Extraordinary Characters Hiding Among the Ordinary
The place is Texas. We find ourselves in a small town, and by that I mean a very small town. One streetlight, a diner, a few stores. It’s quiet. And the people … well, this is a Charlaine Harris book, and the people are definitely not what they seem. It doesn’t stay quiet for long.
Harris’s latest book, NIGHT SHIFT, is the third in her new series. These exciting mysteries revolve around the residents of Midnight, Texas: an Internet psychic named Manfred who may or may not be a real psychic; Fiji, a woman who runs a New Age witchcraft shop for a good reason; a gay couple, Chuy and Joe; a pawnshop owner, Bobo; another couple, Lemuel and Olivia, who scare people for all kinds of reasons, among them Lemuel has been on the planet for several centuries. A reverend, running the local chapel and pet cemetery, who keeps strange hours.
Harris, who has been penning mysteries for 30 years, famously wrote the Southern Vampire Mystery series, aka the Sookie Stackhouse books, Sookie being a waitress who’s actually a telepath, dating a string of hot supernatural males in Bon Temps, Louisiana. The mystery series has been released in over 30 languages. In 2008, HBO adapted the books for the hit series True Blood, which became a pop culture phenomenon and ignited a vampire-worship craze. The TV series ended in 2014.
Harris’s new book series has been adapted for a possible NBC series. The pilot for Midnight, Texas, starring Francois Arnaud, Dylan Bruce, Jason Lewis, Arielle Kebel and Parisa Fitz-Henley, is unscheduled. Will it reach True Blood-level fame? Much too soon to tell.
Harris took time to chat with The Big Thrill about her career, which has had, as far as I can tell, very few dull moments.
I loved NIGHT SHIFT. It’s a good mystery, a real page-turner, a lot of action and a very strong romance, and also, I have to say, it scared me. This book is really creepy.
Oh, yay. I love to be creepy.
I’m struck by how you’re able to balance all these different elements in your books: the mystery, the romance, the supernatural world, but also the real-world relatability of the characters’ daily lives. I have to ask: How do you manage this?
Well, it started with the Sookie books. I thought, why don’t I try blending different elements to see if I can come up with something that is new, and maybe not totally unique to me but almost unique to me, and reach out to readers who enjoy this kind of thing, the way that I do?
I do too! And in the Midnight, Texas books, you accomplish that mix and you’re trying some new things.
After I wrote the Sookie books, I thought I’ve been writing first-person feminine for so many years, and I love it, and I think it’s probably my strongest position, but I was ready for a change. I felt like you’ve been drinking champagne for all these years, you should probably try some beer!
So I thought, I want to write an ensemble book from multiple points of view and some of them will be men. You stagnate if you don’t challenge yourself. I thought if I switched the points of view, I could tell the story more fully and maybe readers would find one character they would identify with more than others and they would follow that character through.
Writing the men was a real challenge because I wanted to be convincing. I thought, “I should be able to do this, I’ve been married to a man for 38 years.” OK, so I decided: Simplify, simplify, simplify.
What do you mean?
Simplify their emotional reactions. For men may have as complex a reaction to a series of events as women do. But it seems that mostly they boil it down.
Lemuel is so unlike other men and really the human race. I admire how well you can write characters who aren’t human.
Writing the fae in the Sookie books was really hard for that reason. No Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian tradition, they are just themselves. As a writer, it is hard to divorce yourself from those traditions. Lemuel is very much that way. He is an antique too, in our modern world.
You are slowly revealing their supernatural abilities throughout the three books. How difficult is it to hold back?
I thought it would be more interesting if I could trickle out the weirdness. A little bit here, a little bit there. It’s more fun for me. In the series, their supernatural abilities will be there from the beginning, which is very interesting. The director is amazing, he is the one who directed the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
With True Blood, I watched the entire series. For me, it was most enjoyable in the early seasons, when they stuck closer to the books.
That’s certainly a valid point of view. [Laughs] I loved the series, and I thought it was interesting throughout, but I prefer a more personal story rather than the more politicized story the series ended up telling.
Given a choice between a Bill Compton who’s come up with a cool Internet vampire directory and a Bill Compton who’s the ultimate immortal, a monster covered with blood screaming because he was anointed by stone age Lillith, I don’t know, I choose Directory Bill. I liked Bon Temps.
I did too! When I wrote the books, I kept it anchored on Sookie. [Producer] Alan Ball saw a bigger picture and that’s the way he went. It all made for great television.
Do you think that the media circus over the male stars—Stephen Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard and Joe Manganiello—took over the show?
Hmmmm. I certainly know that the reaction to the final book, which was just overwhelmingly horrible, was due to Alexander Skarsgard worship.
OK, I read the final book. I’m aware of the controversy. And I have to say I don’t get it. Sookie ending up with Sam, not Eric or Bill, made a lot of sense. That was set up in the first fifteen minutes of the pilot!
