“I DON’T READ WOMEN WRITERS”

Recently, author Gay Talese caused a firestorm when he answered a question during a Q & A at a literary event about what women writers had inspired him. Talese was clearly a little nonplussed by the question: “Uh, I’d say Mary McCarthy was one. I would, um, [pause] think [pause] of my generation [pause] um, none.”

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By the time he’d gotten home, the 84 year old Talese, who’d penned such classics of literary journalism as “Honor Thy Father”, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” and “The Kingdom and The Power,” was being told by the Red Caps at the Amtrak station that he’d “gotten himself in trouble” up in Boston (according to the account in the New York Times). His wife told him “Welcome home. You’re all over Twitter.” And so he was. The online service had exploded with tweets calling him “sexist” and “out of touch.” They reacted with disbelief to his further remarks that, in his day, women weren’t tending to do “exploratory” journalism like he was doing, “Because…women, educated women, writerly women, don’t want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers, or people that I’m attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters, not reliable.” They pointed out female non-fiction writers like Joan Didion, Gloria Steinem, Mary McGrory, Ellen Willis, Edna Buchanan—the list goes on and on.

Now, Talese claims he misunderstood the question, and maybe that’s true. And this was Twitter, after all, which is famous for demonizing and ruining people before its hive-mind has had a chance to think.

But I myself have heard people dismiss female writers, especially in my own area of crime and thriller fiction. I’m thinking in particular about a fellow who asked me at one signing who I was reading at the moment. I mentioned how much I was enjoying one of Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan novels. The man (who really did seem like an otherwise nice fellow) pursed his lips in distaste. “I don’t read woman writers,” he said. I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t answer for a moment. Finally, I just said “well, you’re missing out on a lot,” which was certainly a lot nicer than what I wanted to say. Since then, other writers have told me they’ve heard the same thing, and I’ve seen similar comments online. “I don’t read female writers.”

To which I can only reply:  WTF?

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I can kindasorta understand the people who tell me “I only read non-fiction.”  I certainly don’t feel that way, but I can see how some people might.

But if I’d said “I don’t read women writers,” I’d have missed out on the above-mentioned Laura Lippman’s amazing work. I’d have missed Val McDermid and Karin Slaughter and Megan Abbott and Barbara Seranella (RIP). I’d have missed the work and thus most likely the friendship of some of my favorite people, like Tasha Alexander and Toni McGee Causey and Margaret Maron and Alexandra Sokoloff. I’d have missed the work and the friendship of the extremely talented ladies on these blog: Sarah and Kate and Lise and Taffy and Sparkle.

In fact, if I’d turned my back on female authors, I probably wouldn’t be writing crime fiction today, at least not in the way I do now, because it was our very own Katy Munger who gave me my earliest encouragement and whose Casey Jones PI novels taught me by example that my native North Carolina could be a pretty cool place to write about (Thanks, Katy).

So, Thalians and friends of the blog: have you ever had someone tell you “I don’t read women writers?” And what would you suggest for them, other than a long walk off a short pier?

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Twenty Years

Twenty years.

170-bluejayThat’s how long it’s been since my first novel, The Bluejay Shaman, came out. April 1994 was a heady month but not as exciting as nearly a year before when I sold the book to my first publisher, Walker & Company. I had already run through a couple of agents and found my editor on my own at a writer’s conference. He had liked the book but told me it was too long. I demurred about cutting it (oh my precious words!) then came to my senses, whacked away the fluff, and sold it.

Yes, I wax nostalgic about that first book. As a writer it holds a special place in your heart. An older writer told me to buy a box of books and stash them in the closet for posterity. (I did.) I remember silly things like the UPS man who asked me about the box then wondered if it was about the Toronto Bluejays baseball team. My first book signing, my first public reading. Good times.

I didn’t sell a zillion copies of The Bluejay Shaman. But that didn’t matter because now I was a professional writer. It would be a rocky road, these twenty years, with ups and downs, falling outs with editors, divorcing agents, new editors,  new series and long stretches without books. I’ve probably done everything wrong with what I laughingly call my “writing career” but really – I don’t care. One thing twenty years in the writing game teaches you is to develop a thick hide.

