To paraphrase (and slightly screw around with the title of) an old ‘80s hit, We Need a Heroine. Both in real life and in the literary realm, we need more stand up, kick ass women unafraid of their own strength—willing to represent—and, if needed, vigorously fight for—herself and others. And if she’s surrounded by more than one gorgeous, sensitive man as she fights the good fight, then all the better!
In her newly released novel A Shiver of Light, Laurell K. Hamilton delivers the latest adventure of Merry Gentry, a faerie princess turned private investigator, and her coterie of gorgeous, sensual male consorts—and in her view, the immense power of a faerie princess can be found in any woman…
Megan: Ms. Hamilton, it’s an honor to speak with you for the latest issue of Scandalous Women magazine. I know you have many fans among our readers and staff members, and speaking as a paranormal romance writer myself I’ve always been inspired by your work. Thank you for joining us! Since your first novel, Nightseer, was released in the early 90s, you’ve been honored as a leading author in the field of paranormal fiction/romance. How does it feel to see your work so widely acknowledged, and how has this genre changed since your first book was published?
LKH: Actually my first novel, Nightseer, was a mix of epic and heroic fantasy and far from being hailed as some rising star, the sales were disappointing enough that my editor rejected the sequel. I honestly thought my “career” might be one book and nothing else. Guilty Pleasures, the first Anita Blake novel, was rejected over two hundred times. I got great rejection letters, editors would even suggest other people to send it to, but they didn’t know what to do with mixed genre. Hard to believe that back in the late 1980s when the book was making the rounds there was no such thing as paranormal, it was just mixed genre, and everyone knew that didn’t sell, and was impossible to market. Penguin Putnam took a chance and gave me a three book contract, but I was no one’s golden girl, and was actually told by my publicist, “You’re a paperback original. There’s no budget for publicity for you.” The book she didn’t want to do any publicity for was, The Killing Dance, which was the sixth book in the Anita Blake series. I think the term “paranormal” had still not been invented for publishing at that time. I know in retrospect that the fact I got a few adds in Locus & other genre magazines meant that I was getting some publicity behind me, but I still remember the very discouraging moment talking to that long ago publicist and feeling utterly alone in my profession. Now paranormal is the hottest thing in publishing, but in 1993 I was fighting the good fight, and no one seemed to care.
Megan: Your Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series introduced a new breed of tough, smart paranormal romance heroine onto the literary scene. Faerie princess/private investigator Merry Gentry continues this tradition in your newest novel, A Shiver of Light, available through Berkley—which also features powerful secondary heroines, like the warrior Hayes. Why is it important to you to portray strong women in your novels? And how do you feel about the current trend toward submissiveness in modern erotica?
LKH: I don’t portray strong women; I portray strong main characters that happen to be women. I think the very premise that asks, why strong women, is flawed, because it implies that’s the exception and not the rule. No one ever asks a novelist, “Why did you write a strong male protagonist?” Not all men are strong in a traditional male sense, and I won’t even entertain the idea that weakness is essentially feminine. Weakness is a human trait, not a gender based trait.
Why are my women strong? Because I didn’t know there was an alternative, growing up I saw that women were either strong, or a victim. I chose to be strong and I am no one’s victim. In fact, I don’t really understand the victim mentality, so I can’t write from that point of view. Having said that, leads interestingly into your next question about submissiveness in modern erotica. First, I don’t read erotica, never have really, and I certainly haven’t read anything current, so if you tell me there’s a trend towards submissive female main characters I’ll take your word for it. People do send me excerpts from books, mostly erotic scenes. Fans sent me so many of the scenes from, Fifty Shades of Grey, that I finally read them, but I wouldn’t characterize the female protagonist as a submissive. She’s a tourist and doesn’t know what she is yet. Tourists are people who dapple in bondage and submission, but it’s not really their sexual preference, more experimentation. I am not saying anything against E.L. James and her writing, but for someone with my real life background, I found the entire premise of the book flawed, because BDSM isn’t something evil, or perverted, that the love of a good woman, or man, can help you overcome. BDSM is a part of my sexuality and it’s just as natural as any other part of sex between consenting adults. Back in the day, when I was not active in the BDSM community I still researched the scene the same way I researched guns, or police work. I find that most writers don’t do the level of research I do, but when it comes to sex, especially anything remotely kinky, they act as if they can make up anything and put it on paper, and it’s just believable. No, not so much. Lack of research always shows. Movies are also often guilty of treating kink as a free ticket to make shit up. As for too many submissive women in modern erotica, my only question would be, “Does it work for the book? Is that true to the character?” If it’s true to the book and character than I have no problem with it. Giving up your submission to someone in a BDSM context can be very relaxing, and I know many people that bottom, or let someone top them in the bedroom, or dungeon, who are very dominant and in control people in life outside of those two situations.
