CINCINNATI — Jessica Bird waves her arms like an evangelist in front of about 800 screaming followers, many of whom have traveled hours — in some cases, days — to hear her speak in the ballroom of the Millennium Hotel Cincinnati.
One fan is Amber Fueston, a 28-year-old with a tattoo inspired by Bird’s books covering the top half of her arm. “It’ll be a full sleeve when it’s done,” she promises.
Another fan, from Michigan, has brought a pair of high-heel shoes decorated with pages from her favorite book in Bird’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, “Lover Unbound,” the one about Vishous, a sexually masochistic vampire warrior who falls in love with a woman who becomes a ghost.
“A little part of me died when I had to rip up the pages,” Kathy Burnham says.
After Bird, in her early 40s, settles the crowd she finds herself taking multiple questions from a pair of women in Red Sox T-shirts, perhaps because they look like home.
Before she was a best-selling author, Bird, whose Black Dagger Brotherhood series and its spinoff books have sold more than 10 million copies, was a lawyer and the former chief of staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She went to Northfield Mount Hermon School and graduated from Smith College in 1991.
What she’s become since then, as her friend and fellow author Sue Grafton puts it, is “a wonder.” She has a cult following for this series, which follows a pack of super-sexual, wisecracking vampires who fight the evil beings that threaten their race.
Bird, who writes the paranormal books under the pen name J.R. Ward, explains to friends and fans that this series came to her in a vision. She saw all of the characters and their stories in her head. She sees herself as the transcriptionist who puts their lives on paper.
“They are shown to me,” she says to rows and rows of fans, most of whom have already finished reading “The King,” the most recent in the series, which was released April 1. The book will debut at No.1 on The New York Times hardcover fiction list. It will also top the e-book fiction list.
The tales in Bird’s books, many of which feature covers with open mouths hovering over vulnerable bare necks, involve blood lust and regular lust. But her readers say that they’re devotees because her vampire characters are often dealing with great hardships: the loss of a spouse, disabilities, sexual abuse, drug addiction. Aside from their supernatural powers, the vampires are just regular folks who live in the suburbs of New York, watch repeats of “The Office,” and make jokes about Miley Cyrus.
In “The King,” a vampire warrior and his wife can’t decide whether or not to have a child — a plotline that is relatable for many of Bird’s readers.
“She’s just so real,” Shannon Jolly, 34, says of Bird and the vampires. “She tells it like it is.”
Fans can thank Bird’s husband, Neville Blakemore, for encouraging her to pursue a writing career. The two were just dating more than a dozen years ago when he connected her with a friend in publishing who helped her find an agent for her first book.
One of her first readers was mystery writer Grafton. They met through Bird’s father-in-law, a gun collector who offered Grafton details about firearms for a book she was writing.
Bird showed Grafton a draft. Grafton gave Bird feedback, and with the new version, Bird signed a book deal for her first novel, “Leaping Hearts,” a mass-market paperback romance published in 2002. Three books followed, but they didn’t sell well. Shortly after agreeing to quit her job at the hospital and move with Blakemore, her publisher dropped her.
Suddenly she was the unemployed spouse of a third-generation Louisville man and living in Kentucky. “Within 48 hours, I was Neville Blakemore’s wife.”
That didn’t last long. Months after the rejection, Bird says she was struck by a story. “Boom, the series hit,” she said.
Along with her vision she heard a name, but she couldn’t quite make it out. “Roth. That was the name that came to me. Roth . . . Roth . . . it sounded financial.” And then she realized what she was hearing was Wrath, the center of her fictional world, a reluctuant patriarch of a group of vampire fighters with names such as Rhage (nicknamed Hollywood because he’s so attractive), Zsadist, and Butch. Acutely sexual Rhage lives with a beast that materializes from a tattoo on his back. Butch, a Southie-bred Red Sox fan, is the only human who has been allowed to join the Brotherhood. He falls for a virgin vampire named Marissa who eventually runs a safe house for female vampires and their young.
Bird, who jokes to her fans that she swears like a sailor and looks like a librarian, said she didn’t have high hopes for the series when she was writing it because it was “so out there.” “I thought, ‘I don’t care what it is — I’m going to write these things just for myself.’ ” But when her agent sent out a draft, the Penguin imprint NAL picked it up and wanted to start publishing a Black Dagger Brotherhood book every six months.
“Dark Lover,” the first, was on The New York Times extended best-seller list within the first few weeks of publication in 2005. Once Kindles and vampire books took off, the series’ sales skyrocketed and the books were released in 27 countries.
Bird knew from her sales figures that the novels were doing well, but she didn’t get a sense of her cult status until huge crowds started showing up for her events. She remains shy about her success. She spends most of her time at her 15,000-square-foot mansion in Louisville where she lives with Blakemore, an entrepreneur, and their 3½-year-old daughter. Bird’s mother, also a Smith grad, moved from Massachusetts to Louisville and lives down the street from the family.
Bird writes seven days a week and takes midday breaks for 7-mile runs. She says that she must maintain her stamina to keep up her publishing schedule; she still writes two books a year.
“I’ve missed three days in nine years,” she says of her writing. “That is the reason why I’m a bestseller. The writing is the thing.”
Bob Melzer, who was interim CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center when he worked with Bird, says she’s always had this drive. Although initially surprised by the content of the books, he is not shocked that she’s sold 10 million novels.
“Jessica is a perfectionist. She’s an extremely hard worker,” he says.
Melzer has read all of the books and likes them, even though he says they’re the first “sex stuff, fiction stuff — I have ever read.”
At the Cincinnati fan event, the only major public appearance Bird will have until next year, the author was treated like a royal. Penguin sent two publicists and hired two bodyguards for the occasion. Also in town was New American Library publisher Kara Welsh. Bird is the only NAL writer whom Welsh edits.
And Bird’s husband was there, listening with pride.
“I don’t want to compare her to Michelangelo,” Blakemore said with a grin, “but Michelangelo talks about how he revealed David. That’s what this is. She’s a scribe.”
He paused and smiled when he heard her thanking everyone in the room.
“Without you all, I’m a lawyer again,” she told the crowd.