Vivian 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: From the time I was a child, writing and performing plays for my mother, I've struggled to decide which path to take... that of an actress or a writer. In my twenties and early thirties I enjoyed making films, traveling, experiencing all of the different aspects of acting. At this point in my life, however, writing has become significantly more important to me. I am a story-teller above all else and know that through writing I can best preserve this love. Through writing, my destiny is not in the hands of producers, agents, or film-makers, but in the very realm of my imagination. In writing, I am able to assume the role of all of the characters and experience and create a life through many different voices as opposed to just one. I can tell a story exactly how I want, encompassing all aspects as I envision them. I don't intend to ever completely give up acting, but expect writing to be my main focus for a while. Ultimately, I hope to be the little old lady accepting an Oscar for 'best screen adaptation from her own novel in a film in which she stars.' Now that would be the best of both worlds.
Eva: What acting role, so far, have you enjoyed the most? Is there some stage/film role you'd really love to do in the future?
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.