Candid photo by Elizabeth Crowens
I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlaine Harris at the 2017 Bouchercon, a mystery convention held this year in Toronto. Charlaine has written dozens of books from the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire series that was made into the television series, True Blood on HBO to the Midnight series, which is now featured as the Midnight, Texas series on NBC.
One of the things I wanted to focus on in our interview is that you’ve been involved so many adaptations of your work. I know you’ve been writing for a really long time, but I have to ask you — when you were in your twenties what did you visualize? Did you think your career was going to take this turn?
Charlaine: Who could ever imagine this? I’ve met people I never thought I’d be in the same city with much less dining with and watching them work and then feeling… at least lip service… lucky to be meeting me! I thought, “This is just crazy and weird.”
Cast photo of True Blood, courtesy of HBO
Or when you graduated college and the world was wide open then all the sudden you think, “This is what I thought I was going to do and… wow!”
I never forecast, and I don’t look back. I’m in the moment. I was so happy to get my first book published.
But did you always know you were going to be a writer?
I knew I was going to be a writer. There was no option on that, and I knew that was what I was going to do although it took me a long time to get around to it. That was my “secret identity.” Some people are Super Woman, but I was Writer. But it took a long time to have the opportunity to concentrate on that.
Charlaine with cast of True Blood
Did you ever think you were going to write about vampires and the paranormal stuff?
You know, to me, that is not extraordinary or weird in any way. I grew up reading Anne Rice, ghost stories and anything else I can find — Dracula, Frankenstein.
You’re from the South. Just out of curiosity, did you grow up with any crazy family history stories?
The reason why I brought this up was I was talking to a woman from Nashville here at Bouchercon, and she told me her family bought a haunted house, and we started talking about the Bell Witch.
Oh yeah, the Bell Witch. That’s a famous story.
This house her family bought had previously been an infirmary for women stricken with scarlet fever, and they saw these ghosts… including some wild story about someone spotting a ghost tagging along for a ride on her great-grandfather’s horse. Everyone else saw the ghost, and he had no idea and thought there was a real woman on the back of his horse, and he offered her a ride to town. Then when he got to town she was no longer there. Everybody was pointing, and said, “There was a rider with you, but that was a ghost.”
Cast from Midnight, Texas, courtesy of NBC
Those are great stories.
I was curious if you grew up with any great Southern Gothic stories.
No, my family was very common sense, my mom especially. We had no such traditions.
But your work has a very obvious Southern flavor to a lot of your writing.
Now obviously, you wrote your novels long before they were adapted to television. Which were the first?
Those were the Sookie Stackhouse novels that were made into True Blood.
Can you explain how you were involved with that?
I had options on the series for a while, because it was so popular. Then, when the first option was about to expire I had three offers.
Yeah, I was feeling pretty good, and one of them was Alan Ball. Who doesn’t want to work with Alan Ball? He’s a genius. So I talked to all the people on the telephone, and they all had good pitches, and they were all very sincere. I was very flattered they were all interested. But… Alan Ball… He gave me the hope that he would be true to the mixture of humor and horror that comprised the series, because I had seen Six Feet Under, and I knew he could do that. He’s all about death and humor and did a great job.
And how many seasons was it on for?
Seven, but he wasn’t the show runner for the last two. So, it did change in flavor and tone. The first and second seasons were pretty close to the books, but after that they just went off (laughs) and had their own good time. It was like about the fifth or sixth book when it came out, and then I was way ahead of them. That was a big boon to me, because the characters on TV did not affect what I was doing. I had the characters so entrenched in my mind that I wasn’t going to change what I was doing, because they were separate animals.
At that point did they bring you in as a Creative Consultant?
(Hysterical laughing). I was the last person in line to find out what they were doing.
What about approval, or did you have to just put your trust in the writers and producers?
No. Once they option your material, they’ve got the right to do what they want with those characters. That’s it. That’s what you sign off on. Anyway, I was welcome on the set and did that several times. And I went to the premieres and had to do the red carpet, which was a total shock and surprise.
Did they lend you any jewelry from Harry Winston or Van Cleef & Arpels?
(Laughing) No, I wish. That would’ve been fabulous, and I always had to guess on what to wear. But, they always made me welcome. They always included me, and Alan was kind enough to mention the books every time he talked about the series. I could not have asked for more than that, and the series was wonderful as far as drawing attention to the books, which is what I wanted.
I’m curious. You’re obviously so prolific, but not only prolific but also you’ve got several series.
You’ve got the Hallmark Channel series with Aurora Teagarden. Did you or did you not get the Harper Connelly series?
