The Poison Apple: Talking About Ghosts — an Interview with the Queen of Many Genres, Heather Graham
Elizabeth: Heather, of all people you’ve not only explored many genres but often you’ve blended them together.
Heather: Recently at ThrillerFest, I encountered other authors who had a stigma against horror and its association with slasher themes. If it has ghosts or similar phenomena call it paranormal. I’m so glad now that genres do cross so much. Seriously, Conan the Barbarian — great romance. Look at the love between the two of them. Star Wars — its adventure but it’s a romance, too. My first sales were romance novels.
How many books have you written, and how long have you been writing?
I don’t know the exact number, but it’s been over two hundred. My first book was sold in 1982 and published in 1983.
You started off with a theater background. What got you from that into the writing?
I loved what I did and still do, and that’s why we do the parties at the Romantic Times Convention and we always do dinner theater at Writers for New Orleans. That’s why we have the Slush Pile Band.
I noticed you’ve also used the pen name of Shannon Drake.
I did, and it’s been a thankfully long career. I had started off in contemporary, and I had some historical novels. At that time, I was with Dell, and they wanted to keep doing contemporary. I had given that editor one of the historicals. There were two things I was doing. One was my mom was born in Ireland, and I wanted to do a book on the founding of Ireland by the Vikings. My husband’s family is a very large Italian family, and dozens of them live in Massachusetts. We went up and down the coast from where we lived in Florida, and when you have kids you go to museums, to churches — you go to reenactments and affordable things for a family to do along the way. So, I went to 18 million reenactments and 18 million museums and wanted to do something not on what our perceptions were of the Civil War but more on the real circumstances of the war. I wrote the books One Road Blue, One Road Gray and One Road West, the first one being what’s happening in the North, the second being what’s happening in the South, and the third being the country’s devastation, and that’s when the westward expansion really began.
Peter James Heather Graham George R.R. Martin
Now, these are straight historical romances, right? How old were you then?
Oh, yes. I was in my early twenties. This is definitely one thing I have to be grateful to Kathryn Falk for, because she came to Miami and wanted me to see her magazine. An editor at Pinnacle named Liza Dawson was looking for historical material written with a voice like Heather Graham. So, I sent that off to her, and she bought the historicals. But at that time, everyone was proprietorial about their names. That’s why I had sixty seconds for my pseudonym. I thought it was this heavy thing that I could ponder over for hours, but she said, “Oh no, I need it now.” That’s when two of my kids, Shayne and Derek, walked into the room, and I came up with the name Shannon Drake.
To me, the truly intelligent use of a pseudonym is how I started out, because it separated the contemporary books from the historicals. But then they wanted to do vampires under Shannon Drake, as well and vampire historicals aren’t really the same. To me the name should designate the genre. It’s brilliant too how people do things like Mary Stevens will always be a historical and Mary Elizabeth Stevens will always be contemporary. I’m not saying that I did this, but I think that’s the intelligent way to do it. The worst thing you want to do is to fool the reader. Even when they put books back out that are old — I want people to know if you enjoyed it, if you lost it and gave it away and want to buy it again — great! I like people to know what they’re getting.
Heather Graham and RL Stine
One of the things that amazes me at this point — and I’ve read four of your novels by now — the first Krewe of Hunters, a more recent one in the series — Fade to Black, Wake the Dead and Dying to Have Her, which is romantic suspense without any paranormal activity — I’ve obviously noticed you’re extremely prolific, and yet you’ve done quite a few historicals. Obviously, this takes an enormous amount of research. Besides the Civil War, you’ve done Viking, you’ve done a medieval series — when you were writing the heavy duty historicals were you still writing three to four books a year?
That’s why they love the Krewe of Hunters using the ghosts. I am a commercial writer and under contract. If I’m trying to write something, I will write it, but I never stop loving history — I’m crazy about history. That’s one thing about the ghosts that I love. Last year’s Krewe had Edgar Allan Poe in it, because it’s an amazing mystery as to how Poe died. He disappeared for three days and nobody knows what happened. He never became coherent again. So, I love that mystery and could bring Poe back to explore that mystery as to what went on.
I heard this great, true story that took place in St. Francis, Louisiana. They were shelling all along the Mississippi River. Everyone was trying to get up to Vicksburg, and a Union captain, who was beloved by his crew, had this terrible fever, which caused him to shoot and kill himself. His crew loved him and didn’t want to dump him in the Mississippi River. Some of them were masons, so they used a white flag (Flag of Truce). They asked to see the ranking mason. The ranking Confederate mason came and saw them, and they stopped the war for an entire day. He was buried with full masonic honors. The Confederate captain who made this happen didn’t die for another forty years, but he’s buried next to him at Grace Church. This is the most beautiful story, and I had to use that in something. Because of my ghosts, I get to go back and take advantage of great stories like this.
Talking about the ghosts, you obviously started out writing straight romance, correct?
Yes, but I killed people in the very first book.
When did you start getting involved with the paranormal elements? I know you have a vampire series, and I know you have a lot of ghosts and haunted paintings such as in Waking the Dead.
