In a rare Regency Ballroom setting for the Writer’s track Sunday afternoon, writers and fans thrilled to the charms of the “first ladies of the fang.” Charlaine Harris, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro were together for the first time this year at Dragon*Con thanks to Harris’s debut appearance at the convention. Under the guidance of moderating writer Eugie Foster, the authors discussed their individual contributions to vampire fiction as well as current trends.
Foster introduced the panel by asking what about vampires were appealing to the writers. Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse Southern vampire novels, the basis for the HBO series True Blood, responded first. She “wanted to write about non-humans.” She noted that there were advantages and disadvantages to being human. While non-human vampires were stronger and possibly immortal, she included a “system of checks and balances” or the vampires would be too “overwhelming.”
Kenyon, of Dark Hunter fame, blamed her mother, a “huge horror fan.” Growing up, Kenyon recalled that she “thought vampires were part of the family.” Her belief was so strong that she left her bedroom window open at night for the vamps to visit.
Yarbro stated that she pushed her character so far “to recognize [that] a literary vampire worked.” “I’m still doing it,” she said. A World Horror Association Grand Master and the International Horror Guild Living Legend, Yarbro is the author of the longest running single-author, vampire series in the English language. She is currently on Book 24 of her Saint-Germain series of historical horror novels.
Harris initially drew “a blank” to Foster’s query about her possible intentional deviation from religious or folkloric vampire tropes. Kenyon quickly jumped in the breach. “I did not want to do traditional vampires,” she said. Her vampires only live for 27 years, but want to live longer. And they can do it, but only if they “take blood and souls.” She recalled doing a newspaper article on Halloween legends in a prior job. She realized that in Greek myth, no one picked on Apollo, the god not only of the sun, but of plagues. “That’s how I picked one,” she concluded.
Yarbro noted that vampire folklore appears in human records as early as 35 thousand years ago. Vampires “survived death, but were totally dependent on the living to continue to be in the state as we define as writers.”
“What bigger issue” is there than “the interface between life and death?” she asked. You can take it “almost anywhere, do anything with it.”
“Do fans ever accuse you of not getting it right?” Foster asked the panel. Harris admitted that she does get messages from fans that she’s not getting her own characters right. Without apology, she asserted, “This is the kingdom of Charlaine. [It may be a] small kingdom, [but] my word is law; my justice is absolute.”
Kenyon nodded her head. “I’m accused of getting the Greek gods wrong,” she said, not to mention “Atlantean.”
“Between books 30 years apart, I don’t remember,” Yarbro admitted, referring to fan comments about occasional inconsistencies in her books. She uses the response of H. L. Mencken, the late, great American literary figure: “Dear Sir or Madam, You may be right.”
Foster next herded the authors toward an examination of their female characters. Was it intentional that the women were strong and often rescue the vampires? Harris said, “yes.” Noting the checks and balances she built into her Sookieverse, she made her vampires vulnerable to the day and silver. “Sooner or later, they have to get rescued.” Harris did “not want them to rescue her protagonist; she wanted her to rescue them.” Sookie is “tough enough and gullible enough . . . to rescue a vampire from death” and not stake them. Sookie sees vamps as “interesting. She sees the humanity in them.”
Kenyon’s father was a drill sergeant. “He was the compassionate parent,” she said. She watched the movie Brides of Dracula with her tough, horror-fan mother. “The women were very powerful,” she recalled.
Yarbro said that her character Olivia would “take on anyone, on anyone’s terms.” She has a “bee in her bonnet. I tell her to shut up, but I can’t tell my characters what to do,” she lamented.
Responding to Yarbro’s quandary about her querulous characters, Foster asked the writers if they had arguments with their characters. Harris noted that she really has arguments with herself in this vein. “I struggle with what I want to write, what I ought to write, and what the reader will like,” thinking of herself as her reader. Kenyon agreed, saying she loved cell phones. “No one knows you’re talking to yourself,” she quipped.
“Does love or lust make for the better story?” Foster asked. Harris reflected that “both have their place—sometimes in the shower.” To fans’ laughing approval, she added, “they come together, sometimes in the same person.” Kenyon joined in, complaining “you’re getting all the good lines,” to which Yarbro replied, “Yea.”
Foster changed the subject quickly, asking whether place influenced their research, whether it made their work more three-dimensional and vivid. Kenyon reminisced that she used to give vampire tours in New Orleans. “If you’re going to do something spooky, New Orleans is the place to do it.” She found Savannah to run a close second, but revealed that the Big Easy is “really in my soul.”
Yarbro talked about the many hours of research in creating the milieu of her stories. The hardest bits were “what they wore at home, what they ate for breakfast.”
Harris confessed to taking Northern Louisiana because Anne Rice and Kenyon had already claimed the Southern part of the state. “There’s a reason for that. Not people,” but she found the region “prosaic.” She noted the small Cajun population and explained that the region was very agricultural. All the same, it was “fun to have someone walk into a bar in North Louisiana” and meet “a vampire named Bill.”
Foster extended the Big Question, “What is your favorite vampire of all time?”
“Mine,” Yarbro said without pausing.
“Ash,” Kenyon voted.
And Harris added, “Pam.” She mused about the work of Barbara Hambly, Those Who Hunt the Night and Traveling with the Dead. To the classic list, Kenyon supplied Lestat and Nosferatu. Yarbro cited Theodore Sturgeon’s book on a man psychologically inclined to be a vampire, based on a real case.
Foster asserted that authors read as much as they write and asked the panelists what they preferred: “scary and sexy” or “stronger romance or darker?” Harris recollected the Mary J. Davidson vampires and one “Betsy” book of a vampire wanting to spend Thanksgiving with her family, even though she was already dead. The book ended with the “stepmom in the blender.”
Kenyon confirmed Harris’s selections and appended Stephen King, especially Salem’s Lot. She characterized Dracula as a “comfort book” and remembered being scared of Constantine. Kenyon also voted for The Diamond by Mercedes Lackey, noting to fan attention that there was a new fourth book coming out.
Yarbro added the classic Carmella, claiming bragging rights over her ownership of a first edition. Harris said that she would be “remiss in not adding Nancy Collins” and Yarbro included Tanith Lee and Suzy Charles.
“Did the authors experience any backlash for their work?” Foster asked. Harris admitted that she had expected some, but had not gotten it. Her small town was “happy that I made it big, but ignored how I got there.” Kenyon admitted “a little bit” from preachers in her family who “wondered how [she] went wrong.” Yarbro shook her head. “I was always a weird kid,” she said.
The authors also addressed trends such as the success of the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Harris said, “she hit her target audience, . . . [the] jackpot. I’m proud of any woman who succeeds.” Yarbro agreed: “she deserves our support.” Kenyon recalled that in the early days, she couldn’t see this coming. “Vamp was a four-letter word.”
The panel ended with audience questions and a recap of the authors’ current projects.