Sunday Salon - The Deadly Combination @ Velma Teague
(left to right, Juliet Blackwell, Sophie Littlefield, and Ann Parker)
The Deadly Combination of Juliet Blackwell, Sophie Littlefield, and Ann Parker were a hit at the Velma Teague Library when they appeared to discuss "Strong Heroines in Crime Fiction". They themselves exemplify strong women showcasing their talents. And, it was obvious they're having fun touring together. They brought that sense of fun to the library program.
After introductions, they thanked me, and said how pleased they were to be at the Velma Teague Library. They said they told other people in the mystery community they were coming to Glendale, and everyone said, oh, you're appearing at the Teague. Sophie told the audience the library was lucky to have so much community support, and it was good to see people turn out for a library program.
Each author introduced their books and characters. Ann Parker said she almost feels as if she's local because her publisher is Poisoned Pen Press in Scottsdale. She told the audience that she writes a historical mystery series set in Leadville, Colorado during the biggest silver rush in the world. People came from all over, but weren't prepared for Leadville. At 10,000 feet, it's winter for nine months of the year there. Some people thought they could just pick silver off the ground. Ann's character is a woman who runs a saloon in Leadville, Inez Stannert. She calls her a woman in a man's world. The three books in the series all have rhyming titles, Silver Lies, Iron Ties, and Leaden Skies. She said they've had a good time teasing her about future titles. She thought Golden Thighs might be going too far, but the others assured her it might be a hit.
Juliet Blackwell is actually Julie Goodson-Lawes. She said she wrote her first mystery series with her sister, using a family name, Hailey Lind. Those books made up the art forgery mystery series. The fourth book in that series will be out next summer, with a new publisher. The first book, Feint of Art, was nominated for an Agatha for Best First Mystery Novel, and then, after three books, the series was dropped. Juliet said she's writing her new books by herself. It's a paranormal series, beginning with Secondhand Spirits. Some readers have told Julie this is the first paranormal book they ever read.
Julie said Secondhand Spirits was fun to write. When she first decided to write a book about a witch, she said the only fun witch she knew was from Bewitched, and she didn't want to write Bewitched. But, her background is in anthropology, so she researched the history of witchcraft. There has been a lot of mystery, and atrocities still committed in the name of witchcraft. Witchcraft is important to women's issues because most people accused are women. Witchcraft is often associated with healing. The wise woman is respected in villages until things go wrong, and then she takes the blame. There are serious themes about witchcraft and culture. Juliet showed her cover, and said you can tell it's a fun book because of the sparkles on the cover. But, she said she thinks it's a little more serious than the cover indicates.
A Bad Day for Sorry is Sophie Littlefield's first published book. She said it's considered part of St. Martin's hardboiled publications. When she thinks of strong women, she thinks of the middle-aged woman, often overlooked by society. Stella Hardesty is fifty, and she suffered from domestic abuse. She kills her husband, and that unleashes a part of her she never knew she had. Sophie said she herself went through a mid-life crisis, and had a bad attitude. She was frustrated with her experiences, needing reading glasses, etc. She complained that no one warned her about changes - she can't see to put her mascara on. Women of a certain age are not respected by society.
The authors asked the audience what they thought when they heard "strong women". Responses ranged from determined, problem solver, goes against convention. Julie said if anyone watched The Closer or Saving Grace, the characters were more mature women. They said the people buying books are women, grown-ups. One woman in the audience commented, "We have time to read." Another word thrown out was flexibility. Julie said at one time women protagonists, such as Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, were just women put into the male role as a private investigator. Now, female characters are strong, and very individual. Sophie said that might have been the source of some of her irritation. She used to have to wear men's suits, with the floppy white bows that women wore. Now, books celebrate that women are themselves.
Juliet summed that part of the discussion up, saying women show strength in culture, family relationships, romantic relationships, physical, beauty and self-image, strong opinions and politics. Sophie said culture focuses on physical beauty. Her character, Stella, is twenty pounds overweight, ordinary-looking. She acknowledges that she's aging. Some agents were willing to take Sophie on as a client, but they wanted Stella to be more attractive. Fortunately, she found an agent comfortable with the character.
