Ep:047 Often called the LGBTQ’s “answer to Agatha Christie,” Ellen Hart is the author of thirty-five crime novels in two different series. She is a six-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, a four-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Popular Fiction, a three-time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award, a recipient of the Alice B Medal, and was made a laureate of the Saint at the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005. In 2010, Ellen received the GCLS Trailblazer Award for lifetime achievement in the field of lesbian literature. In 2017, she became the first openly LGBTQ author to be named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America, an award that represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing, one that was established to acknowledge important contributions to the genre as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality. (Other recipients have included Agatha Christie, Stephen King, Sara Paretsky, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, Walter Mosley, Ellery Queen, Evelyn Waugh, Elmore Leonard, and Sue Grafton.)
Since the publication of her first work in 1989, Ellen has spoken at conventions, conferences, libraries, bookstores, colleges, and writer’s workshops all over the country. She taught creative writing for sixteen years through the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, the largest independent (not associated with a college or university) writing community in the nation. Her most recent mystery, In A Midnight Wood, was published in September of 2020. Ellen lives in Minnesota with her partner of 42 years.
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expand/collapse Brad Shreve 0:01 Justene 0:29 Brad Shreve 0:30 Justene 0:33 Brad Shreve 0:33 Justene 0:35 Brad Shreve 0:56 Justene 0:59 Brad Shreve 3:07 Justene 3:22 Brad Shreve 5:25 Justene 5:27 Brad Shreve 7:38 Justene 7:47 Brad Shreve 7:59 Justene 8:01 Brad Shreve 8:04 Ellen Hart 9:09 Brad Shreve 9:11 Ellen Hart 9:16 Brad Shreve 9:17 Unknown Speaker 9:36 Brad Shreve 10:14 Ellen Hart 10:18 Brad Shreve 10:54 Ellen Hart 10:59 Brad Shreve 11:07 Ellen Hart 11:15 Brad Shreve 11:16 Ellen Hart 11:21 Brad Shreve 12:31 Ellen Hart 12:34 Brad Shreve 12:39 Ellen Hart 12:47 Brad Shreve 12:48 Ellen Hart 12:51 Brad Shreve 15:23 Ellen Hart 15:26 Brad Shreve 18:06 Ellen Hart 18:15 Brad Shreve 18:52 Ellen Hart 19:01 Brad Shreve 19:48 Ellen Hart 19:55 Brad Shreve 22:00 Ellen Hart 22:20 Brad Shreve 22:34 Ellen Hart 22:50 Brad Shreve 25:47 Ellen Hart 25:50 Brad Shreve 25:54 Ellen Hart 26:14 Brad Shreve 26:16 Brad Shreve 26:18 Brad Shreve 26:25 Ellen Hart 26:36 Brad Shreve 28:24 Ellen Hart 28:37 Brad Shreve 28:45 Ellen Hart 28:54 Brad Shreve 29:02 Ellen Hart 29:04 Brad Shreve 31:32 Ellen Hart 31:42 Brad Shreve 32:19 Ellen Hart 32:48 Brad Shreve 32:53 Ellen Hart 33:02 Brad Shreve 36:16 Ellen Hart 36:24 Brad Shreve 41:05 Ellen Hart 41:06 Brad Shreve 41:10 Ellen Hart 41:11 Brad Shreve 41:18 Ellen Hart 41:30 Brad Shreve 41:50 Ellen Hart 41:58 Brad Shreve 42:04
Welcome to Gay Mystery Podcast featuring interviews with renowned LGBTQ authors, and up and coming talent of mystery, suspense and thriller novels. I’m your host, Brad Shreve. And Justine is here with her weekly recommendation. My guest this week is Ellen Hart. But before we get to the interview, as always, we’re going to start with Justene. Hi, Justene
Hi, Brad. How are you?
I’m doing great this week.
How about yourself?
Yeah, it’s been a good week around here, too. It’s been a great week. So let me tell you what I have this week. I have got one of the great game mystery and probably the game mystery, which, which started it at all and is inspired a lot of the writers that have come after it, and it’s Fadeout by Joseph Hanson.
