SuperSpeak: An Interview with Laurell K. Hamilton

We are overjoyed to welcome NYT bestselling author Laurell K. Hamilton to Searching for SuperWomen today! She is the author of the hugely successful Merry Gentry series as well as the long-running Anita Blake series, and she is widely recognized as being one of the founders of present urban fantasy. We’re huge fans of both her series here, and we could not be happier to have her here with us today! 

laurell k hamilton, merry gentry, author, urban fantasy, anita blake

Photo credit: Ma Petite Enterprises, 2013.

Searching for SuperWomen: We are so happy to have you here with us — your books have been incredibly influential in the urban fantasy world. Did you know when you started writing Anita’s series (and later Merry’s) how much their characters would resonate with people?

Laurell K. Hamilton: I was more concerned with telling the best stories I could, and entertaining myself. I find that if the writer isn’t enjoying, or being enlightened, by what they’re writing then the writing suffers. Honestly, when people began to tell me how important the books and characters were to their everyday lives, I was amazed and a little overwhelmed. I wrote stories about vampires, zombies, and ghouls, oh my! I really didn’t think about cultural relevance, or that my fiction could have such an impact on the real world.

SfSW: We absolutely agree — writing is best when the writer is engaged, and I think that’s one of the huge reasons people connected so much with your stories. The latest book in the Merry Gentry series, A SHIVER OF LIGHT, arrived this month. Merry in many ways defies conventional gender expectations, both in her Hands of Power that are quite brutal and regarding her sexuality. While society has become somewhat more accepting of women who are proud of exercising their sexuality, what role do you think fiction plays in shifting cultural expectations?

LKH: You’re the first person who’s questioned that Merry’s hands of power go against gender expectations. I find that interesting in itself, since your message is equality. Equality means that women get to be brutal, if that’s what and who they are, and honestly I don’t think of Merry’s hands of power as brutal, so much as violent. Brutal to me is beating someone to death with a blunt instrument, violent is using a knife. Maybe that goes back to playing Dungeons & Dragon back in the day when a cleric couldn’t use an edged weapon, but beating someone silly with a hammer was dandy? I’ve actually only had a handful of people question the violence done by my female main characters, but their active sex life – that has been a lightning rod for controversy, hatred, and slut-shaming of epic proportions. I’ve had the interesting experience of being called a whore to my face for what I write, or having to defend my character’s morals to people who get their books signed, and then tear into me.

What role does fiction play in expanding real life culture? A lot more than I thought, before I wrote about Merry Gentry and her men. I’ve lost count of the number of women who tell me that they didn’t know a woman could enjoy sex, until they read my books. Or the number of women who are angry at me, because sex is never that good in real life, and only their friends who were with them at the signings, assuring them that no, really sex really was that. The women who get angry about the sex not being realistic are always wearing wedding rings. It leaves me wanting to say something about taking control of your body, your sexuality, and your pleasure, and demanding that your partner invest in mutual pleasure, but unless asked point blank, I don’t. I am not a therapist, I am a writer, but because of what I write it’s let me see that many women are still struggling and it has confirmed that me writing about strong women who own their sexuality and their relationships is important and much more needed than I dreamed when I first set down to write about a fairy princess turned private detective.

(Editor’s note: We worded our question in a way that lacked clarity, and we’d like to affirm that our intention was to assert that Merry as a character is refreshing for many reasons. She is able to balance her quest for motherhood with a life that includes a lot of danger and violence. She can celebrate her sexuality and still view sex as a way to procreate. We’ve always felt that as such, Merry is a phenomenal example of how women don’t have to be just one thing, and we apologize for not wording our question in a way that reflected that.)

SfSW: You bring up a very familiar point with the backlash you’ve received over Merry’s sexuality. As saddening as it is to hear that you still have to deal with so much rancor from people in that respect, we certainly feel that Merry and Anita both are helping people understand that we can all be sexual beings and that however we express that is a vital aspect of  human nature.

Switching gears a bit, we’ve heard you are proficient with firearms. What’s your favorite handgun?

LKH: Currently my favorite handgun is my Sig Sauer P238 which will be Anita Blake’s new hide gun in the next book.

SfSW: Do you practice any martial arts?

LKH: I did Judo in college and that is still the martial art that I enjoyed the most, but I’ve tried tae-kwon-do, Aikido, Kempo, jujitsu, and Kali (a type of Filipino martial arts). I’m doing MMA currently, though taking a hiatus from it to work on the current book and get ready for tour. But to answer the question I’ve been getting, no I have no intention of competing in MMA. It’s purely for the workout & because I enjoy martial arts, but my injury rate convinced me not to do any serious sparring, let alone competing.

SfSW: To go a bit more traditional geek, what drew you to the fantasy genre and its subsets?

LKH: I’ve loved scary movies since before I could read. At age five I begged to watch the original Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” and got permission if I stayed up by myself with only one light on. Challenge accepted! I made it to the scene where Igor tortures the monster with a torch, then ran for bed and jumped high so the monster under the bed wouldn’t get me. But I didn’t know there were books about such things until I was fourteen, when I discovered the short story collection, “Pigeons from Hell”, by Robert E. Howard. It was a collection of his horror, dark fantasy, and lesser known heroic fantasy pieces. I read those stories and decided from that moment on that not only did I want to be a writer, but I wanted to write this!

