From the Twilight of Vampires to President Obama: EXPO Exclusive Interview with L.A. Banks
Leslie “L.A.” Banks is an unstoppable literary force.
The New York Times bestselling author has written over thirty-five novels and twelve novellas in the genres of paranormal thriller, romance, crime, non-fiction, and women’s fiction. Her books have been published by Simon and Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, Kensington Publishing, BET/Arabesque, Genesis Press (MS), Parker Publishing, Harper, and Tor Books.
Leslie’s twelve-novel series, The Vampire Huntress Legends, garnered her worldwide recognition and a devoted legion of fans. In 2008, she won the Essence Literary Award for Storyteller of The Year, and launched her second series of paranormal thrillers, The Crimson Moon Novels.
On March 8th, Leslie had the honor of introducing President Barack Obama at Philadelphia’s nationally-recognized Arcadia University, shortly before the passing of the new Health Care Bill.
A beloved daughter of her native town, Philadelphia, PA, Leslie continues to produce works that profile heroes and heroines of color, and has just sold a new series of novels to Pocket Books.
EXPO Editor-in-chief Keisha Parks travelled to The City of Brotherly Love to interview the gracious L.A. Banks, and opted to avoid all cheesesteak joints by any means necessary.
You graduated from The University of Pennsylvania Wharton, and your first career was in corporate marketing and as a marketing consultant.
Why did you choose that field right out of college?
L.A.: My parents were typical of many, many working/middle class African-American families of that era. They told me to go into a job after graduating that would have medical and dental, and that would allow me to pay off my monstrous student loans, LOL… and ya know what, it was good advice!
How did your marketing expertise prepare you for a career as a novelist?
L.A.: Who knew that writing the book was the easiest part of the whole “job” of being a novelist? Seriously. A lot of people think they can just write the book and then the publisher is going to do all of this sexy marketing. Neva happen.
You’ve gotta go guerrilla marketing, hustle, really develop a following on your own, otherwise you’ll just be a one or two book wonder. So, my advice to all new authors is, learn how to promote your work.
Tell me about your first writing job. Was it a pleasant or daunting experience?
L.A.: My first writing job wasn’t daunting at all. It was a lark—something I did on the spur of the moment.
There was an essay contest for 10 pages/$2,500 in Essence Magazine. I was like… “Drama? They want mad-drama? Oh… hell yeah, I got drama!” LOL! I was broke, going through a divorce, all sorts of madness happening in my life, so I sat down to pen the short story—which bloomed into a novel. That was the first book I sold.
When I got picked up by Kensington/Arabesque I was giddy. Then they wanted a second book? OMG! I knocked that one out and I don’t think it occurred to me till maybe the third book that maybe I should ask them for some money (ha ha ha!) I was just so happy to get published that I didn’t haggle, didn’t negotiate, didn’t have an agent, didn’t know SQUAT… just wrote, breathlessly, loving every second of doing it.
Early in your career as a novelist, you wrote books based on the popular Showtime series Soul Food. What’s it like writing fiction based on a property from film and television? Did you have any contact with Soul Food creator George Tillman, Jr?
L.A.: Oh… I wish… maaaan. No. You’re pretty isolated when you write for existing properties. Basically they sent me a show bible, about 40 show tapes—which I had to sign for and return, and then all the contact was solely with the editor, alas. But the task is daunting—and that was a tough project, because you already have characters that have been established. Those characters have a following already… and you cannot presume to deviate from their established on-screen behaviors or 1. You’ll catch flak, and 2. Will really infringe on the originator’s vision.
So, like I said, there’s a LOT of responsibility there. Still, it was thrilling to have the honor of doing that work and it felt good that they trusted me enough to allow me to tackle the job. I threw everything I could at it to try to get it right.
Over six years and twelve novels ago, you began the saga of The Vampire Huntress Legends, with heroine Damali Richards.
For the uninitiated, what’s the basic story behind the popular series?
L.A.: That series, of everything I’ve written to date, is my baby. This is the classic story of good against evil—where the Light prevails. Essentially it’s about a young woman called to a destiny she never asked for, and who is surrounded by a rag-tag family of Guardians she never wanted in her life. But these people come together, grow together, and finally gel into a vampire hunting lethal weapon. Meanwhile, the one thing that can trip her up, her old boyfriend, accidentally gets bitten… then it’s a race against time to save him from the dark side while also keeping the dark side from getting its claws into her.
