Smith, Julie 1944-
SMITH, Julie 1944-
Born November 25, 1944, in Annapolis, MD; daughter of Malberry (a lawyer) and Claire (a school counselor; maiden name, Tanner) Smith. Education: University of Mississippi, B.A., 1965.
Writer and licensed private investigator. Times-Picayune, New Orleans, LA, reporter, 1965-66; San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, CA, copy editor, 1967-68, reporter, 1968-79; Invisible Ink (editorial consulting firm), San Francisco, partner, 1979-82.
Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America.
Edgar Allan Poe Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1991, for New Orleans Mourning.
"REBECCA SCHWARTZ" MYSTERY SERIES
Death Turns a Trick, Walker (New York, NY), 1982.
The Sourdough Wars, Walker (New York, NY), 1984.
Tourist Trap, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Dead in the Water, Ivy (New York, NY), 1991.
Other People's Skeletons, Ivy (New York, NY), 1993.
"SKIP LANGDON" MYSTERY SERIES
New Orleans Mourning, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1990.
The Axeman's Jazz, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Jazz Funeral, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1993.
New Orleans Beat, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1994.
House of Blues, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1995.
The Kindness of Strangers, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1996.
Crescent City Kill, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1997.
82 Desire, Fawcett Columbine (New York, NY), 1998.
Mean Woman Blues, Forge (New York, NY), 2003.
"TALBA WALLIS" MYSTERY SERIES
Louisiana Hotshot, Forge (New York, NY), 2001.
Louisiana Bigshot, Forge (New York, NY), 2002.
Louisiana Lament, Forge (New York, NY), 2004.
P.I. on a Hot Tin Roof, Forge (New York, NY), 2005.
True-Life Adventure, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Huckleberry Fiend, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Mean Rooms: A Short Story Collection, Five Star (Unity, ME), 2000.
Contributor of short stories to magazines, including Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Stories have been published in anthologies, including Miniature Mysteries, 100 Malicious Little Mystery Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, Taplinger, 1981; The Arbor House Treasury of Mystery and Suspense, edited by Bill Pronzini, Barry N. Malzberg, and Martin H. Greenberg, Arbor House, 1981; Sisters in Crime, edited by Marilyn Wallace, Berkley, 1989; Sisters in Crime II, edited by Marilyn Wallace, Berkley, 1990; Detective Duos, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Oxford University Press, 1997; and Irreconcilable Differences, edited by Lia Matera, HarperCollins, 1999.
Julie Smith is "one of the most talented of the new crop of mystery writers," wrote Digby Diehl in Playboy. Smith's first mystery, Death Turns a Trick stars feminist Jewish lawyer Rebecca Schwartz and is set in San Francisco, where Smith once worked as a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle. Rebecca's friend, Paul MacDonald, is a mystery writer, and her law partner is Chris Nicholson, a Virginian with a taste for good bourbon.
Smith changed the scenery for her "Skip Langdon" series, which is set in New Orleans and stars a female detective in the New Orleans police department. The first of Skip's cases, New Orleans Mourning, won Smith an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. All of Smith's fiction, according to Marilyn Wallace in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, "demonstrates a keen eye for the special qualities that set one city apart from another—the landmarks, the language, the hopes and dreams of the inhabitants, and the unspoken rules, values, and customs that shape a place."
Skip Langdon is "a complex character," Wallace wrote. Her "self-awareness, often unsettling, reflects her outsider status, adding dimension to her observations, yet her comments are leavened by her endearing generosity of spirit. Born into a socially prominent family, Skip is too tall, too big, and too straightforward to fit the Southern belle image. She harbors a distaste for many of the conventions of New Orleans society, but that doesn't stop her from using her intimate knowledge of the city and its high society in her work."
Skip's cases lead her into both high and low New Orleans society. In House of Blues, she uncovers the killer of a prominent restaurateur with the help of local prostitutes and drug addicts. In Jazz Funeral, the producer of a jazz festival is knifed in his own kitchen, and Skip finds that the suspects include a host of singers and musicians. In The Kindness of Strangers, a charismatic preacher heads a multicultural flock of apparent do-gooders, but Skip suspects he has darker motives.
Reviewers appreciate Smith's ability to create a fast-moving plot and believable characters. In a review of Jazz Funeral, a Publishers Weekly critic found that "Skip doesn't miss much as she probes the victim's tangled relationships, remaining all the while a consistently convincing character herself." Reviewing House of Blues, another Publishers Weekly critic said that "Smith carries off a tricky balancing act, rendering Skip heroic while imbuing her with a credibly textured emotional life." "Danger crackles through the Skip novels," wrote Wallace, "as the policewoman peels back layer after layer of lies in her search for the truth. Smith's keen observations, wickedly inventive wit, and finely drawn slices of Big Easy … society make for mysteries that capture fascinating people caught in the tangled webs of their own weaving."
Talba Wallis, the protagonist of Smith's next series, was introduced as a character in the "Skip Langdon" novel 82 Desire. Talba is a computer nerd and aspiring private investigator who at night assumes the persona of the baroness de Pontalba, a performance poet clad in colorful African costume. She lives with her mother, Miz Clara, and has a schoolteacher boyfriend. In the daylight hours, she is a conservative young woman who just happens to chase down murderers, investigate corrupt politicians, and contend with racial disharmony. Smith's first book to feature Talba is Louisiana Hotshot, in which the character takes a job working for sixty-five-year-old private investigator Eddie Valentino. The pair have more in common than one might first imagine, and as a Publishers Weekly contributor noted, the book "generates plenty of tension as the savvy veteran and the eager novice combine their talents."
In Louisiana Bigshot, Talba investigates the suicide-by-overdose of a close friend, which leads to uncovering the secrets of several white families. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that the relationship between Talba and Eddie, "a man who admires her brain and fearlessness but would never let on, is warm and respectful." In Louisiana Lament, Talba gets a call from her half sister and becomes involved in a double homicide. Booklist's Connie Fletcher called the book "vibrant" and said that Talba "ranges throughout the state in the course of her investigation, giving the reader great lashings of Louisiana atmosphere."
Skip Langdon returned in Mean Woman Blues, which featured Skip's nemesis, the evangelical sociopath Errol Jacomine, who undergoes extensive plastic surgery, becomes a television talk show host, and aspires to become president of the United States. Meanwhile, Skip is caught up in the theft of cemetery statuary and obsessed with the Formosan termites that infest New Orleans every May.
Julie Smith contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
An early photo of me shows a child barely eighteen months old and already clamoring to tell her story. She's standing up in her stroller and raising a fist as if in oratory, screwing up her not-so-cute face. Visibly trying to be heard. Perhaps a psychic could have looked at it and said, "Yes—she'll be a writer. And probably a mystery writer. She is destined forever to chase the mysteries of existence with twisted tales that almost always include at least one bewildered young person struggling to make sense of it all. And she may feel that she'll never really succeed."
This is not to be self-deprecating—it could apply to any writer. I wonder if there's one among us who truly feels she got the story right.
