By Alisa M. Libby
I like writing about bad girls. A murderous countess. An adulterous queen. I don’t know what they’ve taught you in school, but here’s the truth: history is full of bad girls.
Meeting the Countess
When I was in high school, I got a book about vampires out of the public library. It was an anthology of short stories and excerpts from novels, and among them was a story about Countess Erzebet Bathory. It told the legend (in gory detail) of a countess so obsessed with preserving her youth and beauty that she murdered her young female servants and bathed in their blood, believing that it would make her immortally young. The story was riveting to me. It was also deeply repulsive and terrifying. When I finished reading it, I didn’t want to be anywhere near that book.
Maybe because it scared me, it stuck with me. Often the things that make an impact on us during our childhood or teen years—whether favorable or otherwise—leave a mark that still exists years later. When I started studying writing in college, I found myself returning to the story of the countess. I was fascinated by her obsession, her madness, her desperate grasp at some untenable perfection: eternal youth and beauty. We would all grow up and grow old, eventually. I was keenly aware of this fact. Assuming that she wasn’t born evil, what happened to her when she was a child that caused this transformation?
The teen years are a dramatically charged time of life. This is one reason why I write about teenagers, for teenagers. There are so many things that can influence a developing sense of self. There is so much at stake. Who are you going to be? How are you going to change? What does the future hold? It’s that urgency that makes reading and writing young adult fiction so invigorating; not only is there action surrounding the character, but the inner self is mutating in ways the character hadn’t imagined or intended.
So what’s the internal struggle of a young murderess? I kept wishing I could ask the countess “Why did you do it? What were you thinking?” This question nagged at me. Clearly, she must have been crazy—but in fiction, that’s not a satisfying answer. Perhaps she feared growing up, growing older, losing her beauty. Why couldn’t things remain just as they were, safe and contained in her castle in the mountains? I had wished for that kind of comforting consistency myself, especially when I was a young teenager and filled with dread of the unknowable that awaited me in the years ahead.
Sharing my fear with the countess offered me a way to connect with her, to empathize. As I started writing her story—which would eventually become my first novel, “The Blood Confession”—I began to see her madness drive her to do terrible, cruel, repulsive things. If I wanted to tell the story in her point of view I had to expose the weaknesses that lead her down that path. For all of her vanity and pride, the countess was ruled by fear and insecurity. It would be a dark book, certainly not for every reader, but even in those early drafts I had envisioned it as a young adult novel, as it grappled with many of the same issues that I had felt as a teenager. Those questions about why she did what she did fascinated me, not because I knew the answer, but because I wanted to know. I wanted to create a logic (if entirely mad and illogical) for the countess to follow, that led to bleeding her servants, to bathing in blood, and finally to murder.
Aside from her fears of growing older, Erzebet’s close friendship with Marianna is at the core of her story. Marianna’s acceptance of Erzebet relieves some of the loneliness of the young countess’s existence. But Marianna does not harbor the same fears of the future; she is eager to become a young woman, a wife, and a mother. When Marianna falls in love and marries, Erzebet feels abandoned by her closest friend.
We often grow apart from our childhood friends—I have, and I think most people I’ve met have had similar experiences. It’s a natural, painful part of growing up. This gave me another way to empathize with Erzebet. I remembered feeling neglected and powerless as a certain old friend pulled away. And if there was one thing I knew Erzebet would react poorly to, it was that feeling of powerlessness. I knew she would react strongly, and—when it became clear that she couldn’t control Marianna’s actions—she would take drastic measures to convince herself that she was all-powerful. Time may have changed Marianna, but it would not change her: her search for eternal youth was energized, and remorseless. Bleeding her servants was only the beginning. She would murder young girls. She would act as God in her tower room, choosing life or death for the minions held captive before her. What could be more powerful than deciding a person’s fate according to your own whim, choosing whether they live or die?
Admittedly, Erzebet’s behavior is irrational, insane. But she enjoyed playing out her own power games, and I enjoyed writing them. Fiction is liberating. You can be bad in fiction, without fear of consequences. You can slip into someone else’s skin and play their role, even if you know they are horrible, vindictive, mad as a hatter. What might draw you to read a terrifying story is the same thing that draws me to write one—we want to visit that dark part of ourselves in a safe way, a way that won’t hurt anyone. It won’t even hurt ourselves. It’s frightening and it may make an impact on us, but then we put the book down and we can walk out into the sunlight again.
A Different Breed of Bad Girl
After finishing “The Blood Confession” I tried to settle my attentions on other ideas, but they just didn’t hold up. I had spent years writing about a girl who murdered for blood, for youth, for fun. She was dramatic, malevolent. How would I follow that up? How would I find someone else bad enough to inspire me?
And then one day I was surfing the internet, and I came across the story of Catherine Howard.