No, we gave it up. For a while it looked like it was going to happen, and I actually went to Los Angeles and did pitch meetings with ten studios, and I thought, “What am I doing here? I’m just a girl from Mississippi!” But it was fun, too, because it was like a game.
Scene from Midnight, Texas, courtesy of NBC/Universal
Your life must be incredibly busy at this point. Not only do you have several series, although True Blood has wrapped, but you’re obviously going around to conventions like this. Of course, you’ve got an assistant, but how do you organize and say to yourself, “I need time to write.”
You just have to learn to say no. This year topped me. I’m really overbooked this year, because I’d say, “Oh, I’ll go to that because my friend so-and-so will be there, and I’ll get to see her, and it’ll be great and I haven’t signed in that part of the country for a while.” Then I had two add on’s, because of my Midnight, Texas people were doing a panel at Comicon, and they wanted me to do that also. (Sighed) I thought, “All right. I’ll be a team player, and I’ll go ahead and do that.”
And Comicons are crazy, because I just came from the New York one. Now, do you have a publicist or do you have someone calling you up suggesting where you should be making appearances?
In the case of Comicon, NBC did it and arranged for everything I was going to do while I was there. I was quite busy doing several things. I also had to do a mini-tour for Aurora Teagarden, and that was a chunk of time I had not counted on, but I just overbooked myself this coming year and have already turned down about five things. I’ve got grandchildren, you know. I have a real life, and that’s more important to me right now than wearing this hat.
I attended your Cross-genre panel, because I also do speculative fiction/alternate history, but I was curious, because you are so well known, especially for True Blood and now with Midnight, Texas, which are known for paranormal elements such as werewolves and vampires, and then you’ve got a cozy mystery, which is so completely opposite, do you ever run into any conflict from fans hoping you’d do more vampire stuff instead of the cozy mysteries?
Oh yeah. Every now and then I run into people who tell me they just can’t read my vampire books. My feeling is, “You know, if you try one, I think you could.” They’re not about the vampires. They’re about Sookie Stackhouse and her personal journey, and the vampires are just incidental to that. But, if people have their limitations… they have their limitations. There are people who only read the Aurora books and maybe the Lily Bards, but usually those go together although the Lily Bards are much harder-edged. Then there are people who read the Harper Connelley books and then graduate to the True Blood and Midnight books.
Bouchercon 2017 panel on writing cross-genre with Nicole Lundrigan,
Kent Lester, Charlaine Harris, Heather Graham, Michael Skeet and
moderated by Jack Soren. Photo by Elizabeth Crowens
I noticed also, and tell me if I’m wrong, but your books seem to predominantly have female protagonists.
Oh yeah, except in the Midnight books I do a male point of view.
Any particular reason, or do you feel there’s part of you in the characters?
Of course there’s part of me in all of the characters — good and bad, male and female. I just believe that women are very strong. My mother always told me women were much stronger than men, and she really believed that not from a feminist point of view, weirdly enough, but because women always do what they have to do, and sometimes men don’t. And I grew up believing that.
Was she a good example of that? Was she the take-charge person in the family?
She was a very practical woman… sometimes scarily practical, but she was my rock and my foundation in everything. When people say they don’t get along with their mother, I say, “Well, how do you live?” So, I always felt like women were very interesting, and I’m also a rape survivor. That added a big dimension to what I thought about women and men.
Growing up… I’m trying to find out where the roots were with your interest in the paranormal and murder and what got you going in that direction.
My parents read mysteries. The best example you can set for a child is to be a great reader. To me, mysteries were around the house, and that’s what you aspired to write, because obviously people enjoyed reading them. I always wanted to write a good mystery, and I read enough to get the structure in my head. I think the key to becoming a writer is you’ve got to read a lot of everything and know in your head if it’s good or if it’s bad. What made it good? What made it bad? Jane Eyre was a keystone in my writing life, because it’s got everything — a plain heroine, a romantic, gruff hero who has money where she has none, the wife in the attic — crazy, scary, but ultimately a real person who had a real tragedy in her life. So, it’s just got everything.
What about movies and TV?
Hmmm, well… when I was a teen I watched Lawrence of Arabia, and to me that was the most romantic, in the broader sense of the word, movie I could imagine, and I literally cried when he had to leave Arabia, because I thought, “Oh nooo, he wants to stay there so bad,” and my mother had to explain the pre-rape scene to me. I could see the romance of everything, but he was clearly emotionally disturbed but he was still a great man with great charisma, and I thought that was really interesting. He was no perfect hero and a very odd person.
I want to get back and focus on the TV stuff. So right now you’ve got how many books in the Midnight series?
Three and we’re waiting to see if there’s going to be another season. There has been a lot of back and forth, because it’s been an expensive show. We’ll just have to wait and see if they can reach a meeting of the minds.
