It was a Monday evening almost a month ago that I hopped into the Jeep and headed to The Poisoned Pen to see Charlaine Harris. I had forgotten that there was going to be a little icing on my cake that evening because a fellow mystery lover from Tucson came to see her as well. This meant we could chat a little and sit almost side-by-side during the event. (We both like the aisle seats.)
I think Charlaine Harris has a little something for everyone. She has written a couple of non-series books, but she's more known for her series: Aurora Teagarden; Sookie Stackhouse; her newest Midnight, Texas; and the two that I really enjoyed-- Lily Bard and Harper Connelly. I was really looking forward to getting to know her a little better.
|L to R: host Barbara Peters and Charlaine Harris|
Charlaine had barely taken her seat when she was asked about NBC's Midnight, Texas, a series the network markets as "Twin Peaks meets True Blood." She told us that NBC is counting on a full season and that she had met most of the actors. When asked if she'd been happy with the pilot episode, Harris said yes-- and that it is "recognizably my material." She also went on to say that three short stories she'd written for Ellery Queen had been sold to NBC, so there may be even more of her work on television in the future.
The full house started mentioning all their favorite Charlaine Harris series, and host Barbara Peters chimed in with her own. "You seem to stop, restart, do new things, but your Lily Bard books were kickass. Do you ever see yourself going back to them?" I was happy to see that mine wasn't the only head nodding in the audience, but I also wasn't surprised when Harris said, "I doubt it very much. Those books came from a very dark place in my life, but I am thrilled to hear all this. These are some old books!"
"I don't think I've tortured her as much as I have my other protagonists," Harris said with a grin. Be that as it may, I think Aurora is in for plenty of anxiety in this book. She is now thirty-eight and basking in the news of her pregnancy when her fifteen-year-old brother Phillip and three other children vanish from the school soccer field. Aurora is anxious to find her brother. She wants him (and the other children) home. Christmas is coming. She has to deal with her nasty father.... See what I mean about high anxiety?
When talk turned to books like The Girl on the Train, Charlaine said, "I have not gotten into unreliable narrators, and I don't think I ever will. In the books I like, I want to have someone I can trust."
When Barbara asked her if there was anything new on the horizon, Harris said that she had an idea for a new series that she really, really, really wanted to write. She and her agent thought that they were all ready to go, but now they are having serious contract issues. "Luckily for me, I'm in a position where I can walk. I don't have to put up with a bad contract. That may be what we do, but I don't know if I'll be able to write those books or not. This is the first time in sixteen years that I don't have a writing schedule for the next two years. I really feel anxious, and I'm dawdling over writing the next Aurora book."
At this point, a fan in the audience asked Charlaine, "Is it necessary to have a contract before you write a book? You would think that publishers wouldn't be able to say no!"
"You'd think!" Charlaine laughed. "Writing a book without a contract is called writing on spec, and if you do that, you run the risk of having written a book that no one wants to buy. It's something that I really don't want to do."
Another fan wanted to know a little about how Charlaine had gotten her start. "I had regular jobs which I was very bad at," she said. "Then my current husband (of thirty-eight years) said, 'Why don't you stay home and write?'"
She told us about the time a teacher asked her son what his mother did. "'She's a housecleaner,' he said-- because that's all he'd ever seen me do. I didn't do any writing until he went to school."
Once an author's work has made it to the screen, there are always questions about that, and that was certainly true this evening.
A fan asked about Midnight, Texas, and Charlaine had this to say. "The only full-figured character I wrote is now skinny. This character is the witch-- I don't know how many of you are familiar with the books-- who has a cat. The actress who portrays her is violently allergic to cats. In the first scene they shot, she was supposed to be carrying the cat in a basket, but the cat kept jumping out of the basket, so the actress had to carry the cat in her arms. The cat didn't like that either. They ended up putting tuna on the woman's sweater to get the cat to stay put... and the cat wound up eating the woman's sweater!"
After we all stopped laughing, Charlaine continued. "When the scene was over, I looked at the woman and said, 'Good thing I'm a writer.' The actress looked at me and replied, 'Yeah, you don't have to wear tuna.'"
When asked a question about Sookie Stackhouse and True Blood, Charlaine said, "I will never say anything bad about the Sookie series because it's done me so much good!" And that's one of the biggest impressions I got from Charlaine Harris: she's gone through some very dark times in her life, and she is incredibly thankful for all the good she has received.
She went on to say that Midnight, Texas is filmed in the same town as Longmire. "I don't know how many real policemen there are in Las Vegas, New Mexico, but there certainly are a lot of fictional ones!"
Another fan asked her about the Aurora Teagarden mysteries on the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries channel-- and then admitted that she preferred the books to the movies. Charlaine laughed and said, "Thank God! But I will say that they are competent adaptations and fit their demographics precisely. My mother-in-law loves them. And in case any of you are wondering, the movies are filmed in Vancouver, Canada, and that's why it doesn't look much like Georgia!"
When asked about influences, Harris said, "Shirley Jackson is one of the greatest American writers. She wrote one of the scariest books ever, and no matter how many times I read it, it scares the bejeebers out of me!" The book? The Haunting of Hill House (one of my favorites).
When a Harper Connelly fan mentioned An Ice Cold Grave, Harris smiled. "I think An Ice Cold Grave is one of the best books I've written. I can remember thinking, 'I got it right with this one!'"
Charlaine's favorite main character? "Ro. [Aurora Teagarden] She was my first series character. I learned with her. She's the most like me."
Charlaine's favorite secondary character? "Pam. [from the Sookie Stackhouse books] She's totally ruthless and fun to write."
|I see The Poisoned Pen's Web Content Manager is hard at work!|
"I used to be exhausted whenever I killed someone. Now?" She snaps her fingers.
When Charlaine began writing, she used an electric typewriter that her husband gave her. (He was really serious about her writing.) "Now I use a computer. Computers are great. You won't ever find me out in the barn writing longhand!"
Writers are always being asked if they outline their books before writing, or if they write "by the seat of their pants." Charlaine said, "Oh, I'm seat of the pants for sure. Plotting just isn't fun. After writing an outline, it's no fun to write the book."
Another person asked if Harris used index cards or post-it notes to remember important details in her series as she writes. Charlaine replied, "I'm fortunate. My assistant is my memory chip. She is amazing!"
What a fun evening! Charlaine Harris is a writer I could listen to for hours-- and if you'd like to listen to her, too, go to Livestream for the video of this event.