Thursday, December 18, 2014

Moving Into the Mainstream

Zestful Blog Post # 84

The series about my publishing history continues today.

5) Moving Into the Mainstream

When an artist belongs to some sort of minority, that artist must decide what kind of art to make. Shall I make art that I think/guess/hope will be understood/appreciated/purchased by a mainstream audience, or shall I produce something that speaks more specifically to my own smaller group, whatever that is, and take the risk of obscurity? Shall I be myself, or pretend to be someone else?

Leaving aside the question of figuring out one’s identity (which can take a lifetime right there), this can be a challenge. Charlotte Brontë, for instance, knew that in the male-dominated public sphere of her time, female authors were “liable to be looked upon with prejudice” and thus wrote Jane Eyre under the male name Currer Bell. She was just one of many female, or black, or Jewish (etc.) authors who concealed their personas in order to come across as one of the mainstream.

A main stream, with tug. [photo by ES]

Some authors who were gay / lesbian / bisexual or otherwise not part of the bicameral sexual culture have written books strictly about straight people and their lives. And some have been criticized for it by the politically-correct contingent. A subject for another post, perhaps. Incidentally, I believe a lot of gay writers who didn’t want to come out turned to mystery writing, because you can write gripping stories that have little to do with characters’ inner lives.

Finding some success with my Lillian Byrd series, I hungered for a larger audience. That could be achieved if I got published by a major house. And the major houses wanted, almost exclusively, mainstream stuff.

While trying to get Holy Hell published, I wrote a mainstream novel about the bookselling scene, which sparked some interest among the agents I queried, but again no offers for representation. So when strategizing again about getting picked up by a major publisher, I left aside that book and decided to write another novel, a mainstream mystery. This was a business decision.

The story, called Crimes in a Second Language, involves a retired schoolteacher who befriends her Latina cleaning woman by offering to teach her English. Their developing friendship leads to trouble with the cleaner’s husband, who appears to be involved in some dark business. And so on.

I sent excerpts to agents, and finally heard from Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass agency. “I can tell you’re a great writer,” she said, “but I don’t think I can sell this book. Do you have other ideas?”

Yes, I did. I sent her a batch of three or four ideas for crime / mystery novels, including a series of linked stand-alones, and she got back to me with some enthusiasm. She loved the concept of The Actress, in which a struggling actress is approached by a high-end defense attorney to coach his client, an unsympathetic society mom who’s up for the murder of her own daughter. The actress is a divorced mother of a little boy, with a gay best friend and a nasty ex-husband lurking in the background. “If you can write this one,” Cameron said, “I think I can sell it.”

So I spent a year on the project, and sure enough she did sell it to a major publisher. There’s a story to that, which I’ll detail next time.

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