The psychic might also have observed, "By the way, it'll be a bumpy ride."
It has been. A lot of times I was near despair—that I'd ever get published, that I'd ever get noticed, that I'd ever be able to make a living doing what I loved. But it's been crazily worth it—certainly for the exhilaration of doing something enormously hard. And also for the process itself, the gift of being able to live the life of the imagination, the place where a writer goes that isn't really life, yet sometimes seems just as important. For me, it's a lovely way to live—and quite possibly the only choice. I believe with all my being that stories are as deeply important to us as a species, as are the other creature comforts, and it is a privilege to make my living concocting them.
Perhaps, as Flaubert so famously put it, the character really is the author, always, no matter how much she may try to distance herself. Perhaps her stories are always her own, no matter how different they may seem. If that is so, then let me put it up front. Here, in my case, is the crux of creativity, possibly even the source of it—from my earliest memories, I was terrified of my mother. She was never diagnosed, but I think it's safe to say there was something fundamentally amiss with her. She was perennially unhappy, at times deeply depressed, possessed of a dangerous mean streak; and was frequently unable to make logical connections, though arguing was her favored form of communication. She was also a lifelong hypochondriac who loved nothing more than to discuss her supposed illnesses and the hideous medical procedures to which she so often submitted. And she was a self-proclaimed victim who never joined any group in which she didn't instantly make an enemy, one who always "had it in for her." She never had a job where her enemy wasn't also her boss.
Lest that description seem harsh, let me mention that, when not in the grip of her sadistic streak, she was also well-meaning and conscientious, even loving in her own view (though never affectionate), and did provide such obvious necessities as food, clothing, and transportation, as well as the teaching of manners and basic household arts like cleaning and laundry. She imparted values as well—the importance of fending for oneself, most notably, of making good decisions. I'm deeply grateful for these things.
But I give them short shrift here because they're not the sorts of things that make a child look for safe harbor, and writing is that for me. Without a need for safety, and still another need to see the world through a different lens from the one my mother held up, I wonder if I'd have become a writer.
My father, I suspect, was as dismayed and bewildered by his wife as the child in the picture. He was—and is—conscientious in an entirely different way. A man of honor in the old sense, and a strong Christian, he'd never have turned his back on someone he'd pledged to love and cherish. Indeed, in the last years of my mother's life, when she was in the throes of dementia and decline, he refused at first to move her into a senior residence that had a wing for such patients, declaring "I made a promise." Not sure what he meant, I inquired and learned he referred to his wedding vows. (Eventually, they both moved into one, and she went to the Alzheimer's wing in the daytime, freeing him for his own pursuits.) And so—though he must, at least some of the time—have been deeply unhappy with her, we all lived with it.
But what, exactly, was wrong with her? How did she get that way? Where did the meanness come from? And, since the parents' worldview is the only one to which a small child has access, how could I make sense of a planet that looked very different to me from the one filtered through my mother's eyes? These are the mysteries, I imagine, that I labor so long and hard to solve, forever spinning stories that seek, in one way or another, to unravel what can never be known.
On the surface, she had an idyllic childhood. Born Jessie Claire Tanner, she was the second daughter of Jessie Drew Tanner and Julian E. Tanner, who was known universally as "Doc" in the small town where he served as the town pharmacist. (Though he'd never admit it, I learned from my mother that the "E" stood for Erastus. Why he was ashamed of it I'm not sure, but I believe it was a common name among the black population in those days, and thus, to him, unsuitable for a white man.)
The Tanners (MaMa and PaPa to me) lived in Ridgeland, South Carolina, hardly a bump in the road, as the old-timers would have it, where they enjoyed, I gather, a position not unlike royalty in its minuscule confines. My grandparents' house was a magical place to us kids, with an extensive garden and even a greenhouse. They were the first people in the town to have air conditioning, though this may have had more to do with PaPa's asthma than with any superior affluence.
MaMa, to hear my mother tell it, was a spoiled and vain woman, selfish to the bone, but she seemed to me a very fine grandmother, a woman who enjoyed bridge and gardening, and who twice daily cooked a hot meal, since, every day, PaPa walked the two blocks from the drugstore to their home for lunch. PaPa wasn't a man of a great many words; but he had an aura of kindness about him, perhaps of resignation. To my knowledge they weren't particularly enthusiastic church people, though my mother's only interest outside work and her family was always the Methodist church.
Their first daughter, my Aunt Edith (whom we called "Titter"—pronounced something like "Tuh-ta") was a generous, expansive woman who taught school but lived for her family and her cooking and sewing, and later in life, her quilting. To her, every child was "darlin'" or "sweetheart." Always overweight, Titter hadn't the least worry about it, insisting "I'm built for comfort, not speed" and scorning heart-healthy foods. Water-packed tuna, she said, tasted like cat food. Though she had arthritis, high blood pressure, and all the small discomforts that come with surplus weight, she outlived her younger sister, dying peacefully at age eighty-five.
So this was the family into which my mother, who was called Claire, was born. What could have gone so horribly wrong? A devoted amateur psychologist, Mother had her own theories about it. (Though she surely never suspected how far from the norm she was, she certainly knew she was unhappy.) One was that her own mother harbored a deep resentment of the tiny Claire because she had whooping cough during her pregnancy, and the doctor said he could save the baby, but not MaMa. (In the end, the story goes, PaPa saved her himself by illegally prescribing laudanum.) And I may have just developed another theory. It never occurred to any of us to wonder if the prenatal drug had damaged the baby's brain—I thought of it for the first time as I write.
The second of Mother's theories was this: MaMa was ill after the baby was born, either with the same whooping cough or something else (perhaps post-partum depression) and refused to touch or nurture Claire for the first year of the baby's life. No doubt that would do it, but Titter always said, "You know Claire makes things up." Which was also true.
My mother painted herself as the Cinderella of the household, forced to do the menial chores—which included getting up early to light fires for everyone else—while my aunt was loved and cosseted. When Claire was punished, according to her, her parents permitted her older sister to administer the spanking. Titter had no recollection of any of that, but one thing seems obvious—she, the older daughter, was clearly her father's favorite.
In the event the Cinderella version was true, it only presents another mystery—how could my nice grandparents, who raised one perfectly lovely daughter, have sunk to such behavior? You see? There's no figuring it out.
The girls were the first in both the Drew and Tanner families ever to attend college, where my mother majored in biology. She went on to become what she called "a medical technologist" ("lab tech" is what she meant, I think), and moved across the river to work for a doctor in Savannah, Georgia. As always, church was her only outside interest, and it was there that she met my father, Malberry Smith Jr.—"Mal" to his friends and family.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, my mother thought of herself as an aristocrat—though in reduced circumstances—while my father came from truly humble origins. But he was a catch, no question. First of all, he looked like a movie star—and, at eighty-nine, married again, he still cuts quite a figure. Second, he was a lawyer with a freshly minted degree from Columbia and political ambitions. Mother claimed she made up her mind to marry him the first time she saw him, and I can see why.
