Friday, April 22, 2011

Tales of the Teapot: Interview with Best First Agatha Nominee Sasscer Hill

Sasscer Hill came out of the gate strong on her maiden race to publication; her book Full Mortality garnered excellent reviews and the coveted Best First Mystery Agatha nomination. Today, she talks with us about hard times, fast horses, and learning to write by the seat of her pants.

JULIA: What was your path to publication? Did you work your way through small presses? Land a deal with a major press? Win a contest? Everyone has a different story to tell.

SASSCER: Julia, I wrote my first novel years ago, and it’s in a drawer, where it belongs. In 2005, I wrote a second novel, featuring young jockey Nikki Latrelle, and named it FULL MORTALITY. Many query letters later, I landed an agent, and being a neophyte, I thought my novel would be on bookshelves within months.

My agent was sure the book belonged with a big NY publisher, and so we sent out the manuscript, waited for months, got rejected, then repeated the process. While the novel languished in slush piles, my agent steered me away from small publishers – there just wasn’t enough money in it for her.

In the meantime I wrote a second Nikki Latrelle novel, RACING FROM DEATH. Ultimately rejected, the manuscript lingered with publishers for thirteen months. And so, five years crawled by.

By an odd coincidence, John Betancourt, publisher of Wildside Press, joined my critique group while I was writing Racing From Death. I helped John with the horse-racing lingo for a novella he was working on. That story won a Nero Wolf Black Orchid Award, and in 2008 John offered to publish the second in my Nikki Latrelle series. I said thanks, but I want to wait for the “big New York deal.” I waited. The stock market crashed and my farm business in the Thoroughbred horse market crashed alongside it.

I became desperate, and with the blizzard of 2010 scheduled to hit the next day, I emailed the first in the series, FULL MORTALITY, to John. He read it and accepted the manuscript for publication that night! My agent promptly informed me that no New York publisher would touch the rest of the series. Coming out with an independent who planned to publish Full Mortality as a print-on-demand title, she said, was a bad way to go. She and I parted ways.

Then Dick Francis, my most beloved author of horse racing mysteries, died on February 14. His death jolted me into admitting I hadn’t felt well for weeks, that I was weak and having trouble breathing. I told myself it was stress, or struggling with the weight of firewood and the endless smoke and ashes from the wood stove in our farmhouse. I attributed it to walking through the deep snow, to the two tough yearling colts I handled each day.

On February 15, I woke up with chest pain, barely able to breathe. Thinking “heart attack,” I went to the kitchen, chewed up an aspirin and swallowed it. I fed the dog, then collapsed in a chair where my husband found me. He rushed me to the Emergency Room, and after three days of high tech scanning, a lung biopsy, and enough blood tests to satisfy a vampire, I knew I had five or six “things” in my lungs. While I was preoccupied with keeping my hospital gown closed, a scammer compromised my Facebook page and sent everyone a message saying I was in London, had been mugged at gunpoint, had no money and couldn’t get home. “Please send $2,500 to the following Western Union address.” Of course, I was in the hospital without cell phone or computer, and no one could contact me. In the meantime, someone in the hospital scanned my credit card and went on a shopping spree!

When I finally got home, on February 17, my Facebook page was shut down, and no book announcements could be sent. I fixed the Facebook and credit card problems while waiting for the test results due on Friday February19. Except, the doctor didn’t like the biopsy result and sent my piece of lung to a pathologist at Johns Hopkins. Now I waited another week. I began marketing my forthcoming book, Facebooking and emailing like a lunatic. This filled time while waiting for the axe to fall.

The final diagnosis was indolent, non-Hodgkins, B-cell lymphoma. It appeared as tumors in my lungs, no cancer in any lymph nodes. I hooked up with a good oncologist, who found my case so unusual, he presented it to Johns Hopkins. Gee, how nice for them.Turns out the magic word in the diagnosis is in “indolent,” or slow and lazy. My doctor could have been describing New York publishers.

