Writing the paranormal can truly be an adventure—mostly from the interesting reactions you get when you tell people what you do. Research is research, the skill of putting prose on the page is pretty standard from genre to genre…but there’s something about writing the paranormal that often makes people wonder what’s really going on with you. It’s part of what I love about what I do.
The funniest response I get whenever I do a book-signing or an event is, invariably someone will look at what I write and then look at me, then a confused expression will overtake their face. Then they’ll say, “You don’t look like someone who writes this kinda stuff. Wow. Who knew? Like…you look normal, Ms. Banks.”
Somewhere, embedded inside this awkward exchange, I know there’s a sincere compliment. My response is always a big hug and laughter—not at the person, but at how impressions dictate a narrative we all conjure up in our minds. When I ask them what they thought I would look like, they usually tell me, “Scary. Moody. Kinda like your characters.” Again, another compliment, because that means I’ve been able to get the reader to walk down the dark corridors of my mind with me, holding a flashlight with their heart racing. Very cool.
But in this line of work, writing dark fantasy, I cannot even begin to tell you some of the wild things that have truly happened. You can’t make this stuff up.
I’ve had some people get really upset just looking at my book covers—which are pretty mild. The titles I think put one lady off. I was at a mass book-signing at a library with about thirty other authors, and she saw my titles, inquired what I wrote, and as soon as I said, “Vamp—” (never got the full word out of my mouth), she tossed the bookmark back on my table and literally freaked out. Shrieking, she told me that she didn’t read that kind of stuff. Then made the sign of the crucifix over her heart and backed away from my table. Jonathan Maberry, the other author who was with me very calmly said, “Guess it wouldn’t have been advisable to tell her I write about zombies.” Did I mention I love Jonathan’s awesome dry wit? It’s times like those that it’s good to have another friendly face who writes “the stuff” you do sitting beside you.
Another time I was at a local college doing an event and got cornered by a very authentically vampire-ish looking young man who just happened to have a copy of the Satanic Bible with him. He said he admired my work and then asked me if I could detail a ritual I had mentioned in passing in one of my novels. You see, he needed the full details of the spell for very personal reasons that he could not disclose.
Yeah, I’d researched it but the actual details were too deep to put in my story—so I skimmed the edges of it in prose and left out the really hard core stuff, like names of entities that scared the hell out of me. In fact, I’d only read part of it with one eye squinted and made up the rest just so I could sleep at night. Sidebar: I know enough to know that I don’t know everything, so I respect everything and play with nothing, and don’t put anything that looks dangerous in print. I’m not the one to go pull out a Ouija Board and say, “Hey let’s play.” Aw hell to the no. Not me. I have seen every B-movie on said subject ever made, and those people have issues or problems later with their real estate. In this housing market I’d have to go round-for-round and pound for pound with a demon—so hey. I respect the boundary of fiction and whatever else might be out there.
That’s a “Leslie credo.” A girl has gotta have limits. Besides, like I said, I’m the biggest chicken around. I kept trying to tell the kid that, “Yo, I don’t mess around and I’m a scaredy-cat.” Apparently my explanation wasn’t credible, because even though I looked like a soccer mom, he swore I knew the Ultimate Darkness—to which I kept saying, “No, son, you’ve got the wrong chick.” He thought my disguise of having middle age spread, needing a dye touch-up and a manicure was “my disguise,” maybe?
Anyway, sadly, he seemed genuinely disappointed, because he had his pen ready, poised over a small black flip pad and waiting on my knowledge of dark rituals to spill forth. But when I kept deflecting the question with the truth, he then finally drew his own conclusion that, “Yeah, Ms. Banks, I understand. Can’t be giving all your power secrets away.” I wished him well and didn’t dare mention that I was really praying for him as he left my table. He might have taken that heartfelt gesture the wrong way since it was coming from the other side. (Smile.)
Those are the extremes. Most people land in the middle, like me. I’m sure that for as many people who’ve asked me, “You write that stuff?” there are readers who get the proverbial, “You read that stuff?” We’re in the same club, because the next thing out of the curious observer’s mouth is, “But you so don’t look like the type, ya know?”
I’m still trying to figure out what my type is supposed to look like—as a reader or writer of the dark and fantastic. All I know is as a kid there wasn’t such a big line of demarcation. All of my cousins and I watched Creature Double Feature. Everybody I knew ran home to catch Dark Shadows, and it was a testimony of bravery to stay up on the weekend watching The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. So the fact that the macabre found its way into my literary aesthetic should be of no surprise, even though the older ladies in the family brought over a container of holy water and anointing oil—just in case.
