Steven Van Patten from That Metal Show
For our next “victim” of the new Black Gate column, The Poison Apple, I’d like to introduce Steven Van Patten. Steven is a member of the Horror Writer’s Association and when vampires are supposed to be sleeping, he works as a TV show stage manager. In the past he’s worked on shows such as MTV’s Total Request Live, The Dr. Oz Show, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. He straddles two extremes of a busy lifestyle but still manages to write about topics that are underexplored in the speculative fiction realm. He’s written the Brookwater’s Curse series, Rudy’s Night Out, a children’s vampire story, and Killer Genius: She Kills Because She Cares, which was nominated for the African-American Literary Show Award.
Crowens: What got you into vampires?
SVP: As a little kid and an only child, often I had to entertain myself. Back in the day, that included Chiller Theater and being inspired by movies with Christopher Lee. When Blacula was released, that stuck with me as a strong, dominant character but in a sea of stereotypical nonsense in a Blaxploitation flick. As I got older, I started getting annoyed as to what happened to the brothers in a horror movie — they were dead before the credits rolled and characters were underdeveloped.
Isn’t it Scary Movie or one of those similar films where there’s a comment that the brother always has to die?
Yes, absolutely. It gets to the point that you wish they wouldn’t put us in the movie, because it ends up taking you out of your head. Having unrealistic and inarticulate characters propelled me into wanting to create my own stuff.
And also good, positive and strong protagonists… and even antagonists, as well?
Definitely. The one incident that set me off had to do with The Shining. I was probably a bit young to be reading Stephen King, around the age of ten or twelve. In the book, Dick Hallorann, the black guy who ends up being the hero, rescues the mother and child. When it came out my mother and aunt took me for my birthday since I couldn’t see an R-rated film by myself.
If I had been the cynical adult that I am now, I would’ve known something was up when I discovered that Scatman Crothers was cast in that role. The fact that Richard Roundtree was not in The Shining should’ve been an indication that this was not going to go my way. Scatman took an axe to the chest, and my mom and aunt gave me the blues… all the way home.
That was a creepy movie, especially for its time. They didn’t punish you and take away all of your comic books afterwards?
Oh no, not at all. She just wasn’t up to escorting me to any of those films from then on, but now since I’ve managed to turn my passion into something productive she’s been encouraging.
What’s funny is that my mother is fairly religious. My first book in the Brookwater’s Curse series has notable sex and violence. I expected my mother just to take her copy, pat me on the head and put it away somewhere. It was the Friday before Mother’s Day. I had just left work at MTV, and my cell phone rang.
Mom: “You’re coming over Sunday, aren’t you?”
SVP: “Oh course, I’m you’re only child.”
Mom: “Well, okay… I finished the book, and I have some questions…”
And I’m thinking, “Sweet Mother of God.”
Mom: “But I’ll wait until Sunday to discuss it.”
So from Friday until Sunday afternoon my mind was coming up with all sorts of speculations. She actually said the coolest thing she ever said to me.
Mom: “I realize that you couldn’t write a good vampire novel and worry about what I was going to think.”
SVP: “That’s awesome. I wasn’t expecting to hear that.”
Mom: “Having said that…”
Then she pulled out a notepad full of questions. Why did this character do this? Why did this happen? It was basically a rehearsal for Oprah.
By and large, I worked on the first book with a lot of secrecy except there was no way of hiding to anyone, whether it was from my toughest critic (my mother) or from my colleagues at MTV’s Total Request Live, that I’d have to make a trip to Senegal in Africa for historical research. Writing the book took about 7-10 years because of my busy work schedule. Going to Africa was a funny story unto itself.
Steven, if you can just mention a few things about your series for those Black Gate readers who are unfamiliar with it, that would be great.
The main character is Christian Brookwater who starts off as a Georgia plantation slave who is sold to a vampire. Then he gets turned into one and helps set up “vampire law enforcement” in the United States.
I’m assuming you had to do a lot of research on that time period.
I remember being worried about referencing denim and had to stop everything I was doing to figure out when it was invented.
Levi Strauss, around the time of the Gold Rush!
Exactly! You want to make sure you aren’t referring to anything that wasn’t around yet. When I finally sent my character, Christian, to a mythical island off the coast of Japan, I had to figure out how he’d travel there in 1900.
Then I discovered the most unlikely resource from an expert at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York. For some reason, I had it worked up in my head that I was going to have a testy conversation with a crusty old sailor like Quint from Jaws. In preparation, I arrived on my motorcycle wearing my hardcore leather get-up and rode over to the museum appearing like I’m looking for Sarah Connor (Terminator). Then someone, who reminded me of Mr. Rogers, walks out, looks me up and down and in a mousy voice asked, “Can I… help you?”