Oh, you went deep in the vault and got one of the greatest
Oh, Yeah, oh yeah. And you know, I’ve read it a long time ago. And I picked it up about the time I started reading gay mysteries, and then I expanded it out and I’ve read a lot of gay mysteries since then, and I went back and you know, reread it to prepare for this recommendation. And it was as good as the first time it is the top at the top of the ark. It’s getting a glowing recommendation from me, because it is so well written and it is so well crafted. First came out in 1970. And David Brandstetter was the private investigator. That was the first private investigator. He was not what was typical of gays at the time in literature to time all of the gay characters up till then were mostly flamboyant. And he was just a a regular guy who was gay and but his part partner was flamboyant. And his partner had flamboyant friends and Brandstetter talks about how it was difficult to be around them. But he loves but he loves this guy. And the book starts with Branstetter getting over the death of his young lover from stomach cancer. This was you know, 10 years before anybody even thought of AIDS, it was interesting to see you know, he started talking about the wasting away of the disease and realizing Wait, how could that be in the stomach cancer so a lot of it is similar to what happened 20 to 25 years later, but it’s interesting because you to most people in the book, he passes as straight but the other characters he comes across who happen to be gay, spot him immediately and and call him call him out on it like, yo, yo, okay, you said yeah, I’m gay. So that was it was interesting. I wonder how How do you know the story doesn’t really delve into much of how how he he would come across that they would spot it?
Well, that seems to me if I recall correctly, it’s been a while since I read it. And I did love it. It wasn’t like it was a big deal. He just was a detective that happened to be gay. It wasn’t like the focus of the book in any way.
Right. But he was getting over the death of his lover. Yeah. And you know, it was it was probably hard for him to be in a society where he could not share that grief with very many other people. Yeah. So he works as an insurance investigator for his father. He has worked this way for 22 years by the time we meet him. He had taken a couple months off right after Rod’s death, but now he’s getting out and for doing his first investigation, trying to get back into the world of business. And he’s investigating a death in the San Joaquin Valley. A guy has his car has driven off as you know, run off the road, in a rainstorm into a rushing river. The car is found after the after the storm passes and the river goes down a bit. The car is found, but his body is never found. And before the insurance company pays out $150,000 they want to know that this guy disappear and not fake his own death. So they, they he goes out there and to investigate it. And he ends up with quite the intriguing mystery. Everybody’s a suspect. And no one’s you’re not you’re not really sure what happened until he puts the pieces together. At the very end. You can see out where all the pieces were there. Every character seems to play a role. They’re not all in on the murder, obviously. But they all fit together to come up with this ending which works out very smoothly. You know, it’s very complicated you’re going through and and then at the end was all very simple. And if I’m telling you that telling you as a simple solution will not lead you to this, you know, while you’re walking through the complicated thing, if you say, well, maybe that’s a simple solution, or maybe this is a simple solution, they all look equally possible, which is how I imagine a lot of investigations go.
I didn’t figure it out.
I cannot figure it out either. Although I am I am renowned for trying not to figure out the mystery. This one though, you know, I even reading it through the second time. I wasn’t sure that I gotten all the pieces, right. So these books were a few years ago, picked up by University of Wisconsin press, and put out on Kindle and you know, you and I have talked about this over the past year or so. Only the first two books are They’re on Kindle still. And you know you you’d say, well, in honor Why aren’t they available on Kindle? And I said, Well, I’ve got all my Kindle. They must be available. Nope. Everything after the second book is pulled off the market. And ReQueered Tales, we we talked about this is the one who got away. We were hoping that there was an opportunity there for us to bring him back. But another press has snatched him up. And they intend to bring them back as Kindle books, you know, and Fadeout is really the one that started at all pick that one up on Kindle, or you know, the first two. You can probably wait for the others to come out on Kindle, but they’re still out there and paperback. And they’re all very good. You know, ReQueered Tales puts out a bibliography by my partner Matt Lubbers-Moore called Murder and Mayhem and in it there were 3300 entries. And there are a lot of entries for Joseph Hanson. And you can see As he’s publishing the books as it gets later, he’s switching publishers. And he’s, he’s, you know, going through a couple of the big name publishers every now and then there’s an indie publisher, and it’s beginning of the University of Wisconsin press books. There is a foreword that he wrote himself right before he died, a very lengthy forward, talking about his journey, and his ability to get noticed and published as a gay man who was married to a lesbian woman and publishing a book about gay character. It is in of itself a fascinating read.
