Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
This is the first in a series of occasional interviews with authors who have recently published their first mysteries. Ashna Graves is the pseudonym of Wendy Madar, co-author of the biography Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston. Ashna's first mystery, Death Pans Out, was published last spring by Poisoned Pen Press. She lives in Oregon, where her mysteries are set.
Was your first published mystery the first novel you wrote?
I blush to admit this, but it was my sixth book-length work of fiction. It was preceded by three other mysteries that I did not try very hard to publish—their day may come yet—and a mainstream novel that I’ve been working on for years, and hope to finish before long. There was also a strange work, a sort of fictional autobiography, that is unlikely to be resurrected. All of this adds up to many thousands of words as I felt my way into a fiction style. While I am absolutely attached to the act of writing, I’m not very attached to my own words and happily set aside hundreds of pages that don’t seem to be working. Nothing feels truly wasted because every word written is another word practiced. This isn’t to say that I’d be contented not to publish. When a manuscript turns into a book that finds readers, it stops being a soliloquy and becomes a conversation—and you can finally stop rewriting the damned thing!
How long did you spend writing the book?
This is a difficult question to answer because I tend to work on several projects at once, plus I rewrite exhaustively. A reasonable estimate is probably four or five months for the first draft of Death Pans Out, followed by reworking that must have added up to another half a year. This includes time spent making some changes recommended by the publisher’s readers and the editor. Considerable stretches of time sometimes elapsed between reworkings, and the manuscript sat in the digital drawer for more than a year while I turned to other writing. This was probably good in that it provided distance and a fresh eye when I went back to it.
Tell us about your road to publication -- pitfalls, detours and all. How long did it take, from the time you finished the book to the time you sold it?
This mystery turned out to be fairly easy to sell once it reached a publisher. It languished for a while with an agent (not my current agent) who liked one of my earlier mysteries better and let this one sit. As it turned out, I did a bit of research and thinking, and decided that Poisoned Pen Press might be a good match because it’s in the west and the few eastern editors who did see the book, didn’t “get” it. They didn’t find it credible that a woman would live alone at a remote cabin for a summer, though they seemed to have no problem with women PI’s who go down dark alleys after absent-mindedly forgetting their handgun in the car.
I sent the manuscript to Poisoned Pen myself (I was between agents by then) and though I love the press, I have to say their process is grueling. The manuscript had to pass eight readers before reaching the editor. What with a few slip-ups, this took a full year. Once the book was accepted, however, things moved fast and it was out in less than a year. Everyone at the press proved delightful to work with, and the responses were always quick to any questions or problems.
When did you decide to write a mystery? What drew you to the genre, and why were you attracted to the time period and setting you used?
Oddly, I’m not a mystery reader but I love listening to mysteries on tape, especially during long drives, and Mystery! on public television is always a treat. I feel like a clone admitting it (lately I’ve read similar admissions by several other mystery writers) but the original decision to write mysteries was spurred by a divorce and the money worries that followed. This is really ridiculous; just about any job would pay better than mystery writing unless you really hit it big and become a bestseller. And as it happened, I didn’t sell a mystery until about ten years later, though I did get a nonfiction book into print meanwhile. I was already earning my living as a writer, mainly through journalism.
The main character, Jeneva Leopold, is a small town journalist, which I chose because of my own experience as a reporter and columnist. It seemed a perfect occupation for a PI in that journalists are invited to snoop into other people’s business. They don’t have as much license to ask difficult questions as a police detective does, but they have more than in most other lines of work, plus a good journalist is easy to confide in and hears truly incredible things. Though Jeneva is a columnist for the newspaper in the fictional town of Willamette, Death Pans Out is set at an idle gold mine in eastern Oregon because I spent a summer in just such a place and it had a dramatic effect on me. Like Jeneva, I went to the mine exhausted and ill following breast cancer and some other problems, and quickly gained strength walking the rocky ridges day after day under the desert sun.
I felt no inclination to turn this experience into a “serious” book—it would have felt too earnest—but it was great fun to use as a mystery setting because it allowed me to spend a lot of imagined time at a place I love.
You published a nonfiction book in the past under your real name. Why did you use a pseudonym for your mystery? How did you select the name?
It was exactly because I publish other things under Wendy Madar that a pseudonym seemed a good idea for mysteries. It can be confusing for readers and publishers alike to have too many kinds of work come out under the same name, especially mysteries or other genre writing along with mainstream fiction. This distinction is less sharp than it once was, with a number of recognized literary authors producing mysteries (John Banville and Jane Smiley, for example), but there is also another reason to take a pseudonym—just plain fun. It’s a lark to have two identities. My lovely local bookstore, Grass Roots, played with this idea by advertising my reading as “two authors for the price of one.”
The name Ashna came from the first pioneer baby born in Kings Valley, Oregon, where I lived at the time on a 500-acre park where Ashna had been the farm matriarch into the 1930s. We sometimes felt that her spirit still haunted the place. I liked the name as a name, plus having never known an Ashna I had no prior notions of what an Ashna would be like. Graves just seemed to go with Ashna (and it comes right after Grafton on the shelf!) though I did worry that reference to the grave might be too unsubtle for a mystery writer. I go by Ashna at conferences and readings, and have enjoyed the fact that some new acquaintances who meet me as Ashna and later discover that I’m actually Wendy just shake their heads. “No, you’re not a Wendy, you’re an Ashna.”
