An interview with Laurell K Hamilton
The paperback of Laurell K Hamilton’s latest Anita Blake novel, Hit List, was released on 10th November, which sees Anita make her 20th outing as a demon battling, zombie raising, were-animal loving supernatural consultant.
The series has sold over 6 million books, has been a New York Times bestseller, and shows no signs of stopping, so Cat Fitzpatrick got in touch with Laurell to ask her about her writing influences, the character of Anita, and what keeps her writing her story.
Could you summarise what Hit List is about?
‘I’m actually not very good at summing up my own books without giving important plot points away. Anita and her partner in both law and order, and crime, Edward, are both U. S. Marshals helping track down a serial killer that is targeting weretigers across the country. The problem is that they both know that the killers are most likely members of the Harlequin, the spies, assassins, and greatest warriors the vampire and shapeshifters have ever seen. They are also the bodyguards of the Mother of All Darkness, the original vampire. She has been reduced to spirit, but has decided that it’s time for a new body, and she wants Anita Blake to be that body. It’s a showdown between Anita, Edward, and the biggest, baddest, vampire of all.’
Do you think that Anita is tempted to cross over to the dark side?
‘I think dark and light aren’t as far apart as most people think, and that the day you stop wondering about your choices, and if it makes you a good person, or a bad one, is the day you cross the line. Most people don’t become evil in large spectacular events, but little by little, day by day, one small decision at a time, until one day they aren’t the good guy anymore, and most of them don’t even realize it. That Anita worries about it is a good sign that it’s not happened, and probably won’t. Power is like a gun, it’s neutral; it’s the hand that wields it that makes it good, or evil.’
What keeps you writing Anita’s story and how did you come up with her as a character?
‘She’s become one of my best imaginary friends, as have many of the other characters in her world. I miss them when I’m not writing them, and I’m still learning new things about all of them, which is pretty exciting as I write the twenty-first book in the series. Anita’s character was developed in part because I read hard-boiled detective fiction after college, and found that the male detectives got to curse, have sex, and kill people without feeling badly about it, but the female detectives rarely cursed, had no sex, or it was sanitized and off stage, and if they killed someone, they had to feel really bad about it. I thought this was all unfair, so wanted a female character that could hold her own with the big boys. I may have overcompensated, but I thought that a straight mystery series would bore me after a few books, so I gave myself all the monsters of the movies and most of the ones from folklore and myth, to help me stay interested. It worked, I’m still having a great time.’
How has Anita changed over the course of the books?
‘Anita sees the world as black and white at the beginning of the series. I think most of us are like that in our early twenties, and then somewhere along the way we learn the world is far more grey, than black and white, or if we’re very lucky, we learn the world is Technicolor wonderful. Anita’s world went through its grey period, but then Jean-Claude and the other men in her life helped her see the world could be bright and beautiful even with all the bad stuff in it. Anita’s change of personality and perspective was heavily influenced by the police officers and military personnel that shared their experiences with me over the years. I had the privilege to watch one friend go from being a rookie cop, to a ten-year veteran. I watched the job wear down the bright and shiny of him, until he was quiet, certain, very competent, and knew, without doubt, that you never truly win, but you also never give up trying. Once I realized the cost that our men and women in uniform, of all kinds, pay to protect and serve, I had to have Anita show that process. If I hadn’t, if I’d let her stay static, then it would have felt like a betrayal of all the people that were so generous and shared some of their most painful moments with me. Thank you, all. I hope I have come even a little close to reflecting what you taught me.’
What were your earliest reading influences, and which books or authors originally sparked your interest in fantasy/supernatural horror?
‘I read the short story collection, “Pigeons from Hell”, by Robert E. Howard. It was the first horror, fantasy, and heroic fantasy I ever read. I believe I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, and from that moment on I knew not only that I wanted to be a writer, but what kind of writer I wanted to be. I would finish my first short story not long after. It was pure horror, with everyone dying bloodily, except for the baby, who crawled off into the forest. The implication was that the baby would simply die in the woods alone without anyone to care for it. It wasn’t a great story, but it was the first I ever completed beginning to end, and that makes it one of the most important stories I ever wrote. If you do not finish what you write, no one can ever read it.’
