Charlaine Harris Talks Sookie Stackhouse And 'True Blood'
Editor's note: The book signing was mistakenly announced as 7 p.m. when it is at 2 p.m. We regret the error.
Charlaine Harris will be signing copies of Dead Until Dark, the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel, on Saturday night at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego. The signing begins at 2 p.m.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The theme song of the hit HBO series "True Blood" says ‘I wanna do bad things with you.’ But sometimes it’s hard to tell the good things from the bad things in the “True Blood” universe. It’s a world where vampires have come out of the coffin and live on synthetic blood, and where werewolves and witches are real, too. The cable show is based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris. The storyline, with heroine Sookie Stackhouse, blends mystery, humor, sexuality and even politics in a totally new genre that's been described as ‘vampire romance.’ Now Charlaine Harris is out with a new Sookie Stackhouse novel called "Dead in the Family," and that’s just weeks before the third season of "True Blood" begins on HBO. She’ll be in San Diego later this week to sign copies of her book, and it’s a pleasure to welcome Charlaine Harris to These Days. Good morning, Charlaine.
CHARLAINE HARRIS (Author): Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us, how much has your life changed since the HBO show “True Blood” launched in 2008?
HARRIS: As little as I could make it change but, unfortunately, that turned out to be quite a bit anyway despite all my efforts. Actually, I have to do a lot of wonderful things these days. You know, I get to help promote the show in a small way and occasionally do events with the cast and crew, which is a lot of fun. And I do a lot more interviews than I used to, and that’s the good part, the fun part. But also, of course, that uses up time that I used to be working.
CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. You used to be writing, right?
CAVANAUGH: You’ve been standing on some red carpets lately. How’s that?
HARRIS: Oh, you know, that’s another skill set, one that I never thought I would need to learn. But now that I’m learning how to do that, I’m a little more at ease with it than I used to be.
CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve been writing about vampires for much longer than the current vampire craze that we’re in. Are you surprised that vampires are so popular, they’ve become so popular over the past couple of years?
HARRIS: In a way, yes, in a way, no. In depressed economic times people traditionally want to read more fantasy.
HARRIS: And vampires are just the most popular form of fantasy around right now.
CAVANAUGH: Do you ever talk vampires with Stephenie Meyer who writes the “Twilight” books?
HARRIS: No, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting her. She pretty much keeps to herself.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, now that’s interesting. Tell us, Charlaine, I told people already that the vampires in your novels and in the “True Blood” series are out in the open, they live among us, they live on synthetic blood. How else, however, are your vampires different from traditional vampires?
HARRIS: Hmm, they’re really not that different from traditional vampires. They can’t come out in the day. They’ve very strong. They’re pretty endangered by fire. They hate garlic. Of course, a stake through the heart would kill them but of course that would kill anybody.
HARRIS: Silver is really painful to them, very painful, it weakens them. If it’s ingested or stabbed into them, it poisons them. But other – you know, actually they’re pretty typical vampires, I suppose.
CAVANAUGH: They certainly are. I’m interested, where did you learn your vampire lore?
HARRIS: Of course I read “Dracula.” I read a lot of vampire material. And I really had to adapt what I learned to suit my own world, which is what I think every writer has to do with folklore.
CAVANAUGH: Now you made your vampires particularly goodlooking in some cases.
HARRIS: Some of them are, some of them aren’t.
CAVANAUGH: Now, but your vampires and the humans in your books are sexually progressive. Talk about the role of this attitude toward sexuality in your novels and your characters.
HARRIS: Geniune – generally with the vampires, they’ve been alive for so long that simply through boredom they’ve experienced a wide range of sexual activity. And, to me, that just seemed like the way it would be. I mean, I would think that after 500 years of just having sex with women, if you decided to have sex with a guy it would be not such a big deal at all.
CAVANAUGH: And so did you actually want to go into different sexual orientations in your novels? Or it sounds as if this was just part of the thought of developing these very different kinds of characters and portraying them realistically in a way in your novels.
