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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on Judith Van Gieson

Judith Van Gieson is the author of thirteen mystery novels. Her short stories have appeared in several mystery anthologies. In the first mystery series eight books featuring female Albuquerque attorney/sleuth Neil Hamel were published by HarperCollins. Neil's work often involved environmental issues including endangered species and wildfires. The Lies That Bind was a finalist for the Shamus Award for best detective novel. The series won the Spirit of Magnifico Literary Award. 

Two of the Neil Hamel books, Ditch Rider and The Wolf Path, were included in a list of the 100 Best New Mexico Books. After a year of voting by librarians, readers, writers and bookstores the winners were announced in time for the New Mexico Centennial in 2012. 

There were five books in the second series with heroine Claire Reynier published in paperback by Signet, in hardcover by University of New Mexico Press and in a large print edition by Thorndike. Claire works as an archivist and librarian at the Center for Southwest Research at UNM. This series involved rare artifacts and New Mexico history. The Stolen Blue was a finalist for the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award. The Shadow of Venus was a finalist for the Barry Award and won the Zia Award given by New Mexico Press Women for Best Work of Fiction by a New Mexico woman.

Judith has an article on Writing the First Chapter in the book Now Write Mysteries.

The Interview -- Part II

Scroll down for Part I...

(Continued From Part I He has been my agent for twenty-eight years.)

He sold North of the Border to Walker, a small press in New York.  When the book came out a year later it got a starred review in Kirkus.  I didn’t know what Kirkus was then but soon found out it is a magazine librarians read that helps them decide whether to not order a book.  A starred review from Kirkus means a lot.

            “Got me an outline,” my agent said, “and I can sell your next book.”
            “Outline?” I wondered. 

I’d never done an outline and had no idea how to write one so I went to Glacier Park in Montana and did research into birds of prey for the second book in the Neil Hamel series Raptor.  I wrote the first hundred pages then outlined the rest. 

My agent had three publishers bidding on it Bantam, Scribner’s and HarperCollins.  A bidding war is the best way to get a good advance in publishing but it’s getting hard to have one these days when most of the major New York imprints are owned by the German company Bartlesman and they are not going to bid against each other.  HarperCollins won the bidding war.  They gave me a two book contract and a large enough advance that I could fulfill my dream and write full time.  My editor at Harper was also Tony Hillerman’s editor so he knew how successful mysteries set in the Southwest could be.    

I did seven books in the Neil Hamel series with Harper.  My editor was wonderful and I really enjoyed working with him.  With a mystery series publishers like to publish a book a year.   With my mystery series I decided to write what I didn’t know, get out of the house, do some research and find out about it.  I was interested in environmental themes so my research took me to some very interesting places.  I went to Glacier Park for Raptor, the Arizona/Mexico border in the middle of the night for The Wolf Path, and Glenwood Springs, Colorado for Hotshots, which was inspired by a fire there in which 14 hotshot firefighters were killed.   A couple of years ago that book was optioned by a Canadian filmmaker and former hotshot firefighter who came across it in a used bookstore in Alberta.

Since Harper paid me a decent advance they were willing to spend some money to promote my books which meant travelling as well.  I would spend about six very intense months actually writing my mysteries.  Typically with a mystery series the books are turned in a year before they are published.

After ten years with Harper the company was bought by Rupert Murdoch who had very different plans for Harper.  My editor left and went to Houghton Mifflin where he published nonfiction.  Unfortunately that was the end of my career at Harper and I regretted giving up the Neil Hamel series.

However, it was also an opportunity to start a new series.  The Neil Hamel books were written in the first person which I felt should sound like the narrator is actually speaking.  A new series was an opportunity to experiment with the third person limited voice which can be more cerebral.  My second heroine Claire Reynier is an intellectual,  middle aged librarian at the University of New Mexico and the third person voice seemed more suited to her and the stories I wanted to tell.  

