Vampires, shifters, and werewolves – oh, my! New Orleans, Louisiana has seen more than its share of the mysterious, the bizarre, and even the gruesome. For the MacDonald sisters, the paranormal is the norm as they are the Keepers of the three supernatural races that call the Big Easy their home. However, when these supernatural races are targeted by unknown forces, the sisters are called upon to protect their charges, as well as the unsuspecting humans who live alongside them.
Three of the most respected authors working in the paranormal genre – Heather Graham, Alexandra Sokoloff, and Deborah LeBlanc – have teamed up to write a unique trilogy for Harlequin Nocturne. The Keepers trilogy follows the individual stories of the MacDonald sisters as they each work to save the supernatural societies they’ve sworn to protect with each author writing one sister’s story. I recently caught up with Alexandra Sokoloff, Deborah LeBlanc, and Heather Graham. and asked them about their new venture.
Jeannie Holmes: Thanks, Heather, Alex, and Deb, for taking the time to answer my questions. The Keeper Series is a new trilogy from Harlequin Nocturne. How did the idea of the series come about? Was it the brainchild of one of you or were you each approached by Harlequin individually?
Heather Graham: Actually, this was amazing fun. Tara Gavin, head of the Nocturne line and an amazing editor I’ve known for years, asked me to do a trilogy that entailed finding two friends who loved working paranormal/suspense/thriller books, and I’m delighted to say that Alex and Deb were both ready to enter the unknown waters with me. We had an amazing time. We started off thinking about futuristic concept, and then realized that they wanted contemporary stories. We were sitting together wondering where we’d hide slightly different people, and I think we all said New Orleans at once–we all adore the city. We know we’ll spend time there every year as well, since Alex and Deb have both supported Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans, a weekend reader/writer/just love the city workshop started after the summer of storms to bring work back to the city, from the beginning. We had an amazing time talking about places we all love–and the what ifs that go with working.
JH: Alex and Deb, it must have been a surprise to have Heather approach both of you about working on the series and with your different backgrounds find some type of common ground for the trilogy.
Alexandra Sokoloff: I jumped at the chance to work with her!
Deborah LeBlanc: It didn’t take long before the ideas were flying. Our initial concept for the project had a futuristic, post-Armageddon slant. We were close to fleshing out the idea when we discovered that we needed to be working on a contemporary. No problem. We simply did an about face, went back to the drawing board, and before long we were talking about vampires, werewolves, and shape-shifters. Of course we needed a setting for these other-worldly creatures, and what better place for them to call home than New Orleans, a city with such a unique culture that anything’s possible.
JH: I can imagine working together on a trilogy in which you each write a separate installment must have been challenging on many levels. For example, in the series, the MacDonald sisters – Fiona, Caitlin, and Shauna – are Keepers, the guardians of various supernatural subcultures living in New Orleans, and each of you write a different sister’s story. How did you decide who would write which sister?
HG: I think I am the oldest! And, I think I had the idea for Jagger and what he would be like. Honestly, I don’t remember. It just fell in.
AS: It was more that we decided who was going to write which subculture. I’ve never written vampires or werewolves, but I’ve dealt with a lot of shapeshifters in my life (men, you know!) so I was most comfortable writing that community. And I think the sisters were defined a lot by their birth order and the subculture they kept, and then their relationship grew as we understood more about the stories we were separately developing.
JH: Very interesting. Heather, the first book, The Keepers, focuses on Fiona MacDonald, who is the liaison to the vampires of New Orleans. Vampires are so prevalent in today’s paranormal fiction market, when you were creating the vampires for The Keepers, how did you decide what powers and abilities they would have? Were you concerned about making them stand out too much or not enough in a crowded genre?
HG: Yes, I think that’s the main thing you have to do–set the rules for your vampires, and stick with them! My first vampire book, Beneath a Blood Red Moon, came out in the late 1980s under the Shannon Drake pseudonym, and takes place in New Orleans. Actually, our band, The Slushpile, is playing the Memnoch the Devil ball for Halloween this year, and I’m going to see lots of friends who never, ever want the NOLA vampire books to stop, so . . . . there’s lots of room out there. In my mind, there will never be too many books!