Juliet said her books always have an element of romance. She said a woman can still be strong with an interest in romance. Blackwell said she's willing to argue that men's fiction also has romance, but in a different form. She said readers want well-rounded characters, and life had romantic relationships, connections with friends and community. For a witch, romance is an issue, because women are the most dangerous when sexual. In Europe, the traditional belief is that the more sexually attractive one is, the more dangerous. Isn't it the sexy ones who are likely to kill you?
The Malleus Maleficarum was a witch-hunter's handbook that covered sexual magic. Part of the handbook covered those who believed in witchcraft, and those who didn't believe. The more people believed, the more likely they were to turn in their neighbors. If a witch cast a spell sexually, someone would fall for them.
Blackwell's character, Lily Ivory, is a natural witch. She was born with powers. Lily is afraid of romance and sex because it might stir up something primal in her. Her feelings are part of the character arc in the series. How do you let yourself become vulnerable? In her previous series, Hailey Lind wrote of a character with two love interests. It reflects contradictory desires and interests, and provides tension.
Ann Parker said she wanted to provide context for the world Inez Stannert lives in, her woman in a man's world. The 1870 census said there were 300 saloons in Leadville. Three of them were run by women. So, she plays around with assumptions when people come to town, assumptions that a female saloon keeper might be easy. It's a boomtown in Leadville, and, like Inez, people are coming from all over to make new starts and shed their pasts. In the 19th century, everyone came to Leadville, investors, prospectors, women who followed the miners, as prostitutes, bakers, launderers, and miners themselves. Inez walks a knife's edge. She is a saloon keeper, but she's also spiritual. She attends church, but can handle herself in a brawl at the saloon. Her husband disappeared. He's been gone eight months. People often disappeared back then, just took off, or fell down a mine. Inez doesn't know if she's a married woman or not. In Silver Lies, she meets a man, and almost has to seduce him. How does the outside world view her? She wants to make her position public with the man she's seeing. At the same time, she wants to be perceived as a successful business woman.
According to Juliet, when writing women in mysteries, family becomes an issue. It's better to have characters without small children, because a mother wants to protect her children. Lily Ivory, Blackwell's heroine, was run out of a small west Texas town at seventeen. She's spent her life traveling, looking for a place to settle. The Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco is safe for a witch. Lily runs a vintage clothing store. The book, Secondhand Spirits, is about motherhood. Lily was rejected by her mother, raised by an elderly woman who was a witch herself, so was comfortable with one. She provided Lily with a sense of family. The book also includes La Llorona, a demon. Spanish-speaking cultures have variations of the legend about her, that she was a woman of humble means who had children with a man who left her. In Mexico, the story says he left her with the children, and she drowns the children in the river, and then herself. She wanders the riverbanks, calling for her children, and wailing. La Llorona means "the weeping woman", and she takes children if they're out at night. The stories of La Llorona are like the Bogeyman. In Secondhand Spirits, Lily deals with a mother of lost children, and comes to grips with her own fears.
Sophie Littlefield brought up Robert Crais' Elvis Cole. When she thinks of physical strength, she thinks of a bad ass such as Elvis. She said all of the male protagonists in crime novels are strong, and they never seem to work out. Littlefield's character, Stella Hardesty, tries to intimidate men into not being abusive. It's unrealistic for a fifty-year-old woman who hasn't worked out to have physical strength. So, Stella starts a fitness program. She looks for ways to handcuff men, so she buys herself bondage items for restraining men. Sophie said she knew her character needed to restrain them, and she was looking for the plastic handcuffs police use, but the Internet led her to bondage sites, and that's what happened with Stella. When creating women characters, physical strength must be considered. Julie pointed out that Stella has another weapon, a gun. Lily Ivory doesn't need a gun. And, Inez Stannert has guns, and her words.
