Interview: Charlaine Harris

“Let’s get this straight right now, I am not in the business of writing what people ask me to write…”

Charlaine Harris has had a lengthy career in fiction, stretching back long before her Sookie Stackhouse stories, which formed the basis of the True Blood television series and propelled her into literary superstardom. SciFiNow had a chance to sit down with Harris in London recently, while she was in the UK promoting her latest novel, Dead In The Family.

CharlaineHarrisCan you tell us a little about your background? When did you start writing?

Well, I started writing when I was very young, since I learned how to hold a pencil and form the letters. I grew up in extremely rural Mississippi, my Dad was a farmer and my Mum was a librarian. As I grew older, my Dad took a job in the school system, and he was a school principal. I’ve always loved to write and read – my family revered books, my brother read also – we were just a reading family, and that was our big thing I guess.

And you started off writing mystery stories?

I did, I started off writing conventional mysteries for years.

What prompted the move into more fantasy-based fiction?

Well, my career wasn’t going quite where I wanted to go. I don’t do a lot of thinking about my career, because I’m always just so grateful to be published at all. But I was just stuck in the Midwest, and it seemed like no matter what I wrote it couldn’t pull me out, so I thought ‘I’ll just write something completely different. I’ll just throw in everything I’ve always wanted to write about and see if it works.’ And it did, although I’ve gotta say the first book took two years for my agent to sell.

Two years? We’d bet a lot of publishers are kicking themselves now.

Well, they made a point, and I think it was a legitimate point if short-sighted in retrospect, that it was impossible to classify the books and impossible to know where to shelve them.

So was there a specific point where the idea for the books came about, or was it just an amalgamation, as you said?

I actually sat down and thought about it very carefully. I didn’t want to write a book from the vampire’s point of view because, of course, Anne Rice did that better than anybody is going to do it. And I didn’t want to write about the southern part of Louisiana, which is so beautiful, picturesque and atmospheric. So I guess I started by bouncing off Anne Rice territory, and I thought that it would be interesting to try to write something funny, because people are always saying, ‘Oh you’ve got such a great sense of humour, why don’t you write something funny’. I thought that I could try that, but humour’s hard. It’s difficult. So I thought okay, it’ll be funny, it’ll be set in northern Louisiana, because nobody cares about that, and instead of writing about the vampire it would be about somebody who’s trying to date the vampire and the problems they would have. And that was really the kernel of the whole series.

Vampires are very much in vogue now, with Stephenie Meyers’ books popularising it of course, although yours predate that by quite some margin. Why do you think they’ve become so popular?

I have a couple of ideas about that. I actually think, it came to me after a show I watched on TV where I saw a woman who’d had 22 plastic surgeries, and I thought that people really are interested in looking the same as they look in their peak condition, forever. Vampires do that, so they’re the embodiment of what people really want, or what people seem to want, which is to look young forever.

So there’s an element of narcissism to it?

Yes, I definitely think so, especially people who go ‘I really want to be a vampire’ because that’s just… I don’t think they’ve really thought it through. But they want to look the same as they do in their prime period. I also think, now that we’re in a time of economic distress, and have been or will be apparently for another year or two, people are always more interested in reading fantasy when times are bad.

Earlier, you said that when you were writing mystery novels, your career wasn’t really going where you wanted it. Now you’re a New York Times and Sunday Times bestselling author – does that ever make you pause?

Constantly! I think the benefit to me from having such a long career is that I don’t take it for granted, and I also know there’s every chance that things will go down as well as up. I’m really grateful for what I’ve got, and it’s really nice to get to do wonderful things like go to London!

When your books reach the level of popularity that these have, is there a lot of pressure when you’re writing the next instalment to take fan reaction into consideration?

Fan reaction, I try not to think about, because I’ve already fought that war with the fans. If you can call it that. A lot of people were upset with the previous book, Dead And Gone. They said I wrote it wrong.

Despite the fact that you’re the writer?

Yeah. Okay, let’s get this straight right now, I am not in the business of writing what people ask me to write. I write what I want to, and I’m telling the story, really, the best way that I know how. I swear to God, every book I try to write, I try to write better. I try to find a new way to do it, I work as hard as I can to write that book. It’s just very distressing for people to say ‘Oh well, you know, she’s just phoning it in now.’ I’m not. I take what I do real seriously.

It must be quite personal, because you spend a lot of time with these characters.

I do, and I try to do the best I can to tell their story. So to make a long story short, and not to sound so whiny, I just don’t read my Amazon reviews any more, because they don’t have to sign them and they say really cruel things. I’m sure some of them I deserve – no writer is above criticism and I don’t think any writer ought to be, but there comes a point where to preserve your own mental health you have to say ‘I’m just going to do the best I can and hope that people like it.’

Do you read critical reviews from newspapers and magazines?

I do, because they’re signed. I do read those, and I do feel like I learn from them.

Next: Dead In The Family, the end of the series, and talking True Blood…