Laurell K. Hamilton has one of the richest imaginations and most prolific outputs of any contemporary American author. She thrives on balancing two fully formed whole worlds of her own creation. She’s currently published book 16 in her Anita Blake paranormal/vampire/mystery series, and book six in her Merry Gentry fantasy series, along with a new line of graphic novels and comic books.
Hamilton is a genre writer to the core, and she was writing fantasy when fantasy wasn’t cool. But she’s never let the accepted conventions of genre fiction constrain her creativity—instead she forges new genres from well-honed formulas.
Read on to get an insider’s take on writing genre fiction from one of its reigning queens.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START IN WRITING? DID YOU HAVE FORMAL TRAINING?
I’ve been writing stories since I was 12. Writer’s Digest was one of my writing teachers, actually. In the high school library, there were stacks of them. My teacher handed them to me by the armload; she knew I was interested in writing. This is how I learned how to submit professionally. By 14 I decided that not only did I want to write, but I wanted to write fantasy, science fiction and horror. By 17 I was submitting to publications and collecting my first rejection slips.
I lived in the middle of farm country and there weren’t a lot of writers to talk to. One of the articles I read was by Ray Bradbury. He said to pick a small room in your house and paper it with rejection slips. By the time you’ve papered it, you’ll have gotten published. And, actually, it didn’t take the whole room. But I didn’t sell until well after college. I went to Marion College [now Indiana Wesleyan University] for writing and I was kicked out of the writing school. I was asked to leave the writing program because I was corrupting the other students.
HOW LONG WERE YOU IN THE WRITING PROGRAM BEFORE YOU WERE KICKED OUT?
Two years. I submitted two horror stories to get into the writing program; I made no pretense that I wanted to write anything else. What I didn’t realize until too late was that the president of the writing program accepted me with the idea that she would cure me and make me want to write what she considered proper writing. She told me that all genre was garbage, but I refused to write anything else. And within two to three weeks, half the class was writing genre—romance, science fiction, fantasy and mystery. But one fateful day before she kicked me out, I asked her, ‘What about Shakespeare? A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fantasy. Macbeth doesn’t work without the witches and Hamlet doesn’t work without the ghosts. What about Dickens? A Christmas Carol is a ghost story.’ She called me into her office and told me I would never write for publication. She was determined that I wouldn’t go out and do exactly what I’ve done. I’ve now corrupted millions [laughs].
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST BOOK PUBLISHING EXPERIENCE LIKE?
The first book I ever wrote was Nightseer. It’s Tolkien meets Robert E. Howard. Fantasy is really what I thought I was going to be doing. But Nightseer didn’t sell well enough. Now I realize how much I’d beaten the odds by simply publishing my first book. I was 22 when I started it and it took me two years to finish. I was working at Xerox. This was my first taste of corporate America and it wasn’t a good fit. Like most creative people I don’t fit well into boxes. And I quickly learned I didn’t want to do this for the next 10 years. I had half of my first book done, and my first husband said, ‘Finish your book.’ I had been getting up at 5 a.m. and writing in the morning. I got my agent but the first book didn’t sell well. Nobody wanted fantasy then [in 1993]. So I wrote another book and it took almost four years to get it out.
A lot of writers think, This genre is hot, so I’ll write this. But what they don’t realize is in three to four years that can change. In the late ’80s, I had a short story about Anita Blake. Everyone loved it, but nobody would buy it. And I went back to that story and tried to write a book.
YOU MUST KEEP A PRETTY RIGID SCHEDULE. DO YOU STICK TO A PAGE QUOTA?
Yes, the minimum is four pages a day. If I get more than eight then I’m done for the day. I’ve had a few glorious days when I’ve done 20 pages in two hours and other days where four pages took eight hours. For me, it’s got to be the page count. I do five days a week like that. If I’m in the middle of a book, I also work Saturday or Sunday to keep the rhythm. If I take both days of the weekend off, when I sit down on Monday, it’s cold again. I need that continuous rhythm of being in the story.
WHAT COMES FIRST FOR YOU: CHARACTER OR PLOT?