You give a glowing recommendation. I’m gonna tell anybody if you’ve read any queer fiction at all queer mysteries. If you haven’t read this, you’re missing out. You need to read it.
It’s timeless. It’s really timeless. It’s up there with you know, like the Perry Mason, Agatha Christie. mysteries. It works as well now as it did then.
Well, thank you. Thank you.
Thank you Brad.
If you enjoy Gay Mystery Podcast, let others know by leaving a review on Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen to our show.Often called the LGBTQ answer to Agatha Christie, my guest Ellen Hart is the author of 35 crime novels in two different series. She is a sixth time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best lesbian mystery, a four time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best best popular fiction, a three time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award, recipient of the Alice B Medal, and was made a laureate of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005. In 2017, she became the first openly LGBTQ author to be named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America. Ellen lives in Minnesota with her partner of 42 years. It’s a pleasure to have you on Ellen.
I’m delighted to be with you.
I’d like to begin by discussing your Grand Master award by Mystery Writers of America.
Now, that’s an award that represents the pinnacle of achievement in Mystery Writing and you’re in good company. Other recipients have include Agatha Christie, Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock, Ellery Queen, Evelyn Waugh. Elmore Leanard, and Sue Grafton. Where were you when you discovered that you had achieved the award?
Well, I think I just walked into my bedroom to sit down and I don’t know what it was going to do. And I, I got a phone call from a woman I knew I met another mystery writer. And she said, Are you sitting down? And I said, I mean that that’s, that is a really, that’s an interesting way to open a conversation. Yes. So I said, Yeah, that I was and she said, Well, I want to tell you that at Mystery Writers of America wants to present you with a 2017 Grand Master or they want to name you that. And I don’t remember what I mean, I was just stunned.
I was gonna ask you to share what that experience was like when you when you found out?
Well, I think what I did was I said do you have the right Hart? I had the, you know, many, many times looked at the the list of people who had won the award and, you know, in all people that I consider the greats and people that I used to read to teach me how to write. And never in my wildest dreams that it occurred to me that I would ever be on that list seriously. So, yeah, it was it was a very big deal.
Let’s see, you’re obviously the reason why writers should keep rereading.
Oh yeah, it was Really? Absolutely. You never know. The thing about a writing career is you never know where it’s gonna lead.
The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, it’s one of the largest independent writing community in the nation, or it is the largest.
I believe it is. Yeah.
You taught Creative Writing there for 16 years. Can you give us details about the center?
You know, how do I say the Loft was started in the I’ll probably get this wrong, but I’m thinking it was the 80s. Late 70s, early 80s, by a bunch of ex hippies, I mean, it was, it was a collective. And it was a way to keep writing alive in Minnesota was a way to showcase the wonderful writers we have in Minnesota, and offer students teaching from people who had actually been been published, which I think is it adds a dimension to the teaching that sometimes you don’t get from other teachers. So Yeah, I mean it’s it’s a it’s a wonderful space. It started out, I believe above a bookstore over at the University of Minnesota and now it has its own. Very cool. It’s it’s in this really old cool building, and they restored it. And it’s it’s a wonderful space has space for teaching in a space for various events. It has, you know, they, they hold all kinds of seminars there. And when people have a book come out, you can do a reading there. I mean, it’s just a wonderful space.
If somebody is interested, is there a selection process?
No, no, no. Just, you know, sign up and pay for it.
Wonderful. of the 35 crime novels you’ve written 27 of those had been in the Jane lawless mystery series.