My father was also the first in his family to go to college; his two brothers, preferring to quit school in the ninth grade and become cops, didn't make it. His own father, also Malberry Smith, was a justice of the peace and a reformed drunk (as opposed to "recovering alcoholic"), and his mother, Mittie Camp Smith, was pretty much a saint, to hear my father tell it. Grandpa was a crotchety piece of work with an incredibly soft spot for children, to whom he delighted in slipping forbidden treats. We all adored him. Grandma was ever the dutiful wife and cookie-baking grandmother. My God, how that impressed me! I'd never seen a homemade cookie till I was seven or eight. She also played baseball with the grandchildren.
Though the elder Smiths had a famously stormy relationship, Grandma called her husband "Mr. Smith" till the day he died, functioning more or less as his servant. I suspect that my father, observing how selfishly his father treated her, saw his mother as a martyr and vowed he'd never behave badly to a woman or let her down, a decision that may have sealed his own marital fate. The family lived in College Park, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta that in those days was more or less a country town. My father tells tales of going to school barefoot and I believe it, since when I was seven, I went to school there myself—and even then, some of my classmates didn't wear shoes. He had a successful high school career—of the class president variety—and was somehow spotted by a recruiter for Columbia, to which, after scholarships were arranged, he was packed off on graduation. After eight years in New York, he arrived in Savannah to practice law and meet Claire Tanner, whom he courted until he volunteered for the Navy during World War II and married in the midst of what he calls "wartime hysteria."
Oddly, the New York years seem to have had little effect on him. He's remained a small-town boy at heart, free of Yankee airs and accent, apparently incurious about how other people live. But then again, he did get to see a good part of the world in the Navy. He was chosen to become a "Ninety-Day Wonder," one of the instant officers turned out in those days, and then he was tapped to teach classes in tactics and strategy at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Which brings me to myself. I was born in the Navy hospital there, and, I'm told, was one of the two main attractions in the nursery during my stay. Absolutely everyone, according to my parents, just had to see the cute black baby and the red-headed one. (I was the latter—I came in with a full head of carrot-red hair, and the temperament to match.)
Shortly afterward, my father was shipped overseas and my mother went back to Ridgeland to live with her mother and sister, who hadn't yet married and was teaching near Ridgeland. I'm told I was a temperamental baby, and since I had an unpredictable mother, heaven knows what might have happened if I'd been left alone with her. But I expect that year was probably a good one for me—I know it stood me in good stead in later life—for this was the period in which I bonded with my aunt, probably the single most important influence in any claim to sanity I can muster. It was only after I was grown that my father acknowledged my mother's instability. Thus it was my aunt, who, on only a few occasions—but they were enough—let me know that not all adults necessarily subscribed to the view that I'd never possess a modicum of competence. I was always thought to be smart—my parents more or less insisted upon it—and my father even worked up the courage to contradict my mother and say I was pretty. But competent was another matter. And a child who believes herself incompetent is poorly equipped for everyday life. Thanks to my aunt, I developed a germ of confidence, which grew once it had the chance.
After the war, we ended up in Savannah with a fourth family member, my brother Steve. Sometime in those early years, my dad won a seat in the state legislature, due, in my mother's opinion, largely to the white linen suit she always kept perfectly ironed and starched. But that was his last successful foray into politics, and he settled down to a quiet life of practicing law and attending the Methodist Church. For Steve and me, those years were pretty much hell, my mother being overwhelmed by two energetic young beings and resentful of the intrusion—she'd wanted to go on to medical school, she said, but met my father instead.
We'd just moved to a tiny house in a modest development when two things happened: My mother became pregnant again, and my father, still in the Navy Reserve, was sent on active duty in the Korean War. While he was away, the rest of the family—including my two-week-old sister, Mittie, moved to a small apartment in my grandparents' College Park house, so my mother would have some support. During that time I got to know my uncles better.
My father was the middle child. His older brother, Joe, was a homicide detective for the Atlanta police department, often featured in True Detective, copies of which he'd proudly show me before treating me to raspberry ice cream. Like my grandfather, he adored children and had two of his own, Mary Ann and Bubba. (Every Southern female writer must have a cousin Bubba, and I had a mighty crush on mine.) Bubba was an acknowledged bad boy—part of his attraction, no doubt—and Mary Ann, by the time I came along, had died in an accident. The family story held that she stood too close to a train, and was "sucked under the wheels." Many years later I told this story to a friend, who looked at me skeptically and minced no words. "Julie," he said, "that defies the laws of physics. Your cousin committed suicide."
To this day, I've never been able to find anyone who knows enough to tell me whether such a thing could really happen, but I was struck for the first time by the unlikeliness of it. Did the older generation actually believe this, or was it a story they made up for the kids, like Santa Claus? My mother, I thought, with her penchant for malicious gossip, would tell me the truth, and I waited for the right time to ask. This is what she said: "Oh, no. OH, no." She nearly yelled it. "And there were reasons, believe me. She had good reasons. But she didn't. Grandma saw the whole thing. She walked Mary Ann to the railroad crossing and watched to make sure she made it safely across, but Mary Ann bent to tie her shoe as the train came, and she was sucked under." She kept mum on the "reasons," and I know better than to ask my father.
What child would be so foolish as to tie her shoe with a train approaching? What went on in that family? Many of my plots have elements in them about family secrets—ambiguities that can never be explained—and I know that, in my work, I'm consciously, fruitlessly, trying to figure out why Mary Ann died. Once I told the story at a lunch for women writers and every one of them had a similar tale, one involving a whole town that covered up for a man who shoved his wife into a furnace.
My younger uncle, Owen, went on to become College Park's police chief and later its mayor. When he died, he was so well loved that half the state of Georgia turned out for his funeral. But I was terrified of him. As a child, I remember him strutting about wearing motorcycle boots and a big fat leather gun holster, teasing me and calling me "four eyes" and "Yankee girl." My father and brother insist that I simply failed to grasp his humor, and they couldn't be more right. An ardent racist in private, he had a reputation for fairness among black people—or so I'm told—but his cruel jokes about them are what I remember. When I was in college, he cockily told a yarn about killing a man (though he used a noun beginning with "n") who broke into a church. "Shot him right between the eyes," he bragged. "Cain't get no deader'n that."
"Did he have a weapon, Uncle Owen?" I asked.
"Sure did. Had a flashlight."
My father says he was just twitting me. Maybe. Sue me if I wasn't amused.
Everyone who knew him—including Owen himself—believed that the actor Rod Steiger must have secretly studied him for the Southern sheriff's role he played in the movie In The Heat of the Night.
I mention the uncles because I think of them as the "good cop" and the "bad cop," the good one with the suicidal daughter, the bad with the coterie of devotees, the cliché duo in the fictional landscape in which it's been my destiny to wander.
After a year in College Park, we followed my father to the navy base in Coronado, California, near San Diego, but he was promptly shipped out, leaving my unstable mother in a strange, indeed exotic landscape with three small children—a recipe for disaster that played out predictably. After that year (third grade) I gained weight, became depressed and withdrawn, and didn't come out of it till college.
