|Chassie West: From Carolyn Keene to Carolina Mysteries|
They call Chassie West a female Walter Mosley, but Mosley can't hold a candle to West's diversity. Her award-winning fiction -- written under a variety of pseudonyms including Joyce McGill, Tracy West and Carolyn Keene -- spans everything from Nancy Drew mysteries to romance novels. West also wrote the very first Silhouette romantic suspense novel featuring an African American couple.
Recently West stepped out from behind her pen names to write mysteries featuring African American police officer Leigh Ann Warren and amateur sleuth Troy Burdette. Taking time out from her third Leigh Ann Warren novel, West explains why she plans to stick with mysteries, despite the fact she finds the process of plotting "as hard as pulling an impacted wisdom tooth."
Crescent Blues: Your mysteries Sunrise and Killing Kin (both featuring DC police officer Leigh Ann Warren) and Loss of Innocence turn on themes of personal crisis and the prodigal's return. What makes these themes so compelling for you?
Chassie West: Hmm. I guess I never thought in terms of the prodigal's return. As for the themes of personal crisis, when considering Sunrise, I was not interested in a police procedural, per se. With both Leigh Ann and Troy Burdette, I wanted to concentrate as heavily on their personal lives as the mysteries in which they became involved.
Although I wasn't thinking in terms of classical themes -- hero/heroine work their way through a crisis to new enlightenment or personal growth -- that's how it turned out. I wanted to remind readers that behind the badge of every officer of the law and/or amateur sleuth is a thinking, feeling person. What better way than to present them with a life-changing conundrum?
Crescent Blues: Do you feel these themes have a special resonance for the mystery genre?
Chassie West: Yes. It would seem to me that no matter what the mystery involves, it must have some impact and lasting effect on the lives of the protagonists, and hopefully the reader as well. We're all constantly learning, changing, growing, or what's the point? Might as well not get out of bed a'morning.
Crescent Blues: Killing Kin, your current novel, takes up the story of Leigh Ann begun in Sunrise. Your Web site mentions you're planning a third novel featuring Leigh Ann too. Could you share with Crescent Blues readers anything about that book or your long-term plans for Leigh Anne?
Chassie West: Killer Riches, the third in the series (scheduled for April 2001), brings Leigh Ann smack up against questions about her childhood and the death of her parents -- issues she had never pursued. At the end of it, secure in the knowledge of who she is and from whence she came, she is launched into phase two of her career as a law enforcement officer and her relationship with Duck, her fiancé. Any future books will undoubtedly build on those changes in her life.
Crescent Blues: Do you have any plans for continuing the story of the characters introduced in Loss of Innocence? If so, could you share them?
Chassie West: Not at this point, although one never knows when Aunt Jay might pop up again. She's too priceless a character to rest on her laurels for very long.
Crescent Blues: You've won several awards for your romance books and enjoy the distinction of having written Silhouette's first ethnic romantic suspense featuring an African-American couple. You've even written several Nancy Drew mysteries. Could you tell us which genre most appeals to you as a writer and why?
Chassie West: Mysteries, mysteries, mysteries! Even though the process of plotting is as hard for me as pulling an impacted wisdom tooth, I enjoy presenting puzzles and working my way through them to the solutions. I found it very difficult to write a romance and felt I was not very adept at developing the relationships involved -- unless an element of mystery was injected. Once I realized that mysteries were what I enjoyed reading most, I also realized that mysteries were what I should be writing. Duh!
Chassie West: Most writers of romance use pseudonyms. Once I began writing mysteries, I saw no reason to continue that. The first time I saw my name on a book in a bookstore was a megawatt thrill. It continues to be.
Crescent Blues: Do you plan to concentrate on writing mysteries now?
Chassie West: Oh, yeah!
Crescent Blues: Most writers of mysteries often grew up reading the genre from an early age. Can you tell us which writers most impressed, influenced or otherwise made a contribution to your writing?
