It was the image on the book cover that first captured my attention during one of my many trips to the bookstore: a view from the rear of a sepia-toned woman with thick, black curly hair piled atop her head and what looked like a peacock of some sort tattooed on the small of her back. The woman stood, clutching a dagger in her hand, which was behind her left thigh. Her face, hidden from view, made her every woman.
I was instantly intrigued: a woman, perhaps even a black woman, as defender? As hero? As villain?
I stood in the store, reading the first few pages, and I was hooked: A woman comes home one night from an errand to find her husband being swept away — literally — by what turns out to be a vampire.
The book was Minion, the first in what would become the best-selling Vampire Huntress Legend series by L.A. Banks, one of a multitude of pen names used by the prolific author Leslie Esdaile Banks. It was the start of my love affair with Banks' works and my deep appreciation for a literary shape-shifter, who mastered genres ranging from romance and contemporary fiction to the paranormal sci-fi of Minion and her later Crimson Moon werewolf series.
Banks, a statuesque woman with a welcoming smile, had a talent for making a stranger feel like a best friend upon meeting her. So it was with great sadness that I heard the news that Banks had lost her life to adrenal cancer on Tuesday. She was just 51.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Banks five years ago at a writers' conference in Missouri. As an editor of children's fiction at the time, I was scheduled to speak to conference attendees as well. But I was most excited by the prospect of getting to lay eyes on someone whose work I had now been hooked on for the past year or two — the L.A. Banks.
From Minion to its sequel, The Awakening, to the third book, The Hunted, and beyond, each of Banks' tales put readers ringside at a cosmic battle between evil and good, hell and heaven, vampires and the Guardians of Light who hunted them.
Hearing Banks speak at the writers' conference was equally compelling. Here she was, a major author, encouraging up-and-comers, some not yet published, with her own story of being a University of Pennsylvania grad who entered the literary world after winning a writing contest in a magazine. She shared that she had had to take a leave from her corporate job to care for an ailing child and entered the contest in hopes of making some needed extra cash.
It was standing room only as the gregarious Banks shared her writing process with the audience, including how she meticulously thought out the action sequences that her series are known for. She spoke of the importance of multiculturalism in her work: Showing no face on the covers of Minion and subsequent books in the series was a deliberate move to better allow all readers to feel connected to the work. (Not getting pigeonholed in the "black" section of the bookstore was likely a plus, too.)
In any case, I approached her afterward, introducing myself and sharing what a huge fan I was of her work. To my surprise, she greeted me with the biggest hug. Soon we were talking and laughing like old friends, discussing her hometown of Philadelphia, where I had lived for a time, and the challenges faced by authors in general, but particularly by black authors. Knowing how many genres she had already mastered, I encouraged her to consider writing for children or young adults.
We exchanged cards, with promises to keep in touch, but we were only able to meet up once or twice more. Still, each time, talking with Banks was like speaking with a dear friend. An extremely talented friend.
Banks wrote action sequences that lit up the brain. She was as authentic in the voices of her male characters as she was in those of her female characters, a true feat. She loved the cliffhanger — much to the agony and delight of her fans. And yet she was such a fast and prolific writer, fans never had to wait too long for their next L.A. Banks fix.
With more than 40 books, Banks leaves behind quite a legacy. In addition to being a New York Times best-selling author, Banks was named the 2008 Essence Magazine Storyteller of the Year.
Minion has been optioned to become a movie. Banks, whose vampire novels predate better-known vamp series Twilight and True Blood, appeared on an HBO special on vampire literature that advanced the True Blood premiere.
As one might expect from a vampire series, Minion and its series mates offered plenty of gore, blood, beheadings and the kind of out-of-this-world weaponry that any sci-fi fan would love. But what kept a true-romantic-with-a-little-blood-lust like me intrigued was the way she handled love in her stories.
True love between her protagonists — and the quest to keep such love alive in the face of horror, heartache, despair, poverty and addiction — is a theme that runs throughout Banks' works, including the Vampire Huntress and Crimson Moon series and the last series she would begin, Surrender the Dark.
"The world lost a really good spirit," said Christine Taylor-Butler, author of about 60 children's books and the past president of the Missouri Writers Guild, who booked Banks for that fateful writers' conference. "She was so down-to-earth, so accessible. She loved her fans as much as we loved her."
Banks' big talent, and even bigger heart, will be missed.
Dara Sharif is a multimedia editor and writer and graduate student. Follow her on Twitter.