Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Kathryn Wall: New Career in Mid-Life

Interviewer: Sandra Parshall

Kathryn Wall, author of the Bay Tanner series and a member of the Sisters in Crime national board, wrote her first story at age six, then turned her attention to other pursuits for a few decades. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and attended college in Ohio and Pennsylvania. After 25 years as an accountant, she retired with her husband Norman to Hilton Head, SC. Then her real work began, as she set about realizing her ambition to become a published novelist.

You started by self-publishing your first book. It was picked up by a small press, and before long you had a contract with St. Martin’s, so self-publishing led to good things for you. But would you advise other writers to go this route?

I always tell aspiring writers that self-publishing should be your last option, not your first. I'm on a lot of writing- and mystery-related listservs, and I can feel the angst of frustrated authors almost bleeding through the screen. And today, the temptation is so great to skip all that copying and synopsizing and submitting and simply go for it yourself.

My decision to choose iUniverse for the first Bay Tanner, In For A Penny, was made partly as a result of my age when I began the process (just shy of 50) and partly out of ignorance. I sent out 30 queries, all at one time, and didn't receive the final rejection letter for almost 2 years. At that rate, I figured I'd either be dead or in the 'home' before I ran through all my options.

Because the paradigm of the POD publisher was so new back then, I didn't have a lot of information about the drawbacks inherent in my choice: inadequate discounts, non-returnability, and so forth. Most writers today, thanks to networking, listservs, and blogs, are a lot more savvy than I was. And a lot of these drawbacks have been addressed and changed. I'm not certain knowing these problems up front would have deterred me, but it certainly would have made my life after self-pubbing a lot easier. There was a huge learning curve that writers today don't have to face.

But I had some things going for me, too. I received a lot of input from my critique group and intense editing by my retired English-teacher mother (who wielded a vicious red pen) and my Ph.D. in English sister-in-law, both of whom were supportive but critical. So I felt as if I had a good product to offer when I finally had it in hand. Thinking your first draft is ready for production is a huge mistake an unfortunate number of writers make.

Bottom line? With the proliferation of small mystery presses, there are a lot more options than I had ten years ago, but the goal for most writers has always been a traditional NY press. My advice is to do your best to achieve that goal, because the truth is that being able to name St. Martin's as my publisher carries a cachet that opens most doors. Will that change? Maybe some day. But for now, don't take shortcuts until you've exhausted your other options.

However, this is just my take. YMMV.

Could you expand a bit on the advantages and drawbacks of each type of publishing experience -- self-publishing, small press, and major press?

Please bear in mind that these are MY experiences. They're not universal, and others will undoubtedly disagree.

I can't say this often enough: Being published by one of the major NY houses is a good thing. It automatically conveys legitimacy (deserved or not) on your work and announces to the literary world that you have passed the test. It's not fair, but it's how things are. Chances are you won't make a ton of money or become a household name or get interviewed on Good Morning, America, but it's what serious writers strive for.

But . . . more and more, legitimate, royalty-paying small presses are giving the big boys a run for their money, and I say more power to them. We can all rattle off a list of the major players in this area who sign good and sometimes great writers, edit and advise, and publish quality products. These enterprises are worthy of our support and play a welcome role in giving mystery readers lots more books from which to choose. For the aspiring writer, they offer most of the perks of the majors while providing more author input and more hands-on attention from the editors. My small press was regional, not savvy about the mystery market, and that left me with most of the marketing to do on my own. Luckily, I was retired, so I had the time. Most folks aren't so fortunate.

Self-publishing--in the sense of forming your own company to publish your own books, as opposed to the pay-to-publish industry--can be satisfying but dangerous if you're not a business person by nature or training. You can lose your shirt . . . and pants, socks, and flash drives in a heartbeat. Succeeding at being both creator and producer--and marketing, art, and distribution departments--takes a rare person. It would be tough to manage with a day job and/or family that consumes the majority of your time.

If I had to name the biggest difference among all three types of publishing, I'd say the elephant in the room is distribution. The big boys have it. The small presses have it to a certain extent, but generally without the sales staff of a NY house, or the connections to the Baker & Taylor buyer, the Costco buyer, and so on. A self-publisher can get placement on, perhaps a local independent bookstore or two, but anything farther afield than that is tough. By its nature, this limits the number of books you can hope to sell in attempting to recoup your investment. Certainly there are people who have done it successfully, but, as a former accountant, I can tell you a lot of them went broke, too.

Sorry if my take on self-publishing sounds incredibly negative, but you can find lots of people who'll urge every writer to go for it, fulfill that dream, the hell with all those naysayers, just do it yourself. Like most things, though, it's a lot harder than it looks from the outside. Thus spake the former bean-counter.

You retired to South Carolina, only to launch a demanding new career as a mystery writer. Is murdering people in print more fun than accounting? (Okay, that’s not a serious question.) Did you ever imagine that you would spend your later years meeting deadlines and attending conferences and doing signings?