JH: I agree. The paranormal is a big pool with plenty of room for diversity, as displayed with this trilogy. The Keepers is the only one of the three to feature a prologue that outlines much of the detail of the supernatural world as it pertains to the series. Was it decided in advance that you would be the one to establish the rules of the Keepers’ world and the history of how the subcultures came into existence? Did you feel any added pressure by being the one to introduce the Keepers and their world to readers?
HG: Actually, we’d talked about a lot that I actually put down in that prologue. Someone would say something, and someone else would add on, and then the next would add on . . . .To me, it was plot building at its best, and I think that it helped that we could talk about things we had seen and done together in the city, or all knew, and we could just get excited by each other’s ideas.
JH: No doubt it helps to be familiar with the city as well. How much research regarding New Orleans did you conduct? Did you rely on previous experiences or did you visit the city while you were writing?
HG: I was lucky to visit the city while I was working, but I’m usually in NOLA five or six times a year. I was there the week before Katrina hit South Florida and went across the Gulf. I had just written a book called Ghost Walk, and my whole family was there, filming a book trailer in the Lafayette cemetery in the Garden District. We were horrified when we saw what happened when the flooding began. Then, I acquired a child–they sent the school students around the country. Bailey went home after they repaired her house and school, but by then, my daughter had been and made more friends there . . . so it really became a second home. I’d always gone–several best friends live nearby, Molly and Kay of Bentpages, Houma, and Connie Perry, costumer, of Lafayette.
JH: So, Alex, did you find yourself researching shapeshifters to see what others had done before deciding how to construct your own shifters?
AS: Well, a little, but the vast majority of shapeshifters in paranormal fiction are animal shifters: werewolves, big cats, bears, horses. I don’t really see the point, myself – if you could shift, wouldn’t you rather shift into another person? Especially in New Orleans! So I was more following a tradition of witches and magicians putting on human form – Merlin, Nimue, Morgana, other characters in classic fairy tales. I also incorporated my understanding of how the astral and auric bodies work – how you might actually achieve shapeshifting in a magickal sense. I did have some fun with the idea of a cat shifter, though…
JH: The Shifters deals with a specific group of shapeshifters known as walk-ins. Can you explain the concept of a walk-in and why you chose to focus on them?
AS: “Walks in” is just one name for a kind of disembodied entity that you find legends of in all kinds of cultures. They have no corporeal form of their own and thus are hungry to take over – possess – human bodies, hungry to have that physical experience. Of course a human body can’t support that kind of invasion. I find that idea truly creepy – especially the idea of a voracious pack of those entities. But also it seemed appropriate in New Orleans, since possession is a key concept in voodoo (but so complex that I didn’t want to try to depict that in a relatively short book).
JH: I completely understand your hesitation to tackle voodoo. As you mentioned, it’s incredibly complex. But what about you, Deb? Why did you choose to write Shauna’s story?
DL: In truth, I think the sisters sort of chose us. Right out of the gate, Fiona came across as a nurturer, and the wiser, more level-headed sister, which fit Heather perfectly. Caitlin came to life carrying an air of sophistication and style, a no-nonsense type woman, which suited Alexandra well. Shauna hopped onboard wearing t-shirts and jeans, with a temper to match her red hair and the aesthetic sensibilities of an otter. Other than the red hair, I could have been Shauna’s twin.
JH: Your book, The Wolven, deals with were-creatures, specifically werewolves. Like vampires, werewolves have a ton of mythology and lore surrounding them. How did you wade through the clutter to create your wolves? Did you know from the start you wanted to show them a certain way or did it evolve over time?
DL: I knew right from the start how I wanted the werewolves to look and act. I’ve always been fascinated with wolves, and I’ve always owned large dogs, so canines are a comfortable subject for me. As far as the mythology and lore surrounding werewolves is concerned, I simply viewed them as such—mythology and lore. As long as you establish a strong plausible base, you can adjust, recreate, and/or create any myth or lore.
