Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?

Rhys Bowen: Today our guest on Jungle Red is a good friend and neighbor of mine from the Bay Area, Susan Shea. I have been following Susan's career with delight since I was her mentor at a Book Passage Mystery Writers conference a few years ago. I was intrigued then with her world of million dollar fund raising and so pleased that THE KING'S JAR, the new book in her series, is getting good reviews now. So take it away, Susan.

SUSAN SHEA :Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?

Well, actually, a lot of dimes. Say a million dimes, which is only $100,000, which is enough to get you dinner with the head of the computer science department but not with the president of the university. If you have ten million dimes just sitting around, I’ve got a place at the head table with Sarah Jessica Parker and a newly-minted Nobel Prize winner, plus the president, who intends to attach himself to Ms. Parker for the evening.

See? This is the life of a fundraiser, always asking, always promising, always sucking up – I didn’t say that! – making nice with people who have many more dimes than she does. These people, called millionaires and billionaires, are different from you and me in large and small ways. They do not shop for their own toilet paper, for one thing.

The first time I asked someone for a million dollars, I rehearsed the excellent case I was making for the college’s project, spent time beforehand preparing a mental script that would keep the Big Question on the table (you never pose the question in a form that can be answered with a straight no), and reminded myself not to order any food at the lunch meeting that might stick to my teeth and distract me, or her. But the biggest prep was standing in front of my bathroom mirror and saying “We would like you to consider a gift of a million dollars.” I made sure my eyes didn't go into a frantic blinking spasm and that I could get the words out without going, “a mi-mi-mi-mi…”

In my previous life as a fundraiser, which, by the way, is what my protagonist, Dani O’Rourke is, because they say you should always write what you know, I have had the pleasure and pain of meeting a handful of billionaires. I found them all to be fascinating, and half of them to be quite nice. The most delightful of them is a self-made man, once a scholarship student at a prestigious university, who developed an idea into an exceptionally robust, international service business. When he allowed another Big B Billionaire to buy him out, he was like a kid in a candy store. He told me gleefully he planned to give it all away before he died, after giving his kids a million each. “They should have the joy of making something themselves,” he told me. He’s established too many scholarships to count, schools within universities, libraries, you name it. And always with a big grin on his face. I adore him.

Then there’s the fellow who inherited massive wealth at an early age. He plays at one career after another and really believes the world revolves around his wants and opinions. (No, not the current ruler of North Korea although minus nuclear warheads, not all that different, and about the same age emotionally.) My hypothesis is that no one has ever – since he was a toddler and his nannies saw dollar signs when they looked at him – told him his behavior is not acceptable.

Jungle Red writers, a question: Do you ever wonder if someone you know will recognize their annoying tic that you built into your villain’s character, or see a distant echo of something that happened to her or him in your story? While it is the absolute truth that the characters in my books are purely fictional, bits and pieces of the people I have met pop up in my stories, mashed into new forms and suitably disguised, I hope. The work of fundraising, which lends itself to high comedy and deep despair on occasion, is pretty much for real, however, in The King’s Jar and its predecessor, Murder in the Abstract.

SUSAN C. SHEA spent more than two decades as a non-profit executive before beginning her best-selling mystery series featuring a professional fundraiser for a fictional museum. Susan is on the board of the northern California chapter of Sisters in Crime and is a past board member of Norcal’s chapter of Mystery Writers of America. She lives in Marin County, California.

Susan will be giving away a copy of THE KING'S JAR to the best comment of the day.


  1. If I had 1000 dimes just think how many books I could buy. That is how I measure my wealth by the books. Looking forward to reading your book.

  2. That's just what I was thinking! A million dimes would get me a lot of books...though I suppose the kids' college funds would have to come first. (Oooooh, or maybe it would get them a lot of books and we'll call it "college prep...")

    Thanks, Reds, for another great introduction and thanks, Susan, for more books for my towering pile of TBR!

  3. Hi Susan,

    It's nice to have a glimpse at the other side of fundraising.

    I was horrified a few years ago to find that my name had been etched into a glass wall at my school. And, of course, it could not be fixed. An entire wall would have to be replaced. Why? I didn't opt out? My gift came from an estate that I had little to do with but asked that it be donated to the school library in memory of my mother. "Oh, but her name is listed in the archives..." It's embarrassing and hardly understand why I want to even mention it here except that in some way maybe I feel I can purge myself of this. I know it was an error, but my name is stuck there forever.

  4. I can't wait to read Susan's books! For the past six years or so, I have worked in non-profit fundraising. Not asking Billionaires for millions, though. More along the lines of asking every day people to "think about what this organization has meant to your child and give what you can." In my world, if a donation reaches five digits we celebrate.

    I can easily see how a fundraising position for a museum would be an ideal position for a protagonist to credibly run into interesting situations and people around which to set a mystery.

    Can't wait to dive into these books!

