Charlaine Harris has a voice as soothing as black strap molasses. The Mississippi-born horror and mystery writer wasn’t expecting my call, can she talk? “Why sure I can,” she drawls, except by the time the words drip off her tongue, they come out as “Wha, shooah ah kayan”, as if she had all the time in the world.
It’s 9am in the morning in small town Texas, where the author of The Southern Vampire Mysteries series now lives, and the 62-year-old is just sitting down to write. Her three dogs are snoozing, husband Hal is in his office and all is at peace with the world. She describes the view from her desk window, the leafy gardens dividing well-spaced houses in this quiet suburban neighbourhood where most folks are out working during the day. It’s a world of lawn sprinklers and white picket fences, but dig deeper, as Harris does in her books, and there could be all manner of skeletons, vampires, shapeshifters and supernatural happenings in just such a small, sleepy community.
Harris’s talent is to put the paranormal into normal with the likes of telepathic barmaid Sookie Stackpole from Bon Temps, Louisiana, who becomes embroiled in vampire politics, and was such a hit that her 13-novel series sold more than 32 million copies. It also became the basis for the award-wining HBO series True Blood, with Anna Paquin winning a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Sookie.
“It’s always interesting to see what people do with your stories. They changed it quite a lot for TV, but I was happy. Anna Paquin doesn’t look like Sookie – she’s a great actress and I love her in the role – but nowhere does she match what’s in my head. You can’t expect that.”
Not everyone is as philosophical about having what’s “in their heads” messed about with. In fact, Harris angered some of her loyal readers when she didn’t serve up the series ending they were hoping for last May. Leaked on Amazon, it drew more than 3,200 comments and Harris received death threats.
“It became scary and I was very careful to have someone with me when I was in public. It was a minority, but very vocal and vicious. They conflated the TV series and the book and thought I had jilted Alexander Skarsgård [the actor who plays Eric Northman in True Blood]. As if I would! I mean, thank you for believing so much, but ‘it’s just a damn book!’ They aren’t real people. I made it up and I did as well as I could. Sometimes I thought I would never write again. I’d just had it.”
Now, however, the Sunday Times Number One best-selling author is back with Midnight Crossroad, again set in a small Southern town, the first of “maybe three, maybe more” books. Drive through Midnight, Texas and you won’t see anything untoward but stop for gas or coffee and you’ll encounter vampires, witches, psychics and talking cats – familiar Harris territory.
Harris was born in a farmhouse in the middle of a cotton field ten miles from the town of Tunica, Mississippi, which until the 1990s was one of the US’s poorest places. “Boy, talk about remote!” she says. “My father was a cotton farmer and my big entertainment was reading –anything with a mystery.” She began writing as soon as she “could hold a pencil” and crime fiction came naturally, with her first novel, Sweet and Deadly, published in 1981. It dealt with racial issues, a theme that crops up again in Midnight Crossroad, because in Harris’ childhood, racism was as familiar as grits and eggs.
“My grandmother Charlie – I’m named after her and my other grandmother Maylaine – was a real racist. She didn’t know any other way. It was as unalterable to her as night and day, but she was also a Christian so believed in being good and making everybody comfortable. She was a woman of the old south in both the good and bad ways. I remember thinking as a kid that she wasn’t right, but it was beyond me to say anything about it then.”
After university in Memphis, Harris worked as an offset darkroom worker, proofreader, typesetter and “was pretty bad at all of them. I was never very good at being a subordinate. If writing hadn’t worked out, I would have liked to have been a librarian.”
Writing did work out and after the first mystery, another followed, then Harris found her stroke in plotting series. There are the Aurora Teagarden books, about a librarian tangled up in crime, the Shakespeare series featuring a karate-kicking cleaner, then the Southern Vampire books alongside the Harper Connelly mysteries, about a woman able to find dead bodies after being struck by lightning.
These days, partly thanks to Harris, vampires are in vogue. “I think people are fascinated with extending their lives and looking young as long as they can get away with it, by whatever means. Vampirism plays into that.”
Would she like to look younger?
“Well, I colour my hair but I’m pretty wrinkled. I look like everyone’s aunt, they think I’m sweet. I’m not sweet. They’re always telling me things. Way more than I want to know.”
For a writer, this is no bad thing and complements her powers of observation. Growing up on the fringes of a small town, Harris had time to study its inhabitants and what lurks beneath the surface, down in the cellar, up in the attic. Did her family have skeletons too?
“Yes, all families do. There’s something in the back of the closet you never want to look at. In a lot of ways Tunica was like Midnight. Everyone had secrets and as I grew up I began to discover the adults weren’t that good. Some were cheating on spouses, others drank, the usual range of sins, but at the time it was a real shock,” she says.
But Harris is a live and let live kind of person and despite being a church-goer, is tolerant of the sins of others.
“Judge not lest ye be judged,” she says. “But of course, that’s very hard. And it makes it easier to digest when it’s a supernatural creature doing things you might disapprove of. The supernatural just seems logical, it’s believable some people would be so traumatised by death that their spirit would linger. But I can’t reconcile that with my Christian beliefs. I’ve certainly not met a vampire or werewolf, although I do check with my friend Ellen Dugan, who’s a witch, to make sure I’m getting things right.”
While Harris’s family secrets have remained intact, her own experience of rape is something she dealt with by writing A Secret Rage, published in 1984.
“When I was in my mid-twenties, a guy broke into my apartment and raped me. Someone I didn’t know, which is rare. Eventually he was tried, but not for my rape. You have to live with it for the rest of your life. It changed me for ever, made me value my life much more, focused me on what was important. I turned it into a positive. Even now, all these years later, at every signing someone will tell me how much that book meant to them.”
For the future, there’s the Midnight Crossroad series, which may well be TV-bound, and a graphic novel, Cemetery Girl, co-written with Christopher Golden and illustrated by Don Kramer. As for how they are received, nowadays Harris is sanguine.
“I really don’t care. I’ve achieved my dream, writing every day and it’s never boring. The really important thing is that I’m happy.”
• Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris is published by Gollancz hardback, £18.99/eBook, £9.99 on Thursday.
True Blood, the seventh and final season will be screened on FOX UK from Monday 7 July, 9pm.