Written by Jeffrey Ricker and Alex Graves Tuesday, 16 May 2006 05:25
The St. Louis that local author Laurell K. Hamilton writes about doesn’t exist. In that world—the world in which her character Anita Blake lives—vampires are not only real, they also have legislated civil rights, run businesses, marry, and have children. They live alongside the general public, with werewolves, shape shifters, witches, voodoo practitioners, and more.
Anita raises the dead for a living and is also the licensed vampire executioner for the state of Missouri. This sideline is complicated by the fact that she’s dating Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St. Louis, with whom she is bound in a metaphysical power-triangle with Richard, Anita’s former lover, a junior high teacher and head of the local werewolf pack, and Micah, King of the Wereleopards. She has one of the highest kill counts in fiction. In battling evil, Anita fights an internal battle for her psyche by killing creatures that appear human.
It doesn’t get any easier in Cerulean Sins, Hamilton’s latest addition to the popular series, in which another player for Anita’s affections enters the fray (see review). But when Hamilton sat down to write the tenth installment in the series, Narcissus in Chains, it was with the goal of simplifying Anita’s love life. “And of course, because I was trying so hard to make things more simple, I complicated everything,” she says. “It’s almost as if the characters have a streak of perversity, and the harder I am trying to force it to go one way, they go ‘uh-uh’ and they decide to go totally in a different direction.”
Chalk it up to a stubborn, determined protagonist who often rebels against her author’s plans. Because of her experience in writing Narcissus in Chains, Hamilton didn’t have any goals for Anita’s relationships when writing Cerulean Sins. “It’s not my relationship; I’m not dating any of them,” she says. “She’s just like all my friends: you can give them dating advice, they do not have to take it. I just want everyone to be happy, that’s my only goal.”
Hamilton says that when she sat down to plan the series, she included all of the things that interested her—vampires, werewolves, zombies—as well as things that she wanted to know more about, such as voodoo and firearms. At the heart of them is Anita. “I still love her point of view. She may be exasperating, she may argue a great deal with me, but she’s still very fun to be with and very fun to follow around and see what she’s going to do next.”
Hamilton has also created another popular series of novels, a modern fairy tale revolving around Princess Meredith Gentry (Merry), the only American born Fey (or fairy) princess. At first hiding in Los Angeles, she attempts to establish her independence from the court of her aunt, Queen Andais, by working as a detective for an agency specializing in the supernatural. Forced back to the courts, she strikes a bargain with the queen: Merry must produce an heir before her cousin, Prince Cel, in order to save her life.
The Gentry series combines the complexities of power, politics, relationships, and sex in a romantic blend of science and mythology. However, Hamilton doesn’t consider it real horror. Merry’s modern America is a cross-cultural world of humans and various creatures referred to as the fey (non-humans). Not wanting to present the fey as people with pointy ears, she deliberately split from the mold by making them a foreign culture. Further setting them apart, they are more openly violent, cruel, and sexual than humans.
As a partially human mortal, Merry learned to tread delicately in an immortal world that easily forgets her mortality. Without care, actions that are only painful to other members of the court can be life-threatening to Merry. Unlike most fey, Merry’s magic is underdeveloped, forcing her to rely on diplomacy. For example, Merry forms an alliance with the Goblin King by taking a half-fey goblin under her protection. She bargains with miniature-winged demi-fairies to obtain invaluable cures.
Hamilton’s creativity is a mixture of natural ability and complex history. She was born in 1963 in Heber Springs, Arkansas, and shortly thereafter, she and her mother moved with Hamilton’s grandmother, Laura Gentry, to Sims, Indiana. At age six, Hamilton’s mother died in a car accident, making her grandmother her guardian.
As a child, Hamilton had an avid appetite for the supernatural. She grew up on a diet of Ozark Mountain ghost stories and folklore. She spent her childhood consuming works of horror and fantasy, such as “Creature Features” on television and books like The Natural History of the Vampire. At age five, she convinced her grandmother to allow her to watch Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. When demonstrating her maturity by turning off the television after becoming frightened, her grandmother allowed Hamilton to set her own viewing threshold. By age 12, she wrote her first story.
