Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On starting Pam Novotny

HALLIE: One of the great pleasures of teaching at writing conferences has been getting to meet and read the work of (as yet) unpublished mystery writers. Sometimes I read someone’s WIP and feel that little frisson: this person can really write! And I think, “One day, I’ll be able to tell people that I knew her when...” Pam Novotny is one of those writers. (That's her, taking a selfie in the mirror.)

I met Pam at Aspen Writers. She's a former freelance journalist for the papers like the Denver Post and Chicago Tribune and the author of numerous nonfiction books, including the classic, “Joy of Twins,” which was based on her own experiences. Now she's writing her first mystery novel set on an archaeological site on Crete. Pam is still working on the novel, but it looks like it's going to be terrific.

Today I’m welcoming her to Jungle Red.

Pam, you’ve been a prolific, well published nonfiction writer. What were the challenges of switching to writing fiction?

PAM: The first thing is that it takes longer than you ever imagine, and you start out not knowing how much you don’t know.

HALLIE: You can say that again! Anything else?

PAM: I didn’t know how to write in scenes--which I think is the single most important thing for writing this kind of fiction. The other thing was plotting. Putting together a story that had the kind of surprises that we all want to find in a mystery was harder than I thought it would be. But learning to write in scenes helped me do that because I could see the story’s bones better once I got scenes and their use, and that helped me plot.

HALLIE: When I was writing what would be my first published novel, I stuck a Post-It to my computer that said, "WRITE SCENES!" What experiences and interests were you drawing on for your story?

PAM: I’ve been in the south coast of Crete, so I drew on that. And of course as I write my main character, as I look at her life, I see reflections of mine and the people around me. I also drew on my knowledge of the ancient world and archaeology to find that story. Finally I have a reason to read about all those esoteric things.

HALLIE: Esoterica? Cool. Like what?

PAM: Like bioarchaeology - the study of human bones in an archaeological context -- studying the way we treat the dead.

Sometimes if you don’t understand, the culture it seems horrific. In rural Greece they still bury their dead for 5 to 7 years and then dig them up again and take their bones and put them in an ossuary -- a container for bones--and keep them there. That way the grave can be used again. Some of it is about making space in a rocky country. Some of it is a way of revering the dead--they keep the bones, wash them.

In our culture we distance ourselves from the dead. We find it frightening and strange and don’t want to be around human remains.

HALLIE: I’m hooked. Below are few snippets from the book -- followers of Jungle Red can say that they read Pam's work here first!

**Excerpt from Pam Novotny’s work in progress:

As they brushed at an ulna thinner than her thumb, Attie noticed a pattern of dark lines on the bone, crazing of the type that happens to old china, but far more prophetic. It was the pattern that appeared when bones were burned with living flesh still on them. Attie felt a chill, thinking of it, and leaned in for a closer look, hoping she was mistaken.
“What do you see?” Magda was leaning in, too, peering at the tiny bones.
Attie blew out a long breath and sat back on her heels. “Not sure.” She wasn’t about to speculate out loud; no sense in spooking her students with stories of babies burned alive. Attie gave her head a shake. No sense in spooking herself either, with her nightmare imagination.
She began to talk, naming the tiny human bones as she touched them. They seemed to have been set into the pot atop some kind of burned material, but she couldn’t tell what it was without lab analysis. After a moment, Attie realized that Erik had gone quiet – no wisecracks, no goofy antics. Attie looked over at him and his face was drawn, serious.
He pressed his lips tight before speaking in a low voice, thick with emotion. “Another baby, isn’t it.”
Attie had seen that he was squeamish, but she hadn’t expected this show of feeling, especially from Erik who so far, had hidden everything behind laughter. In any case, it spoke well of him that he would be moved by the deaths of infants.
“Two babies, all alone? I thought this was going to be like, a family tomb or something.
“I don’t know why they’re here yet, Erik, but we’ll find out,” she assured him. “That’s why we’re here: to learn their stories.”


  1. Welcome Pam--that looks like it's going to be a terrific book! Hopefully Hallie will keep us posted when it's coming out:).

    I'm curious about how your nonfiction writing has been helpful as you tackled fiction. I have a sense that journalists have a huge leg up over other aspiring novelists, both in terms of how to write and discipline. Have you found that to be true?

  2. Hey PAm! SOUnds terrific..and get ready for an amazing journey.

    I agree with Roberta--as a journalist, I think there's something about story-telling that we're already familiar with. And deadlines, you know? Nothing new about that for us!

    It's just being able--of having to--make things up that's unusual!

  3. Welcome Pam,
    Your novel sounds terrific. I love Crete. Found myself in Matala years ago with beach tar on my feet and will realized that's where Joni Mitchell wrote "Carry."

    A really great setting for a novel even before you add the interesting burial culture and bones.

    Like you and Hank I came to fiction through journalism, and found that while you have to unlearn some things, some things are second nature.

    Best of luck with your novel.

  4. LOTS of us come out of nonfiction - I came out of writing training and documentation and BOY did I have a lot to unlearn. Adverbs, for instance -- great in a technical document because it encapsulates so much in a single word. Terrible in fiction because it's the essence of telling instead of showing. And point of view - there isn't one in most technical documents and yet it's the most basic thing to what people speak of as the fiction writer's 'voice.'

  5. Thanks for the warm welcome! My non-fiction experience did help a lot. I knew how to gather the information and make it into a coherent story without fussing too much. (Yes -- deadlines!) Non-fiction taught me how to just get on with it. You don't have time to be too afraid of the blank screen/page. But yes, Hallie, adding point of view and making things up -- that was a tough switch! But very fun once you start.

  6. And Jan -- That Joni Mitchell song was my anthem for a long time! It's the source of my love for silver bracelets...

  7. Speaking of Joni Mitchell...check back tomorrow for some very cool news about Sheila Weller who joined us a few months ago to talk about her book "Girls Like Us."

  8. Quality Essay Writing is an art, That need lots of research in different topics after a good research writer shows his thoughts by clear words. Good Vocabulary and phrases show the existence of writer in his work that is what a writer ever dream for.

  9. She's a former freelance journalist for the papers like the Denver Post and Chicago Tribune and the author of numerous nonfiction books, including the classic, “Joy of Twins,” which was based on her own experiences.
    Really nice post.

    Essay Writing