Bestselling paranormal fantasy author Kim Harrison went all the way through school with nary a thought of becoming a writer. A biology major in college, she took only the required English courses needed to graduate. So when the writing bug hit her later in life, she found herself at a real disadvantage with grammar, spelling, and other basic weapons in the scribbler's arsenal. However, her love of books was her saving grace. Always a voracious reader, Harrison instinctively recognized the role of plot, pacing, and character development in good storytelling. She set about writing with great enthusiasm and plugged away for the better part of decade, until she was able to bring her skills up to par.
Harrison's debut novel grew out of frustration with a growing pile of rejection notices. In an attempt to get publishers' attention, she set out to craft something deliberately weird and edgy. She conceived a motley cast of vampires, werewolves, pixies, and witches, including a sexy bounty hunter named Rachel Morgan, and threw them together in a short story. Then, her agent introduced her to editor Diana Gill, and together they refined and expanded Harrison's idea into a full length novel.
Published in 2004, Dead Witch Walking became a bestseller, launched a blockbuster series, and catapulted Harrison into a pantheon of paranormal superstars that includes Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, Christine Feehan, and Sherrilyn Kenyon. As if to validate her inclusion in these ranks, Harrison's stories have also been included in several bestselling paranormal collections.
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Harrison claims that her muse exists in music. In our exclusive interview, she explained, "Music moves society more than most people realize. In my opinion, it's a soft manipulator of influence and change. I love the power of the musician who composes and performs. I envy their ability to put a nugget of truth in three minutes of sweat and emotional outpouring, colored entirely from their thoughts. And I'll admit that if I can, I'll steal that nugget of truth, study it, facet it, polish it, and place it in my writing."
On her MySpace page, Kim lists the following as her heroes: "My parents. Anyone who pursues their dreams when no one believes they can reach them. Single moms and dads."
Rachel Morgan and her otherworldly cohorts exist in and around an alternate version of Cincinnati, Ohio -- a "little big city" Harrison was familiar with from her Midwestern youth. She always tries to incorporate "Cincy" sights into her series novels, so readers are likely to find allusions to Eden Park, the Cincinnati Zoo, and other local neighborhoods and landmarks.
As a tribute to one of her favorite actor/directors, Harrison has given some of her Rachel Morgan novels titles that play on well-known Clint Eastwood films: For a Few Demons More, Every Which Way but Dead, The Outlaw Demon Wails, etc.
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In the summer of 2007, Kim Harrison took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and life as a writer.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I look back on my reading as I was growing up, and I can see a good handful of authors and series that have impacted my writing, but if I had to pick one title that did the most "damage," I'd have to say that it was Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I believe I was about ten when I read it first, not understanding as much as I do now, but I knew there was something there, a greater truth of the human condition, if I could only find it. So I kept looking, unknowingly studying Bradbury's pacing, suspense, use of language, and my favorite, how to describe a character in a single paragraph so that the reader instantly knows who that character is on the inside.
It was here that I first saw the power a writer can command when he or she mixes fantasy with the stark honesty of the human condition. The monsters in Bradbury's Dandelion Wine were the monsters inside us, as were the heroes, but that didn't make them any less real -- it made them more so. I fell in love with the fluidity he uses the language with, that the greater truth that can be found in the simplest things. A way of seeing, I suppose. Dandelion Wine became one of the few books that I returned to time and again, and while not anywhere near the story crafter as Mr. Bradbury, I hope I managed to absorb by osmosis some of his techniques.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
My ten favorite books are going to look like a history lesson of young adult reading rather than a leather-bound collection of great literature. They are good, solid reads that satisfied my like of adventure and the chance to learn something along the way. Apart from the few children's books in there, most are from the SF/fantasy authors popular in the ‘70s and early ‘80s when I was doing most of my reading. I didn't know it at the time, but I think I was studying them, picking the authors' work apart and seeing what worked and what didn't. Some might even be out of print, but they will always remain new-penny bright to me.
Zero Stone by Andre Norton -- For the sheer adventure of it all. I wanted a special cat like that, and I wanted to live on a space ship.
Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A Heinlein -- Again, I wanted to live on a space ship, darn it! But what I came away with was determination. If Kip could get to the moon with a used spacesuit, then I could do anything, and no one would convince me different.
