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NYCC 2014: Interview with Amber Benson

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(Repost of NYCC 2014 Coverage)

This year’s New York Comic Con 2014 I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Amber Benson as she promotes her upcoming book The Witches of Echo Park, set to be released in January. Ms. Benson, known for her role as Tara Maclay on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is an established writer. She has written several supernatural/fantasy novels including the five-book Calliope Reaper-Jones urban fantasy series and Among the Ghosts. Behind the camera, she co-directed the Slamdance feature film Drones and (co-wrote) and directed the BBC animated series The Ghosts of Albion.

Can you tell us about the process of writing your new book "The Witches of Echo Park"? How did you come up with the concept?

I wanted to write about women's relationships with each other that were kind of outside of just the talking about dudes kind of thing. I wanted to write something that could pass the Bechdel test. And, I was like, what better way to write about women than to create a supernatural -- a real fantasy series about witches because it's a coven and they're sort of forced to deal with each other in this kind of intimate way, and support each other, and have each other's backs. And that's kind of how it is for me with my lady friends. I grew up having all dude friends, a couple of chick friends, and then in my thirties, it flipped. And, all of a sudden, I have all these ladies that are just like so integral to my life and they are the best. And, so, the book is a bit of mash note to them, sort of like I love you guys. I'm stealing pieces of you, putting you into characters.

For me, the process is very much I fall in love with a place. Like my first series of books, a lot of it took place in New York. I'm obsessed with New York, specifically with the subway. I don't know what it is about the subway. I just want to go behind the little thing that says "No Admittance" and I want to walk through all of the underground tunnels. It's just magic to be walking around Manhattan, and the boroughs, and stuff. So, place is very important to me. I live in the East Side of Los Angeles. Echo Park is my stomping ground. And, so, it's a bit of another mash note to a place where I call home. But, you walk around Echo Park and there are little botanicas that you walk into and you can buy sage candles, and there's spells that you can buy, and there's just sort of like Catholicism mixed with a little bit of Santeria. It's very diverse, my neighborhood. I just love it. So, that was sort of the impetus to like -- I wanted to set it there. I like the lady friends. I wanted to talk about that and I wanted something about Echo Park.

How challenging is it as a writer to write in a genre that requires many details such as magic, spells and wizardry?

The magic question -- hmm. Well, what I love about sci-fi fantasy is that you can talk about really kind of hot button issues, but it's sort of clothed in this, oh, we're talking about -- okay. So, when I was an actor, I was on the show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I played a witch.

Willow and my character, Tara, would do spells together. And, really, what we were talking about is we were getting it on, you know? But, you can talk about stuff in this sort of like over -- an overview of it, and you can clothe it in something a little different, and it doesn't offend people. But, you can still talk about the same thing. We're still talking about these particular -- these hot button issues, but we're not getting on a soapbox about it. You take what you want from it. You can be like, oh, it's just a TV show. Or, you can go, "Well, they're talking about two women who were falling in love with each other," you know, doing spells together.

So, for me, I love working in that genre because I want to talk about things, but I don't want to offend anybody in the process or turn them off. I want them to take it and go, "Oh, well, that's something interesting. I never thought of that before. Maybe there's a reason that I'm reading this book. I'm learning something, or I'm changing my worldview.

How long did it take you to write the book?

I wrote this book in I want to say seven months. And, then, I had a very intense second draft. So, I went back and added another two months to the process of doing a full rewrite, which was intense.

The main character Lyse discovers a little bit about her family past. Can you tell us a little about Lyse character and what can we expect from her?