Waking the Dead was something I loved working on because, again, an event such as a mini-Ice Age caused following events like the French Revolution, because people were starving, because they couldn’t grow the food needed… all the way up to the Irish Potato Famine. It might also have caused Frankenstein to be written, because usually they would’ve been boating and playing tennis, but the weather was so freakin’ miserable they were staying inside, and that’s why Mary Shelley ended up writing. That’s why history is so full of amazing things.
It was a natural evolution out of curiosity not particularly based on scary movies?
My parents were huge Poe fans, Lovecraft — all sorts of things like that. When I was a little kid I always loved The Twilight Zone and Hammer Films.
Those were the best, and they were Gothic films, too. Not like the splatter punk stuff that happened later on.
They had much more of that eerie, spooky twist.
Lee Child and Heather Graham
I could not put down your recent novel, Fade to Black.
Oh, thank you.
To me, that was a Genrepalooza. You’ve got a Comicon. You’ve got the cast of a thinly disguised Dark Shadows-type of Gothic soap opera that was extremely popular, and then you’ve got a Skeletor-type of villain who kills someone when everyone else around thinks it’s mere cosplay, and she comes back as a ghost.
One of my favorite characters from that novel is their diva mother. Imagine having a meddling mother-in-law, but she’s dead. I don’t go to it because I don’t have time, but you’d love Monsterpalooza, and there’s Son of Monsterpalooza. It’s all the fabricators and makeup artists. It’s the coolest thing in the world.
Where are these events and when?
They’re in California. One’s in the spring, and one’s in the fall. One of our friends worked over at Stan Winston Studios and got permission to take us through there. It was the coolest thing in the world, because we see a rotting corpse with one eye and long hair next to the smiling Geico pig. I think I used this place in one of my novels, but I have to go back through and refresh my memory with the titles. The next Krewe of Hunters novel is based on the Black Dahlia. It’s called Pale as Death.
Have you ever had any personal psychic experiences?
I’ve had some experiences where you wonder about things, but I have friends that are part of a group called the Peace River Ghost Trackers from the Peace River area of Florida. They are adorable, charming, wonderful people. They go to places and try to prove that what they find is not paranormal. It’s not that they’re not believers, or that they are. They want to find out what is going on, and if there’s a plausible explanation. I’ve done a lot of things with them — the Spanish military hospital in St. Augustine, a tour of the Queen Mary underbelly…
Did you see anything at the Queen Mary?
I hadn’t known much about it, but someone said that a murder had taken place back in one of the dressing rooms. I walked through there and didn’t feel anything, except there were some stairs in the back with one room where I was acutely uncomfortable. Then my daughter, Chynna, and Sprout, the woman from the Peace River group went in with some type of hearing device. Later we found out that room was where the guy dragged the body after the person was murdered. Was there something there? I don’t know, but the funniest thing that happened that time was Chynna and her friend Saxon took a wrong turn. They wandered off and walked into this room where they found bodies hanging — at the same time they were getting it ready for Halloween.
Then I remember the Spanish military hospital. The Peace River Group had their cameras set up and recorders in every room. I wound up being in the main room watching the recording, and I started seeing a black shadow on the recording. It was so creepy. Then I called one of the guys and said, “Greg, it might be something.” He put his hand on my shoulder and replied, “Yes, that’s Scott’s shadow as he walks across the room.”
However, I have a friend who’s a big, tough macho cop and would certainly not believe in anything paranormal. But his belief has completely changed, because he went to the scene of an accident one day. There had been a major pileup — five or six cars involved and a gas spill. He went to a car, and there was a man in the front seat. While he was getting the man out, the man told him hysterically, “You’ve got to get my daughter! She’s stuck in the back.”
The police officer got him to the paramedic and ran back to get his daughter, a little girl who had been hiding under the seat, because she was terrified. He got the little girl and took her to a paramedic. Then he went back to find out how her father was doing, and the paramedic said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. His neck is broken. He was dead on impact.”
Talking about weird things in Florida, I think it was at Bouchercon last year in 2017 where you brought up the story about that crazy necrophiliac in Key West.
For seven years this guy bought piano wire, mortician’s wax, cologne, chiffon…
Heather Graham and David Morrell
Do you remember this guy’s name?
Yes, Carl Tanzler. It was back in the 1930s. The woman had TB, and he kept telling her family he could save her, but back then it was an automatic death sentence. You can’t make this stuff up.
I’m curious outside of your Peace River friends, do you have contacts with the local police departments and historical societies to tell you about strange stories they encounter?
Oh yeah. The old City of Miami Cemetery is fascinating. It’s interesting how you’ll get a Union soldier with his Union placard buried right next to a Confederate soldier with his Confederate placard.
Talking about old cemeteries, New Orleans… they’re so crazy and so creepy.
I don’t know if it has changed, but the St. Louis Cemetery had gotten to the point where you had to be on a guided tour to go through. During our first Writers for New Orleans conference they still didn’t have things locked up, and our first event was a carriage ride. They were just bringing us by the cemetery, but we all went in.