HARRIS: Well, it was part of the world building…
HARRIS: …when I had to think of what it would be like to have lived for so long. How would you feel about so many different things? And it just seemed to me like that was the way they would feel.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Charlaine Harris. She’s written a series of novels starring Sookie Stackhouse and those novels are the basis for the HBO series “True Blood.” She’ll be in San Diego on Saturday signing copies of her newest book “Dead in the Family.” Now, Charlaine, you come from a small town in southern Arkansas and I would imagine that it’s fairly conservative. I don’t know, maybe that’s just in my head but perh – you know, with a lot of southern Baptists around. Has anybody talked to you about your portrayal of gays or bisexuals in your novels?
HARRIS: No. Actually, they all just seem to be very proud that a local girl made good.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, so the folks in your town do watch the show then?
HARRIS: Some of them do, and those that don’t like the sexual content don’t. But they’re all very polite about it.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s good to know. Politeness reigns in the south. Now “True Blood” begins series three on June 13th. How did the television adaptation of your books come about?
HARRIS: Well, Alan read the books…
CAVANAUGH: Alan Ball.
HARRIS: …for me – Yes, Alan Ball. And he loved them and got excited about working with them, so his agent called my agent.
CAVANAUGH: And what was that like when you got that phone call from your agent saying, you know, Charlaine, they’re thinking about making a TV series out of your books.
HARRIS: Well, first off, it wasn’t really – Alan wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do with them.
HARRIS: He didn’t know if he wanted to make a movie. He wasn’t sure about a TV series. And I had other offers also. So there was kind of a winnowing process but in the course of my conversation with Alan, he said how do you see these books…
HARRIS: …being portrayed? And I said I think they would make a great HBO series.
HARRIS: And he said, oh, good, because that’s what I think, too. I thought, oh, wonderful. I said the right thing.
CAVANAUGH: Now how closely does the series actually follow your books?
HARRIS: In some respects, closely, because it does follow the general plotline and the spirit of the books. In other respects, not so closely because the books are in the first person and Alan can’t do a TV series that way.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay. So do you talk with him a lot about the – how the plot is developing for the show?
HARRIS: No, I don’t because…
HARRIS: …he’s doing what he is an expert at doing.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I see.
HARRIS: And I’m doing what I’m an expert at doing.
CAVANAUGH: You know what I think might be kind of interesting for a writer, for an author, is to find out how these – how your novels’ sort of incidental characters are really developed during the TV show. I’m thinking about Lafayette and Maryann.
CAVANAUGH: What do you think about that? Is that what you could’ve imagined for those characters? Or is it – are you just a fan like everybody else when it comes to that?
HARRIS: I’m kind of a super-informed and invested fan.
HARRIS: I love to watch the show. I probably look at it with a little different eye than other people. And I’m really always constantly amazed at the richness of the writing and the look of the show.
CAVANAUGH: Where does the name Sookie Stackhouse come from?
HARRIS: Well, Sookie is a very old southern nickname. My grandmother’s best friend was nicknamed Sookie. Stackhouse is just a name that I’d seen in print that sounded good with Sookie.
CAVANAUGH: What’s it’s a nickname for? Sookie?
HARRIS: Susan or Sister.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. Okay. So Sookie Stackhouse books are all set in a small town in Louisiana, so I’m wondering how does your Arkansas hometown and daily life fit – inform this whole universe that you’ve made for Sookie?
HARRIS: Well, certainly to a great extent but I’ve lived in lots of small towns, I’ve got to say.
HARRIS: And I’m sure they all contribute some portion.
CAVANAUGH: I was asking you before about what you might’ve felt when you got that phone call saying, you know, they’re thinking about making a TV show or a movie out of your book. But you said you had other offers. What kind of other offers did you have about this series of books?
HARRIS: I had a couple of movie offers.
CAVANAUGH: Hmm, and what was that like the first time that happened?
HARRIS: Pretty much business as usual because I’d had options on some of my other series, too, and it had never come to anything, so I figured this wouldn’t either.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, you did – you had a number of serial novels over the 20 years that you’ve been writing, 20 years or so.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about those. What were those novels about?
