Laurell K Hamilton (2008)
An interview with the queen of the romance/PI/horror crossover genre, from Death Ray 10.
Laurell K Hamilton is the leading light in what some call Dark Romance, where vampires are tortured hunks and are loved by powerful women. We spoke to her about this rapidly growing subgenre, and how it is to be queen of horror lovin’.
This interview did not get off to the world’s best start. Hurrying extra early to the office in a downpour so intense there was a sheet of water half an inch deep sliding over the paving slabs of Bath, I discovered that there’d been a time zone mix-up [Note from 2013: This wasn’t my fault, although I did think it a bit odd, and should have checked when given the time…] and that, when Hamilton’s husband picked up the phone. I was ringing at 2am, and not 2pm as intended. Whoops. Still, no hard feelings were in evidence as this most equable author talked spooky stuff at a more sensible hour later that day.
Hamilton’s work is decidedly cross-genre and was, until recently, almost unique. Her main series, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter is set in an alternate reality where monsters such as vampires and various types of were-beast exist. The heroine is an increasingly powerful Necromancer (the moniker of vampire hunter is a bit misleading) who enjoys relationships with several men (most of ’em monsters) and spends her time solving mysteries. Hard-boiled detective stories, romance and horror have equal weight in her fiction. It’s a mix that has proven very popular, but when Hamilton initially attempted to get a publisher with Guilty Pleasures, the first Anita story, she struggled.
“Back when I was trying to trying to sell Anita, nobody wanted it. I was literally told that mixed genre didn’t sell. ‘Vampire is dead’, one editor told me. She didn’t even get the joke, by the way. I was rejected by everybody, the mystery houses thought it was too much horror, the horror houses thought it was too much mystery, the fantasy houses thought it was science fiction, the science fiction houses thought it was fantasy. Everybody thought it was somebody else’s baby.”
Even now, with success filling the tills of book stores, they still don’t know what to call it, and neither does she…
“Here in the US I guess they coined the term paranormal romance,” she says “but that doesn’t really cover what I do. Though there are romantic elements, I structure the books like a mystery series, and there are entire books where the relationship issues take a back seat, so we’ve tried a few names. Paranormal erotica is another one. I don’t know whether to cringe at that or go, ‘Mm, okay’. They are vampire books, they are horror,” she says emphatically, “the horror elements are real and they are really there. But the romance elements are really there, the mystery stuff and the hard-boiled detective elements are really there, it’s all in one book. I don’t differentiate, I don’t cheat. I honestly play all the genres, because I love it. One of the reasons I chose to mix all the genres was because I didn’t want to get bored. So coming up with one label is really difficult.”
Her strategy has worked – she’s still going strong. Hamilton’s now editing Blood Noir, book 16 of the Anita series, and is working on her sixth novel starring Merry Gentry, another cross-genre heroine, this one a faerie princess who works as a PI in LA. Although her work belongs to the same family tree of moody vampires found in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles it is quite different, and though it is predated by Tanya Huff’s Blood books, which features a similar mix of PIs, vamps and lurve, it is Hamilton who has captured the imagination of the reading public. She’s so popular she gets recognised on the street.
“Publishers are now asking for ‘Hamilton-esque’ stories,” she says. “I thought I wasn’t old enough to be an ‘esque’, but apparently I am.”
It’s perhaps because all the genre dials are turned up to the max in her work that the books have proven so successful. There’s not just conflict, there’s violence, not just vampires, but a full-blown parallel world, not just love, but lashings of sex. Arguably it’s her hard-headed heroine Anita, Hamilton’s reply to tough male PIs. Unlike the fantasy stories, Hammer Horror movies and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot that inspired her, Hamilton did not read the hard-boiled genre until she was in college, where she discovered Robert B Parker, Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet. Reading it late had a profound effect on the way that she saw the genre and, ultimately, on her career.
“If I’d grown up on it I don’t think I would have noticed the pronounced difference between the hard-boiled detective fiction where you had a woman as the main character, and the stories where the protagonist is a man,” she explains. “The men got to cuss, the men got to kill people with very little remorse, they got to have sex casually. The women in their books didn’t get to cuss much, if they killed anybody they had to feel really, really bad about it, and sex was either sanitised or off stage. With Anita, I wanted to change that, I wanted to have a character that could keep up with the boys.”
