“Cozies With Teeth!”
An interview with Charlaine Harris
by Robert L. Hall
Charlaine Harris started writing years ago, writing poems and plays. By the time she attended prestigious Rhodes College at Memphis, she was readying herself for books, which she began to do a few years later. Two novels followed, then her series: the Aurora Teagarden books—stories using a Georgian librarian as the main character whose own life is as unpredictable as the mysteries she finds herself involved in solving.
Next, came other series: a Shakespeare series, set in rural Arkansas featuring another lady—Lily Bard, then (believe it or not) a humorous vampire series: The Sookie Stackhouse series. Can those two words be used in the same sentence? Humorous and vampire? Oh yeah, there is Buffy, the vampire killer, isn’t there?
Harris is married and the mother of three children. She lists as her interests on her web site: weight lifter and sometime karate student, an avid reader, and until recently was senior warden of St. James Episcopal Church. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and the American Crime Writers League. She is a member of the board of Sisters in Crime, and president of the Arkansas Mystery Writers Alliance.
Charlaine, could you describe growing up in the South.
I grew up in a very stable family of readers, which gave me a tremendous advantage. My father went from being a planter to being a schoolteacher and then a principal. My mother went from being a stay-at-home mom to being a librarian. I was born and raised in Tunica, Mississippi, known now as home of the gambling boats. When I was there, it was a dying town centered around the cotton-farming industry, with a population of about a thousand. It was about as southern as you can get, with both the best and the worst implications. It took me many years to balance out the facts that even if you love a place, you don't have to conform to its mores, and even if you hate the traditions of a place, you can still be proud of the positive parts. My parents still live there; my only sibling, my brother Ashley, died and is buried in Tunica.
I attended the Tunica public schools, and after a brief excursion to Louisiana, I finished college at Rhodes, in Memphis. It was still Southwestern then. I have never wanted to get a Masters.
Tell us about your first writing experiences.
I have written since I could hold a pencil. At first, I wrote mostly poetry; then I wrote some one-act plays while I was in college, and had the thrill of seeing them put on at Rhodes. When I married my second husband, he gave me the gift of advising me to stay home and write the book I'd always wanted to write. I did (with some prodding!). We lived in St. Louis at the time -- at least twenty-four years ago -- and the creative writing class I took at UMSL was being led by Shannon Ravenel, who heads Algonquin Press now. At the time, she had recently quit Houghton Mifflin, and she very kindly recommended my manuscript to them. They took it.
People always hate me when they hear that story. I'm sorry it wasn't harder. I quit writing when I had my first child, and after Baby #2, it ached to think about writing, I missed it so much. I'd been writing the wonderful Barbara Paul, and she recommended me to her agent, who asked if he could represent me. I've been with Joshua Bilmes ever since. After the baby hiatus, I got back into the publishing scene with great difficulty, but I've been there ever since (despite having Baby #3).
How do you approach writing?
I have a lot of trouble answering technical questions about how I work. I have a foggy brain. I don't always write in the first person, but most often I do, because that gives me a sense of immediacy. I did a novella, which will be out in October, in the third person and it was like trying to write left-handed; but it was a necessary exercise. Characters are the most fun. I love establishing characters and growing them into rounded people. I'm not fanatical enough to sit down and write an extended biography for each character in my books, but I think you should be able to get in their skin enough to know what they'd listen to on the radio and what they'd have for breakfast. I do most of my plotting in my head before I ever begin writing the book, at least establishing the main strokes. I think about plotting a lot while I'm in the shower, or while I'm driving (Traffic Alert).
Give us a brief summary of the different series that you have written. Just a basic list of main characters and the action of the adventure series.
My first two books for Houghton Mifflin were stand-alones. After that, I began a series about a Georgia librarian whose life doesn't turn out the way she anticipated -- the Aurora Teagarden books. The first Aurora, Real Murders, was nominated for the Agatha. These books have been described as "cozies with teeth," which I think is accurate. They were supposed to be sweeter than they turned out to be . . . I just can't help it. Aurora is now in her thirties and a widow. The last book in this series was Poppy Done to Death, which was a 2003 book.
