Charlaine Harris, Southern Gothic Grandmaster

a woman in glasses stands next to a bookshelf
Charlaine Harris

By Samuel X. Cicci ’15

From a reader’s perspective, it must seem that the pen of Charlaine Harris ‘73 flies across the page at lightning speed when she’s formulating a new story. The No.1 New York Times bestselling author has been on a streak since releasing her first novel in 1981, publishing a new book almost every year for the last several decades. The Rhodes College alumna has found great success with her works—notably with The Southern Vampire Mysteries that HBO adapted into the hit True Blood series—and is currently planning to release All the Dead Shall Weep, the fifth entry in her current Gunnie Rose series, this coming September. But despite producing a vast body of work, Harris, 71, still has plenty of ideas to commit to the page.

“I’m working on a sixth Gunnie Rose novel,” says Harris. “And if the ideas keep coming, I’m going to keep on writing. And, since I was a kid, I’ve always been able to come up with ideas.” 

Harris grew up in Tunica, Mississippi, about an hour south of Memphis, and counted fellow future Rhodes alumnus Clint Bailey ’73 as one of her best friends. Living in an area that she calls “really out in the country,” she was able to let her imagination wander, and from an early age started envisioning stories in her head. “I always knew I was going to be a writer. I just started out writing things that people didn’t necessarily want to read,” she laughs. “But at eight or nine, that’s all right. That’s the way it’s going to be until you have more life experience to inform your writing.”

Looking for a change of scenery, Harris left the Mid-South for college but decided she wanted to remain closer to her family. Familiar with Rhodes (at the time called Southwestern at Memphis), she decided to attend and pursue a degree in English and Communication Arts. “After a year, everything clicked,” recalls Harris. “I knew why I was there: I wanted to learn, and to hone my craft.” She worked closely with Communication Arts chair Ray Hill and Professor Beatrice White in the English department and spent plenty of time writing stories and even scripted several one-act plays that were performed by her fellow students. But she spent much of her time reflecting on what type of writer she wanted to be.

“You have to examine yourself and see what you have in you,” she says. “At Rhodes, I was able to do that and try different things out. And what I had in me was genre writing. That was what I wanted to do, that’s what entertains me, and that's what entertains a lot of other people. I didn’t think I had a great American novel in me, whatever that might mean, and I focused on genre writing.”

Her early writing career focused on two mystery novel series following the exploits of Aurora Teagarden (also turned into a series of movies for the Hallmark channel) and Lily Bard. Harris looks back especially fondly on the Lily Bard (Shakespeare) series, calling it a cathartic experience for her. “That really served my purposes at the time,” she says. “And it allowed me to incorporate new things into my work; I’d taken karate for six years, for example, and was able to use that in my writing. It wasn’t my biggest money maker, but it was a story I thought was really important to tell.”

But after reading several early works by Laurell K. Hamilton, it all clicked for Harris. “There was this explosion in my brain,” she says, “where I wanted to cross mystery and action with science fiction and fantasy, and that led to the creation of Sookie Stackhouse and the Southern Vampire Mysteries.” Since then, her prolific output has garnered Harris plenty of writing accolades, the title of grandmaster from the Mystery Writers of America, and even an honorary doctorate from Rhodes College. 

Harris maintains a strong connection to Rhodes, having previously served on the college’s board of trustees, and continues to support the college. And after All the Dead Shall Weep releases, the next stop may just be in Memphis for her class reunion. “I mention the school whenever I can,” she says. “I want people to know that it produces writers. It produced me, and it’s produced many others, so I do my best to boost it and hope that it has some effect.”

For aspiring writers going through their own rigorous paces in the college’s fiction and nonfiction workshops, Harris says to keep working, and that rejection is a natural part of the process. “It’s a competitive industry right now, especially with many publishers being bought by the same couple of mega publishers, so there are fewer places to submit your book now.” And persistence and dedication, as much as anything else, are key. “You can come up with lots of great ideas, but you have to sit down and finish the book. You can’t just keep writing good openers; following it through to the end is the hard part.”

And for more than four decades of writing, Harris has always been able to push through to the end. After Gunnie Rose concludes, it would be foolish to bet against her creative mind conjuring up another successful series. But what shape those stories might take, she isn’t revealing just yet. And that’s just fine for Harris, who embraces the journey and the process. 

“I generally know what’s going to happen in the book, but I don’t always know the ending. So I just write, and write, and write, because nothing is really the ending until you see that last line. And when you see it, you know that’s the best time to stop.”