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Feature Interview: Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris is the New York Times bestselling author of The Southern Vampire Mysteries series. The series features Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress who works in a bar in the fictional Northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps. Sookie Stackhouse’s world is peopled with vampires and other supernatural creatures. The series is the basis for the hit HBO television show True Blood. Harris is also the author of the Harper Connelly Mysteries series, which follows the adventures of a young woman who gains supernatural powers after being struck by lightning. Before turning her hand to urban fantasy, Harris was also the author of several straight mystery novels, including the Aurora Teagarden series, in which amateur sleuths solve old crimes, and the Lily Bard series, featuring a karate-student and cleaning lady who gets unwillingly dragged into one murder mystery after another. She has also co-edited several urban fantasy anthologies with Toni L. P. Kelner, such as Home Improvement: Undead Edition and Wolfsbane and Mistletoe.

This interview first appeared in io9’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Visit io9.com/tag/geeksguide to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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Dead Reckoning by Charlaine HarrisIn your Southern Vampire Mysteries series (and in True Blood), vampires are able to come out of the shadows with the advent of synthetic blood. How did you first come up with the idea of vampires drinking synthetic blood?

My initial thought on the series was I wanted to write about a woman dating a vampire. But to make them less frightening, to give them a reason for being out, I had to develop a theory that would let them look less vicious. So they would have to have another food source. So I read some articles about synthetic blood, which never has really worked out before now—though people have made the attempt—and it seemed to me like a viable synthetic blood would be the perfect answer to my problems. Vampires would say, “Oh no, we’re not dangerous. We drink synthetic blood. We don’t want to grab you and bite you.” And people could believe that because people are gullible.

Every series has slightly different rules when it comes to how the vampires work. For your series, how did you come up with the rules, and is that something you worked out in detail to start with, or did the rules just sort of evolve naturally as the story took shape?

I started out knowing a few things. First, they wouldn’t be able to go out in daylight. In the [Bram Stoker] book, Dracula is a day-walker, but I had to have some system of checks and balances, I figured, because otherwise vampires are so powerful that there really wouldn’t be any point in humans trying to outwit them or stand up to them. There were some things I just decided not to tackle.

For some reason, and I can’t quite understand why, readers are secretly fascinated with the physical output of vampires. They are always trying to think of a nice way of saying, “Do your vampires poop?” Or, “Do your vampires ejaculate?” And I’m just going, you know, vampire bathroom habits are just not interesting to me.

The Sookie Stackhouse series seems equally likely to appeal to fans of horror, mystery, and romance. Was that by design?

Absolutely. I don’t really plan my career out in any detail, which is one reason my success was so late in life, but I did hope that if I adopted a kitchen sink approach, which was something I’d always wanted to do, that it would appeal to mystery readers, romance readers, horror readers, and hopefully science fiction writers too.

You’ve said you’re reaching the end of the Sookie Stackhouse series. Do you have any thoughts about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to wrapping up a long-running series?

I have a lot of thoughts. I haven’t ever wrapped up a series that ran this long. The previous series, I don’t think they’ve exceeded seven or eight books, so this is a new experience for me. I’ve lived with Sookie for a long, long time. By the time the last book is published, which will be in 2013, and it will be the thirteenth book, I will have been with Sookie for fifteen years—almost the entire growing-up period of my daughter, actually. So that is going to be kind of a jolt not to have her here anymore living in the house with me, but at the same time I find that facing the end of the series is giving me the most tremendous shot in the arm.

Can you give examples of other series you think ended well or ended poorly, and what made them good and bad?

Well, of course, I thought the ending of Six Feet Under was brilliant. And I am one of the few people I know who thought Lost was great; I thought the ending was fantastic. For book series, I’m not completely sure that I’ve known other people who’ve wrapped up long-running series and I’ve lasted through to the last book, so all I can say is thanks to my readers who have, and I’ve always known how the series would end and that’s how it’s going to end. I know I can’t make everybody happy. That’s why I’m going to go on vacation when the last book comes out!

What did you like about the finales of Six Feet Under and Lost?

I thought the Six Feet Under finale was unexpected and poignant. Alan went to all of the characters at their moment of death, and since death was the theme of the show, that seemed weirdly appropriate, and something I would never have thought of, and I always admire that.

The ending of Lost was mystical, and a lot of people thought it was cheap, but I didn’t. It felt satisfying to me. And it had sort of a Six Feet Under-ish vibe to it too, and kind of a Titanic vibe—you know, when all the Titanic people who died are waiting at the end for Rose to come?—the ending of Lost was sort of reminiscent of that too. So I guess it seems I like a lot of death at the end.

The TV show True Blood kicked off with this really interesting viral marketing campaign that made it seem as if synthetic blood was an actual product and as if vampires were really making their existence known. What did you think about that?

