HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: There’d be no Sisters in Crime without Nancy Pickard, right? She’s a founding member, and former president. She says on her website she’s “not usually an organization kind of gal,” but “Sisters In Crime was an organization whose time needed to come and I felt that I couldn’t not take an active role in it.”
Yes, yes, she’s won every award, multiple times, and when her Virgin of Small Plains burst gloriously into the mystery world, it rocked the place. It’s terrific—brilliant, thoughtful, insightful and compelling. We’ve all listened to Nancy at Sisters in Crime seminars—I’m constantly looking at my notes from her class on editing.
Here’s one of her secrets—take away the qualifiers. No “kind of” no “sort of” not “pretty much” or “I guess.” When you tell a story, it is what it is. A Big storm, not kind of a big storm, not fairly rainy, or possibly wet.
I had the most revealing (not kind of revealing) experience, when editing a few weeks ago. I was trying to make character more powerful. More confident. And (using track changes) I made the edits I thought would help. When I was finished, I looked down the side of the page where the deleted words were listed. And there were: fairly, maybe, could be, I think, possibly, guess, estimate…and on and on. Bang. It worked. Because of Nancy’s insight, my wishy-washy hero became a decision-making hero.
I sent her a funny and appropriate postcard, on which had as the “original”: “I took the road somewhat less traveled by, and it’s possible that might have made some difference.”
As a teacher, mentor, leader, writer and role model, Nancy has changed all of our lives. Whatever she’s working on now—and more on that below—sign me up to read it. She’s a stalwart supporter of bookstores and libraries in her dear Kansas, and a generous and loving mentor to writers, whether brand new or journey-experienced.
She’s probably done sixty-million-billion interviews, but still graciously agreed to our “Not-Quite-Twenty Questions” feature.
And just when you think you know Nancy— in NQTQ, she reveals something new.
When you sit down to write, are you happy about that?
No. Oh, God, it’s hard to explain. When it’s going well, it’s better than almost anything, so yes, it’s fun. Really, great fun, and I feel uplifted. When it’s not going well–which means, when it’s not going at all–it’s awful. One of the challenges of doing this for a long, long time is learning to be patient with the process, and reasonably cheerful about it. I frequently have to look back and remind myself that I did write all those other books, so it’s at least possible I can do it again.
I have a confession here: I don’t actually write unless I feel happy about sitting down to do it, because no good writing. . .none. . .none. . .has ever. . .ever. . .come out of my fingers when I felt unhappy about it. Apparently, that’s not true for every writer, but it is for me. Feeling happy is a signal that my unconscious has done its work and now I’m primed to go. I am aware that this probably sounds crazy to writers who don’t experience things this way. Can’t help that. May be crazy. It is what it stubbornly is.
Plotter or pantser?
Book you wish you had written?
(Most recently) The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Lately, I’ve been searching for popular novels in which there is a murder, but no sleuth. I’ve been edging closer to that with both The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning. In those, my heroines asked a few questions, but they are not amateur sleuths. The Husband’s Secret, and the other books by Moriarty that I’ve read so far, blend mystery and women’s fiction in a way I like. I have found only a couple of other novels that do it in a way I like enough to study them. I want a smoother blend of murder and real life, if that makes any sense. Less genre, more general fiction, but still keeping murder and msytery. Having cake and eating it, too, in other words.
Movie you would see again and again?
“Harold and Maude,” and “The Road to Perdition.”
“Harold and Maude” has long been my favorite movie. I adore its quirky humor and its big heart. It makes me laugh and cry. The ending always leaves me feeling as if I can fly.
“The Road to Perdition” is harder to explain. After I saw it the first time, I went back to see it again the next two days in a row. I had never done that before and haven’t since. It mesmerizes me with its mix of cold darkness and warm light–both literally and figuratively. It’s the mix of good man/bad man in one character. It’s the setting on those long drives. It’s the cast, including Tom Hanks. who is perfect, and Paul Newman, both of them playing to some extent against type. I love haunting movies, and that was one, for me. (Let me note here that the movie is based on the graphic novel by one of our own mystery writers, Max Allan Collins.)
The favorite movie of this year so far is “Her,” because it is mind-bending (of my mind, at least) and fun and touching.
Exotic drinks–yes? No?
When in history would you choose to visit?
Philadelphia in the summer of 1776.
