Go to Homepage   Charlaine Harris: Putting the Bite on Cozy Mysteries

Charlaine Harris, who masqueraded as a mild-mannered mystery writer at Malice Domestic 2001, plans to join Elaine Viets for a fang-filled foto -- er, photo opportunity at Bouchercon 2001. (Photo by Jean Marie Ward)

Charlaine Harris prides herself on writing cozy mysteries with teeth. The teeth in question can be metaphoric. In A Fool and his Honey, for example, Harris turned the life of Aurora Teagarden, her most conventional sleuth -- a librarian, no less -- inside out, inciting readers to tears and outraged emails. In her series featuring Shakespeare, Ark., housecleaner/sleuth Lily Bard, Harris adds bite by dealing with the darkest emotions of her own past.

But some of Harris's toothiest prose to date can be found in her newest mystery, Dead Until Dark, featuring a vampire named Bill. As Crescent Blues learned this at this year's Malice Domestic mystery convention in Washington, D.C, Harris has a thing about fangs.

Crescent Blues: How did you go from writing about small-town librarians and a housecleaner who's a karate expert to writing about a telepath who takes up with vampires?

Book: Charlaine Harris, Dead until DarkCharlaine Harris: I always liked to read science fiction, and I always thought that if I could do something besides mysteries, that would be what I would do. Then I thought, maybe I could combine them both and write what I really wanted to write. Somehow it all just formed up in my head.

I thought, who would be more likely to hang out with a vampire? Well, someone who was an outcast herself. Why would she be an outcast? Because she couldn't tolerate the constant companionship of other humans. Well, why not? It went a little bit forwards and a little bit backwards, and I backed and forthed until the picture revealed itself.

Crescent Blues: How long did you work on Dead Until Dark?

Charlaine Harris: I wrote it over two years ago when I was on a break between one series and the other. I wrote it very quickly, and I had the most fantastic time writing it. But my agent didn't like it, and he didn't really want to try to sell it, so I got some outside intervention. I told my agent I was getting another opinion.

I sent the book to Dean James of Murder by the Book, who's my long-time friend and fellow Mississippian -- and fellow vampire fan. Actually, I knew that Dean would like the book before I sent it.

Dean said, "This is a fabulous book." So my agent said, "OK," and he started sending it around. Well, it didn't sell and it didn't sell, but I really had faith in the book. Finally, after two years, just when I was on the verge of signing a deal that wouldn't have paid anything, [the book] sold for actual dollars.

Book: Charlaine Harris, Dead Over heelsCrescent Blues: Have you got more adventures planned for Sookie Stackhouse (the heroine of Dead Until Dark)?

Charlaine Harris: Sure! I'm working on the second book now. The title's changed a couple of times. Nobody liked my original title, which was: "The Dead Detective." Nobody liked that. My editor didn't like it. My agent didn't like it. So we're still beating the bushes for another title.

Crescent Blues: Titles can be awfully hard. Do you find the "reality" of Sookie's world puts a different spin on good and evil?

Charlaine Harris: I like the ambiguity. I like the gray areas. Why do the black and white? That's so done. I like the little gap between the steps.

Sookie has a lot of problems, because she's allying herself with a non-human species, and yet she's still a human. This is a conflict. Obviously, there are going to be tremendous conflicts, because she's being integrated more and more into the vampires' world. But she has to be for humans, because she is a human. I'm really getting into that in the next book.

He is this very neat guy who makes custom vampire fangs.

Crescent Blues: That's really interesting, because I got the feeling from reading that comment from Sam, the tavern owner in Dead Until Dark, that the vampires weren't just another species. And the condition wasn't the result of a virus either -- they were really…

Charlaine Harris: They were really dead. It's not an aberration in the human species. It's a magical thing. It's a supernormal thing, and that's going to be a big thing to face, because we all try to explain everything in terms of what we understand. But Sookie's going to have to face the fact that there are things that are not understandable, not explainable, and yet they're as real as her car.

Crescent Blues: And her own power.

Charlaine Harris: Yes, and her own power, which she has to develop and channel.

