Dead in the Family is the latest bestselling vampire fantasy novel from Charlaine Harris, and the 10th book in the series that inspired the hit HBO show True Blood (now in its third season), starring Anna Pacquin as telepathic barmaid Sookie Stackhouse.
In the books, Sookie is a blonde and buxom resident of the Louisiana town of Bon Temps, where she spends less time fighting vampires than getting busy with them. But will she end up with the courtly ex-Confederate Bill, or has she permanently hopped coffins to cozy up with Eric the bloodsucking Viking? In the mix are sundry tigers, werewolves, dogs, witches, house cats, maenads, goblins and fairies.
Harris set her series in Northern Louisiana, which is less swampy and gothic but just as creepy as the southern bayous and French Quarter streets where Anne Rice’s vampire novels take place. “My thinking was that Anne Rice had done such a great job with Southern Louisiana, that I would take the part [of Louisiana] no one wanted,” Harris says. “Her works were groundbreaking and very innovative and I thought it would be fun to kind of rappel off of them.”
“I didn’t want to write about being a vampire,” she continues. “I wanted to write about people who were interacting with vampires. I thought it would be fun to write about a woman dating a vampire, so I imagined what kind of woman would do such a stupid thing. It’d have to be a woman who couldn’t date humans for another reason.” In Sookie’s case, the reason is that her telepathy doesn’t work on the undead, which give her a rest from hearing the despicable thoughts of her neighbors in the town her family has inhabited for generations.
Harris wanted to bring the vamps in her fictional world down to earth. “They’re just like everyone else,” Harris says. “Some of them are good; some are bad.” She adds, “I wanted to kind of anchor them in reality and make them unromantic, since I just thought that would be funny.” Those are not exactly the words you’d pick to sell any of the other bloodsucker-centric books, TV shows, or movies that are currently engorging our pop culture. The Twilight books and movies, CW’s The Vampire Diaries, ABC’s The Gates, and even True Blood revolve around the uncanny beauty and superhuman sex appeal of the vampire.
Asexual vampires are strictly kid stuff, according to Harris, who points out that her books predated those of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer by several years. “My books are just aimed at adults. There’s not the fairy-tale aspect in my books that there is in hers,” says Harris. “Her books are very Romeo and Juliet; I think mine definitely aren’t.” She adds, “How are they different? Bill turns out to be betraying Sookie the whole time. Sookie finds that out and it’s devastating to her. But this leaves her to look in many different directions for love.” Well… and sex: Sookie’s carnal forays into the supernatural lead to some pretty explicit bodice-ripping. In Harris’s pages, when heaving, virginal bosoms are pressed against cold, marble-like chests, things don’t stop there. Few details are omitted, and sometimes it gets downright gymnastic. Contrast this with Twilight’s Edward and Bella, who ends up preggers when they finally consummate, a zillion pages into the series. Harris declined to elaborate on other differences: “You can talk to Stephenie Meyer about her books. I’m not her critic. I’m glad she’s been successful.”
Harris is unreservedly enthusiastic about showrunner Alan Ball, whom she picked to translate her books to TV. “I knew that he got the mixture of humor and horror that the books are. I knew he would do them justice,” she says. “He wouldn’t gloss over painful parts and make everything shiny.” She says she was a fan of his previous series, Six Feet Under, although “sometimes it was too painful to watch. There were some really intense truths. It got very close to the bone.”
Cutting close to the bone happens to be a specialty of Harris’s as well. She lives with her husband, her college-age daughter (she has two other, grown-up kids), various dogs, and a duck in Arkansas, just over the Louisiana border. Harris’s bestseller count stands at 10 (9 of which appeared simultaneously on the list last year) and the body count in her books is incalculable. She’s branching out— Dynamite Entertainment (publisher of Kevin Smith’s Green Hornet and Red Sonja) will bring out a comic based on the first book of her series about corpse sleuth Harper Connelly. Indeed, all the TV attention to Sookie and co. has drawn readers to her other series—including the one featuring Lily Bard, a rape victim who’s trying to hide from her past. “They’re selling more than when they were first published,” she says. “I don’t know what happened with those books. I know I was really discouraged when they were released. I really thought at the time, That’s the best I can do and if this isn’t successful I just don’t know what I could do that would be as good. Well, luckily for me, I did come up with something.” Harris is currently writing Sookie book number eleven.
The recent feeding frenzy around novelist Justin Cronin’s vampire trilogy (the first book, The Passage, came out from Random House on June 8th, and producer Scott Rudin reportedly splurged on the movie rights) is a sign that readers don’t have bloodsucker burnout quite yet. “Maybe there’ll be a few less writers in the genre if the public’s fancy passes on,” Harris says. “I think that’s just a thing that will happen because there are always people who write what’s current. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; there’s nothing wrong with being commercial.” Harris credits the ubiquity of vampires to “our youth-obsessed, perfection-obsessed culture.” When asked if all the other vampire writers muddy the pond, she responds crisply. “Not my pond.”