Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Inspiration of Eugenia West

JUNGLE RED: A couple of years ago, we were delighted to introduce Eugenia West's debut novel Without Warning. Eugenia was torn about whether to reveal her real (and quite remarkable!) age. Would admitting to being in her eighties have a bad effect on sales? she wondered. Now she's decided to come out of the closet. With great admiration, we welcome her to talk about her second book, Overkill--and what it's like to be writing novels at 86. Nice to have you back Eugenia!

EUGENIA: It’s so good to blog again with the Jungle Red writers. An inspiring and amazing group. You ask what it’s like to be churning out mysteries at age 86. The short answer is, it takes a little longer.

Two years ago I sent you the Cinderella story of how I came to be published. My first mystery was rejected to the point that I decided to do POD as a Christmas present for family and friends. They liked it, so I entered it in the St. Martin’s Press contest Malice Domestic. Forgot about it. Months passed. One morning I opened my computer and there was an e-mail from their grande dame editor Ruth Cavin offering me a contract for two books. It doesn’t get better than that for wannabes.

When Without Warning appeared in 2007, I wasn’t advertising my age. Not hiding it, but I was afraid of losing younger readers. Now the sequel, Overkill, is just hitting the bookstores. My amateur detective protagonist, Emma Streat, is alive and well, so this time around it seemed comfortable to come out of the age closet. In fact, I seem to have become a spokesperson for the older writer. Message? Age and creativity can exist happily—and productively—together.

There are some advantages to high mileage. By now you should have evolved a style and found your rhythm. You have a sense when a phrase isn’t working. You cut down on adverbs and avoid phrases like “her eyes fell to the floor.” You learn not to underestimate your reader by telling, not showing. Far better to have Emma slam the door than just to say she was very angry.

When Emma was still a blip in the stratosphere, she was an older woman of around sixty. Now she’s sort of a median 47, but I have to remind myself that she is a different generation. I depend on my daughters to keep me current. The Hermes signature scarf may have to be given away.

In Overkill, Emma continues to have a rocky relationship with a rich, handsome, dynamic English peer who has a seat in the House of Lords and is a consultant for one of the British Secret Services. Let’s just say this was a fun flight into fantasyland.

By now, I know Emma as well, maybe better, than my own children. This woman and I have suffered together. She has had to dig deep to find strengths, and I’ve come to love this ex-opera singer, widow, and hands-on mother. Perhaps writing a book is like making a big stew. You throw in your own experiences, people met, places visited—here age can be an advantage. Then you stir and hope for the best.

Do I have a mission? For me, writing is a payback for those rare and sanity restoring hours of escape reading when I had little children yammering for cookies and older children needing rides. I try hard to bring total immersion into stories about successful people working out their problems in places like Venice, England, Ireland; my readers will never go on a bus to Jersey City. All is worthwhile when people tell me my books helped them through a bad patch.

It would be misleading to say that there is no downside to hitting the big eighties. One has a stronger sense of needing to make every day count. Maintenance on the aging chassis cuts down on writing time; my children, grandchildren, and extended family have priority. But older writers are lucky. We can wake up every morning with work to do, places to go, people to invent—and it can all happen just sitting at the computer.


  1. Wow, Eugenia. Talk about inspiration!!

    Welcome back to Jungle Red, we all hope to be you!!

    And if it makes you feel any better, except for the last book -- and it was torture for me to write that fast -- it's always taken me two years to write a book. Even when I was in my early thirties. I just need those days between when I'm driving or walking somewhere for those AHAH moments that make the better plot twists.

  2. Welcome Eugenia. I'm trying to picture whether I'll still be writing in my eighties. Will Molly Murphy still be appealing as a middle aged matron?

    And I also find that writing cannot be rushes. One needs the down time for the inspiration to crystalize

    Keep writing!

  3. Eugenia..thank you thank you thank you.
    The age thing is a factor in every moment of every day in every thing we do. YOur decision tnot to mention it. Your decision to mention it. I've had people tell me my main character, the fairly beautiful, witty and completely successful Charlie McNally might be "too old."

    She's 46.

    Too old for what? It makes me so--enraged.

    And I'm 60. So what does that make me, if she's too old?

    And your post brings tears to my eyes. In the best of ways. Thank you.

    And oh, I'll take that Hermes scarf if you're really ready to let it go...Charlie would love it.

    Can't wait to read your new book. Ordering RIGHT NOW.

  4. Eugenia--do any bookstores have signed books?

  5. Charlie McNally is "too old" at 46? Crap! I'M 46! Might as well just roll over and die right now.

  6. Bravegirl101 My sentiments exactly.

    DarcyO! Are you out there? You won Elaine Viets book--email me your address so we can get it to you! In two days, we'll have to pick a new hurry!