Amber Benson creatively does everything – and very successfully, too. Benson originally came to the public’s attention as an actress (Tara on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, an award-winning turn in RACE YOU TO THE BOTTOM), but she’s branched out as a filmmaker (writer/director/producer of CHANCE and LOVERS, LIARS AND LUNATICS), a novelist (DEATH’S DAUGHTER as a solo writer, THE GHOSTS OF ALBION books in collaboration with Christopher Golden), a radio play writer and a comic book author.
Right now, as a film director, Benson has DRONES, which she co-directed with Adam Busch, awaiting release. As an author, she’s got two new releases this year: CAT’S CLAW, the second installment in her DEATH’S DAUGHTER series and the children’s book AMONG THE GHOSTS. Sitting down in a small, pleasant Los Angeles eatery, Benson talks about all of the above and more in Part 2 of her exclusive interview with ASSIGNMENT X.
ASSIGNMENT X: Can you talk a little bit about your CAT’S CLAW novel that was published earlier this year?
BENSON: CAT’S CLAW is the second book in the series that I’m doing for Ace, which is [about] Calliope Reaper-Jones. It came out at the end of February/beginning of March.
AX: How much of the plot of CAT’S CLAW did you know while writing DEATH’S DAUGHTER?
BENSON: Well, because the series was created as a trilogy – originally it was one book, and then my editor, Ginjer Buchanan, said, “Let’s make it three, there’s a lot of story here.” So once I broke it down, I knew where I needed to go with all three books. I knew where I wanted to be at the very end of the third book. So I pretty much was working from a very specific outline for the second book.
AX: In the books, you visit a lot of mythologies, including those from India and Egypt. Were those mythologies that interested you prior to writing these books?
BENSON: I love Indian mythology. I think that the canon of gods in the Indian mythological canon is just awesome. There are so many interesting characters in there, with Kali being my favorite. She’s the penultimate. She’s just really badass. She’s a bad girl, but she’s death and rebirth, she’s both. She’s got the mother goddess vibe, and then the Egyptian mythology. I like the Egyptian culture, and I wanted to interweave that into CAT’S CLAW.
I love mythology in general. I saw the Bill Moyer ‘s special interviews with Joseph Campbell at Skywalker Ranch and I fell in love with mythology, I wanted to be a mythologist. Hatshepsut and Senenmut, their story was very intriguing to me. I’d seen something on National Geographic about their relationship. She was the only female Pharaoh of Egypt, and I thought she was very intriguing, and then her architect Senenmut, possibly her lover, who might have fathered her child – I took a little bit of liberty, but I just thought it was an interesting story and I wanted to incorporate it into the second book.
AX: Is there any sort of deliberate parallel between Callie and Kali?
BENSON: No, not really. You can look at it like Kali’s a little more of the mythology version of Callie maybe, but not really. I like them as a contrast to each other in a way. One is very self-assured and the other is kind of insecure about herself, so it’s nice for Callie to see how Kali deals with things.
For this series of books, I wanted to create a heroine who’s fallible, who is kind of self-involved and immature, and I wanted her to grow over the series. I wanted her to learn to be more responsible for herself, to be more thoughtful of others and compassionate towards others. I feel like you see a lot of hero-ness in the male hero going through this hero’s journey and I wanted to have a female protagonist do that. I mean, you do see it, but usually in the fantasy that I’ve come across, the women are given this trait and they just run with it. There’s never any second-guessing and there’s never any “I don’t want it.”
That was sort of the thing about BUFFY – “I don’t want it, I just want to be a normal girl,” and I really wanted Callie to have that kind of sensibility as well. I wanted her to say no to the call and then to be forced to do all this stuff for her family.
AX: In CAT’S CLAW, you have some souls doubling up in the same body at times. Did you think about that before you were writing it or did you get to it and go, “Ah, describing the souls going into people they’re interested in sounds rather sexual”?
BENSON: Yeah. I thought it was an interesting way of becoming other people for a little while. Yes, of course it sounds a little naughty – naughty soul coalescing – and it is a little naughty, but it seems to be something that I’m curious about – people transmigrating to other people, transmigration of souls into other bodies.
BENSON: I just treated it like a standalone book. I felt like it was sort of its own story. It was a continuation of the storyline from the first book, but it also was very separate, and I felt like that was necessary. We needed a break from this very intense first story, because it’s going to be continued in the third story, and it’ll be more of a closure personal thing, but open-ended in the first book. But the second book to me is more of a standalone. The second book to me is better than the first. I feel like I’m getting better as a writer. Each book I write makes me stronger.
AX: Were there things that were easier for you as a writer in CAT’S CLAW?
