Exclusive: Author Charlaine Harris on the Beginning and End of Sookie Stackhouse


True Blood may have many years left to it, but author Charlaine Harris has announced that the bestselling Sookie Stackhouse novels (a.k.a. the Southern Vampire Mysteries) on which the hit HBO series is based will conclude with the thirteenth volume (volume 12 is due out next year). I recently sat down with Harris for an extensive interview, which I'll be presenting in three parts. The next two parts will focus on Harris's thoughts about True Blood and on her upcoming graphic novel Cemetery Girl. But after the jump, you can read the first part of our conversation, in which Harris discusses her approach to writing, her influences, the creation of Sookie Stackhouse, the character's upcoming final adventures, and what she might do next.

You just finished writing the twelfth Sookie Stackhouse novel…

The penultimate book, because I'm going to finish with the thirteenth.

Is it tough to finish this series, to let it go?

It's tough to walk away from the money. [Laughs.] Yeah, it is going to be tough.

But you don't have to.

No. I don't have to. But I just felt like I'm finishing the story. I don't have anything left. That's what I've got. I don't want to keep writing when I'm running on empty. I think we all know writers who have continued to write the same characters when they run out of gas apparently. I just don't want to be like that.

You've written plenty of other novels beside the Southern Vampire Mysteries. Do you have a long list of things you've put on the back burner because of Sookie?

Yes, I do. [Laughs.] And honestly it is so exciting to do something different.

How far into the thirteenth Stackhouse novel are you?

Zero! [Laughs.] That's my next project. When I get home I have to go over the copy-edited pages of Sookie 12, which will be out in May. That will freshen up my memory about what I need to do in Sookie 13, to tie everything together. A seemingly impossible task.

I'm sure you've been asked this before, but could you talk about what the twelfth novel will involve?

It's called Deadlocked. It's another extension of her adventures, moving a step forward to resolve many of the issues that are brought up in previous books. She gets kidnapped – you know, the usual mayhem. She gets kidnapped, she has to get out of it. The Fey entry into her life is pretty much wrapped up. She learns a lot more about everything really. She learns a lot in this book, the truth. So it was a challenging book to write, and I tried to keep it on track more as a mystery. But there are just so many loose ends to tie up, it's just incredible. [Laughs.]

Even though Sookie is a mature woman, do you view the entire series, on one level, as a coming-of-age story?

The growth of her character is definitely a major part of the novels, but I wouldn't call it coming-of-age. She's a twenty-six year-old woman. But she certainly becomes worldlier, more aware of the other worlds around her. She's always known what human nature was like, because she's telepathic. Which is kind of a bitter pill to swallow. But she learns how to live with a lot of things, and what she can't live with.

Which is part of what makes the books universal, since we all experience that everyday.

Yes, I suppose so. [Laughs.]

The Stackhouse books are, as billed, mysteries. But you blend other genres into them. Without sounding too clinical, is there an unofficial recipe for how much of each genre you add to the mix?

Not really, because it varies from book to book.

So it's what the story calls for?

Some books are quite romantic. Some books are all about the mystery. Some books are just adventure, because Sookie's moving forward with her life and it's really complicated. Things happen in the werewolf world, the vampire world, the Fey world that impact her directly. So it's just an adventure getting through her day. [Laughs.]

Do you never really know what the genre will be until you begin the book?

That's true. I just see where the story takes me and go with that.

Do you not use an outline when you write?

Well, that might be stretching it a bit. But as long as I've got my basic characters, I just set them in motion and we just see what happens.

What's your work routine like? Do you have a time of day at which you prefer to write?

I do. I'm very much a creature of routine. I'm really one of the most boring people you'll ever meet. I go to work at 8 in the morning and I work until after my husband leaves for work. I go over to my office and work. I work until 11:30 or 12; I take off for lunch and watch something I've DVR'd the night before. Then I go back to work at 1ish and work until 3, 3:30 or 4; something like that. But a lot of that's isn't real, original creative work, to my dismay, because the bigger your name gets the more the business of being that entity takes over the creative work that put you in that position.

Do you foresee a time when you'll hire a staff to take care of a lot of that business work? Or do you prefer to be more hands on?

There are decisions that I have to make. My agent would never make a decision without checking with me first. You really have to take care of much of that yourself. My assistant does all of the emails, except for my personal ones. My agent handles all the business. But I still have to make up my mind. I still have to decide what my schedule's going to be. I still have to make decisions about the artwork for this or the cover copy for that. It just seems to take up an awful lot of time.

I'm curious about your own taste in the supernatural. What did you gravitate towards as a fan?

Growing up, I read a very wide mixture of books. Anything I could lay my hands on, at the library. My small town was very, very poor. It was very hard to get a selection of books, hardly any of them were science fiction, unfortunately. But I did grow up reading H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe – which was pretty much science fiction in a lot of ways – Ray Bradbury – he's so pure, isn't he? – Poul Anderson… People like that. I did  read them. Though my primary reading choice was mystery eventually, I always read science fiction also.

