Eva Wojcik-Obert's interview with Vivian from
Schilling is the author of two novels, Sacred Prey and (her latest) Quietus.
She is also a screenwriter and actress, with roles in such films as Germans
(a World War II drama directed by Academy Award nominee Zbigniew Kaminski)
and 1990's Soultaker. Ms. Schilling was kind enough to answer a few questions
via e-mail in this latest Fantastica Daily interview. And be sure to check
out Eva's review of Quietus.
Eva: Which do you enjoy more -- writing or acting? Why?
Vivian Schilling: I really enjoyed playing Ruth Sonnenbruch in the foreign film, Germans. Shot in Poland, the film is based on Jubilee, by Leon Kruzchowski, a highly regarded play studied in schools throughout parts of Europe. The story is set during World War II and centers around one family, each character representing a sector of German society and their reaction to and involvement with the Holocaust. My character is the heroine of the story, reaching out to a Jewish refugee and seeing him to safety. When I first arrived in Poland, I was met by a number of young children who instantly thought of me as the heroine Ruth they had all studied and come to love in school. It was a very sobering and powerful honor to be playing this role. Their trust and undeserved admiration made me strive to understand just exactly what my character meant to them and to rise to their expectations. It was terrifying, challenging, and ultimately a very rewarding experience I will never forget.
Eva: How does your acting experience influence your writing?
Vivian Schilling: Through acting I learned to assume the role of my characters and to follow through with their line of intent. I learned that in creating compelling characters, I needed to see their perspective without prejudice.
Eva: Has your writing affected your view of acting? If so, how?
Vivian Schilling: Writing has taught me that a character is one element of a story, not the entirety. When considering a role, I now look at the whole as opposed to just my participation.
Eva: What spiritual areas have you explored/researched as a result of your near fatal accident? What did you find most compelling/interesting/useful?
Vivian Schilling: Having been raised Catholic, I suddenly felt compelled to reach out and explore other beliefs. I was fascinated with the various world religions and what they share in common. Egyptian mythology intrigued me, as well as Celtic and Germanic mythology. In my travels, I made visiting the local cemeteries a must. I think our views on death are very evident in our funerary rites. I became very fascinated with how different cultures treat and relate to their dead. I found the similarities between near-death experiences very similar worldwide. I also found that there are a lot of people out there who have been touched by death and have nowhere to turn.
Eva: In what ways, if any, did the serious accident change your view of your own life?
Vivian Schilling: It made me question the balance between life and death, and wonder if it could be broken or fall out of place. It made me question whether I had been spared or simply overlooked. I've been told this is a common reaction termed survivor's guilt. Still, the synchronicity of life continues to intrigue me. It also made me realize how fragile life is and how unpredictable and ruthless death can be. You carry on with your day to day existence, completely oblivious that in one second it could all end. Or begin, depending on your beliefs.
Eva: Do you think Westerners mainly fear death because of the great "unknown" of what may or may not come after it? Or do you think other cultural/psychological factors contribute to our viewing death as not part of our "life cycle"?
Vivian Schilling: I think death has always been our greatest unknown. And I think it is our natural inclination to fear what we do not understand. Death also goes against our strongest instinct... survival. I think that because of these reasons, it is the hardest issue of our existence to deal with. Western culture, for the most part, does a very poor job of dealing with death. In our discomfort and quest to sweep it under the rug, we've lost so much of the mourning rituals that helped past cultures to cope and understand. We've lost sight of the notion that life should be celebrated and reflected upon, especially at death. I think our society is in an intense stage of denial.
Eva: How much do you identify with Kylie O'Rourke of Quietus? Are there any characters in Sacred Prey with whom you identify or represent your own ideas? If so, which and why?
Vivian Schilling: I identify with Kylie O'Rourke more than any of my other characters simply because many of the questions she asks, are questions I would like to have answered. While some of her experiences found their seed from my own, her reaction and handling of those experiences is solely hers. As for Sacred Prey, certainly the central theme very strongly represents my ideas and opinions. I believe society is very quick to judge and can always benefit from seeing the other person's perspective.
Eva: What was the most difficult thing about writing Quietus?
Vivian Schilling: The solitary confinement. Living in Los Angeles, I was very distracted by the city, by friends, family, the day to day tasks that kept me from writing. I finally sequestered myself in the local mountains. I rented a cabin and spent over a year alone. My husband would come up on the weekends, but the weeks were all to myself. The cabin was very dark, isolated. One of the biggest challenges was learning to surmount my fear of being there alone. At the beginning of my stay I kept a loaded shotgun by me at night, especially when working in the loft. By the end of it, I gave up the gun and slept like a baby. When I started talking to the stuffed deer on the wall, though, I realized it was time to go back to L.A.
Eva: A great deal is implied, yet left unexplained regarding the Julius Vanderpoel character in Quietus. Do you have any intention of revisiting or elaborating on this character or others like him in future books?
