An interview with author Charlaine Harris . . .
Charlaine Harris is the number one New York Times‘ best-selling author of the Sookie Stackhouse and Midnight, Texas, fantasy/mystery series and the Aurora Teagarden, Harper Connelly, and Lily Bard mystery series.
Her books have inspired HBO’s True Blood, NBC’s Midnight, Texas, and the Aurora Teagarden movies for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.
Interview by BWG member Carol L. Wright
BETHLEHEM WRITERS GROUP: Thank you for serving as our guest judge for the 2021 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award. We’re honored to have you. We know that you are primarily known for your novels (and the screen adaptations of them) so some might be less familiar with your short stories. Your short work has appeared in dozens of anthologies, collections, and magazines. What do you think are the most important elements in a short story?
CHARLAINE HARRIS: The most important elements in a short story? Brevity, editing, and packing a punch at the end. Short stories are HARD.
BWG: You have had so many best-selling books, written several successful series, walked the red carpet in Hollywood, and been nominated for and won awards. Did you ever expect life to turn out this way? What keeps you humble?
CH: Truly, my life has amazed me. When I began my career, I established some goals, and I thought they were really ambitious. By good fortune, hard work, and having an amazing support system, I zoomed past all of that. For a woman from Tunica, Mississippi . . . not bad. As for staying humble, I certainly have crazy moments internally, but my parents brought me up strictly and I came late to fame and craziness. Both good deterrents to letting your head swell.
BWG: I won’t ask you to choose a favorite series, but is it hard for you to say goodbye when a series ends? (It is for your readers!)
CH: Under optimum circumstances, when I end a series, I have said everything I wanted to say about the characters. Sometimes, I don’t get to pick. The publisher ends the series by not asking for more.
BWG: What comes first when you start a new series? Setting? Characters? Plot? Something else?
CH: The character of the protagonist usually comes first, and the setting becomes the one that will allow that protagonist to do what I need her to do, so I can tell the story I want to tell. Sometimes, as in the Midnight trilogy, the setting comes first and the people second. What kind of people would choose to live in Midnight? Starting is always fun and scary.
BWG: You have created memorable protagonists, from a nosy librarian who studies real murders, to a cleaning woman with a dark past, to a telepathic waitress in Louisiana, to a 19-year-old female gunslinger, and so many more. Then you spin equally original characters around them. Where do you find all these people?
CH: All those people live in my head! It’s a crowded and busy place. I love creating people who not only work hard in the book but (I hope) find a place in peoples’ hearts or imaginations.
BWG: No one ever reads a Charlaine Harris novel and says, “Oh, this is just like that other story.” To what do you attribute your amazing imagination?
CH: I can’t imagine where it all came from! I’m just blessed that it keeps on happening, so far. I have noticed that I repeat elements and situations, and I have to be on guard against that. So far, no one’s called me on it.
BWG: You have written strong female protagonists and diversity into your characters throughout your career. Is that intentional or has it developed organically?
CH: I don’t feel my early books were very diverse, because I was timid about trying to write what I didn’t absolutely know. But I’ve made a conscious effort to depict the world around my characters, and though some of my protagonists have weak points, in the main they are strong and clever and resilient. Those are the people I enjoy writing about.
BWG: How does it feel to see your work translated to television? Do you have any input on how they adapt your work?
CH: How does it feel to see my work adapted? It feels frightening, delightful, nerve-wracking. No, I have no input in any real sense. Lots of lip service, no actual contribution. I write the best book I can . . . that’s my bailiwick. The resultant television show is up to people who are experts in television.
BWG: You once said that your Sookie Stackhouse novels come from a very dark place. Yet, when you appear in public, we see none of that darkness. You are cheerful, generous, funny, and delightful. Do you find that working from the dark place affects (or reflects) your experience of everyday life? Do you prefer writing from that dark place to writing something lighter?
CH: Tell my kids I’m cheerful, generous, funny, and delightful! Please! It’s well-known that I’ve had some very dark spots in my life. I think the telling point is not that you have deep chasms in your life, it’s how you cross them to the other side. No life is constant sunshine and lollypops. That would be boring to write about. I like to write about the whole range of life experiences, and my own has been very funny and very dark.
BWG: Are you a plotter (outlining your novels before you begin the first draft) or a pantser (sitting down to write before you know where the plot will go and writing “by the seat of your pants”)? What do you see as the advantages of your approach? Do you ever wish you were the other?
CH: Pantser all the way. I tried writing from an outline, and it was like painting by numbers for me. I love the adventure of making it up on the fly. This is both my strength and my weakness, as I see it. I do wish I were more organized.
BWG: We understand that you will soon celebrate 40 years as a full-time writer. Congratulations! Has your writing routine changed over the years, or did you develop a process early on that worked for you and stuck with it?
CH: Next year will be my 40th anniversary as a published writer! I can honestly say that I am always trying to find a better way to work. Writing is hard, and after all these years I have not found a way to make it easier. I try new things all the time, and maybe one day I’ll develop the perfect method.
BWG: You have been an active member of the mystery-writing community, including being past-president of the Mystery Writers of America and serving on the board of Sisters in Crime. You make frequent appearances at mystery conferences and generously share your knowledge and experience. What would you say to a new writer who is wondering if joining an organization or attending a conference (pandemic permitting) would be helpful?
CH: I would say, “Absolutely! Go to a conference, introduce yourself – without interrupting a conversation. Most people will be glad to meet you and hear your story. Joining an organization can be very helpful, too, in putting you in touch with writers at all stages of their careers. You can learn so much if you put your ego in the back seat and just listen.”
BWG: Do you have ideas for stories you want to write, but have never found the right time for them? If so, are they on your bucket list?
CH: I don’t have anything in the desk drawer. Everything I’ve written has sold. I have one story I’m telling myself at bedtime, and maybe someday I’ll write that one. I tell myself stories to go to sleep.
BWG: What are some non-writing items are on your bucket list?
CH: Let’s see. My bucket list. Since I went to Pompeii two years ago, and I have grandchildren, I feel like I’m fairly well set. I have a couple of book series in development for television, and I’d like to see something happen with that.
BWG: What advice do you have for aspiring writers who hope, one day, to also become full-time writers?
CH: Advice. Well, I kind of blundered through my career, and I have very little. Work with people you trust. Do your research first! And finish your book. Don’t keep starting new books because “I had a better idea.” The mark of a real writer is finishing.
BWG: What is the next thing your readers can look forward to reading?
CH: What’s next? My third Gunnie Rose book, THE RUSSIAN CAGE, will be out early next year, and I’m signing for two more in the series. What a relief.
BWG: Thank you so much for sharing your time, and for being our 2021 Guest Judge.