Megan: I have to say I loved everything about A Shiver of Light; the strength and grace of the heroine, the descriptions, the humor, the sensuality; how would you describe this latest entry in the Merry Gentry series to your readers?
LKH: What wonderful things to say, thank you! It’s the first Merry book that isn’t a mystery, and isn’t part of the original epic fantasy arc. It’s actually the first book I’ve written that didn’t have a mystery as its back bone, and it wasn’t until I was well into writing, A Shiver of Light, that I realized the mystery plot line helps me keep my momentum. The mystery is my thread in the maze, and writing a book without one made me feel lost, but this book was so full of events, characters, revelations, emotions, that there was no room for a mystery plot. This was Merry’s story, and it needed to stand on the wonder of her life and her world. It’s a book about faith, parenthood, love, magic, and miracles.
Megan: In addition to its magical themes and backdrops, A Shiver of Light addresses themes to which many women can relate in real life. Merry, for example, carries on with her duties and responsibilities while pregnant with her first children. She is also a survivor of sexual assault, committed by Taranis. Is it important to you to address real life issues and problems in your book, and how have your readers responded?
LKH: The more impossible a thing you need the reader to believe, the more grounded in reality the rest of the story needs to be. I’m asking people to just accept that the deities and faeries of Celtic myth and legend are living in the United States. The reader doesn’t know what it’s like to be a faerie princess turned private detective, but most of them have been, or know women that have been pregnant. They’ve been around babies. Sadly, most women have been on the receiving end of sexual abuse, even if it’s just catcalling, or other inappropriate remarks, so again most of the readers understand and sympathize with Merry, because of that. If I want people to believe in my faerie princess, I need her to be a real person to them with fears and experiences they can relate to, the more outlandish a fiction I want them to accept, the more reality based everything else needs to be. That’s been a rule of mine from the beginning of my career.
Megan: Many of your heroines, like Anita Blake and Merry Gentry, have more than one lover or hero in their stories. Do you feel that authors are criticized for featuring sexually empowered heroines in their books, and how do you feel about this?
LKH: I know that I’ve been criticized and even vilified for it. Readers have less of an issue with Merry’s polyamorous lifestyle, I think because she was sexual from the very first book. There is a portion of my fans that have never forgiven me for Anita’s choice to become sexually active in the books, but most especially for her not choosing a man to be the “love of her life”. A lot of these negative fans still want Anita to dump everyone and run off into the sunset with Richard Zeeman, our conflicted Ulfric, wolf king. You would have thought I personally broke up with their favorite brother from some of the things they said and did when Anita first widened her dating pool.
How do I feel about being called a whore to my face at signings over the years, because of what I write? Not my favorite thing. Criticized doesn’t really cover the level of venom that people spew at me for Anita’s sexuality.
(editor’s note: Many erotic romance publishers have a strict policy against their protagonist having multiple sexual partners. One states the heroine cannot have sexual penetration with anyone else once she and the hero have met. Scandalous! believes this is an outdated ‘rule’ that can and does lead to slut shaming.)
Megan: On a lighter note; if you could meet one of your heroes in real life, who would it be (personally I’d call dibs on Jean Claude and Frost!)?
LKH: For making my daily life work better, it’s Nathaniel hands down. I’ve never been able to date anyone that talented at organizing the domestic side of things for more than a year. I really want my 1950’s house husband that hits the gym, stays in great shape, cooks wonderfully, is witty, intelligent, gentle, great in bed, pushes me to be a better person, and is madly in love with me and the other primary man in my life. He would fit the best into my real life. If you mean just for dinner and a heart to heart talk, hmm . . . that’s harder. Micah, Jean-Claude, Frost, Doyle, Rhys, Mistral, Sholto – If I could choose just one we wouldn’t be poly. *laughs*
Megan: You’ve been praised by a number of authors in your genre; the cover of A Shiver of Light, for example, features a quote from Charlaine Harris. Who are the authors, in turn, that inspire you to write, and/or that you would name as your favorites?