Did you have any favorite horror stories?

I never realized that horror was a separate genre. So I just kind of lumped it in there with science fiction. But I don't remember reading any horror, unless you consider Dracula horror. I read that two or three times.

There's a collection of True Blood-related essays – BenBella's A Taste of True Blood – to which I contributed a piece on the relationship between True Blood and Dracula.

Oh really?

Dracula reflects the fears of Victorian England's men that an Eastern European "savage" from another era will take their women away from them. In the character of Bill, True Blood, in some ways, offers the antithesis -- presenting the vampire as a desirable, benevolent, and more civilized figure from the past. Were you conscious of that at all when you were creating Bill?

Not as… I was more interested in Anne Rice's vampires. I like her vampires, and in fact that is why I chose northern Louisiana. Because I thought Anne had her way with southern Louisiana, so I'll just take the part nobody likes. I'll take northern Louisiana. [Laughs.]

You're making sure that part of the state gets its due? [Laughs.]

Yeah. It's not nearly as picturesque as southern Louisiana, or as ethnic or colorful. So I'll just take northern Louisiana and see what I can do with it. [Laughs.]

So, as far as vampire literature goes, Rice was a big inspiration for you?

I think Interview with a Vampire is the iconic book in modern vampire literature. I can't give her enough kudos for that. It's just a fantastic book. And there was one scene in a subsequent book where Lestat breaks into the Talamasca and has a face-to-face talk with a human member of the Talamasca, David. To me that encounter of the vampire and the human was fascinating. I must have read that scene – I don't know – twenty times. I thought, "There's something here that gets me." So when I was thinking about writing something completely different from conventional mysteries, I thought, "I don't want to write about a vampire. I want to write about a human who dates a vampire." So the whole thing evolved from that.

Of course you have other classic components of horror and fantasy literature in your books. Where did you get your werewolves and fairies?

Well, my fairies are not traditional fairies. I felt that other people were doing… Well, I don't know. I just wanted to do them my own way, and I felt free, since they are fictional, to disregard tradition in that respect. Werewolves too; though my werewolves are very traditional in a lot of ways, because I just like them like they are.

Which genre writers do you read today?

My gosh, so many. I'm a voracious reader. I review books on my website all the time. Not ones I didn't like, because that's just vicious. Life is short. So I just talk about the ones I like. I've a huge fan of Lee Child, Barry Eisler, I really enjoy Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs. They're my favorites. Even more on the more romance-y side, Jeaniene Frost is super. I read Jon Krakauer, the nonfiction writer. He's such a great writer. Of course I read Neil Gaiman, and Connie Willis. But honestly you could ask me tomorrow night and I'd give you a completely different list. Because there are so many people I enjoy so much... Mike Carey, he's so good. He just gave us a story for Toni [L.P. Kelner] and my next anthology, because I edit anthologies also; and his story is so good. We didn't have to change a word. It was the editor's dream.

These days paranormal romance is huge in bookstores. Though the Stackhouse novels don't necessarily fall into that category, the audience does cross over.

Yeah, they're not romance. Though sometimes they get classified that way.

Do you feel the show's success has contributed to that classification?

Possibly, because the show has so much more sex in it than there is in the books. Yeah, I think so. But as long as people are buying the books I really can't complain. They find out sooner or later that I don't even have a sex scene in every book. I try to make it good when I do it, but if it's not essential to the story, I'm not going to put one in there.

Did film and television have a big influence on you when you were growing up? Or did you spend the vast majority of your time reading?

I would say it was eighty to eight-five percent books. I have watched some genre movies. I'm not very big on horror movies.

You mentioned you DVR shows. What do you watch now?

We tape several programs that we don't get to watch, and truthfully I am a Project Runway junkie. [Laughs.] That's my guilty pleasure. I just love it. Because I could never in a million years do that. I can't even sew on a button. And to watch people say, "Yes, you have to have a ball-gown by eight o'clock tonight," Then someone says, "Oh, I just don't have a single idea…" I just think that's so amazing that there's something in their head that enables them to do that. I just love to watch that. It's amazing. There are several other shows I really enjoy watching. I like House. Even though, really, I think somebody should shoot him and rid the world of him. Then  I like Dexter, which is pretty horrific; and very different from the books. I think Jeff Lindsay and I are the luckiest people in the world. He's got a quality TV show and he's got the books, and they're very different. It's very similar to my situation.

Dexter, however, is very focused on the title character, whereas True Blood focuses on the entire world that you've created. Is world-building something that comes natural to you?

Well, yes. I hate to use this word, but it's kind of organic. I think, "Well, if this is this way, then the next step will be that way; and then if this is true then that must be true…" It just kind of builds and builds and builds. I know people, other writers, who sit down and establish the whole entire world with every rule before they sit down to write. But honestly I couldn't do that. I'm too impatient. I just have to do it as I go. Which leads to some problems later on [laughs], but it's fun to do.

