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How Charlaine Harris' Novels Became "True Blood"

After 20 years of publishing, Charlaine Harris wrote the book she’d always wanted to write—and hit a vein with readers everywhere. Here’s the author behind “True Blood” on happy accidents, near misses and writing, above all, for fun. by Zachary Petit

It was every writer’s fantasy and nightmare rolled into one day in the life of Charlaine Harris. In swanky Hollywood fashion, HBO had sent a limo to pick her up from the airport. They had dispatched a makeup artist. They had—quite literally—rolled out the red carpet. But it wasn’t until the door of the limo opened into the warm Los Angeles evening in September 2008 for the “True Blood” premiere that Harris realized the full magnitude of what was about to happen. She’d planned to bypass the stars—Anna Paquin, et al.—and just slip into the theater. She didn’t realize that, having authored the books behind the series, she was now essentially one of the stars—until her appointed handler guided her directly to the press line.

“I thought, oh my God!” she recalls with a bout of her robust laughter. “I had to develop a new skill really quickly.”

The whirlwind of flashes and questions that followed as she went reporter to reporter, camera to camera, would prove good preparation for the media attention that was to come.

Harris had been writing mystery novels for nearly three decades to modest success, but without any breakout hits. Her recent subject matter—vampires—wasn’t exactly always in vogue. Then, all of a sudden, it was. The year before the premiere, paranormal titles comprised a mere 2 percent of book sales. Today, they account for 17 percent—and at last count, Penguin had more than 14.2 million copies of her bestselling Southern Vampire Series in print.

But on the precipice of all this was that red carpet walk. What was going through her mind?

“Well, you know, writers just suck up new experiences— we’re just like the vacuum cleaners of newness. It was all grist for the mill,” she says. “I was just soaking. It. Up.”

She also sums up the experience with a word that repeatedly arises in reference to Harris, her 30 books, “True Blood” and everything else spawning from her creative output: She says it was fun.

And when it comes to Harris and that word, there’s a lot more to the story.

Harris has a moment that she has said some writers hate her for. Her publishing debut, they might suggest, was too easy.

Born in 1951 in Mississippi (a fact readily embodied by her accent), she left college without knowing entirely what she would do in the professional world.

“I always wanted to be a writer but I never really sat down and wrote the book, which of course happens to most writers,” she says. “That was always my secret identity. Other kids want to be other things, but all I ever wanted to be, really, was a writer.”

In 1978, after she married her second husband, he presented her with an electric typewriter and offered her the opportunity to stay home and write. So Harris enrolled in the only creative writing class she has ever taken, and the teacher happened to be a former book editor. Simply, “She liked what I wrote for the class and contacted an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and the editor read it and took the book.”

Sweet and Deadly was released in 1981, and love it or hate it, that’s the story. Alternately, you could erase the paragraph above and go by Harris’ in-a-nutshell life synopsis: “Average woman gets lucky.”

But luck aside, while getting into print may have been easy, the climb to the bestsellers list, undoubtedly, was not.

After her first two standalone novels, Harris devoted 13 years to two series: the Aurora Teagarden mysteries (described as “cozies with teeth”) and the darker Lily Bard Shakespeare books. They were successful in their own right, but they weren’t blockbusters.

“Mysteries come with a set of rules, obviously, and no matter how original your take on the mystery is, you still have to follow those rules,” she says. “And I just got tired of it.”

So, Harris set out to write the book she’d always wanted to write. She abandoned genre conventions and created a telepathic barmaid, Sookie Stackhouse, who falls in love with a vampire at a time when vampires have entered mainstream Louisiana society—along with a new synthetic blood beverage called “True Blood,” which sustains them.

But before the genre-bending “fun, fast and funny” Dead Until Dark could hit the bestseller list and pave the way for massive advances to come, there was just one problem: The book was nearly dead on arrival. Her agent didn’t like it.

“In fact, he didn’t like it a lot,” she says with a laugh. “He loves it now. He’s always been a great agent for me, and this was the only time we’ve ever disagreed.” Fortunately for fans of the series, Harris’ agent asked her to send the manuscript to a respected genre colleague for another opinion.

