By Steve Nagy
Sequential Numbering Optional
Laurell K. Hamilton tries to follow what I consider the best rule in fiction: entertaining readers.
Right from the start, with the first Anita Blake book, GUILTY PLEASURES, the series embroils readers in supernatural and romantic elements with lighthearted gusto. The relationship between vampire executioner/animator Anita and vampire Jean-Claude, and later with werewolf Richard, offers as many, and possibly more, complications than consummations. A tease?
Sure, but one that’s allowed Hamilton to capture readers with its reality and with Anita’s cynical humor. How else do you deal with a lover whose definition of oral leaves you a few pints short and slightly anemic, or another who gives a hairier, and scarier, definition to PMS? (That’s Post Moon Syndrome, if you want the pun spelled out.)
Her books are available in the US, UK, Russia, Greece, and Hungary. Her US publisher is reissuing the early paperback originals in the Anita Blake series in hardcover, with the second book, THE LAUGHING CORPSE, slated for release in December 2003. Her other series — two volumes and counting — that focus on faerie princess Meredith Gentry and intrigue between immortals in the faerie court, pushes the necromantic envelope by offering enough sensual pleasures to accompany its thrills. Count on the third volume, SEDUCED BY MOONLIGHT, slated for a 2004 release to top the bestseller lists when it comes out.
MarsDust: Publishers Weekly wrote that CERULEAN SINS is the best Anita Blake book yet. Where do you see the story of Anita, Richard, and Jean-Claude going at this point?
Laurell K. Hamilton: I don’t. My plans for my characters don’t always work out. By the time Richard came on the scene, Anita had changed. I was still shopping for the person she had been in college before she started raising the dead and killing vampires. She was a different person, and I hadn’t realized how different. Of course, Richard, himself, hasn’t cooperated either. But that’s his choice, not mine.
Anita will do what she wants to do, which is what she usually does anyway. Anita is like most of my friends — I can give them dating advice, but they rarely take it. Career advice, I don’t even try. I would like to see Anita truly happy for more than moments at a time, but I no longer know the route we will be taking to get there.
In GUILTY PLEASURES I was still betting good money, loudly, to anyone who asked, that Jean-Claude was not a romantic lead. Damn it. It would take me two more books before I began to understand that I couldn’t kill Jean-Claude off, that losing him would hurt both Anita, and me.
In NARCISSUS IN CHAINS, I tried to fix Anita’s love life and only made it more complicated. So I have given up trying to fix it or figure out where it will go.
MD: The best fiction seems fraught with love triangles, yet characters seem to be able to take only so much and remain “real” to your readers. How do you balance putting Anita through hell and still offer her (and your readers) some sort of happy ending?
LKH: Happy ending, as far as Anita is concerned, means the evil is punished and gets their just rewards, if at all possible “on stage” where the reader can see it. And for Anita it means that you end with friendships intact even if the relationship doesn’t. Good triumphs over evil. That’s the best happily ever after that Anita gets. I would eventually like Anita to have a happy, happy ever after, some peace in her personal life but she is just not a happy ever after kind of girl.
MD: Is there some sort of theme/statement you want to make with the series or is the series just a collection of rip-roaring yarns?
LKH: I didn’t start out with an axe to grind because I hate it when I am reading along and figure out that the writer has some axe to grind. Some beautiful writing can be done that way, but it always irritates me to hear the axe go (Laurell made little squeaking noises to indicate the axe grinding), to hear that axe grinding throughout the beautiful prose.
For me I think that each story is its own self-contained message. There are recurring themes (but) most of them are not on purpose; they are not themes I would have chosen. But the ones that are, are the ones that keep occurring to me, and (are) interesting to me. Every writer has things they keep going back to.
MD: Your other series about Meredith Gentry (currently comprised of two books, A KISS OF SHADOWS and A CARESS OF TWILIGHT) seem to touch on some of the same aspects as the Anita Blake books — the interaction and balance between normal and paranormal. What is it about these ideas that fascinate you as a writer or as a reader?
LKH: I love reading good mixed genre. I like reading things that take their favorite toys from everyplace and mix it all together in one book. But my favorite thing is to take (the) everyday normal world, then just throw the supernatural into it and see what happens. I love to read it, and I love to write it. It still fascinates me.
With Merry, Merry spends more time in Faerie. Anita is closer to our world than Merry. But with both, the fact that we start with our world changes your perspective. It’s not elves, dwarves and dragons (but) more Nike, Oreos and guns no matter where you go. What I do is take the fantastic and make it ordinary. Almost everyone else takes the ordinary and makes it fantastic.