That’s right. Yeah.
Tell us about Jane, who is she?
Well, initially, she was somebody that I needed for a book that I wanted to write. I think for many years, I was the person who always wanted to write a novel but, you know, never actually sat down and put pen to paper, I got an idea in about 1980, gosh, six or seven. And thought, I’d like to write a mystery. The reason I wanted to write a mystery is because actually three things. A woman in town, who was a poet had written a mystery. And it got a lot of play around town and around the country. Actually, I read it and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. I’d always read mysteries, loved mysteries, and I was just blown away by this book. The same time someone sent me a copy of Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson. She was at the time an owner of Seal Press, which is one of the small, independent feminist presses at the time. And she wrote mysteries and this was her first mystery, and I, again was mildly impressed by it. I think what it did was essentially give me the permission not to write myself in my life out of the norm. But I would then right. The third thing that happened was I started reading the novels of PD James. I don’t know if you know she she’s a, an English writer and I just loved her books. At the time, some of some of her stories have been turned into a series on PBS. And I remember listening to it. And after each episode, they would interview her for a few minutes. And they’d asked these questions that I thought were really wonderful what elicited some fascinating responses. And one of the responses that I liked the most was she, she said, You know, I wanted to write a mystery, because I thought it would teach me how to construct a novel. And then I would move on to the real thing, by which she meant literary fiction. But she said, You know, I learned right away that there was nothing that I wanted to write about, that I couldn’t write about within the context of a mystery. And beyond that, she liked the sense that mysteries were set, square in the moral universe, and that really appealed to me and I, those three things were kind of what steered me ultimately towards a mystery novel. And so when I when I began thinking about it, I had this idea. I needed an alum of a sorority, the University of Minnesota, and that became Jane Lawless.
And tell us about Jane. What type of person is she
Jane is. She owns a restaurant on Lake Harriet, which is one of the three main lakes in Minneapolis. She’s a restauratuer. I mean, I gave her the restaurant I’d like but I, I used I spent most of my life as a chef. And, but I, you know, so I wanted to give her that background because I understood it. She’s kind of an introvert. She’s more cerebral than so she’s really good at thinking and figuring out mysteries the crimes in the novel She’s been, for me kind of a hard nut to crack and that she wasn’t completely available to me when I started writing her. I didn’t, I didn’t entirely understand her. And I mean, that’s, that is a hard thing to do when you don’t, you know, you haven’t sort of gone from the top floor to the basement with your character. It’s, it’s a little harder to write that character. But she opened up to me over a period of time, she still remains kind of a cipher in some ways to me. And I think that’s one of the reasons she still fascinates me. Because I don’t understand her completely. She is like me in many ways, but she’s unlike me in other important ways. For instance, she has a lot more courage than I do. She does things that I wouldn’t even consider doing, because I would find them way too scary, but she’s able to do those things. And you know, I mean, when I started the books, we were pretty much the same age. She’s 51 in the newest book, I just turned 71. So she’s aged far better than I. And, you know, she’s, she’s sort of one half of a, of a duo and I think that’s a fairly, it is definitely a mystery trope that’s used quite often. She has a very dear friend who does a lot of the sleuthing with her. And that friend is very quick when you get her the name of a friend is Cordelia Thorn, and Cordelia is a she’s in the theater. She’s been in the theater for her whole life. I mean, she she studied at University of Minnesota. She is has started her own theater in Minneapolis. After years and years of working in a theater in St. Paul. You don’t get much time with her. She forms opinions quickly she goes by her instincts whereas Jane is kind of the exact opposite. She She has to think things through very carefully. And they make kind of a good tag team.
Unlike many mysteries time has evolved in in Jane’s life. How has she evolved over that time?
Well, she’s had a number of girlfriends I guess. She’s gotten older. She’s been through a lot of issues with her restaurant with her life with her brother with her father. I mean, she has a, she has a full life. And I’ve given her I’ve been very careful to give her that. And I think she’s, she’s developed. She’s become, I believe, more visible to the readership, my readership. But she still remains essentially, kind of a mystery to me. Ask me something more specific, and maybe I can answer that.
