Mystery writers meet at Sacramento book fair

October 8, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

The Sacramento Reads book fair that took place last weekend in Crocker Park featured two panels of mystery writers, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. I was only able to attend the fair on Saturday so I caught the panel made up of Karen Kijewski ("Alley Kat Blues") John Lescroart ("The 13th Juror," "A Certain Justice") Gillian Roberts ("In the Dead of Summer") and Tom Sylvester ("The Descent"). The writers featured at Sacramento Reads on Sunday were Johnie Jacobs ("Murder Among Neighbors"), J.D. Knight ("Zero Tolerance"), Laura Roberts ("Murder in a Nice Neighborhood"), Barbara Scott ("Always in a Foreign Land"), and Shelley Singer ("Interview with Mattie"). Kijewski, Lescroart and Roberts are veteran Northern California writers with many titles to their credit while Sylvester, the newcomer, is from North Carolina.

"I'm more tickled being here on this stage than anyone else," said Sylvester with a touch of a Southern drawl. He said his first and so far only book came about as a bet between him and his wife.

"I went to the Air Force Academy and she went to Harvard," he said. He bet her that he could write and publish a book. He won the bet. "I wrote 'The Descent' for entertainment," he said. He also followed the dictum of "write what you know" when he decided to write a book about a commuter air plane crash. For Sylvester is a pilot.

That's why it wasn't difficult for him to hitch a ride and show up in Sacramento for one day to discuss the writing business.

"This is my first book," he told those gathered around the mystery writers' corner of Crocker Park. He was attempting to decide whether his novel was character- or plot-driven.

"It's plot-driven," he said. "I'm an airline pilot by trade and you write about what you know." But Sylvester also is willing to explore brave new worlds - his next book will be set in outer space and will involve sabotage.

"I always wanted to be an astronaut," he said.

Not only can fiction writers explore worlds they know and write about worlds they'd like to know better, but they can deliver justice.

"You can deliver justice in fiction if not in real life," said Kijewski. "The main appeal to mysteries is that you can count on the good guys winning. And you can get up on your soap box now and then."

For instance, Lescroart and Roberts have written novels that revolve around spousal abuse. Kijewski said she took a shot a fundamentalist religions in "Alley Kat Blues." And Lescroart said his next book is going to be a courtroom drama about a man who killed his wife.

"He's just a guy you're going to hate," Lescroart said. "And he thinks he's going to get away with it. I think of the theme first, then character and plot," he added.

He also said "a sense of place" is important. Lescroart, a Davis resident, doesn't feature this town in his fiction. Instead, most of his books are set in San Francisco. "I have not lived in San Francisco for 15 years," he said. "It's to me a foreign place that I was once intimately familiar with."

Roberts' books are set in Philadelphia, the town she grew up in. Her next book, "The Mummer's Curse," is about a Philly institution - the mummer's parade on New Year's Day.

Kijewski said she is frequently asked why she sets her mysteries in Sacramento instead of in a "real city" like Los Angeles or San Francisco. She says Sacramento is rich in history and offers a centrality of locale. "I've never regretted setting my books here," said Kijewski, who has lived in Sacramento for 15 years.

But placing the action in Sacramento has caused geographical problems. "My British publisher always wants to put a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on the cover," she said.

Anyway, Kijewski notes that her character, Kat, does a certain amount of traveling and her next book, "Honky Tonk Kat," will be about the country music scene in Nashville.

A member of the audience asked if the writers have any control over their jacket covers. No, was the unhappy answer. In fact, the authors said, they have little if any control over the entire marketing process. Lescroart said he was lucky enough to be able to choose the title to "The 13th Juror."

"It was the 11th choice, but at least it was mine," he said.

The writers agreed that the publishing industry is in a state of flux but newcomer Sylvester still had some encouraging words.

"If you have a good book it will make it," he said.

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