“I pre-date Buffy,” author Laurell K. Hamilton proudly declares of her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, which has weathered the ups and downs of the popularity of vampires in popular culture this last quarter of a century. Hamilton has seen Joss Whedon’s beloved “vampire hunter” series come and go (and perhaps return?), the fever pitch excitement for Twilight, and the highly charged eroticism of True Blood, all while staying true to her vision as a writer and allowing Anita’s evolution to reflect her own research.
The long-running book series celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, marked by the Aug. 7 publication of the 26th novel in the group, Serpentine, which finds heroine Anita Blake traveling to Florida for her best friend Edward’s wedding, and encountering a disturbing new form of lycanthropy that turns human bodies into masses of snakes. Anita must tackle this new, distressing challenge believed to be the result of an ancient Greek curse, while also facing what may be even more terrifying for her — the duties of being Edward’s “best man.”
The series began with 1994’s Guilty Pleasures and Hamilton has tackled everything from vampires to wereleopards, but her latest book allowed her to indulge her nearly lifelong obsession with Greek and Roman mythology. As Hamilton has learned more first-hand about the responsibilities and challenges of law enforcement, it has infused Anita’s shifting, more complex outlook, including her journey away from wanting a “white picket fence” version of a happily-ever-after.
In advance of the release of Serpentine, EW sat down with Hamilton in her hotel room as she was preparing to begin a nationwide book tour. Hamilton discussed everything from how her relationship with vampires has changed over the years to her own evolution from being squeamish about sex on the page to writing polyamorous relationships.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How and when did the idea for Anita first come to you?
LAURELL K. HAMILTON: [When] I found hardboiled detective fiction for the first time. The male detectives in their books could cuss and kill people if they were defending themselves and have sex and nobody thought anything of it. Though they were strong characters, the female detectives in their series very rarely cussed. If they killed anybody, they had to feel very guilty about it, and there was no sex or it was sanitized and offstage. It was such a stark contrast. I thought, this is unfair. I decided I would try to even things up. I may have overcompensated just a little. (laughs) I thought I would get bored if it was just straight mystery. I hoped the series would have legs, and so I wanted to give myself enough toys. I loved horror and monster movies since I was a little girl, so I thought What if I put [it] in a world where all the monsters are real and you just wake up tomorrow and you have to deal with it? Apparently I did give myself enough toys to play with.
Did you ever imagine you’d still be writing her adventures 25 years later?
No. My first novel Nightseer, which was more traditional elves, dwarves, and dragons, was supposed to be part of a four book series. The first book didn’t sell that great and my editor rejected the second book. I thought Is this my career? Am I done? So when I wrote Anita and they asked for a three book contract, I was over the moon because I thought they’ll be at least three books. And now here we are at number 26. You never know what’s going to happen. The arts are wonderful to work in but they’re not guaranteed jobs.
What do you think is the biggest thing about Anita that’s changed over the years?
Anita is 24 when she first steps onstage, and she’s now in her mid-thirties. She has gone from thinking the world was very black and white to realizing the world’s kinda grey. I was very privileged to interview people who were actually police officers and watch them go through the process of wanting to save the world when you start out. They want to be the white knight. Over a series of ten to twenty years, you can watch them get ground down, as much as they love the job. Somewhere around 10 years your goal becomes less saving the world because you realize you can’t save it all in one day. You want to come home alive to the people you love. Anita’s followed that process.
If I had not been privileged enough to interview people and have them help me by being so honest, I wouldn’t have known that transition happened. So that is one of the ways that she changed profoundly. But all of us start off more idealistic in our twenties, and somewhere in our thirties, usually, things change. Anita, at the beginning of the books, was waiting for her white dress. She was trying to have a white picket fence life. Gradually she realized that wasn’t going to happen for her either. Now she’s not trying for the white picket fence, she’s trying for something that makes her happy.
Is there something about her that really surprised you over the years (or a reaction from readers)?
The fact that Jean-Claude and she actually ended up dating. When I first started, I would not contribute to what I saw as a problem — romantic vampires. Vampires are not romantic. I believed what Anita believed at the beginning – they’re monsters. No matter how pretty they are, they’re monsters … I actually planned to kill Jean-Claude at the end of book 3, and when the point came, Anita and I couldn’t do it. When I didn’t do it, he took over my series and took it in a different direction. But I’m happy we let him have his head and let him and her go ahead and do what they wanted to do and be who they wanted to be. It wasn’t part of my plan at all. I am a character driven writer. I have my mystery plot and I plot that out, but if the characters come up with a better idea, I’ll throw it out. If they’re smarter, braver, more clever or more emotional than I think they’re going to be, that’s magic.
Since you started the series, the popularity of vampires in fiction has waxed and waned. Is that something you pay any mind to or is it just an unnecessary distraction?
I don’t worry about anybody else. Guilty Pleasures was written in the late ’80s. It took years to sell because nobody was doing this. I pre-date Buffy. They really didn’t think there was a market for it. When you get there first, you’re not going to be the one that’s paying attention to other people. As a writer, I recommend you do not chase trends.
Serpentine is your 26th Anita Blake novel and she, rather humorously, is more nervous about facing her best friend’s wedding than any of the monsters she’s tackled — why did you want to throw her into this very human, normal situation and put her off-balance?
