Interview with Laurell K. Hamilton by Helen C. Murphy

(Editor’s Note: these interviews date 2001-2009, so some information may not be current)

Laurell K. Hamilton has generated a phenomena with her Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Series. Since Guilty Pleasures was released in 1985, we’ve seen eleven awesome books, including her latest, Cerulean Sins. In this exclusive UK interview, this accomplished author shares some of her secrets to success.

Titles: (List updated 2009, though perfectly sure I’ve missed some!)
Danse Macabre, The Harlequin, Micah and Strange Candy, Narcissus in Chains, Cerulean Sins, Incubus Dreams, Blue Moon, Obsidian Butterfly, Burnt Offerings, The Killing Dance, Circus of the Damned, Skin Trade, The Laughing Corpse, Blood Noir, Guilty Pleasures, The Lunatic Cafe, Bloody Bones.

HCM: The Anita Blake series is groundbreaking – the rather prim Catholic girl with a collection of stuffed penguins who kills the undead for a living. What inspired you to create such a strong, memorable female character in a genre dominated by men?

LKH: The very lack of strong female characters in the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction seemed to act as a challenge to me. The men in the genre got to curse, have sex with no guilt, and kill people. The few hard-boiled women rarely cursed, rarely had sex, and if they did it was very off-stage, and not addressed much. If the women killed anyone, it was a big deal.

They had to feel really bad about it, and could only do it under the most extreme circumstances. Men seemed to be having a lot more fun, and it just wasn’t fair. So from the moment I created Anita Blake, she was meant to be as tough, or tougher than the men. She had to be able to more than hold her own, because as any woman in a male dominated field knows, to be considered half as good as a man, you must be twice as good. It’s not fair, but it is still true of most male dominated fields.

HCM: Beautiful monsters such as Jean-Claude are favourites with your readers. Why do you think the vampire is such an enduring cultural icon, and why do they feature so heavily in your work?

LKH: Why beautiful vampires in my work? Two words: Hammer films. The original Hammer vampire films, not the ones with Christopher Lee, but the low bugdet ones. I was a very young child when I was allowed to stay up late and watch those movies. Every once in a while I go back and watch them, and see the lovely men in the frilly shirts, and think, gee, I wonder if that had some effect on my subconscious? You think? As far as why the vampire has become a cultural icon. I can’t really answer that. I can talk about the fact that the vampire represents death, both the conquoering of death, and the embracing of death. And we in most Western cultures are fascinated with death, or terrifyed of it. Pick one. Either we like vamps because they give us hope that death is not the end, or we like them because they will give us the last kiss, and make of our deaths something more. For myself, I ‘m just orally fixated, and they get to bite people. Remember I like shapeshifters, too.

HCM: Did you think you would write so many Anita Blake stories when you wrote the first?

LKH: I planned on the Anita Blake series being long running. First, I seem to think, mostly, in huge chunks of plot. I rarely come up with just one idea, without having that idea breed a half dozen more. I am blessed in this respect, since I talk with other writers who struggle to get ideas. One of the ways I tell if I have my character’s voice dead-on, is that once that voice is right, other characters gather around them. The right character will create a world, minor-major characters, and plot. I am very much a character first writer. Before I had finished the first Anita Blake novel, GUILTY PLEASURES, I had tentative plots for fifeteen or seventeen more books. I still haven’t gotten many of those plots in print, because one book, or new character, will breed other plots, other books. But I gave myself enough toys with Anita so that I wouldn’t get bored. I’d seen so many mystery and fantasy series where the author seemed bored somewhere between book five and eight. But as I make notes for book twelve of Anita, and prepare for book eleven, CERULEAN SINS, to come out, I am still learning new things about my world, my characters, Anita’s work with the police, the vampire’s society, and the society of the shapeshifters. For me a series gets comfortable, and better for me as a writer, after book four, about the time that most people are growing tired of their worlds. It just keeps getting more fun to write.

HCM: Where else can our favourite vampire killer and alpha female go? Can we expect her to go out fighting or live happily ever after?