Tomorrow's Children Anthology edited by Isaac Asimov. I worked in the school library in my seventh and eighth grade, and I found this way up high in the fiction shelves. It became my standby book, carried from class to class when I was between series. I don't know if all of the authors in this anthology were well known at the time, but when I got my first writing paycheck, I hunted up a good copy. It was that important to me, and I still remember the stories in it to this day and the way they made me feel.
Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack L Chalker -- I read and reread the entire series for several summers. I though I was just enjoying the ride, but I think I was studying how he built a society so fast and carry a story from book to book. I came away wondering if tragic characters who aren't loveable are more interesting than those who are.
Lord Fouls Bane by Stephen Donaldson which is book one of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. And when I read this one, I knew tragic, flawed characters are more fascinating than honorable ones. You either pity Thomas or you hate him. I did both.
Dragon Song was my entry drug to Anne McCaffery, whom I absorbed, envying her ability to tell a story from a character's viewpoint. I wanted a fire lizard so bad! Still do.
Tales from the Storyteller's House by Thornton W. Burgess -- Another book that probably shaped me more than I realized, where animals talked and morals were put in simple terms, with no right or wrong, but just -- according to the harsh rules of mother nature.
Arty the Smarty by Faith McNulty -- This is the first book I remember reading by myself, and it is about a little fish that swam contrary to everyone else and made a big splash in the world. I doubt very much my mother knew the impact of this one had on me, but maybe this was why I tried to do everything different from everyone else.
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams -- One of my favorites with a place of honor on my mantel, because magic is real and things we love will be alive forever.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach -- Because he was a teacher willing to teach those who would listen, forever a student on his own road, and no one would stop him. Ever.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
As the reader has probably guessed, I'm a big fan of Clint Eastwood's movies. I've not seen them all by any means, but my favorite is probably Pale Rider or Heartbreak Ridge. I've often seen my protagonist like some of the characters that Clint played in his spaghetti westerns, the loaner who comes into town with the ability to wipe out the corruption, but not always eager to do it, and when pressured into it, doesn't always take care of business lawfully but with justice.
Some of my other favorite films are:
The Sixth Sense, because I didn't figure it out until the exact moment that the director wanted me to, right along with the main character. Beautifully done, and I envy that ability.
Die Hard -- For the action and the character Bruce plays.
Blade Runner -- And no, this is not where Rachel got her name. I love the atmosphere, if you will. It's visual poetry. It's one of the few that I will drop everything to watch when I find it on TV.
High Spirits -- Because I love to laugh, and I like happy endings. It's just good fun. Favorite line -- and I'm sorry, I've mangled it: "Why are large chunks of masonry floating about?" I mean, what's not to love?
2010 -- If only for that once scene where Roy huddles with that young woman during the air-brake around Jupiter. Two people who don't know each other, can't even communicate, stripped down to their basic humanity in fear, and they come together to support each other. Maybe you had to grow up during the Cold War to appreciate it, but the entire movie had everything I like, even that happy ending.
Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai -- For the majesty, nobility, and beauty lost. Because I like sad endings, too.
Ocean's Eleven -- Because I really like smart.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Music oftentimes inspires my writing, or at least my characters and the direction they take. I've found that when I'm having trouble solidifying a character or a scene, that music will often free my subconscious just that last little bit to allow me to move forward, and often it's in a direction that I didn't expect, but is 100 percent true to the character. Alternate rock seems to be my favorite for the themes in the lyrics and the sound, rich in variety, though slow jazz will slip in on a rainy day, and electronic dance will get me through an action scene before I realize the day has slipped away.
I don't always listen while I work, but when I do, I tend to focus on certain bands that reflect the Hollows or the characters. NIN is good for working with Ivy or Rachel for the frustrated, in-your-face attitude. Rachel is pure Garbage with a little Evanescence thrown in for the themes focusing on the tragedy of the individual arising from our own choices. Evanescence is Ivy as well, with the attention given to manipulation, great for vampires. When I'm stuck on a scene with my two leading ladies, it's Amy Lee all day. A Perfect Circle is another group that really brings vampires to my mind.