I think you answered it very well. So many are just stagnant for many, many years in some mysteries.
Yeah, well, yeah. Well, I mean, it was Nero Wolfe, the old Nero Wolfe, which were very, very popular for a long, long time. Nero Wolfe stayed in an apartment in New York City, and the city aged around him. But he never aged time within a long running series does get a little bit wonky. And it has in my series, when I when I started out, I think Jane and Cordelia were, you know, children of the 60s. They can’t be that anymore and be the age they’re at. So you know, it, it gets to be a little problematic. But, you know, you hope your your readership will suspend their disbelief long enough to just fall into the story.
Well, regarding your readers, do you believe there are risks that you’re taking when you have your characters evolves?
Yeah, you know, I think particularly in in genre fiction, I think we revisit the worldview like the mystery novels that we like, or the romance novels that we like. Because we like the world that the author has created. And if you mess too much with that world, I think you do lose readers. So I think it’s a balancing act, you have to make sure that that the characters plausible I mean, back in back in the golden age of mystery writing characters didn’t evolve. Agatha Christie types of characters, you know, Poirot and Miss Marple. They didn’t evolve. Neither did Sam Spade, or none of the hardboiled mystery novels. You You knew very little about them. You knew, for instance, Sam Spade, you might know if he liked blondes, or brunettes, you knew what kind of alcohol he liked, you know, where he kept the gun in his office, that sort of thing. But he did not evolve. That’s one of the things that has happened in modern media. History Fiction is that we expect these characters to do some evolving and we expect them to have full lives, I would have been very happy to have written the kind of mystery where I didn’t have to involve Jane in, in her personal life and she could have just, you know, gone into the mystery solved the mysteries in then walked off the page. But you can’t do that anymore because I think character is so important. Now in mystery fiction, that the characters have to feel real and to feel real, they have to have their personal lives. Now I don’t think those personalized can take over the story. And I just my feeling about the way I create a mystery is that if that part of the characters personal life doesn’t have any bearing on the story in the book, then you really can’t, you know, get too far into it. Which is why I’ve Jane has had it has many girlfriends she’s had because they lead her into a mystery where they become part and parcel with the mystery.
I had mentioned to my interview with David Lennon last week that I found an old book or section that said, these are the rules to write a mystery. And, and one of the rules was, don’t get into your character’s life. People don’t care, they only care about the mystery. And that’s so not so today.
No, not to today. But then, you know, you should always be wary of writers bearing tips. So, anything I say, please take with a grain of salt. Because you can always break rules, you know,
absolutely. To promote your, your current novel in In A Midnight Wood. And it’s currently available on preorder in when this shows airs, it will be available to release one week from today. Would you share that story?
Well, in you know, Jane, when I started writing the Jane Lawless books, they were essentially Agatha Christie kinds of novels. They were Set in insular settings they, you know, no no particular sex and violence. And you know, they followed that pattern fairly clearly. Over the years, I think they’ve gotten a bit darker. They’ve gotten a bit more textured, a little more complex than where it started out. And Jane has evolved to the extent that early on, she was just an amateur sleuth. Later in the books, she becomes an actual PI she, she meets a man who is a homicide investigator with the Minneapolis police, and she worked with him a while and he encourages her to, he thinks she has really good instincts and really good abilities and encourages her to get her PI license, which she does so towards the latter part of the book. She’s actually has her restaurant but she does a little PI work on the side. In this book, she’s taken on a new role and it’s partly because of my interest in true crime podcasts. I love them. And so she has become someone who does research for a local True Crime podcast in Minneapolis. She is invited up to a small town in Minnesota, northern Minnesota. And she and her friend Cordelia drive up there staying with an old friend, actually somebody that Jane has known for many years, somebody that she babysat when she was in high school and this woman was far younger. And Jane, they go to stay with her, because Jane has known her for many years there. I should say that they’re in town because of an arts festival. Cordelia is going to speak and Jane is, is also involved with that. She is known that this young woman many years ago, her boyfriend that she had in high school, went missing before the beginning of their senior year, and he never reappeared. No one knew Where he went, or if he even if he was alive, there was some talk around town that he and his father were on bad terms and that his father might have actually murdered him. So at the beginning of this book, I’m not giving anything away because it happens in the first chapter, a body is discovered, under a coffin, I should say, bones are discovered under a coffin, in this small town, and it becomes apparent rather quickly, that the bones belong to this young man who’d gone missing 20 years before. And so Jane is there realizes that yes, indeed, this is a cold case. She calls her producer and says, Can I check into this? The producer says, Oh, absolutely. And we’re off and running in the book.
