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On the warm, moonless night before Halloween, 65 people huddle around a campfire at Eureka's Wild Canid Survival and Research Center in the middle of the woods. Deeper in the darkness, wolves prowl and a horned owl hoots overhead. It is a night for telling scary stories, and few people in America are better at it than the petite woman standing in front of the fire.
She is Laurell K. Hamilton, and for the past fifteen years she has enthralled her readers with tales of vampires, werewolves, zombies — and one very tough woman who works to keep them all in line.
"Can you give us a hint about the book you're working on now?" one woman asks.
Hamilton laughs. Sparks from the fire illuminate her curly brown hair and glint off her reading glasses. "I'm not very good at giving
hints," she says. She pauses and her audience leans forward expectantly.
"Well," she says finally, "the new book is called Skin Trade and it begins with Anita getting a severed head on her desk. I can't decide if it comes through the postal service or FedEx. Can you send body parts through FedEx in this country? Anyway, it's an invitation to Vegas."
Anita, of course, is Anita Blake, the St. Louis-based vampire hunter who is the star of 16 of Hamilton's 26 books and an old friend to most of the crowd here tonight.
"Did you go to Vegas?" someone else asks.
"I made four trips," Hamilton says. "I have to make one more, to see the stuff tourists don't usually see, like the police station and the morgue. Did you notice I don't put morgues into my books much?" The crowd hums an affirmation. "I don't like going to the morgue," Hamilton continues. "I don't like dead bodies."
This is an interesting confession from a writer whose characters have amassed the largest body count in literature, outside of war novels.
"Did you know that librarians have a new way of classifying your books?" asks another young woman, a library student.
"I know some shelve them in horror," Hamilton replies, "and some in science fiction. I go by what's on the spine, which is 'New York Times bestseller.'"
Hamilton, 45, has in fact written ten New York Times bestsellers. There are more than 6 million copies of the books in her Anita Blake series in print. Her latest book, Swallowing Darkness, came out earlier this month and is part of her other best-selling series about Merry Gentry, an American fairy princess. Preorders have already made it one of Amazon's 30 top-selling titles.
Hamilton clips a book light to a copy of Swallowing Darkness and begins to read in a soft voice. For the next hour and a half, the wolf sanctuary is quiet, save for the fire's crackle and the wind rustling through the trees. Finally, there are groans of disappointment, when, after reading nearly 50 pages, Hamilton snaps the book shut.
Although she didn't realize it at the time, Laurell K. Hamilton had her first inkling of future success as a sophomore at Marion College (now Indiana Wesleyan University) in Indiana. That was the year she was expelled from the creative-writing program for being a "corrupting influence" on her fellow students.
She was accepted to the program as a freshman on the basis of two stories: one about vampires, and another in the style of horror master H. P. Lovecraft. All went well the first year. "But in the second year, the instructor and I started to butt heads," Hamilton recounts. "She declared that all genre was trash. She wanted us to write straight fiction. I refused."
By the middle of the semester, half the class had abandoned literary fiction for mysteries, Westerns and romances. "They were doing genre," Hamilton says proudly, "because I wouldn't bow down."
Hamilton tried to argue that literature and genre weren't necessarily incompatible. Weren't C.S. Lewis' Narnia books fantasies, and couldn't A Christmas Carol and Hamlet be classified as ghost stories?
"But then," says Hamilton, "I pushed for Moby Dick as a monster movie. She sliced me, diced me and spread me on toast. She told me I would never succeed. She crushed me."
Chastened, Hamilton switched to biology, but continued to write. "It worked out," she says. "Now I realize she didn't try to crush me because she thought I wouldn't succeed, but because she thought I would." She grins. "I've corrupted millions."
Last summer Blood Noir, the sixteenth book in Hamilton's Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. There are Anita comic books and plans for a movie or a TV series. And there are thousands of fan websites, including an Anita Wikipedia and a legion of role-playing games.
The Merry Gentry series isn't doing so shabbily, either. The initial print run of Swallowing Darkness was 200,000 copies, and there are a half-million paperback copies of the first book, A Kiss of Shadows, in print. "My agent says she's never heard of anyone having two best-selling series before," Hamilton says. "I'm it."
Success has led to a punishing writing schedule: one new Anita book every spring and one new Merry in the fall. And as the two series have progressed, the books keep getting longer, routinely weighing in at 1,000 manuscript pages.
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