Making the fantastic ordinary, that’s what I like to do, I like to bring the fantastic into the ordinary. You’re driving to work and look up and there’d be a dragon perched on a house. That just tickles the hell out of me. It always has and it seems to keep amusing me.
MD: So that we don’t leave Gentry fans wanting … where do you see that story going? Are you envisioning an open-ended series or is there a specific arc you want to follow to a particular ending? What is your driving motivation behind the Gentry series — are you fleshing out this alternate world, exploring different questions you haven’t been able to ask or can’t ask through the Anita Blake books?
LKH: Merry does have a closed story arc. And I know what that is. It will be books and books to get there, but it does have an ending. When I sat down to write the series I knew where the ending would be, the place at which I wanted to arrive. The climax (no pun intended), and we are working towards that.
I put together the Merry series because there were things I wanted to do, themes I wanted to explore that I didn’t feel I could do with Anita and that Merry is much more comfortable with.
MD: Since Anita and Meredith “populate” a similar landscape — where normal and paranormal co-exist — are they in the same world/milieu? Do you have any plans for them to meet each other if they do exist in the same world?
LKH: It’s not the same world. (When) I wrote book five of Anita — BLOODY BONES — I used the fey and I thought I knew a lot about the fey, about the Shee and Celtic mythology. When I sat down to write Merry and started doing the research I realized I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought. Being raised by my Scotch/Irish grandmother did not make me an expert on Celtic folklore. When I went and looked at archeology, anthropology and folklorists who actually went and talked to people who believed in the fey, I realized how much I didn’t know. But BLOODY BONES had already been published, I couldn’t take back what I had said, so I was hoisted on my own petard. In order to use the new knowledge I had, I had to separate Merry’s world from Anita’s world.
Even if they weren’t separate, how could I get them to meet? They are both first person narrative. You can’t say: I walked into the room, I was already there. I didn’t like myself very much. It sounds schizophrenic. So it is just as well they don’t share a world.
MD: How much research typically goes into each book and the various bad guys and good guys that populate your books? Is there a primer, besides your imagination, that gives you help on making the characters so real? I guess you could say this question is one about inspiration — what sort of events grab your attention and lay the groundwork for a story? If you want to use one of the older books as an example, that would be great. I guess I’m trying to get a feel for your individual process that links ideas together.
LKH: Based on my own experience as a writer, I used to worry that my muse would run out of ideas. Those “inspirations” still happen though, and I’m curious about what feeds your muse. That’s sort of a character and research question and that would take pages to answer. I just finished writing 3 pages of single spaced type on writing characters for the fan club newsletter. I am not sure I can condense it down to something useable here. One of the things that help my characters is that I have a degree in biology. Take the werewolves for instance; I have books on real wolves. I have the Mech book THE WOLF which is one of the primary books if you’re doing research on real wolves. When doing a fantastical creature I try to find books on the real animal and studies of their behavior, books on anthropology and archeology. As much as possible I try to use real hard science for my jumping off point. I think that helps with the world. Making it more believable.
As to research, I have a shelf (about 36″ long) and a half of a shelf of just Celtic research books. I have an almost equal amount of space with books on voodoo, vaudun, vampires, and other mythology. Though a lot of the vampire I ingested at an early age. I research a lot. I have been told by people in New York that I research my fiction more than most people do their non-fiction. Which I found a frightening concept. I do as much research as I can. If a book does not have a good bibliography then I won’t use it as research. I do that old thing they use to teach journalist to do, something I learned in my only journalism class — you had to get the same information from three different sources, they don’t seem to teach it anymore or at least no one seems to practice it. If I don’t have three I just don’t use it.
What feeds my muse? Getting up in the morning, looking out the window, walking my dog. I am a very, very lucky writer in one respect; I have never had a problem coming up with ideas. I get half a dozen ideas a week that are so out there I cannot even use them. Then there are the ones I keep. I put those on sticky notes. There is one wall in my office that is all Merry sticky notes, one that is all Anita and one that is stuff that fits neither. Sometimes it is years before I get to them. I also keep writer’s notebooks that have been one of the most valuable ideas for inspiration. Never ever say, I will remember that idea, you won’t, so write it down.