JH: It certainly sounds like you all had clear ideas for your supernatural creatures. However, I know from experience the worlds they inhabit require a lot of careful construction. How were the rules of each subculture – vampire, shapeshifter, and werewolves – and of the Keepers themselves decided?
DL: Overall, we kept the rules of each subculture relatively basic, collectively deciding on what each group could or could not do physically and metaphysically. The Keepers’ rules were kept simple, as well. Once each Keeper was paired with a subculture, we chose abilities that worked in tandem with the abilities of the group she was responsible for.
JH: Did you decide on the history and rules as a group in advance?
HG: We had to decide on a few things ahead of time, but just as I see New Orleans with my eyes, and someone else’s perception may be different, so the lives of the sisters may be different, and obviously, their perceptions, as well. That’s why it’s great to work with friends. Reading each others’ work, we could catch things, and change to whoever had the most important aspect of what we had done differently, and adjust. I loved working with Alex and Deb!
AS: Luckily we were all able to get together to brainstorm at Bouchercon last year, and we decided on a back story about the long history of the Keepers, and how the MacDonald clan and the supernatural communities had separately come to settle in New Orleans (fleeing the Inquisition, which persecuted and killed all supernatural entities as witches). We decided as a group that the supernatural beings would be “hiding in plain sight” – that they lived as humans in New Orleans, and the Keepers are almost the only humans who really know of their double lives. And that the underlying theme of the story would be acceptance and tolerance of and community between other races/species. Then each of us developed the rules of our own communities and the others used those rules. It worked astonishingly well!
JH: Since each book focuses on a different sister and a different subculture, how did you handle writing individual stories within a larger interconnected concept and with characters who are siblings?
DL: Heather took the lead, establishing the foundation for The Keepers. She set the tone for the sisters and the other-worldly creatures—what they looked like, how they interacted with one another and in society. Then she introduced secondary characters who were vital to all three books.
HG: We were also lucky–Leslie Wainger is an incredible editor, and that extra pair of eyes that kept it all going smoothly. And, I was lucky, of course. I had the first deadline, so I just kept sending out to Alex and Deb.
JH: Deb, since your book is the last in the trilogy, did you face any unique challenges with writing the series end?
DL: The biggest challenge I faced was the writing pace. Although I started writing The Wolven around the same time Heather and Alexandra began their books, I had to slow things down considerably until I read Heather’s book to make sure I was following the baseline she was establishing for the series. After reading Keepers, I was able to move ahead a bit faster, but still had to hold back a little until I read Shifters so I could see the turns Alexandra had taken. Only then could I be sure that I was keeping everything intact and consistent in the last book.
JH: I would call that a challenge. How about you, Alex? Did you have similar or different challenges with writing the second book?
AS: Besides having to write half the story on a Mexican bus trip, you mean? The hardest thing, naturally, was having to follow Heather Graham! She is so freaking good at weaving the mystical with a seriously believable crime whodunit, and on top of all of that, she has that signature blend of sexiness and just radiant love, and I mean not just romance, but universal love, running through everything she writes. So I had to strive for that myself, and the way I came around to it was to delve into my heroine’s wounded feelings about love and this heroine-worship and inadequacy she has in her feelings toward her older sister. For Caitlin it’s a struggle to believe in that kind of goodness, but I love it that she finally gets there.
JH: Did you at least have notes of what either Heather or Deb was planning?
AS: We were working off each other’s fairly extensive outlines. Each book is about a completely different supernatural crime, so even though the books are interconnected, they also stand alone, which made the process substantially easier. I used a lot of Heather’s story in my book as backstory, trying to continue the characters I liked from that one and hopefully doing them justice. There are inconsistencies, but I decided for myself that Caitlin would have a very different perception of her sister than Fiona would necessarily realize – I was telling another side of the story through Caitlin’s eyes. She was defined a lot for me by my own relationship with Heather, which has always been extremely familial – and even though I’m an oldest sister myself, I could easily tap into the awe and heroine-worship and feelings of inadequacy a middle sister would have with such a seemingly perfect sibling.
JH: If one author needed to make a change in her book, did you have to consult the other two?