LKH: I’m hoping for happily ever after, but it’s not my life. 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.

HCM: Do you think “The Vampire” as a genre is dying, does it have any real horror left in it?

LKH: To your question is ‘the vampire’ dying as a genre, let me say only this. More than ten years ago when I was trying to sell the first Anita Blake novel I had publishers reject the book, and the series idea, because the market could not bear another vampire novel. The genre was dying. No one wanted to read about vampires anymore, the publishers said. Well, here we are a decade later, and I am the happy writer of a very successful series that is just full of vampires and other onsters. Not only are people still eager to read vampire books, but they’ve become an even more widely accepted cultural event due to television. When you can turn on the telly and see vampires on two different shows, every week, it’s not a genre that’s dying. They keep predicting the demise of the undead as a genre, but they are tough critters to slay once and for all. I don’t think we need to worry about vampires loosing their hold on the popular imagination.

HCM: In your opinion, what is the greatest vampire story ever written and why?

LKH: I can’t possibly pick the greatest vampire story ever written. I mean ‘Carmilla’ by Sheridan la Fanu, is still a senuous word feast. Stephen King ‘s SALEM’S LOT, certainly stands out as bringing vamps down from their castles and putting them in our everyday world, which was interesting, and certainly, had it’s effect on me as a young writer. And no list is complete without Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. That was, and still is a most lovely book.

HCM: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

LKH: Write. You’d be surprised how many wanna-be writers never seem to do that. Write, then finish it. Finish the story. Finish the book. Do two pages a day, every day. Do not revise as you go. If you come to something you don’t know, like what does 14th centuary underwear look like, put a note, skip it, and keep writing. I hear the wailing and knashing of teeth, but trust me I’ve met too many writers that have the perfect three chapters of their book, but nothing more. Three chapters isn’t a book, it’s a beginning, finish it. Once you have hundreds of pages on the other side of your computer, then go through and fill in those blank spots with research. Now, you can look up how to undress your 14th centuary herione. Now you can choreograph that fight scene. If you spend more than a week on a scene, maybe two days, skip it, write a note that says, fight scene here. You know who wins, just move on, keep going. The second draft is just filling in the blank notes. The third draft is where you begin to edit, and polish the writing. I did seven drafts of my first book, and I wrote it just like I’ve described. It sold. Most first novels don’t. My way is not the only way, heaven knows, but it’s the way that allowed me to write my first five to six books. I’ve gotten better at my job, and I no longer need seven drafts to get it where I want it. But I find even today as I write my fifetenth novel, that if I spend more than a week on a scene, I’m stuck, and I need to move on. Perfectionism has set in, and I’m trying to make it perfect. Perfectionism is an unattainable goal. Trust me on that. Just write, try not to worry, and when it’s done, send it out.

Try to sell it. For money. Not copies, not for friends to read. Sell it. This is a business, not a charity. Remember that. Your goal is to earn a living writing what you most love, right? Well, if that’s your goal, act like it. I always started at the highest paying appropriate market for my short stories, then worked down as they got rejected.

I’m assuming that you have researched your markets and aren’t trying to send vampire stories to magazines that don’t even buy fiction. It’s a business, remember. Sending your stories to inappropriate markets is like showing up for a job interview because you really want to edit fiction books, but you’ve walked into a computer engineering firm. They don’t edit fiction books there. Sending your story to the wrong market is the same deal.

Here’s another important piece of advice. Send the story, or book out, then get started on the next one. Don ‘t fret, and hover around the mail box angsting over that one story. It’s like a mother with one child, you worry more. So have more literary children, that way when one is rejected you know that there are others out there, that haven’t been. It takes some of the sting out of the rejection process. Not a lot, but some.

You’ve got to want this more than any other job, and you’ve got to toughen your ego, so that the business doesn’t crush you. Be tough. Believe in yourself and your dreams.

HCM: If Count Dracula popped up one night and offered you immortality, would you take it?

LKH: No.

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