One other important benefit of this pseudonym: it Googles perfectly. There is no other Ashna Graves.
Have the two experiences -- mystery publishing vs nonfiction -- been markedly different?
Not really. The two have more in common than not, the whole process of manuscript submission and revision being very similar for fiction and nonfiction. In both cases, I was very involved in the cover design, writing jacket copy, promotion, and so on. The main differences had to do with working with a big New York publisher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) versus the smaller mystery publisher in the west (Poisoned Pen). While both experiences were positive and even fun, the mystery process was less formal, with a lot more chatting back and forth with the editor, associate publisher, designer and so on. Nearly all my interactions with FSG were with one editor who was in charge of the book. The overall effect with the smaller publisher was to make me feel closer to the process and, as a result, the book itself when it came out. I had a greater sense of having “made” the mystery as well as written it than I did with the nonfiction.
I got a much larger advance for the nonfiction—but then got no royalties until it was paid back. At this point, I’d rather enjoy the earned royalties than gamble on a book selling well and take a big advance.
What has surprised you -- pleasantly or not -- about being a published mystery writer? Did you anticipate the sense of community that mystery authors feel?
The first surprise is how involved mystery readers become with the story and the characters. I’m very fond of the characters—most are based on real people I met at the gold mine and in the area—but I did not expect readers to care so much about them. I have also been surprised to get such good reviews and quite a bit of attention in general given that this mystery is on the quiet end of the spectrum, and relatively leisurely in getting started, that is, no body on the first page or for quite a few pages. A few readers have confessed to a bit of impatience, but many say they enjoyed having the scene well set and the characters established before the first corpse turned up.
I’m also surprised by the number of mystery conferences, organizations, websites and events, which I knew nothing about before Death Pans Out hit the bookstores. It would be easy to get swept up in the current, so establishing the right level of involvement to be helpful without taking up too much writing time is a challenge.
The sense of community among mystery writers is a definite surprise and a delight. At conferences and online, other writers have freely reached out to me with supportive comments, answers to questions, and helpful tales of their own adventures and misadventures, with never a hint of competition or one-upmanship. I have found mystery writers in general to be bright, funny, and modest. One of the best things about being a mystery writer is being included in this jolly, interested, extended “club”—even though Ashna Graves is not a clubby sort of gal in general. I suspect that this mutually supportive atmosphere has a lot to do with gender. Though the male writers I’ve met are fine fellows, it’s the many women mystery writers who treat the craft as a sort of quilting bee. I don’t spend a lot of time online or on the telephone with other writers, but I know I could if I wanted to, and whenever I do, the interactions are worthwhile and best of all entertaining.
Has promotion been harder work, or more expensive, than you anticipated? Do you think most first novelists realize what a drain promotion can be on both energy and finances?
The best thing about promotion is talking to readers. The worst is having to organize appearances and travel, especially when the publicity has not been good and not very many people show up. It is also very expensive, and for all but the really big sellers the return is not financially worth it, especially for a first book with a modest print run. But it has to be done because those contacts, especially with bookstore owners, are what get people reading your work. To make money is not a good reason to go into mystery writing, though some people do manage reasonable income after a few books. I consider that a bonus. The way things are going, I will clear a few thousand dollars on my first mystery, which would figure out to pennies per hour. Babysitting would be a sounder investment of time!
Do you feel you’ve made any mistakes the first time around that you’ve learned from?
About the only thing I might do differently is to take a stronger hand in the publicity that precedes a visit to a region. Sometimes bookstores say they have this well in hand, and it turns out they mean a weekly calendar notice in the local newspaper. Often, by contacting a reporter, it’s possible to get a feature story, pictures, the whole shebang, which really lets community members know who you are if you aren’t famous. They won’t come to your reading if they don’t know about it, or have some idea that you’ll be worth hearing. My experience, consistently, is that with good publicity I get a good turnout, and without good publicity I don’t get a good turnout. Once people are there and listening, they tend to become enthusiastic and buy the book.
Have reviews been helpful to you as a writer? Do you feel you’ve learned anything from them about your strengths and weaknesses?
Reviews seem to have more to do with self-confidence and sales than with practical book advice. For one thing, they differ in what the reviewers like and don’t like. It’s important to get reviews for publicity’s sake, and really reassuring to get good reviews, but I take far more notice of what readers say when it comes to deciding what worked in a book and what didn’t. If I get consistent responses from readers about some aspect of the story, it’s worth paying attention.
What advice can you offer other novelists who are about to be published for the first time?
Take time to enjoy the triumph. Don’t start worrying right away about the next book, or let yourself get too anxious about book signings, or fret about reviews. You’ve done the difficult job of writing a book, survived the lengthy hunt for a publisher, got through all the production issues—so kick back and feel good about it.