DL: If any significant changes occurred in the course of writing, we did discuss them, but there were few. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, we only had one secondary character who decided to take a sharp left when we told him to go right. Ha!
JH: I’ve had a few characters do that and it certainly makes things interesting. Speaking of interesting, let’s go back to New Orleans for a moment. The city is well-known for its mystical charms with numerous paranormal books being set in the city. Were there concerns about setting another series in what can be viewed as an already crowded city?
HG: I love the city, and I’ve spent so much time there, it’s almost like home. Actually, that was my plan with Writers for NOLA. Writers, movie makers, artists, musicians–all kind of owe the city that has given us so much to write about, and given us such an amazing background.
AS: Given the vast body of paranormal books of the last decade or so, I think every major city has been inundated with supernatural goings-on… but I haven’t read any set in New Orleans but Anne Rice’s, myself. Honestly, New Orleans is one of the few cities that could support as many supernatural entities as we’re dealing with in The Keepers!
DL: I wasn’t concerned at all about setting another series in New Orleans. To me, that city is sort of like the Grand Canyon. If you put ten people side by side along the rim of the Canyon and ask each to describe what they see, aside from using the word ‘vast’, you’d wind up with ten different descriptions because each person sees it from his or her own perspective. I think the same applies to New Orleans. Her culture is so unique and vast that each person viewing her brings a different perspective and ‘feel’ of the city to the table.
JH: That’s an excellent analogy, but I can’t think of the Grand Canyon without thinking about the power of water to change a landscape. I read how much each of you loves the city as well as a reference to Hurricane Katrina on The Keepers’ website. How much did that event and the aftermath play into the decision to base the series in New Orleans?
DB: Speaking only for myself, Hurricane Katrina didn’t have anything to do with my agreement to set the series in New Orleans. The courage and tenacity that allowed the city to survive that natural disaster is simply a part of who she is.
JH: I agree that New Orleans has shown a lot of courage and tenacity to come back from Katrina. As a Louisiana native with other books set in your home state, did you feel any special obligation to show New Orleans in a favorable light, especially post-Hurricane Katrina?
DL: I don’t feel an obligation to show New Orleans or any part of South Louisiana in a favorable light so much as I do a ‘true’ light. Every city or town, and especially the people living in them, possess good and bad qualities. To me, if you want to reveal a city or person’s true identity, you have to show a little of both.
JH: What are your feelings, Alex? As a California native, did you find it challenging to write about New Orleans or is it one of those cities that so easily recognizable that the distance didn’t matter?
AS: I don’t think you can possibly write about New Orleans if you haven’t spent a lot of time there; there’s too much history, too many layers. I’ve gone there several times a year for about eight years now and done extensive reading and physical research in the city. It’s one of my favorite places in the world and it was fantastic to be able to live in that world while I was writing.
JH: Was setting The Keepers in New Orleans a way to give back to the city and let the rest of the world know that the city is still going strong and people are returning?
AS: Absolutely. No one can have any idea of how much New Orleans is still New Orleans unless they’ve been back. As the saying goes, they’re “rebuilding NOLA one party at a time!”
JH: And New Orleans certainly knows how to throw a party! All three of you live in different parts of the country, and Alex mentioned you were all working off extensive outlines. Were you in contact with one another throughout the process?
DL: We did contact one another throughout the process, but not often since most of the ground work was setup before we started. When we did reach out, it was usually to clarify a scene or a developing character twist.
JH: So the books were written simultaneously?
AS: I know I was writing my book at the same time Heather was writing hers. Of course Heather writes at the speed of light, so it’s not really comparable. She’s also a Pisces – the worst possible person to pin down. But when I needed to get hold of her I would do whatever I had to do – like jumping on a plane to meet her for the Florida Romance Writers’ Muse Cruise and then literally trapping her at the back of a bus en route to the Mayan ruins of Tulum to make her tell me what she was thinking. It was crazy, but we got a lot of the story mapped out wandering around those ruins.
HG: I like to keep it fun. We did great planning–and saw the ruins, too!