Well, I’ll admit the heat would be awful, and I would so hate wearing all those clothes, and being a woman at that time would suck. And then there would be the problem of horse **** in the streets. But there would be George Washington! Seriously, that’s my favorite period of American history. I love our founders, and feel such awe for their courage and persistence in the face of the most awful odds against them. I would love to be there to watch them in action, even if watching the sausage being made turns out to be tedious, which by all accounts it was. And dangerous, which it certainly was. I only want to be a ghost there, by the way, not an actual, over-dressed, sweating person.
What are you working on now?
You’re not gonna tell us at all? At all?
No, not much, because it has taken a long time to write, and it keeps changing, so I don’t want to be stuck with a description that turns out to be wrong. For the last year or so, I’ve at least been telling people the title, but as of last week, that’s no longer operative, either.
So, are you superstitious?
Yes, of talking about my books too soon. Or maybe that’s just a fear of watching faces fall if they’re disappointed in my description.
Pizza or chocolate?
On a desert island? Chocolate. Which would make it a dessert island.
Kids? Pets? Spouse? Hobbies? Garden?
One, ex, ex, ex, ex.
Fear or phobia?
WHY DO YOU WANT TO KNOW?!
Thing you always say to yourself when writing?
“Is it too late to be a carpenter?”
But, really. What do you say? I mean, you’re not really second-guessing yourchoice to be a writer…so what is it that makes you go on? Short answer, really, is fine.
No, I frequently second-guess my choice to be a writer. I DO often wish I had another talent, or at least more of the alleged talent I have. I actually sit down now and then and think, kind of desperately, “What else can I do to support myself?” The answer is always a humbling, “Nothing. ” I frequently feel a twinge of dread when I sit down to write, because I don’t know if any words will come, but then who ever knows that? Other times, I feel a little surge of joy, because I already know how I’m going to begin. Today, for instance, I feel both. I know how I’m going to begin, but I don’t know if it will continue.
There are two things that keep me going. One is my desire to keep living indoors. But the more compelling one is my desire to keep trying to be a better writer telling a better story. In that sense, you could say that ambition and dissatisfaction drive me, along with a feeling that I really do have things to say if I can only find the right ways to say them.
Do you watch TV? What?
Yes! The Americans, The Good Wife, Survivor, The Walking Dead, Top Chef, Project Runway, Justified, Homeland, Orphan Black, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Downton Abbey, and more. I guess I do have a hobby.
Can you sing?
Best concert you’ve ever seen?
Jackson Browne, Starlight Theater, KCMo., a couple of years ago.
What do you wish you had known?
Writer’s block is real, and useful, and dangerous, and hard to manage, and rich with meaning and potential. It has made me, again and again, a better writer than I was when I didn’t believe in it.
Do you have a motto? (What is it?)
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
— William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Nancy’s Official Bio (from her website http://www.nancypickard.com/biography.html — which has lots of fun stuff on it!) includes:
Nancy has won the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Barry, and Shamus awards for her short stories. She won the first-ever Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original Mystery for her second Jenny Cain novel, Say No to Murder. She has won multiple Agatha and Macavity awards for her novels. The Los Angeles Times says, “Pickard pushes at the presumed limits of (crime fiction).” The San Diego Union says, “Nancy Pickard is acclaimed as one of today’s best mystery writers. Mounting evidence suggests that this description is too limited. . .Pickard (is) one of today’s best writers, period.” She is a 4-time Edgar Allan Poe award nominee, having been a finalist three times for Best Novel and once for Best Short Story. Her three Edgar-finalist novels are: I.O.U., The Whole Truth, and The Virgin of Small Plains. She is also a Mary Higgins Clark award finalist, and a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement award for suspense fiction, from Romantic Times. In her hometown area that includes both the Missouri and Kansas sides of the state line, she has received The Thorpe Menn Award from the Kansas City, Mo. branch of the American Association of University Women and the Don Coldsmith Award. Two of her novels, The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning, have been named Kansas Notable Books. The Virgin of Small Plains was the Kansas Reads Book of 2009.
* * *
Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 30 Emmys and dozens of others honors for her ground-breaking journalism. The best-selling author of six mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: two Agathas, the Anthony and the Macavity, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the Mary Higgins Clark award. Her newest thriller THE WRONG GIRL (now an Agatha and Left Coast Crime nominee) was dubbed “Another winner!” in a Booklist starred review. Her upcoming novel is TRUTH BE TOLD (Forge, 2014.) She is 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com