Incredibly, Wildside Press published advanced copies of FULL MORTALITY in time to sell at the 2010 Malice Domestic conference. And if Barnes and Noble won’t stock my books, many of the indies do. Besides what large press could have signed a contract in February and produced a book in April? I’m happy to say that FULL MORTALITY has sold more than a thousand copies, received glowing reviews from “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,” and “Mystery Scene Magazine, and a nomination for a Best First Agatha. Sometimes the small path is the shortest.

JULIA: "Write what you know" is the oldest piece of advice around. Is your mystery based on your own interests/vocation/experiences?

SASSCER: Absolutely. I was born with horses in my veins and started galloping about the family farm on a stick horse when only four-years-old. By the time I was seven or eight, I was sneaking rides on the Belgian plow horses. I did this because my father didn't like horses and considered ponies dangerous. So instead, I drummed my heels on the sides of a 2,000 pound draft mare, while grasping whatever rope I managed to tie to her halter.

Loving horses, galloping Thoroughbreds, and helping a newborn foal find his sea legs is my passion. The rare-air highs of winning, the crashing lows of losing, the thrill of riding a race – it doesn’t get more intense.

JULIA: Sasscer is such a striking name. May I inquire?

SASSCER: Yes, my full name is Lynda Sasscer Hill. It’s an old Maryland family name, and I chose the pen name as it’s memorable and has an androgynous quality I like. Besides, I was named Lynda solely to go with Lillian -- the name of my older sister. And my mother called me Lynda-Lou-Pinky-Poo. Need I say more?

JULIA: How much thought and planning did you put into Full Mortality as the first in a series? (I only discovered the term "story arc" after I was told my book would actually be published.) 5) What's your writing process? Outline or organic?

SASSCER: After my first novel, HEART OF A WINNER found an agent, but was turned down by New York publishers, I took the rejections really hard. I’d never heard of Sisters In Crime, was a loner, and had no writer’s group for support. Five years of pointless self-pity passed by before I started “Full Mortality.” I never thought about a female jockey series, only that jockey “Nikki Latrelle” seemed a good idea for a protagonist. Unfortunately for me, I galloped into the book the same way as the first novel – by the seat-of-the-pants. I took a snail mail course with Writer’s Digest, where I developed characters and setting, but plot totally eluded me. I’ve never been so stuck.

Desperate, I signed up for a mystery writing course at Maryland’s Bethesda Writer’s Center with author Noreen Wald. She told us to bring a one page plot outline the first day. Yeah, right. But I did it. Don’t ask me how, but I suddenly saw the story, got pumped, and had the basic plot down lickety split. I was always a good writer, but Noreen showed me craft. Synopses, story arcs, chapter endings with a punch, all the things I knew nothing about. She also convinced me to nail down my plot first. It is, she said, a road map to keep you from getting lost. Amen to that!

JULIA: Having your debut mystery nominated for an Agatha is an amazing experience. There were only about 15 gazillion mysteries published last year. What did you do when you found out?

SASSCER: I cried. But I never went crazy with excitement. Instead, I felt validated and content. For me, the nomination was a spring in the desert.

JULIA: Your cover is quite striking, and not at all a typical cozy cover. Did you have input?

SASSCER: My publisher, John Betancourt, designed the cover. I loved it the moment I saw it, but was a bit horrified when John had the nerve to put “America’s answer to Dick Francis” in a banner at the top. It seemed so presumptuous. But the horse graphic stole my heart. Those horses looked so elegant and fierce. I thought maybe my story had the strength to run with them.

JULIA: Play movie critic for a moment. The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, Secretariat, National Velvet. Which are your favorite equine movies, and why?

SASSCER: For me, “Secretariat” broke from the gate on top and won the film race by many. “Seabiscuit” was an also ran because there are too many characters with no central human protagonist to root for, a must have ingredient for me be. If the movie, “The Black Stallion,” had been my first introduction to Alex Ramsey and The Black, it would have been a love affair. But I’d read all the Walter Farley books as a child and the movie didn’t grip me nearly so tight as Farley’s printed pages. National Velvet is a wonderful movie, but filmed so long ago it lacks the sense of “being there” that Secretariat has. With its close up, high-definition shots and sounds -- the starting gate crashing open, the horses rocketing out, the crowd screaming – “Secretariat” kept me on the track, gripping the reins tightly.