The main character, Elyse, she lives in Georgia. She owns a nursery. She has no idea that in California, where her great aunt lives, where she grew up, that her great aunt is dying and that her great aunt is actually not just her great aunt, but the master of a coven of witches, and that she is going to have to go back and become part of that world. It's very much this journey of finding herself, and coming to terms with the loss of this person that raised her, and creating a new family with this coven of women that she is now connected to. And I think she really -- she's going to -- it's a three-book series. So, I think over the course of the books, she'll really grow and kind of come into her own. But, I kind of based her on my sister a little bit. My sister has a Masters in Fine Arts. My sister loves school. She's back now getting her degree in Chinese Medicine so she can be an acupuncturist. But, she's into all these alternative medicine. So, I was like, well, that's Lisa -- Lisa's into plants, into, you know… So, it's a bit of like a little bit of my sister.

What is more challenging to you as a writer? Writing a screenplay or writing a book?

Oh, definitely writing a book I think is much more intense. You're writing anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 words. That's a lot of words. It's daunting. Screenplays are different because, yeah, you can bang them out a little more quickly. But, you go in, you play, and you get to sort of play with the dialogue.

Are the books available in other format?

Yeah. They're going to be audiobooks and eBooks. So, it's going to be an experience. You're going to be able to have me in surround sound, on paper, on a tablet, and in your ear. But, yeah, I think eBooks are kind of where we're going. I love a real book. I like cracking spines.

This year you will appear as Amelie in Morganville: The Series for Geek & Sundry. Tell us a little about the project and what character you're playing?

I play this character, Amelie Morganville, which is -- she's sort of large and in charge. She looks like Grace Kelly. She's like one of those cold blondes. She's very intense and kind of mean, but not bad. She's not a bad guy, but she's very intense. It was really fun. I never get to play characters like that. I'm always like shy, and hiding, and retiring, and it's funny because I never shut up. So, I don't know why they pick me as these other characters. But, yeah, it's based on a series of young adult novels by Rachel Kane, The Morganville Vampire Series. It was so much fun. We shot it in Dallas over a few weeks, and it's me and Robert Picardo from Star Trek. He was lovely, so talented, and just the nicest guy. And, then there's four kids playing leads who are relatively unknown. Three of them are from Texas. That was really fun to kind of get to see them have their first real experience on a big deal set. They're all really great and I'm just so proud of them. They were tweeting as their characters. It was really cute.

As an actress do you find it easier to write a screenplay or novel having the experience to be able to identify your characters?

I think it's not that one is easier, but… I think with what you're doing when you're creating a novel, and you should be doing this when you're writing a screenplay too, that you're creating the character backstories. And that's what you do as an actor. You were given a role, and you have no idea who this person is, where do they come from, what is their family situation, what kind of music do they like to listen to? Do they like to shop in vintage stores or are they a Target gal? And, so, you create this whole backstory for a character. And you should take that same process and apply it to a novel or to a screenplay. You should know these characters. They should be real people. You should know if they ever been in love. You are pretending to be them, writing from their point of view. You should know these things about them.

I understand you will be at the Buffy the Vampire Slayer panel here at the Con. Do you keep in touch with your old cast mates like Sarah Michelle Geller?

I do. I haven't seen Sarah in awhile, but I did an episode of Ringer when she was working on that, and that was so much fun. She looks the same. I'm like, "How can you have had kids and look as beautiful, and young, and tiny as you do? It's not fair." Emma Caulfield and I, I see her pretty regularly -- the trio. I see Nick and James at events.

Finally, what's up next?

Well, the next thing up is I'm writing the follow-up book to The Witches of Echo Park. So, the first book is released in January. And, then, I'm hoping that probably the same time next year we'll have the second book.

How can your fans keep in touch with you?

They can follow me on Twitter. I'm @amber_benson. I'm on the Instagram and it's my name backwards. It's rebma_nosneb, which is amber_benson again. And then, Facebook, it's Amber Benson Wrote This and I have an Amber Benson Wrote This, at Blogspot, and then an Amber Benson Wrote This at Tumblr.

Thank you, Miss Benson.

Oh, you're so welcome.

The Witches of Echo Park will be released on January 6, 2015. You can pre-order at the following:

Murder by the Book
Mysterious Galaxy

BY: Jose Febrero
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