“Writing must be such a lonely profession.” The patron hands me a stack of audiobooks to check out. She drops in every two weeks at the tiny country library near my house to get books for her commute into Portland. “I’d go nuts if I had to work from home. You never see anyone except the UPS guy.”
I flip over Alone and take the card out. Lisa Gardner spent an entire afternoon at a pearls-and-golf-pants resort telling me the plusses and minuses of hitting the NYT list and how it effects a writer’s ability to innovate.
“That’s why Julia helps us out.” Paula, the accessions volunteer, drops a stack of shiny new hardcovers on my desk. “Gives her a chance to talk with folks. Right?”
The uppermost book is William Kent Kruger’s Heaven’s Keep. Kent took me to a barbeque joint in Minneapolis—barbeque! In Minneapolis!–and we worked our way through an entire container of napkins debating ways to keep a series fresh.
“That’s right.” The next audiobook is Life Support, by Tess Gerritsen. Based on two brief conversations and an exchange of emails, Tess lingered for an hour after a Borders gig, advising me, after I had been left agentless by Jimmy Vines’ retirement. Then she went home and called Meg Ruley and told her she ought to take me on.
As the commuter leaves, an older lady looks up from the New Fiction shelf. “Oh, are you the mystery writer?”
“You know, I’ve been thinking about writing a book now I’m retired.” I brace myself for whatever comes next. “Should I plan it all out first, or just jump right in?”
“Whatever works for you.” I point to the copy of Savage Garden on the Staff Recommends table. “Denise Hamilton outlines everything that’s going to happen, so she knows all the twists and turns ahead of time. On the other hand,” I reach for Bad Luck and Trouble on the reshelving cart, “Lee Child just makes it all up as he goes along.” And turns his books in two years ahead of schedule. Bastard.
“Ooh.” She stares at the books. “So you know other writers?”
“Some of them. We meet at conventions and conferences.”
The dazzle in her eyes tells me she’s never spent any time with authors. “What do you do when you get together?”
Drink and bitch about our publicity.
“We talk about literature.” That’s true. Sometimes. I remember an evening-long conversation with Marcus Sakey, thrashing out what made a hero attractive to female readers. “And the business, of course. Like this guy,” I pull a tattered copy of A Cold Day in Paradise from the paperback swap display. “I met him at my first Bouchercon. He had gotten published through a contest, like I had, and talking about what that was like was enormously helpful to me.”
“A contest?” Paula returns with a stack of children’s books. “I thought you had to know someone to get published.”
“Nope.” I snatch Swan For the Money off the New Releases shelf. “Donna Andrews won the same contest I did.” And at my first Malice, gave me spot-on advice about transitioning from day-job to writing full time.
“This is very encouraging.” The retired lady adds both books to her stack. “Any suggestions on a book about writing?”
“Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Taught me everything I know. Second floor nonfiction. 808.3.”
She smiles at me. “Do you know that author, too?”
I decide not to tell her how I descended into inarticulate fangirling when I met Lawrence Block at the Nero Awards. “Just an admirer.”
As she vanishes upstairs, a harried-looking man I don’t recognize comes in the door. He drops several books on the desk. “I owe on these.” As he fishes a dollar out of his wallet, I tap one of his returns. “How did you like In the Bleak Midwinter?”
“The heroine is an idiot who drives into the mountains in a snowstorm without telling anyone, and the bad guy explains everything in a big speech at the end. Don’t bother.”
I console myself with the wise words of Doug Preston, who told me, “For an author, the humiliation never ends.”
“You got any traditional mysteries with smart protagonists?”
Sighing, I lead him into the stacks. We stop at the Ps. “Try Louise Penny.”
My would-be-writer comes downstairs. “All ready to check out!” At the desk, I take her card and stamp her books. She leans forward. “Is there anything else you can tell me? You know—the real secret to writing a successful mystery?”
“Aah.” I look left and right. “I don’t know. Kris Montee, who writes as PJ Parrish, passed the real secret on to me. I don’t know if I should–”
“I won’t tell. Cross my heart. I have to know!”
“Okay.” I lower my voice. “The real secret to writing a successful mystery is…”
“Never kill a cat.”