Interview with L.J. Smith part deux

Two years ago when this blog was a tiny 20 hits per day machine I got the okay to interview L.J. Smith. I had recently found and fell in love with her Vampire Diaries series and was eager to make my mark on the book blogging scene. I credit that interview with L.J. as being one of the things that gave my blog a push in the right direction.

When I learned that L.J. had been fired from the TVD series I was heartbroken for her. After years of reading interviews, blog posts, and the books themselves it was clear to me that she loved writing this series. I asked her just a few questions about her feelings on this whole debacle, I really don’t want/need the books to be closer to the show. The only reason I DVR that hot mess is for Ian Somerhalder.

Pam:Did you know when you signed on that having the series taken away from you could be a possibility?

Lisa: Good Lord, no! I signed on over twenty years ago, in 1990, just to do a sort of upscale trilogy about vampires. Normally, back then, a book packager put together “bargain” books, using “bargain” authors and a huge amount of editing. But even before I got The Phone Call That Changed My Life, Alloy had decided that this was going to be a chic trilogy. I remember that at first Elise D.—the editor that called me to ask me to write it, saying she’d read my first two fantasy books and thought I’d be great for the job—was saying that they were going to do “special photographs” for the cover.

But once I’d actually written The Awakening, the first book in the trilogy, everybody went nuts. “Harper is dancing in the streets,” Elise D. told me gleefully. I got a call from a woman at HarperTeen who thought the manuscript had come in as a submission and was dying to buy it—and to know what happened after Stefan disappeared and Elena went out to confront Damon. And on the cover the book packager put no photograph, but an expensive drawing.

The only problem with the lovely cover was my name. If you ever get a first edition, you’ll see that it’s so small it can barely be read. Hot book, no credit to the author. That was the when I began to realize what was in store.

Well, that was the old days. After doing Vampire Diaries I did Secret Circle for what’s now Alloy (with the same kind of contract—not because I was naïve anymore but because the head of the company actually laughed at my agent when she asked for more money in advance. He wrote…”These spooky books must be getting to you,” as in “giving you delusions as to what a book by L. J. Smith was worth” and that hurt me so much). I’d written the first three books for either $2,500 or $3,500 advances—plus all the rights I was giving away, but he laughed when I asked for more.

And then I did one more book with them—for readers. While I was writing that trilogy I had so many readers write begging me to bring Elena back to life that I did, and made it a quaterlogy or whatever. Trilogy plus one. So that was very convenient, when the vampire craze began again in the 2000’s and Alloy packaged the books: two in one omnibus and two in another. And the craze? It was different from the 1980s-1990s supernatural craze because 1) It focuses on romance and 2) it is much more centered on vampires. But suddenly The Vampire Diaries were back on the bestseller list. I hadn’t even known Alloy had rereleased them.

But I wanted to write more of them. Alloy wanted me to write more. The thing was, I was no longer a cowering mouse. I’d had the grand doyen of children’s book agents, the late Marilyn Marlow, for many, many years, while I wrote The Forbidden Game, Dark Visions (which recently debuted as a Number 1 New York Times Bestseller) and the first nine books of the Night World series.

So, I had a different kind of contract when I wrote three more Vampire Diaries books, although it didn’t change the “work for hire” idea that had been set in stone when I had signed my original contracts. (“Work for hire” means the author doesn’t get most of the important rights she would if she were just writing the book for a regular publisher. It means, for me, that Alloy owns the books.)

When I wrote the “TVD The Return” books, I did it my way, because I write everything my way. I do enough research for a nonfiction book in the beginning, and get my characters so clear that they become independent people, and then I just write about them, chronicling their adventures. This is really true. I can’t write properly if I am aware of writing. I have to see it in front of me, feel it inside me. (That’s why I spent ten years with writer’s block at the height of my career, while my family dealt with cancer. I could research, but I couldn’t see the characters. If I could have written I certainly would.)

As for the new book I wrote, Nightfall, Shadow Souls, and Midnight, they were all huge bestsellers. (Even though the first Nightfall was the worst book I’ve ever written. Maybe I was rusty.) Good or bad, the recently released Midnight debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list, on the Washington Post list (up against adult books) and on the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller’s list. And then I just in the last few days got a snail mail letter from the president and CEO of HarperCollins, congratulating me on the success of Midnight, and on all having the Vampire Diaries books made into a TV show, and saying that he was looking forward to the next installment of The Vampire Diares: The Hunters. Now I have to write back to him—somehow. He clearly doesn’t know that I won’t be writing The Hunters.

So, no, I never imagined that while I wanted and was eager to write these books the carpet could be yanked out beneath me. I did agree that someday, after I’d written my fill of Vampire Diaries, if vampires were still in fashion, a ghostwriter could continue the series. But of course I assumed I’d be able write the endgame. Damon would end up with one of the girls, Stefan would end up with Elena or die . . . I don’t know what would have happened. But I wanted–desperately–to write TVD: The Hunters. I picked that name for the next trilogy and I picked the names for the books. I picked Phantom (and I duly wrote a book called Phantom, but no one will ever see it).

