, I could find a bridge between the two stories taking up equal space in my mind, between the past and the present, between the Holocaust survivors and their children, the second generation. So, The Color of Light was born, a story of a girl who longed to know her family’s tragic history, and a man consumed with guilt over acts he’d committed during the war.

Shalom Life: These supernatural love stories have been a staple in literature for centuries, especially with the Twilight series’ popularity. Your book hasn’t been getting as many of those comparisons, though. What is The Color of Light doing differently?

Helen Maryles-Shankman: Uh oh, the Twilight comparison. Actually, The Color of Light has been compared to Twilight, but only by reviewers who write about how different the two books are. When I first conceived of it, The Color of Light was pretty much a Holocaust story with a vampire in it. And I think that makes all the difference.

Rafe is a return to the classical Dracula-style vampire: he’s dangerous, he can’t go out into daylight or he’ll burst into flames, and he goes around in a wide-brimmed hat and overcoat. There are a few vampires, yes, and it is certainly romantic, but for the most part my book explores larger themes. My characters are complicated human beings who must live with the choices they have made.

Fun fact: when I wrote The Color of Light, I was so unaware of the existence of Twilight that I named my female protagonist Bella. Both my grandmothers were named Bella. It was the prettiest Yiddish name I could think of. I was halfway through the book when my agents broke the news that I had to change the name.

Shalom Life: What’s next for you? More writing? Are their plans to make this into a series of books?

Helen Maryles-Shankman: I would love to get back to writing about Rafe and Tessa’s world. Tessa will be taking a studio with some of her school friends on the Lower East Side. Rafe won’t like it; in 1993, the Lower East Side was rife with drugs and violence. Tessa will meet the son of someone from Rafe’s past–I want to explore a young German growing up with his own World War II issues due to his father’s Nazi past. Rafe will have a relapse, because I want to explore the importance of memory. I don’t know if I see it as a series, but there’s definitely another book in there.

Part 2, the World War II section of the novel, was originally over 200 pages long, a book in itself. I would love to publish it as a separate novella.

I’m most of the way through a series of linked short stories, utilizing some of my parents’ Holocaust experiences, and including some of my research into the Germans and Poles who protected my family throughout the war. Of course, I’ll be using supernatural elements. I can’t seem to tell a story without them.

But first, it’s back to the easel! I have to finish a portrait of a little girl that was commissioned from me two years ago!

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