Crescent Blues: That creates another challenge. How are you going to have a telepathic heroine in a mystery series and yet keep her from knowing the solution to every mystery?

Charlaine Harris: This time she did.

Crescent Blues: Yes, but you don't want to give away how in an interview. [Grins.]

Book: Charlaine Harris, Shakespeare's ChampionCharlaine Harris: Oh! What Sookie's going to be doing next involves the vampire politics. Because of vampire politics, she's going to be working for the vampires quite a bit. Of course, she can't read their minds, but she's going to be doing investigations with humans for them.

But it's not like every telepath can read every mind clearly. The reading I've done on [telepathy] indicates that some people broadcast very clearly, and some people don't broadcast at all. It's not like turning on a television station. So there are going to be problems with that. And then, [telepathic power] has to be focused. You can't listen to everyone in a crowd. You have to listen to the radio station you want to tune in.

Crescent Blues: What kind of research did you do for Dead Until Dark?

Charlaine Harris: Surprisingly little. [Laughs.]

Crescent Blues: But you just said you did research on telepathy!

Charlaine Harris: I didn't say I did a lot. I went to the library. I ordered some reference books.

This is what is so strange. When someone in my family was reading the book, she said: "Where did you find out all this about vampires?" And I said: "I made it up. It's not like there was a of vampire code of conduct or something, that you could call Vampire Central and say, 'Would you send me that pamphlet, please.' They're not real, you know."

"You made it up?"

Elaine has fangs, and Elaine used them to great effect in a bar when a guy was hitting on her.
It's like, all these years I've been making up people, and it didn't make any difference, because they were actually people -- recognizably people. But when I made up something that wasn't a human being, it took on a whole new edge. [My relative] didn't think. "How did you know all this?" How do you answer that? [Giggles.]

Crescent Blues: Tell me about the Count of Montrose.

Charlaine Harris: He is this very neat guy who makes custom vampire fangs. You can visit his Web site.

I had one set made earlier, but they're canine, and they were a little tight. I don't know if you've ever worn fangs before, but the really custom-made jobs have a brace behind them. And when I put mine on, they kind of squeezed my teeth, and it was really uncomfortable. But I lost them, which was terrible, because they were really expensive.

But I still have my mold -- you have to send a mold of your teeth. My dentist did it for free. So I sent [the Count of Montrose] another mold, and told him this time I wanted my laterals, which is a whole different look. And they're much more comfortable. I really like them.

Book: Charlaine Harris, The Julis HouseCrescent Blues: How did you wind up ordering custom fangs for yourself?

Charlaine Harris: Oh, Elaine Viets… Do you know Elaine?

Crescent Blues: Oh yeah. We know Elaine.

Charlaine Harris: Elaine has a set of them. Once I knew it was possible to get such a thing, I couldn't rest until I had my own fangs.

Elaine has fangs, and Elaine used them to great effect in a bar when a guy was hitting on her.

Crescent Blues: That's wonderful.

Charlaine Harris: She tells the story beautifully, and I thought, "I've just got to have some of those."

Crescent Blues: Somehow that didn't come up in our interview with her.

Charlaine Harris: Oh, get Elaine to tell you what else came up when she was getting her fangs -- what the lawyer was getting done. You can't pass that up.

Crescent Blues: I won't. [Smiles.] On a different subject, I get the feeling that your Lily Bard series is darker than your vampire series.

Charlaine Harris: Oh absolutely, because [Lily] comes from a different place. She's coming as a rape survivor.

Crescent Blues: The Lily Bard series seems closer to you from the standpoint of location. She's from Arkansas; you live in Arkansas. Was that a conscious decision?

Book: Charlaine Harris, A Bone to PickCharlaine Harris: I wanted to make it a little easier. I was having to email friends in Atlanta about the [Aurora] Teagarden series. When I started writing Lily Bard, I thought, "Give yourself a break!" I was doing the weight-lifting, and at the time I was doing the karate -- though I'm not doing the karate anymore because my teacher left town, which is a whole 'nother story. Anyway, I said, "Give yourself a break and set it here, so it won't be so hard." And the story came from probably the darkest place I've got.

