From Tragedy to Triumph:
New York Times Bestselling Author L.A. Banks
EDITOR’S NOTE: To honor the memory of L.A. Banks, Wild River Review reprises Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with the bestselling author who died on the morning of August 2, 2011 from a rare form of adrenal cancer. Leslie Banks was an extraordinary writer, thinker, mother and friend. Wild River’s interview with Banks celebrated her talent and ability to wed genre writing with literature.
L.A. Banks’s career was born out of tragedy. Years ago, her six-month-old daughter was severely burned, she was going through a divorce, she lost her job when she took time off to be with her daughter, and she was broke. Yet somehow, in the midst of all the grief, she turned to writing – creating page after page of entertainment that kept her girlfriends so entranced they submitted the complete manuscript to publishers without telling her.
L.A. Banks is the New York Times bestselling author of the Vampire Huntress Legend series. She has written using the names: L.A. Banks, Leslie Esdaile, Leslie E. Banks, Leslie Banks, and Leslie Esdaile Banks for major publishers including St. Martin’s Press, Simon and Schuster, Kensington Publishing, BET/Arabesque, Genesis Press, Parker Publishing, Harper, and Tor. This fall she will present the multi-cultural cast of characters from her Vampire Huntress Legend series in a series of graphic novels. A manga prequel to book one in the series also will be released, showing the heroine when she was younger and when she first joined the team.
In addition to the Vampire Huntress series, Banks’s fourth book in her ongoing wolf series (Crimson Moon Novels), is set for release in October 2009. Banks has over 35 novels to her credit, 10 novellas, and numerous short stories in genres such as crime suspense, paranormal, romance, and women’s fiction. Between the tour schedule, writing schedule, on-line social networking/blogging schedules, and answering email, it is more than a full-time job, but Banks is not complaining. She loves her work.
Wild River Review chats with L.A. Banks to get some insight into her work, the psychology behind her characters, and why the universal themes she addresses keep her readers coming back for more.
WRR: You experienced great difficulties at the beginning of your writing career. What lessons have you learned from these experiences, and how have they enabled you to grow?
BANKS: Aside from the many spiritual lessons like “letting go and letting God,” being able to get still and stay in the moment, and holding onto one’s faith that things will work out no matter what – the first “writing” thing I learned was that you never know what creativity is locked inside of you until you try. But the experience of “the process” also taught me lessons about consistently writing every day at the same time of day to build a habit, a writing muscle, you know? I had only certain times that I could write because I had a small child at home who was on a rigorous medication/therapy schedule. Therefore, I had windows of time that I had to use for writing and household chores while she slept. That also meant I couldn’t squander that “free time” watching TV or gabbing on the phone, or even sinking into feeling sorry for myself. I had to use the time productively, and I found that when I did, not only did I feel better, but I also had something worthwhile to show for it daily. It’s amazing how consistency pays off. If you chip away at something daily before long you have a whole book.
WRR: Vampires and werewolves are characters in your books. You state that “the vampire represents a lot of what we see in society. They’re scarier because of that; because the vampire can be anybody. He just blends in and looks perfectly normal. Like serial killers often look like normal people… the fear factor is that they’re among us.” Why do you think readers are so drawn to this fear factor, and how do you use it to your advantage when creating your characters?
BANKS: I think it’s human nature to want an adrenaline rush. Maybe it’s something that’s an evolutionary throw-back, needing to flex the flight or fight instinct, who knows? But it’s no different than the way people love scary rides and roller coasters at the amusement park – we inherently know (or believe) that we’ll be returned to the platform unharmed, laughing, and shouting, “What a rush!” I think books with scary content do that for readers. It let’s us blow off steam in a safe way, let’s us imagine kicking ass, getting even with the “bad guys,” seeing justice served, it gets our blood pumping and hearts racing.
That’s why we go to the movies to see Independence Day and genre films of that sort, because in the end we want to cheer as a group… we want to see somebody kick the monster’s butt, we want the good guy (well, with a little bad boy in him) to get the girl, and we want our chaotic world to be restored to order. Humans have been telling scary stories of great danger, defeat, and triumph since we built campfires outside the caves while the wolves were howling in the hills near us.
WRR: What about the werewolf? You state it has the ability to be totally primal and act on its own instincts and that people gravitate to the werewolf because “it’s an interesting look at our own psyches.” Explain.