The Bluejay Shaman new coverWhen Katy Munger and I decided to get our out of print books back into print and started Thalia Press we became cover designers by default. We had a graphic designer set up a template for our first books and we put the photos, stock or otherwise, into that. Here’s how The Bluejay Shaman turned out. I still love that tepee shot and I’ve never changed that cover.

Other covers to come: yes, there has been evolution. Some I got tired of, or decided as we transitioned from just print-on-demand books to e-books, that the type was too small when seen in a thumbnail size. Over the years we’ve learned a lot about covers from trial and error. I have decided I love to fiddle with Photoshop! But I’m not great at it, just barely competent. But I do love the control.

Control of the cover image, the emotion that it projects, the story that it implies, the tone it offers, is a two-edged sword. As writers we love to gripe about our covers. Sometimes the publisher gets it exactly right in our minds, and yet the marketing department hates it and says it won’t sell. Or we hate it ourselves and the sales guys love it. And now as author/publisher/cover designer I have no one to complain to but myself.

This first cover of Blue Wolf, the final book in the Alix Thorssen series set in Jackson Hole, was just short of abysmal in my opinion. Everyone thought the wolf looked like a puppy and it was a children’s book.BlueWolfFrontCover-Nook

The next version, left, from the mass market edition, was an improvement.

 

 

 

But it wasn’t until I convinced Montana artist Carol Hagen to allow me to use her fabulous and colorful wolf painting that I got a cover I really loved, right.

BlackbirdFlyCoverIn 2009 Thalia Press published its first original novel, my women’s suspense book, Blackbird Fly. In my role as She-Of-Many-Hats I designed the cover. It’s set in France so I used what I thought were iconic French images, lavender and wine corks, on the cover. The only problem was the corks looked like cheese. I redid the cover in 2011 and now, in conjunction with the publication of the sequel in a couple weeks, there is a brand new cover. I’ve learned my lesson. This time I got a real cover artist, the fabulous Lisa Desimini. She also designed the cover of the new book, using the blue French shutters in both to connect them.

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Twenty years — of hunching over the computer, blundering through covers, and proofreading. Of neck pain, expanding ass cheeks, and eye strain.  Twenty years of waking up at night with ideas, of following false leads, of plodding to the finish and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. I loved it all, mostly. Please excuse me for a second while I have a glass of wine and toast the young innocent I once was. 🙂

Who are you, and why should I read your book?

For writers, and especially readers, there is a sea of books out there. Oceans of words, plots, characters, all vying for our attention. Sometimes I feel like the deck is stacked against us as writers, that, to mix metaphors, our little boat will sink without a trace. Sometimes as a reader I feel callous and capricious, picking one book over another based on flimsy evidence, a gut feeling, a blurb, a review, a friend’s recommendation. Sometimes I feel like a complete contrarian with my so-called “rules” like ‘I don’t read bestsellers’ or ‘I don’t read [a genre].’ I’m often wrong if I will just give a book a chance. But as I get older my reading time seems so precious. I want to read what I want to read.

So the question for writers becomes ‘Who do I write for’? And its corollary: ‘Who am I?’

I grew up reading mysteries like Nancy Drew, devouring the entire library collection the summer I was eleven. But I moved away after that and didn’t rediscover the genre until my thirties when women began writing great mysteries, women like Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky, transforming what had been in America a frequently dark and hard man’s world. My first novel wasn’t a mystery but a 1920s western set in Wyoming. I enjoyed writing the sections that dealt with a traumatic/dramatic event in the past, and went on to write my first mystery.

Something happened though, and it was September 11, 2001. I couldn’t write about violent death for a long time after, and I stopped reading anything remotely gory. Death was on the news and in my heart. I needed my reading to comfort me, to provide escape as always but to provide a respite from the awful present. Twelve years on, that really hasn’t changed. Yes, I read mysteries again but I have come to terms with my sensibilities and accept them. And my writing has changed too.

