A Writer’s Flashback: My 2005 Interview with Laurell K. Hamilton
Widely known as among the most influential of all writers of paranormal fiction, Laurell was gracious and open with my questions.
“You are what you say you are. I was a writer long before I sold the first short story.” — Laurell K. Hamilton
I interviewed author Laurell K. Hamilton in 2005, over email, for a motivational non-fiction book, “How to Survive a Day Job.” My intent with the book was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.
At the time of her interview, Laurell was the author of two best-selling series that combine mystery, fantasy, magic, horror, and romance. Her “Vampire Hunter” novels from Ace Books, featuring necromancer and crime investigator Anita Blake, and her Merry Gentry novels from Ballantine continued to set sales records. She lived in St. Louis County, Missouri, with her husband, daughter, two pugs, two part-pug dogs, and an ever-fluctuating number of fish.
Me: You mentioned that your mother’s death, your grandmother’s role in raising you, and growing up with no male in the home are the three things that made you who you are. Can you elaborate? How did you get to the point where you are now?
Laurell: No three events, no matter how traumatic, can make a person what they are. I think what I meant, what I thought I said, was that those three events were very important in shaping who I am.
I was only six when my mother died, at a time when most children think the world is perfect and safe, that the adults in their life can do anything, protect them from anything. I learned that not only could the adults not protect me, they couldn’t even keep themselves safe. I grew up from that point on, knowing that the great-bad-thing could and might happen to me and mine.
My grandmother did not deal well with my mother’s sudden death, so I was left pretty much on my own to deal with my grief. It taught me that even my emotional needs were mine to deal with, because none of the adults around me would help with that, either. They were too mired in their own grief to deal well with mine. They did their best, but it was as if my mother’s death took the heart out of my extended family. I think to this day that her brothers, sisters, the nieces and nephews, not to mention my grandmother, have never fully recovered from it.
There are always people in a family that seem to help hold things together for the people around them. My mother was one of those people. It would take me years to understand that, of course. At six, I just knew she was gone, and no one was talking to me in a way that was at all helpful or productive for a child. Oh, well.
It was just my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and myself from that time on. My childhood was overshadowed by the fact that my grandmother grieved my mother for over twenty years. She never allowed it to be too far off, and that left me feeling that the dead were more important than the living. That I was somehow only a substitute for my dead mother, a place-maker if you will. Again, it was left to me to find an identity separate from this grief and preoccupation with death.
As I grew up, I took over more and more of the chores and duties that would have been given to the man of the house. Everything but fixing stuff with tools. You really do not want me let loose with tools, unless I have supervision by someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s just not my area of talent.
It was more important for me to be strong and capable around the house than pretty. I needed to be able to lift a fifty-pound bag of rock salt. No one cared what my nails or hair looked like. To this day, I judge myself by more male standards, by my accomplishments, not my appearance. It’s nice to look good, but it’s better to be strong and healthy. Better to be able to do things than sit around and look decorative.
It meant that when I married I didn’t fit any of the traditional roles for women. I am to this day not the first one to notice dust on the window shade, and am as likely as my husband to leave clothes on the floor, when a few feet of walking could put them down the dirty clothes chute.
My past has helped make me very independent, contrary, logical, methodical (in everything but housework), cautious, willing to take large risks once I’ve thought it through and weighed the pros and cons, distrustful of depending too heavily on anybody, and with a deep ingrained sense of justice, fairness.
Me: Was writing your first professional goal?
Me: To what do you attribute your popular and critical success?
Laurell: I write what I want to read, because no one else was writing exactly what I wanted to be reading. It’s that contrariness again. If no one will write vampires exactly the way I want to read them, then I’ll do it myself. The same was true for fairies. No one was doing it exactly the way I wanted to see it done. So I did it myself. I am blessed that what I want to read is what a great many other people want to read.
I knew I needed a different series to sort of give me a breather from Anita Blake and the gang. Just a book, in between Anita books, to let me play in a different playground for a while. I floated two ideas to publishers, and the only thing they had in common was that they were all mixed-genre. They were all modern day, and they all had a large dose of the fantastic — the type of fiction that I’ve become known for.
First, it’s what I love, but second, I deliberately came up with ideas that wouldn’t, hopefully, alienate my readership. I wanted them to pick up the Merry books and feel like it was still my book, my world.
Readers come to a writer that they love with expectations. I know I do, as a reader. As a reader I like knowing that if I pick up X’s book that I know what I’m getting, to a certain extent. I read a lot of series books, because it’s my favorite type of book to read. I love to start a series and know that I have books and books to enjoy the world, the characters, the writer’s voice.
I think my enjoyment of series as a reader shows in how I write my own series. You got to love something to do it this long and still be fresh and having fun. I actually studied long-running series to see how it worked. Mostly mystery series, because there are more of them that have gone over ten books than any other genre I’m aware of. Same character, same world, etc. … I found that many series seemed to lose steam around book five or eight. They could still be good, but the writer seemed, if not bored, tired.
