Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I’m my own guest

I usually welcome a guest author on Wednesday, with the suggestion that he or she tell us a bit about their life and work. This week, I have no guest, so I’m going to be my own guest and tell you how I ended up writing almost 60 books, a Chicago-born Midwesterner living in Texas.

I think I always knew I wanted to write—wrote my first short stories at about eight, submitted a story to Seventeen in high school (gosh, did it come back in a hurry) and in college began writing nonfiction articles for small magazines. The zenith of my magazine career was a small piece on adoption in McCall’s. By then I was the parent of two or three adopted children. I am now the proud parent of four, grandparent of seven.

I got my interest in the American West while working on my Ph.D. at Texas Christian University. One of my professors taught a class in Western American lit.—I liked him and liked the class. And I’m glad to say nearly fifty years later, he’s still a good friend.

After I got that degree, I stayed home, wanted to write and had no idea what to write about. By serendipity I read several novels that featured young girls as protagonists, and I knew what I could do—turn my friend’s mother’s memoir into a novel. It was a great leap for me, since I’d had no training in creative writing—they didn’t teach it back then.

But I did it. I wrote After Pa Was Shot, which was published by the then-prestigious New York house, William Morrow. A succession of young adult novels followed—I was cast into that pigeonhole. Most were published in Texas, but one, Luke and the Van Zandt County War, won the annual award for the best juvenile from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Then I decided to write for adults, and my first attempt, Mattie, was published by Doubleday in their Double D Western series which I truthfully think was sold to a subscriber list of mostly prisons and maybe some libraries. But it won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America and today it does nicely on Amazon these days. I published another Double D and then moved (up?) to Bantam, where I published longer historical fiction—lives of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Jessie Benton Frémont, Lucille Mulhall (under the name Cherokee Rose), and later Etta Place—from another publisher.

The western market, at least the one I’d written for, seemed to either wither or pull away from me. I’d all along written a bit of non-fiction for young-adults—companies that published for school libraries--and in the early 21st  century, that was all I did. But I itched to write novels, so I eventually turned to mysteries.
But that’s another story for another day.
Note the contorting covers for Libbie--above is the Bantam version, which shows Libbie looking like a 19th-century version of Madonna, standing in a Kansas field of lush grass fenced with barbed wire--never mind that barbed wire had barely been introduced by the time General Custer died and there was no way that Kansas was fenced. Behind her is the ubiquitous West of Arizona's red, dry land--but with a stockade fort. Libbie made the point in her writing--and so did I--that she was surprised that forts had no walls, fences, etc. Of course, the West had no sturdy logs as shown in the illustration--those might have been found a century earlier back east when the "dangerous" Native Americans were the Mohawks or Mohicans. Below is a more historically accurate cover.


Polly Iyer said...

You've done it all, Judy, and very we'll indeed. You're an inspiration.

Judy Alter said...

Thanks, Polly. I didn't post that to brag but I thought my crooked path to mystery might interest some--and today folks know me as a mystery writer and I don't want to lose the western aspect of my career.
Why don't you write a guest blog for me sometime?