Well that's what editing is for. [Laughs.] It sounds like world-building is your own Project Runway. I'm sure most people would find what you do pretty amazing, and insist they at least need extensive outlines to create a world.

Oh some people do. I know one writer who spent so long working on the world that she didn't write the book. I don't live inside my head that much. I've got to communicate with other people.

That shows right from the first Stackhouse novel. There's a confidence there.

Thank you.

You trust the journey the storyteller's going to take you on.

Oh good. Well, I've been in the business for a long time. And there are certain things I'm not very confident about. And I have fits of self doubt, but generally I know what I'm doing now. I've been writing books for at least thirty years, and I feel like I do know a thing or two about what works.

Has the success of the Stackhouse books shaped your backburner list? Do you now find yourself considering more strongly other supernatural projects?

Well, yes I do. Because I know where the money is, and I know whether for good or ill if I write something supernatural, I'm gonna make big bucks; and if I write something else I might not. And I'm not above considering business when I pick my projects, because that's realistic. Though I know writers who are unrealistic, and I admire them too. They'll say, "No, I'm not gonna write that book. I'm gonna write this book." Everyone is asking Robin McKinley to write a sequel to Sunshine. She won't do it. [Laughs.]

Are there other media in which you'd like to write? Can you see yourself scripting film or TV?

You know, I'm just not interested in scriptwriting. I wish I were. That would be nice.

Do you prefer having total control over the universe you're creating?

No, I'm not a total control person. That's why I signed the books over to Alan Ball. But I just love books. The graphic novel I'm doing with Chris Golden, Cemetery Girl, is a big stretch for me. It really shook me up to learn. I started doing a graphic novel and got a new phone at the same time. [Laughs.] I said, "I can't write this. This is too much. I don't understand it." But I'm learning, and I hope that eventually I'll get to be pretty good at it.

It's impressive that you took the time to learn. A lot of established writers would feel they don't need to, and if they were working with Chris Golden – as you are on Cemetery Girl – they'd just have him take care of things. It's similar to your work day – with Stephen King, for example… I don't get the impression he's directly involved with as many business decisions as you are.

Well, I like to. My agent emails me and calls me, sometimes several times a day. He's a very hands-on agent, Joshua, and he's the only agent I've ever had. We've kind of grown together. He has an agency now with two associates, and I'm doing okay.

Since we're speaking the day before Halloween, I have to ask – how does Charlaine Harris celebrate the holiday?

I don't. I love the idea of Halloween, but I live on a road out in the country and no one ever comes to trick-‘r-treat. I'm not much of a party person. Sometimes I think, "If I went and hung out in the bar at night I could probably talk to other writers and learn stuff…" Then I'm like, "Nah." [Laughs.] I'm not much of a drinker. I'm not much of a party person. I'm more of a…I'm just me.

Yet you've obviously done a lot of living in order to write these books.

Yeah, I'm very fortunate now that my life in many ways is very easy. But it's not always been this way.

Do you have a favorite character in the Stackhouse novels besides Sookie? And is that character the same as the character you identify with most closely on the show?

Hmmm… Well, I love writing Pam, because she is really ruthless, and I love writing people who are so what they are. Then there's a short story character I use, but that has only made our attention in the books, Dahlia Lynley-Chivers. I've written maybe six short stories about Dahlia. She is incredibly vicious, and I find it very liberating to write a character who just doesn't give a shit. [Laughs.] "Pregnant women aren't sacred to me. Kids aren't sacred to me. I really hate ‘em." She's just a very little, very old vampire who's proud of her personal appearance and could care less about anything else.

So through her you can exorcise things you can't in everyday life?

Oh yeah. I'm certainly a much nicer person because I'm a writer.

You get all your darkness out on paper. [Laughs.]

Yeah, I get to shake my sillies out every day. [Laughs.]

There was TV development of your other book series…

I had the Harper Connelly books with CBS but that didn't pan out.

Is that project finished, or could it be reborn elsewhere?

It's under discussion with somebody else now. So I should know pretty soon about that. That would be fun and interesting also. It would be a very different experience.

I assume there's also Hollywood interest in your other books. Is there anything that's likely to be developed soon?

Not that I can talk about.

Are you inundated with calls these days?

You know, fortunately I am. That's where everybody wants to be.

You seem to have handled success quite elegantly.

It's because I'm old. If I was still really young I'd probably be all over the map.

You'd be snorting coke in Beverly Hills.

That's right. [Laughs.] I'd be in the bathroom. But since I'm older and I've had my kids and I've had a whole complete life, that really helps keep me balanced.

In real life, what's your greatest fear?

[Laughs.] That someday people will find out I can't really write. They'll discover that. Really, my greatest fears have already happened to me. That has left me in many ways fearless.

That's excellent. Most of us have to die to get to that place.

[Laughs.] Yeah. I don't know. There's something for having lived through it and come out the other side and said, "Hey, I did that. So I can do just about anything!"

Thank you so much, Charlaine.

Oh, you're welcome!