Kate Flora: Happy Almost 2016. Many times, when I speak about the writer’s life at libraries, people come up to me after my talk and say, often mournfully, that they’ve always wanted to write, but they’ve put it off for so long that now it’s too late. The same thing happens when I teach. I respond that if writing is part of their dream, it’s never too late. Then I tell them that my mom wrote her first mystery in her eighties and published it at 83. They are often astonished, but I like to think that mom’s story gives people hope.
Here’s an interview I did with her for our local Sisters in Crime newsletter shortly before her book, The Maine Mulch Murder, was published.
It’s Never Too Late: An Interview with 83-year-old mystery newcomer A. Carman Clark
One of the hardest things for the aspiring author to deal with is rejection and the feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness that a long series of rejections can cause. Frequently, authors meet writers who, though they love the craft, have grown discouraged by the process of trying to become published and given up. As an inspiration to all of us, we talk with an 83-year-old author, A. Carman Clark.
Q. How long have you been writing?
I can’t remember when I wasn’t writing once I discovered that words on paper held thoughts and could be used and reused. I wrote down what my mother said I could do and held it as evidence when she changed her mind. Creative writing? A very romantic story, written when I was ten and illustrated by a classmate, showed me the joy of making words into scenes from my imagination. I never recovered from this creative attack.
Q. How long have you been writing mysteries?
In 1990, I outlined ideas for a series of mysteries set in a fictitious town I’d created years before. Playing with plots through 1991 led to noticing places where a body might be found from public rest rooms to behind hedges and woodpiles. I settled down to daily writing of the book in 1992, having cleared away a non-fiction project so I could give my full attention to the characters and dialogue in this village murder.
Q. How long were you trying to get the book published before you finally sold it?
My mystery began traveling out to an agent and to publishers in March, 1994. When editors made suggestions, I did rewrites to improve what they considered weaknesses when their suggestions made sense to me. The manuscript finally sold in April, 2000, after my daughter suggested that I send the book proposal to The Larcom Press.
Q. How long did it take you to write the book and how many revisions did it go through before it was accepted for publication?
I wrote MM in about nine months and did five rewrites. Didn’t change the plot but worked to make characters more fully rounded and dialogue more suited to individuals.
Q. What made you decide to write a mystery? What’s it about?
MM originated from my frustration with reading too many mysteries in which I was turned off by drugs, violence and gore, and characters I couldn’t identify with because they had more money than I could imagine. I wanted to read about ordinary folks living in a small town where everyone knew everyone else, and about the question of whether they truly knew what happened behind closed doors. When I complained to the local librarian that I couldn’t find any mysteries I liked, she challenged me to write one. So I did. My protagonist was a divorced woman in her sixties, self-employed as a copy editor, who enjoyed rural living. One day, while gathering sawdust to mulch her strawberries, she finds a body. The subsequent investigation explores family secrets and the lengths people will go to to protect them. And the story reunites Amy with her old school friend, Town Constable Dort Adams, and ignites a romance.
Q. How did it feel when you learned that a publisher wanted to buy your book?
My first thought was to cheer and celebrate the fact that my obituary wouldn’t read, “Mrs. Clark once wrote a book.” (Clark is the author of From the Orange Mailbox, a collection of her newspaper columns.) Now there would be two books and then more. I went out and ran around the house squealing in glee. My house is isolated. This didn’t disturb my neighbors. Then I went back to the computer with a new sense of confidence, whipped out my weekly column with no hesitation and went on to my next assignment as though I’d had an injection of adrenaline.
Q. Drawing on your many years of experience as a working writer, what advice would you give other writers about dealing with discouragement and rejection?
As a writer and as head of Maine Media Women’s Communications Contest for five years, I’ve counseled and advised writers to consider that rejections are often the opinion of one person. But take time to reread the book or article, and now, distanced by time, see what you’d like to change or improve. When a writer feels her story is good, it’s important to keep sending it out. Somewhere there will be an editor who will respond. Let rejections be challenges.
Q. What else would you like to say to other writers, besides hooray?
I used to hate rewriting. But since my second complete revision of MM, I’ve come to enjoy the process. I live in the village of Granton (the fictitious setting of the book) and move through it, seeing new aspects of small town life which can be incorporated into The Corpse in the Compost, my next Amy Creighton mystery. When I’m really into writing a book, I forget to eat. Writing every day from November to April is a great help in avoiding cold weather nibbling, which adds pounds. Although by statistics or publishing records, I’m a later life author, I’ve been a writer since I first discovered the magic of words, when I learned to make the right marks with pencils. On days when I’m not writing a book, I feel something missing, so I use journaling to keep me alert and to catch ideas that flit across my mind. Questioning myself lets me push away unrecognized mental limits and then move ahead in my writing.
Sadly, Mrs. Clark died while she was doing a last rewrite of The Corpse in the Compost. She left behind a generation of writers inspired by her faith, her talent and her tenacity. So if you dream of writing and haven’t gotten around to it yet—it’s not too late. Make that New Year’s resolution to get going.