PROBING THE MYSTERY OF WRITING MYSTERIES

March 27th, 2012

Jean Henry Mead is a national award-winning photojournalist published both domestically and abroad.  

An author of mysteries, YA novels, and nonfiction, she’s written 17 books in all.  Her newest book, The Mystery Writers, features interviews with sixty mystery writers, many of them best-sellers, whose work spans the entire spectrum of  mystery sub-genre.  It’s a fascinating read and an invaluable book for those among us (writers included) who want to look behind the curtain and see how people work.  These pieces were originally published on Jean’s marvelous blog, Mysterious Writers.

You’re a novelist, and you’ve developed a sort of second career, interviewing writers. How did you start? Who were your first interviews, and how did they go?

I began my writing career as a “cub” news reporter in my home state of California, while editor-in-chief of my college newspaper. I can’t recall my first interview but I do remember my most embarrassing one when I crashed a cocktail party held after hours in a bank lobby to interview international sportsman and newscaster Curt Gowdy. The batteries fell from my tape recorder and rolled under a massive desk, which we couldn’t find, so he invited me back the following day. We finished the interview in the crowded lobby, with people stopping to ask questions of their own. A similar interview took place with infamous attorney Gerry Spence in the lobby of the Casper Ramada Inn, where he held court with his large western boots propped on a coffee table while I interviewed him. No rolling batteries that time, however.

Over the years of interviewing writers, have you learned any questions not to ask?

One question cured me of asking peoples’ ages. I asked that of Thrya Thomson, Wyoming’s glamorous secretary of state and she told me in no uncertain terms that what I asked was “a very chauvinistic question,” but she later took me to dinner. I also asked Governor Herschler’s wife Casey what time she rose in the morning to go to her office, and she told me it was none of my business. Personal questions are usually greeted with contempt and can ruin an interview.

Can you tell us about the most surprising answers you’ve received?

I was fortunate to interview Louis L’Amour at his home in Bel Air not long before his death. I kept hearing a dove coo as though in an echo chamber and he told me that he had adopted a bird that had flown into his garage about the time his first book was accepted for publication. He named the dove Ramacita and considered it his good luck charm.

When I asked A. B. Guthrie why he called himself “Bud,” he said Alfred Bertram was a sissy name. He didn’t like to be called a western writer and included in the genre with Louis L’Amour, Luke Short and Max Brand although the books he wrote were set in the West. I was also surprised when I interviewed Ed Cantrell, who was arrested for shooting his undercover agent between the eyes in the backseat of his patrol car. When I asked, he said he had never shot anyone before in 30 years on the police force. (Gerry Spence arranged the interview and I was the only journalist allowed to interview Cantrell before the trial. With Spence as his lawyer, he was, of course, acquitted.)

As a writer yourself, are there any answers that you’ve found especially helpful?

In my latest book, The Mystery Writers, there are many articles of writing advice that I wish had been available when I first attempted to write fiction during in the early 1990s. Most of the authors agreed that persistence is more important than writing talent and that outlining is the best way to begin a novel, although most of them don’t. That characterization trumps plot and humor is a necessary element in even the darkest noir, among many other great gems of advice.

I loved (and widely recommended) MAVERICK WRITERS, your volume of interviews with authors of westerns. You’ve also created a book of interviews and poetry, WYOMING COWBOY POETS AND THEIR POETRY. Are there any broad differences between the way prose writers and poets approach their work? And is there any general difference that distinguishes mystery writers? If not, what kinds of things unite most of these writers?

Thank you, Tim. Poets write whenever the mood strikes, whether out on the range with a small notepad and stubby pencil or at the computer. Successful writers go to their computers or take up a lined pad and pen first thing in the morning, often in their pajamas, to begin the day’s writing—unless they have a day job. In that case, they write whenever time allows, in lieu of television and on holidays and weekends on a regular basis. I’ve only interviewed screenwriters, western and mystery writers so I don’t feel qualified to comment on writers in general, but the one common thread I found was that they all “have to write.” Some have commented that writing is as necessary to them as breathing.

I’ve been saying lately that writing is what I do when I have nothing better to do, but the problem is that nothing is better than writing.  What’s next for Jean Henry Mead?

I’m currently working on a western historical novel about the hanging of an innocent young woman and her husband wrongly accused of rustling cattle by greedy men who wanted their homestead land. I first read about them while researching a centennial history during the 1980s, and vowed then to write a novel about the tragedy. I’ve been researching the incident on an off for years, while writing other books, and hope to have it finished this summer. It’s titled, No Escape: The Sweetwater Tragedy and is a companion novel to my first novel, Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel. I’m also working on the fourth novel in my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series, Murder on Gray Wolf Mountain, which is set here in Wyoming. And there’s another Hamilton Kids’ mystery in the offing, yet untitled.

 

11 Responses to “PROBING THE MYSTERY OF WRITING MYSTERIES”

  1. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Thank you for the invitation to return to your intriguing site, Tim. It’s always a pleasure to drop by.

  2. Dana King Says:

    Great interview on both sides. I love reading author interviews, and have pretty uch exhausted the easy finds of writers I like on the Internet. heading off now to add jean’s book to my wish list.

  3. Suzanna Says:

    Thanks, Jean and Tim! Lots of great insight.

    Three favorite gems of advice for writers:

    ‘Persistence is more important than talent.’

    ‘Characterization trumps plot.’

    ‘Humor is a necessary element even in the darkest noir.’

    Also, Tim, I really appreciate how much you love to write. What a blessing to have found your passion in life and to do it so well.

    Reminds me of this quote: Find work that you love to do, that way you’ll never work a day in your life.

    It’s arguable whether or not writing doesn’t feel like going to work on the occasions when things aren’t going the way you like. Perhaps loving something so much makes going to work less of a chore.

    Thanks, again, Jean and Tim!

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I downloaded the book, now to read it 😉 I really enjoyed your stories of the different authors and such and admire your courage

  5. Jenny Milchman Says:

    This is one book I am truly excited for. I just read a book called HOW I GOT PUBLISHED with interviews by many mystery/suspense authors and was sad to finish. But now that I know I have Jean’s collection to look forward to, it’s ok 🙂

  6. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your great comments. My apologies for answering so late today. We had an emergency and had to rush off our moutain ranch into town. Dana, Suzanna, Lil and Jenny, I hope you enjoy the book and consider a worthwhile read. It was a labor of love.

  7. Donna Fletcher Crow Says:

    Jean and Tim,what an interesting conversation. Loved your bits of advice you’ve gleaned, Jean. I’m just starting a new novel–#40–but still find such gems helpful reminders. And yes, outlining does help!

  8. jean henry mead Says:

    Thank you, Donna. I agree that no matter how many books you’ve written, you can always learn something from fellow writers.

  9. Philip Coggan Says:

    It’s a great interview, and I think it’s so true – persistence trunps talent, character beats plot, and humour is a good for you. My own addition to the list is: Don’t put the Chardonnay next to the Macbook, it can be very expensive!

  10. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Phillip. So true of the Chardonnay. I recall an interview with Ernest Hemmingway, who aswore he never drank while writing but could tell when Faulkner did in his writings. 🙂

  11. attorney Says:

    Thankyou, it’s a good site. This stuff is great to know!

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