You don’t generally find bones under a coffin.
No, you’re supposed to be That’s right. That’s exactly right.
Now it’s time for awkward questions that authors get What I’ll do is I’ll spin a wheel and ask you a question. And these are questions that are sometimes hard for us to answer or take us back. Sometimes they’re rude, and we’ll see what you get. Okay. So hang on while I spin the wheel.
Do you actually have a wheel?
Because here it goes.
Okay, you’re lucky didn’t have you don’t have a rude one. But you have one of those that we get a lot. That’s sometimes really hard to answer. Who do you base your characters after?
Oh, boy. Well, you know, my main character Jane is based some extent on me, but to some extent, at least initially on the needs of the story that I wanted to tell. The character of Cordelia is based on my best friend. And it’s very funny because years ago, when I was doing you know a signing in Minneapolis and she would show up, I would see heads turn and look at her and it was like, yep, that’s Cornelia. She’s, you know, she’s not entirely Cordelia is that the totality of my best friend, she is someone different. But she is again, a lot of like, very much like this friend of mine. So the two main characters, you know, that’s how that works. In in terms of other characters, main characters in my books. I have always felt that writers are kind of like cosmic vacuum cleaners. And what I mean by that is there if you if you know a writer, and you think that writer is watching you, they are they, they’re always looking around sniffing around, trying to find things that they can use for a book. It might be a motivation, it might be a personality trait, it might be in expression, give any, any any number of things. But, you know, you pick the, the you pick what you need for the character that you’re creating. And you assemble, I suppose you could say, a bit of a Frankenstein character. But when that character starts walking and talking, at least for me, when I hear their voice, they become very real.
I say, Well, if you took my husband and a woman that I saw at Starbucks and a man that I saw on the bus and mix them all together, you may get the character. You know, you never know.
Yep, yep. You’re always looking around, I think around for an amalgam that works for the story that you’re telling.
And as I understand there are no explicit sex scenes in your novels. No. Do you believe there’s an expectation of sex by many readers?
I think well, you mean are we talking gain GLBTQ community or The larger community.
Let’s stick with the GLBTQ
Yes, in that community, there may be I, you know, I didn’t come to my writing by and large through LBGTQ writing. And so what I was, I think, at least in my mind basing it on, as I mentioned was the Agatha Christie kind of mystery. And you don’t find that in those mysteries. A traditional mystery was what I was writing. And I wanted to stay true to that tradition. I mean, you know, we don’t see Miss Marple in the bushes with her knickers down. We just don’t that would be very jarring. And so wanting to stick with that, that’s where I was. I hadn’t done a lot of reading within, you know, lesbian ministries or, and or lesbian fiction at the time and at the time, I Don’t think lesbian romances certainly are not as big as they are now. I think a lot of readers come to lesbian mystery fiction. Let’s just we’ll just say that today with that expectation. And I and if they read a lot of mysteries, that is an expectation, you know, as another mystery novels, that’s what you that is that is it thoroughly part of that specific sub genre, hardboiled novels, you will find sex scenes, you’ll also find a lots of violence. In my novels, one of the tropes of a traditional novel, is that on the page, you don’t have a lot of physical violence. So I don’t write that either. I’ve always thought you know, maximal suspense, minimal gore. That’s, that is the traditional mysteries, mystery. You know, if if they come to a traditional mystery, thinking that that’s what they’re going to get. They will be disappointed. I don’t write that I have never wanted to write that. For me, it would get in the way of telling the story. And I think you will find that. I mean, some of the writers that I admire even within the hard boiled genre, don’t write explicit sex scenes. I think if you need that, then find it somewhere else. You’re not going to find it by books. I have nothing against that. But it doesn’t fit as I said within the context of the type of ministry that I read that I write
that’s kind of a cliche. I it doesn’t bother me either. But I want it to move the story forward. So sure, that helps a story great, but if it doesn’t, why have it? My feeling
well, I mean, I remember reading a mystery lesbian mystery where, you know, we were we were on the hunt for and we we just found something major out and I was waiting, you know, for the character to pursue that. But instead she finds she nails some woman in the back of a like McDonald’s and they do it on a flour sack or something. And then she moves on. I didn’t need that, you know, that did feel gratuitous and unnecessary to me. And maybe it’s my age? I don’t know. But it depends upon the kind of book you’re writing. And that’s just never been the kind of book I wonder, right?
