Anna Biller has once again demonstrated her singular originality in constructing divinely feminine narratives. Breaking onto the scene as a filmmaker credited for stunning visuals and characters whilst retaining a feminist message, Anna has become a much loved and celebrated creative. Now, the visionary has turned her attention to a new and much-loved art form: the Gothic novel.
Her debut novel, Bluebeard’s Castle, draws inspiration from a variety of literary and cinematic sources, resulting in a compelling, refreshing, and feminist interpretation of the Gothic. The story follows writer Judith and her whirlwind romance with mysterious baron Gavin. The romance, however, turns to horror as Judith desperately tries to work out whether her husband is really the doting lover he claims to be, or a quintessential Gothic villain. Here, Anna chats to us about her writing process, her inspirations, and her cats!
Hi Anna, it’s so nice to speak with you again. We first interviewed you back in 2017 because of your celebrated film The Love Witch. It’s been five years already - what have you been up to? Where do you think you stand now from 2017?
I’ve spent most of my time since then writing screenplays and this novel, and trying to get another film made. It’s been such a struggle to find a producer for a larger budget than The Love Witch, and I’ve had many meetings and learned a lot about the film business. But now I have this novel under my belt, which means a lot, and it seems I’m finally going to get one of my scripts made.
Your debut novel Bluebeard’s Castle, a feminist Gothic based on the fairy-tale of Bluebeard, was published earlier in October! The Gothic is a genre with many distinct tropes and depictions of the male and the female. How do you feel the novel, whilst paying a faithful homage to the genre, engages with it in a fresh way?
Well, it starts as a Gothic romance and then turns into a Gothic horror novel, and it’s also kind of a hybrid between a literary novel and a genre novel; so in many ways, it’s unique. And it has this strange feeling of being both very artificial and very psychologically real, which is also a balance I try to achieve in my films. I couldn’t actually find any modern novels to compare it to when I was sending it out to agents. It’s a bit like certain 18th century novels such as Clarissa or Dangerous Liaisons, or mid-century literary novels such as The Bell Jar or Wide Sargasso Sea, and maybe even closer to something like Rebecca or Wuthering Heights, which combine romance with horror. I wanted to start with a romance in order to draw the reader into it the way Judith is drawn in, and then make a shocking shift, the way she would feel it when her world starts to fall apart. Someone at a book signing told me recently that they thought the book is very well-written, and that it keeps teetering on the edge of cliché but then always somehow escapes it. I thought that was an interesting way to put it, because that’s exactly what I was trying to do.
How did the creative process of conceptualising and writing the novel differ from that of filmmaking?
It was extremely freeing to write the novel, because I didn’t feel all of the constraints of space and time. You get many more words of dialogue, description, and character psychology, and you have room for a subplot or two. It was great fun to flesh it out, and to discover and hone my writing style. I love words and I’m very meticulous with editing, which I think comes from years of film and book editing. But the best thing was getting all of my ideas down, which you can only suggest in a film.
As mentioned on your website, the novel was initially being developed as a film – a Bluebeard picture. You say on your website that “the heroine’s dilemma in these films is to figure out who the man really is. She must decide if she is horrified with him because of her own irrational fears and emotional immaturity, or if he really is an abnormal monster”. How did the Gothic lend itself to how you wanted to explore and depict these timeless struggles women have been confronted with?
The Gothic genre has always been a place where women could freely express their fears about men. All of those covers of glamorous women running from castles, running from the very thing they desire—it’s a very powerful image. I’ve just been rereading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, and it’s really striking to consider how much women’s freedom was curtailed when men started to amass property. Historically, the more property a man owned, the more the woman was a thing, a slave, a possession. And yet women are groomed to desire the richest man, the man with the most property and power. But often it’s a trap. The Cinderella fantasy is where it all works out for the heroine, and the man and his castle become benign and splendid objects of desire. Most romance novels are modelled on Cinderella, including Jane Eyre. In fact, almost every neo-Gothic romance is basically some version of Jane Eyre; The Mistress of Mellyn, the novel that started the neo-Gothic craze in the 1960s, is almost a straight rewrite. But in Bluebeard, the castle represents patriarchy, and the man represents rape, disenfranchisement, servitude, pain, and death; so, Bluebeard is a horror tale.
Following on from this, whilst there were many nods to both film and Gothic novel influences, I could really feel the presence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca throughout Bluebeard’s Castle. What about that novel, as well as its cinematic adaptions interests you so much?
Rebecca perfectly combines desire and dread, romance and horror, in a mid-century modern setting that heavily references older Gothic sources, and that’s exactly what I’m doing in my own novel, and what I was doing in the screenplay. Except that I have one more layer, because in my novel we’re also in the modern world. I started becoming interested in that three-world dimension with my short film A Visit from the Incubus, which takes place in a saloon in the Old West, filtered through 1950s Westerns and modern-day concerns about rape and consent.