Character. Well, having said that, it’s really an idea. For example: In the first Anita short story I had her raising the dead for a living. What intrigued me was why would you need to raise the dead for a living? What could possibly be a logical reason to raise zombies and make it a job? That was the first seed of an idea. Once I had that idea, then I thought, now I need a character for the job. The character Anita came from reading hardboiled detective fiction. Remember this was 20 years ago. The female detectives weren’t as tough as the men. If they killed somebody they had to feel bad about it. They didn’t cuss. If they had sex it was very clean. The men got to cuss, and they got to have sex without really worrying about it. And I thought, Have we not come further than this? When I sat down to write this book, I wanted a character that could be as tough as the boys. I may have overcompensated just a little [laughs].
You know it’s a good idea if a good character quickly follows. And you know you have the right character when other characters start collecting around her. It’s magnetic attraction of the imagination.
YOU’VE SAID YOU’D LOVE TO SEE ANITA BLAKE IN A MOVIE, BUT YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT THE PROSPECT OF SELLING THE FILM RIGHTS. HAVE YOU SOLD THE FILM RIGHTS?
No. I’ve reached that magic point where they can’t wave enough money at me to make it worthwhile to hand my baby over. I’ve been approached over the years, and a lot of times people help me say no by the initial conversation. You go to these movies that were based on a book and you just can’t imagine how they got from point A to point B. But having said that, the more I look at the process, it’s a very difficult thing to take a book and make it into a movie, because a movie script is the size of a novella. Most modern American novels are five times that. How do you cut it down and have it still make sense? It’s an art form in itself.
YOUR COMICS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL. HOW INVOLVED ARE YOU IN THAT PROCESS?
I have complete control. If I say no, it doesn’t happen. There’s not a piece of art that hasn’t crossed my desk. One thing I’ve learned is that I can’t take my own book and adapt it. Another writer is doing the adaptations, but I do fresh script. Guilty Pleasures [book one in the Anita Blake series] is easy to put into comic-book form because it’s so dialogue rich.
HOW MANY MORE COMICS WILL YOU DO? IS IT SOMETHING YOU ENJOY?
Yes, the process is working smoothly. There are another six comics to finish up Guilty Pleasures. And I’ve contracted with Marvel for The Laughing Corpse and Circus of the Damned [books two and three in the Anita Blake series]. At one comic a month, that’s a while. Guilty Pleasures takes 12 comics, and it was the shortest book. I guess it’s my karma; I always get into things that take years.
YOUR SCHEDULE AND EVERYTHING YOU DO IS JUST STAGGERING. ARE YOU A WORKAHOLIC?
Not on purpose. Initially in my career I worked very, very hard, because you have to. I believe—especially when a series is new—you have to get the books out as quickly as possible to build an audience. People who love series want to know that it’s not just going to be a trilogy and then go away. But then you get into this habit of trying to get them out. The first book was less than 500 pages. I’m now averaging 500 to 1,000 pages each book. That changes what you can do. I’m trying to figure out how to balance my workload, but I’m not really good at not working. I didn’t mean to be a workaholic, but I’m actually kind of nervous when I’m not working.
WHAT’S IT LIKE BALANCING TWO SERIES? ARE YOU TRYING TO KEEP TO THE SCHEDULE OF ONE BOOK PER SERIES PER YEAR?
That was the original intent, but the books are quite long. I manage to do it most years but I’m actually thinking it would be nice to take some time off between books. In the past I’ve finished one book and started the next one the next day. You can’t keep doing that—eventually you just get tired. The comic, though, seemed to refresh me. I was working on the books in the morning and the comics in the afternoon. It seems to take a different part of the brain. And also, I’ve never collaborated with anybody; it was kind of fun to pace back and forth and switch off typing with my husband, Jonathan [whom I collaborate with].
YOU’RE ON ANITA BLAKE BOOK NUMBER 16 IN THE SERIES. IS THERE ANY END IN SIGHT FOR THIS SERIES OR DO YOU WANT TO KEEP IT GOING INDEFINITELY?
I have no plans to ever stop Anita. I think of the series as mystery; it’s open ended. Unless I change my mind, I’ll still be writing Anita when I’m 80. That’s a while away. I may have other interests by then. But I’m still having a wonderful time with Anita. I’m still learning new things about Anita and her friends. I’m still learning new things about her world.
