Before there was Twilight, there was The Vampire Diaries.
L.J. (Lisa Jane) Smith’s first teen vampire romance novel came out more than 20 years ago. She wrote four books for the series by 1992, before calling it quits for nearly a decade to help take care of family business.
When Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight hit the shelves, Smith got a call that The Vampire Diaries books were mysteriously back on the bestseller list. So, she wrote three more books for the series and was set to write another trilogy when Alloy Entertainment Inc. and HarperTeen hired a ghost writer to finish the series with shorter books that fit the new The Vampire Diaries TV series better. The Secret Circle, another series by Smith, was also passed to a new author for the same reason.
Now, Smith warns aspiring writers to be wary of the words “work for hire,” which she says helped “mutilate her child limb by limb and destroy it.” Salt Lake magazine sat down with Smith, who has 20 plus books published, to get her thoughts on losing the series, her thoughts on the fans and what she's doing right now.
Let's start with the origin of The Vampire Diaries.
"I'm no longer writing them, but when I originally signed the contract, I had written two hardback books, which came out to good reviews and no sales because they had the ugliest covers of any book I've seen in my life. I was teaching public school, a kindergarten class with a lot of special ed kids, and I had these two books behind me when I got a phone call from a book packager. I didn't know what a book packager was, but they asked if I would like to write a vampire trilogy, and that became The Vampire Diaries. I guess one of their editors had read one of the books I had written, which were slightly scary, and thought I could do a trilogy for them with romance, supernatural elements and maybe even a little humor in it."
But you're not writing them anymore, why not?
"When they sent the contract, it said it was a work for hire. What it meant was I was giving up basically all the rights I'd have as a normal writer, including the right to continue writing my books. And Alloy Entertainment decided they wanted shorter books that were promoting the television series, and they simply informed me, even though I had already written a book called Phantom for them and given them all the information for that book and the next book, Moonsong, that my services were no longer required."
Today the shelves are filled with supernatural romance. Was it like that back when The Vampire Diaries started?
"When I wrote my books, back in the '90s, supernatural was in, but not supernatural romance. It was primarily frightening stories, and I was always a bit frustrated because even though my books were always bestsellers, they were always number two. Ahead of them were books by Christopher Pike, who wrote straight up supernatural stories for boys and girls, so he had double the audience I had, which was mostly girls."
Second or not, you obviously rubbed off on today's YA authors.
"There are a lot of parallels pointed out by fans between the Twilight books and The Vampire Diaries. I haven't read those books, but I've been told the love triangle aspect is similar and the idea of what I call the soulmate principle. It's imprinting in those books."
That's right, Jacob the werewolf imprints on Bella's baby in the last book.
"That can happen with the soulmate principle, too! You can meet your soulmate at any age."
You mentioned that you haven't read Twilight, but are there any YA books you do read?
"I read the YA books that I enjoyed when I was younger—classic books like David Copperfield, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But honestly, I don't read a lot of fiction. I read a lot of non-fiction to do research for my own books and that takes up a lot of time. And I have a huge interest in science, so I read a lot of science. I don't even read my own books after I've written them."
But some fans have read them over and over and over. Do fans sometimes know the story better than you?
"Oh yes. They say things like 'In this book, the librarian is this person, and then you said it was this person.' I could have a whole encyclopedia of disconsistencies that fans have pointed out."
You must have a lot of grown-up fans now. How many of your fans would you say are older than 25?
“I’d say 25 percent of the fans I interact with. Since a lot of my books came out in the 1990s, that means I have fans from then, who either pick up the books for their kids or just remember the books from when they were young and read them again. It’s nice to hear people say ‘Now I can share it with my daughter.’”
Ever been surprised to find out someone was your fan?
“I’ve been surprised to actually find men over 30, really business-type men, who read the books. It always comes as a shock, because my dad worked as an engineer, and now he’s an entrepreneur, and he’s never read one of my books.”
With a quarter of your fans adult, why not get into adult fiction?
“That’s what I’m hoping for with a book I just finished writing called The Last Lullaby. Even though it’s about younger people, it’s a very serious book. So I’m not sure if it will be packaged as YA or adult, but I would prefer adult.”
The Last Lullaby? Tell us about it.
"It's not about vampires or witches or anything like that. It's a stand alone book, and the working title is The Last Lullaby. It is much more serious and it doesn't have romance in it—it's just a good post-apocalyptic book about two girls of very different backgrounds who end up leading a revolution against the evil masters of the world, who happen to be dragons at the time. I'm actually feeling really good, because I never would have been able to do that book if I had gone on just doing vampire books."
You're moving with the market. Post-apocalyptic is in now.
"I didn't know that at all when I did this, because it began as part of the one book that I promised forever to my fans but still have not finished—the last book of the Nightworld series, Strange Fate. The Last Lullaby started out part of that. It started off as dreams the main character would have about what would happen if she failed her mission, but it took up so much space in my head that it became its own book."
I read online that you listen to music when you write.
"I really fell in love with the music by Avril Lavigne in the Alice in Wonderland movie. That would be an example of something I would listen to very loudly. And that also includes all the music of John Williams. I'm sort of a fanatic over him, so I might be listening to The Empire Strikes Back or Jaws when I'm writing. I also love plays, so the other day I was listening to Into the Woods, and I also love new age music and I listen to very quiet mantra music. So it's all kinds. I love Unwritten by Natasha Beddingfield."
Any messages for the fans?
"I adore them and thank them so much for their support, especially during the travails of The Secret Circle and The Vampire Diaries series being taken from me. I really appreciate the support of the fans, because that's my goal, to get through to them and it seems that if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be writing and wouldn't have anyone to write for."