The story of Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery, hit an emotional chord and gave me a strong sense of deja vu. Women CEO’s were rare in 1973, and Penny Chenery was up against a male dominated industry. Back in the late seventies, I was the executive secretary for an all male DC aerospace industry association, which means I took the minutes at their meetings and served coffee. Those men never took me seriously, even when they couldn’t understand the monthly financial report, and I had to explain it to them. How could Penny Chenery’s persona in this movie not resonate with me?

But beyond that, I met Penny Chenery in 1984 at the Maryland Horse Breeder’s yearling show. I had a race-colt named Ruling Home. There were about twenty colts in the ring, parading for Chenery, the judge. Ruling Home was very stud-like for a youngster and the only one in the paddock boldly displaying what we call a “fifth leg.” He was loud, too, continuously blasting my ears with a screaming whinny while jerking me around on the end of the lead like a rag doll. I remember shaking my fist at him. Each contender had to take their horse to the center of the ring, walk him, then make him stand him for Chenery. I was a nervous wreck and uncertain how to proceed. I remember Chenery stepping up close to inspect my colt.

When she glanced at me, I said, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.”

That’s all right,” she said, “I don’t either.”

JULIA: What's next?

SASSCER: RACING FROM DEATH, the second in the Nikki Latrelle series is scheduled to appear in January, 2012, with advance copies available this coming December. Here’s the back cover:

Racing at Virginia’s beautiful Colonial Downs twists into a nightmare for jockey Nikki Latrelle. A sociopath sells diet cocktails – killing jockeys who struggle to make racing weight. Alarming events greet Nikki and exercise rider Lorna upon their arrival at Colonial – strange noises echo in the nighttime woods, a man with haunted eyes drags a dirt-smeared shovel from the forest, and the body of a burn victim lies on the road outside the track. Nikki’s unease turns to dismay when bad-boy Bobby Duvayne mesmerizes young Lorna with his raw sexuality and a dangerous supply of drugs.
A hidden meth lab, an old family secret, a body buried years ago in the woods, and Lorna’s disappearance pull Nikki into a race against death.
JULIA: What are you working on?

SASSCER: My current project is “The Sea Horse Trade.” In this one, Nikki works the January meet at Gulfstream Park near Miami, where something about new racehorse owner, Currito Maldonista, worries her. Bad enough she’s expected to handle the evil-minded colt that reflects his owner’s personality, but Nikki discovers the Colombian is a drug lord, selling his product to the US. Even worse, she suspects he might be abducting young American girls into a network of overseas slave trade.

Friend Carla Ruben contacts Nikki, desperate to find the teenage daughter she gave up for adoption. The adoptive parents have died unexpectedly, and the exotically beautiful girl was last seen in Miami. Nikki’s ominous association with Maldonista drags her down a dark road where time to search for Carla’s daughter is running out.

JULIA: Do you blog? Enjoy social media? Where can we visit you?

SASSCER: I feel like I’m everywhere! I have several blog sites, two Facebook pages, and I Twitter everyday. Here are the links to the two main blogs, the second of which allows you to read the first chapter of “Full Mortality.”
My author FaceBook page is “Sasscer Hill,” my personal Facebook page “Lynda Sasscer Hill,” and my Twitter name is “SasscerHill.” No wonder I’m in a daze half the time!

Thank you, Sasscer! JRW readers, as Sasscer says, you can find the first chapter of Full Mortality on her web site, along with more of her thoughts on writing and some beautiful pictures of horses. Do you follow the Sport of Kings? Or are you more of a hobby-horse enthusiast? We want to hear from you!


  1. Hey Sasscer, it's so nice to have you here--what an incredible story! I'm completely amazed that you didn't give up. Sounds like a terrific book--now on my list.

    Did Noreen give you any plot development exercises that you found particularly helpful?

  2. YAY, Sasscer! I smile every time I see you--you're such an inspiration.

    ANd yes, I'm with Roberta...what was it that made it all click?

    (I grew up with horses, too...I had to clean out stalls before I went to school. Wake, muck, shower, schoolbus.)

    See you at Malice! Hurray!

