Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Vampire-Loving Barmaid Hits Jackpot for Charlaine Harris
by Motoko Rich, NYT May 19, 2009

MAGNOLIA, Ark. — Charlaine Harris was sitting in the small dining nook of her suburban cedar-and-stone home one afternoon last week when she took the call from her editor in New York. After she hung up, she yanked both fists down and let out a triumphant, “Yes!”

Ms. Harris, the author of the Sookie Stackhouse vampire mystery romance novels, had just heard that the latest book in the series, “Dead and Gone,” would make its debut on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list this Sunday in the No. 1 spot. It was a first for Ms. Harris, who has published 26 novels in nearly three decades and sold the original book in the Sookie series, “Dead Until Dark,” for just $5,000 nine years ago.

When her husband, Harold Schulz, arrived home from work later, he stepped into Ms. Harris’s office in a converted mother-in-law apartment next to the house. “No. 1, huh?” he calmly noted with a smile.

But with their daughter Julia’s high school graduation looming this week, he wanted to know whether all six acres of the lawn on their property had been mowed, and when certain family members would be arriving.

It was the kind of juggle that might be familiar to Sookie, the telepathic human barmaid who narrates the novels and lives in the fictional small town of Bon Temps, La., amid an ever-expanding cast of vampires, shape-shifters, fairies and witches.

The formula of small-town life regularly disrupted by the supernatural world — and some mind-blowing sex with vampires — has propelled Ms. Harris through nine Sookie novels. For her latest three-book contract, of which “Dead and Gone” is the second, Ms. Harris was paid a seven-figure advance.

The books have also spawned “True Blood,” the HBO adaptation created by Alan Ball, the maestro of “Six Feet Under.” The first season of the series, which roughly followed “Dead Until Dark,” concluded last fall as the cable network’s most popular show since “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” The new season, based on the second novel in the series, “Living Dead in Dallas,” begins on June 14.

This heady brew of success has allowed Ms. Harris, 57, some luxuries: earlier this year she hired her longtime best friend as her personal assistant. She bought a diamond ring. And this year, because of Julia’s graduation, she could afford the ultimate indulgence: she refused to go on a book tour.

“It was just a huge relief that I finally hit on the right character and the right publisher,” said Ms. Harris, who had previously written two mystery series that never quite took off. Or, as she put it more succinctly, with a cackle that evoked a paranormal creature: “I had this real neener-neener-neener moment.”

Born and raised in Tunica, Miss., the daughter of a schoolteacher and a homemaker turned librarian, Ms. Harris, an avid reader of mysteries, always wanted to be an author. She published two stand-alone mysteries in the early 1980s, and a few years later began the Aurora Teagarden mysteries, featuring a Southern librarian turned amateur sleuth. Despite promising reviews, sales were modest.

In the mid-1990s she plunged into a more violent and sexually explicit story line about Lily Bard, a cleaning woman who investigates murders. Ms. Harris believed she had hit her stride, but sales did not meet her expectations.

So she decided to try something new. She had always wanted to write about vampires. From the outset, she wanted to set the story in the prosaic trailer-park and strip-mall landscape of northern Louisiana, to distinguish it from the gothic opulence of Anne Rice’s New Orleans.
Nominally a murder mystery, “Dead Until Dark” was filled with inventive details, like the synthetic blood that allows vampires to live openly among humans, and a vampire bar called Fangtasia, where humans who like to have sex with the undead hang out.

Despite her track record, it took two years to find a home for Sookie. Although writers like Laurell K. Hamilton had staked a niche in the paranormal genre, it was not the booming category that Stephenie Meyer has made it today.

Finally, Ace Books, a science fiction and fantasy imprint of Penguin Group USA, bought the manuscript in 2000. “The voice is terrific,” said Ginjer Buchanan, editor in chief of Ace. “And I liked the setting. I think it’s an interesting and different milieu, and she portrays it in a way that’s fresh and understandable, but not stereotypical.”

Driving last week along a tree-lined country road dotted by an occasional horse farm or a row of abandoned chicken coops, Ms. Harris said it was how she imagined the road to Sookie’s house. Ideas for characters come from all over the place.

“Every trip to Wal-Mart is an inspiration,” she said. But don’t try to find a model for Merlotte’s, the bar and restaurant where Sookie works. Magnolia, in southern Arkansas near the Louisiana border, is the seat of a dry county.

Ms. Harris gave Sookie the power to read the most unpleasant thoughts of others as a way of reflecting on the veneer of courtesy that permeates small-town Southern living.

“I think that must be the worst thing, not to have that buffer zone between how people really think and feel and how they present themselves to you,” Ms. Harris said. “That’s one of the reasons I love living here, because people are so polite.” For Sookie, consorting with vampires comes as a relief because she cannot actually read their thoughts.

Ms. Harris works most mornings in her office, a cozy room with a lumpy purple loveseat and a shelf of knickknacks sent by fans. Like many a commercial writer, Ms. Harris wishes the literary establishment would pay more attention. “I think there is a place for what I do,” she said. “And I think it’s honorable.”

With their message of accepting diversity, Ms. Harris said she wrote the Sookie novels in part as “a metaphor for gays in America.” But, she added: “I am not a crusader. If you need a good adventure or a vacation from your problems, then I am your woman.”