I think HBO has a wonderful marketing department. They seem to have hit a vein—ha, ha—with people. Their marketing was very successful, very attractive, and very exciting.

True Blood diverges significantly from your books, to the extent that you’ve said you often don’t know what’s going to happen next on the show. What have been some of the biggest surprises for you while you’ve watched it?

There’ve been many surprises, almost too many to name. I think knowing that in the book Jason sleeps around is an important fact about his character, but on the screen we actually see him doing that, and it certainly has quite a different impact. And that was a tremendous, startling moment to me and I thought “ooh.” Because Jason in the books is a stupid horn dog, and he is in the show too—he’s a little sweeter in the show than he is in the books. Jessica was a complete surprise to me, but I think a brilliant one. She’s not in the books, and I think she’s a great addition to the show. Those are the two most startling, I think. Of course, Lafayette lived, and I kind of expected that; Nelsan Ellis saved his own life by being so brilliant in the show, and in the books, of course, he wasn’t that great, or as charming as Nelsan, and he died.

You’ve said that Anne Rice is one of your favorite authors. Could you tell us about why you enjoy her writing and what sort of influence she’s had on you?

Sure. I’m not such a great fan of her witch books, but her vampire books I just loved. Interview With the Vampire, at the time it was published, was one of the most startling, innovative books on the market and it held that private place for many years. I just can’t tell you how impressed I was with the originality of her thinking. I still think that book was just a masterstroke. And I think so many of her ideas are classics. She’s had as much influence on the vampire genre as Dracula did.

Was there anything in particular she did that you wanted to emulate and anything that you wanted to do differently?

Well, I can’t write like her. There’s no point in me trying. I’ve got a different agenda than Anne Rice. So I don’t try to emulate her except, I hope, in my goal of producing the best work I can possibly produce. So there are great differences. And the background of Anne’s vampires, since they can’t and are not interested in having sex, there’s a tremendous homoerotic vibration going on in the background of all of the books, and in my books vampires can have sex and are, you know, very enthusiastic about that with whomever they feel like having it. So mine is a more overt and obvious sexuality than that in Anne’s books.

The Twilight series has been a big hit in recent years, particularly among teenage girls. What’s been your take on the whole Twilight phenomenon?

I think that Stephanie Meyer hit the nerve she was trying for. Honestly, I think it was like a shot in the dark that paid off big for her. And I’m really glad for anybody that can make money in today’s market. She opened the door for a lot of people. Because of her, a lot of young people are growing up reading about vampires that might not necessarily have enjoyed the genre otherwise, and I also think her readers grow up to read my books. I’ve read her books. She says she does not read other vampire writers ever. So, you know, I don’t know her, and that’s probably all I can say about the Twilight books.

Did you grow up reading vampire stories yourself or was that something you got interested in later?

I grew up reading anything I could get my hands on. I’ve always been a voracious reader and remain so to this day. I read mysteries; I read classics; I read Dracula; I read anything and everything, and I think that was a wonderful, wonderful freedom my parents gave me.

Were there any particular books that really inspired you when you were younger?

There were. And since I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, I can actually remember the names of some of them. I think Jane Eyre was the basic book for the whole romance field. If you look at the elements in Jane Eyre, they’ve been repeated over and over and over. The unconventional heroine who looks conventional on the outside; the brooding hero; the mad wife; the big block to their happiness ever after, which gets removed. And then The Three Musketeers, which is like the seminal buddy movie but written, and believe me, The Three Musketeers, the original novel, is not anything like the children’s version or the movie version. It’s a very bawdy book with a lot of very unconventional relationships in it. Those were two that were really, really important to me and I’m sure there were many others. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, you know, on and on and on.

According to your website you’re a science fiction fan. Who are some of your favorite authors these days in science fiction specifically, as opposed to fantasy and horror?

Connie Willis is one of my huge favorites. Julie Czerneda I think is very, very good. Mike Carey is so good. Oh my gosh, there are just so many. I just read a wonderful book called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline that I thought just blew my socks off. I was lucky enough to read it a few months ago in manuscript form and it’s really totally gratifying to see it getting big, big publicity now.

Your Harper Connelly series features a main character who develops supernatural powers after getting struck by lightning. How did you get that idea, and what sort of research did you do on the effects of being struck by lightning?

I did research lightning even though to me it’s still pretty much magic, though I’ve read the scientific explanation many times. And luckily for me, there is a group for lightning strike survivors. They were kind enough to let me listen in for a while, which I appreciated very much. It’s a select group of people who keep having physical problems for many, many years after the original incident. It was just fascinating and touching to read the difficulties they had with the medical establishment and getting treatment for these various problems they develop.

Your bibliography lists a piece you wrote called “An Evening with Al Gore.” Can you tell us what that’s about?