Vivian Schilling: Julius Vanderpoel made his voice very clear to me, yet he remained elusive and within the shadows. He was a very strong presence for me in the writing of Quietus, his power coming from his dimension and inner-struggle. I remain intrigued by him, but I doubt I will ever resurrect him. I certainly hope to visit other dark characters like him in the future.
Eva: What provided the inspiration/idea for the "switch" of characters (between hit man and intended victim) in Sacred Prey?
Vivian Schilling: From a very young age, I've been fascinated by the vast misperceptions that govern our lives... by the fear that keeps our white-knuckled grip on our religion, our social standing, our race, and our pedigrees. Growing up in a family that struggled desperately to make ends meet, I saw those around me judged by what sort of shoes they were wearing. I witnessed innocent lives ruined by first impressions and intolerance. The main character of Sacred Prey, Adam Claiborne, is a man chained within his own limited perspective... He justifies his murderous acts and truly sees himself as the victim. It is not until he walks a few days in the shoes of his victim that he truly sees himself for what he is... a man who transcended poverty, but compromised his soul in the bargaining.
Eva: What is the focus of your next book? Title? Characters? Plot tease?
Vivian Schilling: If I say, I'm scared I'll jinx it.
Eva: What are some of your favorite books/authors? Do you see evidence of their influence in your own writing?
Vivian Schilling: Some of my all-time favorite books: The Metamorphosis, The Shining, Gone With the Wind, Cider House Rules, Lonesome Dove, Dracula, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cold Mountain... My favorite writers: Larry McMurtry, John Irving, J.D. Salinger... the lists could go on endlessly. As for influences in my writing, I hope to be inspired by the skill of these writers as opposed to their ideas. Though I indulge myself occasionally with a good thriller, I tend not to read books in my genre, simply because I don't want to be influenced when it comes to story and ideas. I also don't want to be limited by what someone else has already done. I read for enjoyment. It is simply my good fortune that reading is the clearest path to becoming a good writer.
Eva: Who would you invite for a long night of dinner and conversation? Why? What would be on the menu?
Vivian Schilling: If I could invite anyone, living or spirit, I would invite my mother. Why? Because I never got a chance to cook for her. We'd have fried green tomatoes, mashed potatoes, oysters and fried catfish... and a fresh garden salad with lots of green onions. We'd eat by candle-light in the garden, with some of her home-vintage elderberry wine.
Eva: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
Vivian Schilling: Iced tea. Fresh brewed and lightly sweetened. If I'm really hitting a wall, I make a trip to Office Depot or Staples and stock up on office supplies. Strange how that works. I have way too many clipboards, post-its and staplers, but I have lots of nieces and nephews in constant need of school supplies. One of my greatest runs of creativity came after discovering florescent discs. If all of this fails, I turn to my outline and my reference books. I find some new piece of research and incorporate it into my story. I find what inspired me in the first place and remind myself why I'm writing what I'm writing... to entertain and to touch.
Question: What is your impression of the film industry? Is your decision to focus
on novels related at all to your experiences doing films?
Vivian Schilling: I think film is the most powerful tool of persuasion we have today. It can literally influence cultures. Because the stakes are so high, it tends to attract corruption and those willing to compromise their integrity in pursuit of money, power and their dreams. That's not to say everyone and every aspect of the business is that way. I've had a lot of good experiences and have met most of my closest friends through film. As for my decision to focus on novels, I simply prefer writing novels above all else. After starring in Savage Land, my career as an actress was in a good place. I had a very good agent wanting to take me to the next level. At the same time, I had St. Martin's Press asking for my next novel. I knew I could not pursue both and expect to do well at either. I had to make a decision and without hesitation, I chose to write my next book. Storytelling is my first love and I find the most satisfying expression in novels. There are absolutely no restrictions in novels like those in film. Film is a beautiful art and I hope to make many more in the future, but nothing can compare to the thrill I get from creating a world all my own ... One that readers can enter and bring to life through their own imaginations.
Reader's Question: I understand that you had a near death experience of your own. Was it similar to what you described in the book?
Vivian Schilling: It was similar to Kylie O'Rourke's in one way -- it was dark as opposed to the overwhelming majority of reported near death experiences that are full of light. Other than that and the profound feeling of wanting to know more, the two experiences are very different. Kylie's NDE incorporates an entire mythology surrounding death drawn from my research of past cultures and beliefs. It is meant more as a myth than to be taken literally, one to aid in the exploration of death and spirituality.
Reader's Question: Do you believe in the angels of death that you talk about in Quietus and that when it's "your time" there is no escaping it? What is your book saying about mortality and predestination?
Vivian Schilling: Deathbed visions have been documented all over the world for centuries. I have a difficult time ignoring the statistics. I would like to believe there is a presence that helps us to cross over, quite possibly our loved ones who have passed or some type of spirit of mercy. The angels in Quietus, however, were a way for me to put a face to death. I drew their likeness from many different personifications of death. It was the clearest path for me in understanding the subject, but again, not meant to be taken literally.