I'll tell three quick stories, one nice, the others harrowing. I bought a tube of lipstick (Tangee Natural, the prescribed color for first face paint), applied it, then came home and rang the doorbell, thinking to surprise my mother with the new, improved, grown-up me. She came flying, took one look at me, and without a word slapped me, as she was fond of saying, "into the middle of next week."
The second story:
California was a foreign land to us—different weather, vegetation, architecture—and it was endlessly fascinating. One day I found a rock as big as a football, of some substance I'd never seen before. "It's obsidian," said my friend Sheryl, and I think it must have been, though how it ended up on the street, I'll never know. I asked my mom about it and she said, "That's just old black glass—stay away from it."
But what were the chances? This was like finding a box of rubies. "Let's break it, and you can see," Sheryl said. So we threw it on a patch of concrete in the back yard, watching it shatter into hundreds of black shards, some so thin they were translucent brown. More kids came and we broke it again and again, mesmerized by the shower of black and brown crystals. Reaching for one, I opened up an inch-wide cut on my arm, and ran for my mommy, who said. "I told you not to touch that old black glass. I'll tell you what I'm gon' do. I'm not gon' take you to the doctor today. It might need a stitch or two, but it might close up overnight. If it doesn't, we'll go to the doctor, because by tomorrow, it'll really hurt. And if it does, you'll have a scar to remember it by." I have the scar.
Curiously, the third thing that happened that year, though tiny and lovely—one of my few good childhood memories—was surely the most important of the three. The effects of the first two lasted only as long as adolescence; the benefits of the third are with me still. Here's what happened: A talent show was announced at school, and I was in the dumps because I couldn't sing or dance. I bemoaned my lack of talent, whereupon my mother, searching for something, said, "You have talent. You just haven't found it yet."
"But what? What else is there, Mommy?"
She thought about it. "Well … I think you have a flair for writing."
Think about it—I was eight. I could barely spell "cat." But I took what I could get. However false it may have been, I felt that, at least for that moment, she was on my team. I grasped at the straw, going on to write a science-fiction story that earned an "A." In one small arena, I had permission to be competent. I owe my mother for that one.
After the school year, my father came back and we went "home," though Savannah was never really that to me. I never fit in there, never understood how to go out and make friends—my mother didn't have them, and though my dad did, they didn't come to our house. I can remember sitting in fifth grade, staring out the window, and thinking about the time when I could get away. My parents had a saying—"As long as you're under our roof, you'll …" (do what we want—go to church, have your hair permed till it's fried, make all A's … whatever). And the rest of it was, "When you're twenty-one you can do what you want."
I marked time till that day, passing the months and years with my nose, as my relatives never failed to remark, in a book. In short, I became the classic dork—overweight, under-socialized, shy as a deer and just as skittish. But one of those books changed my life. I found it in a kids' display at Woolworth's, and it was called The Red-headed League. My dad had always told me my hair was beautiful (though it was usually fried to my mother's specifications) and that I was special because I had special hair. Well, God knows nothing else about me was special. I was all over that one. I thought this book might be about people like me, and I'd certainly never met one. What I didn't know was that its title was taken from an Arthur Conan Doyle story, and that the book was a collection of Sherlock Holmes tales.
Therein, I found a universe I could relate to—one where logic carried the day and justice prevailed. Given the chaos of my life, I wanted in. Henceforth this would be my world. And, though I had a brief period in which I wanted to be a psychiatrist (imagine that!), my ambition—to become not only a writer, but a writer of mysteries—was more or less set in stone at age twelve. Somehow or other, I would learn to write that kind of story, and make a living from it, however meager. Money was not a Smith value—in fact, doing what you wanted, oddly enough, was—and so it never occurred to me to want to make more than a modest living, a notion that hasn't served me particularly well.
Though I was never encouraged to make money, I was urged to make my own way. I've noticed that many women of my age say they ended up getting married too soon because they simply knew no alternative to marriage and a family. Thanks to my parents—yes, my mom, too—this wasn't all I knew. I can remember quite vividly my father saying, "You can't depend on a man to take care of you. We're sending you to college to get an education so you can always take care of yourself." I took it to heart, and in retrospect, it was marvelously freeing. I could see lots of possibilities out there and I chose—with no thought at all except to get up in the morning and do what I wanted—to make up stories.
Life in Savannah was difficult on two accounts. One was the smothering conformity of the town itself—or of the Methodist church folk who were all I knew—and the other was the over-protectiveness of my family, perhaps common during the fifties, but exaggerated, it seems to me, in my case. (Maybe I was wrong, though—there was an army of middle-class kids who ended up like I did in the sixties—kicking up their heels and feeling free at last.)
Freedom was what I longed for every day of my high school life. I did manage to make a few girlfriends, though I wasn't yet equipped to communicate with the male sex, and I worked on the school newspaper. Still, what I wanted most, along with a writing career, was to hang out with intellectuals (the word Bohemian, or even Beatnik, being yet unknown to me), find out what the forbidden thing called sex was all about, and learn what lay outside the confines of Savannah.
I was only sixteen when I was packed off to a girls' college, my parents figuring that was all I could handle, due to my poor social skills and thoroughgoing shyness. But it wasn't what I wanted, and finally I was permitted to transfer to the University of Mississippi, arriving at almost the same moment as our most famous alumnus, James Meredith, who integrated the school and who was in my French class. Not surprisingly, I was put off by the racism of most of my classmates—and by all that tear gas—and I begged to transfer again. My father refused, using one of his favorite expressions: "You've made your bed; now lie in it."
So I stayed, but he was wrong—I hadn't yet made my bed. I proceeded to do that, turning round and round in my little den and eventually getting comfortable. I'd managed to drop twenty-five pounds my freshman year, and now, free of weight, curfews, and parental impediments, I felt ready to conquer the world. I had a plan—to major in journalism and support myself as a reporter until I had the life experience for novels. Despite my shyness (which was lessening by the day), I loved the idea of being a reporter. It would afford writing instruction, new people and events each day, and knowledge of neighborhoods and lifestyles I'd never see otherwise.
What I didn't know was that I'd stumbled into the chance of a lifetime. The Ole Miss journalism department had excellent teachers at the time, one of whom, Jere Hoar, has since become a good friend and fellow fiction writer. Dr. Hoar and Dr. Sam Talbert, then head of the department, so thoroughly believed in their students that years later, when I asked Jere if he was surprised at how well his charges have done (many have distinguished themselves in journalism and related fields), he answered, "We thought you all were going to grow up to be president."
They taught journalism in a way that not only prepared students for jobs, but gave us built-in credentials. We were required to write for publication. Every story we did had to be submitted somewhere, even if only to the campus paper. I never hit the big-time, but I had a sheaf of locally published articles to show by the time I graduated.
I also had a great creative writing teacher, the late Evans Harrington, and about a third of our class of twelve or fifteen have had careers as fiction writers and in one case, as a poet. Evans taught me the most important thing I ever learned in fiction—to write a scene. It seems to me that once a writer has mastered this, she's pretty much in business.