HARRIS: Well, two of them were conventional mystery series, what some people call cozies, though that always sounds a little pejorative to me.
HARRIS: The other series was the Harper Connelly books which I’d been writing concurrently with the Sookie Stackhouse novels about a woman who’s been struck by lightning. And they’re mystery-based but they have an element of the mystical in them. So usually strong women protagonists.
CAVANAUGH: And these novels were successful. I mean, you know, you made your living at it and you said there was some interest in pursuing some movies for these serial novels.
HARRIS: Yeah, for the Aurora Teagardens, I had an option on those. And there’s been some interest in Harper Connelly also.
CAVANAUGH: So I’m interested, Charlaine, what made you change your focus of writing to really – I wouldn’t characterize them as conventional mysteries—I’m sure they’re very unconventional—but this sort of vampire romance genre that I was talking about, which is really kind of different.
HARRIS: Really, my career was not doing as well as I hoped it would. I was always in danger of being cut by my publisher. My sales weren’t that great. So it seemed time – a good time to think about doing something else. And in trying to think about what to do, I came up with the basic kernel for the plot of the Sookie books.
CAVANAUGH: Now we’ve been talking a lot about the “True Blood” series but these Sookie books have been really, really popular. And you’ve got a – and talking about phone calls, you got a phone call about one of them starting out at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, right?
HARRIS: Yeah, the last book was number one, and all the books have been on the list.
CAVANAUGH: And what was that like for a writer after all these years?
HARRIS: Actually it was pretty much business as usual because I thought – I thought everybody was on the list. Truly, I’d never paid any attention to it at all. But I only realized what a big deal it was when my publisher got so excited about it.
CAVANAUGH: It takes a lot to startle you, doesn’t it, Charlaine?
HARRIS: Increasingly. Increasingly, a lot.
CAVANAUGH: Now you’ve been to San Diego before. You were here for Comic-Con. Are you thinking – First of all, did you enjoy your experience here?
HARRIS: Oh, certainly. I’ve signed at Mysterious Galaxy several times…
HARRIS: …and the staff is first class. They’ve always been super helpful. They’re friends of mine, and they’ve always made me feel wonderfully welcome.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Comic-Con because, you know, so many people are there and there is so many fans and so forth, is it an overwhelming experience?
HARRIS: It is overwhelming. I’ve been the past two years and I’m coming this year as a guest of the convention, and it is – it is really the scariest thing I do all year, I think.
CAVANAUGH: No, why? Why is it scary?
HARRIS: It’s so extremely crowded.
HARRIS: It just makes me very – a little – I don’t know, a little claustrophobic, I guess.
CAVANAUGH: Really? Well, is there anything about it that you do enjoy, though?
HARRIS: Oh, well, it’s always fun to watch people who enjoy the current media so much…
HARRIS: …people who are really into it. It’s always fun to be on the “True Blood” panel. People get so enthusiastic and excited, and I love to do signings at Comic-Con, too.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I’ve read that you don’t plot out your novels but you do know how this series is going to end.
HARRIS: That’s correct.
CAVANAUGH: Now did you know that from the very beginning? Is that part of the way that you plan your series of books?
HARRIS: Maybe not from the very beginning because I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to write a second book about Sookie.
HARRIS: It took two years for my agent to sell the first one.
HARRIS: Yeah, quite awhile to wait.
CAVANAUGH: It certainly was considering how incredibly successful they’ve been.
HARRIS: Yeah, I have quite a few neener-neener-neener moments. But probably, you know, somewhere while I was working on the second book and was thinking ahead, I was pretty sure I knew how the series would end.
CAVANAUGH: Does Sookie find true love?
HARRIS: Could be.
CAVANAUGH: All right then, I know that that’s the most I’m going to get out of you on that.
HARRIS: Yeah, pretty much.
CAVANAUGH: I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for talking with us.
HARRIS: You’re so welcome. I enjoyed it.
CAVANAUGH: Charlaine Harris will be signing copies of “Dead in the Family.” It’s the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel. That’s on Saturday night at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego. The signing begins at 7:00 p.m. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.