Almost two decades after her first appearance in Guilty Pleasures, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter returns with her 19th adventure. Out today, Bullet brings back characters from the past, as well as the usual intrigue. Author Laurell K. Hamilton spoke with EW about the music that helps her write (it’s hardcore!), what she hears from fans on the road, and how Anita became a role model.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you give fans a little teaser about the new book?
LAURELL K. HAMILTON: I’m so bad at this! I don’t want to give anything away. This is the book in many ways which some of the fans have been waiting for. When I came to this book, I’d been making notes on it for a while, some of this plot. One of the things that really helped me come up with it is the fans wanted to know certain things. They wanted to know where Monica Vespucci, who was in the first book, went. Where did she go? What happened to her baby? They wanted to have Asher have a relationship. Is such and such going to date? Leave town? They had all these questions that I never seemed to have time to put onstage. This is the book where I answer a lot of these questions. I bring everybody out and we take a deep breath. In the beginning of the book Anita is actually not solving a crime; she’s trying to have a quote unquote normal life.
You’re on book 19 in the Anita Blake series. How many more do you see yourself writing?
When I sold the first Anita book, I sold it as part of a three-book contract, so I knew there’d be at least three. I hoped that it would have legs, as they say in the movie business. But to get to number 19 in a continuing series, especially with the audience growing with each book still, you can’t plan that. I can’t imagine saying, ‘Oh yeah I’ll make 19.’ The next book will be 20; that’s amazing. I hoped I would be able to write this far into the series, but I didn’t dare plan on it in the beginning.
Do you take it one book at a time, or do you have a long-term plan?
For me the Anita series is built like a mystery series, which means that as much as possible each book stands alone, so you have a mystery to solve from the beginning to the end of the book. You give the reader a sense of a full meal. But there’s always more crime out there. One of the things about having a character who is now a U.S. marshal, there are always bad guys out there doing bad things. I never run out of ideas. Every book always spawns new ideas for me. I love and enjoy writing Anita and the gang, and I learned something new with every book.
How did you get started writing the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books? What gave you the idea to make her so no-nonsense?
I had not read hardboiled detective fiction until I got out of college, and the female detectives, this is awhile ago, they were not as tough as their male counterparts. The men got to cuss and have sex pretty casually without worrying about it, and they killed people without remorse. The women didn’t get to curse, sex was non-existent or very sanitized or off stage all together, and if they killed somebody they had to feel really, really bad about it. I thought, ‘Have we not come farther than this?’ And so I wanted to create a character that could keep up with the men, and could be as tough as the male hardboiled detectives. Adding the vampires, zombies and ghouls, which back when I wrote the first book in the late 80s, nobody had done it quite like this. While I was getting my 200 rejection slips for Guilty Pleasures, because they loved the book but just didn’t think that vampires mixed with mystery would sell or romance, I never thought the phenomenon of paranormal thrillers would ever be as big as it.
Are you afraid the way all these vampire series keep popping up, there will soon be a fatigue? Do you think it’s already set in now?
Everybody keeps waiting for the boom to bust, because it is one of the few areas in publishing right now that’s still doing very, very well and where beginning writers can break in if the idea is part of the paranormal thing. Eventually it will have to reach its crescendo and then go down, but I think, knock on wood, those of us who have been here from the beginning and have our audience and track record, I think you will find the people who survive once the bust goes boom, this is what they wanted to write. This is something they had a new voice for, and they could bring something fresh and new to the genre rather than people who jumped on the bandwagon because what they wanted to write wasn’t selling. Nothing wrong with making money or doing what you need to do to sell, but I think it shows when you’re writing something to pay the bills and when you’re writing something because it’s really your version of the world.
Going back to the role of women in books like this, do you hear a lot from fans who say they appreciate how strong Anita is?
Yeah, I do. I have now lost count of the number of women who tell me that reading Anita helped them realize they could be strong. I have now also lost count of the women who will lean over at the signings and speak low to me and say they’ve left an abusive relationship because they knew Anita wouldn’t take it. When your imaginary friends literally help people in their real lives with something like this, that is certainly something you don’t plan as a writer, but it doesn’t get much better than this. Some of the people break my heart. I’ve had people tell me that reading my books have helped them get through real tragedies in their lives. Anita has a rule that there’s no flinching; if somebody can endure some kind of pain or horror and she can’t save them, then the least she can do is watch and not look away. I’ve had a handful of parents say that getting their kid through a terminal illness, they remembered that. Those are the ones that make me tear up.
Apparently a lot of people don’t have strong people in their lives, especially strong women. I didn’t know there was almost an absence in a lot of people’s lives of strong women, because I was raised by my grandmother, and there was nobody, a man did not appear to lift something heavy for us. We didn’t have any male help in the house; we did everything. It never occurred to me that this was unusual, and it never occurred to me that there was an option for women. It was just you had to be strong, and if you weren’t strong you’re a victim and you’re not going to make it. That was the reality when I was growing up.
I’ve had men say they left abusive relationships because they knew Anita wouldn’t take it. Male abuse in a relationship is probably one of the lowest reported crimes in the country, but it happens. I think that people need to know that it’s ok to be strong, especially women. It’s OK to disagree with people; you can do that without being a bitch. You can own your power and own the ground you stand on, as my grandmother used to say, without coming off as harsh. I talked to one person who does counseling for trauma victims, and she said she’s had a lot of women tell her that they knew something was wrong, but they didn’t want to be rude. I really thought we’d gotten past that.