Raised by an independent woman, Hamilton learned that women’s social barriers weren’t unbreakable. Once, when she had to lift a 50-pound bag of rock salt, an uncle wanted to assist until she reminded him that, when he wasn’t visiting, they had no one else to rely on. Hamilton believes that, had she not been raised in a household without men, neither she nor her characters would have the strength they have today.
Hamilton attended Marion College, a Christian school that is now Indiana Wesleyan University. Believing that her writing would have a corrupting influence, one professor kicked Hamilton out of the writing program. As a result, Hamilton dual-enrolled in biology. Despite her interest in wildlife biology, Hamilton never gave up on writing.
Like her characters, Hamilton has not been one to back down from a challenge in her writing. If anything, she’s sought them out. “All through my career, I’ve looked at my writing and asked myself, ‘What am I not good at?’ And whatever I wasn’t good at would be the thing I would try next,” she says. She’s used this technique since she was in high school. When she first realized she couldn’t write fight scenes, she wrote fantasy fiction full of sword and magic fights until she was able to do them well.
Similarly, she conquered problems with dialogue by choosing to write hard-boiled detective fiction, which relies heavily on dialogue and which is at the heart of her Anita books. Hamilton followed the same rationale when it came to writing sex scenes, an element that has come into much greater play as the Anita Blake series has continued. “I couldn’t make anybody kiss on paper so it even worked,” she says. Clearly, that’s not the case now.
Hamilton’s success is not something she had planned or could have foreseen. “I did not anticipate being recognized in public. That caught me off guard the first several times it happened.” It’s happened often enough now that Hamilton says she’s become more accustomed to it. “It’s still not something that I am completely comfortable with… I’m glad I never became an actor or an actress; I would not want to be unable to go to the grocery store.” Plus, some people have been scary, asking her to direct them to real vampires or inviting her to join a ménage a trois. If her name is recognized in public, Hamilton might respond “Well, isn’t that a coincidence,” a trick she learned from her husband. Another surprising effect of her success is becoming a boss. However, she does not mind having coworkers, especially when they are her best friend and husband.
Hamilton’s desire to write fantasy is a direct result of her reading Robert E. Howard’s collection, Pigeons From Hell. Hamilton’s witty, character-building dialogue is a derivative of hard-boiled detective mysteries, such as Robert B. Parker’s novels. She studied plot development in Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Hamilton’s interest in multiple genres has led to her desire to create stories of the modern world coping with old world creatures, turning the surreal into the real.
Hamilton isn’t the only one to have fallen in love with her characters. Well over 1,000 Web sites are dedicated to the Anita Blake series. Many operate as avenues to express their adoration for Hamilton’s characters. Others are forums to argue over Anita’s love life. Some display personal drawings of Anita characters while a few provide fantasy or comic book continuations of Anita stories. While Hamilton is flattered by fans’ interest in her characters, she discourages unauthorized fan fiction, which is illegal.
Hamilton has published over 15 books and numerous short stories, refusing to be relegated to one genre. Through her eclectic mixture of fantasy, mystery, horror, and romance, Hamilton is attracting a diverse international audience. Success came early, but not consistently, for Hamilton. In some ways, she says, that was a mixed blessing. Unlike most authors, she sold the first book she wrote. “Most writers have trunk books, books that will never see the light of day.” What distinguished her first effort? “Well, one, I actually accomplished the goal I set out to do. I told a story from beginning to end...One of the hardest things to understand when you write a book is how to pace a story. And that only comes with time.”
That initial success wasn’t so easy to replicate; her second novel, a sequel to her debut, Nightseer, was rejected. So was her third, which became “a 213-page outline” for the Anita Blake novel, The Lunatic Cafe.
As a woman writing about strong women in a typically male genre, Hamilton has confronted double standards more than once. A renowned mystery editor told Hamilton that if the Anita Blake series had been written as a straight mystery, she never could have gotten away with the level of sex and violence, “but not because of any other thing than I am a woman writing a woman from a first person point of view… People still aren’t comfortable with women being violent or sexua…I like to think that we’ve come further than that.”
She encounters the same double standard outside of the publishing industry, and sometimes from surprising sources. When Richard broke up with Anita in Narcissus in Chains, irate readers—most of them women—complained—so many, in fact, that she had to go back and check to make sure she was remembering the story correctly herself.
