'I'm just a gruesome person' --
January 14, 2010 --
Draining every drop of her deep Southern cordiality, Charlaine Harris holds out on explaining exactly why her latest heroine is involved in an incestuous relationship.
The author behind the popular HBO series True Blood isn't into psychoanalysing her sexy murder mysteries, even though their kinky characters cry out for it.
But otherwise thoughtful and conventional people who have found themselves glued to the television adaptation of Harris's work might need a session or two on the couch to explain why they can't get enough of a story based on sex with vampires. Vampires are, after all, creatures who are dead.
Necrophilia and incest are not themes you would usually associate with a 58-year-old churchgoing mother of three who has lived for 20 years in the Bible-belt state of Arkansas. "I'm just a gruesome person," she says, matter-of-factly.
But there's no avoiding the contradiction between the writer and her subject matter. Speaking from her home in Magnolia, Arkansas, she is unnervingly relaxed.
Harris admits the contemporary gothic subject matter of her work is so confronting that it took two years to find a publisher for Dead Until Dark , the first of the Sookie Stackhouse series that was turned into the television hit. The first book was published in 2001.
The adaptation, True Blood, has catapulted her taboo topics into the mainstream. It was written and produced by Alan Ball, of American Beauty and Six Feet Under fame.
Since True Blood was released in Australia in February, sales of Harris's books have skyrocketed. In July, nine of her Sookie Stackhouse series were in the top 10 places of science fiction and fantasy. In December they occupied six.
On the surface, the concept sits happily within its official genre. Unable to exist in daylight and dependent on blood, vampires have "come out of the coffin" because a synthetic replacement to human blood has been invented in Japan. Vampires no longer need to feed on humans. They can resist the desire to bite.
But Harris wants to do more than entertain. Her aim is to challenge the reader.
Vampires turn into a race subjected to deep prejudice but the telepathic Sookie finds herself sexually drawn to them and submits to her lover's fangs. The series explores exclusion, Harris explains, and she has acknowledged the vampires' struggle is a metaphor for gay rights.
The author herself says she's "not a big fan of biting". But that's not the idea. "I wanted to talk about who the monsters are," she says. Too often monsters are blamed for social ills when in fact it's the human race causing all the problems.
With Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series still a bestseller, it is easy to draw the conclusion that a craze for bloodsuckers is sweeping cinemas and bookstores. Vampire experts argue the interest has been around since Bram Stoker wrote Dracula and Harris sees herself as following on from Anne Rice, whose Interview with the Vampire was published in 1976.
Harris also describes herself as a social observer. In her latest book of the "Grave" series, Grave Secret , the main character, Harper Connelly, is still living with the trauma of a childhood surrounded by drug addicts. At age 17, she was struck by lightning, giving her the ability to find and listen to the dead. She becomes an amateur sleuth in the process. "She gets to see the worst of human behaviour; its folly, silliness and the evil," Harris says.
Harper also carnally loves her stepbrother, Tolliver Lang, her escort on all her assignments. They plan to get married. The dysfunction of their shared childhood is at the forefront of the story, which includes frequent steamy scenes in their hotel room. "I will be the first to admit: it's kind of icky," Harris says of Harper's "love affair". On the other hand, "they're not related to each other. They are just dependent . . . Every now and then someone gets totally squeaked out about it but that's OK." Most people, she says, accept it and are happy for them.
In Magnolia, Harris serves in the respectable role of secretary of the vestry at the Episcopalian Church. The message is clear: judge not lest ye be judged.
She is a pure product of the Confederacy: born, schooled and married in the deep South with all of its segregation, voodoo and religion. But unlike the deeply damaged fictional characters she creates, Harris's upbringing was stable.
She grew up on a cotton farm in what was then the poorest county of the United States: Tunica, Mississippi. Her father Robert switched from farming to teaching and her mother became a librarian after having children. In this bookish household her late younger brother Ashley loved higher literature, while she stuck with genres such as mysteries.
Living in the middle of a cotton field, she says, taught her the greatest skill of being a writer – being alone. She has written for as long as she could spell, she says. But events since leaving home have given her material for her own mystery plots. She gathered her own sorrows. "There were a lot of things that happened that were less than pleasant," she says.
Her first marriage dissolved after three years when she and her husband realised they had made a mistake. Single again, she was living in Memphis, Tennessee, where she had gone to college, and while in her early 20s was raped by an intruder who threatened her with a knife. The perpetrator was a serial rapist and later convicted. An early book, A Secret Rage , is about a serial rapist who terrorises a college town in Tennessee.
In her late 20s, Harris met her husband Hal (she prefers to keep his surname out of interviews) at a New Year's Eve party in Atlanta, Georgia. Hal bought her a typewriter and gave her a metaphorical room of her own in which to write. A chemical engineer who works for a military supplier, he has always supported her writing.
What the neighbours and her three children think are another matter. Her children struggled with the idea of their mother being a professional writer, unlike other mothers. And she worried that the raunch of True Blood would mean social death in Magnolia.
But since the success of the TV series, family and friends have enjoyed the accolades. Patrick, 25, Timothy, 22, and Julia, 19, posed on the red carpet with lead actress Anna Paquin. "They are very excited to have a cool mother," she says.
Caring about what people think does not seem to be high on Harris's agenda. After Julia was born, she took to weightlifting, a sport that evolved from a passing passion for karate.
These days the only exercise she gets is walking her three dogs. Harris maintains a blog in which she reviews other writers' work and despairs at domestic challenges, such as finding the time to put out her Christmas decorations and where to store her college-age children's gear.
Sookie Stackhouse and Harper Connelly have, meanwhile, adopted lives of their own. She expects the "Dead" series will outlive "Grave" by 13 books to four.
She's on to her next heroine but won't divulge her character. "I think if you talk about things you don't end up writing them." But expect a tricky character: "Damaged people are more interesting to write."
Grave Secret, by Charlaine Harris, is published by Gollancz, $29.99.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Charlaine Harris and her book Grave Secret
From The Sydney Morning Herald --