BENSON: I don’t know that there are things that were easier, per se, but it flowed very well, because I was changing my mindset from the first book. [Originally], it was going to be one big book and I had to change that, so it was, “Okay, how do I break this down? How do I add something to the second, so it’s not just a flow-through? How do I tell people this is a standalone thing?” That’s when the Hatshepsut and Senenmut stuff kind of came to me. It’s like, “oh, this is an interesting way to frame this story, and it will give me the bits and pieces I need to continue the third book without just being a second book.”
AX: When is the third book in the series, SERPENT’S STORM, due out?
BENSON: End of February/March.
AX: You’ve dealt with Hindu mythology and Egyptian mythology in the first two books. What’s the mythical emphasis in SERPENT’S STORM?
BENSON: The third book is going to deal with ocean mythology, sea mythology.
AX: Like Poseidon?
BENSON: Less like a Greek take on that, [more] like lots of different kinds of mythological characters out of ocean mythology, whether it’s Japanese, or Greek, or – it kind of runs the gamut. Anything to do with the sea. I was very intrigued by the ocean and I wanted to bring it into the third book.
AX: Are there other mythologies you want to explore as the Calliope Reaper-Jones series expands?
BENSON: I’d love to deal with some Native American mythologies. I find those very interesting. Maybe Celtic – I love the Celtic myths. The Cuchullain story – I think the Celtic stories are awesome. There are just all these really neat mythological characters that would play well. Epona the horse goddess. Yeah, we’ll have a horse in a Callie book. There’s been a dog, a cat – maybe it’ll move to horses for the fourth.
AX: Is there anything of your own life experience in those books?
BENSON: You can’t write something and not imbue it with a bit of yourself. [Calliope’s] juvenile sense of humor is definitely my sense of humor. It’s like a twelve-year-old boy’s – “He said a dirty word, hee, hee, hee” [laughs]. I don’t love clothes; she loves clothes. I love mythology, so that’s in there. I literally do more research on what’s at Barney’s [the department store] than I do on mythology, because I was interested in mythology, I’d read a lot of mythological stories and world religion was something I was also interested in. I wanted to create this universe where all the religions could coexist. It just seems odd to me that all these things exist, but only one can be right – why can’t all of them be right? Or pieces of all of them be right?
AX: DEATH’S DAUGHTER is coming out as an audio book. Are you going to be the reader?
BENSON: I am indeed. I get first dibs [laughs].
AX: Now, is this going to be you reading everything, or are other people coming in?
BENSON: No, from what I understand, it’ll be a standard audio book. I’m so excited.
AX: Have you been a reader of an audio book before?
BENSON: Never. I’m very, very curious. Maybe it’ll be the start of a brand new career [laughs].
AX: Do you have concepts about how you’re going to make the different characters sound?
BENSON: I have a general idea. I think it just depends on how far I want to go [laughs]. There are a couple of odd accents here and there. We’ll see if I can actually do them on cue.
AX: Are you working on any other writing projects?
BENSON: Yes. Chris Golden and I are working on a book together right now.
AX: Is it another GHOSTS OF ALBION book?
BENSON: This one’s totally new. It’s in the very beginning stages. It’s definitely in the fantasy world and then I have some stuff that’s sort of a passion project that I’ve been working on. I’ve just got to finish it and then we’ll see what happens. I’m not really talking about it – I’m just sort of letting it ride, and do it when I can and it’s something that makes me happy writing. And then the BBC does a radio play called THE MAN IN BLACK, on BBC7, so Chris and I are writing one for them right now.
AX: You did both an audio-only and an animated version of THE GHOSTS OF ALBION for the BBC …
BENSON: We did two versions – we did a radio version and we did a version for the animation, so it was interesting. I now feel like I’ve done both, and I don’t know which one I prefer [laughs]. I think the radio one was hard, because if [the description of what was happening] didn’t come across, it didn’t come across. There was no animation to back it up, so you really have to work even harder.
AX: “Oh, no, it’s a flying buttress!”
BENSON: Yes, exactly. “And it’s going to – oh, it hit you in the face!”
AX: So the radio version had more, “Look out for the …”?
BENSON: Exactly. It was a little more concise and we did use more description. Stuff got cut out of the animated one, because it was superfluous. Once you see it, you don’t need to hear it.
AX: What is THE MAN IN BLACK about?
BENSON: It’s a horror serial that the BBC does. The Man in Black pops up in obscure places and starts to tell you a creepy story and you dive into this spooky story and at the end of it, he wraps it up. It’s really good – it’s on Radio Seven and I’ve listened to a bunch of them now. They’re really scary [laughs].
AX: Did the BBC give you a premise for the episode they wanted you to do, or did they just say, “Come up with a scary story”?
BENSON: They approached Chris. He was like, “Let’s do it together” [laughs]. I was like, “I would love to do this – this is so much fun!” I love anything that has dialogue and this is trying to get people to understand where they are in the story, just with sound effects and stuff. It’s challenging.
