Monday, July 30, 2007

Katie Allen interviews author Kim Harrison

About eight years ago, as fledgling sci fi addicts and social pariahs, my friends and I would occasionally go to Star Wars conventions. We had the requisite levels of geekery to succeed in the quizzes, to know which dressed-up locals had inaccurate costumes, and to argue over who was hotter: Luke or Han? Like Princess Leia, we were probably the only girls in the room.

Since then, things have begun to change. The myriad worlds of sci fi and fantasy flaunt such feisty female heroines as Alien’s Ellen Ripley, Sydney Bristow in Alias and Seline in Underworld. Also, as the massive success of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings proves, elves, wizards and warlocks are no longer trapped inside the nerdy environs of Games Workshop but are out in the mainstream.

Riding high on this sea change in the US is writer Kim Harrison, whose best-selling Rachel Morgan series is currently reaching UK shores with the fifth novel For a Few Demons More. The novels are set in the contemporary US city of Cincinnati (the Hollows), but it is an alternative world, where most of the human population has been wiped out by a bioengineered virus, exposing the communities of vampires, weres, pixies and fairies that have lived beside humanity for centuries. Rachel herself is a white witch and runner, hunting down criminals of all species alongside faithful companion-pixy Jenks and the tortured –‘non-practising’- vampire Ivy.

It is rare for female heroines to emerge in science fiction or fantasy, especially in a genre so dominated by male writers (and readers). So it is all the more refreshing to read about Rachel, a spirited, wise-cracking, leather-clad heroine treading in the same bootsteps as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who’s Martha Jones. ‘I like to think that there’s been a surge in strong female protagonists simply because women are finding it more socially acceptable to think of themselves in that way,’ Kim says. ‘You don’t have to be dainty or mild to be feminine, you can be strong and noisy and be feminine too.’ I ask Harrison if she considers herself a feminist: ‘Ah no. I would say I’m a woman who does what she wants as long as it doesn’t impact others negatively. I expect to be judged on my work, not my sex, and most times I am.’

She adds: ‘It wasn’t important to me that my protagonist be female… I would have been just as comfortable writing from a man’s point of view, but the book’s free-flowing narrative was far more effective written from a woman’s viewpoint.’

Throughout the first five novels we see Rachel transform from inexperienced rookie to skilled witch – yet she remains the same character who can be clumsy, reckless, foolish and unlucky in love – is never perfectly dressed. ‘I don’t know if I could write a superhero.’ Kim explains. ‘They are kind of boring to me after a while. Real people are far more interesting with their flaws… and their acts of courage which are that more courageous, knowing they might not survive. Mistakes are great when you learn from them, and at this rate, Rachel will be absolutely stupendous when she’s done.’

Rachel may not be a superhero, but I cannot help but wonder whether the soul-tainting demon magic she learns to use is an example of the ‘dark side’ or evil id that often challenges those who take on the mantle of ‘white knight’ rescuer or defender in sci fi/fantasy. Kim disagrees. ‘No, not at all. Rachel’s use of demon magic is more a metaphor for something much more common: our ability to use technology to create wonderful, fantastic things without acknowledging that there is a cost that goes along with it. Toxins, pollutions and poisons are all created from the things we use everyday, and they are going somewhere. Rachel can do wonderful, fantastic things with her demon magic, but she, at least, sees the cost.’

The use of metaphor is a handy way for Harrison to bring ‘darker’ themes into her fast-paced adventures, weaving narratives of addiction, restraint, power and despair around the otherwise sexy and glamorous vampire characters. There are also balancing acts of racial conflict and harmony expressed through the Hollows’ uneasy hierarchy of different species.

Harrison’s love of fantasy and SF began with the books she read as a child, and ‘throw in few thick books of fairy tales and I was a happy girl.’ She adds, ‘I hadn’t a clue that what I was doing was preparing myself for a writing career… it wasn’t until years later that I picked up a pen and wrote a very long, very mistake-ridden manuscript. It was really bad but I fell in love with the writing process, and kept working at it until my skill started to approach my enthusiasm.’ Her literary influences were SF fantasy writers of the 70s and early 80s, such as McCaffrey, Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Jack L Chalker. One of her main inspirations is music, especially alternative rock such as Nine Inch Nails, Garbage and Evanescence, and her website lists all the songs she attributes to each character.

The idiosyncratic Cincinnati of her Rachel Morgan novels is populated with the supernatural creatures of the ‘Inderland’: witches, the undead, trolls, pixies, fairies and elves, hybridizing ancient myths with very modern elements such as nightclubs, car chases, even a ‘dating guide’ for vampires. The novels are in part police drama, part sci fi, part romance: Harrison describes it as: ‘a conglomeration of things I read while I was growing up, wanting to mix my love of fantasy with the easily identifiable characters in popular culture… the fun came when I twisted them a little to make her world unique, and to me, more understandable.’

It is a mixture that clearly appeals. Kim describes her fan base as ‘very wide’, from ‘military men and women, moms with kids reading at football games, and single guys and gals at school or working their first job.’ Although she agrees that the current popularity of sci fi and fantasy is due to people seeking ‘escapism’, she attributes the success of the Rachel Morgan books to ‘the characters, not the subject... There is likely going to be someone in the Hollows that just about anyone can relate to. I enjoy ‘working’ there, and that joy filters through to the reader. We’re both saying: ‘just one more page’.’

The next novel in the series will be The Outlaw Demon Wails, scheduled to be published in March 2008, with a Hollows novella entitled Holidays are Hell released in November of this year. Kim is already working on book eight, with a rough draft of book seven already completed. Such exciting and visually imaginative books, in my mind, are begging to be filmed, although Kim is cautious about getting too excited. She is definite on one matter though: ‘I do have some daydreams though... involving either Sting or Johnny Depp.’ Don’t we all...

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