The second series I started, the Lily Bard "Shakespeare" books, are set in the fictional small town of Shakespeare, Arkansas. They feature a taciturn young cleaning woman, Lily Bard, who has a horrible secret in her past. Lily's life is much darker than Aurora's, and she is completely different emotionally. That series, despite receiving a lot of good press, came to an end with Shakespeare’s Counselor. However, Berkley Prime Crime is reissuing some of the old Lily Bards, starting with Shakespeare’s Trollop. The new printing will be out in 2004, with a wonderful cover.
My third series, which has been nominated for the Agatha, the Dilys, the Compton Crook Award, the Sapphire, the Pearl, and the Anthony, is about a telepathic barmaid in Bon Temps, Louisiana, who falls in with a vampire. (By the way, I actually won the Anthony for the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark. That broke my 'always a bridesmaid, never a bride' syndrome.) Sookie Stackhouse, the series’ heroine, is just a hoot to write. And I'm giving full rein to my sense of humor in these books. The last one to come out was Club Dead, in 2003. The next one will be out in April 2004, in hardback for the first time. It's titled Dead to the World. The Sookie books have publishers in England, Greece, and Japan, and have been optioned for a movie. So, as you can see, after twenty-five years in the business, I'm an overnight success . . .
Tell us about Poppy Done to Death. Would you also quote several lines or paragraphs in the book to "give our readers a taste" of your writing style? I personally like the quote of Aurora describing what it takes to be an Uppity Woman. It starts with "You didn't have to be absolutely nice...”
Poppy Done to Death, my most recent publication, deals with the murder of Aurora's sister-in-law, the wayward Poppy. It's a secrets-in-a-marriage book. Poppy was a very complicated woman with many hidden agendas, and when Aurora finds her dead in her house, she is almost angry at Poppy for living her life the way she did. Aurora and her other sister-in-law are members of the Uppity Women, a ladies' club in Lawrenceton, Georgia. (By the way, there is a real group called Uppity Women, but a member doesn't have to die for a new one to be inducted!) To get into Uppity Women . . .
"You didn't have to be absolutely Nice. The southern standard of niceness was this: You'd never been convicted of anything, you didn't look at other women's husbands too openly. You wrote your thank-you notes and were polite to your elders. You had to take a keen interest in your children's upbringings. And you made sure your family was fed adequately. There were sideways and byways in this "nice" thing, but those were the general have-tos."
What do you think separates your work from other women whodunit writers in the field?
What separates my work from other women in the field? Sorry, but I think that's an invalid question. We're all individual, with our own voices. I don't think you'd ask Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben what makes them unique.
Who are your literary influences?
Jane Austen was my first love, followed closely by the Brontes. Since then, I've enjoyed Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson, Ann Rice, H.P. Lovecraft, and Connie Willis, outside of the strict mystery genre. They've all had an influence on me. I think Shirley Jackson's technique was the finest of all, and I can never hope to emulate her wonderful ability to invoke creeping fear.
What other projects are you working on at the moment? Where will you be appearing/speaking/attending, so our readers can read or meet you?
I just finished a novella that's something of a departure for me. It's going to be in one of Harlequin's imprints in October, and it's a creepy, romancy story called Dancers in the Dark. Also in October, there'll be an anthology coming out from Ace that includes a Sookie short story. My main event of 2004 is the publication of my next Sookie, Dead to the World, which will debut in April. It'll be the first of the series to be a hardback original. I'll be at the Southern Kentucky Book Fair, Midsouth Science Fiction Convention in Memphis, Malice Domestic in Washington, Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana, and I'll be at Murder by the Book in Houston and Roc*Kon in Little Rock in June.
Do your children find it hard to have a mother who not only is interested in gruesome stuff, but writes sex scenes?
You bet. They're by turns proud of me and a little embarrassed. I'll embarrass them further by saying I have three fabulous children and I love them extremely.
As this is a writer's site, what information or advice would you give fellow writers as to presenting, writing, or publishing in the craft of writing?
I'm never very good at advice. Maybe the best I can give is . . . don't be afraid to write what you want to write. Don't decide to write a serial killer book because they're selling, or steer clear of a subject some readers might find objectionable. Once you've decided on the book you want to write, work intensely until it's the best book it can be. Don't be afraid to listen to criticism, but pick your critics carefully.
© 2004 Robert
L. Hall, All Rights Reserved