I met up with Jordan Hall (who was one of our inaugural Swooners in spring 2013) at the Pi Theatre, where she is currently Playwright-in-Residence, with support from the BCAC to develop her upcoming play, How to Survive an Apocalypse. Jordan welcomed me upstairs, where I got to see the studio where she works and writes. Pi shares the space with PTC (Playwrights Theatre Centre), whose artistic director, Heidi Taylor, I was lucky enough to meet. All the residents were looking forward to the curtains that were about to be installed for their large windows overlooking Gore Avenue. In the late afternoon when I met up with Jordan, the early fall sun was gorgeous inside the room and I—admittedly a writer who needs natural light to feel comfortable (read: less guilty about being inside all the time)—thought the open space was lovely, but I was reassured that it gets blinding in there in the morning.
After my tour, Jordan suggested we walk down the street for a snack, and we ended up at the (very Swoon-appropriate) Crackle Crème, a small, craft-style dessert cafe that, among other things, serves authentic Belgian liège waffles (I will have to go back to try their crème brûlée), and Jordan and I immediately decided on tea and waffles with ice-cream. It says quite a lot about the kind of person I am that I managed to take this picture of my waffle and salted caramel ice-cream, but neglected to snap a photo of Jordan during our chat.
And what a chat it was! In-between mouthfuls of ice-cream and delicious waffles, I set out to discover more about Carmilla, Jordan’s webseries that is currently airing every Tuesday and Thursday for SmokeBomb Entertainment.
(This interview has been edited for length.)
RD: Congratulations on Carmilla!
JH: I am very excited about it.
RD: And apparently, a lot of other people are excited about it! I’m seeing a lot of the fan art and things. How’s that?
JH: It’s amazing, and a little bit stupefying. I’m used to being a playwright where I’m like— “I’ll write this little thing and if I’m lucky 100 people I already know will come to see it and clap.” So to go from that to—I think we’ve passed 100 thousand views (update: 1,300,000 views) on Carmilla—and to have people engaging so enthusiastically… There’s fan art, there’ve been videos, people are making GIFsets out of it—There was a twelve year old boy who wrote a song from the perspective of one of the characters and put it up on YouTube…
JH: And that’s just— I don’t even know— I’m sort of overwhelmed and fangirling at the fact that there are these things that they are making!
RD: Fangirling over your fangirls?
JH: I know, it seems like it might be bad form for me to go, “oh, look at that, my characters are so cute— or rather, look how cute you made my characters!” But, yeah, I have no dignity, so there we are.
RD: No, I think it is super exciting. So, can you tell me how Carmilla came about in the first place? Why Joseph Sheridan le Fau?
JH: Well, that’s an interesting story. Steph Ouaknine, who’s out there (at Smokebomb in Toronto)—She had basically come to Heidi (at PTC) and asked her for some recommendations for interesting writers and Heidi recommended me. So, I pitched them this short film that got made by Humber that was basically this group of young girls who have this favourite vampire series, and the author has decided to stop writing it and they’re on a hunger strike in her basement… And of course, one of them has an annoying neighbour, who’s that boy who’s just a little bit older, and he’s teasing her about liking this lame vampire series and leaning through the basement window to eat a Snickers bar in front of them. It’s like a cute little piece …. So that went into development hell and never came out. But Steph came back to me a little bit later and said, “Well, we’re thinking about this Lizzie Bennet Diaries-style web series,” and she mentioned she was interested in Carmilla. And, to be honest, I had not read Carmilla at that point. But since she had mentioned it, I thought “I’ll do a pitch on that.” It’s a novella—
JH: A really quick read, and I thought, “Yes, I can do this.” In fact, Carmilla is actually kind of amazing, as a novella. So, it comes out before Dracula—
RD: Yes, I did my homework on that—
JH: (laughter) It’s got this female vampire as the villain and a female protagonist who’s doing the epistolary work… And I remember thinking, Eeeech, there’s a twinge of whatever is the 1870s version of 1950s lesbian hysteria is… Like you know you’re a lesbian in a pulp fiction if you’re caressing someone’s hair and saying, “We must die together as lovers die together.” But I think it’s fascinating that it got written, that that was the way it was framed. And so I took that, and I thought…Well, if I want to pitch this as a Lizzie Bennet-style vlog, what are the elements that I want to keep? I knew I wanted to keep that really strong romantic bent—maybe move off the whole hysteria thing… And then there was so much of the novella itself that struck me as utterly hilarious—from the whole postmodern, distant perspective—
JH: There are all these moments, like… Okay: one of the first chapters is Laura recounting being attacked by this vampiric woman in her bed when she’s six years old. And her parents pass it off as a dream. So the first time she sees Carmilla, of course, it’s the woman! And Carmilla is like, “How strange! I had a dream of you… when I was a child… an appropriate number of years ago… when I was absolutely a human child and not some kind of immortal monster…” (laughter) Right from minute one, the whole novella just kind of screams “Vampire! Maybe you should do something about the vampire!” It’s not subtle. Like: “Here’s this picture of this woman who looks just like Carmilla except she’s an evil countess who lived 200 years ago… Strange.” Or: “Here’s the story of the man whose daughter was eaten by this girl who looked and acted exactly like Carmilla… How strange.” And I thought there might be a lot of really hilarious ways you could riff off that. So I thought—Well, I want to keep those elements, but we’re going to need a new narrative base, and I’m going to need a certain number of victims… Because you can’t really have a vampire mystery without a certain number of victim. Practicality dictates. So, a college dormroom seemed liked a good idea. The novella is set in Styria, and it’s this really lonely, isolated spot, where nothing really happens except this vampiric stalking of Laura. And it seemed that college would both afford me victims and a flow of other characters and interesting things that could happen in and out of the single room— which a v-blog kind of necessitates. So, I pitched that, and they took it, and… away we went!