As for what my book says about mortality, I think it touches upon a myriad of issues. I think it says that death is a very real and inescapable part of life. That we need to accept that rather than run from it. That death can be a beautiful transition, one worth introspection and respect. As for predestination ... I think it says that there is a certain order to life, a synchronicity that we are unable to grasp, therefore unable to escape. That's not to say we don't have control over our choices and our futures, simply that life and death are very interwoven and complex. One only need to study nature for proof of this.
Reader's Question: Has your own near death experience made you more or less fearful of dying?
Vivian Schilling: At first it made me more fearful. But then it led me on a path that has very much set my mind at ease. I won't say that I've resolved all of my issues concerning death, but I feel much closer to an understanding.
Reader's Question: Was there a particular reason you made Kylie a decorator/refurbisher?
Vivian Schilling: There were a number of reasons I chose decorating and refurbishing for Kylie's profession. Considering Quietus examines the balance between the physical and spiritual world, place plays a significant role in the story. I believe places can embody spiritual energy. I wanted to have Kylie in touch with this and at the same time empower her to manipulate and change her surroundings. I wanted her choice of surroundings to be a reflection of her own spirit and inner struggles. When considering her profession, I also had to take into account Jack and the thread that keeps their relationship intact. I knew they needed to work together and wanted it to be a profession in the arts. Jack is not the most creative of the team. He is about physicality and things he can touch. Kylie lives in a much more cerebral and creative world. I needed to bring these two characters together in a way in which they would flourish and compliment each other. Because Kylie and Jack are very much loners, I wanted them to be self-sufficient, without cell phones and assistants or an army of workers. I wanted them to succeed on their own terms. Making her an interior decorator/refurbisher answered all of these concerns. It also led to a much deeper understanding and usage of place than I originally intended.
Reader's Question: Do you find that your screenwriting experience has helped with the writing of your two novels or is this a completely different ball game?
Vivian Schilling: While screenwriting is certainly very different from writing novels, I believe it provided me with a solid foundation from which to build. Screenwriting is a very lean form of writing. Very little detail is given, only the essentials for a director, producer, actor, etc. to build upon. Screenwriting teaches you to edit as you go along and to be flexible and open to new ideas. It teaches you to take direction, to sift through sometimes conflicting notes from producers and directors. Learning to accept criticism and knowing which to take and which to discard is an invaluable asset to a writer. Screenwriting taught me to prepare outlines and character biographies, both now essential to my work as a novelist. When I approached my first novel, I did it as a screenwriter. I used the screenplay as an outline and built upon it. I now approach writing as a novelist. I will continue to write screenplays, but my work as a novelist will remain my first love wherein I find my greatest depth of freedom and storytelling.
Reader's Question: Did you have any religious affiliation prior to your own near death experience? After?
Vivian Schilling: I was raised Catholic, but fell away from the Church in my teens just about the time of my accident. After my experience, I did a lot of exploration into various religions. While moved by the ideas and conviction of some, I've settled on no particular affiliation.
Reader's Question: I saw a Publisher's Weekly quote on Amazon that compares Quietus to "an Anne Rice novel - without all the goth trappings." How do you feel about this comparison? I, myself, think Quietus is above and beyond anything Rice has ever written.
Vivian Schilling: What an incredible compliment. Thank you. Quietus was spoken from my soul and it truly means everything when a reader connects to it. As for the comparison, it is sometimes easier to compartmentalize than to explain what a writer's work is about. Though I believe my writing is very different from Rice's, I am nonetheless honored by the comparison. Rice has a poetic command of language that has earned her a tremendous following. Like a Rice novel, Quietus deals in the supernatural and touches upon some dark sexuality, yet I think our approach and underlying themes are vastly different. I can only hope that over time, my own style of storytelling will earn me the "Vivian Schilling" category from which other writers are compared.
Reader's Question: Is Kylie's character at all biographical?
Vivian Schilling: As a writer can only draw from what they know and experience, I think it is nearly impossible to not draw from ourselves and from those around us. In Quietus, Kylie takes on many of the questions and themes I wished to explore. We both are intrigued and challenged by death, but our experiences and reactions to those experiences are very different.
Reader's Question: Are your movies available in any video stores? What was the most fun film you did?
Vivian Schilling: Except for the foreign film, Germans, which has only been released abroad, all of my movies are out there, it's just a matter of hunting them down. Some are more difficult to find than others, as they were distributed by Hemdale which became inactive in 1996. The most fun I ever had on a film would have to be the western Savage Land. As I was raised with three brothers and no sisters, Savage Land gave me the chance to be the tough one. I put on a gun-belt, rolled around on a stage coach, growled at everybody. I loved my character's spicy personality and budding relationship to Marty Cove's character at the end. I loved going back in time and living in the Old West. Though it snowed in August (and my character was without a coat), Canada was simply breathtaking. If possible, I could have set up a dry-goods shop in the Old Frontier and never left.
Addiction interviews Vivian.