Imagine entering a writing contest sponsored by a major publishing house, but not winning. Then imagine getting an e-mail from a very A-list editor wanting to offer you a two-book deal because your writing captivated her. An aspiring novelist’s fairy tale ending, right?
Dreams did come true for mystery novelist Eugenia Lovett West because that’s exactly what happened to her. At the age of 81, Lovett West entered the Malice Domestic contest sponsored by St. Martin’s, and her novelist’s career took off. Her debut mystery, WITHOUT WARNING , was the first in a series published by St. Martin’s Minotaur imprint. Her second book, OVERKILL , is a whipcrack page turner, with a smart and sexy protagonist in Emma Streat, international venues and a plot that keeps you guessing. It’s inspiring that Lovett West has carved a niche in a cutthroat genre, and is doing it at an age when the rest of the world is thinking about resting on their laurels.
Please enjoy part one of our two part interview with mystery novelist Eugenia Lovett West.
Q: Yours is an unusual road to publication. Thirty years ago you wrote a historical suspense novel THE ANCESTORS CRY OUT; in 2004 you were plucked out of a contest by heavyweight mystery editor Ruth Cavin of St. Martins and offered a two-book deal. What was that journey like?
ELW: The journey was long, very long, in part because I skipped around changing genres. Mysteries are my favorite escape read, so why not sit down and write one? Hold it. I soon found that there’s a vast difference between reading mysteries for fun and writing them. Like a strict school, there are rules that must be followed: Drop clues, insert red herrings, and come up with a surprising villain.
Later, after the rejection slips piled up, I self-published the ms as a Christmas present for family and friends. The praise was heartwarming, and I entered the St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic contest for first mysteries. Months went by. Out of sight, out of mind.
One beautiful June day, I opened my computer and there was an e-mail from renowned St. Martin’s editor Ruth Cavin. The book was too international for the contest, but would I consider a contract for two mysteries? Believe me, it doesn’t get better than that. This is a Cinderella story that should give hope to writers of any age. Good things can happen.
Q: At the age of eighty-something, what is it like to be talent-scouted by NYC editors and have a hot mystery series on your hands? How has the industry changed since you published your first book, and today?
ELW: The industry has changed in many ways. Promotion for authors used to be mostly book tours, articles in print and, with luck, interviews on radio and TV. I think the shift to online promotion is a great asset for the mid-list writer. Places like Writers Unboxed have opened new ways to break out of the pack. It still puzzles me that publishers buy and produce so many books, then give a minimum of publicity to all but the big names/sellers. The alternative to in-house help seems to be hiring independent publicists or learning to do your own. As for the age factor—when Without Warning was published in 2007, I didn’t hide the fact that I was in my eighties, but I was afraid of scaring off younger readers. That didn’t happen. All ages seemed to like the book. So when the second Emma Streat appeared in December 2009, I felt comfortable about coming out of the age closet. In fact, it’s a real pleasure to be a spokesperson for the older writer.
Q: Prior to writing novels, you freelanced for newspapers. What sorts of things did you learn about writing news stories that were valuable when writing your novels?
ELW: I think writing for newspapers is a great way to start a writing career. Covering different kinds of stories requires flexibility and objectivity. Good journalists have to write fast. They learn to check facts—as a novice, my biggest fear was that I’d make a really bad mistake. Careful research should become a habit. Sentences should be clear, readable, and minus a lot of adverbs and adjectives. After a time, like many reporters, I got tired of churning out 300 words. Why not 300 pages?
Q: What’s your writing process? Are you a plotter, or do you fly in the mist?
ELW: In my view, there’s a fine balance between being locked in and “flying in the mist.” I start with a general plot, not chapter by chapter. I found out, the hard way, that it saves time to know how the book is going to end. In Without Warning, I went into the last stretch with several candidates for chief villain. For Overkill , I wrote the last chapter first, though that too had to change a bit. There’s a theory that one should start by centering the whole plot around the villain, and then add background and other characters. An interesting concept.
Q: OVERKILL  is the second novel in your Emma Streat Mystery series. What was the inspiration behind the series? What drew you to the mystery/suspense genre?
ELW: I love suspense and a fast-moving story. When my four children were little and clinging around my ankles, nap time meant a life-restoring escape into another world. I am inspired, and often re-read those Golden Age British mystery writers: Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham. Now there’s a new generation of Brits who do crime so well, along with many Americans.
Come back next week for part two of our two part interview with Eugenia Lovett West where she shares tips and techniques for mystery novelists and also about how important fearlessness is when writing a novel. Don’t miss it!
OVERKILL  is available now at all booksellers.