According to Ann Parker, Inez is a woman with strong opinions, and she uses those against others' opinions. She said, if we think politics are bad now, the politics of 1880, as shown in Leaden Skies, included shady dealings. Grant was expected to run for a third term as president, but he didn't get the nomination. In 1876-77, there was a push for the woman's vote, but it didn't happen in Colorado. In 1880, there was a woman running a woman's newspaper, in Colorado, that was for woman's suffrage, and supported prostitutes. These are elements in Leaden Skies. Inez doesn't get suffrage. Characters were not interested in women's rights because they were making their own way.
The authors were asked about their writing schedule. Sophie said she had been a stay-at-home mom, and volunteered. Once her children were 12 and 14, she transferred her energies to writing. So, she gets up, writes, takes the kids to school, writes, picks the kids up, and she yells at them, and they yell at her, then she writes. Once she was published, the writing time was cut in half. It's important to be part of the book community. She works all the time, but, if she's not writing, she's working on promotion.
Juliet responded that it takes absolute determination to write constantly. She gets up at 4, and writes. She's a Peet's Coffee addict. It's a very strong coffee. She has no transition time. She just gets up at 4, and starts writing. Nobody talks to her at that time of morning. She's discovered nothing is open, so there are no distractions. She gets more done in those first two or three hours than later. She has a day job; she works for herself. She writes for several hours, gets her son up and off, works at her job, takes a nap at 2, and gets a second wind. She'll research later in the day, and does her blogging, Tweeting, and correspondence with her editor. She's president of her local chapter of Sisters in Crime. She spends time reading other people's manuscripts (as they all do). She doesn't watch TV. It's hard to tell friends that work (writing) is what she loves to do, and she'd rather write than go out with a friend. When writers get together, they talk writing.
Ann told the audience she doesn't write at the pace of the others. She has a job, two kids and a spouse. She said it takes a while for her to write. She's always motivated to write the book, and is all excited to start, and then she loses steam. Then life hits, and then she'll get a call or contract from her publisher that nudges her. Once she has a deadline, she's propelled by panic. She blasts through to the end of the book. When readers told her Leaden Skies was fast paced at the end, she knew it was because she was rushing when she wrote it. She has a friend, Margaret Grace, another writer, who lives nearby, and invited her to her house to get away and have the chance to write. So, she went to Margaret's house, disappeared into the guestroom, and wrote big chunks of the book on weekends.
When asked if they ever run out of ideas, Sophie said she wrote eight books before her first one was published, and they were all kinds of genres, inspirational, horror, everything but science fiction. She said as you learn one thing, other things fall into place. Now she understands more as to the process of writing mysteries. She has mental muscle memory. But, she won't run out of ideas.
Juliet said she has to trim back ideas, rather than worrying about running out of ideas. She does research, and said she could write 100 pages on a topic. Stephen King called it "killing your little darlings", saying there are sections of your writing that you loved, but they just don't fit. If it doesn't fit, you have to kill it. They said they all have files for rejects, thinking they'll use them someday. Juliet said she has scrap paper with ideas on them. It's only the new author who doesn't know what to write.
Ann Parker, Juliet Blackwell, and Sophie Littlefield are definitely a deadly combination. It was a treat to bring them to the audience at the Velma Teague Library.
I have been a library manager/administrator for over 30 years, in Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and, now, Indiana. Winner of the 2011 Arizona Library Association Outstanding Library Service Award. I am a contributing Book Reviewer for Library Journal, Mystery Readers Journal, ReadertoReader.com and VibrantNation.com. Winner of the 2009 and 2010 Spinetingler Awards for Best Reviewer. First Fan Guest of Honor for Desert Sleuths Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Write Now! Conference.
It's an honor to be asked to review books, and I'm grateful to all the publishers, publicists, and authors who send me books. Thank you. Reviews will appear on my blog if I've had a chance to read, and finish, the book. If I do not finish a book, I won't review it, and I will not respond to emails asking when, or if, I'll be reviewing a book.
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