AX: Are you directing it?
BENSON: I would love to, but there’s somebody in the U.K. that will be directing it and doing all that stuff.
AX: When will this likely air?
BENSON: I’m not sure. Probably by the end of the year, it will be out.
AX: We have a whole separate interview coming up with you and Adam Busch about DRONES, the science-fiction office comedy you co-directed, but can you say who is releasing the movie?
BENSON: It’s a company called Phase Four Films. They just [released the film about] Hugh Hefner. They did TIMER, the Emma Caulfield film. DRONES will get a release. Probably March – we’ll see.
AX: Do you have any more film projects as an actress coming up?
BENSON: I did a little independent film called DUST UP that was like a shoot ‘em up, bang-bang quasi-Western. That was really fun. I had a good time. That was out in Joshua Tree. I got to shoot a bunch of people. That’ll be going out to festivals and stuff.
AX: Had you handled a gun before?
BENSON: A couple of times, yeah. I don’t enjoy shooting them. This was fun. Originally, when I first read the script, it was more physical fighting, and it sort of devolved into, “Okay, the guys are going to physically fight and you’re going to shoot people.” I said, “I want to fight. Shooting seems like cheating” [laughs]. But it was really fun. I had such a good time on the set. And I had a kid in the film, so the director’s little girl was my baby. She was so cute, but my God – it’s pretty crazy, the film. At one point, there’s a gun battle and the kid’s sitting right there [laughs].
AX: How old was the baby?
BENSON: She was three months old.
AX: Did she bond with you?
BENSON: She’s a sweetheart, yeah. She was my little kid. I felt bad though – I didn’t want her to ever cry. She cried a couple of times.
AX: Did you do sequences where you’ve got the baby in one hand and you’re fighting with the other?
BENSON: I didn’t, but some of the fights with the guys, they did. I was glad I didn’t shoot anybody with her. They used – I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s a baby wrap. It’s got a specific name. The director, Ward Roberts – his wife [Galicia Bloom], who’s also producing it, was the only one who knew how to wrap anybody up in it properly, she and the costume supervisor, so any time someone had to wear it, the two of them had to come and wrap the person. It was like a whole Jedi-like thing. But it was like, “Take it off and put it on So-And-So, they’ve got to hold the baby now,” so they’d take it off and put it on the next person.
AX: Is DUST UP a contemporary Western?
BENSON: It’s contemporary and there is a Western feel to it, but it isn’t a Western per se. [It’s a Western] in the same way that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a Western. The bad guys are real creepy and do a lot of very [bad things] – they look like they belong in MAD MAX. My character is just a normal gal.
AX: Is your character supposed to know how to use a gun, or is she sharing your real-life aptitude?
BENSON: She’s learning on the fly [laughs]. “Show me what this is, and show me what to do with it.” I don’t know much about guns. And mostly, I held the plastic fake gun that didn’t shoot – it was like rubber, almost. There’s nothing in there. Couldn’t hurt anybody with that – maybe if I clobbered ‘em with it.
AX: With so much going on, how do you manage to get everything done on time? Do you give yourself a schedule of, “In the morning, I’m working on AMONG THE GHOSTS, in the afternoon, I’m working on SERPENT’S STORM, in the evening, I’m signing”?
BENSON: I try and do like a day for each thing. Like today, I’ll go home and work on what Chris and I are working on. I’ll do a rewrite on the BBC thing. And the next day, I’ll be back into the fourth DEATH’S DAUGHTER book.
AX: How have you enjoyed book touring?
BENSON: It’s been an experience. On the kids’ level, you go to book fairs and you go to schools, and that is very intriguing to me. If I can get kids excited about reading, then, wow. That’s just like you’re inspiring people to go out and educate themselves.
AX: Are the signings of the grown-up books all pretty much the same wherever you go, or is there a different flavor to each town?
BENSON: I feel like the fans are the same wherever I go. They’re very excited about the books. I have a lot of people that have followed me from BUFFY that are interested in what I’m doing now and they’re awesome. They love the books, they love Callie, the main character, and it’s just fun to kind of get their take on reading the books and what they each get out of the books.
AX: Anything else we should know about?
BENSON: We’d love to do this project called THE HEIR [a screenplay written by Benson and Golden] that we’d love to shoot in Ireland. Adam and I were talking about maybe directing that – that’s a possibility. Chris and I talk about revisiting THE GHOSTS OF ALBION also, so that would be really cool, possibly as a novel, possibly a comic book series. Adam and I are getting the next film up and going. There are two [potential projects]. But yeah, it never ends. Just trying to get DRONES out there to the masses and just working on the books. We’ll see what happens. My brain hurts [laughs]. I guess that’s it.
CLICK HERE for PART 1 of ASSIGNMENT X’s EXCLUSIVE Amber Benson interview