  5. If someone decides a character is based on them, I figure it says everything about them and nothing about me -- and I'm sticking to that.

    So, if the billions fit, they should wear them.

    The world you write about is fascinating and so distant from what most of us experience.

    ~ Jim

  6. Fundraising seems like a fertile ground for murder... Congratulatios on the new book, Susan!

    And yes, I often put real people's quirks into my characters. But nine times out of ten one of my advance readers flags the passage, commenting on how it just didn't seem believable. So usually the passage gets sanded or comes out. Reality is no excuse.

  7. Hi Susan--Your books sound fascinating. So interesting--most of us can't imagine what it would be like to have billions... Warren Buffet is one of my heroes. So smart and generous, has integrity, but has managed to live and "ordinary" life.

    I've never deliberately based a character on someone I know, although all characters have bits and pieces. No one has asked me yet if they are someone in a book:-)

  8. Your story, especially the mention of dimes, and today being Father's Day, made me think of my father. In 1958, this story was picked up by the wire services and ran in newspapers across the nation:

    Teacher Erwin Feltz read a news story the other day to the effect that American taxpayers would pay a dime each between, now and Dec. 31 for space satellites. "Think what the nation could do," he told his wife across the breakfast table, "if everyone contributed a dime voluntarily and the tax money could be used for other space projects." The 29-year-old Feltz discussed the idea with his superiors at Washington Township Junior High School, got nods of approval, and launched "Project Moon Money" at the school Wednesday...

    I am not sure how much money Dad and his counterparts across the nation raised. The thing is, he died when I was 9 and my brother was only 1 year old. This story is definitely one that has helped to define him for us... someone who thought he could change things for the better, someone who believed passionately in science and exploration. So whether the donor be a great guy or an immature pain-in-the-kedada, in the end, the causes that they support say a lot about the individual. That is a neat source of passion and conflict for a murder mystery to tap into -- well done, Deb!

    And, Reine, I'm sorry... this story doesn't help you at all. {giggle} But I'm sure you've done lots of wonderful things that have gone unheralded, so just think of the wall as a misguided but still deserved pat on the back!

  9. I used to collect small change for the DC children's hospital -- I was teaching fifth grade, and it was such a good lesson in how small contributions can add up.

    I have done a lot of fund-raising, but more or less in the category of "Will you knit a sweater for the church bazaar?"

    I am totally intimidated by the whole world of big money. But, at the same time, intrigued . . . I will be reading this series!

  10. OH, fundraising--SO difficult! Is there a lot of psychology that you use?

    Doing math. How much is a million dimes?

    Quirks. Huh. I think they're terrific if you don't notice them. Does that make any sense?

    And YAy, Susan! So wonderful to see you here!

  11. Count the dimes carefully, Deb. 1,000 will buy you 4-5 books, not enough to topple the TBR pile we all keep by our beds but which has overflowed from the table to the floor already! Reine, don't get too stressed. Sadly, the only people who read those, most of the time, are those who expect to see their own names etched there. Hallie, I'm having the same experience right now. My editors have questioned a situation in my next book that is almost ripped from the headlines. There is no low beyond which people won't go,,,Hank, a million dimes is $100,000. And, yes, it makes a kind of sense if the quirks are tossed around like lotto balls and made to land in very different bodies. Thanks for the comments, Reds and friends!

  12. Susan, I'm just now getting around to reading this. I've known for a long time what you did, but this post really brought it home! You are my model for tact and grace in the flesh--in a pinch I ask myself, What Would Susan Do? Now I know you would ask for a whole lot of dimes.

    I had another friend who was a fundraiser for a major ballet company. In one of her first asks, she described to her target (a woman) the ballet she was trying to get funds for. The woman said, "How much do you need?" My friend swallowed and told her the HUGE amount the ballet would cost. The woman said, "Okay, I can do that." Yes, the rich really are different.

  13. It is interesting how the rich and the pseudo-rich can have such generosity of spirit or be as stingy as Scrooge McDuck. I used to work as a CPA in a little town in Ohio; we had millionaires and retired school teachers and everyone in between as tax clients. Amazing how mean and stingy some of the well heeled were, and how open and generous others were. Your books sound pretty cool Susan.

  14. And I'm not rich. If I were I'd buy a wheelchair van with adaptive controls.

  15. Terry, That's a great strategy when you're approaching people who you think have the means. Tell them what the whole project costs, without actually asking them for the whole thing. It's a win-win because even if they say, "Oh lord, I can't give that kind of money" the next thing they say may be, "What if I did half and you find another donor to do the rest?" Pat, some people think they don't have 'enough' no matter how many dollars they have. It's a brain/heart thing, not a wallet thing. Reine, we all have priorities for the day we get a windfall, but they're not always as important as yours.

  16. I still think I'll get my windfall one of these years. In the meantime I won't stop giving to important causes. Thanks for your comments, Susan. :)