This Life: Author’s dark tales an escape from darkness in her own life

Last week in a Westin hotel room way above Atlanta, Sherrilyn Kenyon talked about her life and “Stygian,” the latest installment of her best-selling Dark-Hunter series.

If you’re among its legion of fans, you know the series takes place over 300,000 years of history, back to the dawn of time. If not, you’ll want to catch up.

Fair warning: It’s just as dark and convoluted as Kenyon’s life.

“Stygian” begins just 11,000 years ago when the Apollite race was first cursed by the god Apollo.

“Stygian” is the 29th book in the series, a hefty 653 pages that hit bookstores just as Dragon Con was opening for a five-day run last week. Kenyon was born 52 years ago, the daughter of Malene and Harold Woodward, an Army sergeant at Fort Benning.

Her writing life, she told me, began before she learned the alphabet. She drew pictures of vampires mostly and would tell their story to her mother.

“I went from there to actually writing them down,” she remembered.

Kenyon was just 8 when she crafted her first novel, a horror story about a girl who used psychic powers to kill her brothers for their purported cruelty against her Barbie dolls and got away with it.

“It was my ultimate revenge on them,” she said, laughing.

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Her first published story — a tribute to her mother — followed shortly thereafter in 1973 in the local newspaper.

Kenyon graduated in 1984 from North Clayton High School, then headed to Georgia College in Milledgeville, where she was one of the editors for the school paper, The Colonnade. When she wasn’t in class, she worked three jobs, including writing for a small science fiction magazine called Cutting Edge.

One day, Kenyon was asked to write a series of short stories that would hook readers and increase the subscription base.

“What about vampires?” she asked.

Lord knows why she had such a fascination with vampires, but asked to explain, she goes back to the day her mother hid her in the trunk of the car to get inside a drive-in movie. Malene Woodward, God rest her soul, was a big fan of horror movies.

Anyway, Kenyon realized a lot of vampire mythology went back to ancient Greece and that there was a lot of vampiresque lore in their culture.

“Why is it that no one had ever …?”

She stopped there. God Apollo. God of plagues. God of the sun. His twin sister was goddess of the hunt and of the moon. The entire series shot through her head like lightning.

“All the sudden I got up and ran out of the interview (with her professor). I ran back to my dorm and sat down and started writing a set of short stories for what would become Dark-Hunter.”

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Two years later in 1986, Kenyon started drafting novels of the same name, but it would take nearly 20 years, after transferring to three more colleges, including the University of Georgia (where she wasn’t allowed enrollment into the creative writing program even though she was already published, or into the journalism program because she couldn’t pass the typing test due to her right hand being partially paralyzed), marriage and childbirth, before she could even get a publisher to look at them.

“I got some really harsh rejections,” she said. “I’d send them to horror, and they’d tell me to send it to fantasy. They’d tell me to send it to horror, and then they’d say send it to romance. It was really frustrating. I was in this constant loop of rejection.”

In 1990, she married Lawrence Kenyon II, who, after deciding he wanted to be a lawyer, moved them to Jackson, Miss. She was there when she sold her first set of novels, including “Born of Night,” written before the couple met.

Just when things started to look up — she sold six books in 18 months and re-enrolled in school — Kenyon nearly died when her firstborn arrived seven weeks early, leaving the couple with a pile of medical bills and homeless.

“I was forced to sell everything I owned of any value,” she said. “Even my guitar and flute that I’d had since I was a kid. It broke my heart.”

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Even with another baby on the way, those were dark days.

Then one day she happened upon the name of her former agent turned editor in a literary magazine her mother had kept current so Kenyon wouldn’t give up her dream.

“I was terrified to contact her,” she said. “I didn’t know if she’d even remember me or want to hear from me, but I had to take a chance.”

Kenyon, scared that her husband would be furious at her for continuing to chase a dream he deemed fruitless, took a single stamp from his wallet and sent a letter off to her editor.

“I knew if I took two from him, he’d know I was submitting a book, but I couldn’t let it go,” she said. “I had to take one more chance.”

And she did.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“My whole life was changed by that one stamp,” she said.

Indeed that one letter led to a three-book deal, including a pirate story and Dark-Hunter, the series she’d been writing since that day in her professor’s office.

After another series of moves and the birth of a third child, Kenyon launched, propelling her to The New York Times' best-seller list.

“I lost my mom in 2004, the same week I hit the top 10 of The New York Times,” she said. “I’d finally crossed the finish line and then the one person who should have been there with me, wasn’t. It was hard.”

But she remembered what her mom always told her. “When it gets tough, you get up, dust off and growl at the sky, ‘Is that all you got?’”

Sherrilyn Kenyon growled a lot, eventually landing on the best-seller list more than 80 times with titles in every genre and format from manga to young adult to fantasy and paranormal and bringing along millions of fans who call themselves Menyons and who proudly sport tattoos from her series, and find community and acceptance in her books and in the online presence she’s built.

It’s what great writers do.

And if Dragon Con and the “Stygian” launch is any indication, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Menyons aren’t just fans. They’re family.

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