Interview with Mario Acevedo, author of Jailbait Zombie

After two decades as a successful engineer, helicopter pilot, and gifted artist in oils and water colors, Mario Acevedo has become one of the rising stars in the world of supernatural fiction. He introduced Felix Gomez, a vampire detective who is plagued by a conscience, in his first published novel, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, in 2006. Jailbait Zombie, the fourth book in the series, was released last month.  I sat down with Acevedo at a Denver coffee shop to discuss his career, his latest novel, and the future of his protagonist.

Your resume includes really eclectic jobs, from flying attack helicopters to engineering to your master’s degree in Information Systems and teaching art to convicts. What brought you to writing as your true calling?

When I was in the sixth grade, our English teacher gave us this assignment where we had to write a book in teams of two. This was back in the ’60s, when Star Trek was on. We were just captivated by the series, and (my partner and I) decided to write a Star Trek story…When the teacher asked for our book, we didn’t have it all. So we pulled out this big thick notebook, and we had designed the ship; we had the crew members and their uniforms; we had maps of the universe. It just got away from us, but we hadn’t finished the story. She ended up giving us an A anyway.

What this incident did was it started an idea in my head that kept evolving and evolving. Then (in college), finally I took a class in technical report writing which inspired me… In 1985 I bought my first computer, a Tandy 80, and I decided, I’m going to write a novel; I’m going to do it. I got about 100 pages into it, and I got stuck and realized that there was more to it than that.

Seven manuscripts later in 2004—how long is that? Nineteen years it took me before I got an agent who was finally able to sell a story, a different story, but it took me 19 years.

So how did you finally get published?

I was having trouble writing a synopsis, and I saw an ad for a class in synopsis writing. So I went to the class. It was put on by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and they asked me to join the organization. That’s when I started going to a critique group. These were real authors. It had never occurred to me, though it seems obvious now, that there was an organization where I could be around published writers. It was really good and it opened up my eyes…Two (of the authors) I remember who were really helpful were  Jim Cole, the facilitator of our group, who won the Colorado Book Award for a book called A Killing in Quail County; and Cindy Meyers a very prolific writer of romantic fiction. This helped a lot.

In the first book, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, Felix Gomez became a vampire because of what happened to him in Desert Storm, where you served as a combat artist. Was it your experience in Desert Storm that led you to create Felix? And how much of the character comes from you?

Oh Felix is not at all like me. He’s taller than I am. He’s younger, and he is a lot more physically aggressive than I am. And I’m not sure how much my artwork influences my writing, but the beginning of the first book comes from something that really happened (in Desert Storm).

It was at the end of the war, and everyone was kind of upbeat. Things were going well, and we figured we all would be going home soon…All of a sudden there was this tremendous turmoil there…a family had been sneaking around trying to get water, and the Americans thought they were infiltrators and opened up on them and wiped out the entire family, except this little girl. Instantly, we went from very happy to very depressed and demoralized. We felt we had won the war, and now what did we have to show for it? This little girl orphaned who didn’t speak our language—what were we going to do with her? It was so horrific, and I just kind of put it in the back of my head. So when I started writing that first novel, I decided to use that to set him up. (In The Nymphos of Rocky Flats Felix kills the little girl, and he is cursed by a local shaman to become a vampire so that he will have to live with his guilt forever.)

Over a decade ago, some authors and critics stated that horror as a genre was dead. Yet I see a resurgence in vampire novels, especially ones where there is romance involved and where there are vampires that have consciences. Do you agree, and, if so, why do you think this is?

I think supernatural fiction has moved out of horror. To me, by definition, horror is meant to freak you out. A lot of the new popular books don’t do that. I don’t think my books freak you out. There is a new sub-genre called “paranormal,” and it really started coming from romance writers. I don’t really think of myself as a paranormal writer. I call it “supernatural mystery,” because, to me the paranormal has that strong sexual element which I don’t think mine has. I really didn’t think about the popularity of horror when I wrote my first book. Growing up I didn’t like vampire books. I thought they were silly. And then I read this book called Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris, that I had seen reviewed in the Rocky Mountain News—now there is that series on HBO called True Blood.  

I read that book, and I liked it because there was a completely different take on vampires and the supernatural and there was a lot of humor to it. And I was in the process of finishing up one novel and shopping it around, and I was working at Rocky Flats and somebody said, “You need to write a book about Rocky Flats.”

So I said, “Okay, I’ll write a book about an outbreak of nymphomania at Rocky Flats.”And the woman I was talking to said, “Too late. That’s already happened.”

 She started giving these examples of people getting caught having sex in conference rooms and in the protected area and secured areas within Rocky Flats. The place was famous for hanky-panky, at least that’s what I heard.

“Okay,” I said. “How about a story about a vampire detective investigating an outbreak of nymphomania at Rocky Flats?” And she said, “Well, I don’t think that’s happened.”

So that’s the premise for the story, and I just ran with it. When I finished the book and began to shop it around, my agent said that it was just different enough that it got his attention, and he liked it and it sold.

Now the vampires aren’t just monsters. The big difference now is that the vampires are the protagonists. They are the good guys or the good girls or the romantic interests.

I have noticed that each author who writes vampire novels these days seems to change the rules a bit for his vampire. For instance, in Jailbait Zombie, your vampire is also a werewolf, yet in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series the vampires and werewolves don’t like each other very much. How is Felix different from Dracula and other famous vampires of literature and film? And why did you make him that way?

Actually, he turns into a wolf, but I never thought of him as a werewolf. In fact, the novel I am writing now, which takes place in Charleston, has werewolves in it. And there is a lot of antagonism between the werewolves and the vampires, and they’re always talking trash to one another.

After I had finished writing the third book, I realized that I should start introducing different kinds of supernatural characters, other than the aliens and vampires from those books. Then I thought, You’ve got to have zombies, so I wrote Jailbait Zombie. And then, after this book, I thought what other supernatural creatures can I use? And the one that is really powerful is the werewolf. I may have to rethink why he (Felix) turned into a wolf instead of a bat or a zebra or whatever.

So did you make a list of the powers Felix would have before you started?

No, I just let it come up as I was writing the book. I have discovered that if I set up a complete resume on a character at the beginning, it doesn’t work for me. So I let the character develop as I write. I thought it was important that Felix not have a reflection in a mirror, which makes it difficult for him to hide the fact that he is a vampire. Bram Stoker made up the rules in Dracula, and that’s where most of them come from, but everyone breaks them. And you have to be careful in a series if you set up too many rules, because, if you set something up in the first book, you can’t change it in the fourth or fifth book.

Is Felix, like you,  going to stay in Colorado?

He starts out here, but most of the next book takes place in Charleston. Charleston is a great historical city with a spooky atmosphere. And there are werewolves. The premise is that there are these two factions of werewolves and it’s threatening to turn into a civil war. When I thought of this idea it didn’t occur to me that Charleston was actually the place where the real Civil War started with Fort Sumpter and all. So that just worked out.

One of the difficult things about writing books in a series is keeping each new one fresh. So Felix moves around, and that’s why I have been introducing different supernatural beings. This one had zombies. The next one will have werewolves, and then who knows?

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