No Going Back: An Exclusive Interview with Laurell K. Hamilton

A Shiver of Light

Laurell K. Hamilton’s work over the last 21 years has played an integral role in reshaping the genre fiction landscape. The phenomenal commercial success of her Anita Blake saga in the early ’90s—which audaciously blended elements of horror, mystery, fantasy, and romance—began what became a revolution (or more fittingly, an evolution) in genre fiction. The floodgates opened and countless genre-blending novels began hitting the shelves—like Kim Harrison’s Hollows saga, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, and more.

This fusion of genre elements heralded a golden age of storylines with virtually no narrative limitations: stories that authors love writing and fans love reading. Laurell K. Hamilton is a pioneer and a trailblazer. So why is it that controversy seems to always swirl around her and her work?

Just days away from the release of A Shiver of Light—the ninth installment of her saga featuring faerie princess Merry Gentry and the first novel in that series in five years—I caught up with Laurell as she was preparing to embark on a five-city book tour, which begins in Los Angeles on June 2, to ask her a few probing questions about her Merry Gentry series, the evolution of genre fiction, and her legacy.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost five years since the last Meredith Gentry novel, Divine Misdemeanors, was released. After all that time, how difficult was it to immerse yourself back into Merry’s world and get back into her headspace?

It wasn’t hard to get back into Merry’s world, but getting back into Merry’s voice was much more difficult. Her world is fully realized for me, I know the rules and how my magic system works. But getting the characters to talk to me and through me again after so many years, that was much harder. I finally stopped trying to beat my head against the brick wall, and got smart. I reread all the Merry books, not just the scenes I thought I needed to read in preparation for writing A Shiver of Light. Rereading the books helped me immerse myself in the world, the characters, and finally in Merry’s voice, because when you write a first person narrative, your main character’s voice is nearly everything.

The events in A Shiver of Light were absolutely pivotal—the potential for future storylines here is now virtually limitless. Have you put any thought into where this series is ultimately headed?

One of the interesting things that I learned while rereading the series in prep for writing book nine was that the first seven books are an epic fantasy. While I was writing the books I honestly didn’t see it, but reading them years later as I tried to write A Shiver of Light, suddenly I realized that Merry was the underdog heir to the throne that no one believes can, or will, rule. Then a series of adventures help the diamonds in the rough get polished up, until they come into their power and conquer everyone and everything to win the fair maid, the crown, the battle, whatever the “THE” of the series is, gathering their band of fellow adventurers along the way that will help them win the day. I’ve vowed to never again get locked into a one-way story arc that gives me so little room to explore a world, because it’s all about the march to the climax of the series. Divine Misdemeanors, the eighth book in the series, was the most straight mystery of any of the books, and my attempt to try and explore the world now that the epic fantasy had succeeded, though again I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time. I just thought I was writing a good story. A Shiver of Light is a book with all the tropes of epic fantasy, but it’s strangely the least genre and most mainstream of any novel I’ve ever written. The series is free of the earlier story arc, and you’re right, the world is suddenly Merry’s for the taking, or the winning. I’ve got two ideas for short stories, one featuring Barinthus, and the other about the new babies, and what happens as their magic grows. Beyond that, I’m not sure; I’m letting the muse bring me treasure instead of hunting it down with a club, the way I usually do.

I’ve interviewed you five or six times over the last decade or so and have moderated a few of your book events online through BarnesandNoble.com. Forgive me if I’m wrong here, but a line from A Shiver of Light just jumped out and slapped me in the face. Early on in the novel, Doyle’s description of Merry’s existence seemed to also be describing yours: “I do not think our path was ever meant to be easy…wondrous, beautiful, exciting, thrilling, even frightening, but not easy.” Am I wrong?

I think you do “get” me and my writing better than most. I always enjoy when you’ve interviewed me for BarnesandNoble.com partially because you bring things to my attention in my own writing. I hadn’t thought about Doyle’s line referencing my own life, but it certainly could. I believe sincerely that if you’re walking the path that Deity, the Universe, wants you to walk to learn the lessons needed to make you the best person you can be, that it doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. I liken my spiritual path to a forge and myself to a blade being beaten and heated until it becomes hard, polished, and sharp enough to be battle worthy. Life has always seemed like a battle to me, fighting for what is right, what is yours, what you want, what you need, and what you want to accomplish. If a successful, happy life were easy, everyone would have one, and they don’t. You’ve got to work for it, and work through things to succeed and be happy.