RD: You’re talking about how the book itself has these moments where it’s obvious to everyone but Laura…
JH: Oh yes! (laughter) It gets to this point near the end where she’s told this horrifying story about how Bertha—(At the top of the novel, we get the news that General Spielsdorf’s niece Bertha has died) —was killed by this girl exactly like Carmilla, and they’ve taken Laura to this old graveyard where they are—Oh! Spoilers for the novel!—clearly preparing to dig up and behead Carmilla. But Laura is still a deer in the headlights even after this awful story. They’re in the chapel, and Laura is thinking, “Oh, I think I hear Carmilla in the hallway, I’m so glad she’s here…” And you’re like: “Really? That’s your perspective on this?!” So it is more than a little hilarious, but it is also a lovely novella in the style of the time. Full of beautiful, beautiful prose.
RD: Well, kind of like Shakespeare. I mean, all of his tragedies are all bent on “you don’t know that one piece of information.”
JH: Yes, yes, that’s true, though I think we forgive them—Shakespeare’s characters—because they tend to have really clear depictions and motivations. Like Romeo and Juliet: Of course Romeo and Juliet don’t get this perfect little bit of information, because he’s fifteen and she’s thirteen and they’re hormonal idiots. That’s the trick with Romeo and Juliet—they are full of teenage hormones.
RD: Yeah, it’s uncomfortable to think about Juliet’s…her “Gallop apace—” monologue because she’s thirteen. Does she know what she’s talking about?
JH: Well, if it makes you feel better, just remember that when it was performed in Shakespeare’s time, it was actually a dude.
RD & JH: (laughter)
RD: So, how long has the project been in the works?
JH: It was very much a “hurry up and wait.” I pitched it and it looked like we were going to be doing it, but we were waiting to hear about funding. So we waited to hear and waited to hear for about four months and then, when I was in the middle of a research trip for How to Survive an Apocalypse, it was just suddenly “Go!” And so we (Dave and I) were up in this place…. Oh, where was it? Just north of Kamloops—Kilometre 66 Deadman Road was the address of the place—doing a hunting retreat. I was up in this little cabin with a bear skin, head and everything, on the wall— just breaking story and occasionally patting the bear’s head because the bear was now my late night buddy. So that was May—I’d have to look at my email to give you exact dates… I think the first 20 episodes were done by June….
JD: Yeah. And then we were into the social media plan and rewrites. They were filming those in early August and then from there I was just continuing to write. The last sixteen episodes were done by mid-August.
RD: So how many episodes are there?
JH: There are 36 in total.
RD: So I’ve got a lot to look forward to in my YouTube feed!
JH: Excellent. That’s what we like to hear.
RD: So, I know that you are a big fan of Buffy—
RD: And you were talking about how this development came through this original project about like the vampire craze with younger girls… How much of this project is influenced by your own vampire love? And how much of it is something else completely?
JH: I think the impetus for Carmilla—at least for me and Ellen (Ellen Simpson, who is our wonderful Story Editor, and who writes the social media feeds)—was very much the idea that we don’t really get to see a whole lot of media that actually has lesbians at the core of it that isn’t solely preoccupied with that identity. I knew I didn’t want to be telling a coming out story because I’m a het/cis woman and so a coming out story is not mine, and I don’t want to pretend like I know things. But I can tell “nerdy girl in love” stories and I can definitely tell genre stories. And it seemed to me—and this is one of the things that I’ve actually been so, so happy about the response for—that two lesbians could be at the heart of this comic-supernatural-mystery story and it didn’t have to be about their orientation except for the fact that their love interests would be girls. And, as I said, the response to that has been amazing. We had one blogger in particular who wrote a letter to us saying how long she had been waiting for someone to just say, “You can be the hero of this, and it doesn’t have to revolve around the fact that you like girls. You can just be the hero and occupy that space. Full Stop.”
RD: No, I think that is really interesting… the idea that you have a story of a character who happens to be one orientation or the other and the entire story doesn’t have to be revolving around that, that’s not the story.
