Writers meet at book festival, describe writing life

October 20, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

SACRAMENTO – The free annual book fair that takes place each year in Crocker Park gives writers a wonderful opportunity to meet other writers and celebrate what they like to do the most – read and write.

I went over to the Sacramento Reads celebration the last weekend in September and listened to several area writers including Bernard Schopen, Sarah Lovett, Terris McMahan Grimes, John Morgan Wilson and Donna Levin discuss their craft.

Bernie Schopen is an English lecturer at the University of Nevada, Reno. His mystery novel is “The Iris Deception” (University of Nevada Press, $15).

“I’ve been an English teacher most of my life,” he confessed, “but I have an insatiable curiosity, too.” Schopen satisfies his curiosity by writing about the seamy side of life in a series of hard-boiled mystery novels (“Iris” is his third) featuring divorced attorney Jack Ross.

“My cases get him out of Reno as much as possible,” Schopen said.

John Morgan Wilson is, technically, not a Northern California writer since he’s from Los Angeles. “I have a house in Nevada City I’ve never lived in,” he said. However, Wilson said he grew up reading mysteries.

“My mom was an English teacher,” he said. “But I stopped reading mysteries because I began to find them boring and formulaic. I worked as a free-lance writer and editor, always knowing that I wanted to be a novelist.”

After reading Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress,” Wilson put it down and said: “This is what I want to do.” He wrote his first mystery in seven weeks.

Wilson says mysteries have changed fundamentally in the last decade. They are now character driven, not plot driven. For instance, Wilson’s main character is a washed-up newspaperman named Benjamin Justice who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize – but had to return it when it was revealed that his series on AIDS was fraudulent.

Look for Wilson’s latest mystery, “Simple Justice,” to be followed by “Revision of Justice” this summer. Terris McMahan Grimes is the author of another character-driven mystery, “Somebody Else’s Child.” Her sleuth, Theresa, is a 36-year-old, size 16 state office worker who cares for her widowed mother. “I sat down and started writing when I was 40 because I’d always said I wanted to be a writer and I hadn’t done it,” she said. “All the years before were my apprenticeship. I stopped therapy and started writing.” Her second novel, “Blood Will Tell,” is due out in January.

Sarah Lovett, author of “Acquired Motives,” grew up in Sacramento but now divides her time between California and New Mexico. Her series features a forensic psychologist named Sylvia Strange. Lovett says all her past work history as a dancer, motel maid, phone solicitor, actress and science writer has become useful now that she’s a fiction writer. She also emphasizes research. She’s finishing up a degree in criminal justice, has learned to handle a gun, and once asked her boyfriend to lock her in the trunk of their car and drive her around so she could write more knowledgeably about the experience.

These four writers all did something that separated them from the many people in the world who’ve said: “I’d like to be a writer.” They sat down and wrote.

Wilson said: “I severely organize my life. I get up every morning and get myself a cup of coffee. Then I sit down and write in my bathrobe. I don’t get dressed and save half an hour that way. In 30 minutes I can write 500 words. I work until lunch, then take a nap and write for a few hours after that. I’m the toughest boss I’ve ever had.”

San Francisco’s Donna Levin, author of “Get That Novel Written” (Writer’s Digest Books, $20) also spoke at Sacramento Reads. Levin, who teaches creative writing and writes novels, said each fiction-writing class she teaches has maybe 10 people in it who have the talent to write novels. But nine out of those 10 talented students will never see their names in print. Why? Because the writing life is just too tough.

She warns that when you work by yourself you can swing wildly from one extreme to another, thinking yourself a fool one minute, a genius the next. It’s rare to find someone capable of committing to it, someone for instance who can rewrite as many times as necessary without puking and then twice more.

“So have a life beyond that...and don’t do it for the money. But remember, you don’t ever have to justify your writing life,” she said.

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