Writing stories that feature strong, free-thinking female characters who are not afraid to live their lives within the confines of cultural mores has made you an easy target for the intolerant. But, to your credit, you haven’t let that affect your writing. I’ve never been able to fully understand why you are such a lightning rod.

You and I have discussed before that I don’t know why I’m such a lightning rod for the negatives either. Years ago when it first started it caught me completely off guard. I still don’t understand why anyone is offended by women who own their bodies and their sexuality. I still don’t understand why in so much of the world the fact that women can, and do, enjoy sex as much as men is so threatening to so many people, but I have had some insights into why my writing has bothered some people, and why Anita’s story bothers them more than Merry’s. Merry had a high sexual content from the very first book, but Anita Blake didn’t. Fans were comfortable with Anita being one way and used the books as a refuge, a happy place, to go when their own lives were hard, or sad. I have book series that I “run away from the world” with and can be renewed from revisiting one of my favorite characters. Readers, especially series-loving readers, don’t like too much change. I actually like character growth and change in a series, but I seem to be in the minority; most people like series to be like a brand name product that does the same thing every time, reliable. When the Anita Blake series changed, it made some readers feel betrayed, because their happy place was now an uncomfortable place for them, and uncomfortable isn’t happy for most people. Uncomfortable is the beginning of growth and change in real life and fictional; a lot of readers were thrilled with the new direction, but the ones that weren’t honestly did feel betrayed. Because I don’t feel that way as a reader, I had no way to anticipate it as a writer, so I wandered blissfully off the path and into the woods, only to find that some of the fans had turned into haters. In their minds they felt I had started the “fight,” because I took their beloved world and characters and changed them into people they didn’t enjoy anymore. In my mind I didn’t know there was a problem, until the first hate-filled spewing began. Now, most of my readers, and legions of new fans, have loved, and continue to love how Anita’s personal life and world have opened up, but I understand some of the hatred now. It won’t make it go away, or make me change what I write, or how, but I think I understand some of why it started in the first place.

I was a bookstore manager when your Anita Blake saga, combining elements of romance, fantasy, and horror, exploded commercially in the late ’90s. That genre-hybridization is still going strong today, and continuing to evolve. A few literary “purists” I know believe this is all just a trend and that genre fiction will eventually revert back to its well-defined categories. I couldn’t disagree more—a good story is a good story and readers ultimately don’t care how it is categorized.

The landscape of genre and fiction in general has changed forever, there is no going back. Maybe if the paranormal field were static and just contained one type of storyline it would fade, but the field has continued to grow. You say that I combined romance, fantasy, and horror, but Anita Blake is a hard-boiled mystery series, too. Merry Gentry is a political thriller. So many people call the paranormal genre, paranormal romance, but it’s so much more than just romance alone. Even among the “romance” you have everything from serious and sexual, to light and humorous, to tongue firmly in cheek. We have a whole new crop of male writers who are bringing serious two-fisted tales of adventure to the paranormal genre. I am pleased to say that I’ve had the men tell me the same thing the women do, that my writing inspired them to write their own novels. I write as a good a fight scene as I do a sex scene, as good a mystery as a relationship arc, and other writers have come behind me to pick elements and expand them into their own worlds. Some paranormal series are doing better than others, and some types have glutted the market with less than stellar additions and those will fall to the Darwinism of the marketplace, but good stories and great characters—with or without paranormal elements—will find an audience and thrive. Also, bear in mind that the first Anita Blake novel, Guilty Pleasures, was rejected over 200 times, because no one knew what to do with something that mixed so many genres. One editor rejected the book, because the market couldn’t bear one more vampire novel, and another one came out that week, so they rejected me. We’re over 20 years down the road with my audience still growing with each book, and more titles in the paranormal genre than ever, so I think the predictions of an untimely death for it may be premature.

Laurell, I know you’re busy. Thanks once again for yet another enlightening chat. And, seriously, thank you for being the writer that you are. Because of your creativity and courage, I have been entertained—and enlightened—for over 20 years. Good luck with Merry and her babies! 

Thanks so much, Paul. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. I look forward to another 20 years of stories for you and everyone else to enjoy. Who knows what worlds and stories may come next.

Have you picked up a Merry Gentry novel?

  • Lulu S

    Great interview. Thanks.