Of course I assumed I wouldn’t be writing Vampire Diaries for the rest of my life. I have many other stories in my head, flying in a holding pattern. But I also assumed I’d be the one to cry “Nay, enough!” (hey—Shakespeare)! I assumed they’d want a bestselling writer for . . . eternity.

Here’s the way a book is normally published. The author writes it, an editor makes suggestions, the author takes some and leaves some, and the book goes to print. But when I sent in Phantom instead of edits, I got a letter addressed twice the ghostwriter by name, that was about eight pages long, single spaced, telling her how to completely rewrite the book. I’m still in shock. Voodoo had been added. Tyler Smallwood’s cousin had been added as a major character. Things had been added that, to me, didn’t make sense. It looked a lot as if a bunch of editors had worked simultaneously on it.

And no matter how I begged and offered to do the book their way, Alloy wanted the ghostwriter (whom I happen to know, and know why she was free for the job, but I won’t release that information right now.)

Pam:Outside of being fired, has there been a larger effort to disaffiliate you and the series?

Lisa: I feel that it has, but maybe that’s just because HarperTeen sided so vehemently with Alloy, scaring my agent, so that she told me she was not going to represent me in this matter anymore. I was, very literally, alone surrounded by unfriends.

If, as Alloy stated to the Hollywood Reporter, they are doing this to get the books closer to the show, I can’t imagine how they would do it. Get Elena to dye her hair? Kill off her little sister Margaret and introduce a new brother Jeremy? Change Mrs. Flower’s into Bonnie’s grannie? Kill Meredith, forget her newly introduced part-vampire blood, and her whole-hearted hunter-slayer dedication? Forget where the plot has been and never let Elena go back to the Dark Dimensions?

I do have a strange, strong feeling that despite Alloy wanting my name on the cover of the books, they don’t want me around. Which would make sense, given that the books have become a worldwide commodity.

When I get email from Albania and Brazil and Canada and Denmark and England and Finland (not so sure about that one so I’ll skip the cutesy abc thing) and Israel and Qatar and India and Turkey, and Panama and Belgium, and Mexico and Australia, and Russia and Italy and New Zealand, and you get the idea. I’ve been begging my agent for a year to find out how many languages The Vampire Diaries has been translated into, or at least how many countries it has sold to, some in English (like India because of all the different dialects in different areas) but she never has gotten the info for me.

Pam: Will all the future books be in your name but ghost written?

Lisa: Not in my name. “Created by” my name, with the “created by” written pretty small. I’m having déjà vu from the first edition of the Vampire Diaries and how infinitesimal my name was on the cover.

Pam: Tell us how to support you now? What books are not affiliated with a company?

Lisa: Everything but Secret Circle and Vampire Diaries is just published by a regular publisher. This means the three-omnibus Night World series for vampire lovers who also like witches, soulmates, werewolves, etc,; Dark Visions, for a different variety of vampire; and The Forbidden Game for people who like a scary, soulful guy who has been raised in a world of complete evil but who falls in love with the only sunlight he ever saw as a child: who has become a teenager now, called Jenny Thornton.

Pam: What is the single biggest misconception in all of this? What is your response to it?

Lisa: That I am or would be, in any shape, size, philosophy, or form ever willing to give up before I had finished The Vampire Diaries endgame. Before the romantic endgame. And here I may have to define a couple of words, Vampire Diaries style. What I wanted was to set the characters into their final romantic positions—that’s all. Alloy could have done books after that; I was willing to see “The Blood-Craving, Spine-Crunching, Yet Strangely Sensual Wednesday that Damon Had Last Week Fighting A Sea Monster” on the shelves after Damon had either 1) left without taking any of the contestants or a forwarding address; 2) knelt before Bonnie and said, “You were the human I met first in this godforsaken town. You were the first girl I kissed here. I know how badly I’ve treated you. Can you ever forgive me?”; or fought with Elena and ending up kissing her madly in mid-argument and whispering, “Run away with me. Now. On this wind. This moment. Make me the happiest dead person alive; or Stefan would be wed to Elena in the Dark Dimension as thousands of Black Magic corks are popped, and a free hospital is opened as freedom fighters worked in tunnels below; or Stefan would die nobly and Elena live a life of pure and single blessedness in his memory; or whatever . . . but it would be my channeling of the spirits, my choice, not that of a ghostwriter who hardly knows the series.

And my reaction to people getting angry at me for “leaving” the series: well, think of someone taking a wee on your grandmother’s (the nicest one’s)—or if you’re old enough, your mother’s—gravesite. And then think of the whole world as you know it doing it. Think about how that would hurt in your mind, in your soul; and you’ll have an idea of how my left pinky feels. You don’t want to get me talking about how my soul feels. It feels . . . trashed. Mutilated. Worse than its felt in a long, long, long time, Like being raped in a lonely stairwell by a guy with a knife and then being blamed for it by the Supreme Court. (And, yes, I have a referent for all but the “Supreme” court. Not me, but someone in my immediate family.

Pam: Is there anything you want to say to fans?

Lisa: Just that I want to write The Vampire Diaries. I ache all over to do them. But I’ve run out of Plans. I don’t know how to make Harper and Alloy want me, not just my name. And I still love all my fans even though they’re going to buy the ghostwritten books, even if they say they won’t. I understand. Thank you for listening to me. Thank you!

Lisa ♥

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