Believe me, I didn’t balk, either. See…when you write this stuff, there are times at three o’clock in the morning when you’re really focused on a scene…I’ve learned I can scare the livin’ daylights out of myself. This is what I tell folks who ask me, “How can you write that stuff?” Seriously. I explain that I’m probably the biggest baby you’d ever want to know—I’m that girl who would run, bump into something, and fall when the monster came. I’m the one who’d do something stupid like walk into a vampire ambush because I thought the guy was fine or ask, “Honey what’s wrong?” when my boyfriend started a werewolf transformation. I admit I’m a little slow. Maybe that’s because I always wanna believe in the very best in people.
That said, I do have urban instincts. A werewolf has a better chance of getting me than a mugger, just sayin’.
But the night I was working on a novel and my then black lab was sleeping at the top of the steps down the hall. Unbeknownst to me, in a Philly summer heat wave, the kids had put her out of the air-conditioned bedroom. She’d been begging for their movie night popcorn and being a general pest, so they’d banished her. My poor baby was waiting on any bedroom door to open, and she could hear me up working away at no o’clock in the morning. Being a fiscally responsible, go-green mom, the lights in the hall were out. House rule is, if you’re not in a specific room or section of the house then the lights are out wherever you aren’t.
So, around about the bewitching hour of three-thirty AM, I go to refresh my coffee. I’d nailed a scene. I had gooseflesh going up my arms. All I needed to do was to walk it off, and go get some coffee. The adrenaline was still flowing through me along with my Muse.
Bleary-eyed, I opened my office door in the back bedroom of the third floor…let me add—in a very old Victorian Philadelphia home that owns creaks and moans and floorboards and an attic. (Perfect scary movie location.)
The light from my office became the only illumination in a very long dark corridor when I opened my office door. My black lab, hearing me and feeling the air conditioner breeze, leaped up. The light hit her eyes and turned them glowing gold. My eyesight, by the way, on a good day is near legally blind. All I saw was this huge wolf-like entity charging me.
For a split second, all I could think of was MY KIDS! They had to get out of the house! All the old ladies in my family were right! My keyboard wasn’t holy water sealed and reading all the dark research had—just like in the movies—conjured something up in MY HOUSE!
The scream I released rent the entire house. What was left of my coffee flung on the rug and wall and my mug flew out of my hand. My family came out of bedrooms with weaponry in hand (a baseball bat); kids were screaming because I was screaming. My poor lab skidded to a halt and puddled on the floor, thinking she’d done something wrong. Everyone breathlessly asked me, “Oh, my God, Mom—what’s the matter?!” My poor traumatized dog lowered her head and was trembling.
Gasping and disoriented for a second, I had to admit the fact that, “I was writing that stuff and the dog scared me.”
There was a long moment of silence as my family cast accusatory glares. No one said a word. They all just turned and went back into bedrooms shutting the doors very hard behind them. Only my loyal baby girl stayed behind as I knelt on the floor and hugged her neck. She licked my face and I didn’t even care that she’d left a puddle. That was my fault for going so far into the story that I forgot to pull all of my mind back out of it when I got up to go get coffee. Writing that stuff, the paranormal or dark fantasy, does have its heart-pounding moments. Can cause adventure. And, truth be told, I realized that night that…yeah…okay…maybe those of us who write it may be a little left of center, even if we do look like soccer moms. (BIG SMILE!)
The dog and I looked at each other and I told her, “Some house protector you are—but your secret’s safe with me as long as you don’t rat me out.” Black labs are loyal. She never told a living soul. Besides, who was I to cast aspersion on her when I can’t even pull off the paranormal author persona of being dark and mysterious?
My loyal best friend followed me into the kitchen to get much needed paper towels for both of our spills. I gave her a treat and she wagged her tail and waited for me to get more java. Now that’s a paranormal writer’s friend. For the trouble, she got to hang out in my office with me and sleep at my feet under the AC. Some, like the young man with the vampire-thing happening, might have thought she was my familiar—but the fact is, she looked much more ominous than she really was, just like my writing is much more ominous than I’ll ever be. Again, perception is reality, which in and of itself can be a fun fantasy. I guess it’s all good and all about perception. Just saying.
New York Times and USA Today Best-selling author, L.A. Banks has penned over 40 novels and 12 novellas in a wide range of genres and is the recipient of the 2009 Romantic Times Booklover’s Convention Career Achievement Award for Paranormal Fiction and the 2008 Essence Magazine Storyteller of the Year Award, as well as the 2008 Best 50 Women in Business Award for the State of Pennsylvania.