Now here’s the thing with writer’s notebooks, lots of writers make notebooks, fill them up and then stick them in a drawer and forget about them. Go through your notebooks as you finish them and read the pages. Pages that have to do with Anita, I put in the Anita file. Pages that have to do with Merry I put in the Merry file. Pages that are short story ideas go in the short story file. I will often begin to research an idea years before I use them. I will collect bits and pieces. So go through your notebooks and cannibalize them, tear them to pieces. File them. Here’s the idea.
For years before I started the books I had a short story idea file. When I didn’t know what else to do, I would go through the short story idea file. Sometimes it was just a note scribbled on a napkin or scrap of paper. Sometimes you will find ideas that mesh up and make a whole story.
Other times, ideas will go whole. Taking out the garbage at one apartment I saw a group of geese sleeping in the twilight. By the time I dumped the trash I had the first line of the story; by the time I got to my apartment I had the whole story. So sometimes it just comes, whoosh. There is inspiration everywhere if you’re ready for it or at least open to it, and that is the key.
MD: For readers who aren’t familiar with your writing, what events “made” you become a writer, or helped you become a published writer? I guess you could call this the “sitting at the counter in the corner drugstore waiting to be discovered question” if you wanted to label it. I know that those types of discoveries aren’t usually the case, and I’m trying to get a sense of your “apprenticeship” and growth — comrades in arms, writing environment — those things that nurtured Laurell K. Hamilton.
LKH: No one is going to come and discover you anywhere. You have to put your butt in a chair and write. The number of people I know who want to be writers but don’t write just makes me nuts. Finish what you write. And then send it out where someone can see it. That is how it is done.
By the time I was seventeen I was sending out stories and collecting rejection slips. I think it was Ray Bradbury who said, when you have enough rejection slips to paper a small room then you will have sold your first thing, or at least gotten all the “bad” stuff out of you and you can get to the good stuff. I picked a small bathroom in my house and I was well on my way. I never finished completely papering that room but it was close.
I was always very serious about my writing. I didn’t do much writing in college because college was not a very nurturing environment for the beginning writer. In fact, I was asked to leave my college writing program for being a “corrupting influence on other writers”. I have since gone on to do what she feared I would and have corrupted millions.
After college there was the [L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future] contest, and the biggest thing that did was give me a goal, every three months I had to finish a story no matter what. Then I started my first book, by getting up at 5 a.m. every day and doing two pages before I went to corporate America. No rewriting as I went, I am a perfectionist and never would have finished. Most perfectionists will never finish a book because they go over and over what they have done and try to make it perfect. Finish first, then go back and rewrite.
I went to a writer’s workshop at my first science fiction convention. I never saw the convention. I was in the writer’s workshop given by Emma Bull, Will Shetterly and Steven Gould. I didn’t learn how to write at that workshop, but how to look at my writing [in] a different way. I learned how to edit my own work from that workshop. That was something I didn’t know how to do. In fact, I sold the very next thing I sent out. I had gone back and reedited the story based on the new skills I had learned.
That is also where the Alternate Historians, my writing group, was formed. We have been together over ten years now. Only two of us are still original to that workshop: Deborah Millitello and myself. Everyone else, Rhett Macpherson, Sharon Shinn, Marella Sands, Mark Sumner and Tom Drennan have come in since. But we continue to help one another edit our work, teach each other how to see things. We also learned the rules. Criticize the writing, not the writer. Only critique what can be fixed. And be kind to one another. Because your turn is coming. Sharks who are only looking for blood are just as useless as having someone who does nothing but pat you on the head and tell you its wonderful as is. Neither is a help.
Having friends who are writers is very helpful. It is someone you can call when you’re stuck. You’re in a conversation that won’t end, you’ve written a character into a corner and cannot escape. They can help you out. Nor do they get upset when you abruptly hang up in the middle of a call because you have figured it out.
I did my apprenticeship the same way. I worked at my writing and when opportunities came I was ready for them and prepared for them. I was no one’s golden child. On average it takes ten years to “make it” as a writer. And if you count from seventeen to twenty nine when I first held my first copy of my published book that is how long it took.
Anita Blake Series
1) Guilty Pleasures
2) The Laughing Corpse
3) Circus of the Damned
4) The Lunatic Café
5) Bloody Bones
6) The Killing Dance
7) Burnt Offerings
8) Blue Moon
9) Obsidian Butterfly
10) Narcissus in Chains
11) Cerulean Sins
Meredith Gentry series:
1) A Kiss of Shadows
2) A Caress of Twilight
3) Seduced By Moonlight — forthcoming Spring 2004
Death of a Darklord