The verdict? He absolutely loved it.

Still, over the next two years, the novel was rejected by publishers countless times before finding a home with Penguin’s Ace Books. Soon after its release in 2001, things took on a new momentum. Her editor asked for two more.

“I thought, Oh, all right! This is really good. And after the second one came out, he came back for three more, and I hadn’t even exhausted my first contract, so I was going, OK … I’ve never looked back since.”

Thus, with Harris’ Stackhouse books—now 11, with three more under contract—alongside Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, the paranormal genre exploded. (On Meyer, Harris says, after a pause and without elaboration, “I think Stephenie Meyer hit her target audience just perfectly.”)

Which raises a question in many writers’ minds: Should an author write in a genre because it’s booming?

“I think it’s a mistake,” Harris says. “You have to really love what you’re writing about to write a really good book, and I think if you just arbitrarily say, ‘Well, zombies are really hot, I’m gonna write a zombie book,’ that its just not gonna turn out as well as if you just suddenly thought, Oh my God! I’ve got a great zombie idea.

It was an accident. Academy Award–winner Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty and executive producer of HBO’s acclaimed “Six Feet Under,” was early for a doctor’s appointment. There was a Barnes & Noble nearby, so Ball browsed the aisles and came across a copy of Dead Until Dark. The book’s tagline, “Maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend isn’t such a bright idea,” made him laugh.

“You know, it was a total impulse buy,” he says. “I bought it and I started reading it, and I couldn’t put it down.”

He liked the way Harris walks a fine line between different tones: scary, violent, dark, funny, romantic, surprising. And fun. He flew through the rest of the books in the series, and he realized they would make a great TV show, a show he would watch. And a show he would be surprised to find himself watching because he had never been particularly drawn to supernatural programs before—perhaps indicative of a key aspect of Harris’ mass appeal.

When, among other option offers, Ball approached Harris and pledged to preserve the spirit of the books, she accepted. Ball subsequently wrote and directed the “True Blood” pilot for HBO, and Harris received an advance copy in the mail.

“I thought it was outrageously wonderful,” she says. “I was so energized by Alan’s vision, but it was also so much more visceral and explicit than the way it looks on the page, that I thought, Oh no. You know, I live in a conservative area, and I thought, Oh my God, we’re just gonna have to leave. It hasn’t been that way at all, though—people love the show.”

After the big Hollywood premiere, “True Blood” debuted with a viewership averaging 2 million, and Harris’ book sales skyrocketed.

As for the dichotomy between her texts and Ball’s adaptation—the books are told from Stackhouse’s perspective, while Ball focuses on the ensemble at large, and some plots and characters take different paths and embodiments—Harris doesn’t mind. “I love getting surprised,” she says. “I would hate it if he were following the books page by page. I really enjoy not knowing what’s gonna happen. And every now and then I’ll hear a line from the book and I just love it, and I’m going, ‘Oh, I wrote that! I wrote that!’”

With the third season set to air this summer, Ball says it’s a tough call whether he’ll adhere more closely or loosely to the books as the show progresses. He adds that he and Harris take an approach to each other’s work that’s rooted in mutual respect: Both maintain their professional distance throughout the creation process.

On a personal level, Ball says everyone on the show loves the author—who made a cameo appearance in the season two finale. “She’s so down to earth and real, and you know, you don’t run into that a lot out here [in Hollywood],” he says with a laugh. “And I’m so eternally grateful that she wrote these books and that she was willing to give me permission to try to translate them to TV.”

With Harris’ kids all out of the house now, an average day for the author consists of letting her dogs in and out repeatedly, answering e-mails and writing toward her goal of six to eight new pages.

As for a set writing process, Harris does have one, but describes it bluntly as, well, “stupid”: She turns on the computer and types Chapter 1. Then, she thinks to herself, OK, what’s going to happen?

“Sometimes I have very little idea of what I’m doing for maybe the first chapter. And then somebody will throw a firebomb through the window, and I’m off and running,” she says. “But I know it would be so much better if I planned, if I planned more and, um, just considered the consequences.” Laughter erupts.

But wouldn’t it be so much less fun that way?