What always interests me as a writer is taking the normal every day world and the paranormal and supernatural and putting it together. Most people take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. I take the extraordinary and make it ordinary. I hate weddings. They’re great and they’re lovely and wonderful, but they’re so much pressure. Especially for women. Especially if you get into your mid-30s and you’re not married yet. I like taking Anita and using her as a lens on something that is problematic to me.
You also, of course, have supernatural elements here. You’ve introduced a new form of lycanthropy that turns human bodies into a mass of snakes — why did you want to tackle things that slither and where did the idea stem from?
I’ve been in love with Greek and Roman myths since junior high. We haven’t done Greek or Romans ever in this series. [I went back] and re-read them. There’s some really terrible things done to people in these. The gods are cursing you and not just normal [stuff], but Medusa was turned into the nest of snakes with her hair, and Scylla and Charybdis are turned into monsters. There’s a lot of that going on in Greek and Roman myths. I thought What if that could really happen to you and what if you moved that to modern day? Wouldn’t that be terrible? As soon as I realized the idea disturbed me, I knew I’d use it. Lycanthropy, the way I’d been writing it, [was] Wouldn’t it be cool if once a month, you didn’t hurt anybody to turn into this beautiful predator? A leopard or a tiger? It’s become romanticized. I’ve done it too. But this? Having just part of your body begin to turn into snakes that you can’t control that don’t talk to you? It’s like having that surprise snake trapped on the end of your arm. Isn’t it horrible? I thought if it bothers me enough, I’ll use it.
You’re famous for the extensive research you do for each book. What in this book took you the most time to get right, or what research rabbit hole did you find yourself down?
I had good books on mythology, [but] by the time I got done, the stack was like [she holds her hand at chest height], and I didn’t need all this. I’m not going to use half of this … Rabbit holing was getting caught in the mythology and the folklore. That was too fun. But the other thing I was lost in was the [setting of the] Florida Keys. They were so beautiful. Part of me felt guilty putting bodies and having people killed there. [The Keys] made me want to find reasons to stay [there longer]. I can do more onsite. It will make it more realistic. I began to realize that I just wanted to stay for a while just to vacation. I’ve never had a location make me think that.
Anita is now a U.S. marshal — and we’re living in a time that is particularly fraught for how people perceive or interact with American law enforcement. Is that something you’ve been thinking about and want Anita to grapple with directly?
Yes and no. I don’t think you can be an American in this country right now and not think about it, one way or the other. But in Anita’s world, the U.S. marshal’s preternatural branch, they’re executing citizens of this country who have rights. It is a civil rights nightmare. We even say that in some of the books. If you really had police with badges legally being able to hunt down and kill, even if they were monsters, you would probably get more people protesting it than I show in the books. But it’s so polarizing. One of the things in researching police work is how fast decisions have to be made. If you take some of the gun courses, they put you through what they call shoot houses, which I’ve done [with] low light conditions. Imagine all you have is a flashlight and you’ve been told there’s somebody armed and somebody turns to you and has something in their hand. They have to make that split decision … So I honor their profession. I don’t want to do this for real because if somebody does it on paper, I have a chance tomorrow to get up and rewrite [it]. In real life, there’s no second chances. The more research I do, the more I go to the shoot houses, do the practice, I would not want to be making these decisions. The more training I have the more I see how difficult it is. My heart goes out to everybody on both sides.
While not explicitly political per se, your books do engage with hot topics, whether it’s addressing issues of morality or civil rights or whatnot – do you see yourself as an inherently political writer or are there things you want to push your readers to consider through your work?
I don’t think of myself as a political writer. To me that’s a very specific way of looking at it. If something disturbs me, whether it is a moral issue or a civil rights issue, then I’m more likely to write about it. If it bothers me, then it usually comes out. Sometimes I don’t even mean for it to, but the back of my mind is chewing on it. I don’t shy away from the hard questions on paper. I don’t think of myself that way, but maybe I am.
Your books have evolved to have a stronger romantic and erotic heft. What made you want to make that transition and is it something you want to keep leaning into?
I’d written several books where the violent crime got detailed on stage, but when it came time to have Anita finally cross that barrier and have sex with someone she cared about, I was squeamish. Violence didn’t bother me, but the sex did. I thought what does that say about me as a person? The 1950s pan to the sky would have felt like cheating to me. If I’m going to sit there and stay for the violence of the crimes, then you should see the parts that make life worthwhile. That started it. Once I crossed the barrier, then the 1950s pan to the sky is always gone for me. I made a deal with Anita after the first book because we had a death that still haunts her, and I promised her if she was close to anybody else, I won’t kill them. Her idea of that was that she would just be emotionally invested with everybody … Now here we are [where] with her, if it was legal, we’d be having four people in a ceremony. It’s been very interesting exploring how everybody’s dealing with that. Polyamory is about being absolutely honest. Everybody knows about everybody. If you’re cheating, you’re not polyamorous. If you’re doing regular relationships, so many people are afraid to rock the boat. But if you don’t talk about the hard issues, the hard issues build and build and build. The only way to do multiple people is you have to talk almost endlessly. I thought it was important to show that onstage, and that happily-ever-after takes work.
After 25 years, do you have a stopping point in mind or will you just keep writing as long as ideas come to you?
If you want to see a long-running series, you go to mysteries. I think of it as a mystery series, which means as long as the ideas keep coming and the readers are having fun, and I’m still learning new things about my world and my characters, then [there’s] no reason to stop. I don’t know, when I’m 80 will I still want to be doing this? I don’t know; I’ve never been 80. Maybe I’ll just be the feistiest grandma around.