Hamilton requires that any crime or horror occurring in her book without magic must have occurred in real life. “I used to think that I had a really twisted mind until I started researching what people actually do to people and realized that nothing I could ever come up with and put on paper is as bad as what people have already done to each other… I do not give out ideas for how to hurt people. I take it from things that people have already done to others on their own.”
Nor does she write violence gratuitously. While her novels may not be for the squeamish, the level of detail in which she describes some gruesome crime scenes is necessary. Hamilton points out that, often, the best clues to a crime are the victims. “To not look at the body, to not look at the violence…is to pretty it up. Violence isn’t pretty. Violence is violent. It is what it is, and if I’m going to write about it, I need to get it as close to real as I can.”
Hamilton’s characters are creatures independent from herself. “I’m not fond of people who sit down with a message in their heads before they write. I find it disruptive to the storytelling, and I find that they often will shanghai or even betray their characters, make them do things they wouldn’t do, not allow them to do things that they would have done naturally, even warp the story out of all proportion in order to get their point across.”
In developing their stories, she finds herself arguing with them, offering them options, invariably in which one or both chooses the most difficult. However, when writing Merry’s story, Hamilton found herself rewriting 70 percent of it to correct Merry’s voice from a middle-class Midwesterner to the Princess of the strong and often violent fey. By treating them as living beings, Hamilton’s characters remain fluid and changeable.
Hamilton pays close attention to forensic accuracy. In addition to researching written materials, she spends considerable time interviewing professionals, such as military personnel, police officers, and firefighters. As a result, she has developed an understanding of criminal personalities. This knowledge provides her with an insight into the events that can lead to various violent crimes, and the forensic process to solve them.
The author puts an equal amount of effort into investigating local business and zoning laws, business practices, and other related items. That process doesn’t always go smoothly. For example, a city employee refused to answer zoning questions about where to locate a bondage club in the city. Instead, the employee repeatedly told Hamilton to put the club “across the river.” Which is what Hamilton did. Narcissus in Chains is now set in East St. Louis.
Due to Hamilton’s subject matter, law enforcement characters figure prominently in the storylines, often in a fair light, but not always. When they don’t, she makes sure none of them are members of a real law enforcement agency, such as the corrupt police force in Blue Moon. She may take more liberties with individual officers on a large municipal police force, but readers are accustomed to that in fiction, she says. On the other hand, Hamilton says that having police officers in her stories that disagree or dislike Anita is a reflection of real life. Disliking Anita does not make an officer corrupt. Hamilton provides similar protections to some of the delicate spots in or around the St. Louis area. To reduce the potential of traffic to these areas, such as a local cave, she will place them in area different from where they exist.
Hamilton believes that her activities in public speaking and theater when she was younger contribute to her writing. She finds that writing resembles watching a play, in which the actions, entrances, and exits of each character impact the story. Her writing is deliberate and methodical. Every scene, action, or dialogue must contribute to her plot, world, or character development.
Despite her schedule of book tours and writing four to eight pages a day, Hamilton attempts to take advantage of any available time with her daughter. She finds that working at home assists in meeting that goal by maneuvering her schedule around her daughter’s. Hamilton waits to begin writing until after her daughter leaves for school. At that time, with coffee, tea, or water in hand, she will retreat from her kitchen to her office. There she will work on her book, perform research, and make notes, some of which end up plastered to her walls and desk. It takes her two hours to work up to speed for her writing. If her momentum is broken, it might take several more hours to return to that speed. If her writing stalls under a block, Hamilton will take her materials to a café, camping there until she tears through the block.
With over a dozen novels under her belt, Hamilton is blessed with a wealth of ideas for future books. In general, she says, she doesn’t have problems keeping her creativity fresh. “Anything that nourishes you and makes you feel good about your life helps with your creativity,” she says. “I truly believe that, and it is certainly the case with me…I am blessed with a wealth of things and a mind that sees possibilities in everything from television programs to music videos to just looking out the window and watching a car drive by too slowly. Any of it can give me an idea.”