This desire did not spring from a feminist manifesto, but from the author’s strong sense of independence, fostered by the woman who raised her, her grandmother Laura Gentry was “one of the toughest people I ever met,” Hamilton says.
“People keep saying that I’m a feminist, but it’s an awkward term. I’m an equalist, I believe that everybody should be able to be what they want and not be hampered by gender issues. So I’ve gone out and written two very strong, female characters. And one of the most gratifying things is I’ve lost track of the number of female fans who say they’ve gotten out of abusive relationships because they say they knew Anita wouldn’t take it. Real life people who write in, who come to signings and lean in and speak very low and say ‘I got out of this relationship because of your books’. I mean, I write about elves, zombies, werewolves. You don’t think that you’re going to have that kind of real-life impact. The men that love the series, they don’t seem to feel the need for a strong role model. Some of these women seem never to have been familiar with the concept that women can be very, very strong people.
“I’ve had reporters ask me why I chose to make Anita such a strong character, and I started answering that question with another question, so if the character was male, would you think it strange that that person was a strong character? There’s still very much a gender bias.”
And Anita is getting stronger and stronger, accruing more powers, more followers, making more difficult decisions. She’s larger than life, a superhero. Hamilton sees this as an intrinsic part of both the fantasy and hard-boiled genres.
“I saw a show that was interviewing real detectives and comparing them to fictional detectives. One gentleman had been following one of the different flavours of the mob. And then they sent him a photograph of his daughter walking to school, and a needle with blood in it. That’s all, there was no note. He quit the case. In real life, it’s not worth your family, it’s just a job. In fiction though, you can go that extra mile, because you know that in the end the bad guy will be punished, and good will triumph. That is one of the differences between fiction and real life. The other thing is, with Anita’s kill-count and as many questionable things the police are pretty sure she did, she would at least have seen the inside of a courtroom. If you look at what the hard-boiled detectives do, most of them would have lost their license and been in jail by now.
“And the police in real life, even if you get what’s called a good shoot, where the policeman kills somebody legitimately, you’re still going to be suspended for a while, you’re still going to be up on review. And the amount of paperwork…! I’ve had policemen admit to me that they have actually let people get away because they knew how much paperwork they would have to do if they’d shot them. But in fiction, you don’t want to see watch someone do paperwork for thirty minutes. You don’t even want to read about it. Fiction is reality with all the boring bits cut away.”
But that only goes so far – a hallmark of her books is the amount of fact in them. Hamilton knows this stuff she’s talking about here because she researches her books meticulously, in fact it seriously winds her up when people suggest that, as a fantasy writer, she just invents it all. She says this aspect of her job is one of the most satisfying, as she gets to meet all kinds of people; it is also one of the most important.
“My rule is that the more fantastic a story you are expecting people to believe, the more real your real better be. There is a fan out there who is an expert on everything, there is someone out there who does it for a living or does it for a serious hobby and if you don’t get it right, they will let you know.”
In recent years, for example, her researches have taken her into the polyamorous community, whom she was curious to quiz so she could get the love life of Merry right (apparently, she says, women are more likely to agree to share a lover, but it tends to break down when one of them wants kids, men take a lot more convincing, but relationships of two men, one woman are more stable, in case you were interested). Merry has a large bodyguard of hunksome men, who are also her lovers. The sexual content of this series caused raised eyebrows among her fans, but when Hamilton introduced a similar level of nooky to the Anita books, her passionate fanbase got a bit hot and bothered, and a minority of angry, vociferous fans posted numerous comments about their dissatisfaction at the direction the books were taking.
“They seem to be personally offended, almost as if I had broken up with their favourite brother. As a fiction writer you don’t anticipate that people are going to take it so to heart. Here in the US it’s the sexual content,” she says, almost sighing, “in Europe it’s the violence that bothers people. It’s of great interest to me that Americans are so puritanical.”
Not that she’d change it, not that she could.
“My characters are like my friends; they don’t take my dating advice. I’m not one of those writers who outlines extensively and makes my characters march to my tune, I’m very much someone who writes to see what happens next. I outline the mystery, but the characters get to make their own choices, and the harder I push them in one direction or another, the harder they push back. Anita argues with me, and now I’ve got more familiar with Merry, she’s started to too.”
