Charlaine Harris: Dead-On Author
By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66
Charlaine Harris ’73 has enjoyed a 20-year-plus career as a top-selling mystery writer. She’s known for her novels spiked with humor, romance and bloody murder. Six years ago she really cut loose and began writing about vampires—Southern vampires in particular. Book sales skyrocketed, catching the eye of Alan Ball, creator of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and now “True Blood,” a series based on Harris’ work. The show, starring Anna Paquin, is set to air on HBO in January 2008. These days, life just isn’t the same for this Magnolia, AR, author, homemaker, softball mom and senior warden at St. James Episcopal Church.
Barely 5’ tall, the blue-eyed writer with short, curly auburn hair is gracious and soft-spoken, with a wicked sense of humor and a delight in the absurd.
Since the late 1980s, she’s lived in Magnolia (population: 11,578), smack in the middle of the ArkLaTex region where three states meet. Her home, secluded and serene, sits on several acres. A duck pond in the front yard (population: 1 duck) completes the pastoral setting. Her office is a comfortable den-like room attached to a capacious carport. Her dogs, Rocky, a boxer/cocker spaniel mix, and Oscar the dachshund, trail her everywhere. Harris and her husband Hal Schulz, a chemical engineer, have raised three children here. It’s a perfect family home—and a writer’s paradise.
Harris’ first book, Sweet and Deadly, was published in 1981. In 1989 she began her Aurora Teagarden series, about a small-town librarian who’s an excellent sleuth. Her Lily Bard books, which followed in 1996, relate the adventures of a heroine with a dark side who cleans houses for a living in the fictitious town of Shakespeare, AR.
Five years later, Harris published Dead Until Dark, the first of her highly successful Southern Vampire series featuring Sookie Stackhouse, who can read minds and has a vampire boyfriend named—Bill. (No “Lestat” or “Armand” for her.) Harris introduced Harper Connelly, a woman who can find bodies and often identify them, in 2005.
“I’ve always been interested in the paranormal, the horrible, weird and strange,” Harris explains. “I wrote ghost stories when I was very young. Ever since I could hold a pencil, that is what I wanted to do.
“I majored in English and communication arts at Rhodes. I wrote some one-act plays that were staged after I graduated. I also wrote a lot of poetry at Rhodes, which was terrible,” she confesses. “Poetry is so hard to do well.
“But I felt a calling to write conventional mysteries, and in conventional mysteries you can’t have those weird elements. The mystery scene was very conservative until seven or eight years ago. That’s when it loosened up enough to permit explicit sex and aspects of the paranormal. And I was just tired of writing conventional mysteries. I was looking at 50 and thought, ‘If I’m ever going to get out of the mid-list I have to take a big leap.’ And this was my big leap. So I thought I’d just write about everything I always wanted to write about.”
Harris is a four-time New York Times Book Review bestselling author (her latest vampire book, All Together Dead, debuted at #6 this year). A review in the Times said of her work: “Harris writes neatly and with assurance, and she avoids the goo that makes equivalent books so sticky.” Thanks to the success of the Sookie books, which are published simultaneously in hardback and on CD, all of Harris’ books are again in print; the rights of the earlier ones have reverted to her.
Harris claims all her works have a purpose.
“I don’t write the books just for the adventure of them—I have an agenda,” she explains. “Sookie serves my agenda for the Southern Vampire series. She has a disability, she’s an outcast who dates other outcasts—vampires—yet she’s a brave young woman with a lot of charm, I think. The series is really about marginalized people. Though if you don’t get that and read the books for the sheer fun of it, that’s OK too. I just write with a purpose.”
Getting her writing career started was the hard part. Harris married her first husband soon after graduating from Rhodes. An Army veteran, he was attending college in the Mississippi Delta and she needed to find work to support them.
“I had to take any job I could,” she says. “I worked as a teacher’s aide for a couple of weeks till the kids told me they were going to kill me, and I thought, ‘OK, I believe you!’ I worked in the offset darkroom at a newspaper in Cleveland, MS. That was really a hard job—standing up all day on concrete in the dark for $1.25 an hour. Later, I got a job proofreading and typesetting at the newspaper in Clarksdale, and then, typesetting at the Delta Design Group in Greenville.”
She divorced and landed a job back in Memphis, typesetting in the printing department at FedEx. “It was the best job I’d had, but I really wanted to write, of course.”
When Harris remarried, she got that chance.
“This is a Rhodes story,” she says with delight. “A few years after we’d graduated, Henry Slack (’74), who lives in Atlanta, gave a New Year’s Eve party. Several of us flew in for it, including Kathy Schardt (’74). Kathy, who was from St. Louis, had gone to high school with one Hal Schulz, who lived in Houston at the time, and invited him to the party. Somehow, I just made off with Hal! He asked me to marry him two weeks later. We celebrated our 29th anniversary in August.”
After the wedding, Schulz swept Harris off her feet again.