Crescent Blues: What prompted you to plumb that darkness? Normally traditional mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth don't get that dark.

Charlaine Harris: Because it's my dark place, and that's the way you clean them out.

Crescent Blues: Do Lily's experiences reflect your own?

Charlaine Harris: Absolutely, yes. Not in detail but in general. I'm a long-term rape survivor and really proud of my adaptability. I thought it was time that such a person was depicted reasonably.

Crescent Blues: And all the things that go along with surviving rape.

Charlaine Harris: It's not like you can pull your socks up and get on with it. It's not like that. It's the death of something, and you have to cope with that, in different degrees, off and on for the rest of your life.

Crescent Blues: The experience definitely affects your interactions with other people.

Charlaine Harris: Right. I think rape survivors see things from a much different perspective from people who haven't had that experience.

What do you do when you have to go to the bathroom, and you have nobody to take care of the baby?

Crescent Blues: You view people from a much different perspective.

Charlaine Harris: And judge people from a much different set of criteria.

Crescent Blues: And you pulled all that out of yourself to create Lily.

Charlaine Harris: Yes.

Crescent Blues: But [the series is] not without its humor.

Charlaine Harris: At least I think so, but sometimes people just don't get me. I thought the Aurora Teagarden books were really funny, and you know, nobody would ever put me on humor panels or anything like that. And I was going: "I can be funny! I can be funny!" Then I started Lily Bard, and no one could see there was any humor in that, but actually there is. People kept saying: "Why aren't you as funny in your books as you are in person?" Those books are me!

To me, the book Dead Until Dark is a rip-roaringly funny book, but I'm not getting anybody who's come back saying: "Oh, I just laughed my ass off!" They're all going, "She's humorous!" [Cackles.] Well, good! I thought, "This is just as funny as I get. If this isn't funny, I don't know what funny is." Then I thought, "Well, maybe I don't know what funny is." I have a really fractured sense of humor.

Crescent Blues: That probably predates any of the issues in your life.

Book: Charlaine Harris, A Shakespeare ChristmasCharlaine Harris: Yes, I was born that way.

Crescent Blues: When people talk about cozy mysteries, though, you can't get much more cozy than a librarian named "Teagarden."

Charlaine Harris: That started out to be a perfectly innocuous series. I thought, I'll just take something happy. Everything will work out. It will be a nice neat little murder, and you know, I just kept screwing it up. I had to put my own…my own…

Crescent Blues: Spin?

Charlaine Harris: That's a nice way to put it. I had to put my own spin on it. People would say: "Those are really cozy books, but they're a little…weird."

Crescent Blues: Toothy.

Charlaine Harris: They're cozies with teeth.

Crescent Blues: That description could apply to all your mysteries, especially Dead Until Dark.

Charlaine Harris: Lots of teeth in that.

Crescent Blues: What do you think is the craziest single episode in the whole Aurora Teagarden series? What stands out in your mind as the most fun to write, the most hysterical -- though possibly the episode didn't get that much reaction from your fans.

Book: Charlaine Harris, A  fool and his honeyCharlaine Harris: In A Fool And His Honey, which is probably the most reviled book I've ever written… I'm still getting letters from that -- "You made me cry all night." When [Aurora] is holding the baby that she didn't ask for, and she's trying to go to the bathroom in a public rest room. There's nowhere to put the baby down. She can't pull her pants down. She can't pull them back up. There's no one to help her. And I thought, this is the way being a mother is, when you're totally unprepared for it. Which I definitely was [not prepared].

I thought, this has got to be something every mother can relate to. What do you do when you have to go to the bathroom, and you have nobody to take care of the baby? To me that was really funny, but nobody else seemed to think so.

Crescent Blues: Readers couldn't get around the ending of the book.

Charlaine Harris: No, they couldn't get around it, for obvious reasons. But hey, that was what I wanted to do.

Crescent Blues: When did you first know that you wanted to write?

Charlaine Harris: When I was in fourth grade, I guess. When I could hold the pencil and form the words, writing was all I ever wanted to do in my life. So you see how incredibly lucky I am.

Crescent Blues: How did you get from fourth grade to writing three series?

Charlaine Harris - Continued