Barbara Ross: An Ambitious Woman

Paul Doiron here —

One of the great pleasures for me of becoming part of Maine Crime Writers was getting to know authors after having read (at best in some cases) a single book of theirs or having met them once or twice briefly at a group signing. There were also some writers whom I was altogether unfamiliar with. Barbara Ross fell into the latter category. She’d published a debut mystery set in Massachusetts for one thing (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m barely caught up with Maine crime canon), and in that cock-eyed way Mainers have of measuring time, she was still a newbie here, having lived a mere seven years in Boothbay Harbor. Given our relative unfamiliarity with each other, I appreciated the opportunity to interview her recently. What I learned is that not only is she a Maine writer on the rise, but she’s already lived a fascinating life that’s taught her a lot about where commercial publishing may be headed.

You had a highly successful career in technology before you wrote DEATH OF AN AMBITIOUS WOMAN. For the less tech-savvy readers among us, what specifically did you do? Can you talk a little bit about that time in your life and how working along the 128 Corridor prepared you to become a crime novelist?

I’ve worked for three start-ups and until relatively recently I was able to say all three still existed, which is pretty remarkable for start-ups.  They’ve since all been sold.  The first was a company called Information Mapping.  I answered an ad in the Globe that said, “Want to write part-time?” and was assured I would never be fulltime or have benefits. I went on to stay twelve years and run every division except finance.

From there, my friend Carol Vallone and I founded a company called WebCT which made Learning Management Systems which allow you to put courses or parts of courses online (pretty heady stuff in 1996) and are sold principally into higher education. We sold the company to our chief competitor Blackboard in 2006 for $180 million, or $154 million depending on how you count the cash and whose press release you read. In 2008 Carol again “persuaded” me to go to work for Wimba, another company in the higher ed technology space, which was sold to Blackboard in 2010.

As for how it prepared me to be a crime writer—for years I described myself as the Miss Marple of educational technology.  The industry is really a small village and I was in it so long I know where all the bodies are buried.

Was writing always something you did for yourself during your high-tech years or did it represent a deliberate shift in your focus?

I’ve been in a writers group for more than 15 years and its members are among my dearest friends. Honestly, I always felt like a writer who had stumbled into a business career, not the other way around. When I was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and there were too many Wharton people in an English class, I’d figure they were just fulfilling requirements and would transfer out. (Boy, I was a snotty undergraduate.)

Another move you made in your life was physical: coming to Maine to live in the former Seafarer Inn in Boothbay Harbor. What made you decide to make the leap?

My mother-in-law Olga Carito ran the Seafarer as a bed and breakfast for years, but she was getting older. Our younger child had gone off to college and my husband and I were rattling around in a too big house in Newton, MA. One day in the car, I turned to my husband and said, “We should buy a two family house where your mother can live downstairs in the winter and then we can buy the inn and keep it in the family.” There are days when I think these are the kinds of thoughts you should keep to yourself, but mostly it’s been great.

Whom do you consider to be your influences? Librarians especially like to talk about “read-alikes,” authors whom they consider to be similar to a new novelist. Who have you been compared with?

I think you write what you love, and for me that’s Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series and P.D. James, though I haven’t achieved anything as dark or as literary as either of them.

DEATH OF AN AMBITIOUS WOMAN is set in the fictional Massachusetts town of New Derby. Briefly, you give us your “elevator pitch” for the story and describe how you came to write it?

The elevator pitch is, “One ambitious woman investigates the death of another and learns what price she is willing to pay for success.”

I wanted to write a professional sleuth (see previous question) and I wondered what I could bring to that story.  I knew what it was like to lead and have that sense of responsibility, so I created a female police chief. I also wanted to show a successful woman who had a happy home life, because I think sometimes the message out there is that it isn’t possible to have both.

What surprises did you encounter in the publication process? 

As another tech exec friend who writes crime novels says, “Everyone in publishing goes on and on about how much it’s changing.  In the technology industry we call that ‘Thursday.’”

Has living in Maine changed your writing and how do you see it influencing your future work?

I’m working on a proposal for a series set in Maine now.  Who knows what will happen, but I’m hoping for the best because I’m kind of falling in love with the characters and the premise.

You are one of the co-editors and co-publishers of Level Best Books, which publishes an annual anthology of crime stories by New England writers. How did your involvement with that project start and what do you aim for when you put together a new anthology?

Level Best Books is magic for me. They published my first short story in Riptide, in 2004 at a time when I desperately needed someone to tell me, “There’s something here.  You’re not crazy.” In my writers group we’d egg each other on to have a Level Best submission every spring.

When the former editors, Kate Flora (who is every bit, probably more, entrepreneurial than I am—witness Level Best, New England Crime Bake, The Sisters in Crime New England Speakers Bureau, this blog, etc.), Ruth McCarty and Susan Oleksiw announced they were giving it up, the members of my writers group started talking about whether we could take it on. “Could we” became “should we” became “we must.”

I love it.  It fulfills that part of me that is a businessperson.  Our new anthology, Best New England Crime Stories 2012: Dead Calm, will be released 11/11/11.

Are there stories you chose that have gone on to win prizes or are especially proud of? How does someone submit to Level Best?

In last year’s anthology, Maine’s Judy Green’s story was nominated for an Edgar®, Sheila Connolly’s story was nominated for an Agatha and Kathy Chencharik’s story won a Derringer for best flash. The awards are a tremendous amount of fun and it’s something we can offer the authors because we pay a pittance.

But the thing that I love the most about Level Best is carrying on the previous editors tradition of offering first publication to a few authors each year.  Nothing excites me more than publishing a new and talented voice.  You can find our submission guidelines at http://levelbestbooks.com/submissions

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6 Responses to Barbara Ross: An Ambitious Woman

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Barb and Paul…this is a great interview. I posted the one Gerry did with me on my web page and plan to use it lots. You should, too. And I’ve known Barb for a very long time…but I learned new things in this interview.

    Best of luck with Level Best and your new book. I’m a huge fan, as you know, of Death of an Ambitious Woman. I’m eager to see where you take your police chief next.

  2. Pat Remick says:

    Enjoyed this interview very much — and I highly recommend Death of an Ambitious Woman, too!

  3. Great interview. I like your comment Barb, that you are a writer sometimes posing as a businesswomen. I can relate!

    • Barb Ross says:

      I’m glad you can relate, Vicki. I had wonderful fun during my tech career and I did embrace it, but I always had a little bit of that fish out of water feeling.

  4. Rhonda Lane says:

    Thank you so much for this interview, Barb and Paul. I love the line, ” … in the technology industry, we call that Thursday.”