BANKS: Ah… the werewolf. This creature, like the vampire, has morphed in recent years as well. Initially it was a crazed, flesh destroying (and eating), slobbering beast – not sexy at all and to be feared the way one might a rabid dog. That was circa An American Werewolf in London (and all films before that). Now, juxtapose that view to the recent film Underworld (the last one in the trilogy thus far). The werewolf is this sexy, primal hunk who can transform into a beast when provoked, bearing fangs, ripping out guts, supersized with super strength… but always the passionate, sensitive lover to his woman (it sounds so absurd but it’s true).
Before this shift, vampires had taken the mantle as the perfectly dangerous lover – the forbidden, kinky, deep dark sensualist. Move over, vamps, somebody in pop culture let the dogs out. So we now have the phenomena where injustice, rage, plus the phase of the moon, means that the otherwise mild-mannered individual who is playing by the rules of society just gets fed up and rips your face off. Generally, if you follow the lore and read the stories (or watch the movies), the werewolf clans are the permanent underclass, hidden in the shadows, and are badly treated by society in general… but they have a secret strength that threatens polite society. They are chaos on steroids. I think that’s the appeal. At a time when many people are feeling abused by the system, powerless to go against the oil barons and banking cartels, et al., mentally one can escape and imagine having great freedom (like that of the wolf), with the power of a naturally majestic animal, while also being able to rip your boss’s face off (if you feel like it).
WRR: You always help your characters along with “mother-wisdom from an elderly secondary character because [you] have so strongly leaned on those ‘old wisdoms’ to get [you] through tough times.” Why is this important?
BANKS: It’s a paradigm that has been a helpful rubric in my life, and ironically, it is also a literary paradigm as laid out on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces. There is always a mentor, a Yoda, a Sensei, a learned master that helps the young initiate along their path of trials and tribulations until they emerge victorious.
WRR: Your books address many universal themes: the struggle of good versus evil; the love of humanity and family; how each life can make a difference; “choice and action bear consequences”; “the coming together of people, regardless of race or religious preferences, to uphold worthy causes [and] to function as a world family.” Why are these themes important to you, to your readers, and to the world?
BANKS: I think these themes are important to me personally (and to others), because without the belief that good triumphs evil, then there is no hope left. What is life without hope? We’d all be trudging through life in a depressed, “why bother” stupor. But there’s something defiant and empowering in believing that, no matter how the deck is stacked against you, no matter how much more powerful the bad guys are than you – there is some sort of cosmic justice out there, something, to level the playing field in the end. That’s why actions and consequences are such a repetitive theme in all master stories, because that combination appeals to the theme of “justice,” and our sensibilities regarding whether or not justice was served.
I believe we also all want to feel that our small universe within the great macrocosm matters – and that the tiny specs of our life (comparatively), along with our loves, our family, as well as all our hopes and dreams prove that we were here and that we made a difference… that we each matter. To believe otherwise is again a terribly hopeless thought. And I also think that (even if we don’t show evidence of higher ideals in our own lives) we want to imagine ourselves free of petty distinctions or limiting differences, free of prejudice, free of fear to rebel against the social mores of our particular place in society. We want to (in our souls) transcend the human condition, I believe… and even if we aren’t strong enough to openly do so, we want to read about (or see) those who do. It all goes back to hope. Seeing someone transcend the limitations of their birth to make a difference for being born gives us all something to rally around.
WRR: Your character Carlos (in the Vampire Huntress series) states that “knowledge is power.” How do you think this philosophy applies on a global scale?
BANKS: The more I know what is going on in the world, the more it effects my choices, how I vote, how I spend my money, how I relate to others. I am empowered by what I know, laid bare and ignorant by what I don’t know. As a thinking person, can you throw plastic on the ground and not recycle when you’ve seen what devastation that’s wrecking on the environment? Can you not care that people are being slaughtered in other countries, or that we had CIA black sites and sanctioned torture? When you know stuff, there’s a burden to that knowledge. Sometimes I frankly don’t want to know, because knowing keeps me awake at night. Ignorance is bliss, is a true statement. But once you know… there’s no going back to ignorance.
WRR: You stated that love is the greatest way to defeat evil. Explain.
BANKS: That’s been evidenced time and time again… look at the great masters who used love, you can take Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa in recent history, or go back to Biblical times – these individuals loved humanity even through its lowest common denominators. Even when some were killed, jailed, otherwise abused, they became larger movements after their deaths. They won. Their causes won. They moved people, they drew in people, and they transformed people through the power of love. Fear, hatred, oppression – that’s pure evil and it never lasts. Love endures.
