Decorating the Grave
Last week, I spent two hectic days learning everything there is to know about the publishing industry. I was honored to be a part of the Sisters in Crime team who dashed around New York to visit eight different agents, publishing houses and one national book chain buyer to, in essense, get a weather report on the current industry climate.
The news was good and bad, depending on your perspective. If you're writing a thriller--or anything that could remotely be called a thriller, and if not, please consider beating up a character or better yet, inserting a serial killer--you should breathe a sigh of relief. (Next week, I'll contribute my share of the complete project report on the Sisters in Crime blog. (The one running at the moment is a hilarious post by Donna Andrews.) Our whole report--a series of blogs on the subject--starts on Tuesday and runs all week. If you're interested in crime fiction--especially crime fiction written by women and/or for women--check it out.) I've been in the biz for a long time, and I've never had such access or heard such candid talk from insiders. Our mission--dubbed the Sisters in Crime Publishing Summit--was an incredible experience for me. Somewhat annoying, too. (Really, now, who still needs to hear the patronizing lecture that all authors should have a website? And if you're giving lip service to what wonderful thrillers can be written by women, how about having at least one displayed among the other forty books on your mantel that's written by a woman not using her initials or a masculine version of a female name?--But I digress.) Your curmudgeonly reporter--moi--will reveal all next week.
I also dropped into the offices of my brilliant and elegant agent, the unmatched Ms. Ruley, who invited me to chat in the second floor parlor of the East Side brownstone where the literary agency hums along. This particular brownstone was once lavishly decorated in Victorian tones and flourishes, but that's all slightly faded into a sort of decadent splendor, which suits Ms. Ruley el al very well indeed. They are too busy selling books and managing boffo careers to stew about decorating, but they are so many very female, feminine, womanly, girlfriend-y women that the over-the-top, was-this-once-a-brothel? decor somehow works as a backdrop. (There are at least two men in the building who manage to hold their own by sheer force of their charm and first rate business skills, but I don't believe their offices have foiled wall paper frou-frou velvet curtains or oil paintings of monkeys wearing Little Lord Fauntleroy suits.) No coldly modern office space for this crew--no way. Ms. R lolled on the extravagantly plush chocolate brown velvet sofa rather like Olympia dressed in Eileen Fisher, and she regaled me with much hilarity.
And we also decided where to send my new book proposal, which is now winging its way to a new (to me) editor who has been charged with the task of reading and making a decision by next week. This decision-making speed is the perk of having a great agent whom editors trust.
While I wait to hear my fate, I'm going north to help my mother plant flowers in the cemetery were most of my deceased relatives repose.
The publishing-as-cemetery metaphor is not lost upon me.
In our family, we do not believe in plastic flowers for Memorial Day. We go all out--planting plenty of geraniums around the monuments. (I know--most people think geraniums are the rats of the garden, but really, there's no flower that looks as nice against the traditional Vermont bluestone, is there?) This year, I divided a gigantic Siberian iris that had crowned in my own garden, so I'm taking a few plunks of that plant to the cemetery, too. Last year, we planted variegated hosta, which also looks good with geraniums. "Perpetual care" doesn't mean the cemetery gardener will tend the plants we put into the ground, we've learned. It only means that once the flowers are finished blooming, he'll run the mower over everything so the cemetery looks tidy again. He loves that damn mower. But Mother goes every week during the summer to make sure the plants are watered and dead-headed, to dodge the mower for as long as possible.
My memories of this rural, hilltop cemetery stretch back as far as I can remember. On an evening late in May, after the full moon was past (to avoid a killing frost) and after my father returned home from work and we ate a hasty dinner together, the family used to pack a few flats of flowers into the station wagon, plus some water jugs (old Clorox containers that had been rinsed and filled from the hose at home) and we'd spend a couple of hours planting around the headstones marked, "Curry," (my mother's people) and "Aikman," (my father's family.) As kids, my sister and I used to scamper off into the cemetery and practice jumping over the headstones while our parents worked. On those May evenings, the cemetery was lush and green and cool. Under bare feet, the grass felt like no other grass I recall. A little prickly, but somehow tender, too. (All that mowing!) After the planting, my father would walk around the other graves and talk about the people who were buried there--repeating the stories he'd heard from his parents, so I feel as if I know the whole story of how that area was settled by Irish and Scottish immigrants--Presbyterians, all, and most of them quite reserved, even in life.
Every year while we plant flowers on the graves of my dad, my grandparents, a couple of aunts and some relatives I never met, my mother and I discuss the question of whether or not to dig up Aunt Nelle. Have I told you this before?
Aunt Nelle was my mother's beloved aunt--an intrepid woman who went out west to teach school around the turn of the century. She returned home--after reportedly breaking a rancher's heart--to take a glamorous job as a secretary to a railroad executive. She remained a single woman--well-dressed and refined--until her mid-fifties when she married Emory, a widower. They doted on each other for the next thirty years and when they died, they were buried beside each other in the cemetery across town from the one where the rest of my family is. (Emory was, I suspect, a Methodist.) Emory's children, quite naturally, I suppose, loved their mother, not Aunt Nelle, so Nelle's grave was sadly ignored. Their neglect outraged my relatives. (Who felt they would be overstepping themselves if they decorated Nelle's grave without asking permission, and asking permission was out of the question.) Some of my family are so upset they want to dig up Aunt Nelle and bring her over to our cemetery where she''ll be better loved, I guess.
Should we move her? My feeling is that she's the one who chose to be buried with her husband. That was her wish. Who are we to change her mind?
Kinda like writers who have chosen their genre. Even if it's dying, do you stick with it? Or try to change what you write? If that's possible? And is it any of my business to suggest you make a switch? Do you even want to hear that the market for cozy mysteries is fading fast?
Or, like me, do you think it's wisest to put some flowers on the grave and move on--to re-invent yourself?
Planting flowers on the grave of the traditional mystery genre is not quite an accurate metaphor for what's happening in the women's department of crime fiction, but it's not far off the mark. Let's just say that if your'e writing about talking cats or small towns with nosy neighbors and murder epidemics, you might consider switching to vampires. Or thrillers.
Check out the Sisters in Crime report next week for the full skinny.