I’ve had other writers ask me how I keep an interest in it. All I can say is my characters are so real to me that they make choices that aren’t mine. They surprise me and it helps me to never get bored. John D. MacDonald wrote more than 20 books for the Travis McGee mystery series. And Rex Stout had more than 70 books in the Nero Wolfe series. My goal used to be 20. But when I found out about Rex Stout, 70 became my new goal.
DO YOU WORK ON ONLY ONE SERIES AT A TIME?
Yes, especially when the Merry series was new. I’d written five Anita books in a row so Anita’s voice was very strong. Merry’s voice was hard to stay in and the Anita voice kept intruding. So I had to be very careful at the beginning. When I was working on Merry I had to not be thinking about Anita and vice versa.
A Lick of Frost is number six. Sometime around book four, the world begins to solidify and it’s not as much work to do the voice of the characters. Book four seems to be the magic number for me. And somewhere between books six and eight, it just gets to work.
One of the things I did before I started Merry was research mystery series, because at that time there were no fantasy series that had gone past five books. A lot of writers seem to get bored with their own series between books five and eight. One of the reasons I didn’t do a straight mystery series is because I thought I’d get bored. That’s why I have fantastic elements; I thought it would keep me interested, and it has.
YOUR ANITA BLAKE SERIES CAME OUT BEFORE "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER," CORRECT? THERE SEEM TO BE SIMILARITIES.
Yes, Anita pre-dates Buffy by quite a bit. I wrote the first story in the late ’80s; it took two years to write the first book and two years later for it to come out. That lets you know how much it pre-dates Buffy.
WERE THINGS BORROWED FROM THE ANITA BLAKE SERIES?
I don’t know, and I’m not going to get into debating whether somebody writing for Buffy borrowed from my series, but I do get tired of people saying I ripped off Buffy. I say, no. If you look at the dates, maybe it’s the other way. It was a fun series though it certainly got less fun as it went along. It became something you wouldn’t watch as a family. Now I wouldn’t say sit down and read my books as a family either.
SPEAKING OF WHICH, YOU’VE BEEN CRITICIZED FOR HAVING TOO MUCH SEX IN THE ANITA BLAKE SERIES. HOW MUCH ATTENTION DO YOU PAY TO CRITICISM? DOES IT IN ANY WAY AFFECT HOW YOU WRITE THE NEXT BOOK?
It’s funny. I’ve never had an American tell me they were bothered by the violence in my books. In Europe they’re bothered by the violence and in America they’re bothered by the sex. The only downside to the sexual content is losing younger readers. Sex isn’t bad; it’s a deity-given gift. But I initially never wanted to put sex on paper. There isn’t a real sex scene until book five. At book six I finally realized my main character was going to have sex with the man she was dating. I initially wanted to take the 1940s pan to the sky, but the camera hadn’t flinched in five books. I didn’t want to do it, but I thought, what does this say about me? I don’t mind writing violence but flinch at writing sex.
HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE AGING OF YOUR SERIES’ PROTAGONISTS? WILL ANITA AGE?
I was 24 when I wrote the first Anita story so she started out at 24. And now she’s 29. I read an essay by Agatha Christie years ago. She said if she could change anything, she would have made her characters younger. But I may be using a walker by the time Anita reaches 35. Her years are so full. It’s one of the lovely things about fiction.
ANY FINAL WORDS OF ADVICE FOR WRITERS?
Writers write. Put your butt in the chair and write on a regular basis. Ray Bradbury said, ‘The muse cannot resist a working writer.’ I start off by writing why I can’t write. Type every reason you can’t write. Complain, bitch, whatever. Half a page to a page in, the muse says, ‘Well, if you’re going to be writing anyway, you can do better than this.’ Also, if you don’t protect your time, no one will. I wrote my first book two pages a day, five days a week.
Don’t rewrite as you go. Don’t try to make your first chapters perfect. If you come to a scene where you don’t know what 14th-century underwear looks like, don’t stop and research 14th-century underwear. Just write "underwear here." The second draft is filling in those holes. Seventy percent of a first draft is garbage and 30 percent is gold, but you have to write 100 percent to get that 30. It’s a very daunting thing to think you’re going to sit down and write a whole book out of thin air, but you have to work, even when you’re not inspired.