JH: It’s about privilege. If you presented a story about a male protagonist that was all about the ways in which he is a “man”—we would be bored because there’s a certain invisibility that happens when you sit at the bright shiny heart of the world. It’s taken for granted that you can be a man but that all these other interesting things you do define you. And I think that’s part of the project—Carmilla—is kind of claiming that territory for people who haven’t had access to it… It’s always my project to claim it for women, as much as possible…. So this was exciting.
RD: I think it is exciting! I was going to ask you, also… We talked a little bit before about why you are telling the story that you are telling… and why you set the story in undergrad university… And you mentioned before that that was good for victims…. because there’re lots of victims—
JD: (laughter) In general, I try to look for things that are going to suit that both in terms of a certain amount of resonance and in terms of practicality, right? Because there’s a point where you just have to write something that can be filmed… But that decision, it sort of happened in a lot of ways. An initial problem for me was that all of Carmilla’s victims are girls. In the novella she’s kind of like, “Hey, I’m going to pretend to be injured, and then your father/uncle/guardian, will say, ‘Oh, of course, chivalrous me and my daughter/ward will take you in,’ and then I eat you.” Here we have a woman essentially preying on other women, which is just not the same level of problem as men preying on women… so what do you do with that? And it seemed to me that the campus seemed like a great place to set it because I think we do have a lot of problems with the victimization of young women on college campuses, and we could talk about this problem in the context of a broader spectrum of those problems.
JH: And discourses around trust, around vulnerability, seemed like they could play there. And, as I said, a convenient source of victims. I saw those two things dovetailing and we were off!
RD & JH: (laughter)
RD: The problematic things happening on campus aside, hopefully, are there strands of your own adolescent, undergrad experiences? Or, what I mean is: what is your relationship between autobiography and fact, fact and fiction, when you write?
JH: I think about this question a lot. Because it’s always an interesting question. I mean, you, as a poet, know that there’s the ongoing tension between, like, the potentially autobiographical elements of the “I”—and the fact that the “I” isn’t you.
RD: I am very protective of the “speaker is not the poet” thing.
JH: For me, it’s kind of both. What you’re seeing up there is a distillation of my understanding of the world. When you write a play, or you write a screenplay, you’re creating a world and that world is a particular lens, a lens that you have applied to the reality of things as you understand them. So, in a way, everything I write is me. Because you are seeing my understanding—but no one part of it is entirely me. Like, I’m not going to pretend—because you’ve got a tape—that I don’t occasionally speak the way that some of my characters do. But when I get asked: “Is Laura your favourite? Are you your main character because your main character speaks the way you do?” I don’t really know how to respond in a fair way: Because Laura’s speech pattern is something that I deliberately constructed because I thought it would work very well for the story. Sometimes it just comes back to practicality: You need someone who’s going to be at the camera a lot to be loquacious. If I put Carmilla in front of the camera right away… There are a crap-ton of things she can’t talk about because they are narratively inconvenient and she is possibly evil…. So she can’t be blathering all over the place, whereas Laura can…. So, again, those things dovetail. I think in terms of my actual inner monologue, my inner monologue is probably a lot closer to Carmilla…She’s mean—
RD: She has anger issues…. (laughter)
JH: (laughter) I hide it so well. But mostly… I am all my characters. I have them all crammed in here, in a kind of chorus, which is… maybe kind of a terrifying thing to think about. But, we all have moments where we empathize with other people and other modes of speech. And I think that’s what writing in general, and playwrighting specifically, is for me…. This incredibly opportunity to inhabit and have empathy for other people.
JH: Of course, sometimes it’s like playing a horrifying game of emotional chess with yourself.
RD & JH: (laughter)
JH: But, really, writing Carmilla was akin to eating chocolate cake—a steady diet of chocolate cake for 6 months. It was so much fun, and so pulpy—And a big part of that was also having such a great team on the other end. They filmed 200 pages in 4 days, which works out to 50 pages a day… When you compare that, to, say, Hannibal, where they do like 8 pages a day, you can see how crazy fast and efficient they were.
RD: It’s impressive that you have that trivia about Hannibal just lurking in your head.
JH: It’s the statistic that Steph fed me for context. Probably because I love Hannibal.
RD & JH: (laughter)
RD: Okay, one more question. Okay, it’s actually two. If you could design your own chocolate, what would it be? And: if you were transformed into a dessert, what would you be? If your personality was a dessert…
JH: Oh my god! (laughter) ….If I could design a chocolate it would be the Soma (a boutique in Toronto) butter caramel fleur de sel… They make those already. I love them. If I were a dessert……. I don’t know. I feel like I’d be cherry pie. With a lot of pits.
RD & JH: (laughter)
Watch Carmilla, new episodes airing on YouTube every Tuesday and Thursday! If you’re not yet convinced how awesome it is based on this fabulous interview, you can always check out this Buzzfeed list: 11 Reasons You Should Be Watching Carmilla. It’s SO exciting that Carmilla has such an amazing following.
Visit Jordan’s website to learn more about her other projects, including How to Survive an Apocalypse.
Thanks again to Jordan for her time and being her swoon-worthy self.