Unusually, on the matter of Anita’s sexing-up she did reply to her critics, in December 2006. This is something she generally avoids, saying that she doesn’t want to treat her weblog like a private, intimate diary (to prevent ranting, she gets her PA and her husband to vet her posts first). But this is a woman who is very fond to her fans, who has made more close friends through her book tours than she’d ever thought a solitary writer would have. She’s seen people grow up, she even met her husband Jonathan and assistant Darla when they came to her signings. There is, of course, a flipside to letting your devotees “cross the line from friend fan”, as she says it is inevitable some do. She’s had to install a call-screening system, for one. And it’s obvious, reading her rejoinder to the criticism, that some of those negative comments hurt. You get the impression that on that occasion she’d had enough, though it no longer seems to bother her.
“I am totally puzzled, I can’t explain it. If I’m reading a series that goes in a direction that I’m not happy with then I simply stop,” she says. “You vote with your pocketbook, but if you tell people that are upset with the direction the books are going in that they don’t have to read it, they say ‘You can’t tell me what to read’. There’s something about this genre that attracts very passionate people, and if they want to be unhappy about something then they’re going to be unhappy with you, there’s nothing you can do or say to change it.”
The Merry books, which started her move towards “paranormal erotica,” primarily came about as a way of giving Hamilton a break from Anita. She’d written five books in a row, and it was when she had “the Anita anxiety job dream” that she knew she needed to try something else. Still, if she knew her audience could be quite puritanical, it does beg the question: why did she decide to write a series with such a high sexual content?
“Okay,” she says, taking a deep breath, “at the time there was so little sexual content in the Anita books. Initially, I was adamant that there would be no sex in the Anita series, that’s why it had such high sensual detail, I wanted every kiss to be so amazing that you would never have to cross that line. But I was already taking so much crap about the fact that it had a high sensual content that somewhere in the back of my head I just went, ‘You know, if you thought that was bothersome, buckle up buttercup, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.’ And so part of it is that I am cantankerous, as my grandmother used to say.”
Another aspect of it was that Hamilton sees a great deal of punishment of sex in American horror.
“Things like the Buffy series fall into that horror trap where sex is bad. Sex is punished, horribly punished, in that series. And the slasher films, if you have sex, then you will die. The virgin is the only one who survives in a lot of these movies. I don’t know why that it is such a horror trope, that sex is bad. One of the reasons that I finally decided to do sex in my series was that I wanted sex to be not punished. I wanted it to be between two people who cared about each other, where the sex was enjoyable, and it wasn’t about punishment. I wrote a blog, I may not have posted it, because I may have got a little ranty, but I said the Puritans and Victorians are dead, let them die, let us forge a new concept about ourselves, about how we interact with each other. Sex is not bad, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it, otherwise we would have died out.
“The other part was that the first time we did have full blown sex on stage between Anita and Jean-Claude, it made me very uncomfortable. I had followed the violence through all these books, and the camera had never flinched, I never wanted to do that 1940’s pan to the sky. And then you have sex between two characters who having been dating off and on for years, and they care about each other… and it bothered me, and it bothered me that I was bothered, that I was so American. I decided that if it bothered me I had better explore it. That’s pretty much my philosophy on writing, and in some ways life. If I’m afraid of something I have to go and find out why, I have to try and get past the fear and the discomfort. And I’ve certainly done that on this issue!”
Yes, on the evidence of her books, with Merry’s huge harem and Anita’s ardour, a recently acquired paranormal affliction that drives her to consume sexual energy, she obviously feels a whole lot more comfortable with the sexy stuff now…
“Oh much more. But I’ve started to hit that romance writer problem, where you go, ‘Now what positions have we used last?’ And may I just say Merry has enough men now, I do not want Merry to accumulate any more men! I reached that magic point with Merry where I just went ‘There’s just not time!’ I could do a separate 700-page book of nothing but sex scenes at this point. The frightening thing is it might sell.”
Of course, some may think that a lot of this is Hamilton projecting her fantasies or personal practises into her fiction, but it is not so.
“You know, I actually write about a lot of things that aren’t real,” she says, deadpan. “And one of my friends came up with the best answer: ‘If she was having as much sex as you think she is, she’d never have time to write the books!'”