I'm just a writer,” Charlaine Harris says. “I write whatever I'm interested in at the moment. And I'm definitely a genre author. But the question is: Which genre? Harris's Harper Connelly and Southern Vampire series have been described as “urban fantasy,” but Harris laughingly insists that they are actually “rural fantasy.” An Ice Cold Grave (Berkley) is Harris's third mystery featuring Harper Connelly, a young Southern woman with an eerie gift (or as Harris prefers to call it, a disability) for locating and identifying corpses and figuring out the cause of death. Harper likes to take off her shoes and walk on the graves to better connect with the deceased spirits. These winsome touches give Harris's characters their appeal. “I wanted Harper's gift to be unique [she acquired her skill after being struck by lightning as a teenager],” Harris says, “something that she's made work for her, instead of holding her back.”
According to Harris's agent Joshua Bilmes, she has sold around 1.75 million copies of her 29 books worldwide, not counting book clubs and large print. Over half of those are from U.S. and Canadian sales of the Southern Vampire series, starring Sookie Stackhouse, whose paperback debut, Dead Until Dark (2001), won an Anthony Award. Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) is producing the series for HBO. Titled True Blood, it will star Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse and Stephen Moyer as her rakish vampire boyfriend, Bill Compton.
Born in Tunica, Miss., Harris now lives in Arkansas, not far from Texarkana, Tex. She's married, with a daughter, Julia, and two sons, Patrick and Timothy, a soldier due to be deployed.
During an interview at a Joe Mudd coffee bar inside a Texarkana Books-a-Million, Harris reflects on how her 26-year writing career has evolved. She began with a conventional mystery, Sweet and Deadly, in 1981 with Houghton Mifflin and continued writing well-respected whodunits, including the Lily Bard and Aurora Teagarden series. These sleuths were entertaining, but her best was yet to come. When sales leveled off, Harris rethought her career and paid attention when friends encouraged her to insert more humor into her mysteries.
The turning point was Dead Until Dark, which introduced Sookie Stackhouse. “I was about to turn 50,” Harris says. “I thought, let's just step out of the mystery box and try to do something different.” She decided to write a book about a girl who was dating a vampire. “I had to think about what kind of girl would date a vampire. It wouldn't be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill-girl. It would have to be someone who couldn't date regular people. Why wouldn't she?” There would have to be something different about her, Harris realized, and so Sookie became telepathic.
The book was different and a bestseller, as it turned out. When Bilmes called her—just three months after it was published—with the news that Berkley was ready to sign her to another multiple-book contract, in addition to her current one, Harris felt she'd finally achieved her dream of having a successful full-time writing career.
“Harris is one of those 25-year overnight sensations,” notes Ginjer Buchanan, editor-in-chief of Ace, Harris's publisher. “When we bought Dead Until Dark, Harris already had a 15-book mystery backlist.”
Will Harper Connelly attract similar magic? Can Harris again cross genres, attract the paranormal, mystery, thriller and contemporary romance readers the way she did with her Sookie books? Although mystery trumps fantasy and humor in the Harper Connelly series, the subject taps into the TV market that loves Medium, Ghost Whisperer, Supernatural and C.S.I. In An Ice Cold Grave, Harper encounters a monster with a taste for boys and her first true ghost. The ghost, Harris says, “is kind of my homage to Shirley Jackson, who can make the hair stand up all over your body no matter how many times you've read the Haunting of HillHouse. I live for the day when I'm as good as Shirley Jackson.”
Harris averages two books a year for her two series and has co-edited Many Bloody Returns: Tales of Birthdays with Bite (Oct., Berkley), with another similar anthology underway. She's committed to writing series as long as her readers keep reading them. Writing for a series, Harris says, is “like visiting old friends.” Currently finishing the next Sookie book, as yet untitled and due in May 2008, Harris says she thought it would be about weddings, “but it's turned out to be about war.” Possibly her son being in the military is an influence. Her smile wavers at this, then returns. “But there's big surprises about Alcide [Sookie's sexy werewolf friend].” Big, like another lightning strike? Harris isn't saying.
|Melissa Mia Hall is a freelance writer in Fort Worth, Tex.|