LKH: Charlaine is good people. Writers who inspired me? Hmm . . . Robert B. Parker’s Spencer books helped me learn dialogue and fall in love with hard-boiled mysteries. E. B. White’s novel, Charlotte’s Web, taught me to love writing and was one of the first books where the words fell apart on the page and helped me begin to figure out how the trick of writing well actually worked. Andre Norton helped me believe that a fourteen-year-old girl from the middle of farm country could actually grow up and be a writer. Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, was the first horror, dark fantasy, and heroic fantasy I ever read, before him I knew I wanted to be a writer, but it was his short stories that showed me what kind of writer I wanted to be. Stephen King, especially his novel, Salem’s Lot. Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Louisa Mae Alcott, who was the first woman writer I ever read that was both successful in her life time and wasn’t male and white. Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Saki, Robert Frost, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and almost all the English Romantic Poets, but especially Keats, Shelley, and Byron. There’s more, there’s always more that goes into making a writer who they are, because we come to love writing, because we first love reading.
Megan: I know you’ve indicated that there will be additional books in your Anita Blake series. What can you tell us about the next book in this series?
LKH: I’m really terrible at hinting, and I promised my editor that she would get to know what the next book is about, before I shared on the internet, so I think that includes interviews. *laughs* I can tell you that I’ve got almost two hundred pages of it written, and it’s coming out in June 2015.
Megan: What advice would you give to aspiring authors in your genre?
LKH: The same advice I’d give any aspiring author – write! Writers write, they don’t just talk about writing, or read about how to write, or scour the internet about writing. They put their butts in a chair and actually pull words from thin air and make pages, then whole stories, and novels. They edit some, and then they send their stories out into the world to get rejected, because that’s what happens at first, you get rejected a lot more than you get accepted at the beginning of your career. Be prepared for it, roll with it, and be willing to be rejected. It hurts, but you’ll survive, I promise. I survived it, you can too.
Now thanks to the internet you can publish your stuff instantly and not have to risk that whole rejection by editor thing, but I think a lot of promising writers do themselves a disservice. I never believed in giving my stories away to magazines that would pay me in contributors copies, or even just with the pleasure of seeing my story in print, and I don’t agree with giving your stories away on the internet either, not if you’re doing it because you don’t want to be rejected. I’ve lost track of the number of writers that have told me they got too discouraged to keep sending their book out, so they printed it themselves on-line. If you’ve exhausted every publishing house that will have you, or won’t have you, and you still believe in the book, then by all means publish online, but . . . The writers that are so discouraged they can’t take the rejection anymore have usually only been rejected two to five times, usually three before they get crushed and stop trying to publish their novel in the traditional way.
Guilty Pleasures was rejected over two-hundred times! Two hundred times! If I hadn’t believed in my story and myself I would have been destroyed by that much rejection, but I just kept having my agent at the time, send it back out. Rejection isn’t fatal, unless you give up, and then you have lost. Don’t give up, dammit!
I had an editor call me at my home on Thanksgiving when I was cooking my first big meal for my new in-laws to reject my story, “Those Who Seek Forgiveness”. I remember thinking no one would call me on Thanksgiving to reject me, so it’ll be an acceptance with my in-laws right there, awesome! And then he rejected me on the phone, on a holiday, in front of family! Why did he call? Because he loved the story and just wanted me to change it a little and he’d buy it. He sent me a copy of one of his earlier anthologies, so I’d understand what he wanted. In the end I didn’t make the changes, because they would have betrayed the spirit of Anita’s world, or so I felt. The story would finally be published in my short story collection, Strange Candy.
Write, revise, send out to markets that will actually pay you, don’t do your job for free. The more you write, the better you get at it, so write often and lots. Rejection is a part of writing, if you’re easily discouraged then go do something else, almost anything is less ego crushing than a career in the arts. Once you publish the rejection doesn’t end, because then people will misunderstand your writing, or make guesses about what it means and it’s not what you meant at all, or they will simply hate your writing, your character, or you. Don’t read the reviews, just don’t.
Megan: Again Ms. Hamilton, thank you. Now everyone go pick up a copy of A Shiver of Light!
LKH: You’re very welcome, thank you for having me visit.