Calliope Reaper-Jones started as the title character in Amber Benson’s first solo novel DEATH’S DAUGHTER as a young New Yorker very reluctantly grappling with her supernatural heritage. Thanks to the book’s best-selling success and the adventures, tragedies and triumphs in two follow-up novels, CAT’S CLAW and SERPENT’S STORM, Calliope has now graduated from offspring to Death herself. In HOW TO BE DEATH, Calliope finds herself trying to solve several murders among a group of most unusual suspects, including a number of gods and goddesses.
Benson, who still has a multitude of fans for her portrayal of Taraon BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, is a multi-hyphenate. She has written a book for younger readers, AMONG THE GHOSTS, directed and co-scripted with Christopher Golden the GHOSTS OF ALBION animated series. Benson has also written and directed two feature films, CHANCE and LOVERS, LIARS AND LUNATICS, co-directed a third feature, the science-fiction comedy DRONES, with Adam Busch, embarked on producing and co-directing a Web series, GIRL ON GIRL, with Busch, and frequently writes short stories and comic books.
Sitting down at one of her favorite Los Angeles venues, Benson talks about all of the above and more, including the book tour she’s embarking on to promote HOW TO BE DEATH, with the following tour dates:
Fri. March 2, 7 PM at Midtown Comics at Grand Central Station, NYC, NY
Sat. March 3, 6 PM at Murder by the Book inHouston,TX
Sat. March 10, 2 PM at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore inSan Diego,CA
Sat. March 24, 2 PM at Dark Delicacies Bookstore inBurbank,CA
Today, Friday March 2, Benson and fellow fantasy author Anton Strout are doing a Livestream chat at 3 PM EST/12 PM PST at the Ace/Rock Facebook page. Whoever makes the best comment or poses the best question utilizing the phrase “Anton Strout is a god among men” a will win a surprise at the end of the chat.
ASSIGNMENT X Weren’t the DEATH’S DAUGHTER books originally conceived as a trilogy?
AMBER BENSON: It was a trilogy, yeah. And then it did well enough to do more [laughs]. It was kind of awkward because I had written SERPENT’S STORM with a different ending. Actually, when I talked to my editor Ginjer [Buchanan], she said, “We want to do Four and Five, so go back and rewrite that ending.”
AX: What was the original ending of SERPENT’S STORM?
BENSON: Callie was wrapped up. It was all wrapped up. Everything was done. I had to literally go back and bring some characters back to life and snip some scenes, because I wanted everything wrapped up. I hate when you get to the end of something, and not everything is made clear. Especially after three books, you want to know this and this and this. And so I did that, and then I had to go back and snip that and redo it because there were four [books now].
AX: Did Callie originally die at the end of SERPENT’S STORM?
BENSON: Maybe. She might have [laughs].
AX: Who became Death?
BENSON: That was left to the Fates to decide. It was sort of open-ended on that – it was heading toward [Calliope’s love interest] Daniel.
AX: The last line you have for SERPENT’S STORM, “I am Death,” just seemed the perfect end …
BENSON: Yeah, it did – but I didn’t want to have to do any more [laughs]. I was like, “I’m done. No more!” I was getting kind of annoyed with [Calliope], I think. And then she was resurrected in my mind and so I literally after the third book had to find a way to get excited again, and that’s why it became a pastoral Agatha Christie-esque drawing room mystery, because that was intriguing. I’m like, “Well, if I can do that and do what I’m doing, then I can enjoy that. That’s fun.”
AX: Are the grounds and the mansion where most of HOW TO BE DEATH is set based on a particular real place?
BENSON: Yes. It’s based on Hearst Castle. Which I’m a huge fan of – I love it there. It’s so beautiful. I’ve taken the tour a bunch of times, my dad lives in that general area, so I did a lot of research, and then I changed the details just enough to not be a total rip-off of Hearst Castle. [In the book], the genesis of how it came to be was a little bit of a hodgepodge. It’s not the Hearst story.
AX: As far as the murder mystery aspect of the story, did you go back and read Agatha Christie?
BENSON: There was no going back. I read all that stuff on a consistent basis. I’m a huge, huge, huge mystery buff. Especially British detective mysteries. P.D. James and Agatha Christie and Christopher Fowler – [Fowler’s] mysteries are awesome. It’s two older sort of quasi-retired police detectives who solve kind of obscure, weird mysteries.
