By Sam Levin
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At fourteen, inspired by Robert E. Howard's Pigeons from Hell, she wrote her first story. "It was a grisly tale," she remembers. "There was a large family and I slaughtered them all, except for the baby. It crawled into the woods to die. It was torture porn. I showed it to my grandmother and uncle. They weren't horrified. They patted me on the head and let me go on."
It was then she decided to become a writer.
From the beginning, Hamilton took her work seriously. "By the time I was seventeen, I was turning down trips to the beach because I owed myself pages."
"Laurell always wanted to be a commercial success," observes Sharon Shinn, a friend and member of Hamilton's writing group. "She'd rather be successful than win a major award."
In college, despite the creative-writing program debacle, Hamilton began sending out stories. She sold her first in her early twenties, and her first novel, Nightseer, when she was 24. It took more than four years to publish. "I held it in my hands on my 29th birthday," says Hamilton. "It was very cool timing." By then, she had already moved to St. Louis and started writing Guilty Pleasures, the first book in the Anita Blake series.
Nightseer didn't sell well enough for the publisher to buy the sequel, but it made a lifelong Laurell K. Hamilton fan of Jonathon Green, who first read it in 1993 as a senior at Windsor High School in Imperial. "I thought it was a really good fantasy novel," he says now, "and I read a lot of fantasy novels. The characters captivated me."
That year, he met Hamilton for the first time, at a signing at Name That Con, a science-fiction convention in St. Louis. Hamilton was still married to her first husband at the time and considered Green nothing more than a devoted self-described fanboy; they didn't begin dating until 2000, after her divorce.
"In the beginning," she recalls, "only four people came to my signings, Jon and his friend Andrew [Kuhlmann] and Darla [Cook] and her husband, Jack." Green and Cook remain her two biggest fans.
Her other source of support and encouragement in those years was her writing group, the Alternate Historians, which she formed with six other writers soon after moving to St. Louis. The group recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. "It was incredibly valuable as a beginning writer," Hamilton says. "I didn't know what worked. My first book worked, but then I couldn't sell the next two. We'd call each other up at odd hours to talk about writing."
It took "two years and 200 rejections" before Hamilton sold Guilty Pleasures to Penguin Putnam. "Everyone loved it, but no one knew what to do with it," she remembers. "The horror publishers thought I should try to sell it to the science-fiction or fantasy publishers, and the science-fiction publishers thought I should try the mystery publishers. From the moment it came out, it was a slow build, not a blockbuster."
"Publishers don't put a lot of marketing money into a new series," says Martha Kneib, another member of the Alternate Historians. "You have to build a readership. Plenty of good books languish. You catch the tide or you don't."
"The fifth book was when Anita really took off," remembers Cook. "That was three years in. A writer like Stephenie Meyer, who had a bestseller with her first book, is the exception, not the rule."
"The numbers kept on growing," says Susan Allison. "Sales have been enormous. Blood Noir was No. 1 on the New York Times list for four weeks. Her previous three have all been No. 2."
"It used to be I would write a book and no one cared," Hamilton says. "There wasn't a pressing need. Now my publishers are more serious about me getting the book to them. I don't buy into the hype," she adds. "No one is as wonderful as all that."
Hamilton's best-known and best-loved creation remains Anita Blake, the vampire hunter. Anita and Hamilton have been working together for more than twenty years now, although Anita is still only 29.
"Anita came from LA," Hamilton remembers. "It was a very isolated period of my life. My husband had a job. I hadn't yet found one. I knew nobody, felt totally alien. I went to the local library and started reading mysteries, Robert Parker's Spenser series, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky. In all those books, the men got to cuss and shoot and have sex casually. The women would shoot, too, but they always felt really bad about it. They rarely cussed and had sex offstage.
"I thought it was really unfair. I wanted to level the playing field. But I knew writing a mainstream mystery would bore me. So I gave myself a lot of toys so I wouldn't get bored. I looked at the world and wondered: If vampires were all real, if we had to deal with them, what would change?"
In Anita Blake's world, vampires have civil rights, thanks to a Supreme Court case, and have learned to control their bloodlust. Anita's world also has werebeasts — not just werewolves, but wereleopards and weretigers and werefoxes, that transform when the moon is full. Unlike vampires, they are social outcasts unless they manage to keep their identities secret.
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