Grace Episcopal Church in Chicago’s South Loop is an amazing place… beautiful, unusual architecture that leads to a feeling of community and contemplation. In short, an amazing place for Lit Fest’s session where the Tribune’s Julia Keller interviewed Barbara D’Amato and Libby Fischer Hellmann. Of course, the photo here – from the church website – features more sacred use of that place!
Both Barb and Libby have been president of the national organization Sisters in Crime, founded by Sara Paretsky and others to bring attention to the clear preference among publishers, reviewers, and others for male authors. The movement began with a letter from novelist Phyllis Whitney to the Mystery Writers of America re: sex discrimination in the awarding of the Edgar Awards. At that time, in 41 years, only seven women had received Edgars.
Asked by Keller about Sisters in Crime, the panelists shared that the organization still monitors reviews, reporting that a full 70% of books reviewed have a male author. By pointing out the lack of balance directly to the reviewers, some progress had been made (60/40), but backsliding has definitely occurred. SINC looks at published reviews, and everyone agreed that although these are highly visible and very important, the growth in reviews on the internet, through blogs, Amazon, and the like, has become a big factor in recent years, and this is more egalitarian.
I’m a member of both the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and support them both. But it is interesting to see the trajectory of various authors, and there does seem to be a “pecking order” that places thrillers above police procedurals above cozies, for example.
But there’s no doubt Barb D’Amato and Libby Fischer Hellmann are masters of the craft, and they shared some pearls with the audience, many of whom were aspiring authors:
- Libby makes sure to put a clue in the first few pages; she likes to “play fair” with the readers and thinks that withholding all the clues until late in the book is not doing so.
- Barb uses a couple of sheets from a legal pad to plot out all the “surprises” in the book… mostly “to keep them all from showing up in chapter 3.”
- Both women have experienced “pauses” – it hasn’t all been success and roses. Barb had two books published, then six fallow years. Libby said her first book sold was actually the fourth book written. She didn’t want to revisit, though she has cannibalized characters!
- Although both Barb and Libby are almost constantly writing, they agree that “the book you’re not writing yet is the best one.” Julia commented that Iris Murdoch said that “every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”
- What authors do these authors enjoy reading? Agatha Christie, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, Marcus Sakey, Kent Krueger, Sean Chercover, Declan Hughes, and Dennis Lehane were all mentioned.
The conversation was very ably moderated by Julia Keller, who writes for the Tribune and is a published author herself, with two previous books and her first mystery coming out in the coming months. She’s articulate and insightful, and listening to her in conversation is as pleasurable as reading her work in print.