It’s so hard to figure out what’s going on with the industry these days now since there are so many more non-traditional options such as Netflix and Amazon Originals. Now, you had some of your books made into an interactive game based on the Lily Bard series?
That’s in the making now with One More Story Games. I had one game previously, which I love. It was really great, but the company that made it decided they weren’t going to produce original games any more. So, they never did the second part, which was the end of the story. So people never got to finish the game, and I still hear about it, and that must’ve been about ten or fifteen years ago. I tell fans, “I’m sorry. If I had anything to do with that it would be out there.”
Cast photo of True Blood, courtesy of HBO
What’s so cool is that your novels have translated into so many different forms of media over the years.
Games, audiobooks, TV shows and so many ways just to meet the same characters. I was super fortunate.
What about your writing habits?
I like to have quiet and solitude. If I write six original pages a day, that is a good day. So, that’s my goal — six original pages, and I read over what I wrote the day before. I revise it. Sometimes rewrite it. Sometimes just smooth it out, or what I call decorating it and making it richer. I start with the character of the protagonist, and the conflict she’s in. I build the world around that, starting with how her world must be for her to arrive at the point at which the book opens. Then I keep developing. Some of the rules evolve as I write, depending on the necessities of the story.
Charlaine, are you a pantser or a plotter?
I’m a pantser. I never know what the book is going to be about when I start it. I like to get into the character and be that person for a while.
What is your new series for Simon & Schuster?
It’s set in an alternate America. The protagonist is a nineteen-year-old woman who is a gun for hire. It’s set in 1939, but in an America that has developed differently. The Russian Empire has taken over California.
When is this coming out?
Some time next year in 2018, but I forgot to ask my editor the exact release date.
Any hints of another TV series based on that?
That could possibly happen. There’s already been some interest. Success breeds success. It’s weird, but it’s another adage that proved to be true.
It must be so overwhelming, and you’ve got such a wide range of material from the cozy mysteries to the paranormal.
I get bored doing the same thing over and over. The alternate history is definitely going to be something different. I have to prove to myself I can do it.
Husband and wife team, Jean and Blair Leggett, head up the interactive game company, One More Story Games, where they are working with author, Charlaine Harris. Next are highlights where Jean will explain more about this exciting project.
Jean: My husband, who is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, and I met Charlaine at Bouchercon in 2014 and asked her if she had ever considered turning her books into games, because we wanted a female author who writes strong female content. Most people don’t realize this, but nearly half the people who play games are women. There are more women over 18 playing games than young men under 18. The largest demographic is over 30, and the fastest growing demographic is women over 50.
Elizabeth Crowens and Charlaine Harris at Bouchercon
Really? I would’ve never guessed that.
Jean: That is why we targeted and wanted to work with Charlaine. She goes after the perfect demographic and writes compelling characters. At the time, I asked her if she had done anything like this before. There had been, but it turned out to be disappointing. When we asked if there was anything we could do to help, she said, “That would be lovely, dear,” which will be a chapter heading in my memoirs one of these days. We approached Charlaine to see what series were available to turn into a game since, as a writer, you will give up your rights to film or television production. So, we went with the Lily Bard series, which is older and she did it in the nineties. There were some traumatic issues the protagonist experiences and discussions arose as to how to deal with mature content. One the reasons why we go to conferences is because we are interested in computer savvy readers, but we also want to empower authors to come to us as the go to destination for story-based video games. With the Lily game, we give the player the option of working with an alternate killer, which allows you to branch out. Many authors think along linear narratives instead.
Since we were still developing the technology, we built software for writers to create narrative games, and for the last two years we’ve been teaching young children ten years and older how to do this and have been using them as our testers. Also, I gave a TEDx talk last week about what ten-year-olds have been telling us about our tech start-up. So, this has all been a four-year culmination of preparing our software. We raised half a million dollars from friends and family, because venture capital has yet to understand what we do. If you type in Book Meets Game, you’ll wind up at our site, because that’s the simplest way to explain what we do.
For more on Charlaine Harris visit charlaineharris.com
More can be found on One More Story Games at onemorestorygames.com
Elizabeth Crowens is a Hollywood veteran, journalist and author of Silent Meridian, a 19th century X Files / alternate history novel series. It won First Prize for Chanticleer Review’s Goethe Awards in Turn of the Century Historical Fiction and was short-listed as a finalist for their 2016 Cygnus Awards in Speculative Fiction, Paranormal and Ozma Fantasy Awards. www.elizabethcrowens.com, Facebook: @BooksbyElizabethCrowens, Twitter: @ECrowens