How surprising to discover that one of America's foremost writers of paranormal fiction is a grounded, completely sane and riotously funny woman. From Georgia, no less.
Sherrilyn Kenyon, whose books have hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list an astonishing 12 times, writes about vampires, shapeshifters, immortal warrior-protectors, gods, goddesses and the other denizens of a violent (and utterly non-existent) world. More than 23 million copies of the books in her Dark-Hunter series are in print, in 30 countries around the world. Her fans are legion, and they are rabid.
Crossing the country to promote the latest installment, No Mercy, Kenyon will appear Sept. 8 at Barnes and Noble in Savannah.
Kenyon grew up in Riverdale, a suburb of Atlanta, and her home life was tough. Her father left the family when Sherri was 8, leaving her mother to raise three kids by herself, including a younger sister with cerebral palsy.
Her most ardent supporter, her older brother, died 20 years ago under mysterious circumstances.
On the road to literary superstardom, one tragedy followed another; she lived, for a time, in a car with her husband and two children. Dealing with such things, Kenyon laughs, "just requires a whole lot of therapy."
She's able to joke about it now, but the scars remain.
Kenyon says she whole-heartedly believes in fate. "Ironically, that's one of the big things I deal with in my books - what is pre-destined and what isn't," she offers. "I would still have been a writer. I was always a writer, so I think that I still would have found the path.
"My husband and I were both born at Fort Benning, and we didn't meet till college, even though we knew a lot of the same people. Our dads were both in the Army; their paths crossed. It's very weird. So I think I was definitely fated to meet my husband. I like to think things happen for a reason - I don't know that I always believe that, but ..."
She credits her mother with opening the door to fantasy fiction, the occult - and horror movies. When Sherri was 4 years old, mom took her to see Night of the Living Dead.
"My mother was insane! She's the kind of mom who, when my niece was 2 years old, she gave her a Chucky doll. My mother was a character. She would scare the crap out of us - she would pretend to be possessed and chase us through the house.
"I look at my poor kids and tell them ‘You guys are wimps. You'd never have survived with your grandmother.'"
She started writing as a small child - in the fourth grade, she won an award from the Daughters of the American Revolution for an historical short story about a woman living in colonial times.
Her initial career plan called for enrollment in SCAD, to learn to develop comic books. The college accepted her, she says, but she couldn't afford the tuition.
Then came the University of Georgia. "I actually started out as an English major, but I fought with my professors," Kenyon laughs. "I went from an A to a C on one paper, and after that I'm like ‘Time to find a new major.'
"I wanted to get into creative writing - they wouldn't let me in. They told me I sucked. I then went over to journalism. I couldn't pass the typing test because one of my hands is partially paralyzed. Back then, they had the old typewriters, and I can't type for squat on those. So I never could get my speed up on it.
"Then I'm like ‘Well, OK, those two doors are closed to me.'"
She graduated with an interdisciplinary major that combined medieval history and language with Classical Studies, minoring in philosophy, psychology, and French.
"I found a home in History," she says. "I've always loved history, and they were nice to me in that department."
At the age of 20, Kenyon began submitting stories to magazines, and published her first book, Born of the Night, in the mid 1990s.
To date, she has published nearly 50 books, including 30 in the Dark-Hunter series. She also, for a time, wrote under the pen name Kinley McGregor.
"Luck," she says, "is what you make. Believe me, if there was a way to throw in the towel and be kicked down ... My teeth were kicked in doing this business - I've been doing it now 30 years and I've seen a lot of good writers who get a little bit of success and walk away or give up before it ever happens. And I've had to re-build my career three times. I think it's a lot more persistence than anything else."
She chuckles at the suggestion that her persistence is a strong Southern trait.
"I'm stubborn! Stubborn, baby! It's ‘Don't tell me no, honey.'"
Today, Kenyon and her husband - a native Savannahian - live in Nashville with their kids, ages 10, 14 and 15.
"We have the couch and all pulled away from the walls in my house so I can walk a circle," she says. "And my husband will say ‘You're thinking, aren't you?' ‘Yes, don't disturb me. I'm mulling things.'"
Yet after all this time, and all these words, her characters have minds of their own - she might have a plotting plan in mind for them, "but they tend to veer off. It's like herding cats - ‘You were supposed to do that, come back here! I didn't mean for you to die, I had plans for you! Damn it, you're dead! I need duct tape!'"
And then there are the arch-fans.
"We get letters written to some of the characters," Kenyon says. "I've had people asking for their telephone numbers. They get Christmas cards every year. In the beginning it was really kind of ... strange, but now it's just kind of cool.
"It's humbling. Because to me, they're real people. They are like family, so it's very humbling to know other people feel that way about ‘em."
Where: Barnes & Noble, Oglethorpe Mall
When: At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8
Author's website: sherrilynkenyon.com