Michael A. Burstein, Author of “Lifeblood”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Lifeblood” is about a Jewish father whose son is threatened by a vampire and the steps he takes to protect his family.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

This may sound cheesy or cliché, but I’ve always been interested in the question of how someone who doesn’t use the cross as a religious symbol would turn a vampire. I was interested in the specific question of how a Jewish person might turn a vampire. Could he or she use a cross? Would a Jewish symbol have any sort of power?

I did a little research on the topic, but in the end, I answered the question for myself.

(Jewish fantasy readers like to ask this sort of question a lot; another question we tend to ask is if a vampire could be Jewish. I ended up not really going there with this story, though, except to assert that a Jewish person could be turned into a vampire. Whether or not that would mean the vampire was Jewish… well, in the case of this story, apparently not.)

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

The only part I remember that made this story challenging was trying to render the story accessible to non-Jewish readers. I’d like to think I succeeded, by providing enough explanation, but not too much, about various prayers and customs.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

When I first wrote this story, I didn’t really think of it as being personal at all. I was just having fun with the concepts of “Jews vs. vampires.”

However, after it was published, quite a few people pointed out to me that the story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of assimilation. A lot of debate takes place among the Jewish people, especially American Jews, about assimilating into the overall culture. On one extreme, you’ve got Jews who are so completely secularized they don’t even know they’re Jewish, and if they’re following American Christian practices that’s just fine with them. On the other side, you’ve got Jews who are almost Amish in their desire to live in their own society and reject the outside world.

Without my realizing it, “Lifeblood” turned out to display my own biases in the debate. The fact that a Jewish family is threatened by a vampire and wouldn’t be threatened at all if they had been religious… well, it’s fairly obvious in retrospect. (I myself keep kosher and observe the Jewish sabbath and identify as Modern Orthodox.)

I’m reminded of a quote from the writer Stephen Dubner, who has written on his own religious journey in the book Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family. Dubner was asked his opinion of the argument that Jewish identity is defined more by the culture than the religion. He replied that he saw many sides to that argument, and he said, “…if a Jew is not attached to religion, then those traits that we think of as Jewish won’t last more than one or two generations.” I think my story tends to fall along those same lines, showing that the Jewish culture will have difficulty surviving without the religion feeding it.

I’ve gone far afield from vampires here, haven’t I?

In some ways, all this makes the story a much deeper one than I had meant, but honestly, I didn’t realize how much of the debate I was actually incorporating into the story until well after it was published.

(By the way, there’s one further piece of subtext that I hadn’t considered until after the story was published. In my first draft, the vampire threatening Jacob was a man, but someone pointed out to me that usually men are threatened by female vampires, so I made her a woman. That led readers to interpret the vampire as a symbol of the “shiksa,” a derogatory term for the non-Jewish woman who seduces Jewish men away from their observance.)

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Not that much, actually. I went looking into the lore about Jews and vampires, and found that there wasn’t much I could really use.

What is the appeal of vampire fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

I wish I knew. I’ve actually written very little vampire fiction, mostly because I’m afraid I won’t get the details right.

What are some of your favorite examples of vampire fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

My all-time favorite piece of vampire fiction was the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, published in 1897. That book actually had a lot of influence on me as a writer, as I first read through it in ninth grade and it inspired me to try to write a novel with a group of friends. The epistolary format of the novel also influenced me to keep a diary, which I’ve done in some form to this day.

After that, I’ll have to cop to being a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. And I was enjoying the TV show Moonlight until they took it off the air.