Like many college students, I could have done so much more with my college years—could have double-majored in English, for instance, could have taken history courses—but I'd been so sheltered and protected that I felt I needed to learn as much about life as I did about literature. And so I put in many a golden afternoon driving with friends to the bootlegger (Mississippi still had prohibition), serving in the campus Senate, even running unsuccessfully for student office. And many a night learning to hold my liquor (or not, as the case may be).
But what to do upon graduation? The usual thing for a Southern girl with ambition was to hightail it to New York, but that seemed too big a chunk to bite off. Finally, my best friend Ann Ballard and another girl had the brilliant idea of driving "out to the coast," by which they meant San Francisco. For some reason, that sounded exactly right—exotic, but not yet the Big Apple. However, the third girl, the one with the car, dropped out, so Ann and I went to Plan B—we decided to seek our fortunes in the nearest interesting city, and it wasn't Memphis. Each of us asked our parents for $100 for graduation, and spent nine dollars on bus tickets to New Orleans, a sum that proved to be the best nine bucks I ever spent.
The day we arrived, we rented a furnished apartment on Jackson Avenue, the edge of the Garden District, complete with a balcony on the Mardi Gras parade route. Our rent was $40 apiece, and we were in heaven. I immediately applied for a job on the Times-Picayune.
The city editor, though polite as could be, said he couldn't manage it right then, but my clips looked good, and to try again. So next we went to the Louisiana Employment Office, where a lovely man sent us over to Shell Oil, assuring us we'd get jobs: "They have this thing called a 'Shell-type girl' and they all run around like little starlets." Not exactly a feminist policy, but it seemed a start. I became a junior clerk for Shell, working in the accounting department, and Ann, who felt she could do better, got a teaching job in a private school. I didn't care if I didn't do better—for me it was only a stopgap.
It took me another three months to muscle my way into a newspaper job. When the offer came, it was to work in the library at a salary of $33 a week. If I took it I could have the first reporting job that came available. And I could just make it, if I didn't buy any clothes. I settled in for the long haul, but as it happened, fortune smiled within a month—the best job of my life opened up. A reporter quit in Dixie Roto, the Sunday magazine section, which meant I'd get to write features exclusively (much leeway for fancy writing), and I'd get to set my own assignments. Nothing but a book contract could have been better—and I hadn't yet written a book. As an added bonus, my Dixie Roto colleague was Betsy Petersen, who, along with her husband, Jim, instantly became my dear friends. Many years later, Betsy was the person who spurred me to begin my life as a novelist.
The first big piece I did was on prohibition in Mississippi, which still existed, complete with a black market tax for bootleggers. I got terrific cooperation from the Mississippi tax people, who recognized the absurdity of their own positions, and I even got to interview Johnny, the bootlegger my friends and I frequented at Ole Miss. Next, I did pieces on cloistered nuns, on Mardi Gras balls, on the First Lady of Mississippi, on anything that could afford me a glimpse of a world I didn't know.
And I did find out what sex was all about, which was nearly my undoing. A few short months into my fabulous new job—the chance of a lifetime, the fulfillment of all my young ambition—I found myself pregnant.
I mention this incredibly personal detail because we take the right to choose so much for granted these days—and we're so close to losing it—that I want to share the dilemma that confronted young women like me in the days before abortion was legalized. Sexual freedom was also an idea that hadn't, in 1965, yet come to the South (though great strides were being made in California), and the term "single mother" hadn't been invented. "Unwed" was the word in use at the time, and the stigma it carried was worse than "unwashed." Even if single mothers had been socially acceptable—which was far from the case—I didn't want to be one. I didn't want to be married, I most certainly didn't want to marry the man I'd slept with on a whim (I'm sure the feeling was mutual), and, quite frankly, I didn't want a baby. The plain fact is, some women don't. I never have, and yet, ironically, I've been blessed with eight stepchildren and twenty-four grandchildren, each more wondrous than the last! Plus a fantastic goddaughter. Life's strange.
I had only two choices. The first was to leave the career I'd always wanted and go to a "home for unwed mothers." I could then have put the baby up for adoption, but the experience would have broken my spirit, destroyed the tiny bit of professional momentum I'd finally achieved, and ripped my Methodist family to shreds.
The second—and for me, the only—option was illegal abortion, which I understood carried the risk of infection, horrible pain, and possible death. I was willing to risk it. Ann's older brother knew of a reliable abortionist in another state. She was kind enough to take me there and sit wringing her hands in the waiting room while I slept off the anesthesia. As it happened, I'd lucked out. The abortionist was a real doctor, indeed a famous one, I later learned, who served the abortion needs of unlucky profligates for half the Southern states. I came out of it just fine—and vowing both to get on the pill and to support abortion rights with all my strength for the rest of my life.
I never looked back on my decision, never had the least regret, and only thanked my stars a contraceptive failure hadn't wrecked my life—and that of a child. I was twenty years old, a woman in years only, utterly without patience or maturity or, probably, the ability to love and care for a child (unless hormones are stronger than I think). God, what a horrible mother I'd have made.
Other than that, it was a great year.
Something was happening that I didn't realize. I was consciously gathering material and experiences, but I was also guilelessly listening to accents, appreciating people's stories, asking thousands of questions about New Orleans and its complex social system. I never thought I'd use any of it, I was only interested. It all came back to me later, when I wrote the first of many books I set in New Orleans.
Life was good. It had never been better. But I still felt like an alien in the South, still longed for the supposed sophistication of the wider world. And besides, Ann and I hadn't yet made it to San Francisco. So after I got a years' reporting experience, off we flew, me to seek work on the San Francisco Chronicle, and Ann to work as well, but mostly just to check out the city. (She soon became "South-sick", as she put it, and left within a few months.)
I knew from Betsy Petersen, who'd grown up in the Bay Area and had once applied for work at the Chronicle, that getting hired there was next to impossible for a woman. The city editor, grizzled Abe Mellinkoff, had told her, "I don't hire girls because they cry." But I figured there was always a first time and by now, my middle name was "cock-eyed optimist."
The moment the plane touched down, I felt as if I were home. Here at last was the free-wheeling, Bohemian style of life I knew had to be out there somewhere. In fact, if that was what you wanted, it was the moment to be in San Francisco—it was the winter before the Summer of Love, and everyone was on their way with flowers in their hair.
I had a second epiphany the minute I stepped into the newsroom. Here were people of every sort and color, all working together; I'd never seen such a thing. That is, every sort except one—Carolyn Anspacher, the one women Abe had ever actually hired, about a quarter century earlier, was still there, but otherwise, there wasn't a single female face in the joint. The hurly-burly, the excitement, the downright hipness of the place seduced me immediately—if I didn't get to work there, I was probably going to die of disappointment. And sure enough, Abe wasn't about to give me a try. But he was impressed with that bootlegging yarn, and said he'd try to find me a place. Maybe there was hope.