Catherine Howard was a teenager when she became the fifth wife of the notoriously unpredictable King Henry VIII. He had divorced his first wife, beheaded his second, lost his third in childbirth, and then hastily divorced his fourth (she wasn’t as pretty as he had hoped, after all) in order to marry Catherine. Not a great track record, but he was king so he could get away with these things.
So what did she do, this Tudor-era Cinderella, propped upon the throne beside her all-powerful husband? First, she lied about being a virgin upon marrying the king. The king didn’t like liars, to say the very least. And according to most historians, Catherine engaged in a secret affair with one of the king’s most trusted servants during their marriage.
Knowing what she did about her royal husband, why would Catherine have acted so rashly? Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn, had been executed on similar charges of adultery—and Anne was Catherine’s cousin. Further, historians tend to agree that it is doubtful that Anne had actually committed the crimes she was accused of, while Catherine’s affair may well have been real. Either way, they both met the same grim end: execution by beheading at the Tower of London.
Here I was meeting another bad girl, whose actions inspired a similar confusion and interest. I found myself wanting to ask her the same questions: “What were you thinking? Why did you do it?” How would she explain?
Catherine was much different than the countess, of course. The countess murdered people in brutal ways, without remorse. But Catherine’s actions were absurdly reckless: she was risking her own life, and the life of the young man whom she claimed to love. Did she really imagine that she was safe, seated beside this great king? Did she really believe that Henry’s love (which had already proven itself fickle, and was quite dependent on her ability to produce an heir to his throne) would protect her? I read some amazing historical accounts about Catherine’s rise to the throne, all of which offered a broad array of potential reasons for her actions, but I wanted to get inside Catherine’s head. I wanted to hear her story, from her point of view. These thoughts would lead to my second novel, “The King’s Rose.”
Though the action took place hundreds of years ago, in a culture much removed from our own, Catherine was recognizable: a teenage girl, full of flaws and desperate for love and attention. Her faults and weaknesses made her palpably human to me. I empathized with her plight. I imagined that being chosen by the king was a heady experience. In spite of her triumph, she didn’t know enough about court life to know how a queen should behave. She didn’t understand how to deal with King Henry and his dangerous mood swings. And then she risked all to indulge in a night of love (or lust?) with a young man from her past.
I’m a lifelong fan of fairy tales, and I was enthralled by how Catherine Howard’s story resembled both a princess fantasy come true, and the terrifying Bluebeard murdering bride after bride. Haven’t we all wanted to be the princess? The chosen one? I did, and I think it’s a pretty universal fantasy. I spoke to my editor about this before starting my revisions of “The King’s Rose,” how the whole story could be seen as a loose parallel to modern life: every girl wants to be chosen by the Prom King, even though he’s kind of a jerk. The point is that he’s powerful, everyone respects him, and he’s the most popular kid in school. And when you are chosen, that attention and respect and elevated status is fun for a while. But then you start to think of the nice guy that you really like, who maybe isn’t so popular but was a whole lot nicer to you and maybe really cared about you. But then it’s too late, you’re stuck dating a monster, who is enabled by the social structure of high school to be as jerky as he wants and get away with it—for reasons as infinitely complicated and illogical as any royal family tree.
When I was a teenager, writing rhyming vampire poetry and dreaming (quietly, from a distance) about boys in my class, I kept my dreams to myself. While I vigilantly protected my heart, Catherine let passion rule her. She followed it and fell blindly from grace, indulging in sin and ignoring the consequences. Though her actions are foolish, there is something powerful in her story. We all teeter on the brink of disaster at one point or another during our teen years—do we give ourselves to passion, to a potentially bad decision, or do we back away? Catherine never backed away, which is what makes her story so dangerous, and so delicious.
I find that people—especially people who know me—often look for who I am in my novels, or what may be based on truth. This is the beauty of fiction. My life is, thankfully, very different from the lives of glamour and danger lead by my characters. Though we are very different, I can still connect with them through our inner fears, our awkwardness—something that all of humanity shares, regardless of the century in which we’re born. It’s through these very human stories that I connect most deeply with history, with those who came before me, and imagine the stories their ghosts might tell us if they could.
Reading and writing are the safest and most effective modes of metamorphosis that I have found. It can be liberating to shed your own preoccupations and obsessions and try on someone else’s for a while. To take your own pain and anger and fears and dreams and transform them into a story—someone else’s story—this is part of the magic of writing, for me. The act of creation can be liberating. It’s empowering to let your old demons dance across the page, and tell a story that is dark, and human, and true.
Alisa M. Libby has been writing stories since she first learned how to properly grip a crayon. Growing up in Natick, Massachusetts, she dabbled in other potential careers in her formative years (trumpet player, actress, astronomer, unicorn) but ended up going to Emerson College for a degree in creative writing, with a focus on fiction. While at Emerson she began writing numerous short stories about the “blood countess” of Hungarian legend, which years later evolved into “The Blood Confession,” her first novel. She lives in Brockton, Massachusetts, with her husband Thomas, and their basset hound, Roxanne.
She also writes a blog we here at YARN highly recommend!