Back in 2005 I had the pleasure of lunching with Charlaine Harris, who was on a book tour celebrating the release of her fourth Sookie Stackhouse novel Dead to the World.
It was a major milestone — not only was it her first hardcover release but the cover was embellished with gold sparkly bits; naturally Ms. Harris and her publicist were thrilled. Frankly, being a novice contributor to Black Gate at the time, it was really hard to say which one of us was more thrilled, but I’m pretty sure it was me.
Always the quintessential Southern lady, Ms. Harris was the picture of floral-print charm as she quite proudly told me about the advent of her characters and how excited she was about her next series, Grave Sight, to be released later that year. It was with a slight blush that she admitted her writing mortified her teen-aged children, which made me like her even more.
At the end of that lovely lunch I followed Ms. Harris across the parking lot to a Borders bookstore, where she appeared before a small but adoring crowd of around thirty fans who greeted her like a rock star. And I drove home that day thinking that those sexy, imaginative Sookie books which had become favorites of mine didn’t seem like the sort of stories that would spring from someone who smelled of lilacs and carried a patent leather purse.
Around that same time, on the other side of the country Alan Ball was stuck in an LA airport waiting on a tardy departure when he stopped into a news stand and picked up a paperback copy of Living Dead in Dallas, Ms. Harris’ second Sookie Stackhouse novel, thinking he’d kill some time with a pulpy vampire story. Having just wrapped Six Feet Under for HBO, Alan Ball was looking for his next project, never believing he’d find it in an airport. Numerous interviews indicate that once Alan Ball dug into chapter one of Living Dead, he didn’t close it until he’d read the last page.
And that is precisely when sexy, steamy, vampire magic happened, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I was practically at ground zero.
Since then, the quirky Hollywood producer and the genteel lady from Arkansas have come together to create the HBO sensation True Blood.
That original hard cover release which Ms. Harris was so proud of back in 2005 has been trumped by “TV tie-in cover” re-releases of all of her books sporting pictures of True Blood stars Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer. And I’m pretty sure she’s no longer strolling unguarded into a sedately enthusiastic crowd of thirty fans at mid-west suburban Borders.
In fact, the events calendar on her official web site shows she will be launching her 10th Sookie Stackhouse novel Dead in the Family at New York and LA locations.
Though I would love nothing better than to have another leisurely chat with Ms. Harris about how (or if) all of this success has changed her or her characters, I have yet to successfully book that follow up interview. So until then, I am going to milk my 60-minute brush with fame and bring you (again) my interview with Charlaine Harris from 2005.
Consider it a hold-over until June 13th when the new season of True Blood premiers on HBO. And in case you want it make it a real party, don’t forget that the Tru Blood beverage (“All Flavor, No Bite”) is now available for sale at a convenient location near you.
A conversation with Charlaine Harris, best-selling author of Dead as a Doornail
Conducted and transcribed by Sue Granquist in Oakbrook, Illinois, May 7, 2005. Originally published in Black Gate 8.
Where’s home for you?
I had sort of assumed you were from a small town in Louisiana. What made you decide to set your stories there?
I thought playing off of the whole southern Louisiana, “Anne Rice thing” would be fun.
When were you first published?
My first book was published in 1981, but that was a mystery. (Sweet and Deadly, 1981) I did two stand-alone mysteries before I started the Aurora Teagarden series.
Finding a truly unique angle to a vampire story is no small feat. What made you decide to explore vampire characters when so much has already been written?
The mystery series had fallen into a bit of a lull, so I decided it was time to write the books I always wanted to write. My publisher sure wasn’t crazy about the idea and the first book (Dead Until Dark, Ace 2001) received more rejection letters than you can imagine. But now it is in its 14th printing.
What made you stick to the idea, even though it wasn’t well received initially?
I really felt I wanted to do something lighthearted, and juxtapose the modern world with the world of the vampires.
I love the whole idea of famous people we thought were dead turning up as vampires.
Because of all the sightings, it seemed natural to explain “The Man from Memphis” as having become a vampire.
I’m sure I’m not alone as a fan who’s anxious to know how many more of Sookie’s adventures we’re got to look forward to.
My current contract with my publisher calls for one more, but I’m sure I’ll continue after that.
Can you give us any hints about the next one?
I can tell you it currently is untitled, and it’s going to be very different from the others. I’m on schedule to finish it in June.
Are you going to stay exclusively with this storyline in the future?
Actually no. I’m working on a new series. The first book is called Grave Sight and it’s due out in October. It’s about a young woman who is struck by lightening and after, has the ability to find corpses. People hire her to locate bodies. It’s a lot more serious than the Dead… books.
Sounds like quite a departure. What inspired that?
I became interested in lightning and what it does to the body. The effects of a lightning strike on a person are entirely unpredictable. I joined an email list for lightning-strike victims and have read so many amazing personal stories from people who had been struck, but I never came across an effect like the one I write about. I thought it would be interesting to explore an effect that hasn’t been recorded yet.