WRR: Your heroine Damali “is a woman in her own right with her own calling, and the power to shift the balance between good and evil by the sheer force of her inner being and will. She represents The Light…love, and the uniqueness found in every person….We all have this capacity, I believe, even when we don’t know it.” You have a very positive take on the world and on the human condition, yet so many suffer across the globe. Do you believe that we each have the power to “shift the balance between good and evil by the sheer force of [our] inner being and will”? Explain.
BANKS: Yes. Plainly stated, yes. There have been untold examples of how one person made a difference, how one person fed the masses… one old lady who took in boys from the street corner and mothered the motherless, how one firefighter saved a whole floor of people trapped in the World Trade Center only to perish himself.
There is horrific news, to be sure… but there are also so many people who give of themselves every day in small, but important, ways. What of the teacher who is transforming young minds? She may never know if one of her kids will be the next Einstein or President of the United States. What of the crossing guard who makes sure all her little ducks get across the street safely? Maybe one will be the next surgeon to save the life of the person who will develop a cure for cancer. That’s just it, we don’t know. The fabric of life is tightly woven, I believe. It’s a tapestry where there are too many intersecting lines to just toss any life aside. It’s the not-knowing that is the majestic spectacle we have to watch for and witness. This is why I feel that it is deeply important to encourage everyone.
WRR: It’s only recently that there’s been a surge of books focusing on African-American culture. Why do you think it has taken so long for writers and the publishing industry to recognize and fulfill this need, and how do you envision a literary future that addresses this culture?
BANKS: There have always been a strong list of non-fiction titles, but it’s in the area of fictive narratives that’s seen an evolution. I think when it came to fiction there was a built-in set of assumptions about what would be of interest and what would “play” well in the African American community based on historical sales. Before recently, there had been books by renowned African American authors (ex. Alex Haley, Eldridge Cleaver, Toni Morrison, Alice walker, et al.) that dealt with the issues of the era they wrote in, namely human rights, Civil Rights, etc. Then along came Terri McMillan, who issued in an entire era of women’s fiction that dealt with relationships, and from there urban fiction or “street fiction” blew up with groundbreaking titles like The Coldest Winter Ever.
But after a while, the one-dimension titles offered no longer satisfied the complete palate of the African American market segment. For instance, Zane became a phenomenon because, when she first hit the scene, there was no “black erotica.” What the fervent acceptance of the “firsts” in a genre should have told the publishers – who, by the way, are always a step behind the marketplace – was that there is a hunger in the African American community for all sorts of books. There is a leader in every genre. Zane took erotica by storm; Terri McMillan took women’s fiction by storm; Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress) took mystery by storm; Octavia Butler took sci-fi by storm… what that should have told the industry was that the palate of the African American reader is eclectic, open, and not a monolith any more than any other group is. It is why multi-cultural vampires did well, and I suspect if you picked any genre and did it well as a first (and put some marketing behind it so that people knew it was there), it too would blow up.
Think of it this way, using the metaphor of music – what if there was only one radio station that played hip hop music all day and all night? What if there was no pop, no blues, no jazz, no country, no R&B, no classical, just the same songs played over and over and over again. Then imagine if a new station came to town that had R&B and neo-soul. Then another one sprang up that offered opera, then another that played top 10. Can you imagine how all of a sudden the people who’d stopped listening to the radio would eagerly return to it or how those forced to just “put on the only game in town” would quickly change channels?
I think that’s what we’ll see in the future. First there’s a fragmenting based upon personal tastes that transcend race, then, all of sudden, that segmenting winds up not just shelved in the African American section (sticking with the music metaphor, akin to being played on traditional African American stations), but shelved (or played) in the section that denotes the genre. I think that’s where things are moving – just like in the music industry, initially “African American” artists were only played on stations that catered to that market. Now you hear Beyonce’s cuts on all station.
Books are going in that direction, too. When the Vampire Huntress Legends series first came out, it was shelved in the African American lit section of the major bookstores. Now it’s with general Sci-Fi and Fantasy books. That makes it accessible to all people and says, implicitly, it doesn’t matter who the author is or the ethnic origins of the characters – if you like a good story about vampires and vampire slayers, you might like this.
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is publisher of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.
All Articles by Janice Gable Bashman:
For Better or For Worse: How Lynn Johnston Became One of the World’s Most Read Comic Strip Artists
From Tragedy to Triumph: New York Times Bestselling Author L.A. Banks
Photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke: Finding the Soul of Africa Through the Lens
Connie Dover – Singer-songwriter and Trail Cook: Home on the Ranch
Kathryn Ball – Fire Watcher: On Buck Rock Lookout
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Barry Eisler
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Bill Kent
Thrill Ride: An Interview with David Housewright