Like most avid readers, Charlaine Harris says she often has her own picture of what a character looks like, one that seldom matches up with what she later sees on the screen.
That dilemma becomes all the more complicated when the viewer also happens to be the character's creator. Unlike, say, Bram Stoker, who managed to die before his Dracula was brought to life by Max Schreck, contemporary authors are more likely to find their works in the hands of others, sometimes for better, often for worse.
So when Harris's most popular character the telepathic, vampire-ridden Louisiana waitress Sookie Stackhouse was optioned for an HBO series, neither the author nor her fans were entirely sure what to expect.
"The Aurora Teagarden series was optioned for a while, but nothing ever came of it," says Harris of her even longer-running series about a mystery-solving librarian. "You know, almost everybody gets an option sooner or later, but almost nothing ever comes of it!"
So how does True Blood measure up in the eyes of its birth-parent?
The congenial Harris, who shares Sookie's Southern upbringing, has nothing but praise for the actors. Small-town police detective Andy Bellefleur, she says, "looks exactly like Andy it's just weird," while Sam Merlotte, Sookie's boss and part-time were-dog, is very close to the way she imagined him.
But even though Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer are doing "a super job" as Sookie and Bill, her Civil War-surviving first love, the characters are significantly different from Harris' original creations.
"The television Sookie is written more confrontational than my Sookie; she mouths off more than my Sookie does," says Harris with a wistful maternalism. "But I find that kind of interesting and, you know, entertaining too. And the screen Bill is a lot smiley-er than my Bill. He makes a much bigger effort to be pleasant, which makes him very clearly the good guy."
For Harris, having a hit television series and a newly released box set (which collects the seven mass-market paperbacks, which were all concurrently on the New York Times bestsellers list) is a source of excitement and, to some extent, vindication.
"Yes, I was surprised it took so long to sell, because I knew that I had something with it," says Harris of the series' first novel, Dead Until Dark, which was repeatedly turned down and took more than two years to get picked up. "But of course this was 10 years ago, when paranormal or urban fantasy was nowhere. I think now, I'd probably sell it in the snap of a finger."
Anne Rice novels notwithstanding, the appeal of Harris' Southern vampire series both predates and transcends the current popular obsession with bloodsucking romance. Her story-telling is absorbing and addictive, her humor is brilliant, and her characters are as believable as vampires, werewolves and telepaths can be.
Harris even pays homage to Elvis Presley, turning him into a vampire whose drug-addled condition seriously complicated his transition into the realm of the undead. Infuriated whenever his human name is invoked Elvis is now known as Bubba he's monstrous albeit charming, with a low IQ and an unquenchable thirst for cat blood.
"I just had to think of something icky for him to like," says Harris, who nevertheless loves cats. Just not in that way.
Nor is Harris concerned that the Elvis-as-vampire theme has since been picked up by other authors.
"I'm not surprised. I think the evidence that Elvis is a vampire is overwhelming," she says. "Wouldn't that explain everything? You know, the sightings and all. I just think that seems so logical."
While they never get in the way of the humor and horror, Harris admits there are lessons to be learned in her books.
"Definitely, there's a subtext to the books about tolerance," she says. "I think the obvious parallel is between vampires and the gay community. I'm sure that any group that's experienced exclusionism could identify with that."
While Harris insists it's "a mistake to say that fundamentalism equals zealotry and ignorance and bigotry," her vampire-slaying Fellowship of the Sun is all that and more. Has she been taken to task for such depictions?
"I really thought I would get some backlash for it, but no," says Harris. Then again, she adds, "maybe they're just getting ready to burn my house down. Maybe they're being real sneaky and quiet about it!"