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?’ ”