One of the reasons I gave my hard-boiled private detective a world with vampires, werewolves, and zombies, was because I wanted to play with all my favorite toys in one series. I thought if I did that, I wouldn’t get bored. I was right, because as I finish up book twelve (of the Anita Blake series), “Incubus Dreams,” I am still learning new things about my world, my characters, and myself as a writer. Cool, huh?
I actually found that somewhere between book four and book eight is where I really settle into a series as a writer. It’s where I fall in love with the world and the people and really begin to enjoy myself, because by around book four the voice is solid, and it’s less brute strength and more muse strength.
Me: Have you ever held a day job unrelated to your present career? Can you also tell me about volunteering at an animal shelter in the early days and how it affected you in your professional life (if it did at all)?
Laurell: Day jobs: clerk and book-buyer in bookstore, greenhouse, biology lab assistant, and my one job in corporate America: art editor at a large corporation that shall remain nameless. I interviewed for text editor, and when I arrived they put me in art, because they didn’t have openings in text editing. When I pointed out that I could not draw, they said I would learn. I have many talents; drawing is not one of them.
So, of course, there came a day when a client asked me to draw, and I could not. I’d been telling people for months that this would be happening, because I cannot draw. It was like I was talking, but no one could hear me, until the customer complained. Corporate America is just weird.
I volunteered at the only no-kill shelter I was aware of at the time for a very brief time. I ended up pregnant soon after I started and spent seven months in and out of the hospital with premature labor and other problems. I was pretty much sick for most of my pregnancy, so all activity ceased, including the animal shelter volunteering. What I did in the brief time I was there was walk the dogs. They had people that were trained in medical care, grooming, all the stuff that took training, but they didn’t have enough people to simply play with and walk the dogs. That I could do, and enjoyed.
This was just after the big floods down here in ’94. Some people had left their dogs chained up in the backyards, while they evacuated. It wasn’t like they didn’t know where the dog was or how to find it. They just abandoned them in the backyards chained up. Not just one, or two, but enough to make me wonder at people.
Most people are good at heart; I believe that after enough therapy. But there are still enough people that are just bastards to make you despair of the human race in general. How could you leave your dog, your pet, chained, knowing it was trapped and would slowly drown? The rescuers would find the dogs frantically swimming in exhausted circles. God knows how many they didn’t find in time.
I’m not sure volunteering in the animal shelter did much to affect my professional life, but it left an indelible impression on me as a person. We have four dogs, two of which are rescues. Jimmy was saved on his last day before he’d have been gassed to death. Our vet estimated his age when we got him to be around ten years old. He’s now thirteen, healthy, wonderful, and a true joy.
A surprising number of people dump older dogs in shelters. Almost no one will adopt an older dog, because they think it will die soon, someone else’s problem. I cannot imagine having a dog be your faithful companion for nine, ten, or more years, and one day you just decide he’s old, and you dump him. Older dogs are either already potty-trained, or much easier to potty train than a puppy. They need less exercise. They are just on the whole easier to work into your life. If you don’t want to go for a senior, then try a dog two years and up. A four-year-old is past the puppy stage — again, easier to housebreak — or comes housebroken and learns faster.
The old dog and new tricks just isn’t true in my experience. Sorry, you’ve hit my soapbox. Our other rescue is Pippin, now ten months old, and he has convinced me and my husband that he will probably be our last puppy. Adult dogs, potty-trained, past the chewing stage — that’s the ticket.
Me: Can you tell me about your writing process? How many hours do you write a day, etc.?
Laurell: I try to get up about 6:30 a.m. We’ve got to get the kiddo off to school, the dogs taken care of. The goal is that everyone in the household is fed, watered, whatever, so that I can be at my desk between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. I try for the earlier time, but some days it just doesn’t work out. Work until either 11:00, then break for lunch, or work until 11:00, then warm up and lift weights. It depends on what day of the week it is.
We’re still trying to work out how to have lunch on the days we work out without disrupting the entire afternoon. On days that exercise is not in the middle of the week, or on the lovely days when we don’t have to — rare — we have lunch at 11:00, then back to work at noon. Work until the kiddo comes home at around 3:30.
Some days I’m done by then, my page count reached, and I’m free. But most days, I take a short break then go back to work for a couple of more hours, then break for dinner. My husband does more cooking than I do, thank God. There are days when either the muse is striking, or I’m up against a deadline, then I will sometimes go back to work after dinner and have worked until 10:00 at night, or later.
I used to do more late-night sessions before I had my daughter. I have never been good at burning the candle at both ends. If I stay up late work-ing, it usually means that the morning session is slow. I find that I work better if I keep to a more regular schedule.
When I was doing more short stories than books, the marathon writing sessions could get me a finished product. A book just doesn’t lend itself to marathon sessions. A book needs steady day-in, day-out. If the book is going well, then I will often not take a day off. Weekends, I put in at least a couple of hours in the morning or more.
If the book is not going well, I find that a break on the weekends, do-ing something totally unrelated to the book, can be very helpful. It somehow refreshes me and gets me back to my desk on Monday morning bright and ready to go.