In the meantime, I went to various employment agencies, having no idea when or if that might happen, and I was told that every single day sixty girls just like me arrived on planes looking for work, most of them in my field. But in two weeks Abe came through. The women's editor, Jim Estes, was leaving, Ruth Miller was moving into his place, and that left a job for a new kid—but on the Women's World copy desk, since the only writing done there in those days was by the fashion, society, and beauty editors. Having heard what the competition was like, I didn't think I stood a chance. But the minute I met Jim, I knew I was in. "I understand you went to Ole Miss," he said. "I always wanted to go there, but my parents couldn't afford it." The man was from Mississippi.
It might not have been cityside, but any kind of job at the Chronicle was exciting—some of the best, most entertaining writers I've ever known were working there. The paper wasn't famous for investigative reporting, but Abe had assembled a remarkably original crew. It was thrilling to work with them as an almost-equal.
The newsroom scuttlebutt was that Abe's misogynistic prejudice stemmed from Carolyn Anspacher herself, who was as formidable a woman as I ever hope to meet. Carolyn, said those in the know, wouldn't permit female competition. Even though I chafed at not being able to write, I thrived. But when the opportunity finally came, I didn't thrive—for a time I was named beauty editor, a job so humiliating to an ambitious, idealistic half-hippie that I cried every day on the way to work. (Though certainly not in the newsroom!)
Fortunately, that was of short duration, and the enticements of San Francisco, with its endlessly unfolding municipal culture, were completely worth any slight inconvenience. It was the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll (though for me, that meant mostly rock and roll)—and political awakening. The Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms, the peace marches, the righteousness that hung in the air along with the incense (we were the center of the anti-Vietnam War protest) made life a heady mixture of titillating new experiences. However, never satisfied, I was still determined to see the world, and afterward to go to New York—finally—to make my mark.
And so, after another year, I flew off alone to Europe and Israel, working for two months on a kibbutz, then hitchhiking around Italy, France, Germany, as many countries as I could work in in a few short weeks.
Afterward, I ended up staying with friends in New Jersey, within shouting distance of the big time. But it was winter and somehow I just never could seem to muster the will to take the bus into Manhattan. San Francisco was in my blood in a big way.
With something less than impeccable timing, I went home, arriving in the middle of a newspaper strike. But I helped picket, worked in the strike kitchen, and generally renewed old acquaintances. When the strike was over, I got my old job back. Except it was better this time—the publisher had decided women might be interested in more subjects than fashion and gossip. We on the copy desk now took turns manning the desk and reporting. We had twice as much work as anyone else on the paper, but no one cared—we were all beside ourselves at finally being given a chance.
Once again I took advantage of every opportunity, writing features on everything I thought might broaden my own horizons, but, curiously enough, my best stories were assignments from the managing editor, Gordon Pates. One was an in-depth series on the singer Janis Joplin, which might not have amounted to much, but I identified with her so thoroughly, I managed to outdo myself if I do say so. The other was a series on lesbians.
It's hard to remember a time when no one outside gay culture knew much about them, but this was before feminism really got started, and sadly, that was the case. This assignment was my meat—an unknown subculture I could explore with official sanction. Those, and other stories, if I may brag for a moment, established me as (dare I say it?) a hot young talent—in Pates's eyes, at least.
It was he, I'm reasonably sure, who finally ordered Abe to hire me for cityside. As I piece it together, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was breathing down the Chronicle's neck at the time, or at least the brass knew it soon would be. They really had to hire some women and some more minorities, a job they first tried to accomplish by finding a black woman, a double token—but Lena Baker, though a good reporter, didn't last. My guess is, she couldn't handle Abe's rages. Gordon must have looked around for someone he knew could do the job—someone who knew Abe and wouldn't be rattled by him, and who'd proved she could write. At any rate, he called me into his office, asked if I'd be interested, and next thing you know, Abe offered me a job. After five years, I'd finally made it! In a minuscule way, I was a pioneer.
The first thing I noticed was that Carolyn was perfectly lovely to me. I can't say she actually took me under her wing and became my mentor, but she commended me to Abe whenever she liked a story I'd done. The second thing was that certain men on the staff told me outright they were sorry to see me there, they didn't approve of women on cityside. Don't ask me who asked them.
But by and large, I got a lot of support, particularly from an editor named Steve Gavin, who did become my mentor, and later, to my delight, the city editor, though in a way, we ended up being each other's downfall.
On a personal level, I had a stable relationship with a man I stayed with for five years, an extremely gentle man who ultimately wasn't for me, but with whom I was quite compatible for awhile. Considering Abe's relentless discrimination—like my mother, I'd found an enemy—and my insecurity within my own family, I desperately needed someone to be nice to me. And this man was. We parted more or less amicably after the relationship ran its course.
Meanwhile, I wasn't a huge success on cityside. Abe never trusted me—or any woman but Carolyn—or indeed, about half his troops, giving the plum assignments only to his favorites. But Gavin ushered in a new era, and once again, I thrived. When we did a five-part series on the religious cult called the Moonies, I was elected to join up and tell all. My story made a decent splash, and I enjoyed a period of good assignments and reasonable success. Until People's Temple came along.
One day when I was minding my own business, the assignment editor called me up to the desk and gave me a sheaf of clips. "Miss Smith," he said, "how would you like to do a piece on our new human rights commissioner?" I was less than enthusiastic until he said, "He can heal the sick and raise the dead." Oh, boy, I thought, this'll be fun. I was thinking anything but exposé thoughts. To me, this looked like one of those kooky, only-in-San-Francisco stories, about a wonderful character of the sort that abounded in the Bay Area. So I called the Reverend Jim Jones for an interview.
To my amazement, he said he'd have to think about it, and the next day, floods of letters protesting any such story began pouring into the newsroom—and into the offices of politicians all over the city. Pandora's box had been opened.
Eventually Jones consented to the interview. The first time I saw him was at his church, which he called People's Temple, and at first sight, my scalp prickled, something that normally occurs only when I see a spider. Jones sat on something resembling a throne, surrounded by about ten of his subjects, also sitting, and when he rose, so did they, in unison. I knew immediately that something sublimely nasty was going on, but hadn't a clue how to get to it. The letters of protest continued, along with phone calls. Jones even had my house watched and went through my garbage, though I didn't find out till later.
Every door was barred, every way in blocked, and the pressure on management was like nothing anyone had ever seen. I argued that this was the story—Jones' powerful political influence and his attempts to suppress any coverage—but Gavin's strategy was to omit the personal experience, simply gather as much as I could, and call it a day. Maybe, both of us hoped, any publicity at all would bring disgruntled Temple members out of the woodwork and we could start from there.
But an odd thing happened. What should have been a simple story about an influential leader ended up being rewritten seven times—at Gavin's behest—and each version ended up more sanitized than the last. In the end, only two real nuggets remained—the fact that I'd actually been to a church service and seen Jones perform "healings," and a quote explaining how Jones managed to wield influence by providing hundreds of willing volunteers for politicians.