What is it about the supernatural you find particularly interesting?
‘Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been fascinated with it since I can remember. I used to blame my mother’s death when I was six years-old for my morbid turn of mind, but I’ve realized I was interested in scary things before that. At five it was never enough to play cowboys, there had to be a pit of rattlesnakes down below, so if you fell off the cliffs you’d be swarmed by poisonous serpents. I was begging to watch the original Boris Karloff “Frankenstein”, and was allowed to, but only if I watched it alone with only one light on. I realize now that my grandmother didn’t want me to stay up and watch the movie at all, but once she gave me the choice and I took it, she abided by it. I made it as far as the scene where Igor torments him with the torch, then I turned off the light and ran for bed, jumping high, so the monster underneath the bed wouldn’t get my ankle. I grew up with my grandmother, and others, telling me ghost stories that really happened. My grandmother believed sincerely in ghosts, and had seen them, so is that supernatural, or did I always believe ghosts were simply real, and natural?’
Was it important to make Merry Gentry and Anita Blake strong women?
‘I didn’t know there was a choice. I grew up seeing the women around me, and even the men, prove that weak people are victims, and that you must be strong to survive and have a good life. So, it wasn’t a conscious choice to make them strong, more a given for me.’
Did you intend Merry and Anita to be strong, sexually liberated women? Why was this important to you?
‘It wasn’t important to me when I first started writing Anita, and in fact her reluctance to embrace her sexuality helped me feel the need to create a character that was more comfortable with sex and with her own desires, thus Merry Gentry was born partially from Anita’s stubbornness. Then Anita suddenly decided to take the leap into sex in a big way, and I suddenly had two series with high sexual content on my hands. It was totally unintended with Anita. I would have bet good money early in the series that she’d never even sleep with Jean-Claude. I’m just the writer, which means I’m usually wrong about characters’ love lives.’
Do you research forensics and police procedures for your novels?
‘Yes. The more research I do the greater my respect for the people who do the job for real. I always feel a little embarrassed that I’m taking up their time from solving real crime, to help me make my paranormal thriller more realistic. I just pretend, they do the real thing.’
Is there a particular fantasy/science fiction/ horror novel or series that you keep going back to and rereading, and why?
‘Not any more. Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” and Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” were both important to me, and probably heavily influenced Anita Blake’s world, but then so did Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, which is straight mystery. Parker is who taught me how to write dialogue. I read, and read all the Robert E. Howard I could find, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Andre Norton. That all makes sense with what I write, I suppose, but I also read Dodie Smith’s “One-hundred and One Dalmatians” over twenty times one summer in my early teens. I also loved Louisa Mae Alcott’s books, and read all of them, not just “Little Women”. I have no idea what influence Smith and Alcott had on me as a writer. E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” was a book I read every year for over a decade. He taught me the beauty of language, and some of the craft of writing. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee was another book I’d read about once a year. My family is originally from the deep south, so the book spoke to me in many ways. I actually rarely read fiction any more. I’m much more likely to be reading non-fiction, either for research, or because I enjoy it. I’m especially fond of biology and nature books about animals. I have a degree in biology, so it’s always been an interest of mine.’
What first inspired you to first become a writer, and continue to be one?
‘Two very different questions, actually. I was inspired to be a writer, because it was a compulsion, as intrinsic to me as being right-handed, or being short. Continuing to be a writer, well, that took stubbornness, will power, a near punishing work ethic, and ploughing forward in the face of a lot of rejection. You have to be tough to have a career as a writer. Writers are like bands, a lot of people have a hit, or two, but to have a true career with a lot of success takes more than just talent, or inspiration. In fact, one of my quotes I tell new writers is this: Inspiration is for amateurs; professionals work for a living.’