  3. Hey, Sasscer, I just checked the website and your book is there! As a B&N bookseller, this means I can check the shelves, see if we can shortlist some in...and staff rec it after I read it! This is the fun part of my job.
    You are one courageous woman to keep focused through all the trials and tribulations and waiting as well. As Hank said, Inspiring! Thanks for sharing so much with us.

  4. Hello my friend! I want to say that this article is awesome, nice written and include almost all vital info. I would like to see more posts like this.

  5. Sasscer's tenacity and grit is an inspiration to us all. Plus, her sense of humor is a delight.

    I think she's in Lexington, KY, today (4/22), in the heart of the Bluegrass horse country, getting ideas for new racetrack stories at Keeneland and doing a signing tonight at 7 pm at Joseph-Beth Bookseller in the Lexington Green.

  6. Oh, my gosh, I really have to read your book, Sasscer! I grew up on every horse book ever written, graduated to Dick Francis, who I adored (my dad and I fought over every new book the day it came out) and I'm always hoping that someday a writer will fill Francis's spot.

    And congratulations on your success and your perseverance! Good luck with the Agatha!

  7. Here at Jungle Red Writers, we strive to include almost all vital info in our nice written articles.

  8. What an inspiration! Thanks for the boost.

  9. What a great interview and what a lot of horrible stuff you've been through. I'm glad the Agatha nom makes up for it.
    I love horses. My next door neighbor owns a racehorse so I've stood in the winner's circle (with a very cute female British jockey)
    Heady moment
    Can't wait to read the book.

  10. Hi Sasscer,

    Congratulations on your nomination! I agree with the other comments, your example of perseverance is truly inspiring, given what you faced as a writer and personally. My dad was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma in 2001, and underwent rounds of chemo and radiation (he essentially beat it, although it was one of the "incurable" forms, in that the cancer cells always grow back, so he ended up doing experimental preventative treatment afterwards. He actually published a book on his experience, using his science background to advocate a different way of approaching cancer treatments and doctors' reliance on "protocol."). But I learned a lot about living well from watching him go through that battle, and then spend 9 years in remission, working hard for what he believed in and living his life on his own terms.

    I'm so happy you've gotten the Agatha nod now, so you can really feel how your hard work has paid off. I hope your treatments are going well, and kudos to you for going on with your life as normal, doing your writing and book tours. I truly believe that's the best possible way to live with something like cancer or a serious auto-immune disorder. Best of luck at the awards ceremony! I'll be looking for your book to add to my mystery collection!

  11. a nomination to inspire others, this will surely be one of your best achievements that this career could bring

  12. Hey, thank you guys so much for your comments! Stormy weather and flight cancellations brought me back late from Lexington, Kentucky on Saturday night. I was without a computer for Jungle Red Writer’s April 22 daytime blog. Okay, I’ll admit it – I was at the Keeneland races during the day, having a fabulous time.

    But that evening my book signing at Lexington’s Joseph-Beth’s book store was routed by a tornado that struck a few blocks away – moments after my signing started. When the warning siren went off, I was a little uneasy about the store’s glass ceiling and walls The staff herded me and their customers down the escalators to the store’s first level and away from the glass. We were all scared, and I felt especially bad for the mothers in the store with little children.

    We got lucky. The twister skipped over us, sucked itself back into the sky, and taught me something before it departed: tornado’s are not good for book signings!

    Sasscer Hill

  13. Roberta,first, forgive me for not answering you sooner!

    Noreen gave her students basic plot points. What they were and where they needed to appear in a mystery novel. The most wonderful thing she did for me was to suggest I add an eccentric character to plump up the word count. He evolved into the old black groom, Mello Pinkney, who plays a soothsayer role in the first two Nikki Latrelle novels and is, next to Nikki, my favorite character.

    Sasscer Hill

  14. Hank, it's hard to answer your question. There were a number of things that put it together for me, but Noreen was a prime ingredient. She told me I was a "wonderful writer." I guess I just needed someone in the field that I truly respected admired to tell me this.

    Good luck to you next week, Hank!!

    Sasscer Hill

  15. Awesome interview, Sasscer, by one of my favorite authors. And I see we share the torch for Dick Francis. Best wishes to an inspiring story teller whose books are now on my list.
    Georgia in NC