Exactly. I could see the way the wind was blowing through the last two books. And I thought “Uh oh, uh oh.” They are not ready for this, probably because of the television show. Not that it’s their fault. Alexander can’t be anything but wonderful and excellent and sexy. It made my job harder—which is, again, not their problem—and I did everything but draw a runway to what I was going to do: “It’s NOT going to end the way you think it is.” And still there were these people who were massively unhappy with me. They really were. Oh it was terrible.
I enjoyed your talk with Karin Slaughter at Thrillerfest last year. When I heard that you had to take steps because of the fans who obsessively wanted to touch you, I felt concerned, however.
It’s weird, or maybe it’s not. Of course I always loved being on top of the list. Who doesn’t? And I felt really proud of what I was producing. I didn’t feel I was pandering to base emotions. I felt the writing was good. At the same time there was a lot that came with that which was very disconcerting and uncomfortable. And sometimes scary. I don’t miss that. Sure I would love to be No. 1 on the list every time. But as far as making my life simpler and more pleasant, my life is a lot simpler and more pleasant now.
With Fiji, she’s a real person, she’s very relatable, and she has this extra power, like Sookie, but the difference is that Sookie was gorgeous. She was very hot. While Fiji is a little overweight. She has a negative body image. I find that courageous.
I thought, why invent another beautiful woman? Why not someone who’s more human? There were so many things telling me to make her a person who has issues that keep her from living her full life, which I believe she is coming into in the third book.
I feel that in the Midnight books, the characters’ friendships are a bigger part of the plots than in the Sookie series.
Thank you! I like to think I’m learning something. I’ve been at this for such a long time. But I don’t want to use the same bag of tricks every time and I do want to improve.
I understand you wrote a poem about a supernatural being when you were a child, so you’ve always been drawn to this part of the imagination.
Very true. My first series, though, the Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, were conventional mysteries, no supernatural in them at all. But as time went on, and I stayed stuck on the midlist, which is a fine place to be and I was grateful, but I guess I found I was ambitious. I kept thinking, “I’ve got to go up, I’ve got to climb a few steps up the ladder.” I set a goal for myself. I thought, “If I can make $70,000 a year, if I can just make that.” I wanted to change my career. I sat and stared into space and thought about her and built her from a littler germ of an idea to a bigger idea to a bigger idea. Until I had her world set in my head. At first, nobody liked it, it got turned down over and over for two years. Finally due to Laurell K. Hamilton’s success at Ace, a junior editor at Ace took it. It was just instantly successful out of the gate. It was a delightful change for me. Also I felt like I was vindicated; I’d found something I could go to town with and not restrain myself.
When the series made its debut, it was a big hit right away too, not least because of the nudity.
On True Blood, at first, honestly I was shocked. I don’t know what else to say. There’s something so different about writing a sex scene which might be two paragraphs because I’m not a how-to writer and seeing it. There’s a big visceral difference. I thought, “Oh my God, we’re going to have to move.”
I’ve always lived in small, conservative towns. I thought it was amazing no one was coming up to me in Walmart and saying, “You devil woman!” I found out after we moved—we live in Texas now—that the couple who bought our house, the woman advised them to have it exorcised. “You don’t want your little daughter growing up in that house.” I was flattered. I never thought of myself as the epitome of evil.
What led you to Texas for the new books?
When I was a child, I grew up in Mississippi but my mama was from Texas, and every summer she would take me and my brother to Rocksprings, Texas. It’s on the Edwards Plateau. It is nowhere. We would spend part of the summer there because my grandparents owned a hotel and my mother wold go to help out during rodeo season. All her sisters would come too. Every room in the hotel was busy, everything was full to bursting, and a lot of people were drunk, and it was a real challenge for my mom. I realize that now. The culture was so different, the landscape was so different. It made a big impression on me. I was thinking of doing something new after Sookie, I was so excited to do that. I decided, why don’t I draw on that part of my life and write a book set in a place that remote and that forbidding? First I had the place, then I thought, well what if there were one stoplight? Gradually the book began to populate itself.
I’m not sure it’s recognized what a good action writer you are. Any time there’s a fight in your novels, it’s written with originality and so tense. I read that you were into karate for a while. Does that help?
Well, I have given it up. For a long time I was also an avid weightlifter. I enjoyed my karate class, though I was never very good. We used to act out our action sequences in class. I’ve kept that visual imagination of acting things out, so I picture it all in my head and how people would have to move to achieve the next step in the conflict. I get a lot of pleasure from that.
Thank you so much for this interview! I’ve really enjoyed it.
Nancy Bilyeau is the editor of The Big Thrill. She has worked at ‘Rolling Stone,’ ‘Entertainment Weekly’ and ‘InStyle.’ Her historical thriller trilogy is published by Touchstone Books.