Do you anticipate a series for Grave Sight, or is it stand-alone?
I have a three-book contract.
Dead as a Doornail is currently outselling Dan Brown on Amazon’s Top 100 list. That must be an exciting milestone.
Dan Brown isn’t shaking in his shoes I’m sure. Actually, the fact that this is the second novel to be printed in hardcover is the milestone. And this one has glitter! Authors are so vain. We always brag about stuff like that; who’s got glitter, who’s got embossing.
I’ve become very attached to Sookie, but I sometimes wish you’d give the poor girl a break. Bad luck and bloodshed seem to follow her no matter how hard she tries. Can you tell us what’s in store for her next?
Well, I can’t give away much, but I will tell you that I don’t see her getting back together with Bill. As for the trouble Sookie gets into, I have to say I’ve always been attracted to “kick-ass” women who kill a lot of men (laughs). I always liked La Femme Nikita so Sookie gets some of herself from there.
You are very much the proper “southern lady” and yet you write very convincingly about some fairly seedy, underground establishments, like the vampire bar. Is this based on research you’ve done yourself?
Nope! I’ve made it all up. I’ve never been to a vampire bar, but I would certainly be interested in trying one out!
Every time I pick up the books, I think what a great movie they would make. Have you been approached?
Club Dead is currently under option to producer Donald Zuckerman. I understand the script is ready and I’ll be meeting about in when I stop in L.A. on the book tour.
So whom do you see playing the characters of Sookie and Bill?
I’ve always imagined Reese Witherspoon (Vanity Fair, Sweet Home Alabama) and Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, Bless the Child) in those roles.
Have you always wanted to write? What’s the history from 1981 to 2005?
I have a BA in English and Communications, which means I graduated with a qualification to do nothing. I did write some poems and stories early on, as well as plays when I was in school. I got married right after college and worked in a newspaper darkroom for $1.60 an hour, standing on concrete all day. I had a couple of other jobs, then a divorce; then I remarried and decided to write that first book.
I’ve heard other authors comment “the characters just wrote themselves.” Is this how it is for you?
I don’t believe in the Ouija board method. Characters don’t write themselves. Writing comes from inside and is hard work. Being under contract is quite an incentive though. You know you have to make progress. Things actually get easier the closer the deadline gets.
I had the opportunity to meet Anne Rice and she explained that she did all her writing in her office, with her desk chair situated between the arms of a life sized “Predator” model from the movie. Do you have a special place to write that inspires you?
I’m lucky enough to have a separate building on the property to write in. It’s luxurious to have a separate place like that. I have a collection of stuffed vampires in there; one even sings “Monster Mash!” I also keep a table decoration from when I won the “Anthony.” It gives me a feeling of self worth. (Anthony Awards from Bouchercon World Mystery, Dead Until Dark – Best Paperback Original, 2001). However I do share the space with my kids so it’s not always entirely quiet. We have a rule; when Mom’s writing, no one comes in unless they’re bleeding.
How old are your kids?
I have three; two boys and a girl. The two boys are 17 and 21, and my daughter is 14.
How do they feel about your writing? Are they excited about having a celebrity Mom?
I doubt it. I know my writing makes the boys uneasy. I think they feel that reading my stuff makes them know Mom a little too well. My daughter hasn’t read any of my writing yet. That I know of.
I imagine your fans send you items for your collections. What’s the most interesting item a fan has sent you?
I actually received a Francis Gary Powers, U2 spy plane Christmas tree ornament! It was apparently from the CIA gift shop I mean, can you imagine? First, what would cause someone to even think this would make a good Christmas ornament? And second, who would actually buy it? I never forgot it though. The fan probably worked for the CIA or something, and they had them left over. (Francis Gary Powers was piloting a U2 spy plane when he was shot down over Soviet Russia in 1960. Powers was captured, along with the plane).
When you’re reading for pleasure, what do you go for?
I enjoy mysteries of course, romance, science fiction. Some of my favorites are Tanya Huff, Connie Wills, and Laurell Hamilton, who really opened the door to all of us in this genre.
With your schedule, I’m amazed you still find time to read.
It’s been a tough year. My father passed away earlier and now I’m touring. It’s difficult being away from home.
I always imagined a book tour being glamorous.
I certainly appreciate the honor and fun of meeting my fans, but that equals about an hour of fun a day. In between, there’s the no fun of airports, and hotel rooms quickly lose their glamour.
Do you see yourself ever getting tired of coming up with new ideas and meeting publishers’ deadlines?
I doubt it. I’m absolutely the luckiest person in the world. I’m so very fortunate to be able to do this.
For Charlaine Harris’ complete bibliography visit her web site at www.charlaineharris.com.
PS: In case you’re keeping track, I’m now zero for zero in chatting with my second MIA child actor, Cary Guffey. I have been entirely unsuccessful in making anything more than a close encounter of the first kind, which apparently is “wishful thinking.”