Write It Sideways

An Interview with Mystery Author Anne R. Allen

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Debra Eve.

According to Dame PD James, “Nothing that happens to a novelist is ever wasted.”

Author Anne R. Allen is proof. Two of Anne’s novels play off episodes from her own life. One involves a Hollywood scandal, and the other, her first publishing experience with an erotica publisher trying to branch into mainstream!

Anne also maintains an award-winning writing blog and co-wrote How To Be A Writer in the E-Age with Catherine Ryan Hyde (best known for Pay It Forward, which became a blockbuster movie).

Just last week, Anne sent the fourth book in her Camilla Randall comic mystery series to her editor. The best part of her success? Like PD James, Anne started writing in her 40s, proving it’s truly never too late.

Congratulations, Anne. I’d love to hear about that aha! moment that lead to writing. At age 55, after many years in theater, you published your first novel. What motivated you to become an author?

Writing was always my first love. My mom likes to tell a story about when I was around seven and she tried to inform me about the “facts of life”. I said I didn’t need to know that stuff because I was going to be a writer and live in a little cottage by the sea, so a husband and children would just get in the way.

I put off the dream when I fell in love with the theater. But when I turned forty, my father died suddenly and it was a wake-up call. It hit me that if I was ever going to realize my dream, I’d better get a move-on. So I gave up my theater job and used my inheritance to buy that little cottage by the sea, and a word processor.

My first novel actually landed me an agent and an almost-deal with Bantam. But everything fell apart and I got discouraged and didn’t write for about five years after that.

But that writing bug wouldn’t let go of me, so I went back to writing and knocking on agents’ doors. I filled a whole file drawer full of rejection letters between 1997 and 2002—before Food of Love was accepted by my first publisher. I finally burned all the rejections in a big bonfire last year when I signed with my new publisher.

In How To Be A Writer in the E-Age, you advise “DON’T put something in a novel ‘because that’s the way it really happened.'” Could you expand on that, especially as it relates to your Camilla Randall mystery Sherwood, Ltd.?

Great question. Sherwood, Ltd. was inspired by my adventures living and working in that erotica publisher in Lincolnshire from 2002-2005. A lot of things happened that were far more preposterous than anything I could put in a novel.

One of the people there was related to a famous murderer, who was never caught. Another had been a pretty well-known punk rocker. And there was a whole lot more drinking going on than I could put in the book. (Drunks are pretty boring in fiction.) The setting is close to accurate, but none of the characters are actually based on real people.  Each one is a composite. And of course my heroine, Camilla, is pure fiction.The truth is, life can be more outrageous than fiction. Fiction has to have a logic to it that real life doesn’t.

That’s an experience you can’t make up. I can see how it became a comic mystery. If you could invite any five literary personages from any time period to dinner, who would they be, and why?

Can I have six? For some reason, I thought of six right off the bat.

1.  Dorothy Parker: If just to sit back and listen to the bon mots.

2.  Agatha Christie: I really want to find out what happened during those weeks she disappeared.

3.  Oscar Wilde: Can’t you just imagine a snark-off between him and Dorothy P?

4.  Elliot Paul: He was a comic mystery writer who’s almost forgotten now, but he wrote hilarious mysteries set in Paris in the twenties, where he was very much part of the literary scene. I’ll bet he’d have amazing stories. He also wrote a memoir called The Last Time I Saw Paris. The title got ripped off by Hollywood and pasted on a Fitzgerald story that had the perfectly good title of Babylon Revisited.

5.  George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans: She’s a special hero of mine because I once met her ghost. Or at least it seemed like her ghost. The Lincolnshire building where I lived was only a block from the house where she lived when she wrote The Mill on the Floss, and sometimes I could feel her presence there. She was such an amazing pioneer in so many ways. She brought empathy and a modern sense of compassion to the Victorian novel.

6.  Noel Coward: As long as we have these wildly entertaining wits at the party, it wouldn’t be complete without the master. The only thing that might lure me back into the theater would be a chance to play Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. I quit the theater just when I was getting to be the right age to play her.

I’d love to attend that party! In 2011, you launched five novels, an achievement you’ve called the culmination of 15 years of work. What can you tell late-blooming writers with families and day jobs about keeping the faith?

Network with other writers. Don’t try to go it alone. Family and friends may be completely non-supportive even though they love you. They may feel you’re trying to be “better  than” them and may begrudge you that writing time you used to spend with them.

Non-writing friends may refuse to read your stuff or they might give nasty, clueless critiques—so it’s best to line up other writers to be your beta readers. Let friends and family read your work when the book comes out (and be aware they may not even read it then.) I learned that lesson the hard way.

A lot of writers are good listeners. That’s how we get our stories. But a lot of people only see us as a kind of listening device, and if you publish a book, you will become their rival for center stage. They can get nasty. So make sure you balance them out with positive, supportive friends. You will need them to help you through the rough patches.

Most important: Remember publishing is a business—a business that takes a long time to learn. When you aren’t producing a saleable product, people will reject that product, but it’s not a rejection of YOU. Educate yourself and keep learning and growing. Eventually, you’ll sound and act like a professional and you’ll be accepted as a professional—because that’s what you are.

Thank you, Anne, for inspiring us to persevere through rejection and see the extraordinary in our daily lives.

Anne R. Allen launched five comic mysteries in 2011—Food of LoveThe Gatsby GameGhostwriters in the SkySherwood, Ltd., and The Best Revenge—and co-wrote How To Be A Writer in the E-Age. Her blog, which she shares with New York Times bestseller Ruth Harris, was a finalist in the American Publishers Association/Goodreads IBB Awards for Best Publishing Industry Blog and named one of the “Top 50 Blogs for Writers” by TribalMessengerDaily.com