Q: You've called your novel a literary Gothic. It also has elements of a mystery in it. So do you think of it primarily as a romance, a mystery or a psychological novel?

Mark Zero: It’s all three. The basic idea of the Gothic is that it’s an anti-romance—it substitutes the usually comic or feel-good aspects of romance for tragedy and drama. It’s still romantic, because its main concerns are love and the love affairs of its protagonists, but the Gothic usually examines the idea of love critically instead of assuming that finding the perfect person for you will make your life turn out well. And there’s often a mystery at the heart of the tale, which represents the inability of the human heart to find resolution.

Q: The Gothic Romance has fallen out of favor lately. The heyday of the genre was in the mid-nineteenth century. Why write one now?

MZ: For one thing, I think it fell out of favor not because the genre was exhausted, but because many of the common themes of the genre are rural and pre-industrial, and as our culture became more urban, it wasn’t clear how such a book could connect to modern life. Also, the Gothic is ideally allegorical, but as the form became so popular in the nineteenth century, many writers wrote Gothics that lacked artistry and allegory—and if you remove those aspects from the genre, the books just become silly, overblown melodramas about ghosts and ball dresses. So once the genre was diluted, it came to seem that there wasn’t much substance in the original ideas, and people turned away from this kind of story. Most people think of Gothics as horror stories, like the ones by Anne Rice or Stephen King, but there’s a lot more in them than that. So, to answer your question, I think now is a great time for a return to the original ideas of the Gothic, because the concerns of Gothic Romances are uniquely suited to commenting on the alienation of modern life. It’s just that the form had to be updated and reinvigorated so that the connections of the form to our modern psyche could come out.

Q: And that’s why Blood & Chocolate has elements that are both rural and industrial?

MZ: Right. Its setting is rural, and its subplots concern rural life and the struggles of people in a small town, but the wealth of the protagonist, Marnie, is only possible in a super-connected global economy. Her family has built a candy empire that communicates from its small-town roots with the whole world at large through the modern infrastructure of the internet, global shipping, and so on. The book has one foot in the modern world and one in the rural past, just the same as American society as a whole does. And the basic concerns of love and how we want our lives to look on a day-to-day basis actually don’t depend much on setting. Those things are much more ideological: when someone talks about the American Way of Life, they’re obviously not talking about the kind of work people do or where they live—it’s more conceptual than that.

Q: You mentioned the allegorical aspects of the Gothic. Could you discuss some of the allegorical concerns of Blood & Chocolate?

MZ: I should say first of all that I hope Blood & Chocolate is above all else a great story. It’s not as if the novel is an academic exercise, so the story and is really the most important thing. What happens between the characters is important, and I think the story really moves, that it’s sexy and engaging.

Q: But of course it does have these other concerns as well.

MZ: Right. In terms of allegory. . . well, an allegory obviously is just a story whose characters and actions stand in for some larger concern. In this case, I wanted to explore all the ways in which people express love, or deceive themselves that the thing they’re expressing is love, when it’s really something else. We are so easily seduced by desire, or self-absorption, or the projection of our hopes and fears onto our lovers, that it’s sometimes difficult to know what unselfish love really is, especially in sexual relationships, which are so laden with unconscious motivations. So I tried to examine all kinds of expressions of romantic love, from the idealized and selfless to the perverse and selfish. Blood & Chocolate is a novel mainly about love, and I hope that through its contemplation of unsuccessful kinds of love, it shows the way to what I think are proper expressions of romantic devotion.

Q: Which are what?

MZ: Call me old-fashioned, but I think monogamy is the most successful expression of sexual love. I don’t have any moral judgments about the many different ways people express themselves romantically, as long as no one is being coerced or exploited, but I think the monogamous relationship is the one that’s most difficult to achieve, the most rewarding, and the one that’s most surrounded by delusions and most sabotaged by false expectations. Our whole concept of love is structured around the “happily ever after” romance, in which two lovers find each other, overcome some obstacle and then live happily ever after, and I think that idea is so delusional that it’s dangerous. It destroys many relationships that could be good because we have completely insane ideas about how our partners are supposed to be or how we’re supposed to behave with them.

Q: So you don’t believe in being swept away by love, the love at first sight, the princess with the glass slipper?

MZ: Love at first sight, well. . . I mean, you have to be attracted to the other person, but you can’t know the most important things about people by looking at them. That kind of attraction is either purely physical or a projection of your own needs. But I really want to say one other thing about the updating of the Gothic Romance.

Q: Okay.

MZ: One of the things that excites me about Blood & Chocolate is that it has four protagonists, and the story changes depending on which of them we’re close to at any given moment. The story is narrated in close-third person, and the concerns of each character inform the way the story unfolds. So that’s a technical innovation that never occurred to Poe or Hawthorne, and it casts the whole idea of the Romance in a new light. That’s one other reason that now is a good time to write a Gothic, because it’s still possible to find new stories to tell in it and new ways to tell those stories. Jennifer Egan’s The Keep also does some technically innovative things with the genre, so I hope it’s making a comeback, because as saturated as Americans are with sex and death, it’s the perfect kind of story for our times.

Q: What would you hope a reader would take away from Blood & Chocolate?

MZ: As I said earlier, I hope it’s first and foremost a great story, and I think it is. I would also hope that through the book a reader could meditate on the meaning of romantic love and consider his or her own conceptions of love, and revisit the whole idea of romance. What is romantic love? How have I been thinking about it, and is that the way I want to think about it? What are my expectations of love, and are they realistic? Our love lives are obviously of paramount importance, and if we’re aware of what we want and why, instead of relying on fables and myths, then we might actually be able to find or create our ideal love relationships. We don’t have to be seduced by unrealistic ideas of love. At the same time, we don’t have to settle for anything less than true, satisfying, sexy romantic love just because we develop a more realistic idea of what romance is. I hope readers come away from Blood & Chocolate thinking about love in a completely different and better way than they did before.

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