Oh, that’s my ecological horror story. I just loved that story. It was really very different for me. It’s about some supernatural creatures who are really struck by Al Gore’s arguments in favor of recycling and turning the world around, and they carry it to a very extreme degree.

In addition to writing, you’ve also edited a number of anthologies. How did you get involved with that, and what sort of books have you worked on before?

I was approached by Marty Greenberg, God bless his memory, and Marty was interested in producing an anthology that I would edit. I didn’t feel qualified to take that on by myself, but my dear and close friend Toni Kelner is a fantastic editor, and so I told Marty—and this was several years ago—that I would be glad to undertake it if Toni could be my partner, and he readily agreed. So Toni and I are about to do our fifth anthology together, and that has been a great learning experience for me. I get to read other writers and figure out what makes their stories work or not, and then I have to be really, really tactful when I ask them to make changes, so it’s been very good for me all the way around.

Your most recent one that came out was a sort of supernatural home improvement kind of book. Where did that idea come from?

We sit down to brainstorm—we did special occasions for the first few: birthdays, the holidays, vacations, but then we thought home improvement would be fun. Everybody’s got a terrible story about home improvement. They don’t usually end as bloodily as the stories in our books. The next one’s going to be set in any kind of school or classroom, and is going to be called An Apple for the Creature.

Could you give an example or two of the stories in which home improvement goes bloodily wrong?

Oh, sure. Melissa Marr’s got a great story in there about a neighborhood watch situation where the person in charge of enforcing the neighborhood rules pushes him once too many times. And there’s a great haunting story in there, too, where a woman comes back to try to redo the apartment where she actually killed her boyfriend many decades before.

Are there any other recent or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?

The Sookie Stackhouse Companion [just came out]. And it has been delayed once, so I’m very glad to see it finally appearing on the shelves. It was a huge coordination nightmare because so many people were involved. I wrote an original novella for it, and there’s an interview with me, an interview with Alan Ball, there’s a timeline, there’s a family tree, there’s a map, there’s a compendium of all the characters that have ever been in any Sookie novel; it was just a massive undertaking. It got to where I would almost break out in hives when I saw “companion” in the subject line of an email.

What have been some of the most interesting comments that people have posted on your message board?

“Interesting” can be interpreted so many different ways. Some people are so invested in Sookie’s relationships that they develop a violent partisanship between one suitor and another, and finally we had to just ban that discussion from the board. People get very, very vehement. One woman said “Oh, if Sookie doesn’t end up with Eric, I’m going to kill myself.” And I said, “Surely not! Surely you wouldn’t.” And there have been pretty intense arguments over other aspects of the book. I just never expected all that. Of course I guess I’m just not used to anybody paying attention to me!

I know that Laurell K. Hamilton has had problems with some of her fans. Have you had any problems like that?

Not, probably, as intense as Laurell’s, but yes, I’ve had a problem or two. I had one person who showed up at, oh, four or five of my signings in a row, and they were pretty widely separated geographically, so that was of a little concern to me. I’ve had people who seem very, very intense about whether or not Sookie would end up with Eric, very intense about that to the point where I’m a little concerned about them.

That actually does it for our questions. We don’t want to end on that note, though. Is there anything cheerful you’d like to talk about to wrap things up?

Well, let’s see. Toni and my new anthology is out; the companion is out; I have wrapped up the next Sookie, which will be out next May, it’s called Deadlocked. Then I have a short story to write for Joe Lansdale. I have one to write for our anthology. Then I’ll start Sookie Thirteen and finish it. And then I can write whatever I want to write!

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast that airs on io9.com. It is hosted by:

John Joseph AdamsJohn Joseph Adams, in addition to serving as editor of Lightspeed and Fantasy Magazine, is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, The Living Dead, The Living Dead 2, By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Way of the Wizard. In 2011, he was a finalist for two Hugo Awards and two World Fantasy Awards. Forthcoming anthologies include: Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom (February, Simon & Schuster), Armored (April, Baen Books), and The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination (Fall, Tor Books). John is also the co-host of io9’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.

David Barr KirtleyDavid Barr Kirtley has published fiction in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Lightspeed, Intergalactic Medicine Show, On Spec, and Cicada, and in anthologies such as New Voices in Science Fiction, Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and The Dragon Done It. Recently he’s contributed stories to several of John Joseph Adams’s anthologies, including The Living Dead, The Living Dead 2, and The Way of the Wizard. He’s attended numerous writing workshops, including Clarion, Odyssey, Viable Paradise, James Gunn’s Center for the Study of Science Fiction, and Orson Scott Card’s Writers Bootcamp, and he holds an MFA in screenwriting and fiction from the University of Southern California. He also teaches regularly at Alpha, a Pittsburgh-area science fiction workshop for young writers, and is the other co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. He lives in New York.