Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Solitary Profession

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The combination of bronchitis and a migraine has knocked me off my pins today, so I'm sharing with you something I wrote for the 2010 Edgar Allen Poe Awards program. This is based on a real-life experience I had at the Very Small Library where I volunteer.


“Writing must be such a lonely profession.” The patron hands me a stack of audiobooks to check out. She drops in every two weeks at the tiny country library near my house to get books for her commute into Portland. “I'd go nuts if I had to work from home. You never see anyone except the UPS guy.” 

I flip over Alone and take the card out. Lisa Gardner spent an entire afternoon at a pearls-and-golf-pants resort telling me the plusses and minuses of hitting the NYT list and how it effects a writer's ability to innovate. 

“That's why Julia helps us out.” Paula, the accessions volunteer, drops a stack of shiny new hardcovers on my desk. “Gives her a chance to talk with folks. Right?” 

The uppermost book is William Kent Kruger's Heaven's Keep. Kent took me to a barbeque joint in Minneapolis—barbeque! In Minneapolis!--and we worked our way through an entire container of napkins debating ways to keep a series fresh. 

“That's right.” The next audiobook is Life Support, by Tess Gerritsen. Based on two brief conversations and an exchange of emails, Tess lingered for an hour after a Borders gig, advising me, after I had been left agentless by Jimmy Vines' retirement. Then she went home and called Meg Ruley and told her she ought to take me on. 

As the commuter leaves, an older lady looks up from the New Fiction shelf. “Oh, are you the mystery writer?” 

“That's me.” 

“You know, I've been thinking about writing a book now I'm retired.” I brace myself for whatever comes next. “Should I plan it all out first, or just jump right in?” 

“Whatever works for you.” I point to the copy of Savage Garden on the Staff Recommends table. “Denise Hamilton outlines everything that's going to happen, so she knows all the twists and turns ahead of time. On the other hand,” I reach for Bad Luck and Trouble on the reshelving cart, “Lee Child just makes it all up as he goes along.” And turns his books in two years ahead of schedule. Bastard. 

“Ooh.” She stares at the books. “So you know other writers?” 

“Some of them. We meet at conventions and conferences.”

The dazzle in her eyes tells me she's never spent any time with authors. “What do you do when you get together?” 

Drink and bitch about our publicity.

“We talk about literature.” That's true. Sometimes. I remember an evening-long conversation with Marcus Sakey, thrashing out what made a hero attractive to female readers. “And the business, of course. Like this guy,” I pull a tattered copy of A Cold Day in Paradise from the paperback swap display. “I met him at my first Bouchercon. He had gotten published through a contest, like I had, and talking about what that was like was enormously helpful to me.” 

“A contest?” Paula returns with a stack of children's books. “I thought you had to know someone to get published.” 

“Nope.” I snatch Swan For the Money off the New Releases shelf. “Donna Andrews won the same contest I did.” And at my first Malice, gave me spot-on advice about transitioning from day-job to writing full time. 

“This is very encouraging.” The retired lady adds both books to her stack. “Any suggestions on a book about writing?” 

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Taught me everything I know. Second floor nonfiction. 808.3.” 

She smiles at me. “Do you know that author, too?”

I decide not to tell her how I descended into inarticulate fangirling when I met Lawrence Block at the Nero Awards. “Just an admirer.”
As she vanishes upstairs, a harried-looking man I don't recognize comes in the door. He drops several books on the desk. “I owe on these.” As he fishes a dollar out of his wallet, I tap one of his returns. “How did you like In the Bleak Midwinter?” 

“The heroine is an idiot who drives into the mountains in a snowstorm without telling anyone, and the bad guy explains everything in a big speech at the end. Don't bother.” 

I console myself with the wise words of Dougas Preston, who told me, “For an author, the humiliation never ends.” 

“You got any traditional mysteries with smart protagonists?” 

Sighing, I lead him into the stacks. We stop at the Ps. “Try Louise Penny.” 

My would-be-writer comes downstairs. “All ready to check out!” At the desk, I take her card and stamp her books. She leans forward. “Is there anything else you can tell me? You know—the real secret to writing a successful mystery?” 

“Aah.” I look left and right. “I don't know. Kris Montee, who writes with her sister as PJ Parrish, passed the real secret on to me. I don't know if I should--” 

“I won't tell. Cross my heart. I have to know!” 

“Okay.” I lower my voice. “The real secret to writing a successful mystery is...” 

“Yes? Yes?” 

“Never kill a cat.”


Joan Emerson said...

Thanks for a bright start to my day.
Hope you’re feeling better soon, Julia . . . .

Jack Getze said...


Marianne in Maine said...

I used to volunteer at our tiny library. I loved the work. We still have a card system and I loved writing out the cards for new books.

This was fun to read. Thanks, Julia. And I hope you feel better soon.

PS. Is the page format off or is it just my screen?

Marianne in Maine said...

Never mind, it's better now.

Kaye Barley said...

Made me laugh!

(hope you feel better quickly).

