Charlaine Harris is a New York Times bestselling author who has been writing for thirty years. Born and raised in the Mississippi River Delta area, her early works consisted largely of poems about ghosts and teenage angst. She dabbled with plays at Rhodes College in Memphis, then switched to novels a few years later, and achieved publication in 1981 with Sweet and Deadly. She’s the author of four successful novel series so far: Aurora Teagarden, a lighthearted mystery series about a Georgia Librarian; the much darker Shakespeare Mysteries, featuring the amateur sleuth Lily Bard, a karate student who makes her living cleaning houses; The Southern Vampire urban fantasy series about a telepathic waitress named Sookie Stackhouse who works in a bar in the fictional Northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps and served as the basis for HBO’s True Blood TV series; and dark fantasy detective Harper Connelly. Harris has also co-edited four very popular anthologies with her friend Toni L.P. Kelner with another in the works. A member of SFWA, Mystery Writers of America, the American Crime Writers League, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers Of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Crime Writers Association, Harris is the married mother of three and lives in small town Arkansas with a house full of rescue dogs. She can be found online at CharlaineHarris.com
SFFWRTCHT: Hi Charlaine! Let’s start with the basics: who were some authors/books which influenced you growing up and in the course of life?
Charlaine Harris: Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Peters, EX Ferrars, Carolyn Keene, Shirley Jackson.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a writer and what path did you choose to get there? (i.e. did you study writing in school, read a lot and learn as you went, start with short stories to build a rep and contacts or with novels, etc.)
CH: I was always a writer. I was an English major in college because I knew I should read a lot of things, and it was the only subject I was really good at. I did take a creative writing course or two. I wrote plays and poetry while I was in college, and when I had the opportunity to write full time I began with a novel.
SFFWRTCHT: What was your first sale and how long did it take to get there?
CH: I sold my first book to Houghton Mifflin in 1980, and it appeared in 1981.
SFFWRTCHT: What are some of the struggles you’ve been through as a writer during your career?
CH: Really, not significant struggles, more speed bumps . . . one of my series got cut, and it took two years to sell the first Southern Vampire book, Dead Until Dark, because nobody was writing anything like it except Laurell K. Hamilton.
SFFWRTCHT: You’re well known for your mystery series like Aurora Teagarden, Harper Connelly and Lily Bard “Shakespeare,” so what made you diverge into Vampire novels?
CH: I’m not actually writing “vampire novels,” I write books about people that include vampires in the cast of characters. I thought it was time to shake up my career by writing something completely different.
SFFWRTCHT: Where did the idea for Sookie Stackhouse come from?
CH: I figured that anyone who dated a vampire must not be able to date humans, since dating a vampire is so obviously a bad idea. There had to be a good reason Sookie couldn’t date humans. Once I figured out why, the rest of the world began to fall into place.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you start with characters or plot?
CH: Sometimes one, sometimes another.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline or “pants it?” (And how detailed do you plan things in advance before writing)
CH: I don’t outline at all. I’m having to do more planning these days since the series has gotten so complicated and so populated. I have to know some key things. In the Sookie series, I had to know if vampires had legal rights or not. I had to know what those rights were. I had to imagine how the rest of the world had reacted to the revelation of the vampire presence among us. After that, it just rolled out.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you originally envision the Sookie books as a series or was Dead Until Dark a standalone?
CH: I had no idea I’d ever get to write another Sookie, but I really wanted to.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you do a lot of research into vampires?
CH: No. I knew the basic tropes about vampires, but I felt free to pick and choose amongst them.
SFFWRTCHT: Were you aiming to write a specific genre, like urban fantasy or horror or paranormal romance, or did you leave that to marketers and just write?
CH: There wasn’t such a thing as urban fantasy or paranormal romance when I wrote the first Sookie book. This was way before those terms were in use. I wrote the book I wanted to write.
SFFWRTCHT: Obviously, you’re as well known now because of True Blood as anything. How does it feel to have your books brought to life in a TV adaptation? Is there any frustration associated with all the changes and creative license they’ve taken?
CH: No. I felt bad about Calvin, because I always liked him, but other than that I find the directions the show takes are very interesting. If they were like the books exactly, I would be bored. And it feels wonderful to have all my books in print because my name was on the credits of the show.
SFFWRTCHT: Are you at all involved with the making of the series? Do you have any input or voice at all?
CH: Nope. My input lies in having written the source material. I’m not a television writer or actor or producer. They do their thing.
SFFWRTCHT: Why did you choose small town Louisiana as the setting for this series?
CH: Anne Rice had done such a wonderful job with atmospheric southern Louisiana, I thought I’d take the northern part (which is much more prosaic) and see what I could do with it.
SFFWRTCHT: What are the challenges after so many books to keeping a series interesting for both you and readers? Does it ever feel like you’ve done it all before? And does it get hard to come up with ideas after so many books?
CH: Obviously, it’s become harder to put Sookie in situations she’s never experienced. And I’ve come to feel her story has run its course, that I’m nearly out of steam. That’s why I’m concluding the series with the next book.
SFFWRTCHT: Tied to that, how do you write a vampire series and keep it fresh when vampires are such popular subjects for writers?
CH: There’s the humor in the Sookie novels . . . that really helps. And the fact that I’m telling the story of the vampires, but Sookie’s story.
SFFWRTCHT: Is this really the last book in the series? Why?
CH: I think I’ve said everything I have to say. I don’t want to cheat readers by writing sheerly for the money.
[NOTE: Since the interview took place a final book has been announced for 2013.]
SFFWRTCHT: Did the choice to tell the stories entirely through Sookie’s POV ever cause frustrations or issues after so many books? Single 1st person POV can be quite limiting.
CH: Frankly, I always enjoyed it. It left a lot to readers’ imaginations.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have plans for other paranormal series after this?
CH: Yes, I’m starting another series after Dead Ever After. It will have paranormal elements, but perhaps not to the extent the Sookie novels do.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you use special software(Scrivener, outliners, etc.), music or other tools for writing?
CH: Nah. I ‘m not very quirky. I use Microsoft Word, and I listen to whatever’s at hand. I do like bagpipe music, and movie scores.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best advice you can offer other writers who ask?
CH: You can’t sell a book you never write. Read, read, read. Then sit alone in a room and write.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
CH: That relentless self-promotion will make you successful.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? How do you address that/defeat it?
CH: I only experience this when I’ve taken a wrong turn. I try to go back to find out what I did wrong, and then I can go forward.
SFFWRTCHT: What other projects do you have in the works that we can look forward to?
CH: I’m writing a graphic novel Cemetery Girl with Christopher Golden; the first volume will be out next year. Toni L.P. Kelner and I have assembled another anthology, An Apple For The Creature, our fifth together, and you’ll be able to read it this August. I’m working on the last Sookie.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.