Sunday, April 14, 2002

Interview: Charlaine Harris

Northern Louisiana might seem to some to be a strange setting for a vampire story, but author Charlaine Harris thinks it's perfectly natural.

Harris' latest novel "Living Dead in Dallas," published this month by Ace, begins in the fictional town of Bon Temps, La., which is located somewhere near Ruston. It's Harris' second vampire novel set in our area. The first, "Dead Until Dark," was published in 2001.

"I wanted to corner the market on northern Louisiana vampire romance mysteries, and I think I did," Harris jokes when asked about her choice of setting.

Actually, she chose the area for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's close to her Magnolia, Ark., home, which helped with research. The second is that she finds it easier to identify with Southern rural settings.

"(Southern settings) are what I know and what I feel most comfortable writing about," she says. "The characters just seem to flow more naturally in the Southern setting."

Harris grew up in the Mississippi Delta and says she's never lived far from the South. That shows in her writing. One of her mystery series is set in a suburb of Atlanta, and the other, featuring detective Lily Bard, is set in the fictional town of Shakespeare, Ark.

Her familiarity with rural America gave her an edge when she decided to write a vampire novel. She says she enjoys reading some of the modern vampire writers, but saw a way to give the genre a unique twist.

"It seemed like a good idea to take vampirism out of the urban setting," she says. "I wanted to do something of my own with it, to go in a direction that hasn't been done so much."

Thus, in "Living Dead in Dallas" there's a vampire attending the symphony in Monroe and a psychic shopping at a lingerie store in Ruston - not to mention a vampire bar in Shreveport.

Because of her style and subject, Harris is likely to be compared to one of those modern vampire writers, Laurell K. Hamilton. Harris says she knows Hamilton "very slightly," and the writer of the "Anita Blake" series did provide some inspiration for her first vampire novel.

"I had wanted to write a vampire book before I read hers, but I didn't really know if it would be accepted," Harris says. "I read two of her books, and I thought, `sure, I can do anything I want.' But it wasn't quite that easy."

She shopped "Dead Until Dark" to her normal publishers, who all felt that it wasn't quite right for their market. By the time the book found a home at Ace, Hamilton had hit the big-time. Harris acknowledges that Hamilton's success probably helped her, but doesn't think the other author's writing was a big influence.

"In a sense, she really paved the way for me," she says. "I don't know that I'd call her that much of a direct influence - more like a guiding light."

Harris' love of writing started early in life. She says that she's always been a writer, but she finally got the chance to make a career out of it 24 years ago, when she married her husband.

"He gave me the opportunity to stay at home and work on a book instead of resuming my job," she says. "I took him up on it."

She got off to a fast start. Her very first novel sold - a rare occurrence.

"People always hate me when I tell them that," she says with a laugh.

Harris now has 16 novels under her belt, but the jump from mysteries to vampire stories has been good to her so far. Ace has signed her for at least two more installments in the series, and the books are also reaching into foreign markets.

While a few mystery fans have given the vampire books a cool reception, she says most have shown interest.

"Some mystery readers don't like them because of the higher `ick factor,'" she says. "But a lot of mystery readers do read cross-genre, so I really like to think of the vampire books as kind of transcending one genre and crossing over to another."

Harris says she'd like to do more fiction with a supernatural element in the future, outside of her "Southern Vampire" series, but she also plans to continue writing mysteries as well.

Her next mystery, "Last Scene Alive," is due out in August. It's about a movie company that comes to a small Georgia town to film the fictional treatment of a book written about the town. Her next vampire novel will be released this time next year by Ace. Beyond that, Harris says she'll just wait and see what happens.

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