What inspired the creation of Damali, and why take on the heavily-mined genre of vampires?
L.A.: The series began before Twilight and the plethora of vampire tales you see out now—early on the highway wasn’t so crowded. But the one thing that still hasn’t changed is the fact that we rarely see kick-ass heroines of color in the equations. Nor do we see black vampires, werewolves, or sexy male slayers in leading roles. I wanted to add some diversity to the landscape. But the story also features Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, Europeans, Caucasians… people of all ethnic backgrounds and faiths.
I really wanted to showcase the human family on the side of good as well as evil, to try to eradicate some of the intolerance we see in the world. At the end of the day, we’re all just people, and these fun tales should include all of us.
Now that you’ve reached the end of the Vampire Huntress Legends journey with The Thirteenth, and congratulations on that, what was the most important thing or two you learned about being a writer along the way?
L.A.: Trust your gut and research is king. The research powered the story to epic levels and trusting that I was on the right path kept my vision focused while pulling this story through twelve books and roughly 4,800 pages.
Going off-topic for a minute, you recently got a chance to introduce the President. I can’t imagine how that must have felt. What did you take away from the experience?
L.A.: Oh… My… God! LOL! I took away from the experience that the White House really does read its mail in this administration (Could’ve bowled me over with a feather!) But I got a chance backstage to briefly chat with him and look him in the eyes—the man is the genuine article as far as I’m concerned. He’s authentic, charismatic, and the man “gets it.” I really believe he understands the plight of the common man and woman… he grew up with the same challenges as many of us, and there is a sincerity about him that makes you want to jump in and do your part.
How important was the passing of this health bill to you?
L.A.: It was CRITICAL… a matter of principle. I fall into that category of people who won’t be helped until 2014, but that doesn’t matter. To me, it is a Christian value to be your brother and sister’s keeper… that we have to care what happens to the least among us. I am blessed that I don’t have a child with a pre-existing condition—but I know there is someone out there who does. I am not old enough to fall into the Medicare donut hole… but someone’s Momma, Daddy, grandmother or grandfather is. So, yeah, it matters to me that we are the wealthiest nation on the planet, but rank like 18th in infant mortality and a bunch of other measures that make NO SENSE. See… I could write an entire essay on this, so let me get off my soapbox here by simply saying… it’s not ok to have 45,000 people die annually that didn’t have to. That’s passive genocide.
Now that we’ve spoken about a real hero, let’s discuss an iconic fictional villain. You wrote the novel Scarface: The Beginning based on the fictional Cuban crimelord Tony Montana, immortalized in film by director Brain DePalma and actor Al Pacino.
Did you feel a lot of pressure, considering the popularity of the film? How much creative freedom did you have, or did your editor hit you with a lot of guidelines?
L.A.: THIS was a labor of love because the editor let me run free. He only said that I had to make it circa 1978, just before the immigration of Tony, but that I could figure out his life and why he was the way he was by any means necessary. I even got to explain how he got his scar! It was an awesome project!
But, sadly, this one never got marketed as heavily as it should have. They sorta’ dropped it in a couple of suburban big chain stores—nowhere near where the hip-hop urban community could find it, and the project never took off. I’m hoping that one day it’ll have an afterlife. The reasoning I was given still sticks in my craw… they told me that market doesn’t read—but then how do you explain street fiction’s explosion? (Shaking my head. They did lousy marketing, then blamed the reader for not knowing where to find the book. What can I tell ya?)
Tell us about the Crimson Moon series, and why you decided to start another multi-novel saga after wrapping up The Vampire Huntress Legends. Also, in writing about werewolves and vampires, did you build on popular mythic rules or create your own rules?
L.A.: Ah… for this, just like in the Vampire Huntress Legends series, I used a combination. I had to stick with the old myths, just my own personal preference, because readers have a frame of reference from the werewolf flicks. Therefore I have really huge, scary werewolves—but in my story, they’re crazy like that because they’re demon-infected. The cool, suave, sexy ones are Shadow Wolves, and based on Native American lore about the noble wolf. Those are the ones that are the protectors of humans. So there’s a war going on in the underworld between good and bad wolves, along with vampires and the Fae.
I did it because after wrapping up an epic saga, it was too much fun not to be had. After you’ve literally been “bitten” by the paranormal genre, it’s hard to put it down.
