They’ve Still Got the Same Job: Charlaine Harris and Ann Cleeves Talk Television Adaptations

Mystery Month 2017“I write books,” Charlaine Harris says.  She does, too: more than 40 in about three decades.  “That’s what I love. But when your books are made into a television series,” she says, “people automatically identify you with the series.”

In 2008, HBO ran the first of 81 episodes of True Blood. Even after the fantasy-horror show completed its run in 2014, people kept approaching Harris as the author of True Blood books. Harris developed a standard response: “’I tell them I didn’t. I wrote the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which were made into the television series True Blood, which is very different. . . But, really, it’s tomato / tomahto to the fans. They’re just trying to be nice.”

Harris, who talked about the business of books-into-television during our interview at the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland, in April, has mixed feelings about TV adaptations. She’s ambivalent, she says, about being “identified with a product that I don’t know how to make—I haven’t the slightest idea how to cast, how to direct, any of that. [It] can be a little frustrating.”

She’s bound to be frustrated again in July, when NBC begins airing another series based on Harris’s books: the supernatural drama Midnight, Texas, where “death is only the beginning.”

“People accuse me of selling out,” Harris says. “What did I sell out? My books are still there. If you want to enjoy the plot elements of my books in a different format, feel free. To people who read, the TV series is just a bonus.”

As for the commercial side of things: “It doesn’t pay badly.  I get so much per episode, but it’s not enough for me to live off. It’s all about the credit at the end: ‘From the novel by Charlaine Harris.’ That’s the payoff.  A celebrity status surely helps book sales. But I’m still the same writer. I’ve still got the same job to do.”

Harris wasn’t the only writer at Malice Domestic who knows what it’s like to see her characters on television. When Ann Cleeves got word that her Vera Stanhope detective novels were going to be televised, the British novelist was sworn to secrecy.

“I bought all the regulars in our local pub a drink, but I couldn’t tell them why,” she says.

The word has been out since 2011, when ITV began the first of the seven seasons of Vera, a show featuring the frumpy, grumpy, overweight, and boozy DCI Vera Stanhope. A second series, BBC’s Shetland, first appeared in 2013.

Cleeves might be used to basking in the celebrity status television adaptations confer, but she “still loves sitting in a room, making stuff up. That’s the fun bit.”

Still, “television makes a big difference,” she says. “I’ve been knocking around for 30 years, and for 20 of them, nobody knew who I was; nobody invited me to anything.” Then came television, “and one big event—the Cheltenham Literature Festival—drew a thousand people. The actors were there, and people were there for the actors.”

While Cleeves has no problem with the high profile that a series brings, she believes it all leads back to that little room where she makes stuff up. Like Harris, she’s happiest when “TV brings people to the books.”



About the Author:

Don Crinklaw is a former university teacher currently working as a reporter for the Tribune Company in Fort Lauderdale. He's written reviews for Booklist, Commonweal, National Review, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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