Me: As a writer, what are the pros and cons of having two different series running concurrently (Anita Blake and Merry Gentry)?
Laurell: The pro is that I have two New York Times best-selling series at the very same time. Very few writers can say that. The con is that I have two series running at the same time with deadlines that overlap. When I committed to doing the two series, the average book for me was about six hundred pages long. Both series have gotten longer as they’ve moved along. My average book is now seven hundred pages, and more often eight, nine hundred. The book I am currently working on will be over a thousand pages. This is not helping me stay on target for my deadlines.
Me: What advice do you have for those who have a solid, perhaps obsessive professional goal, who find themselves trapped in an unrelated day job in order to pay the bills?
Laurell: When I worked in corporate America, I got up every morning at 5:00 a.m. I am not a morning person. But I lacked the discipline to work on my writing in the evening. After a day in corporate America I was beat and didn’t have a creative thought in my head. So I got up early so I could have a couple of uninterrupted hours to write. I would write two pages each morning, because on my worst day I could do two pages. Then I’d get dressed for work, and off I’d go.
The big secret was that I didn’t rewrite as I wrote. I just wrote two pages of rough draft, and only after the story was complete did I read back over and begin editing. I can be a perfectionist, and if I try to edit rough draft, sometimes even today I get caught up and stuck. If I’d tried to make it perfect, I’d have never finished one book, let alone seventy. I wrote most of my first novel, Nightseer, by the two-page a day, no rewrite, pre-dawn desk time.
All of you trapped in a day job: my sympathies. You’ve just got to find an hour or two a day to devote to your craft. Fight for the time, because it won’t just fall into your lap. There is no such thing as free time. Not once you leave college.
Me: What is it about you that has enabled you to succeed where so many others have either given up or never attained their goal?
Laurell: In high school I entered a short story in a contest at one of the local colleges. I got third place. I showed up to get my certificate and shake hands with the dean. Neither the first or second place winners showed up. Apparently, one — it was more important to me than to them; and two — I wanted it more.
My first stories were not brilliant. They were better than most people’s first efforts in junior high and high school, but they weren’t brilliant. Not even close. I started by looking at my work and thinking: What do I not do well?
My first goal as a writer was to do heroic fantasy like Robert E. Howard, but I couldn’t do a decent fight scene. So I worked at it, until I could. I’d picked a genre that made me work on the weakness until I conquered it, and it became a strength. Then I realized I couldn’t do good dialogue, so what I did write was hard-boiled detective fiction, which is very heavy in dialogue, which forced me to work on the weakness until it was again a strength.
I realized I couldn’t do a kiss on paper that worked, so I decided to fix that, too. I didn’t always pick the hardest genre for me, it just worked out that way. But it made me a better writer. By my junior year of high school, I was collecting my first rejection slips. I’d taken Ray Bradbury’s advice to heart. He’d written that you needed to pick a small room in your house, and when you can wallpaper it with rejection slips, you’ll have sold. I picked the bathroom. I never let rejection slips get me down.
I was in high school; I was supposed to be learning, not selling. So why send out, because that’s what professional writers do? I wasn’t yet willing to admit to others I was a writer, but that year I turned down trips to the reservoir, because I needed to finish a story. I used to think it was the talented that succeeded, but I know some very fine writers, who I loved their series, but it didn’t sell, and the series died.
It isn’t just talent. When I first started writing there were people, other beginning writers, that wrote better than I did. Some of them had a pretty turn of phrase or a better grasp of the language. Whatever — I read their stories and acknowledged that they were better at the writing than I was. But it didn’t discourage me. I just kept writing. I wrote what I wanted to read. I think through sheer hard work I’ve become a better writer.
Natural talent isn’t enough; you’ve got to be willing to work. I told people I was a writer long before I had any proof from a sale. Words have power; you are what you say you are. I was a writer long before I sold the first short story.
Me: Considering all of your success, to what do you aspire now?
Laurell: I’ve always looked around to see who’s doing better than I am. More sales, more critical acclaim, more money. Who’s doing better and why? When I could, I actually talked to the writers that were earning more money or getting the big publicity campaigns and asked them how did they do it?
Many writers were very generous in their advice and sharing how they did what they did, business-wise. A lot of people credited having the right agent for money and better more favorable contracts. I then researched agents and found three names consistently in everyone’s top three. I applied to all three of them. One never answered me. One had office staff that was less than inspiring, and the last was Merrilee Heifetz of Writer’s House. She flew out to me, we talked, liked each other. The rest, as they say, is history.
So here I am, about five years since that business decision, and things are going incredibly well. Are there still things to aspire to? Yes. Being on the New York Times’ list for even longer with a book. Being higher on the list. Widening my audience even more. I am earning very good money, but there are still a few writers that are getting bigger contracts.
Every time I hit the bar, I find someone else that gives me a reason to raise it and something else to aspire to. My biggest goal right now is to be better at balancing career, family, friends, life in general. A constant challenge, that.
Laurell was forthcoming, and very much into the spirit of helping up-and-coming writers by virtue of sharing her experiences.
Thank you for reading.
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