Yeah, I agree it works for some but not others. Right. Now, the number of accolades you’ve received, it’s impressive. In addition to the Grand Master award from Mystery Writers of America, you’ve also earned the Minnesota Book Award for Best popular fiction, your three time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award. And as I said, you were made a Literary Laureate at the Saint and Sinners Literary Festival in 2005. And there’s many more.
Yeah, they’re so weird.
Well, obviously, it’s not a weird thing to many others. Now, despite all that, what obstacles Have you faced right? stories with lesbian protagonists?
Oh, well, let’s let’s just take, for instance, the Grandmaster. I don’t think there’s probably ever been a Grandmaster in the history of Grandmaster Awards that has earned as little money as I have. And the reason is the kind of book I write, I knew that, that my rep, my readership would be limited. Because of what I wrote. I always just assumed that if someone wasn’t, you know, homophobic if they liked the kind of story that I wrote that they could enjoy my books. That isn’t the case. There’s, I think there’s still a lot of homophobia out there. And I think it’s limited my career. It’s certainly limited my sales and my ability to make money. But again, that’s what I wanted to do. And I’ve never, I’ve never regretted it. I’ve never looked back and thought, No, no, no, I shouldn’t do that. You know, so I you know, I I just kept digging the hole, which is the, you know, the definition of insanity. And because it was what I wanted to do, and I was lucky enough to make enough money along with teaching, etc, that I could make a career out of it. There was a period of time in New York in the early 90s, when they looked at what was happening with small presses in the United States, a small feminist or lesbian presses, and gay presses, Michael Nava comes to mind. And you know, where they thought, oh, gosh, this is the new flavor of the month. Let’s grab some of them and put them in, in for Michael and I and Scott Patone and a number of other people, let’s put them in that mass market paperback. So they did that. And we lasted, you know, a few years, and then we were all dropped. I wasn’t. that’s that’s a mystery to me. I don’t know why I wasn’t dropped when really, really fine writers were I somehow managed to hang on and write a book a year or sometimes more than a book a year for over 30 years. So the sustaining, I think, of that career has been part of the magic bullet. I still to this day, don’t quite understand. I mean, I know I tried to do everything right, I tried to do in terms of being professional, I turned books in on time, I was easy to work with. I did everything I could, A to Z to promote my books all over the country, on my dime, pretty much. I did what I could, and I think I was an easy author to work with, and apparently have had enough success. I don’t know that awards mean a whole lot to the general readership, but they do tend to energize your press. And so I was continually winning these awards. You know, they would look at that and I, you know, I was apparently selling enough that they would, they would consider giving me another contract. I’ve spent some years thinking I was going to be dropped. But that’s, that’s true. I mean, very, very fine writers that I know where I don’t get it. But I’m grateful. Yeah. I’m very grateful.
You’ve written the novels in your Sophie Greenway series. How does that series differ from Jane Lawless?
