Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Past Revisited by Margaret Maron

Born and bred in North Carolina where the piedmont meets the sandhills, I grew up on a modest two-mule tobacco farm that has been in the family for over a hundred years. 

Tobacco is no longer grown on the farm, but the memories linger - the singing, the laughter, the gossip that went on at the bench as those rank green leaves came from the field, the bliss of an icy cold drink bottle pressed to a hot sweaty face, getting up at dawn to help "take out" a barn, the sweet smell of soft golden leaves as they're being readied for auction. Working in tobacco is one of those life experiences I'm glad to have had. I'm even gladder that it's something I'll never have to do again.
After high school came two years of college until a summer job at the Pentagon led to marriage, a tour of duty in Italy, then several years in my husband's native Brooklyn. I had always loved writing and for the first few years, wrote nothing but short stories and very bad poetry. (The legendary Ruth Cavin of St. Martin's Press once characterized my verses as "doggerel. But inspired doggerel.")
Eventually, I backed into writing novels about NYPD Lt. Sigrid Harald, mysteries set against the New York City art world. But love of my native state and a desire to write out of current experiences led to the creation of District Court Judge Deborah Knott, the opinionated daughter of a crusty old ex-bootlegger and youngest sibling of eleven older brothers. (I was one of only three, so no, I'm not writing about my own family.)
We've been back on a corner of the family land for many years now. My city-born husband discovered he prefers goldfinches, rabbits, and the occasional quiet deer to yellow cabs, concrete, and a city that never sleeps. A son, a daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters are icing on our cake. 

More about Margaret here:

The Past Revisited
by Margaret Maron

Once upon a time in the not-too-far past, publishers used to have warehouses where they stored their print overruns and bookstore returns.  It was not unusual to keep unsold books for 25 or 30 years before finally sending them to that great pulp mill in the sky. 

Then, in 1979 Congress passed an inventory tax law.  Its aim was to close a corporate tax dodge and make it more expensive to carry a large inventory from year to year.  As with so many of Congress’s laws, there were unintended consequences.  Congress had not meant to destroy publishers’ warehouses or authors’ backlists, but that’s exactly what happened.  Despite heartbroken pleas to exempt publishers, the tax was applied to them, too, and you know what happens when bottom lines crashes head-on with the public good.  The warehouses emptied out and backlists went into oblivion.

With the advent of electronic readers such as Kindle, Nook, and the iPad and SmartPhones, however, the backlist lives again.  No longer does an early book have to vanish down that bottomless rabbit-hole, never to be seen again.

My first novel, One Coffee With, was published in 1981, an astonishing (to me, anyhow) thirty years ago. It introduced Lt. Sigrid Harald, NYPD, 5’10, mid-thirties, single, skinny, hair worn in a frumpy bun, no clothes sense, uncomfortable in her skin, and totally incompetent when it came to personal relationships. But she had a wry sense of humor few people suspected, cool silvery eyes, and an unerring knack for solving murders. 

The eighth and last in the series, Fugitive Colors, was published fourteen years later—fourteen years for me, but only one short tumultuous year for Sigrid.  She begins in early April and ends the following April.  During that year, she learns to accept herself and the possibility of love, she cuts her hair, she buys a book to learn about makeup (typical Sigrid behavior), she gains a gay housemate who wants to pick her brains so that he can write a mystery, and she learns the true story of her father, who died when she was barely more than a toddler.

Leif Harald was a police detective, too, and was killed in the line of duty.  At least that’s the official story.  The circumstances surrounding his death form a mystery that arches over the entire series, with the reader learning a little more in each book. 

When they were first published, the books got good reviews, but never seemed to find their audience.  The average reader tended to take her at face value, to see only the surface and not what I had hinted was underneath. They went out of print as quickly as they were published.  Now, fifteen years after the last one saw daylight, they are going up online as eBooks and I am delighted with the feedback as my readers have finally begun to “get” her.  (One wrote to me, “I began the series not  liking Sigrid because she was so different from Deborah Knott, your other series character, but I finished the last book in tears because there are no more.”)

In getting the books ready to be digitized, I have had to re-read them and it’s been an odd experience.  A writer is seldom happy with the finished product.  As someone once said, “a creative work is never finished; it’s abandoned.” There were patches of roughness I wanted to correct, motivations I wanted to strengthen, and outdated attitudes that jumped out at me. It was a real temptation to rewrite and bring everything up to date. But you start down that road at a perilous cost and in the end, I contented myself with smoothing a couple of cowlicks and tucking in a shirttail or two.