I went home the night before the story ran, unhappy with it, but at least feeling it had two teeth left—and the next day woke up to read a yarn that contained neither of them. To this day, I don't know who trimmed them, though I swarmed all over that paper trying to find out. I looked as if I'd deliberately written what one of my colleagues called "a valentine," and Gavin, when Jones later went on to become the biggest civilian mass murderer in history, poisoning nine hundred of his followers, looked as if he'd been asleep at the wheel.
What actually happened with Gavin, I'm not sure—he may simply have bent over backward to be fair. But shortly after the People's Temple disaster he left the paper, and coincidentally, my own interest in journalism began to wane—but my close-up view of evil made a lasting impression on me, one that deeply influenced my fiction.
I took the plunge and began writing mysteries in 1972, three years after I finally made it to cityside. Betsy Petersen, my old pal from Dixie Roto, moved briefly to San Francisco and we collaborated on three books, none of which made it into print, but we gradually taught ourselves to write, plotting together, bouncing ideas around, and critiquing each other's chapters. This was incredibly valuable experience, which I'd recommend to anyone, but you have to have the right person—one with strong self-esteem and a willingness to cooperate, rather than have it all her way. I was lucky to find that in Betsy.
On my own, I also wrote a comic mystery and two amateur detective novels before I got published, the last two of which were eventually bought—but it took seven years from the moment Betsy and I sat down and started chewing our pencils. Sometime in the middle of the second book with Betsy—around 1978—I began to realize how burned out on journalism I was. I took a three-month leave of absence and went alone to Key West, to work on that book and try some short stories. Within two weeks I'd done the stories and, since I had to write only a chapter every other week on the collaboration, I had nothing but time on my hands. I had no money at all—not even enough for long distance calls. A fairly social person by then, I'd try to get the mailman to hang around and pass the time of day, as we say in the South, but that was good for about two minutes—so what excuse did I have not to start a book of my own?
Once the decision was made, a veritable ocean of ideas flowed into my head, including one for a new character, Rebecca Schwartz, a lawyer who just couldn't seem to conform to her family's ideas of what she should be. It may sound familiar, but she wasn't nearly as autobiographical as later characters have been, because, unlike me, Rebecca genuinely wanted to be a good girl. It took a while to let my inner outlaw out, and that proved, in my case, the key to success. Rebecca's family, her boy friend, her clothes, her apartment and all its furnishings, even her taste in music, were clear to me right from the start, and as a result, I was able to make her a much more vivid character than the ones I'd worked on with Betsy. I can't recommend solitude enough for kicking the imagination into gear.
By the time I returned to San Francisco, I had a crude first draft, which I spent the next few months refining. It was in that period that I lost heart for journalism—I was ruined by the three months of being able to set my own schedule, write what I wanted, and best of all, determine the resolution. Have you ever noticed how unsatisfying newspaper and magazine features can be, because they don't really go anywhere? Dammit, it's against the rules to make up a good ending!
Once again, a friend, the late, lovely Jerry Burns, was city editor, and ostensibly, things were good for me. But we were about to convert from IBM Selectrics to computers, and a computer room had been set up to allow reporters to practice before the switch. I never went in. When Jerry noticed, and asked me to, I thought about it long and hard. And realized I just wasn't interested.
I gave my notice the next day, ending my fourteen-year journalistic career.
But I knew I'd be quitting soon, and I'd already begun talking with my friend, Marcia Muller, who'd published one mystery (and now is one of the grande dames of the genre), about teaming up to support our habit. With two other women writers, Marcia and I started what we called an "editorial consulting service" which we named Invisible Ink. The idea was to freelance without doing journalism, in which contracts always carried the infamous "kill fee" clause, meaning that if the publication didn't use your story, they had to pay you only a small percentage of the contracted amount. In other words, it was like having no contract at all. We wanted to be paid by the hour, and so we targeted businesses, publishers, and individuals who needed help writing book proposals.
On my first day of freedom, I made a list of thirty-two contacts and the next day called them all. I ended up with three jobs, and more trickled in over the next few years—but not a lot more. Invisible Ink worked for us—made it possible to do our own work while bringing in enough money to live on, until we got our writing careers started. True, we were never able to build the inkwell-shaped skyscraper we fantasized about, but it was a good bridge.
During the next year, I tried to sell the first Rebecca Schwartz book, Death Turns a Trick, to no avail. Meanwhile, my then agent suggested that since mysteries with women protagonists weren't really selling, why didn't I try something with a man? I loved the idea—it would permit a certain distance from my character and allow me to stretch a bit. And so I started True-Life Adventure, the first of two Paul Mcdonald books, based on an Invisible Ink assignment.
I'd been writing reports for a detective agency when all of a sudden one of the guys I worked with mysteriously dropped out of sight. The case, which involved corporate theft, seemed perfectly straightforward. But was there something I didn't know? I gave Paul my job—starving ex-reporter freelancing to support his habit—only in his case, the detective doesn't simply disappear but dies in Paul's living room. And Paul realizes he knows something he doesn't think he knows, a fictional situation I love.
Eventually Marcia and the distinguished writer Bill Pronzini, whom she later married, introduced me to an editor at Walker & Co., the late Sara Ann Freed, who bought Death Turns a Trick. It's probably worth mentioning that it was published in 1982, the same year Sue Grafton's and Sara Paretsky's first books came out. The tide had abruptly turned, and the female detective had come into her own.
It's hard to convey the exhilaration of getting one's first book published—I can only imagine how much more breathless I might have been had I received no more than a pittance for it. So I was at last a published author, but still far, far from supporting myself at my chosen profession. Clearly, I needed another series.
I was able to sell True-Life Adventure to the newly formed Mysterious Press, and when Sara Ann left Walker, moved the "Rebecca Schwartz" series there as well. Ironically, it's where Sara Ann also ended up, but only after I was established with another editor.
During that period, I took a part-time job as a copy writer for the clothing company Banana Republic, which at the time produced the cleverest, best-written catalogue in the country. The company had been started by two of my former Chronicle colleagues, Mel and Patricia Ziegler. While Patricia drew the pictures, Mel ushered in a new era of retail writing.
I'm sure I was never able to fill his shoes, but it was a great job—again, no particular hours and terrific, talented people to work with—with plenty of time to write novels on the side.
My personal life was also flourishing. For the second time, I was co-habiting, again with a nice man who wasn't ultimately right for me. After two years, I needed to leave, and a change of scenery sounded refreshing. I'd always loved Santa Barbara, and had friends there—Sue Grafton and her husband Steve Humphrey, who urged me to move to the town they adored.
And other things were going on. I had a revelation at Banana Republic much like the one I'd had when I left the Chronicle—one day I sat down at the computer and realized I didn't have another word to say about a shirt. Absolutely couldn't get the words to flow. I quit that day.