Julia said...

I'm feeling much better this morning, thanks, which means tomorrow's post will be chipper!

The theme of the program that year was community, and I was inspired by the realization one afternoon that almost every mystery author I recommended or reshelved was someone I knew personally. The crime fiction community really does like to get together and hang out, and my fellow writers have been some of the most generous mentors I've ever known.

Karen in Ohio said...

Glad you're feeling more yourself, Julia.

That person needs more than a couple of books to learn to write, if he or she didn't care for The Bleak Midwinter. Sheesh.

Susan D said...

Or a dog...

Denise Ann said...

Take care of yourself! We who are your loyal fans need you to be well and write!

Thanks for this delightful story.

Brad Parks said...

I'm sure I've never had any of these experiences, Julia. I didn't identify with any of this, nor did I laugh out loud. That noise was just... a cough.

Mary Sutton said...

Glad you're feeling better. I second the opinion that the mystery-writer community is a tight one. My best Bouchercon memory will forever be Hank recognizing me from my Twitter avatar! And shaking Mary Higgins Clark's hand, of course. LOL

Deb said...

Feel better, Julia!

Loved the post! We should do a survey sometime on how many writers volunteer or volunteered at libraries. I volunteered at Dallas library for years--gone now, sadly, pulled down to make way for a supermarket. I got very good at putting on the plastic covers (somebody has to do it...)

Funny about people's perceptions, isn't it? The last word I'd use to describe the writing life is "lonely." We have friends everywhere--and then there are all those people in your head!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Fun story, and I believe every word!

"And at my first Malice, gave me spot-on advice about transitioning from day-job to writing full time."
In that transition now. Any advice you can share?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

YOu are beyond fabulous, Julia. Yeah, it's so amazing to realize who we call friends..

Aww...thank you, dear MAry. (wait--do I owe you an meal..lemme know..)

And Brad Parks, who are you , again? xooo

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

And when do we start talking about literature? Just give a holler.. :-)

Lisa Alber said...

Julia, I love this! Even though we do write alone, when we've got our writing community, we're never truly alone.

I'm looking forward to meeting more of our peeps at future conferences.

Leslie -- congrats on transitioning out of the day-job. That's the dream, baby!

Kim said...

Dear Julia, My favorite part of this piece is the relationships you've built in a career that is supposedly so lonely. Thank you for this lovely essay.

Mary Sutton said...

Hank, while I'd adore going out for a meal with you, you don't owe me one of those. =) Maybe you are thinking of email?

Donna said...

Thanks, Julia! I confess, I envy those library patrons. The writing cuts into my reading time so. And they have such a lot of enjoyment in store.

Vickie Radford said...

Couldn't sleep this morning and so I read this really early. Laughed out loud and actually made the day much better. Thank you. And remember for most of us reading "In the Bleak Midwinter" led us to a great series.
Glad you are feeling better.

Edith Maxwell said...

Man, that guy had better not read Through the Evil Days. I just finished it - on a few days vacation at my son's in Maryland, so I had some hours alone just to read - and oh, my, Julia, you have done it again.

But if that patron didn't like Clare going out in a snowstorm: boy, howdy, this one would knock him over. I am deeply saddened by the last couple of lines of the story, however, and also by the fact that the next book isn't ready for me to read right now.

Glad you are feeling better - could you possibly get going on the next book, please, so I don't have to wait quite as long? ;^)

Julia said...


I'm working on it!

Leslie, Steve's advice was pretty much what you'd think of for anyone transitioning from salary to small businessperson: make sure you've got insurance (easier now, I suspect, with the ACA.) Have a few month's living expenses in the bank. Have a plan (or a multi-book contract!)

Most importantly, you have to realize that when you take your artist hat off, you're in the publishing BUSINESS and treat it as such. That means educating yourself on P&E, royalty rates, co-op, marketing, publicity, distribution, etc., etc.

Reine said...

Julia, I'm glad to read in the comments that you're feeling a little better now. I love this post. Thank you. My first student job was assisting the technical librarian. They put me in the back, because I couldn't file things correctly, although I was very good at finding them. Luckily for me they needed someone who could find lost books.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Thanks, Julia. Those things are fairly easy. Keeping the backside in the chair all day, not always so easy!

Deciphering the captcha, impossible!

Desiree said...

Brilliant, and quite envy-inducing

Teri Woods said...

Hope this note finds you well and hale, Julia. Your blog brought a smile to my face. How could a writer feel isolated? She's god-like in her power. She creates a world populated only with those whose presence she desires. Morality is what she wills. Justice... and for that matter, hers to dole out. Is the writer often alone? Of course. But good you...are never, ever isolated. Get well soon.

Denise Hamilton said...

Love this, Julia. And I remember that cozy little library. But uh, one thing: I never outline, unless an editor forces me to. It is sheer torture for me. I have to make it up as I go along. Although I always know the beginning, some middle scenes, and the end. I usually know whodunit, but not whydunit. I write to find out. Cheers and holiday hugs!