The Catholic religion also plays an important role throughout the novel, especially in the life of your heroine, Judith. Love is also explored as a kind of religious experience. Could you talk a bit about the depiction of religion in the novel?
Judith found religion in a moment of despair. For her it wasn’t an involuntary indoctrination as it is for many young people, but something she discovered on her own. Her religious zeal partially explains her rich fantasy life, the fact that she’s a virgin at twenty-six, her bizarre and archaic fantasies, and her sacred view of love. It also makes her out of time, which connects her spiritually to the eighteenth and nineteenth century heroines she emulates. There’s something very erotic about her virginity, because of the depth of feeling sex inspires in her; but it also means that she becomes entrapped by the sex, because it’s tied up with her spiritual feelings of unity and transcendence.
You also explore through the novel the fact that, as you say, “women devour serial killer movies and true crime literature, for instance, partly out of their desire to “know” men and their dark sides, and thus be armed against them”, a fascination stemming from both attraction and fear. Could you talk a bit more about this and the ways in which Bluebeard’s Castle responds to this?
The book is very directly about women’s fear of bad men, both through the heroine’s emotional inner struggles and the way Gavin, the Bluebeard of the book, and triggers what is probably raw fear in the reader. I was hoping to draw the female reader into the morass that is loving a man, the highs and the lows, because I am very addicted to these kinds of stories, and I go back to them again and again.
I also felt, despite the novel’s moments of seriousness in approaching trauma and abusive relationships it also had elements of a charming campness to it. Would you agree?
The fact that you say “charming campness” makes me want to agree with you, but normally I don’t think of my book in terms of camp. I’m surprised that so many people are calling it camp, when it’s a term so rarely applied to literature. Maybe it’s because I’m a filmmaker?
To me, the humor is more satire than camp, because it’s about the horror of women’s lives. Camp as I understand it focuses on sending up surface spectacle as a kind of joke, whereas the opulent settings and mannered dialogue in my novel are not so much camp as they are in the tradition of fairy tales and the Gothic.
There is a passage towards the end of the novel where its omniscient narrator, perhaps yourself, speaks directly to the reader, combatting any frustrations or dismissiveness they may feel towards Judith’s behaviour or thoughts throughout the novel. You write: “as for the readers who believe that Judith brought the tragedy on herself by coddling the monster, what type of behaviour would have stopped him?” Why did you feel this was important to clarify before concluding the novel?
When I was reading the end, I was very frustrated with Judith’s actions. But then I thought, it’s horrible that I’m blaming her. Look what happened to Constance, and she behaved the opposite way. What happened to Judith wasn’t her fault! And then I wrote my thoughts down and put them in the book. The whole ending actually came out that way—me reasoning with myself, feeling sad about what happened, trying to process it. It was a way to share my grief with the reader because Judith is based on someone I know—this is more or less her story, greatly exaggerated with Gothic trappings. Also, the book as a whole goes back and forth from a more formal Gothic writing style to a more personal confessional style, and I wanted to end with the personal rather than either the Gothic or just straight plot.
The book has been out for a few weeks now and you are in the midst of Bluebeard’s Castle’s US Tour. What has the response been like so far from those, especially the women, who have read it?
The book has been very polarising. One woman told me the book changed her life, and that it was the catalyst for her to finally leave her abusive husband. Several other women told me similar things—that they related to it, that it was healing or cathartic, that it shed light on their abusive love relationships or childhoods. Other women think it’s unrealistic, or that Judith is stupid and weak, and they despise her. Some people have said it’s very well-written, like the Brontës or Mary Shelley, and some had said it’s like “Wattpad fiction.” Some literary fiction readers scoff at the romance aspects of it, comparing it to modern trashy romance novels, and some romance readers, mainly younger ones, are triggered and angered by the violence. But about half of the readers who have left reviews adore it without reserve in the spirit I intended. Men seem to enjoy it more as a crime story without the emotional baggage.
I also adored the book’s dedication to your cats, Jacques and Claudius, “your feline loves”. Judith also expresses an exceptional adoration for cats, at one point wondering, “why can’t a man be more like a cat”. Please tell us more about your cats!
Jacques is a handsome tuxedo and Claudius is a large half-Maine Coon tabby. They are the loves of my life! They are both very sweet, but they’ve been having a feud so right now they’re separated. Claudius loves to take baths and eat plastic, and Jacques loves to watch movies and snuggle. My heart was broken by the passing of my last cat Brutus, a very handsome and loving long-haired tuxedo cat, so the grief scene with Romeo was based on him.
Finally, it is mentioned at the end of the book that you are currently working on your next film, “a ghost movie set in medieval England”. What can you tell us about it? How is it going?
It’s called The Face of Horror, and it’s based on an old Japanese ghost story. We’re casting it right now, and I’m working with a British producer whom I absolutely adore. If all goes well, we plan to shoot it next summer.
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