JH: Ah, so that explains the Mexican bus trip! In addition to the supernatural crime element, The Keepers series is also a paranormal romance series. Heather, in The Keepers, Fiona’s love interest, Jagger DeFarge, is a police detective “who happens to be a vampire.” The vampire portion of his character was probably easier to write compared to the detective side. Did you have to research the police procedural aspects of his character? If so, how much research did you conduct?
HG: Yes, and Deb helped me out when I needed more on actual forensics in the city and parish. I love research. My son has police officer/police forensic friends, and I think they cringe now when they see me coming–and every place is different, so I did have to ask Deb, too. I actually love that about writing–it’s kind of like having a license to indulge your curiosity and torture your friends.
JH: Yes, I have friends who cringe to see my name pop up in their e-mail inboxes. Forensic science isn’t an easy subject to tackle, but neither is bounty hunting So, Alex, I have to know – Caitlain MacDonald’s love interest, Ryder Malloy, is a shapeshifting bounty hunter. What kind of research did you conduct into bounty hunters?
AS: Hah. I’ve read about bounty hunters as I’ve read extensively in most areas of law enforcement, but Ryder isn’t exactly like a human bounty hunter. He’s more like a hired gun magician/exorcist, really. And those are areas I’ve done extensive research in – all my books cover those subjects to one degree or another.
JH: Fair enough. And Deb, in The Wolven Shauna MacDonald is attracted to Danyon Stone, an alpha wolf whose pack is targeted by a killer. Is either of them trained investigators or is their search for the killer more of an amateur sleuth duo?
DL: Neither Shauna nor Danyon are trained investigators, so I guess that makes them amateur sleuths—and hard-headed ones at that!
JH: Sounds like an interesting match. So we have an interesting mix in the series, a little something for everyone. I’m some readers will be curious as to why would you take on a project such as this since you’re all success authors, and I would like to know if you’d consider doing it again?
AS: I don’t know who in their right mind would turn down a chance to write collaboratively with authors of this caliber and an editor like Leslie Wainger – and Harlequin/Nocturne has been incredibly supportive. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
DL: I took on this project because of Heather, who I consider to be the queen of paranormal romance. Not only is she a good friend, she’s one of the most giving, selfless people I know. She always gives a thousand times more than she takes, which is only one of the reasons why I’d do dang near anything for her. And would I consider doing this again? In a nanosecond!
HG: I’ll drop a little hint . . . we may be seeing friends and relatives of The Keepers in 2012.
JH: With as much fun as it sounds like you’ve had, I can’t say I’m surprised by your answers, and that hint, Heather, has me intrigued. I’d love to chat more but our time is nearly up, so I’ll ask one final question for each of you. What’s next for you, Heather?
HG: This year? Coming up, Home in Time for Christmas, paperback version, in November, Night of the Vampires–sequel to Night of the Wolves (vampires from the wild, wild, west coming back when there is scourge going on in the midst of Civil War Harpers Ferry and D.C.) and in April, hardcover, Phantom Evil, the beginning of series within the Harrison Investigation series, which I like to think of as Criminal Minds meets Ghostbusters! A trilogy of “Evil” will follow in the summer. Oh, the first takes place in . . . you guessed it. NOLA.
JH: Wow. You certain do have a full schedule. Alex, what can readers expect to see next from you?
AS: Out next is the paperback of Book of Shadows, about an ambitious Boston cop who has to team up with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem to solve a Satanic killing. I’ve just finished a super-dark YA supernatural thriller, The Space Between, and another collaborative project with three other fantastic female dark suspense authors.
JH: And, Deb, aside from The Wolven, what is your next release?
DL: My next release is Ghost Box, the first book in the Ghost Tracker Series, and it comes out in July 2011.
JH: Sounds like you’re all going to be very busy. Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions! I look forward to checking out The Keeper series, and wish you the best of luck with it and your individual projects.
The Keepers and The Shifters, books one and two of The Keeper series, by Heather Graham and Alexandra Sokoloff, respectively, are both on sale now. The Wolven, book three in the series, by Deborah LeBlanc will be available November 23, 2010.