In the current issue of Writer’s Digest, we have a profile of Charlaine Harris, the delightful and hilarious author behind the Southern Vampire Mysteries—the basis for the HBO series “True Blood.”
But even though the story is on newsstands, I still have a mountain of leftover notes from the interview. So rather than let them sit dormant in my WD vault forever (insert egregious vampire-stuck-in-coffin pun here), here are some of the highlights and outtakes from the interview with Harris—in which she talks about everything from why she tends to stick to first person to the future of her vampire series and, yes, how she owns her own custom fangs. As always, a regular writing prompt follows. (And for a prompt directly from Harris, click here.)
How old were you when you first felt the need to write, or where did it come from in your history?
“That was always my secret identity. Other kids want to be other things, but all I ever wanted to be, really, was a writer.”
[You became a full-time writer after your husband presented you with an electric typewriter and an offer to stay home and work on your material.] Is writing full time an important development for a writer?
“It is. It was for me. I know a lot of writers who are still coming home in the evening from their day jobs and writing. That would be incredibly hard.”
Did you ever feel compelled to give up over the years?
“Oh, no. No, that’s where just burying my head in the sand had its uses. Because I thought, well, I’m just gonna keep going, I’m just gonna keep on doing whatever I can think of to do and it’ll just work out somehow. And it did. But of course I had the luxury of doing that because my husband’s a chemical engineer and he was able to support me and the kids. If it had been my income that was my sole means of support, I certainly would have reacted differently.”
Did you know that [the Southern Vampire Mysteries] would have a different reception than your earlier series? ?
“Oh yeah, I was definitely trying to appeal to a broader readership because my mysteries had always done OK, but not great, and I thought, you know, if not now, when? This is the time. Amazingly, it worked.
Who inspires your work, and who has impacted your work?
“Hmm. Well, of course, the late, great Shirley Jackson has been a tremendous influence on me, I think. I can only aspire to be the writer she was. And there are so many writers I know and enjoy and I feel like I get something from each of them, like they’re all teaching me. Of course, I’m a huge Jane Austen fan. But I enjoy a very diverse bunch of writers. And hopefully I’ve, you know, melded them all into my own style.”
[Ed. note: For good vampire fiction, Harris recommends Barbara Hambly’s Those Who Hunt the Night and Traveling With the Dead, early Anne Rice novels, and books by Christopher Golden. As Harris says, “There have just been a lot of good vampire books, and all of them have their own pluses and minuses, but they all give a fresh look at the genre.”]
What is your best craft advice?
“I think you have to read everything you can get your hands on. And then you have to write. And there’s nothing that will teach you how to write more than writing. I’m still learning with every book. … I know that some writers lock into a method and that’s what they do, but I’m still thinking some day I’ll find the right way to write a book and it’ll be easier. It never is. So you just have to read, read, read, and then write. My strongest advice is not to tell anybody. You know, I think all the writers or the people who’ve wanted to be writers that I’ve met, who would sit down and describe the book they were working on in detail, were people who were never really gonna write it.”
What is the worst craft advice you’ve heard?
“[Laughs] I’ve heard quite a bit. Some of the advice I hear is so forward of where the writer is … when the first thing you have to do is write the damn book. I mean, you know, you’ve got to get the best possible book written. And I think that people who pay more attention to all the trappings are the people who will never write a great book.”
It’s easy to get lost in all of the other stuff.
“It is. I think it’s certainly possible to be an OK writer and still get absorbed in that, but maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic—I believe if you write a great book, the chances are it’ll get a great reception.”
As far as your style, why do you tend to write in first person?
“Because I get into the character better that way. I think there are a lot of similarities between writing and acting, and I think that part of that for me is assuming the character of the person, of my protagonist. I really enjoy writing that way, I enjoy being that person. I enjoy knowing how that person would react. I have written in the third person, though rarely. And that can be fun, too, but it’s almost like a writing exercise for me.”
Aside from your regular writing process, do you have any other rituals or tics?
“Nooo. I’m not against that, but the way I was brought up, that would seem self-indulgent. There’s not anything wrong with being self-indulgent [laughs] but I just wasn’t brought up that way. I’ve developed a few tics as the years go along, but really nothing outstanding.”
What are some of the challenges unique to writing a series?
“Oh, keeping track of everything! Oh my god, that is so hard. That’s just the … that is … incredibly difficult.”
Do you ever write from personal places?
“Absolutely, I certainly do. Quite a lot of my writing comes from really some dark places in my life.”
Does [your vampire series protagonist] Sookie Stackhouse come from any of your own experiences?
“No, but I think the idea of telepathy has always been interesting to me because I think that would just be absolutely horrible. When I was considering what kind of disability she had, that was the one that made the most sense to me in terms of where I wanted her to go, and I really considered some ridiculous disabilities.”
As some writers have said before, is it ever hard when your work is so closely associated with an adaptation on another medium, like “True Blood”?
“Well, I’m certainly not going to quarrel with that because it made my sales just skyrocket, so I can only be delighted about that. However, people do sometimes get confused about the differences in the characters between the books and the show. And you know, we’ve had to almost—on my website—we’ve had to establish a difference between show Eric and book Eric, because they’re not the same, really.”
… On a mildly related side note, I’ve heard you have your own custom vampire fangs.
“I do. But I got them years ago … probably 10 years ago, even. … I thought that was the funniest thing in the universe when I got my own custom fangs. It was before I’d ever written a vampire novel; I just thought I was so cool, I thought it was really funny. And now so many vampire writers say, ‘Oh, that’s so cheesy having fangs,’ and I thought, Well, I like mine! But they really do still look awfully good.”
Can we coax any morsels about how the series will end?
“Nope. I have signed for three more, and I’ll sign for more after that if I don’t feel like concluding the series. I’m just going to wait and see on that. I don’t want to let the story get stale and repetitive. I really don’t wanna overstay my welcome.”
To read our full profile, in which Harris talks about how her vampire series was almost dead on arrival, walking the red carpet as a writer, how she got to where she is today, and much more, click here to check out the July/August issue of WD.
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