Meanwhile, my editor had left Mysterious Press and my contract had run out—I had a book to sell and nowhere to sell it. Once again, I needed a new series. I decided to set it in New Orleans, which proved the best thing I ever did (other than buying that long-ago bus ticket). I invented a new detective character, Skip Langdon, who, like me, felt like an alien in her own home town, and I had an idea for the plot that I thought couldn't fail—it was based on a Greek myth, one that had been told and retold in various forms through the centuries. It was an idea that resonated in the human spirit, I was sure, a bigger-than-life idea. I had all the ambition in the world for this book—it was to be much larger in scope, much deeper in characterization, a lot shorter on humor and longer on tragedy. And it was a good time to do it—I felt pretty tragic at the time.
I moved to Santa Barbara to write it, once again turning to journalism to pay the bills—I was a part-time copy editor for the Santa Barbara News-Press. I also, more or less on a lark, went into Jungian therapy as well, with a brilliant woman named Hendrika de Vries. Hendrika was all about stories—dreams, archetypes, larger-than-life characters, subtleties of consciousness—a thousand things that hugely expanded my writing as well as my life.
Another thing I did was borrow money. I'd looked around at the number of friends who'd started businesses, every single one of whom had borrowed money—sometimes lots of it. What, I finally realized, is a writing career but a small business? So except for the weekend job at the News-Press, I was for the first time able to write full-time. And it paid off—though not immediately.
My new agents, Charlotte Sheedy and Vicky Bijur, were thrilled to get the proposal for the first "Skip Langdon" book, New Orleans Mourning, and quickly offered it at auction. Nobody bid.
Indeed it went to twenty publishers before McGraw-Hill bought it, but almost immediately afterward, my new publisher announced it was getting out of the trade book business. My book would have been on their last list if Charlotte and Vicky hadn't deemed that idea unacceptable. We bought it back and, since it was now complete, offered it again. And again it went out twenty times before Ruth Cavin at St. Martin's Press finally bought it, bless her heart.
The Santa Barbara years were probably the lowest point of my adult life, and if it hadn't been for Hendrika, I don't know how I'd have gotten through. I'd once had a therapist who told me the way to solve my problems was to get a job. Hendrika, who'd worked with a number of artists, understood the creative life, and managed to nurture me through the Dark Days. New Orleans Mourning wasn't published to great fanfare, but it got good reviews.
My work with Hendrika took two years, but after the first six months, I knew Santa Barbara wasn't my kind of place—too sleepy, too uniformly upscale, too white-bread in every way to suit my urban tastes. I finally returned to the Bay Area, and in 1991, New Orleans Mourning won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel offered by the Mystery Writers of America.
The award, the greatest honor of my life, changed my fortunes dramatically. For the first time since I'd begun writing fiction nineteen years before, I was able to make a living at it. I was even able to buy a much-beloved snug house in Oakland.
I continued the "Skip Langdon" series, finally deciding to give her a nemesis. The idea seemed daunting until I remembered my brush with pure evil. So I invented the Rev. Errol Jacomine, based on Jim Jones, who menaced my detective for several books.
But after three more years, the Bay Area itself was wearing thin. I wasn't expanding my circle, wasn't dating much, and had begun to feel uncomfortable with the new values creeping into my old playground. Silicon valley was starting up, everyone wanted money and more money, and Northern California was no longer the haven for artists it had been. Partly to do research for my series, I began to spend my winters in New Orleans, which had become a hotbed of artistic ferment—very different from the old-fashioned Southern town I'd left so long ago.
In early 1994, I was introduced by friends to Lee Pryor, a businessman who lived in Seattle and had business interests in Florida, where he was soon to move. He was different from any man I'd ever dated, much more conservative by the look of him. He wore a pin-striped shirt and khakis, and looked, as one friend put it, like a senator—a far cry from the scruffy artists I was used to. At four A.M. on our first date, as we were leaving a drag bar where we'd made many new and fascinating acquaintances, it suddenly occurred to me that appearances can be deceiving.
Who can say what love is, or where it comes from? Perhaps compatibility is even stranger. On the face if it, perhaps few people would have put us together, yet we understood each other, really "got" each other, right from the first. We were married a year and a half later, when I was fifty-one—talk about beating the odds—and I think I can say there's probably no more devoted couple anywhere. Frankly, I think Lee's uncanny flexibility and energy are largely responsible— that and the fact that he is just flat-out a thoroughly decent and wonderful human being.
Of course, we live in New Orleans—with Lee in Florida and me in Oakland, we had no choice but to meet in the middle, and as it happens, we both love it here.
So I am happily married and happy in New Orleans. In 2001, I began a new series about Talba Wallis, an African-American private investigator who's also a poet. I've now covered all the sub-genres—amateur detective, cop, and PI. I've just turned in my twentieth book. I still have ambition and energy for writing—to write young adult books, to visit the parts of the world I haven't seen, even to win another Edgar. But it's a good time to take stock. What has it amounted to, this writing path of mine?
Something different from what I imagined, perhaps. My first thought was simply to entertain, but later I became interested in exploring the roots of crime in families—the mean rooms, I like to say, instead of the mean streets. Yet, if I am remembered at all by future generations, it may be for something unrelated to the mystery field. No writer can illuminate the entire human condition. Most of us must be satisfied to give a glimpse. And maybe I have.…
It occurs to me that there's no one else who has, every year for these past fifteen years, produced a book set in New Orleans. I sincerely hope that I've produced a portrait of my adopted city for that period, a peek at what life is like here. And a piquant peek, at that.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, July, 1984, p. 1524; August, 1998, David Pitt, review of 82 Desire, p. 1977; May 1, 2003, Connie Fletcher, review of Mean Woman Blues, p. 1554; May 1, 2004, Connie Fletcher, review of Louisiana Lament, p. 1519.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 16, 1988.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2002, review of Louisiana Bigshot, p. 775; July 15, 2003, review of Mean Woman Blues, p. 942; May 15, 2004, review of Louisiana Lament, p. 476.
Library Journal, December 1, 1982, p. 2270; July, 1984, p. 1350; July, 1997, p. 131; March 1, 2000, Karen Anderson, review of Mean Rooms: A Short Story Collection, p. 128; May 1, 2001, Rex Klett, review of Louisiana Hotshot, p. 132; August, 2002, Rex Klett, review of Louisiana Bigshot, p. 149.
Playboy, June, 1993, p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, October 22, 1982, p. 43; June 8, 1984, p. 57; March 8, 1993, p. 70; October 4, 1993, p. 69; June 13, 1994, p. 53; April 24, 1995, p. 63; May 13, 1996, p. 58; June 30, 1997, p. 70; July 13, 1998, review of 82 Desire, p. 64; April 9, 2001, review of Louisiana Hotshot, p. 54; July 8, 2002, review of Louisiana Bigshot, p. 34; July 14, 2003, review of Mean Woman Blues, p. 60.
Washington Post Book World, March 18, 1990.
Julie Smith Home Page,http://www.casamysterioso.com (June 17, 2004).
"Smith, Julie 1944-." Contemporary Authors. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/smith-julie-1944
"Smith, Julie 1944-." Contemporary Authors. . Retrieved April 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/smith-julie-1944
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