Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Though you might not be aware of it, there are nefarious goings-on in a certain town nestled deep in the pine forests of Southern Arkansas. Magnolia, home of the World Championship Steak Cook-Off and Purple Hull Pea Festival, is also home to werewolves, blood-suckers and shape-shifters — that is, in the rich imaginary life of one of its residents.
Charlaine Harris, best-selling author of two stand-alone novels and four mystery series, most notably the Sookie Stackhouse Series (AKA Southern Vampire Series), lives a simple life despite her wildly successful books, insanely enthusiastic fans and forays into the paranormal. Talking to her, you’d just never guess that this unassuming homemaker actually has a pair of custom-made vampire teeth given to her by a guy who calls himself the Count of Montrose. And you might be surprised that someone with such a sunny disposition has such a penchant for the macabre.
Dark yet oddly funny, Harris’ vampire novels are a mixed breed — they’re a strange fusion of fantasy, romance and mystery, funky even by genre standards. Take their setting: Bon Temps, La., is like any small, Southern town — except that vampires openly walk the streets. Then there’s the main character to consider. Sookie Stackhouse, a bubbly bartender at a place called Merlotte’s, tries to lead a normal life even though she’s psychic. All she really wants is an uncomplicated love life, a good time and a respite from the constant barrage of information that comes to her telepathically. When she discovers that she can’t read the minds of the undead, she finds some relief in the bizarre Bon Temps underworld — where vampires feast on synthetic blood made in Japan (and occasionally on humans), unscrupulous witches stir up trouble, and sexy werewolves prowl about. Throughout the series, Sookie embarks on all kinds of adventures with her vampire boyfriends. By book seven, she finds herself at a vampire summit in Michigan, completely immersed in the politics and affairs of the undead.
In a recent phone conversation, Harris gives the impression that she’s like the mom of your childhood friend, the one who always has food at the ready and the kind of graciousness that only a Southern woman can muster. She says she loves going to the movies, attending church and closely following her daughter’s softball games. Soon, she’s likely to add watching TV to her list of pastimes, mainly because her popular Southern Vampire mysteries are currently being made into an HBO series by Alan Ball, the acclaimed creator of “Six Feet Under.”
Harris is not directly involved in the making of the series, called “True Blood,” but she’s had several meetings with Ball and speaks highly of him.
“He’s so sweet. He’s such a nice guy … very easy to talk to,” she said.
She visited the set earlier this year, where they’re shooting the pilot, and talks excitedly of watching her beloved characters become flesh and blood — emphasis on blood. Anna Paquin plays Sookie, and dyed her hair blond for the role. “True Blood” is slated to air in late fall or early winter this year if HBO approves the pilot, which shouldn’t be an issue with Ball at the helm.
Asked if she’s reached celebrity status in Magnolia, Harris says that so far she’s been able to maintain, for the most part, a quiet life with her anonymity intact. She says that most people in Magnolia had no idea she was even a writer until the news of the TV show hit town. “Of course the big changes will come when the series is on the air,” she says. If the success of “Six Feet Under” is any indication, Harris will have to get used to any number of interruptions in her daily life.
So how did an unassuming gal from Tunica create this vampire empire? Harris wrote the first Sookie book over two years, on a break between her other series. At first, she couldn’t get a publisher to bite, but persevered until it was published. From there, the series took flight.
The real mystery, however, seems to be how a mother of three and active community member can be this outrageously prolific. The answer may be a combination of a fecund imagination and an enormous amount of work and discipline. Harris knew she wanted to be a writer by the time she was in the fourth grade. She’s spent the past 26 years doing just that, publishing two books before she started her family and many more after the five-year sabbatical she took to raise her kids. Her two grown sons are now out of the nest, one in Ft. Worth, the other, in the military, stationed in Alaska; she hasn’t seen him for a year, and he’s about to come home on leave before possible deployment to Iraq in January. Her daughter, the softball star, is still at home.
As far as the supernatural slant, Harris says that she’s always been drawn to it; she liked ghost stories as a child and was an early Poe reader, which, she says laughingly, “has gotta leave a mark.”
Like Sookie, Harris’ other heroines have modest occupations, yet extraordinary lives. Aurora Teagarden, probably her most conventional sleuth, is a small-town librarian; Lily Bard is a housecleaner in Shakespeare, Ark. Her heroine from the Harper Connelly series is a down-to-earth, straightforward sort who, after being struck by lightning, has the ability to communicate with the dead. Harris says she likes for her heroines to have real-life problems, even if, like Sookie or Harper, they have one foot in the supernatural. She’s described her Aurora Teagarden mysteries as “cozies with teeth.” That’s a fitting description of the writer herself, whose placid demeanor belies a certain edginess and wit.
Harris used to write in a “reconstructed closet,” but says she’s now moved on to bigger digs. Her current writing space is separate from her house, a “mother-in-law apartment” turned studio, with a big picture window, though Harris found that too distracting when writing and has to face a wall. There she’s surrounded herself with New Orleans tomb art, which she collects, various award plaques, a picture of her children, and a caricature of herself.
As if she weren’t busy enough, Harris recently edited an anthology of vampire stories, “Many Bloody Returns: Tales of Birthdays with Bite,” coming out in September. She also has a third Harper Connelly novel, “An Ice Cold Grave,” coming out in October and another Sookie Stackhouse coming out in May, tentatively titled “Deadicated.” After that, she plans to resume a less frenzied pace. Two books a year for three years “kept me busier than I really wanted to be,” she said. “I pretty much always have a good time, but I just didn’t want to be that tense.” She also missed more of her daughter’s softball games than she liked.
Her work ethic makes you wonder if Harris isn’t a little superhuman herself. Others might rest on the old laurels, but there’s no chance of her doing that, not as long as the muse keeps chattering away. The author is currently working on short stories and a novella (“Must Love Hellhounds”) and awaiting the January hardcover publication of the book that started it all, “Dead Until Dark.” (It was originally released in paperback.) But maybe next summer she’ll be able to catch all those weekend softball games. Maybe.
- Katherine Wyrick