Q&A: Amber Benson

Although best known for her role as Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Amber Benson has spent most of the last decade following her muse as a writer and filmmaker. Along with Christopher Golden, she reprised the character of Tara in a series of comic books released by Dark Horse Comics. She and Golden also created the animated series Ghosts of Albion for the BBC, and co-wrote the subsequent novelization. Her independent film credits include Chance; Lovers, Liars and Lunatics; and last year’s sci-fi comedy Drones.

In 2009, she released her first solo novel, Death’s Daughter, the story of a chic young woman named Calliope Reaper-Jones, who can’t escape the shadow of her father, the CEO of Death, Inc. The story quickly expanded into a trilogy, which has been so successful that Benson is at work on a fourth volume. The third book in the series, Serpent’s Storm, was released by Ace Books in February. Benson will be in Chicago to wrap up her current book tour this Saturday, April 9, at Challengers Comics + Conversation, 1845 N. Western Ave. 2R. The reading begins at 2 p.m., with a signing to follow until 5 p.m. Recently, she spoke to The Vast Wasteland about the inspiration for Calliope Reaper-Jones, the differences between acting and writing, and the continuing influence of Buffy.

 

The Vast Wasteland: You’ve said you intended the Calliope Reaper-Jones series as a trilogy. How closely has it followed what you’d originally planned and how much has emerged during the writing process?

Amber Benson: It was all pretty much in my head. It was supposed to be one book and my editor read the manuscript and said, I think we need to expand and make this three books. So I ended up changing some stuff and making each book of the trilogy its own stand-alone thing. When you put them all together it takes you on the arc that I had originally intended, but pushed over the course of the three books.

And then we found out that they’re doing pretty well and they want me to do more of them. I actually had to go back in on the third book and change some stuff because I sort of tied up all the loose ends. I had to let some unravel again so we could do a fourth book.

VW: Are you working on that now?

AB: That’s exactly what I am doing, as we speak, I’m putting together the fourth book. To keep myself entertained I’ve made it a sort of a mystery, so I’m adding a bit of Agatha Christie to the urban fantasy genre.

VW: How long do you think the series could go on for?

AB: I think she’s the kind of character that I could find a lot of things to write about. As long as I don’t get bored, you know, as long as I can find new ways of playing with this world, then I’d like to stay in it.

VW: How did you develop the idea for the character and the story?

AB: I’ve always been kind of fascinated by death, and what happens when you die. More like I’m kind of frightened of it, rather than morbid curiosity. So I wanted to create a world in which death wasn’t a frightening thing, it was just a continuation, and that all the different religions and philosophies could co-exist together. I’m so tired of this thing where one is better than all the others, and none of the others think that this one is right.

I love Joseph Campbell. In The Hero with A Thousand Faces, he talks about the similarities between all the mythologies in different cultures and religions. I like to think my books are sort of an aspect of that. There are more similarities, more things that are good about each of these things than there are negatives.

VW: A lot of your writing and acting career has been in the fantasy genre. How do you approach and relate to your characters to keep them real people in unreal contexts?

AB: I wanted to make this character fallible, I wanted her to be a real person. I get really annoyed with fantasy where a character is given these special talents, thrust upon them, and they never question them, they just sort of accept it and they go off and kick ass and take names.

It’s nice to be part of something where the character goes on the true Hero’s Journey, where she wants to find her own life, wants to find her own way. She says no to the call and gets forced into it anyway. She’s always questioning it, always wanting to be a normal person. That, to me, is interesting, and I think people can relate to that character – someone who makes mistakes, who isn’t afraid of saying, “I don’t understand.”

VW: How has your writing been influenced by your experience acting? In particular working on a serialized television show with a deep mythology.

AB: Anything you read, anything you assimilate into your own brain, influences you. Obviously Buffy was a big influence. I spent three years of my life in that universe. Really, the big influence for me with Buffy was, number one, the Hero’s Journey – the character that isn’t mindlessly accepting her powers. What was so great about Buffy was she wanted to be a normal girl as well.

And also something I learned from working on the show is, you actually have to have consistency with your mythology. I’ve tried really had to keep the rules the same, and to make sure they always are consistent.

VW: When did you develop an interest in writing?

AB: I have always written. Mostly bad poetry, and short stories, screenplays, plays. I hadn’t really written long-form prose before. But I met this guy named Chris Golden, he actually approached me about writing some Buffy comics, and we did these three comics for Dark Horse.

Then we were approached by the BBC to create an animated program for them called The Ghosts of Albion. And then Random House was like, would you want to novelize that universe for us, so that’s how I got dragged into prose.