I read and enjoy a lot of different writing styles and genres, but my heart was stolen away by horror, fantasy, and science fiction at an early age, and I’ve never recovered. I did read hard-boiled mysteries for the first time in college, but it was after college that another Robert would add the last love of my writing life to the mix, and that was Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series. You can still hear the echo of his dialogue in my own. As Howard was my gateway drug for fantasy, science fiction, and horror, so Parker did the same for mysteries.

SfSW: Because this is how we roll round these parts, what other corners of geekdom draw your attention? Are you a gamer? Comic book lover? Secretly prolific hacker? (Cough. You don’t have to answer that last. 😉 )

LKH: I played D&D, before it was Advanced D& D in high school, and then through college and for a few years afterward. In fact, the world that would eventually be in my first novel, Nightseer, was one I created to DM my high school gaming group through, but they frustrated me, by deviating from my script and wanting to explore parts of the world I hadn’t planned out yet. One fellow gamer told me, “Why don’t you just take the world back and write a novel, that’s what you want you do, right?” I agreed, and gave him a challenge of his own to write and sell a gaming module, because his were always amazing. To my knowledge he never did rise to my challenge, but I rose to his, and partially because a guy in my gaming group threw down the gauntlet I wrote, finished and published my first novel. When my then husband took me out to celebrate my first book, our gaming group was who was there to celebrate with us. A different gaming group than the one I had in high school, or college, of course. And no, I don’t game anymore it seems to use the same part of my brain that my writing does, so it just exhausted me, rather than enlivened me.

Comics, I love the artwork, but my husband, Jonathon Green, is the serious comic geek. He helped me understand the art form when my first three Anita Blake novels were turned into graphic novels. He and I even wrote an original short story, and then a prequel graphic novel together. I learned a lot about the differences between novels and graphic novels. It’s not just putting pictures with the words. It really is a different medium. We are currently looking for a new artist to help us do the fourth book in graphic form, and for an original graphic novel down the road.

SfSW: If you had to choose a non-human person to be from any work of fiction, who would you be and why?

LKH: I’ve never really wanted to be anyone but me, so I’m not sure how to answer the question. I’d prefer to be a shapeshifter to a vampire though, because I’d love to know how animals really see the world, and not just guess. That’s probably my biology degree talking.

SfSW: Our goal as a site is to draw attention to women’s voices in geekdom and to challenge aspects of media that we feel propagate sexism and stereotypes. How do you think geek culture has changed in recent years? Do you think it’s more open to diversity?

LKH: I was the only girl in my gaming group in high school for years. I’ve been in and out of martial arts for years, and have a degree in biology, and am about two classes away from a history major that was high in poli-sci, which meant I was often the minority sex in the room at all the above. I didn’t notice that geekdom was any less, or more, a boy’s club until I got to comics and then it was interesting how people who didn’t know us assumed my husband, Jonathon, had to be the power and I was just arm-candy. But the people in charge didn’t discount me, only those men (yes it was men, because there were no women in the room except one artist’s wife) who had less clout than I did. I wasn’t offended; it wasn’t my first rodeo. I figured out a strategy for that male dominated room as I’d learned my way round science, martial arts, and the weight room. I actually enjoyed the other men’s reactions when I turned out to be important and not just “the girl”. They were so at a loss. *Muhahahaha!*

Hmm . . . not sure I actually answered your question. Is geekdom more open to diversity? Yes. Is there a lot more room for improvement? Hell, yes, but that’s true outside of geekdom, too.

SfSW: What do you think consumers can do to show the Powers That Be that diversity is something we value? We’ve all heard of voting with your dollars, but beyond that, how can we make change in a system where gender inequality is institutionalized?

LKH: Is gender inequality institutionalized, or is it just the norm still? There’s a difference, because if it’s just the norm, then that can change. As a consumer I watch and buy things that are more even-handed, but my version of even-handed is that both male and female can be sexualized, or strong, or the hero/heroine (I honestly think of hero as a non-gender term), or villain (again this doesn’t imply male/female to me). I’d like to see both women and men be who and what they are, regardless of if that is more traditionally female, or male. As a consumer, if we’re playing a multi-player game and the other gamers start to bash on players they think are female, we can protest to the company. With the latest horrible events this might be a time when gaming companies would listen to us more when we report threats aimed at women on line.

SfSW: BIG YES to hero being a gender neutral term. *high five* We have been watching a lot of these discussions go public, and certain companies like BioWare are making deliberate decisions to be more inclusive in their game design, both on a creative team level and approaching their games thoughtfully. While change is slow, I think it’s happening. I think in media, specifically the marketing behemoths, sexism and gendered approaches to marketing is very much an institution, but I think that society at large is starting to change that from the bottom up, which gives me hope that the new generations will bring their more progressive views into the higher echelons of those who have a controlling say in what the media puts out into the world.

Final question! What are you most excited about moving forward with Merry’s story? What do you hope readers will take away from her journey?

LKH: I’m most excited about the fans getting to read the next part of Merry’s adventure. They’ve been asking me when I’d write the next part of the story, and now they finally get to know what happens next to Merry, her men, and the new babies. Parenthood maybe the scariest adventure of all.

SFSW: Thank you so much for joining us, Laurell! We are so excited to have you join us, and we can’t wait to see what unfolds for both Anita and Merry — and new worlds we’re sure you’ll bring us!

LKH: Thanks for having me!

Stay tuned, because over the coming weeks, we’ll be reviewing A SHIVER OF LIGHT! You can buy your own copy here, and make sure you also go add it on Goodreads!

Laurell K Hamilton, A Shiver of Light, Merry Gentry, faerie, fairies,