Over and over, I kept bumping up against things that have changed.  Thirty years ago, a female officer would find it tough to take over a homicide squad, male chauvinism was rampant, and secretaries were still expected to fetch the coffee, and tattoos were definitely not the norm for “nice” people.

When the series begins, Sigrid is typing her reports on a typewriter, by the last book it’s on a computer, yet we never see her taking a computer class during that single year.  Pregnant women smoked and drank alcohol without anyone waving a finger at them, she couldn’t know the sex of her unborn baby unless a doctor stuck a needle in her abdomen and drew out some of the amniotic fluid. Cell phones were nonexistent in that first book.  No Internet. No CDs or DVDs. People could buy airline tickets and board at the last minute without having to go through security or show a photo ID.

The list goes on and on.

Happily, love and greed are timeless and there is always someone ready to kill for one or the other. 

Or for both.

What about you?  Does it bother you to realize that your past is now “historical”? Do the differences between the recent past and current present interfere with your enjoyment of a book?


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Margaret - Welcome!!

I didn't discover the Sigrid novels until after I had discovered you and Deborah. Then, like everyone else, I fell in love with her and quickly gobbled up the series and yes, I'm still hoping for more. I'm thrilled they'll now be available in electronic form. If that's what it takes to keep books by our favorite authors alive, I am all for it.

In answer to your question "Do the differences between the recent past and current present interfere with your enjoyment of a book?" Not in the least! If a book is well written, I don't think those things take anything away from the story.

Thank you again for being here.


Vicki Lane said...

Oh, I'm so delighted to know that I can get the rest of the Sigrid Harald books on my Kindle! I just finished re-reading FUGITIVE COLORS and ONE COFFEE WITH and am now in the middle of BABY DOLL GAMES. Third time through for all of these much worn paperbacks. I'm thrilled that now I can fill in the blanks.

I don't know why Sigrid resonates so with me. I've only been to NYC twice in my life (fifty years ago) and my experience (tobacco farm, etc.) is much closer to Deborah Knott's. But there's something about Sigrid.. . even if it is 'historical' fiction now.

Julia Buckley said...

That's a great point about Kindle giving new life to backlists. Long may they thrive.

Fascinating post!

Molly Swoboda said...

A female detective solving crimes "pre-DNA"?? Just about guarantees Sigrid a place among the classics, doesn't it? Wonderful interview. Thank you Kaye and Margaret for such a nice "visit". ~m

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh,Margaret, I didn't know that about the inventory tax. Fascinating!

As for obsolescence--today I found I could use an iphone , and while talking, show the person I'm talking to a video of where I am and what I'm seeing.

This is a MESS for suspense stories. If everyone is connected all the time, creating believable tension becomes even more difficult.

Phone booths don't work anymore, though..and so that's a fun possibility...hmmm.Back to revising. And I am so glad to see Sigrid reborn!

Hey, Kaye! xxxoxo

Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Margaret! I'm so glad to hear your backlist is "reborn" once again. I'd love to read your Sigrid series.

I don't mind reading "historic" novels, even if I chuckle occasionally at the language or how things have changed. In fact, it can often be a nice break from modern times (iPhones and Facebook and Twitter, oh my!)

Mason Canyon said...

Margaret, it's great to know there's another character you created that I will love as much as Deborah Knott. The Sigrid novels sounds great. I like the fact that you didn't modernize them. I enjoy books that remind me of what was not so long ago.

Kaye, thanks for hosting Margaret. Deborah is one of my favorite characters and it seems I've found another one to enjoy.

Thoughts in Progress
Freelance Editing By Mason

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the warm welcome, Kaye, and I so appreciate all the other comments. I don't own an eBook reader yet, but I know I will one of these days. Once the "physical" book is no longer available -- and who ever thought we'd be referring to books that way? -- we're so fortunate that we can still read them.

Margaret Maron said...

Didn't mean to be "anonymous" -- must have hit the wrong button.

Judy Hogan said...

Margaret,I loved all the Sigrid novels. Interesting to learn how quickly they went out of print. I'm glad they'll be in e-books. I look forward to your new one. Judy Hogan