I had never thought that would be something I’d want to do, but it’s really awesome. You have a god’s-eye view, in which you control everything. In a world like the entertainment industry, where everything is out of your control, it’s nice to have control over the books.

VW: You’ve done a lot of work collaboratively. How do you decide if an idea will work better collaboratively or as a solo project?

AB: A lot of times you’ll be talking to somebody and they’ll be like, “I had this idea,” and you start talking, and then it becomes a collaborative thing on its own. Whereas with Death’s Daughter, it’s something that I knew I wanted to do myself. I just intuitively knew that this was something I needed to do, to prove to myself that I could write a whole book myself, not switching off chapters with a co-author. That was a great learning experience, but it was a cheat in some ways. Because if I got stuck, like “oh my God I don’t know what to do with this character,” I would call Chris and he would help me with a plot point. This way I was left to my own devices, and if I couldn’t figure it out, it wasn’t gonna get figured out.

VW: You mentioned the sense of control. You played a character, Tara, which has a life of its own beyond your performance, which is unusual. How do you feel about other depictions of this character that you helped create?

AB: In some ways I think it’s awesome. Not just in the Joss Whedon world, but in fan fiction. You have fans that are creating whole artistic spans for these characters. With the comics and stuff, I think it’s great that it’s continuing on, that people are still able to get their Buffy fix. I didn’t create Tara, she came from somebody else’s head. I was a vessel for her, but I don’t really feel like it’s me, so it’s not some inhibition on me if somebody changes it or does something different with it.

VW: Genre fiction remains in some ways a male-centric corner of pop culture. Have you faced any challenges or any resistance, either from fans or from the industry, as a woman?

AB: Not really. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who are very open-minded. They don’t care what my gender is, as long as the idea is interesting. In that respect I’ve been super lucky. But I also walked into this world with a little sci-fi cred because of Buffy. So doors that maybe wouldn’t be opened for a first-time creator who’s a woman were opened for me because of that. I cheated a little bit. I paid my dues as an actor for twenty years, so then I could transfer those dues to the publishing and film world.

VW: I was going to ask about that as well, the cred coming from Buffy – you have a built-in fan base from one of the most devoted followings out there. Has that also been a hindrance in finding an audience for other endeavors? Do people have a hard time seeing you in other contexts?

AB: Most have been really welcoming. You know, there are some catty comments – “did you really write the book? Did you really make that movie?” Well, just talk to me for five minutes – if we can have a coherent conversation and I seem intelligent to you, then I think I’m possibly capable of writing the books and making the movies. That’s neither here nor there. People are that way with actors, they look at actors as if they’re kind of dumb. Maybe some of them are. But I like to read, I keep myself educated as much as possible.

VW: Do you see yourself as more of an author these days, and is that how you’d prefer to continue your career, or do you balance it with acting and filmmaking?

AB: I love acting, it was my first love. But as I get older – I’m 34 – there are fewer and fewer parts for women, and it’s not such a drive for me anymore. If I don’t get a job, I don’t really care. If I get a job, great. For me, being a writer and a filmmaker, creating my own stuff, that’s where it’s at. That’s where you have control over the creative process, that’s where you can sort of find your own voice. You make an impact on the world in a way that isn’t just you regurgitating somebody else’s lines. That’s very intriguing to me right now.

VW: This may be an odd question, but a lot of your collaboration is with Adam Busch, who portrayed Warren on Buffy. Are fans ever sort of taken aback to learn that you have such a close relationship with the man who killed you on screen?

AB: [Laughs.] I think people have a hard time differentiating between what is real and what is a TV show sometimes. Because you have these very strong feelings for these characters, and when something bad happens to them it sort of imprints in your mind and you see the character, not the real person. Once they get to know me and Adam they see that we are not our characters. He’s not a bad dude, he’s a nice guy.

VW: So he’s never actually shot you in real life. That’s good to know.

AB: No, no, he hasn’t done that yet. He has stabbed me a couple of times. [Laughs.]

VW: This is the last stop on your tour. What’s next?

AB: I’m working on getting the fourth book finished. That is the next big thing for me. I think it’s going to take up the next couple of months. I will be happy to not be doing promotion for a little while. I’m sort of burnt out. I’ve been on innumerable book tours the last couple of years. It’s great, because I get to meet people who like the books, and people that love Buffy, and that’s fun for me. But being on the road constantly is a bit intense.

VW: What are your favorite television shows and why?

AB: I’m kind of obsessed with The Wire right now. I just started watching it, it’s really good. It’s all about character, and so smart – you feel like you’re watching real people, not a TV show. I don’t watch a lot of current television. Most of my TV watching is iTunes downloads.

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, Apr. 7, 2011.

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