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Featured Moms

Heather Gerken is a Yale Law Professor By Day, Vampire Novelist By Night

Stories are magic, plain and simple – the one form of practical magic we can share with our kids.

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Heather Gerken is the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Professor Gerken specializes in election law and constitutional law. She has published in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Stanford Law Review, Michigan Law Review, Columbia Law Review, Political Theory, Political Science Quarterly, Roll Call, Legal Affairs, Legal Times, The New Republic, Democracy Journal, and elsewhere. She has served as a commentator for a number of media outlets, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, NPR, the Lehrer News Hour, Bill Moyers, CNN, MSNBC, and NBC News.
Professor Gerken clerked for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th Circuit and Justice David Souter of the United States Supreme Court. After practicing for several years, she joined the Harvard faculty in September 2000 and was awarded tenure in 2005. In 2006, she joined the Yale faculty.
Professor Gerken served as a senior legal adviser in the “Boiler Room” for the Obama for America campaign in 2008 and 2012. Her proposal for creating a “Democracy Index” was incorporated into separate bills by then-Senator Hillary Clinton, then-Senator Barack Obama, and Congressman Israel and turned into reality by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which created the nation’s first Election Performance Index in 2013.


Can you point to anything in your childhood that has most nurtured and inspired your writing?

Reading, reading, and more reading. I read indiscriminately when I was a kid. My parents used to bring me to a place called Annie’s Book Stop. It mostly trafficked in airport books — Grisham potboilers and the like. The formula was simple – you could buy a hardcover book for something like 50% off of list price. The only books I could afford were the ones on a shelf way in the back – the old Penguin classics with a list price of a dollar. I’d buy a shopping bag full of 50 cent books, read them, and then sell them back and buy more. That’s how I read Pride and Prejudice and The Count of Monte Christo and Tess of D’Ubervilles. But I missed the Brontë sisters entirely, and I only ran across a single book by Dickens.

gerkenportrait

You are well published: Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Stanford Law Review, The New York Times (to name a few). Writing is clearly one of your gifts, but few law professors also go on to write vampire novels! Can you tell us a little about why you decided to take on the project?

As I said in the New York Times piece, it was some combination of love and desperation. My daughter, Anna, is growing up. And every parent watching a child approach her teenage years wants to protect her from that wretched period we call puberty. My parents’ generation clad their children in armor. They were tough on their kids, strict and stern and demanding. They hoped their children would develop an outer shell tough enough to withstand the “quips and sentences and paper bullets of the brain” that fly around high school hallways. My generation has taken the opposite tact. We praise our kids, indulge them even, in the hope that they’ll have the internal fortitude to withstand the onslaught of hormones, heartbreaks, and house parties.

Despairing of these choices, I wrote eight vampire novels. I vaguely hoped that it would help if I wrote Anna as the fantastic young woman I see her becoming. At the very least, the books have given me a chance to tell her all the things I’ll want to tell her when she’s a teenager and thus unwilling to listen.

In your New York Times piece, you talk about how you’ve always made up elaborate stories to tell your daughter, and now, as she is approaching her teen years, through writing the vampire novels you are able to communicate with your daughter in a very special way. How do you think storytelling has defined your relationship with your daughter?

Stories are magic, plain and simple – the one form of practical magic we can share with our kids. When Anna was little, we always created fairytales together. The formula was simple. She would save her baby brother by obtaining magical objects or eluding fantastical monsters.

“The trolls have the bronze arrow you need to save Ben. What will you trade for it?” I’d ask.

“Sunlight,” she’d respond triumphantly, “because trolls are always underground.”

“And what will you give the Man on the Moon for his silver arrow?” I’d prompt.

“A jar full of jokes, because no one is around to make him laugh.”

The vampire novels are a joint creation as well. It’s not just because I’ve tailored the books to the characters and plots she likes best. It’s because Anna’s imagination fused the words I’d strung together into chains strong enough to bind a storyline. That’s what I like best about stories – their magic requires two imaginations, not one.

Credit Dreamstime

Credit Dreamstime

How many books do you hope to write? What is your future plans for the them?

I’m on the 9th book for Anna, and I think it will be the last of the series. I’ve just about exhausted the storyline, and it’s hard to keep two people apart for nine books, at least if they are halfway decent to one another. While I can’t bear the thought of this time with Anna being over, her brother is of the emphatic view that it’s his turn. He wants a zombies and baseball novel, so I’ve been sketching that plot whenever I have a chance to daydream. The zombie trope is pretty straightforward, but I’m thinking about flipping the paradigm and turning it into something more interesting. Plus, I’m determined to write him a love story.

Boys never get love stories, and they need them as bit as much as girls do.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories? Are they ever inspired by your law work?

No, my law work uses a quite different side of my brain. Though I will confess that one of the characters in the novel is a dear friend and colleague. If you met her, you’d understand instantly why she belongs in a world of vampire slayers.

Would you consider law to be creative? If so, how?

Law’s a craft, just as writing is. And at some level, lawyering is about telling other people’s stories in an effective way. But the source materials are much more limited. Magicians and vampires rarely make an appearance in briefs, though I suppose law would be more fun if they did.

How do you balance a demanding career and find time to write eight novels as well? Do you have any advice on how you manage to be so productive and efficient?

I’m a relentless multitasker. I’m relentless, period, but especially about my time. I worked out every bit of the storyline when I was on the treadmill or driving to work or walking to a meeting.

And then I’d write down the piece of the story I’d worked out that day late at night, when my brain was too tired for constitutional law or political theory but could still think through how a sword fight should be staged.

I’ve definitely given things up to write Anna’s books – I never watch television, and I read a lot less fiction than I did before. The most important source of balance, however, is my husband. He does more than his share of housework and childcare. Most women aren’t that lucky. Most of my friends are part of two-career households, and I suspect that the men in those relationships think they are doing 50 percent. But that’s just proof that the delusional gene runs with the Y chromosome.

Do you have any tips to moms wanting to tackle a big project that’s outside their comfort zone?

I hate to sound like a Nike commercial, but the formula is “just do it.”

I had no idea how to write fiction, no idea how to construct a storyline or write dialogue. But I kept plugging away, and eventually I got better at it. I’ve been retooling the early books of late, adapting the heroine’s character because Anna’s got so much more snap, crackle, and pop as she gets older. Rewriting the earlier books makes clear that the later ones are superior in just about every way.

What’s a tool that’s recently made your life easier?

The underwater iPod. Virtually every scene in Anna’s book was imagined against the backdrop of a song. I’m not allowed to work out the treadmill as often as I used to (46 year olds, it turns out, cannot walk 50 miles a week on a treadmill without doing damage to something). But now I can work on her book when I’m swimming.

Fill in the blank:

If I had an extra hour a day, I would sleep, cook, hang out with the kids, go on a date night, work more. I think we all worry we’re doing everything half-assed, but maybe we should just glory in the fact that there are so many great things we want to do.

If I was stranded in a desert island, and could only bring 3 objects (not people), they would be A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. They are the only books I could read a thousand times and still love them.

If I weren’t a law professor, I would be A lot less happy. There are many jobs I could imagine doing. But I can’t imagine a more joyous existence than the one I lead now.

If I could meet 1 person in history it would be James Madison. He was a brilliant institutional thinker, for starters. Plus I’m dying to learn how he could stand Thomas Jefferson.

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