The Arkansas Literary Festival's unofficial headliner this year, Charlaine Harris, is by some metric she recalls in conversation with a reporter, the 11th-best-selling writer in the United States. Without having a faint clue who the 10 ahead of her are, it's still safe to say they're all lugging bigger egos than the author of the Sookie Stackhouse books, among dozens of others. The pride of little Magnolia, Ark., by way of Tunica, Miss., Harris writes books not considered particularly taxing reading even by the standards of the soap-horror genre that she dominates, and makes no bones that she writes for a decidedly popular audience.
To illustrate: She recently attended an awards gala in New York at which PFLAG, the advocacy group for lesbians and gays, recognized her with a Straight for Equality award in literature, a first for the organization. And she had this to say about it: "I felt pretty good that they call it 'literature.' "
What you cannot call her, even though you'll be tempted, is a writer of vampire novels, because as Harris — oh, what the hell are we saying — as Charlaine will tell you, she does not write vampire novels. As anyone who has watched HBO's "True Blood," the series now approaching its fourth season based on Charlaine's Southern Vampire Mystery series, Sookie is a human woman who merely falls for a vampire. More precisely, Sookie is a telepathic human woman who's intrigued by these supernatural creatures whose minds she can't read. "She's drawn to them," Charlaine says, "even though it's not a good idea to hang around creatures who want to eat you."
Perhaps Sookie's adventures are not vampire novels per se, but we may as well note that novels that prominently feature vampires — colloquially known, because of the scarcity of the creatures outside of said literature, as "vampire novels" — are anomalies of horror fiction, in that they seem dominated by the fair sex. Women write them (cf. Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, Laurell K. Hamilton, their lesser imitators), star in them ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and buy them by the coffinload. When it's suggested to Charlaine that Sookie's situation probably resonates with any young woman intrigued by mysterious older men who are sufficiently mature that she cannot see immediately through them, Charlaine says, "It's that idea taken to the nth degree." As in, older by 140 years.
The nerve she touched (vein she tapped?) has been epic, with global sales of 25 million books — 20 million of those in the Sookie series — translated across 30-something languages. Gothic Southern horror and mystery transcends borders. "About 12 years ago, I got the idea for writing the first Sookie," Harris said. "It took my agent two years to sell it. It got turned down several times, and in very unflattering terms." Lucky for Ace Books, a Penguin imprint, that it saw the book's potential (and that of the subsequent 10 in the series, all with "dead" in their titles). "You can't help but go 'ha, ha!' " she says, but now that Charlaine's an industry, she feels the pressure of supporting livelihoods other than her own. These days an awful lot of New Yorkers depend on big things out of Magnolia.
That her books transcend the small town where she writes them, or the small town where she sets them (Sookie's own Bon Temps, La.) harkens to the reason she began writing in the first place. When you're from a place as poor and isolated as Tunica — which has boomed since Charlaine's childhood, to the point that it now has stoplights — stories are the currency of imagination, and writing is a way out in more ways than one. "It helps you escape," Charlaine says, laughing. "There are big pluses to growing up the way I did, but there's also the fact that if you're a thinking person and a reading person you do come to the conclusion that you're living in a bygone era as far as the rest of the world goes."
To a child with small-town naivete, even the mundane seems foreign. Adultery? That was something that happened only on soap operas. "It was inconceivable to me that people could be so dishonorable," she says. "It still gives me the jim-jams to think about it." Homosexuality? It seemed exotic, until she saw people covering up their true lives by dating people just to hide their identities. "They were trying to conform to a norm they shouldn't ever have to conform to," Charlaine says, and if you're picking up on a vampire parallel, you win free garlic sauce. "Even though I'm a religious person, I just couldn't believe that's what God wanted."
You could chalk up Charlaine's success to her canny choice of genre, or to sheer prodigious output, or to a decidedly big-tent prose style. What you simply cannot ignore, in wondering how the daughter of a Mississippi farmer once counted nine of her books on New York Times bestseller lists at the same time, is how brilliantly she has sublimated the moral conundrums of modern rural America into guilty-pleasure pop culture. There are plenty of Sookies out there — good Christian girls stuck in dead-end towns and dead-end jobs wishing they could meet someone undead. Give Charlaine this: She knew her audience, then she went for the jugular.