“When we married, Hal said to me, ‘Just stay home and write.’ It was wonderful. Then after a month or two he said, ‘I haven’t really noticed you writing.’ I had to make good. So I wrote a book—and sold it. But writers don’t make that much money. We could have qualified for food stamps if we’d lived on what I made for the first 20 years of my career. Hal would say during that time that my writing was more like a heavily subsidized hobby. He doesn’t say that anymore,” she laughs.
Harris’ books cut across genres, selling to romance, science fiction and mystery readers. Several of her books are sold in other countries, most recently Sweden and Estonia. Her audience, she says, “includes everybody.”
“I just have the greatest readers in the world,” she says warmly. “Teenagers are reading my books now, which makes me feel kind of funny because my books are sort of adult.” Then there was the softball mom who sat down beside her last season and said, “Well, I didn’t know your books were X-rated!”
“That made me feel a bit guilty for a minute and then I thought, ‘Why? I’m an adult, she’s an adult.’ But then, there are 200 churches in this county.”
Harris maintains a large Web site (charlaineharris.com). It’s an ongoing dialogue with her fans. She blogs weekly, posts news and upcoming events and openly invites her readers to comment. She is a recipient of several awards, including the Anthony, presented by the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, and three Reviewers’ Choice Awards from Romantic Times Book Reviews Magazine. She also serves as a board member-at-large of Mystery Writers of America, one of whose many functions is to present the annual Edgar Allen Poe Awards (Edgars). This year, she read for the best first-novel award, “not for best-novel, which would require reading more than 400 books.”
In the local community, Harris has served on the Magnolia Arts Council and as president of the Softball Boosters Club. Her high-school-aged daughter is a team standout. In fact, a tall, teetering pyramid of her home-run softballs, each one authographed by the team and encased in a clear plastic cube, sits atop a bookcase by the front door. With modest pride, Harris says she needs to order more cubes. Her older son works for a computer company in Ft. Worth, TX, and her younger one is in the military. This is Harris’ third time as senior warden of St. James Episcopal Church, which, she says, has taught her how to work well with others.
Until lately, she’s lived a fairly normal life in Magnolia.
“For 20 years, nobody fussed with me until now,” she says. “Now” means the upcoming HBO television series, “True Blood.”
“I suddenly have a golden aura,” she laughs. “In a way, I sometimes kind of resent it because I consider writing the most wonderful thing anybody can do. But now that it’s involved with television, people seem impressed. I think, ‘Guys, you’ve got this backward!’”
That’s not to say Harris isn’t excited. Alan Ball is executive producer, writer and director of “True Blood.” The Atlanta-born Ball is perhaps best known as executive producer and writer of the 1999 film “American Beauty” which won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, and the 2001-05 HBO series “Six Feet Under,” which garnered seven Emmys and three Golden Globes.
Fittingly, the Harris/Ball connection happened in a bookstore.
“Alan went to a bookstore one day, just browsing, found one of my vampire books and bought it. Then he went back and bought all the others the next day,” explains a still-astonished Harris.
Says Ball: “I fell in love with Charlaine’s Southern Vampire books. I couldn’t put them down, and whenever I finished one, I wanted to start the next one immediately. I thought they would make a terrific television series.”
“When Alan approached me about doing the series, I had two other offers on the table,” says Harris. “Alan’s was by far the one I was most inclined to take because he’s such a great talent. It’s just been fantastic working with him.”
The series takes place in rural Louisiana, at a time when vampires have made their existence known to the world following the development of synthetic blood in Japan. What’s more, vampires, prized for attracting tourism, are protected by state law. But as any minority, the vamps experience a variety of reactions from the greater population.
The books are her babies, but Harris will not write for the TV show.
“Your rights end after you sign that contract. That’s it. It’s Alan’s property now,” Harris says. “However, I’ve read the first two scripts and they’re fabulous. They’re him. The show is going to be me as filtered through him and the necessities of television, so it’ll be a whole different animal.
“Alan’s writing style has some very funny moments and some very bloody ones, but that’s the way I write. He really ‘got’ me. That’s how he convinced me to go with him. I just felt that he understood what I was doing with the books.”
Ball responds: “Charlaine’s enthusiasm for her characters and their world is palpable and it’s rubbed off on all of us involved with the show. So I feel a strong obligation to remain as true to her work as possible.”
Harris has visited the Hollywood set.
“It’s being filmed at the same studio where ‘I Love Lucy’ was filmed,” she says. “Some of these places are so old (this one was built in the very early 20th century and is still in use). I watched them build the sets on the soundstage and talked to all the production people. The day I was there they were interviewing the dogs that were going to play Sam (a shapeshifter) in his dog form along with the cat that was going to play Sookie’s cat. It was the craziest-looking cat. I think they called it a British blue—it looks like an owl with fur. But Alan just loved this cat, so I said, ‘OK, fine.’”
Back in Magnolia, Harris recently sent a new Sookie book to her publisher, and she’s working on another.
“With the TV series coming up, Sookie is pretty much the center of the universe for now,” she says.
“After 20 years of people being able to wait for the next book to come out, it’s really nice that now they’re anxious for it.”