Friday, August 13, 2010

A Woman of Mystery

by Jean Henry Mead

Nancy Pickard, one of my favorite novelists, has won the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, Shamus, and Macavity awards. She's also a four-time Edgar finalist. A bestselling mystery novelist, she's written in a number of subgenres as well as a how-to book for fledgling writers.

When asked what happened to her first novel, she said, "It was, thank the publishing gods, rejected by nine wise publishers. It got me an agent, though, so I love it anyway. It was my apprentice novel and no longer exists in any form."

The turning point in her career was when she moved from original paperback at Avon to hardcover at Scribner, "with the wonderful Susanne Kirk as my editor." Another was "when Linda Marrow became my editor, first at Pocket and now at Ballantine. We're writing/editing soul mates. I'm very lucky. And for short stories, when I heard a writer say that every short story needs an epiphany. Having not been classically trained as a fiction writer, I'd never heard that before. After that, my stories sold."

Sue Grafton said that her nonfiction book, Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, written with psychologist Lynn Lott, is “fresh, insightful, candid, funny, supportive, encouraging and wise." Asked how the book had come about, she said, "I had met many writers--especially new ones--who seemed lost and alone, sad and confused, bewildered and overwhelmed by the highs and lows of the writer's life. I felt for them, and I wanted to talk to them and let them know we all feel crazy sometimes, and then give them some ideas about how to cope with the emotional roller-coaster."

I wondered how she had been able to write such a  variety of mystery subgenres, from cozies to private eye stories, humorous mysteries to psychological suspense. Her response was that she gets bored writing the same things over and over again, and that for her entire life she's loved all kinds of books in the  mystery genre, so she's influenced by all of those kinds of novels and likes to "lay around with their tropes and charms and quirks."

Her multi-award wining novel The Virgin of Small Plains, is set in her home state because "one day I was hit with the need to write about Kansas forever and always. It's as simple and was as career-altering, as that. I was born on the Missouri side of Kansas City, and moved to this side when I married a Kansas cattle rancher. Hence, my two books set in the Flint Hills cattle country, Bum Steer and Virgin. I'm still here and completely Kansan now. I love this state, political warts, and all."

Her work has won or been nominated for nearly every existing mystery award, and I asked which meant the most to her and which  translated into higher book sales. She said, "The awards have helped a lot, I think. As for which awards mean the most, they're the ones that reinforce me after I've tried something new, as for The Whole Truth and for The Virgin of Small Plains. When you disappear for a while to take some chances with your writing, it's reassuring to come back and find that readers appreciate it. The same is true for awards for short stories. For instance, when the first and only fable I've ever written was picked for A Year's Best Anthology of Fantasy and Horror Stories, I was thrilled by the confirmation--from people who really know the genres--that I'd done an okay job of it."

Her Jenny Cain series came about one day when she was in the Asian section of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art "and I saw an antique Chinese bed with gauzy curtains and a little alcove with seats in it. I thought, 'What a great place to find a dead body.' Seriously. That's how it started. Not exactly profound."

Her latest release, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, is a departure from her other novels. "A different kind of landscape called to me. Instead of the rolling ranch land of the Flint Hills of east and central Kansas, where Virgin is set, now we have a flat land with astonishing stone monuments rising out of it like a natural Stonehenge, only much taller and bigger even than those formations.

"On a violently stormy night, in this land of dramatic contrasts, the favorite son of the county’s wealthiest landowners is shot and killed and his young wife disappears. They leave behind a 3-year-old daughter to be raised by her grandparents and uncles. The obvious suspect is quickly caught, convicted, and sent to prison, leaving behind a wife and 7-year-old son. Twenty-three years later, he is released pending a new trial, and returns to the scene of the crimes he may not have committed. The secrets about that night of dramatic change for a family, a town, and a county, are revealed both to his son and to the daughter of the victims, as these two children of tragedy struggle to uncover dangerous truths about their families."

Her writing schedule is nearly nonexistent. She calls herself a binge writer. "When I'm really going at it, it's all I do. I ignore everything else. At other times, I may do nothing writerly at all. Or I may catch up with all of the things I've neglected. Like interviews. 

Her advice to aspiring writers is: One, be patient with yourself and your writing. Doctors aren't built in a day, neither are lawyers, neither are plumbers, neither are teachers or truck drivers, and neither are writers. It takes a long time to get good enough to be published. Give yourself that time and try to enjoy it! Two, please please please give yourself time before you start worrying about getting an agent, etc. Write first. Write second. Write third. Finish the manuscript. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Maybe send it out, or maybe start the next one. Time. It takes time Give yourself that time and please don't be so hard on yourself if things don't happen fast for you. Third, care first and always about the writing. The writing. The writing. Oh, and read Annie Lamott's fabulous book about writing, Bird By Bird. 

(Nancy Pickard's entire interview is included in the Kindle edition of Mysterious Writers)


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I had the honor to meet Nancy Pickard at Mayhem in the Midlands. I absolutely loved The Scent of Rain and Lightning (may have written that backwards). In any case, the book is wonderful.


Terry Stonecrop said...

Lots of good advice here. Thanks for reminding me to have patience and concentrate on the writing:)

Nice post.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, what I take away from this post is encouragement and perseverance. Nancy struggled to get where she is and it paid off. This business is tough and only a few will make it, but if you’re willing and able, eventually it might happen. Thanks Nancy and Jean for sharing this.