Kate Flora here, musing on a conversation I had with my husband on Saturday while we were driving on the Maine Turnpike. We seem to have some of our best conversations in the car, probably because otherwise both of us are sitting hunched over our keyboards, and we tend to mumble responses because our minds are elsewhere. Out on the road, our conversations are only distracted by the absurdness of other drivers–like that guy in the humungous SUV who is trying to pass on the left and force himself in front of us–or trying to puzzle out what some of the vanity plates mean. Like RNNGONMT.
We were talking about the amazing ability some of my fellow mystery writers have to work a room, whether it’s at a conference or in a library. How they can smile and schmooze and always make a point of finding the most important people and showering them with attention. We talked about how brilliant the current Sisters in Crime national president, Hank Phillippi Ryan, is at connecting with people. I admired the way Katherine Hall Page displays her old fashion manners and love of librarians. We talked about Vicki Doudera’s vibrant energy.
We drove along in silence for a while and then I said: “I’m an Eeyore.”
A little more silence, and he said: “Yes.”
I’m not naturally outgoing. I’m naturally reclusive. But there’s a strange duality in the writer’s life. Our work demands the ability to sit, alone and isolated, for long periods of time. It takes me nine months to a year and a half to write a book. Often, that’s only a first draft. Then it can take several more drafts to get the book into final, publishable shape. When I’m working on true crime, like Finding Amy or Death Dealer, it can take years to do the interviews, shape them into a readable narrative, go back and reinterview and fill in the blanks, and then edit it into a finished book. That is a lot of hours all alone at my desk, living in my head or living in story.
I spend so much time with imaginary people, or the dead, that sometimes, when I get out into the world, I feel like Alice in Wonderland. Wow, I think, there are people out here. There is bustle and commotion. There are people who live lives full of adventure, or who do things on weekends besides the occasional trip out to the garden to battle with pests and stake up the fallen. They are biking and boating and skating and fishing. (My warden friend, Roger Guay, says that this summer I MUST go fly fishing and catch a big trout.) Other than trips to the grocery store, or to practice my secret vice–scoring designer clothes for absurdly low prices at my favorite thrift shop–I really don’t get out much. Except in role as an author.
The other part of the writer’s life is that once we’ve finished the book because we can keep ourselves in the chair all that time, disciplined and isolated, suddenly, we’re supposed to go out and market the book. These days, it’s even worse, because there used to be a cycle–write for six or nine months, go out and promote for the rest, then come back and write. Now we are supposed to tweet brilliantly, make a million Facebook friends, pin up clever photos on Pinterest, and otherwise market ourselves 24/7.
It is hard for me. I can’t imagine anyone is that interested in what I’m doing, thinking, or seeing, moment by moment. I like the old system better. I prefer human contact to electronic. When I do get out, it’s usually to go to a library, or a book club, or to present to a group that has invited me to speak, or teaching a class of aspiring writers. Invariably, before an event, I have a moment of panic, thinking I won’t have anything to say. I will struggle with the author’s dual challenge: Being authentic and interesting while talking about something I’m passionate about–writing, while finding an unobnoxious way of doing the “buy my book” dance, which we all have to do to survive.
This Eeyore thinks of herself as not very comfortable in groups of more than four. So I suffer great trepidation as I head into larger groups. But then, when I find myself seated in front of an audience, that all goes away. I remember that I am a storyteller, and storytellers can employ the oral tradition as well as the written one. I am reminded, by the attentive faces, that readers are genuinely curious about how writers go about creating our stories and what is our process for plotting. How we find our characters. How we create tension. How we sustain a series character over the arc of several books and how much will we let them grow and change. What it is like to deal with a real murder and whether the writing process and challenges are different.
If I can stumble through my talk without losing my place too many times (I can claim the excuse of an aging brain, right?), then I will get to the questions. If–as I hope it is–my talk is a treat for them, then the audience questions are a treat for me. Just as readers are curious about how a writer works, writers are deeply curious about what our readers are wondering. What questions will they ask that I’ve never been asked before? What questions or observations will I carry away that will influence my writing or how I see my characters?
Last summer was my summer at the library. I was in a lot of Maine libraries, talking to readers, and listening to what they wondered. One of the most interesting questions I was asked was whether writing amoral or evil characters has any effect on my own character. I decided that part of that answer was that we all have many sides of ourselves, and can draw on our darker sides (as well on the evil people we’ve known) to craft those characters. Part is that I don’t think writing them has made me more evil. But is it liberating to let our characters do some of the things we long to.
More recently, I was speaking at Maranacook High School and a student asked me if it was a challenge to differentiate the voices of my characters. It was a question I faced early in my writing career and keep having to remind myself of and work on, especially in the Burgess books where it’s so important to distinguish my trio of male cops. I was able to talk about the challenge of learning to listen to how different people speak.
As we head into summer, there are some fun events on the calendar–libraries with some of my friends from Maine Crime Writers, Books in Boothbay, a talk at the Orrs Bailey Island Yacht Club, and a sit down with a book group to talk about Finding Amy, and an all-day workshop for Maine Writers and Publishers on writing the mystery. As an Eeyore, I will be very nervous going in. I often go back to the advice I got from a lovely mystery writer, Barbara Burnett Smith, whose day job was a corporate trainer. She said, “Get out from behind that podium, don’t sit behind a table. Ask for an armchair or perch on a stool. Don’t fold your arms, even if you’re nervous. Make yourself accessible to your audience.”
I will also have to remind myself of what a good friend said, as I headed out to do my first ever author reading: Remember, they want to like you. Once I get over my Eeyore habit of wanting to hide in a corner and, when people approach, mutter, “Thanks for noticing me,” I will remember this: I’m a writer who loves to talk about her work and loves other writers. Then I will start having a good time.