Based on some sample chapters and an outline my agent got me a contract for three books with Signet a division of Penguin.  I did five books in that series with Signet and had a total of three editors.  As I said, I really like doing research and I did some fascinating research for that series.  Land of Burning Heat, the fourth Claire Reynier book, is about the crypto Jews who came to New Mexico in the 1600’s to get away from the Inquisition and have gone on practicing their religion in secret for hundreds of years.  I was lucky enough to connect with a young man from one of those families who had done a lot of research on his family’s history. 

Unfortunately my third editor at Signet wanted me to write a thriller and I’m not a thriller writer.  A thriller could be considered a stand alone and I’d never written a stand alone.  When you’re writing a book for a mystery series you need to think about the past and future of that series.  I preferred writing mysteries to thrillers and that was the end of the Claire Reynier series.

I have spent the last several years trying to figure out what to do next.  I was working on a travel memoir for a while but lately I’ve been helping other writers to self-publish their work through a company I started called ABQPress.  The writers I work with are so happy to see their books in print I get a lot of satisfaction from helping them.

Two years ago some good news came from my agent that the company AudioGo wanted to reissue all thirteen of my mysteries as ebooks and audio books.  It’s been great to have them available again in these formats.

The Interview -- Part I

Tell us about your writing career...
I started writing when I was an English major at Northwestern.  One of the things you hear when you first start writing is “write what you know”.  So I started writing about the girls in the dorm and every week they would be waiting eagerly to hear what I had to say about them.  It was my first experience of having an audience.  After I graduated from Northwestern I knew I wanted to be a writer but I also knew  needed to find a job so I took the Publishing Procedures Course at Harvard.  I was walking across Harvard Square when I passed two middle aged men who looked like professors.  They looked at me, looked at each other and said “English Major”.   I felt like I had been branded with a big E in my forehead, destined, perhaps, to become a writer.
            Then I went to New York, got a job in publishing and was too busy working during the day and partying at night to do much writing.  After a few years I got married and moved to Vermont where my husband and I started a business.  I began writing poetry when I could take a break from work.  When I got divorced in my 30’s I thought about what I really wanted to do with my life and that was be a writer.  I joined a writer’s group and moved on to short stories.  
Then I sold my house and the business and moved to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico where I studied writing for a year.  I met some people from Santa Fe there and moved on to Santa Fe where I joined another writers’ group.  I was sending out a lot of short stories then and getting a lot of rejection letters back but I finally sold a story to the Capilano Review in Vancouver.  It was the first work I had published.  Years later after I’d had several mystery novels published James Cahill Press issued a collection of my short stories and poetry called Mercury Retrograde.  It was great to finally see them all in print.
In Santa Fe I had a lawyer friend who introduced me to the work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to write detective novels from a woman’s point of view not realizing how many women were already doing it.  I began working on my first Neil Hamel mystery North of the Border about a female lawyer/sleuth who lives and practices in Albuquerque.
Before I finished it, however, a friend from Vermont who had started the Choose Your Own Adventure Series asked me to write a Choose Your Own Adventure children’s book for him.  The way I learned how to write one was to read a lot of books in the series.  Once my book Track of the Bear was done I went back to finishing North of the Border.
Those of you who have tried to get published know how hard it is to get an agent.  Hard as it was back then it  is even harder now.  From my experience in publishing I knew it was the only way to get published.  When North of the Border was finished I sent it to a couple of agents I had connections to but didn’t get anywhere.   I attended a writer’s conference in Cambridge where I met Suzanne Kirk who was a very successful mystery editor at Scribner’s.  I told her about North of the Border.   She had grown up in the Southwest and she said she would like to see the manuscript so of course I sent it to her.  She sent me back a nice letter saying she couldn’t publish it because Scribner’s had been bought by another publisher and she couldn’t take on any new writers which happens all too often these days.  But Suzanne recommended an agent who has been very successful with mysteries.  With a recommendation from her he was likely to take on North of the Border and he did.  He has been my agent for twenty-eight years.

Check Back February 15 for Part II