My books written since 9/11 (my last series mystery came out in 2002) are different, and I think, better for facing the horrors of that day. Not necessarily better written, but closer to the person I am. Although I can rubberneck at car crashes with the best of them I’m not really interested in violent death. I don’t want to read about serial killers or psychos or hit men. I am interested in the drama that can come out of violent events, as before, but now I like things like family dynamics, the drama of growing up, of dealing with difficult people, the way people relate to each other. That, to me, is the essence of fiction, what I love the best. I’m not discounting all the other wonderful aspects of fiction that you may like to write or read. Absolutely not. I am just trying to focus on what it means to me. Because fiction writing is one of the most intimate communications in the world. As a writer I am asking you to spend days with me, follow me on a chaotic journey, imagine the story I imagined, to like the people I concoct, to care about them and what happens to them. 

In a recent review of my latest book, a thriller with explosions and other violent stuff (okay, I’m not entirely reformed), the reviewer wrote this line at the end, intending I assume to provide a balanced report: “The mystery and intrigue are engaging, the changing landscapes are described subtly but artfully.  By the conclusion, everything else seems almost a backdrop for McClendon’s tale of her protagonist’s own self-discovery.” Did that cost me a star? I can live with that. My character’s self-discovery is what all my stories are about, pure and simple. The events that happen, the actions taken, the drama and trauma done, serve one purpose: defining the protagonist’s true inner story.

Not everyone cares about that. There are readers who will never look twice at my books, never read the description, never glance at the blurbs. And that’s okay. I don’t write for them. I write for people who have my sensibilities. It’s all I can do. I would rather give those readers a deep, satisfying experience if at all possible.  I write for people who want to examine their own lives along side my character’s, who enjoy a little introspection, who marvel at the way people can hurt and love each other, who feel the strange and wonderful ties to family.

That’s who I am, and that’s why you should read a book of mine. For pleasure, for comfort, for a puzzle, for a secret (I admit: I love a good secret identity), for some laughs, and for at least one sentimental moment. But if you don’t want that in a story, I understand.

I’ve given up murder (mostly) so you don’t need to worry. 🙂

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Lise McClendon’s new novel (now under construction) will take the reader back to France and the Bennett sisters of Blackbird Fly. For a sneak peek click here.

Things are crazy busy in this neck of the woods. Right now I’m demolishing a 1950s basement in Seattle with my son. (I am in the muscle bussed in from out of state.) So I am reblogging this writing post from back in May. I wish I was writing more but as it happens, life intervenes. Happy autumn!

Lise McClendon

The more I write fiction the more my psyche, my subconscious, my mind — challenges me to look deeper. Inside my head where the ideas come from, where fears abide, where whatever creepy or amazing or fascinating thing happened to me as a child lives. At my very first writing conference I met a therapist and asked her if she could help me remember parts of my childhood. She demurred. She said something along the lines that lots of stuff was best forgotten. We are so vulnerable as children, easily scarred. We all have scars, scabs we pick at in our fiction in our old age. My sincere wish is I don’t write grim, depressing books as I age.

Not that I am *particularly* elderly — yet. But this year I turned a significant leaf in the calendar. I spend a little time each day razzing myself for thinking “old…

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Growing old waiting for your audiobook? Take action!

A quick note here mid-week to give a shout-out to Iambik Audiobook who have released three of my books on audio recently. Not only does the author have input into the narrator selection (akin to having final approval on your book cover — when did that happen?) but you work with the narrator and Iambik to make the best product you can. I found the experience transforming, maybe because I’m doing my books with Thalia Press these days. (That means I edit myself basically so I love having a team at Iambik!)
The company is bundling the three audiobooks — my two Dorie Lennox mysteries, One O’clock Jump and Sweet and Lowdown, plus my stand-alone suspense Blackbird Fly, with a 25% discount right now! The single title price is only $6.99 but you can all three for just over $15. (The discount code is mcclendon-audio through the Iambik website.)

To find out more about the books and their narrators, check out this Iambik blog post. I loved what they had to say about my writing (another reason to love Iambik!)

The Iambik Blog: The Prolific and the Chroniclers