Kim Wells, Editor

 Winter 2001


My Newest 'Guilty Pleasure': Laurell K. Hamilton

What's a girl to do? One weekend, I was at the local big bookstore, tired from being bogged down in my critical theory preparing for my preliminary exams (in January, thank you for asking) wanting to read something fun, something that I couldn't put down, something that would have me wrapped in an imaginary world where I felt as though I knew the people in the book intimately-- I could just drop in to our favorite bar and have a little chat with them, even. (Of course, I'd have to bring my crucifix to visit many of Hamilton's bar-goers, as you'll see later, but I can do that). Well, you know how amazon.com has those "we recommend" lists, based on what you've bought in the past? They kept recommending Laurell K. Hamilton's books to me, swearing with their predicted "five star rating" that I would love them. The reviews on the cover promised "an 'R rated' Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "romantic thrills, erotic chills, and the sexiest vampire in the business." Whew! Erotic? Sexy? What a far cry from Jaques Derrida-- I was sold. So I gave in, bought the first of the series, Guilty Pleasures, and found that the recommended list compilers were right-- I do love them.

The Anita Blake vampire hunter series, so far ten strong, features a scrappy private-eye type who raises zombies for a living (no pun intended), slays bad vampires (who are a recognized minority group in the world Anita inhabits), can't resist a smart-aleky comment that will get her in big trouble (even when tied to a wall and being intimidated by big-bad wererats), and eventually falls in love with two of her sworn enemies-- the monsters-- a vampire and a werewolf. She's a member of the "regional preternatural investigation team" (RPIT) and gets called in by the police every time there is a crime involving her specialty-- in which she has a college degree, no less. The books are listed in the horror genre, so if a pretty graphic description of a crime scene gets to you-- well, read it anyway, it's not gratuitous stuff like some horror writers, and it's even-handed, pushing us just to the line we don't want to cross and then stopping. Blake as narrator describes the crime scenes, but she, like us, doesn't like what she sees, wants so badly to stop it from happening that she risks her life again and again to solve the crimes with the police (and sometimes without them).

In my favorites in the series so far, Bloody Bones and The Killing Dance, Hamilton shows off her own knowledge (which is quite extensive and quite accurate) of fairy lore, vampire tradition and folk lore-- and when she wonders if "werewolves dream of shapeshifting sheep" she also shows an insider's knowledge of sci-fi, which makes the insider laugh and feel part of an exclusive and cool club. (If you don't get the reference, you should read more sci-fi!) Some of this lore makes its way into the others in the series, too; it's good to see someone writing fantasy/fairy tale that isn't just for the kiddies.

You might wonder, is Blake a feminist? It's not heavy-handed, but occasionally there is a comment that reminds you how tough it would be to be a small, beautiful, empowered woman in a "man's world" of crime-solving, vampire-slaying & zombie-raising. In one of the early books, Blake wonders why another woman cop's fear bothers her: "Because she and I were the only women here, and we had to be better than the men. Braver, quicker, whatever. It was a rule for playing with the big boys" (The Laughing Corpse, 116). In another, when encountering a cranky female cop in charge of a crime scene:

Her tone was gentle but disapproving. I understood the tone. We were the only two women at the crime scene, which meant we were playing with the big boys. You had to be tougher than the men, stronger, better, or they held it against you. Or they treated you like a girl. I was betting Sergeant Freemont hadn't gotten sick. She wouldn't have allowed it. (Bloody Bones, 46).

Blake doesn't come right out and say it, but she knows that the trail-blazing women in any field have to be twice as good as any man-- unfair? yes. True? definitely. Does she wear her belief that "girls can do it too" on her shoulder? Not completely, but it's there... in her attitude, in her belief that she can do almost anything, and in her refusal to let those who would see her as a little girl treat her like a fainting flower. (Even when she does feel a little woozy). Blake stands up to be an equal with her powerful friends and enemies, and when she can't be an equal, she tries for better-than. The only part of the books that occasionally bugs me is that Blake seems to encounter a male-chauvinist, egotistical and stupid cop on every other crime scene, a "Bubba" who won't let her do her job, one that calls her "little lady" or says "are you really the Executioner? You look smaller than I thought you'd be." I want to think that the world isn't really like that, that the cops/good guys don't act that way-- (but am sneakily suspicious that this is a realistic depiction).

The "erotic" part of the Anita Blake stories isn't too strong-- I'd give them a PG 13 rating, because now and then the vampire allure, love/hate attraction does get the best of Anita, and Hamilton describes the love scenes with a smooth hand, letting us know when we've been kissed, and how we feel about it. She certainly understands the attraction/repulsion that is so much a part of vampire lore. But I'm also reading (on tape in my car on my long commute) another of Hamilton's series, a new one about a fairy princess detective, Merry Gentry, called A Kiss of Shadows. So far, since the lead character eventually finds out her major magical power is in healing through sex, there's a lot of erotic description in this one. I find myself blushing and laughing in surprise now and then-- but I still don't want to stop listening when the drive is over. This one's definitely a little more than PG 13-- maybe PG 40? It's still a great story, but if you get too embarrassed, stick with the Anita Blake series. On the other hand, since I believe fairly strongly that women should take charge of their own sexuality, that if we let the guys define erotic for us we're still in their ballgame, I want to see more women who are writing other-than-romance books exploring a grown-woman's love life. Since a lot of books about women protagonists seem completely absent of this aspect of their lives, you would think that no one ever falls in love, or lust, in the world. To imagine this part of a woman's life is potentially as liberating as a good bra-burning, and if we women can get over this squeamishness, perhaps we can have a little fun, and stop feeling "guilty" about these pleasures. If you like a little well-imagined romance, with a good story line wrapped around the love scenes, give this series a try too.