That’s when I realized I was playing this the wrong way and had to immediately drop my macho persona. He was very helpful, gave me some material, and I walked out of there feeling so stupid… but I got my information.
Still in the first book, our hero winds up in Harlem and then has to go to Senegal to rescue a friend’s kidnapped daughter. That was a funny point in my life, besides going to Africa for research, I was working at TRL, BET Tonight w/ Ed Gordon and also did the Source Awards, which was a big hip hop event where people often got hurt or murdered.
Oh my God!
Going to Africa was just as dangerous as anything else, but my friends had a flowerchild-like attitude. “You’re going to the Motherland…” But when I told them I’m doing the Source Awards they said, “Yo man, you got Kevlar, son?”
So I took two weeks off, and in order to conserve funds I went with a Senegalese drum and dance-sponsored tour group. I had no interest in either, but I decided to go for it, because I had this little voice in my head nagging me. “Dumbass, you can’t finish your story now, because you’ve never been to Africa.”
It was on some airline that doesn’t even exist anymore. The unfortunate thing about the tour was that it was a hustle, and we were constantly overwhelmed with locals always trying to sell us something or tagging on extra fees to do our laundry, to feed our driver — the list was endless. Since I was the only African American on our tour I thought I could remain relatively invisible. No, I was told the opposite because I was wearing boots that would cost six months of their salaries. “There’s no blending in, Steve. We know you’re an American. They are going to keep asking you for stuff. It’s that simple.”
You had no idea you were in for any of this?
None whatsoever. I had a jar of hair pomade. The lady of the house where I was staying saw this and asked if she could borrow some. A few hours after I lent her the jar, I noticed that every woman who walked past me had a new hairdo — all tight, nice and shiny. Then the next morning, when I wanted to do something with my hair I asked for my pomade back, and there was literally nothing left.
This was like liquid gold for them.
Basically. They lost their minds on my hair pomade. After one week, I couldn’t wait to be left alone so I could block my scenes. One of the main reasons why I took the trip was to go to Goree Island. This was the location of the African slave holocaust run by the Portuguese in the 1600’s. There was one main house where slaves were interned. When a slave ship arrived there was the Door of No Return. The door opened to the Atlantic Ocean with a plank. You had a choice. You got on the plank and onto the ship, and they took you to your intended destination, or if you wanted to end it right there you could, but if you decided to jump sharks would eat you alive the moment you touched the water. It was depressing.
With all of the constant hustling, the tourists developed a mistrust of their guides. Then a self-proclaimed expert within the tourist group wound up with serious case of food poisoning and turned as green as Frankenstein. Since I predicted that was going to happen, everyone else turned to me as the only all-seeing, all-knowing leader, but my attitude was, “I’m just trying to write a book, folks.”
Then we went to Pink Lake, a salt mine. There were mineral deposits at the bottom of the lake and the local brothers rode out in rickety old boats to the middle of this lake and made a living chipping off this salt. When a van full of Americans pulled up then the hustle started all over again. Now, I just wanted a little time by myself to take photos and notes, but this guy came up to me and said, “Hey Steve, they’re talking about boat rides for five CFAs, their currency. What do you think?”
First of all, I can’t swim. So I wasn’t going anywhere. Then I answered the guy saying, “I’m from New York, and I get the ‘I’m going to get you in the middle of the lake for five CFA’s, but you want to go back? Ohhhh, that’s a whole other price, my brother.’ No, I’m not getting in anyone’s boat, but do what you want. Don’t let me spoil your good time.”
But if I didn’t want to do something, everyone said, “Steve said no. Steve said no.” That would travel through the group and everyone agreed like I was their leader. That attitude went on until we finally returned home.
Did you get any of your writing done in Africa?
None whatsoever. I took a lot of notes and a boatload of pictures and had to rely on all that when I got back home. It was nuts. It was no mistake that volume three of my series took place in New York. That was enough adventure for a while.
Crowens: Well, we can continue about your other life as a stage manager, but I think we’re out of time. Just for the readers of Black Gate, who would you say was one of the most challenging celebrities you’ve dealt with?
SVP: Without a doubt, Courtney Love on 24 Hours of Love for MTV.
Crowens: Sounds like a long story. However, our readers can find out more about Steven Van Patten and his books at brookwaterscurse.com
Elizabeth Crowens is a Hollywood veteran, journalist and author of Silent Meridian, an X Files for the 19th century steampunk novel series, finalist for the 2016 Cygnus Awards in Speculative Fiction and the Goethe Award in post-1750’s Historical Fiction. www.elizabethcrowens.com, Facebook: @BooksbyElizabethCrowens, Twitter: @ECrowens