Well, the main character is is not a lesbian. I, if this is interesting to you, this is kind of a story that I, I always tell I always used to tell my writing classes. Because I think it’s very instructive, I think. I think in some ways you learn more by your mistakes than you do by what you do, right? Because sometimes when you do something, right, you don’t always know what you’ve done. You do know exactly what you’ve done when you’ve made a mistake. I wrote my first book Hallowed Murder and I had a couple presses that wanted to publish it and I went with Seal Press. And then they said to me, Well, are you going to write another book? I was so young and oh, I you know, it was like, Oh, another book. Yeah, I’ll written. So I said about writing another book. And I sent it in. And they sent it back. And they said, Nope, change this change that this is just not. They didn’t like it at all. So I put it on the shelf. And I, I thought, and I wrote for another two year period, trying to read a book that I thought they’d like. And I sent it to them. And they sent that book back and they said, No, no, no, this isn’t what we want. So, alright. You know, I was really flummoxed. I didn’t understand what was going on. So I thought long and hard. The first book I sent on how a murder was as perfect as I could possibly make it. It had been through multiple, I mean, probably half, probably 10 revisions, and I sent it off. It was a good book, One of the one of the people that I talked to along the way said it’s too long. Cut it by I think he told me to cut it by something like 30,000 words. And I thought I can’t do that. But you know, I started looking at the book. And I, I want it, I really want it to be published. And so I looked at every word, I looked at every sentence, every paragraph and every chapter. And I got that book down to about 74,000 words, at which point I realized, I think it was 93,000 when I sent it off. If, you know, I realized that I was if I cut it any more that I would be cutting structure and not fat. So I in the bone and I didn’t want to cut that. So I sent it off to them. They read it, they loved it, they published it. Okay, the next book I sent, I sent because they suggest that I write another book. I wrote it, I sent it off without really internalizing the fact that editors are very busy people. They get lots of submissions. If your book isn’t any good, they they’re not going to take the time to make something wonderful out of the direct you sent them. So I put that book on the shelf. The third book I sent off, which was called Vital Lies. They said it’s not feminist enough. It’s not lesbian enough. It’s not this or that. And I thought, Hmm, I didn’t I didn’t know that much about mystery, or I didn’t know that much about writing. But I had read a lot of mysteries. I didn’t read a mystery because it was feminist. I didn’t read a mystery if because it had a lesbian character in it. I read a mystery because it was entertaining. Because it It provided me with an interesting read. Now I have nothing against feminism. I am a feminist, but that isn’t what I was trying to do. I had nothing Yes, being a lesbian. I think my credentials there are pretty solid. But again, that isn’t where I was going. So what I did was I took out some lesbian characters, because they didn’t work. And I took out some of the feminist feminist stuff, because it slowed the story down. And essence what I did, I did the exact opposite of what they told me to do. And I sent them the book, and they took it. And what I learned from that was, you can’t pander. You can’t write somebody else’s book, you have to write the book that is true to you. If that’s not good enough to get published, so be it. But you have to write the book that’s calling to you. And ever since I learned those two lessons, lessons, don’t turn something in before it’s as perfect as you can make it. And secondly, don’t turn something in because you think you know what this press wants. You have to turn it in, turn something in that speaks to you that bubbles up from your inner self. And what you want to essentially you I think we read the books we want to read. You can’t pander. And after I learned those two lessons I’ve been published ever since.
Look sounds like great advice.
Well, beware of writers bearing gifts.
That is true.
But if you know if I believe that, so did I answer your question?
Yes, you did. Okay. Well, I want to remind people your current novel is In The Midnight Wood And where would be the best place for them to go to find it? Would it be your website?
Sure, absolutely. Find links on my website, or, you know, you can go anywhere you get your books online, when the book is out initially, you couldn’t find it in bookstores generally be able to find it in you know, if you’re still going to bookstores, but you know, anywhere that you get your books, you’d be you’d be able to find it.
So and I’ll have the link to your website in the show notes. Thank you. And Ellen, I want to thank you very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
Oh, this has been great fun. Thank you.
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