What are some significant differences between Damali Richards from The VHL and Sasha Trudeau from Crimson Moon?
L.A.: They are really different women. Sasha is military trained (and genetically engineered to be a Shadow Wolf.) When we first meet Sasha, she’s disciplined, is a Lieutenant, and has experience in love and life. Damali’s entry on the scene is a “sister from the streets with attitude.” She’s in-training, doesn’t want the job of being the Millennium Neteru, and fights with her destiny, whereas Sasha embraces it, once she learns what she is. But make no mistake, both heroines are kick-ass in their own way and were extremely fun to write.
Looking at the popularity of vampires with the Twilight films and HBO’s True Blood, I have to ask if you’re getting offers to adapt The Vampire Huntress Legends into film or television.
L.A.: Yes But all I can tell you is it’s been optioned. Keep your fingers crossed!
You are one of the most prolific authors I’ve ever come across. It’s dizzying to look at your body of work in romance, horror, action, and so on. What disciplines make it possible for you to have such a consistent output of material?
L.A.: I guess this is gonna sound corny but, I really, really, really love what I do. I’m a geek at heart—I love to research things and figure stuff out, and read all kinds of obscure research facts… I love science and political world news, and thrive on that stuff. So, once I have a story in my head, I run with it.
I think my past life, which was deadline-driven corporate America, made it very easy for me to sit down and focus. I had to do that before for things I really didn’t “feel like” dealing with. Now, to do it for a career I love… whew… doesn’t seem too much like work, honestly.
Most of your work has the presence of a strong Black woman as the lead. Is that you coming from the school of “write what you know”, or do you feel that as a Black woman, if you don’t get those characters out there few other writers will?
L.A.: I think it’s a combination of both issues, really. I definitely believe in “write what you know” so that the authenticity of the character rings through him/her. But I also feel like there hasn’t been enough attention to our beautiful Sisters of all hues, from the fairest almond-hued ones to the most gorgeous ebony-hued. They have a story, too. If no one deems to tell it, their voices will go unheard, and that would be tragic.
I read on Publishers Lunch about the upcoming Fallen Angels series. Congrats again! Don’t imagine you can go into detail, but how about a few enticing tidbits?
L.A.: I CANNOT WAIT to start this book series… think sexy, hunky male angels here on earth and tempted to their wits end. If they stray, it’s all over. Any more than that, if I tell ya, I’ve gotta kill ya, LOL!
If you could cast a movie based on The Vampire Huntress Legends, what actresses and actors do you feel would do Damali, Carlos, Big Mike, Marlene, and Fallon Nuit justice?
L.A.: PLEASE don’t ask me that one, LOL… because that has been a RAGING debate on my website forum for the last 4 years, ha ha ha! If you go to www.vampire-huntress.com, click on the free forum and sign up, LAWDY B, you will see PAGES and PAGES of posts and pics that defy comprehension. For Damali and Carlos it may have to be some fresh new faces… but I can see Angela Bassett as Marlene – BIG SMILE!
You’re a Philadelphia native, and still living there. How does Philly manage to maintain an allure for you? And is the music scene as good as I’ve heard?
L.A.: LOL, Philly is home. I have family in walking distance from my house. That’s how Philly is—people nestle in one section of the city and spread out by a matter of blocks. And, yes, the music and the food is off the chain J Actually, I love Philly, too, because of location. It sits between NYC and DC, the beach is an hour away and so are the mountains.
There’s a huge cultural draw, plays, concerts, nightlife, but it’s not so congested… Philly is neighborly and warm, like a big down South to me – but without losing that east coast urban sensibility.
In closing, do you plan on maintaining the four names under which you write forever, or is the time coming in which you’ll do all work under one name? Tell the truth, you’re trying to shatter the Amazon database, aren’t you?
L.A.: (Laughing!) I’m slowly evolving to just going under LA Banks for everything. I think my romance readers know by now that Leslie Esdaile (romance writer) is also LA Banks… and many of them have come to read my paranormal fiction, and can trust that within it they are destined to get a very strong (and HOT) love story that won’t disappoint. We had a bunch of names early on so that my readers who knew me under the romance moniker didn’t accidentally pick up a paranormal tale and get disappointed. But I think its time now (smile)… everything is consolidating and the market is much more savvy now.
My thanks to Leslie for taking the time to give EXPO some love.
You can follow her latest news and personal blog at www.leslieesdailebanks.com