Vampire Novelist Laurell K. Hamilton

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Horror/fantasy writer Hamilton has penned the New York Times #1 bestselling Anita Blake series

Urban fantasy, paranormal romance, romantic fantasy. Call it what you will, but the immensely popular genre most recently featured in HBO's True Blood owes everything to Laurell K. Hamilton, who launched her Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter character 15 years ago. Hamilton has since started another series, starring faerie queen Merry Gentry. She talked to TIME about sex in America, acting as therapist for fans, and why she became a Wiccan.

You're best known for your 16-book-and-counting Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series. What sorts of things are you able to do with this newer character Merry Gentry, that you can't with Anita?

I'm getting to explore someone who is totally comfortable with their sexuality. The faerie world doesn't see sex as a problem. She's somebody who has a very different attitude than your typical American. As the series has continued, the idea that we have in this country that sex sells everything, but yet it's bad—that double standard has always puzzled me.

When did you first notice this odd way that America treats sexuality?

I always knew there was an odd attitude in this country, but I didn't realize how odd until I started writing the books and getting interviewed. I had reporters ask me several times, "As a woman writing a female main character, wasn't I bothered by all of the sexual content in my books?" I replied, "If I were a man, writing a male main character, would you have a problem with the sex?" And several of them said no!

Were these old fogey reporters?

No. I was quite shocked. There's this belief that women aren't supposed to be comfortable with, or bold about, their sexuality. I get people standing across from me at my signings, women, in their 20s and 30s, saying they didn't know they were allowed to enjoy sex. And I'm thinking, "What's going on here?"

Do you sometimes find yourself holding de facto therapy sessions for some of your fans at your signings?

Yeah, actually I do. It caught me off guard at first, because some of it is so personal. But they feel like they know me through reading my books, so they'll tell me all sorts of things. I'm sort of getting used to it. One woman told me that she had once stopped in the middle of having sex and made her boyfriend get a condom because in my books, I always write about the importance of protection. And I've had more women than I can count tell me that they've left abusive relationships because my character Anita wouldn't take it. I take great pride in that.

Have you become more aware of how gender operates in our society since writing these novels?

I will say that I'm more aware of how people think gender operates. Because of the way I was raised—by just my grandmother with no men in the house—I wasn't introduced to the idea of standard sex roles and gender biases. It was more important for me growing up to be able to lift that 50-pound bag of rock salt for my grandmother than if I was pretty or had nice-looking nails. One of the things I hope to show through my books is that there's no black and white when it comes to men and women. One woman told me, "I didn't know that women could be dangerous, or that women could protect themselves." When I was growing up, since there weren't any men around, if you couldn't protect yourself, you were just lost.

At a certain point, you started to get criticized for having too much sex in your books. Were you surprised at that?

No, no, no. By that time, I had seen the attitude. What surprised me was the vehemence of it. A sex scene has to justify itself, because you are going to get so much crap about it. You're going to have to defend it again and again and again. Fair or not, that's just true in this country.

You went to a Christian college. Are you still religious despite writing about the darker side of things?

I'm still very religious, but I've changed religions. When I first started out in college, I was Christian, and I became Episcopalian, which is still one of my favorite flavors of Christianity. But currently I'm Wiccan. One of its biggest tenets is, Do as thou wilt, but harm none. And that applies to yourself as well. So every choice you make, all day long, every day, goes through that filter. But there's no intrinsic guilt in this religion. Since everything is sacred, you don't have to feel ashamed about your body or what you're doing with it, as long as you're harming no one. You don't have to feel guilty, or apologize, for being human.

Do you have big Halloween plans?

My daughter is still young enough that she trick-or-treats. But it's also a very sacred holiday for my religion. It's the last day of the year. If you're Wiccan, this is like the day before New Year's. But, while my daughter is young enough, we do the candy and everything.