When you have people tell you these heavy things, do you feel a responsibility then when you go to write the next book to make sure you don’t alter Anita? Or do you try to make her even stronger?
I’ll be honest, it kind of freaked me out at first. It’s so unexpected, and I did have some issues. I would bring those kind of comments to the computer with me when I tried to write, and it made it hard to work, because I was thinking ‘How will they take this? How will they take that?’ You have to stop that, you have to get away from that, because otherwise it really will stop you in your tracks. Anita is a strong person, she just is, that’s not going to change. The sexual content seems to have empowered more people, especially women, and it seems to be empowering more than anything else. It seems to help them be able to say it’s OK to want what you want as long as you’re not harming anybody. It’s OK to be who you are.
It does give one pause sometimes. You have to let it go, you can’t worry about all that because if you do you will begin to clip the wings of your muse. You also have to let go of the thought that you can’t please everybody, because you can’t. You have to leave it all behind. When you sit at the computer you have to find a mindset so that you’re not thinking about will you be a number one bestseller this time, will your audience continue to grow, will the people be happy, you can’t. I am very blessed and very popular and it’s wonderful, but when I sit down at the computer it’s still just me. Everybody else has to stay outside the door. It will mess with you. Success is almost as perilous or worse to some writers or artists of all kinds. Really, a lot of success can be just as damaging to you as failure, more so maybe, because if you’re not careful you can get enamored of the success and not concentrate just on the work. You forget what you’re doing, what your message was.
What is the writing process like for you? Can you sit down anywhere and write?
My typical process is I have a very nice office, and I come up here and play with my imaginary friends and myself. It’s wonderfully just me inside of my head. It’s like being seven and playing pretend and getting paid for it. Sometimes you just need a change of scenery. I have different desks and two different computers, and I’ll change my workstation, sometimes that shakes something loose. I will actually go out to restaurants. I’ll take my portable computer, my headphones and my music. Some restaurants are better than others. I’ve written the majority of some of the books at different restaurants over the years. I never write to silence. I always write to music.
What kind of music?
It differs from book to book. To bring a book out in just one series every year, you have to be writing the next one, so I am. The other one’s already started, and I’m listening to Drowning Pool, Disturbed, Shinedown, Hurt, Sick Puppies, Flyleaf. I have a list that progresses through the day, which starts out softer and goes harder as the day goes on. I actually have a list of songs just called ‘Hardcore,’ and that’s Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, that kind of very heavy, metal core. If I’m having a bad day and the writing’s not coming, I turn to musicals. Really, I do. I pick a musical per book, and on a bad day I’ll put the musical on. The book I’m currently writing is Cabaret, so I listen to Cabaret over and over. If that doesn’t work and the writing is still not flowing, I will actually turn to Christmas music. It’s a frightening thought, I know. If my husband and assistant hear Christmas music coming out of my office in May or June, they don’t knock. They know that nothing really makes it important enough to come through that door, because the writing is just going that badly. Usually a day of the Christmas music, two tops, will shake something loose.
You’re about to embark on a book tour for Bullet. Who goes out to see you?
We have a lot of people who come every time we do an event, especially on the west coast and east coast. You also get difference in percentage of men to women across the country; there are more men on the west coast. We get a lot of familiar faces, and readers from their late teens up to their 50s and 60s. Men are more likely to stand in line just to tell me, ‘Thank you, my wife or girlfriend or fiancée reads your books.’ We’re running the tour much differently this time, doing what we call affectionately the ‘The Traveling Laurell and a Mic Show.’ People are going to be able to ask questions, and I’m going to interact with the audience for two hours. We’ll sign books ahead of time so they can have the signed book, but one of the things people want most is interaction. They don’t just want the books, they want questions answered, they want that feedback and feeling of connection. If I didn’t write a series, I think it would be different, but I don’t know.
I know there’s the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Marvel Comics series – do you think some of the men might have found you through that?
We do have some of the men come because of the comics. Some of the people who are comic book fans have found it through the comic books and have gone to the books, but it’s also the wives read the books and the husbands were big fans of comics, so when the Anita Blake comics came out, they were able to get their wives to read comics and actually join their hobby. What I’ve been told by a couple of young men across the country is they’re too embarrassed to be seen with Twilight, as boys. So my books are about vampires, girls read them, but apparently they’re more manly and acceptable for the men. We have more crime and violence and more quote unquote real sex.
Anything you’d like to say to your fans, both new and old?
For those who have been with me from the beginning, this is the book that’s going to answer a lot of questions you’ve been asking. I think you’ll be happy with most of it, and surprised by a lot of it. For fans who are picking this up for the first time, welcome. This book has politics, romance, relationships, violence, crime, bad guys punished, and I don’t know if I should say this to a first time reader, but I think it should come with a warning label. If you read a lot of the paranormal thrillers and then you come to mine, if you do it in that order, I’ve had people who have read some of the other people, and they say, ‘Wow, yours is really harsh.’ Yes, it can be. Buckle up, buckle up tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Bullet was one of the hardest books I’ve ever written, and it was the one that reduced me to tears the most, and the one that drove me away from my computer in utter despair at what had happened on screen. I had to come back after I licked my wounds a bit and write more. I hadn’t had that happen in a long time. It’s a very emotional book, a very powerful book, and we don’t pull any punches. We get to see that just because someone loves you doesn’t mean it will work, just because you love someone doesn’t mean it will work, and even if you both love each other it doesn’t mean you can figure out how to live together and not tear each other apart.