Of course murdering people is more fun than accounting. I had colleagues that will tell you ANYTHING is more fun than accounting, but I'm one of those weird people who actually enjoyed it.

From the time I was six I dreamed of writing things that other people would want to read. Unfortunately, not many other folks in my life saw that as a viable way to make a living, so I never received much encouragement. While I was practicing accounting, I began writing a historical novel, doing research at the library on my lunch hours because this was the pre-Internet days. (Did I mention in one of my previous answers that I'm OLD???) I managed to crank out an impressive 11 chapters in 8 years, and it dawned on me that I was going to have to wait a while before this dream came to fruition. But the drive never left me, and I was fortunate enough to be able to retire at 50, and I was off.

I attacked the process by taking some community-ed courses at the local college, hanging out with like-minded people, and helping to found a local writers group here on Hilton Head. I guess I never lost sight of the dream, and I'm basically stubborn by nature.

But no one was more surprised than I when it actually worked! I realize how lucky I am, despite the hard work. Lots of people work hard and never reach the goal. Folks helped me along the way--too many of them to mention--and serendipity played a huge role. No doubt about it, I'm a lucky woman, and I know it.

Aside from all the work involved, how has publication changed your life? Do you have any regrets about the loss of privacy and leisure time?

I think my husband says it best. Every once in a while, as we're driving up I-95 to another event or strapping into an airplane seat headed for a conference, he'll look over and say, "Didn't we retire? I distinctly remember retiring. I'm sure that was us."

There's no doubt it's a tremendous amount of work. Not the writing. That is the sheer joy of the whole process. But the attendant traveling and speaking (tough gig for a former accountant) can be wearing, especially for us gray-haired folks. I answer every e-mail personally; I try to participate in local fundraising events for charity; I try to accommodate local reading groups and libraries; I go to at least 3 or 4 conferences a year; I travel extensively around the Southeast; I hold office in both the Southeast chapter of MWA and the national Sisters in Crime board; and once in a while I stay home and clean the bathrooms. It does get hectic, and sometimes I get tired and think of that old saw, "Be careful what you wish for." But it was my dream for most of my life, and I'm living it. Bottom line, I wouldn't trade it for anything. As long as time and health permit, my husband and I will keep strapping on our travelin' shoes and making the rounds.

You’re not a native of the South, but you set your books there. What draws you to a southern setting rather than the area where you grew up? Do you think it’s easier to appreciate and describe a setting that you haven't known since childhood?

I was meant to be born in the South. I don't know what my parents were thinking when they decided to settle in Ohio. I've always felt an affinity for this part of the country, although I never traveled here until just before we bought our first beach condo in 1984. We instantly fell in love with Beaufort County, SC. The admixture of old and new, black and white, history and progress--we have it all here. Maybe that's why I can write so lovingly about it. Lots of us carpetbaggers subscribe to the old cliche, "I wasn't born in the South, but I got here as quick as I could." Another favorite is, "Southern by choice if not by birth." There are a lot of misconceptions about it--I know, because I shared some of them until I actually moved here fulltime in 1994. I've come to see a lot of what looked like negatives in a different light, my education springing from the wonderful true Southerners I've met over the years.

I guess I could have set the books in northern Ohio (a la Les Roberts) and maybe had just as much fun with them, but this just feels right. For me. For now. And when the wind is howling across Lake Erie on a bleak February night--and I'm sitting on my back deck in Hilton Head watching the sun set over the marsh and the herons take roost in the old live oaks--I know I made the right decision. For myself as well as for my books.

Some writers say they have trouble selling books with highly localized settings. Have you perceived any regional bias against southern mysteries among publishers, booksellers or readers?

I've long felt a bias, especially in NYC, about the South and Southern writers in particular. I once had a Big Apple member of the publishing world remark that she couldn't understand the appeal of Pat Conroy to the rest of the country. I wanted to say, "Excuse me?? They don't have dysfunctional families in Iowa? Or NYC, for that matter? Come on!"

I think maybe it stems from the fact that the South has been considered 'backward' by a lot of folks, for a variety of reasons we don't need to get into here, but which aren't necessarily valid, IMHO. Talk is slower. Movement is slower. Family is more important than work. You've heard them. So somehow mysteries in and about the South appear not to have universal appeal, at least in the eyes of some publishing folk. Labeling any book 'regional' can be a blessing and a curse. Of course, people from the 'region' may find it more appealing because it's set in their own back yard, but the very act of labeling seems to me to signal to people in Idaho that maybe this won't be their cup of tea.

When I first ranted about this issue on the DorothyL listserv, I used John Sanford's Lucas Davenport "Prey" novels as an example. I've never heard them called 'regional upper-Midwest police procedurals,' have you? Do we have a category called Northern fiction? Great Plains mystery? New England cozy? I don't know, maybe as a transplant I'm hyper-sensitive about it, but to me it comes out sounding like a pejorative, and I don't like it. I think in all aspects of the mystery genre we're getting too cute with the subtitles, and it isn't good for our industry. The characters and the story are just as important as the setting, and we ought to quit trying to pigeonhole every book that comes along. When someone calls my books "Southern regional cozies," I feel as if the folks who love Ed McBain or John Sanford or Laura Lippman or Tony Hillerman are being told, "This probably isn't for you." I'd rather my books be judged on their merits (or lack thereof) than on some label.