Hamilton's books are definitely a guilty pleasure, with a tiny element of women's erotica in them-- but they also feature hard-edged, tough heroines who use what they've got to get the job done. I am utterly and hopelessly addicted . . . and I encourage you to be so too. These books are great bubble bath, candles lit, glass of red wine reading fare. Don't let your work load keep you from having a time-out now and then. Derrida will never be the same again, once you've taken a break from him to look into the world of Anita Blake, vampire hunter.


Biography

Laurell K. Hamilton is the author of two New York Times Best Seller series that mix mystery, fantasy, magic, horror and romance. Her 10 Vampire Hunter novels from Ace books, featuring necromancer and crime investigator Anita Blake, began with Guilty Pleasures and continues with the just-published Narcissus In Chains, in which Anita's complex personal and professional relationships with a master vampire and an alpha werewolf continue to evolve. Her new series from Ballantine is about Fey princess, Merry Gentry, who is also a private investigator and began with last year's Kiss of Shadows. The second book in the series, Caress of Twilight, will be published in April 2002. Ms. Hamilton lives in St. Louis County Missouri with her husband, daughter, three pug dogs and an ever-fluctuating number of fish. She invites you to visit her website at www.laurellkhamilton.org.

 

 

Photo copyright: Loretta Allen,
used with permission


The interview:

Q: My review talks a bit about Anita Blake's understated feminism, the way she knows she has to tougher than the men or they'll treat her like a little girl. Do you consciously work the feminism in, or is it just a natural evolution of Blake as a woman in a man's world or do you try to avoid too much of it? How do you feel about feminism yourself? Especially since your bio lists you as a full time mom, a group that earlier feminist were wrong-headedly negative about.

A: No, I don't purposely work feminism in for Anita. I just have her react as I would, as I've had too in male dominated arenas. Anita's experiences reflect experiences I have had.
I am listed as a full time mother. I have yet to see a single male author's bio list him as full time father. I'm not so much a feminist, but someone who believes that whether you're male or female that you should be who you are regardless of cultural bias. That means if a man wants to stay at home, take care of the kids, be a full time father and the mother wants to work full time at her chosen profession, then they should be able to.

Q: Okay, I'm also a little blushy about the romance, especially in the Merry Gentry series. I know you write that you want the love-scenes to be believable. Ho do critics/reviewers react to your dealing with "romance" issues in your work? As a way of more explanation, I think that women writers who write about real women's lives and aren't embarrassed about what makes up those lives, and what popular audiences are craving, are forging really strong new, empowering ground, but I also see that there is an attitude about it that it's not as "literary" as some other stuff (one of the Amazon reader reviews said: "It's nothing highbrow by any means, but usually an enjoyable adventure.") Do you feel anxiety about this or is it not at all important to you?

A: I'm not exactly sure how to answer, as I'm not exactly sure what you're asking. If you're asking what I think you are, am I bothered by the reaction to the sexual and romantic aspects of my writing? Most of the time I am not bothered by how people view the sexual or romantic content. I found it interesting with Kiss Of Shadows I would talk to one interviewer and it was treated as a political thriller, the next would be asking about the erotic content. It was like being interviewed about two different books. People who read a book will take away different things from the same book. That is just how readers differ. We each relate our own worldview and personal filters to what we experience.

Q: The website where this interview will appear is about women writers-- what kind of advice, if any, do you have for women who want to write? And how about writing in a genre? Are there pitfalls to avoid, things to do, things you whish you had known "back-when"?

A: I can tell you that being a woman writer and breaking certain rules that it is harder. Mystery editors have told me I could not have gotten away with the level of violence or sex that is in my books. Editors were telling me this when I had three Anita books out. That was seven years ago. I hope things have changed in the mystery field. But for beginning female writers, the more you push the envelope, the harder it is going to be to get in the door. It would not have been acceptable if the series were straight mystery because I was a woman, writing form a first person viewpoint of a woman. But if I were a man I would have gotten away with it.
The level of violence needed for the story is available in horror genres. You go to horror if you need violence. I do not do gratuitous violence. The fact that my books are sometimes labeled romances lets me get by with the sexual content that is needed for the story.
Mixing genres as I do was a mark against me. I had a lot of publishers turn down the Anita series. Many of whom have since expressed their regret on doing so to me.

The biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone who wants to write is just that: write. Set aside time each day and write something, anything. Get into the habit of writing. The what isn't as important as the doing itself.

Q: One of the things that I've noticed after reading Anita Blake's books is that in the TV/movies versions of work like yours (Buffy springs to mind) the fight scenes are so fake--there's never any blood, the heroines or villains are always perfectly pristine, clean and still beautiful after the toughest of battles. In your books, Anita is often really beat up, has to go to the hospital for life-threatening injuries and really is scarred in an obvious ay by her life's work. Did you deliberately go against the "woman character as beautiful always" mode, or is it just realism? And why don't you think the others are more realistic?

A: It is just realism. If you get into fights and they are tough on you, you will get hurt, there is no avoiding it.

I cannot speak as to why other people don't do it that way. But, it's not just the women characters in violent TV or movies that stay pristine, it is the men as well. Angel of the television series by the same name leads a hard life but still looks good no matter what.
But the biggest example to me of whom has no scars from battles, is James Bond. I think it's not female/male issue, but in our culture your main character is supposed to come through unscathed, either physically or mentally. I have talked to too many police officers and combat veterans, to have to have everything perfect at the end in my books, it would be doing all those people who shared their time, memories and experiences with me, a disservice to ignore that aspect.

Q: How do you research the cop/detective scenes, and Anita's knowledge of weapons? You have what seems to me like an insider's touch-- but then again, on the Amazon reviews, someone wrote: "no one in their right mind would carry the Browning High Power these days. Anita should carry something with more capacity and less bulk." So what do you do to get her knowledge to seem right, and do you agree with this reader at all? Should Anita modernize? (As a woman who shoots guns, a little, I know I need something smaller with less kick--I can't shoot my husband's big 9mm Glock at all accurately, so I have a smaller pistol that has less power but that feels comfy and I can get accuracy with--so is this your consideration?) Also, how do you feel about a lot of feminists who think guns are so bad women shouldn't even talk about them? (I get this attitude all the time when I admit I can shoot a gun, like I've suddenly grown horns and a tail.)

A: You can research anything. The first rule is to find some books on it. Choose only books that have a good bibliography in the back so you know you are getting more than one person's expertise. After you've read up so you know better questions to ask, try to find an expert in that field to talk to. That way you don't waste your expert's time with stupid questions. When I first started researching guns for Anita, I had only shot two guns in my entire life. One was a .22 pistol, the other .357 Magnum. I had no trouble with either. But the Magnum always ended up pointing at the sky between shots. Anita would have gotten one shot off and the bad guy would have been on her. I find that strength is not what dictates whether you can shoot a gun of a certain caliber or not. I know a man who broke his wrist shooting a .45 revolver because he tried to strong-arm it. Get a good grip and let the gun do it's job, don't fight with it.

I found the gun world full of a lot of men who felt a petite woman shouldn't shoot at all. The worst comment came from a gun shop owner who said "A woman with a shoulder holster looks like she has three breasts." It took me two years to think of a come back for that. "Does a man wearing a shoulder holster look like he has one breast?"

I chose the Browning because at the time, it was the biggest gun on the market that I could hold comfortably. Remember when I began to research guns and write Anita it was about 1988. There weren't a lot of compact 9 mm on the market then. Yes, I know Anita needs to go gun shopping again now that there are so many compact 9 mm on the market.

Q: One of Anita's concerns as the books move on in the series has been that she is becoming more like "the monsters" and she worries about her own soul. What is it you're trying to explore here? I find this really intriguing, especially since you introduce the vampires and other supernatural creatures as a kind of minority group, like the gay community in "our world" who have "outings" and risk their jobs for admitting to their secret lives--are you trying to compare the two groups? (Editor's note-- after I re-read this question, I realized that it might sound like I was trying to call minority groups "monsters"-- and I really didn't mean that at all, but instead meant that it was something of an evolution on Anita's part to change from not knowing much about the group to learning more and becoming more accepting of the differences... sort of like wondering if in our own world, more exposure to difference makes us understand it better. So this is just a note that the question is a little badly worded-- sorry!)

A: No, it is not meant as a direct parallel to our world.

The fact that Anita worries if she is becoming a monster goes back to police officers and combat veterans and how the experiences change whom you are. Most thirty-year cops do not have anywhere near as high a kill count as Anita does.

In combat you're not necessarily sure if you did kill that person. Was it your bullet or the person's next to you that resulted in that death? Did you ever really see whom you were shooting at? You may not have the opportunity to get close to the enemy, and get to know them as people for the most part.

But Anita does know, she was there. She probably looked them in the eye before she killed them, may even have known them as a person. There has to be a price for that kind of knowledge and Anita is paying it.

Thank you so much for the interview-- I know you're trying to get a new book out, and really appreciate the time



Buy the Anita Blake Books at Amazon.com:

Laughing Corpse Cover Circus of the Damned cover Lunatic Cafe cover Bloody bones cover

Killing dance cover
Burnt Offerings cover Blue Moon cover Obsidian Butterfly cover

narcissus in chains cover

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