Due to the international popularity of her novels, Hamilton’s readers have expressed interest in visiting St. Louis and taking “the Anita tour.” Hamilton has pondered where to direct visitors seeking the exciting community within her novels. To encourage and contribute to the city’s development, Hamilton is now working with Missouri’s tourism industry to draw more visitors to the community.
Likewise, St. Louis has had its impact on Hamilton, not just as a setting for her Anita Blake novels. One valuable source of support and development for her writing is the writers group to which she belongs. A successful, prolific group, they’ve published more than 40 books and scores of short stories—and they all met here in St. Louis. Members of her writers group include Sharon Shinn, Rhett Macpherson, Mark Sumner, and Marella Sands, all published authors whose works Hamilton enjoys reading.
“We all taught each other how to edit our own work, and that’s really what separates the beginning writer from the professional writer...being able to look at your own work and edit it, I think, is one of the difficult things to really learn, because people are either too harsh on themselves and edit too much, or not harsh enough and don’t edit enough. It’s hard to get that middle ground.” Their feedback also taught her how much detail in her work is enough, and how much information is still up in her head that never makes it onto the page. “When that person in New York is reading my book, I’m not there over their shoulder to go, ‘Well, that’s not what I meant, this is what I meant.’”
Hamilton was in her 20s when she created Anita. Now 40, Hamilton has an 8-year-old daughter, is happily married, and leads a quiet suburban life. Hamilton has lived in St. Louis for well over a decade since moving here from Los Angeles, where she worked as an art editor for Xerox. She is happy living in the Midwest, finding it to be a healthy area to raise children. Hamilton says St. Louis is a pleasing mix of urban, suburban, rural, and country all within an hour’s drive. An avid gardener, Hamilton also appreciates that, unlike her previous home in California, she has a large yard here. She is careful to spend as much time with her family as possible, stating, “You can always make more money, but you can’t get your time back.”
At the time of this interview, Hamilton was working on completing a Merry Gentry book, tentatively titled Seduced by Moonlight, before embarking on a book tour in support of Cerulean Sins. Once she returns from that, she’ll be tackling the twelfth Anita Blake book. Some settings Hamilton would like to include in future novels are Las Vegas, Paris, England, Greece, Pompeii, and Arkansas. In an attempt to maintain accuracy, though, Hamilton chooses not to write about places she has not visited herself. Therefore, Anita or Merry won’t travel outside the continent until Hamilton has an opportunity to go as well.
Hamilton has considered spin-offs of characters in her Anita series but doesn’t plan on it. By writing first person, she finds that Anita is her lens on preternatural St. Louis more so than, say, Jean-Claude or Richard. However, she suggests this will not prevent her from devoting a book to them later. Hamilton is not planning to kill off one of her major characters. She finds that the death of characters such as Jean-Claude would be like the death of a friend.
Nor does Hamilton plan to have Anita and Merry meet—she isn’t sure how the two would react to one another. Merry’s character is comfortable being feminine and enjoys activities such as shopping. However, Anita’s dominant characteristics resemble an adult tomboy. Anita’s reactionary characteristics might conflict with Merry’s diplomatic ones. The fey world portrayed in Anita’s fifth book, Bloody Bones, is different from Merry’s. Plus, both characters are portrayed in first-person narration. Respectful of her product, Hamilton believes that consolidation of these factors would not be wrinkle-free.
Because Anita is designed as a mystery series, Hamilton plans to continue writing about Anita indefinitely. However, she expects Merry’s fairy tale to have a happy ending after 7 to 11 books. She has no plans to initiate an additional series at the moment, though she does have several ideas simmering on the back burner that are not yet “soup.” She continues to dabble in short stories, having joined several authors in the compilation, Out of This World. Hamilton’s been approached about adapting her books to the screen, but none of the offers so far have met with her artistic standards—though she doesn’t rule out the possibility of doing a movie or television series at some point.
Hamilton has considered opening businesses based on those in her novels. She has spoken as a guest lecturer and performs public readings from her novels in libraries. She has heard that her books are being used as course material. She is a strong advocate for animals and provides links to animal adoption sites through her Web site and fan club, www.LaurellKHamilton.org. She also supports several non-profit organizations, such as Granite City APA and Second Harvest.
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