AX: Without getting to spoilery, how did you settle on the particular pantheon at the heart of the mystery?
BENSON: I think you’re referring to the executives in charge of Death and the different continents. I wanted to have a good cross-sampling of different mythological canons. They’re not all death-related. I decided that was a little too on the nose, to [have] all the gods of death in charge of each [religion], so I sort of chose ones that I thought were appropriate. When I delved more into their worlds, I have a lot of aboriginal and a lot of Native American stuff. I thought that was really interesting, it was a different way of doing it, for me, at least. It wasn’t stuck to one mythology for this book. This one was just, “All the mythologies we need together.”
AX: We also learn a little of Callie’s back story that we didn’t know before. Was that always part of her back story, or did that become part of the back story once you were writing HOW TO BE DEATH?
BENSON: It was always part of [the back story] – I knew that. And I set it up throughout the other three books. There’s a lot of reference to her not feeling that she really fits with her family, so you’ve got to read the book to find out why she doesn’t fit [laughs], but it was something I was dealing with at the end of the third book, and I had to bump it. So I thought, “Now I’ll use it for the fourth!”
AX: How much time was there between the original creation of SERPENT’S STORM, finding out you the publishers wanted you to do another book, agreeing to do another one, and actually doing another one?
BENSON: I’m on a schedule where I do a book a year. So I really have anywhere from when I turn the book in – I think I turned SERPENT’S STORM in at the end of the spring, beginning of summer – and then literally three months later, I’m [hired] to work on number four. And I had such a hard time with number four that I was actually late. I was also late on SERPENT’S STORM, but I was a month and a half late on Book Four. It was really hard to write, and I’m not quite sure why [laughs], but it was just very difficult for me. It was an odd process. There was a lot of rewriting. I would go back and rewrite the first chapter a lot. I was a little obsessed with the first chapter for a very long time.
AX: Do you think the issue was just going back to that world altogether, or do you think it was the fact that you were doing a mystery procedural in one sense?
BENSON: The procedural part came more easily, actually. Going back into that world, having made peace with it and then having to go back into it – and I was going through a lot of changes in my life personally, so that was very intense. I think it was just a combination of those two things and going back into a world that I felt like I had been done with.
AX: And did that raise questions about, “Wait, what else should happen that hasn’t come up so far?”
BENSON: Yeah. I’m working on a fifth book [in the series] now, and it’s, “Where am I going with that?” We’re in the middle of that, and I think for me, it was sort of an epiphany, between the third and the fourth book, that I wanted to write stuff because it moved me to write it, not because I felt like I had to contractually finish something and I think the fourth book was like this feeling in my head that I had to do something, and now I’m like, the fifth book, I’m writing what I want to write, and I’m just enjoying the process again. I think [HOW TO BE DEATH] turned out pretty well, regardless of the fact that I was a little uncertain, trying to get my bearings back. I’m really pleased with it.
AX: Can you tease at all what Callie will be doing in the fifth book?
BENSON: Yeah. The fifth book is more of her dealing with her arch-nemesis and dealing with the running [of Death, Incorporated] and more stuff happens at the end that I won’t divulge, because it’s kind of crazy and weird. We’ll see what happens.
AX: New revelations?
AX: Do you have other books that you’re working on?
BENSON: Yeah, I’m working on a YA [young adult] book right now, and I’m trying to get it together to go out and talk to children about the middle-grade book I did, AMONG THE GHOSTS, do some school literary presentation things, so that’s on my agenda for the next year. So any librarians or teachers who want me to come and speak to their class. I’m going to do it and see what it’s all about. I’m excited about it.
AX: Is your young adult novel genre, or is it slice of life?
BENSON: I tend to go to the genre world. Even when I’m trying not to, I still go there, because there’s some supernatural component, so the YA is like [the movie] MONSTER SQUAD. I love monsters. It’s about two boys – when something bad comes to their town, they’re the only ones who actually believe that it’s something other than just like a bad person doing bad things. They think it’s a real monster and they’re the only ones equipped to combat it, because they know all about monsters. So I’m excited about that. I’m four chapters in – I’m having a ball. It’s really, really fun.
Related Link: Exclusive Interview with Amber Benson on GIRL ON GIRL, REVERSE PARTHENOGENESIS and more – Part 2
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Related Link: SERPENT’S STORM book review
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Article: Exclusive Interview with Amber Benson on HOW TO BE DEATH