When I brought to the readers the connections that I made between the characters and certain songs, they responded with such a plethora of ideas that I had to devote a portion of my web site, www.kimharrison.net, to cataloging them. Their ideas have expanded my music tastes dramatically, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that lots of people can see the characters in music as I do.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
If I give a book as a gift, it is invariably a children's book with beautiful artwork and a simple text. I adore the feel of them, the care taken in the artwork, and the high visual stimulation that sets off the simple but often powerful message the text conveys. You can't read a book like that fast, the experience slowed down as you study the artwork as the sentence or two sinks in. I'm lucky that my mother loves books like these as much as I do, and it's probably from her that my appreciation comes from.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I recently moved my office space from a three-by-five area against my kitchen wall to a real office with windows and a door, and I am enjoying it so much it's almost not fair. I have made a point to not develop a ritual so I could sit down at any point in my day and begin -- preventing a 30-minute warm-up -- but alas, a ritual has found me, involving spending the first hour of my day responding to my readers, loosening up my fingers, and slamming down my first cup of chai tea.
That never-ending mug of chai tea is a must, and it is with me from the moment I sit down to when I push back at the end of the day and wobble out of my office. I have a salt lamp that I light to ionize the air when I know it's going to be an intense day, and I've got my iPod that I will sometimes program and loop to keep the mood flowing and the passing of hours unnoticed. Oh, and I have a four-legged office assistant that keeps my feet warm and gets me outside three times a day.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Someone told me that it takes ten years' hard work to become an overnight success, and I fully believe it. I've been writing for at least that long, stashing manuscripts under my bed and a filling a file with short stories that will never see the light of day. I collected my share of rejection slips along the way, and actually, I threw all but two out while moving my office. It felt really, really good to throw the others away. I mean, really good, like I had finally made it and I was never going back. I have since framed and hung the two I kept as a constant reminder of where I started and how fragile the journey was to get where I am now.
I kept my first rejection letter as a reminder of how crushed I felt when I received it, and the surge of blind determination that followed that this one person was not going to tell me what I could and couldn't do. The other letter I kept is a query as to the availability of Dead Witch Walking (which was in production at the time in another house). I put this one on my wall as a reminder to take everyone seriously, because you'll never know what you'll pass up if you don't.
I never considered I might make a career out of writing as I was going to school, so when I did turn my attentions that way, I was very ill prepared, having only what I read as a guide, and no formal training whatsoever. I credit that very ignorance with a great deal of my success. My voice was my own from day one, my ideas on how to get from point A to point B were my own -- they were pathetically rough, but they were my own. I had to work extremely hard to catch up with grammar and spelling, but I fell in love with the process and kept at it until my skills started to equal my enthusiasm. Most importantly, I never considered that I wouldn't make it. Ignorance is bliss sometimes. If I had known how hard it would be, I might have given up.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I have two pieces of advice that I give out to writers looking for publication. The first is to write like you have the contract. Which by, I mean, intently and with purpose. If you want to be a writer, BE A WRITER. Sit down and write, don't make a game out of it, but treat it as a part-time job. You will never be a writer if you don't first start acting like it. You don't need an office. You don't need a fancy printer or huge chunks of time. Don't fall into the trap of having to have everything perfect to write or wait until the mood strikes you. If you want it as a job, treat it like a job, and just as you don't go to work only when you feel like it, you have to condition yourself to sit and write even when the ideas don't flow. Ah, having said that, don't quit your day job. I was lucky to have someone to support me and supplement my part-time day job while I was building my skills, but a page a day will get you a completed manuscript in a year's time.
My second suggestion would be to get into a face-to-face, functioning critique group. The reasons are twofold. First, publication is a hard path to follow, and friends who can relate will make it easier. Secondly, there's bound to be a published author there, and they can start to open doors for you. I credit my old writers' critique group with me finding publication so "fast." They helped me learn what is good advice, and what is bad. I learned confidence in my ideas and my skills, I polished my voice, and my style. And when I was ready, someone shoved my little introverted butt in front of the man who eventually became my agent. And yes, she literally dragged me over there.
Which brings me to the shy people. Don't worry about it. If you truly love your work, you can do anything. Trust me on this. Your enthusiasm will pour out, and you will be heard.
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|Kim Harrison Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Kim Harrison|
|Dead Witch Walking, 2004|
|The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, 2005|
|Every Which Way but Dead, 2005|
|A Fistful of Charms, 2006|
|Dates from Hell (contributor), 2006|
|For a Few Demons More, 2007|
|Holidays Are Hell, 2007|