“It is less fun, you know, and my goal is to have a good time doing what I do. If I quit having fun, then it’s time for me to quit working.”

Harris, who has said before that she’s no good at dishing direct advice, emits some exaggerated groans when asked about craft tips. She then settles on one: To read everything you can get your hands on. And to write. Constantly.

“There’s nothing that will teach you how to write more than writing,” she says. “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.”

When it comes to her own motivators, she says she’s driven to write because she loves it, because the story consumes her and, also, because she wants a paycheck. Concerning her recent boom (a three-book contract roped a seven-figure advance, and she even had her first No. 1 hardcover debut last summer with Dead and Gone), Harris admits that she does have a lot more money nowadays, but a lot less time. As reported in a New York Times profile, she hasn’t exactly gone wild with the funds, but did treat herself to a few things—she bought a diamond ring, hired her best friend to be her assistant, and even skipped the requisite book tour to attend her daughter’s graduation. (As for her custom vampire fangs, she bought those before she ever wrote about the undead—but still thinks they’re hilarious.)

Harris doesn’t play into the stereotype of the successful boomtown writer in other areas, either: She doesn’t know the exact number of books she’s written offhand, nor does she recall the exact year she hit the bestseller list. And despite the long path she’s traveled between hard work and good luck to reach her current level of success, she considers herself a “hopeless romantic” about publishing: “I believe if you write a great book, the chances are it’ll get a great reception.”

In her personal life, she doesn’t have too many hobbies, but is incredibly fond of going to the movies. And her favorite film may be The Last of the Mohicans, but she loves a good B movie—almost as much, if not more, than a good A movie. Think The 13th Warrior. Congo. Anaconda. Her voice becomes electric. Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea—“You know where the shark just comes up and grabs him? I just love that, I just love that moment: That’s just so fantastic!”

She also follows “Lost,” and considers herself a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aficionado. And she says all of the above surely translates to her work.

“I really admire good writing no matter where I find it, or even effective hokey writing,” she says. “You know, there’s gotta be something that grabs you and pulls you in. Even if it’s not literature, there’s something about it that gets you viscerally, and that really attracts me in understanding that.”

The power of genre fiction—a literary segment she belongs to that has often been written off by the critics, scorned by the literary elite and frowned upon from many the high horse. As she has said before, part of genre’s appeal—its fun, one might say—lies in the escape: a break people need from the issues of everyday life. Harris agrees genre writing doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but notes that perceptions about it are changing. “I really don’t see that many people, or at least not as many as used to, ghettoizing genre writing,” she says. “Because I truly believe that some of the finest writing in America today is being done by genre writers.”

That said, Harris didn’t choose her genre, or even genre writing. They chose her. “I think when you’re coming into your own as a writer, you have to understand what you can do and what you can’t do, what’s not in you, and being a mystery writer was in me.”

When prodded for details about how her Stackhouse series will end, Harris offers a simple “nope.” (The latest installment, Dead in the Family, hit shelves in May.) As for her other recent series, the Harper Connelly books, she says she’s covered all the ground she wants to, and is finished with them. But that doesn’t mean she’s thinking about slowing down anytime soon. After all, Harris says she doesn’t know what she’d do if she were to retire. Her literary legacy, though, may already be in place.

“Since my career broke big when I was already, you know, I was looking at turning 50, I would think maybe never give up hope would be one of the morals you could draw from that. And also I think you just have to enjoy yourself.

“If it pleases you and you can write at all, it’s gonna please somebody else.”

In other words, if you have fun writing your book, someone will have fun reading it—undoubtedly part of the reason her novels have sold in the millions. And there it is again: Fun. When it comes to Harris, it keeps popping up. Everywhere. And while it may sound shallow and can be easily overlooked, some people know better: There are many layers to fun. (Hence those italics.) There are things working under and within fun, at play and alive in those three letters that make up the goofy and flawed word, that have the power to serve as a vehicle to reach profound depths, to escape, to do things and mean things that other things cannot.

And that is genre writing.

And moreover, that is Charlaine Harris. Love it or hate it, she’s fun—the kind with italics.

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