Okay, stand back. I'm stepping down from my soapbox now.

Quite a few women -- and some men too -- are publishing mysteries for the first time in middle age. What do you think an older writer brings to fiction that a younger person may not?

Life. Experience. Life experience. For those of you pre-baby-boomers who are eagerly eyeing the Social Security web site, you're a far different person from the twenty-something who emerged from college ready to change the world. Most of us who've reached middle-to-old age have come to realize that we've learned a lot along the way, some things in spite of ourselves, and that's what we have to share. A more mature outlook on the value and nature of relationships. The effect of evil on a small community of people. The ability of a single strong, moral individual to effect change. The heart of the mystery, IMHO.

I guess it's mostly about hard lessons learned, about failures and triumphs the young haven't been through yet. We know who we are and who we aren't. Careers are solidified, families growing or grown, most of the big decisions are behind us. And the best part is we're smart enough to realize that we still have things to learn as well as to teach. And for many, like me, there just wasn't any time back then when all our energies were expended on earning a living.

When I created Bay Tanner, I made her 38 years old. I chose that age because it was the one at which I finally felt as if I had a lot of the important things figured out, and I remember what that felt like. As she moves toward forty and beyond, I want to share some of the person I was then, from the been-there-done-that perspective. I guess that's as good a word to end on as any. We older folks have perspective.

What aspects of craft have you consciously worked to improve? What other writers have you learned from, and what has their work taught you?

I think if I began naming names of those writers who have influenced me, this interview would be a lot longer than it already is. Let's just say I read voraciously, constantly, in bed, in the kitchen, waiting in line, on airplanes--everywhere, all the time. I'm not one of those writers who have to read outside the genre, either. I want to be challenged by the really gifted mystery writers, to make myself better, to keep up with what's being published, but mostly just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

An early influence was Mary Higgins Clark. I admired Christie, but I never wanted to emulate her. When I read, "Where Are the Children?" I immediately said, "That's what I want to do." I felt the same about Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell. I like the idea, the continuity, of a series, the opportunity to develop characters over a number of books. I want to learn to create suspense like Higgins Clark, to create memorable characters, to bring the South I've come to love to such life that the reader is here with me. I read critically, too, trying to figure out why the masters of our genre became, well...masters.

I struggle most with plot because I don't outline. (I console myself with the fact that Stephen King doesn't either.) I find that if I set the whole story down, even if it's not a formal outline, I've lost my impetus, my reason for telling it. I need to let it unravel as it will, going back on subsequent edits to fill in gaps and rework clues. My Bay Tanner mysteries aren't necessarily whodunits. I strive as much to create atmosphere and character as plot, but it's the one element I have to work the hardest at.

What’s next for you and Bay Tanner?

I've signed a new contract with St. Martin's for two more Bay Tanners, so there will definitely be 2008 and 2009 books. After that, we'll see what opportunities come my way. I've dusted off that old historical I was working on back in my accounting days to see if I can reinvent it. Of course that early writing is embarrassing, but the setting was partially in the Lowcountry, and I'm wondering if I can rework it into a sort of prequel to the current series. Right now I don't have any extra time for other projects, but the mental pot is boiling. And I feel as if I still have stories to tell about Bay Tanner and Beaufort County, South Carolina.

Thanks so much for this opportunity to chat with you. I welcome your comments or questions. You can find me at


CJ Lyons said...

Great post, Kathy!! I love your wonderful attitude towards the publishing journey--no matter what path a person takes, it's the story that matters. Thanks for sharing with us!

mastephens said...

Wonderful article. Thank you for sharing your experiences and expertise!

Lonnie Cruse said...

Wonderful interview! I have the same "Am I retired or not?" problem! Thanks for joining us at Poe's Deadly Daughters!

Sandra Parshall said...

Kathy, I can't believe you thought you were "old" at nearly-50! I was -- well, let's just say I was a wee bit farther along in years than that when I published my first book. Fifty is the new 30! No one should abandon a dream because of age.

Ed Lynskey said...

Enjoyed reading your article and experiences. Thank you for sharing them.

Anonymous said...

What a terrific interview. Very inspiring. And now I'm going to buy one of your books! Your series sounds great and I love the setting.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Like Sandra, I was a wee bit further along in years when I started writing, too. But hey, keeps the brain sharp, eh?

Loved the interview. Very "real world." Encourages us all as we learn from those who have paved the way.

Thanks. Syl (Who just had her first book published by one of those small presses!

Roberta said...

I've gotten to know Kathy pretty well through Sisters in Crime, and first let me say, she's not as old as she makes herself sound! We're lucky to have her on our board because she has such an interesting range of experience and abilities. thanks for sharing your opinions on the pros and cons of various types of publishing--right on target.

Roberta Isleib