The Interview — Part II

Scroll down for Part I…

(Continued From Part I He has been my agent for twenty-eight years.)

He sold North of the Border to Walker, a small press in New York.  When the book came out a year later it got a starred review in Kirkus.  I didn’t know what Kirkus was then but soon found out it is a magazine librarians read that helps them decide whether to not order a book.  A starred review from Kirkus means a lot.

            “Got me an outline,” my agent said, “and I can sell your next book.”
            “Outline?” I wondered. 

I’d never done an outline and had no idea how to write one so I went to Glacier Park in Montana and did research into birds of prey for the second book in the Neil Hamel series Raptor.  I wrote the first hundred pages then outlined the rest. 

My agent had three publishers bidding on it Bantam, Scribner’s and HarperCollins.  A bidding war is the best way to get a good advance in publishing but it’s getting hard to have one these days when most of the major New York imprints are owned by the German company Bartlesman and they are not going to bid against each other.  HarperCollins won the bidding war.  They gave me a two book contract and a large enough advance that I could fulfill my dream and write full time.  My editor at Harper was also Tony Hillerman’s editor so he knew how successful mysteries set in the Southwest could be.    

I did seven books in the Neil Hamel series with Harper.  My editor was wonderful and I really enjoyed working with him.  With a mystery series publishers like to publish a book a year.   With my mystery series I decided to write what I didn’t know, get out of the house, do some research and find out about it.  I was interested in environmental themes so my research took me to some very interesting places.  I went to Glacier Park for Raptor, the Arizona/Mexico border in the middle of the night for The Wolf Path, and Glenwood Springs, Colorado for Hotshots, which was inspired by a fire there in which 14 hotshot firefighters were killed.   A couple of years ago that book was optioned by a Canadian filmmaker and former hotshot firefighter who came across it in a used bookstore in Alberta.

Since Harper paid me a decent advance they were willing to spend some money to promote my books which meant travelling as well.  I would spend about six very intense months actually writing my mysteries.  Typically with a mystery series the books are turned in a year before they are published.

After ten years with Harper the company was bought by Rupert Murdoch who had very different plans for Harper.  My editor left and went to Houghton Mifflin where he published nonfiction.  Unfortunately that was the end of my career at Harper and I regretted giving up the Neil Hamel series.

However, it was also an opportunity to start a new series.  The Neil Hamel books were written in the first person which I felt should sound like the narrator is actually speaking.  A new series was an opportunity to experiment with the third person limited voice which can be more cerebral.  My second heroine Claire Reynier is an intellectual,  middle aged librarian at the University of New Mexico and the third person voice seemed more suited to her and the stories I wanted to tell.  

Based on some sample chapters and an outline my agent got me a contract for three books with Signet a division of Penguin.  I did five books in that series with Signet and had a total of three editors.  As I said, I really like doing research and I did some fascinating research for that series.  Land of Burning Heat, the fourth Claire Reynier book, is about the crypto Jews who came to New Mexico in the 1600’s to get away from the Inquisition and have gone on practicing their religion in secret for hundreds of years.  I was lucky enough to connect with a young man from one of those families who had done a lot of research on his family’s history. 

Unfortunately my third editor at Signet wanted me to write a thriller and I’m not a thriller writer.  A thriller could be considered a stand alone and I’d never written a stand alone.  When you’re writing a book for a mystery series you need to think about the past and future of that series.  I preferred writing mysteries to thrillers and that was the end of the Claire Reynier series.

I have spent the last several years trying to figure out what to do next.  I was working on a travel memoir for a while but lately I’ve been helping other writers to self-publish their work through a company I started called ABQPress.  The writers I work with are so happy to see their books in print I get a lot of satisfaction from helping them.

Two years ago some good news came from my agent that the company AudioGo wanted to reissue all thirteen of my mysteries as ebooks and audio books.  It’s been great to have them available again in these formats.

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jack

    The Southwest seems to pull the best out of the mystery writers. Marie Romero Cash sets a series in New Mexico. I wonder if she and Judith Van Gieson know one another? Looking forward to your interview with Dennis Must.

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