It was that escapist side that attracted Mr. Ball of “Six Feet Under” when he discovered “Dead Until Dark” in a Barnes & Noble four years ago. He went on to buy all the remaining books in the series. “I just went through them like popcorn,” he said.

For “True Blood” Mr. Ball added scenes shot from the point of view of other characters; gave Tara, a high school friend of Sookie’s, a more prominent role and converted her from white to African-American; and amped the sex scenes way up.

Ms. Harris, who rarely outlines a plot, knows how the series will end. Don’t ask: she’s not telling. In the meantime she’s always ready for inspiration. “I think about the books while I am showering or doing the dishes,” she said. “Then all of a sudden I’ll think, ‘What if?’ ”

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Happy Memorial Day


Last week I was out of town on a business trip at the Fairmont Princess in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is a large resort kind of off by itself. The Fairmont shrewdly bought a bunch of land around the hotel and is selling it to businesses that will support the hotel. There is a high-end retirement community being built next door. Down the road is the Scottsdale Center for Dentistry, where dentists come from across the country for continuing education and golf, and that (not the golf part) is where I spent my days.

The hotel is one of those that seems like a maze when you first get there. It has buildings winding every which way, cottages, three pools, a lagoon, a hot tub, numerous restaurants, stores, etc. My first night there, I wandered by the lagoon near sunset and saw bunnies nibbling grass, ducks wandering around, etc. If you're in a rural area, that won't mean much to you, but in suburban California, we don't get that.

The second night there, we had the evening free, so I went out for a swim. I went to the less-crowded East Pool rather than the centrally located South Pool. When I got to the far end of the East Pool, I saw there was another pool farther on. I got out to investigate, and saw that the second pool was hiding a treat: a two-story waterslide. With a lifeguard at each end. Not your typical plastic pool slide. That sucker was fast, and I was surprised to find it tucked in a nook in this resort where the restaurants start running out of food around 8pm (in other words, a mostly older crowd comes here).

I mentioned it to my mother because she has been looking for a place to take my two daughters. One loves to be active, so the waterslide, pools, kids club and game room is for her. The other one needs her internet roleplaying fix, so her basic requirement is wifi.

Of course I needed a book for the waiting around times, and I took Double Dare by Saskia Walker, an extra-hot romance book. I give it an A+ for heat. My only issue is the one I usually have with these books--the people fall in love too fast. But the characters were unusually astute and not silly--people you'd really like to know.

And I just got my new promos--bookmarks with my website url. I took some along to hand out, and we had a delay in the Phoenix airport, so I passed some out to people reading fiction books.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jesusita Fire

Ok, a little off-topic, but apparently the Jesusita fire in Santa Barbara is national news. I don't live near the fire zone, but my day job as a financial writer is near the ocean and the Santa Barbara zoo at the south/east end of town, so I saw the smoke last week.

I just read that Santa Barbara has had four major fires in the last 14 months, far above average. They have burned 300 homes, which is more than fires of the previous 20 years combined burned.

For the most part, they take place in the wooded hills, most of which are wild growth. The topography of the area is such that there is flatland near the ocean, then hills climb suddenly to a ridge. Beyond the ridge are more valleys and ridges all the way to highway 5 that bisects the state. It's not quite that neat, but only the lower parts of the first hill face have been developed into neighborhoods. So a lot of this fire is burning beyond the populated area.

But what has made this fire stand out is the breadth of the evacuation area, which covered the (unwooded) flatlands almost to the ocean. The wind blew the fire both east and west along the face of the hills from its origin. There are mandatory evac areas and evac warning areas. The last fire's warning area was just a couple of miles from us, which was unprecedented. For this fire, the warning area came right up to us (the office closed Friday morning).

This is more remarkable when you see the wind patterns. The ocean air currents were pushing cool, moist air against the face of the hills. When we left Friday morning, it wasn't smoky, but we could see the smoke against the hills. Driving home south on 101, the hills come out to meet the road, and then it was smokier. Still, it was a good time to leave since the routes away from the office were already under fire warning.

Like most locals, I know of people who were evacuated. I won't find out tomorrow if anyone I know sustained damage.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Kelley Armstrong--one of the best

Kelley Armstrong has been one of my favorite authors for a while now. I read Bitten, the first in her Otherworld series, while we were on vacation camping in the cool redwood forest of the Santa Cruz mountains. Since the story takes place mostly in the cool forest of upstate New York, it provided great atmosphere.

Last year, I wrote to Kelley through her website (linked on the Fun Links page) to ask if she gave out promotional items to booksellers as many authors do. In my email, I mentioned that my teenage daughter also loves Kelley's newer YA series. I got a reply from Kelley's sister, Alison, who manages the marketing end of things. She asked for my daughter's name and said Kelley wanted to send something special to her. When I got my Otherworld goodies, included was a bookplate for my daughter's copy of The Summoning inscribed to her and signed by Kelley.

She's a savvy kid, so it's hard to elicit innocent wonderment from her, but that did it. She was so thrilled that a Real Author would personalize something to her. I wish I had taken a picture of her face. She just stared at it as if she didn't believe what she was seeing. The only other time I have seen that look on her face was when she received a Hogwarts letter (I made) when she turned eleven. The bookplate is now one of her prized possessions.

So Kelley (and Alison), if you ever need a favor, I owe you one.