Obviously, it’s an enigmatic city. What about New Orleans inspired you to use it as the setting in so many of your novels?
People’s perceptions sometimes get me. In a way, New Orleans is a tourist city and many people want to party on Bourbon Street, but New Orleans isn’t just Bourbon Street. I think that also happens with Key West when you think of all the bachelor parties over there. On one hand you have Bourbon Street, and on the other you have Duval. In Key West there’s a great cemetery over there, and once upon a time there were bodies popping up in the street after a hurricane. That’s when they moved the cemetery. It was around the 1850s.
Please help me out for not having read all your books, but do you also have a series in Key West?
Yes, the Bone Island Trilogy. In fact, the third book coming out this year goes back to Key West. It’s funny, that one came about, because a very good friend of mine who’s a musician down there was playing one night and said, “I want to come back and be a promiscuous ghost.”
You’ve also written vampire series. That stuff was earlier, correct?
I had started something that would’ve ended around 2012, but the publishing company I was working with wanted to shift gears. I always felt badly, because the series stood alone but should’ve gone on. One day, I’d like to get back to it. This would be the Alliance Vampire series. For its concept, I wanted it to be female, and in a modern setting. However, it was during the American Revolution or the Civil War when she was attacked, and her father was desperate to save her where she initially became a vampire. She’s a strange mix of someone who doesn’t want to hurt her fellow human beings and attacks a lot of cows and things like that in order to survive, but in order to keep her house she keeps coming back to New Orleans as her own child or grandchild, and any time she has to get rid of her lifetime she goes off again. Then there are murders with a detective on the trail, and the vampire protagonist knows she didn’t do them.
Heather Graham and her husband Dennis
So, it does have a mystery/thriller element and is not just a vampire novel.
Oh yes, and there’s also Lucien, the “king” of the vampires, once a very bad character, but learning the modern ways of life and gaining a soul, in a way. Things are easier in modern times. Way back when, you had to shoot your chickens. Now, you can buy them in the local grocery store. Back then, no blood banks — something we do have now. However, even in the vampire novels, there’s a mystery you always have to solve, and often the vampires are trying to prove they didn’t do the killing.
And you’ve done Westerns.
Years ago, I’ll never forget this one time the sales force of my publishing company wanted me to do a Western. That’s when I realized despite my travels that I had never been west of the Mississippi. Then I looked into the whole westward expansion and was fascinated by the Sioux. Then I get a call from the editor at the time, and I’ll tell you how that came about because Kevin Costner had done Dances with Wolves. Then I get a call from them wanting to know if I could bring this into Scotland. The only thing I was able to think of was the Sioux attacking Edinburgh Castle or a bagpiper at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Anyway, I made a Sioux half-Scottish. These were historical romances — no paranormal elements, nor were they mysteries — No Other Woman, No Other Man, and No Other Love. I can’t believe I remember those titles!
I’m assuming, because you do a fair number of workshops and travel and you’re putting out three or four books a year, do you have a full-time assistant who does your social media?
No, but I do have Connie Perry who has been one of my closest friends before we ever started this. Her main thing is she’s a Mardi Gras costumer. We have more fun doing ridiculous things, keeps everything fresh and good, and I love workshops. I think they regenerate everybody — getting to socialize and hear the new things. Sometimes she’s with me. Sometimes she’s not.
Is she one of the people in which you’ve batted ideas back and forth, because you’ve covered so many bases compared to most authors.
You’ll always come across another thing like the day the war stopped, or the guy who lived with a corpse for seven years. There’s been a lot of history before us, so it’s very hard to run out.
Are there any areas you would love to delve into going forward that you’ve never really explored?
I think an area I’d like to explore more of is a lot of the confusions and perceptions we have about history in general. I have an upcoming novel based on the concept that a lot of people believe the Ark of the Covenant came over to the New World and was buried on an island in Canada. Historically, what we do know that the Knights Templar were involved. Their persecutions forced them to move northward toward Scotland where there was still heavy trading with the Vikings, and of course the Vikings came to North America. It was so much fun to follow that whole concept. Instead, I made up my own island in New York and followed the history of what was going on at the time. Of course, there are murders on this island that bring out the FBI.
Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you. Writing romance — you’ve been married thirty-five years with your husband with five kids? Longer?
(Nods.) I got married when I was eighteen. I met him when I was fifteen.
Okay, we’ll do the math… I noticed you’ve got some really steamy stuff going on.
My husband, Dennis, is so funny. One time I was at my desk, and I felt him sitting behind me. I turned around and he said, “You know you can’t write from memory forever.”
More can be found on Heather Graham at www.theorignalheathergraham.com.
Elizabeth Crowens is the award-winning author of the Time Traveler Professor series — Silent Meridian and A Pocketful of Lodestones. The first novel will be re-released and debuted together with its sequel in the summer of 2019. She also writes in the Hollywood suspense genre. www.elizabethcrowens.com