Chassie West: Oddly enough, I don't remember reading mysteries as a child. I simply read everything I could check out of my local library in East Orange, N.J. The first mystery I do remember I encountered in junior high, which is what it was called before somebody decided to dub it middle school. The book was called The Scarlet Cloak, was set in Hawaii, and was the first book I'd read in which the teen-aged protagonists kissed! Man, I checked that book out so many times the librarian got suspicious. That also began for me a lifelong love of Hawaii.
I went through a sci-fi period while in college, especially [Robert] Heinlein and [Isaac] Asimov, anything to avoid reading social science or history assignments. Not too long afterwards, I found Helen MacInnes. She, I think, had a great impact on me. Her writing style was unique for that time. So if I have anyone to thank for nudging me, albeit slowly, towards mysteries it's MacInnes.
Crescent Blues: Nunna, Leigh Ann's foster mother, seems to be somewhat of an elemental force. Is Nunna based on a person in your own life who influenced you?
Chassie West: Yes and no. Both she and Aunt Jay in Loss of Innocence are representative of the warm, caring and affectionate elderly women I encountered while living in North Carolina. And most were genuine characters, survivors of hard lives and hard times in the South, hysterically funny and could tell the most outrageous tales. My agent pointed out to me that practically everything I've written has a character similar to these two women. So perhaps it's my salute to them, those wise old ladies who brought spice to my life.
Crescent Blues: Many readers like to "cast" famous actors in the roles of characters in their favorite books. If you were to play this game, who would you like to portray your characters in Killing Kin?
Chassie West: Geez! That's a hard one. They are names most won't recognize.
Crescent Blues: You've created some very distinctive and realistic small town settings in your novels. Did you base any of your fictional locations on real places?
Chassie West: Nope. During my junior/senior high school years, I lived in North Carolina before the sit-ins that launched the civil rights marches. In other words, segregation was the order of the day. Even though at that point Greensboro had nearly a hundred thousand people, our side of the city was a town unto itself, with a strong sense of community. The small towns I've dreamed up are strictly fictional, but reflect the kind of dynamics and interrelationships of those days back in the Fifties in Greensboro.
Crescent Blues: If you were given an unlimited grant to write any type of book or tell any story you wanted to tell, what would it be?
Chassie West: I doubt it would be much different from what I'm currently producing, stories of African American men and women presented with life-changing mysteries.
Crescent Blues: Your novel, Unforgivable, was the first Silhouette ethnic romantic suspense novel featuring an African American couple. Do you feel that you're a pioneer or perhaps a role model for other aspiring writers of color?
Chassie West: Although I was thrilled and honored at Silhouette's request that I write a book for them featuring an African American couple, it never occurred to me that it would be such a big deal. It wasn't until I attended a Romance Writers of America conference the year Unforgivable was published that I discovered the impact it had had on writers of color.
[The writers] asked me to meet with them, which I did. Brother, what a boost to the ego! It was probably the closest I'll ever come to knowing how a celebrity feels. Unforgivable was proof to them that they could write for the romance market and be published, that at long last, the African American reader was being acknowledged as a book-buying consumer, one who wanted to see characters with whom they could more closely relate. Fortunately, Unforgivable did fairly well and obviously crossed color lines, reader-wise. From that point, the doors were open. I'm pleased to have helped that process.
Crescent Blues: What in your life would you say prepared you to be a writer?
Chassie West: A love of reading, a rich fantasy life, a family that included a few great storytellers and a firm grounding in the use of the language. Added to that has to be the years I spent in theater, as a drama major, an English literature minor and a decade and a half of stage work. It helped me understand the intricacies of character. If I'd been able to grasp plot as well, I'd have a lot fewer gray hairs.
Crescent Blues: You've said it took a great deal of arm-twisting to get you to write. What caused your reluctance, and what finally turned the corner for you?
Chassie West: Because I'd been writing for years, on the school newspaper, in English comp classes. I enjoyed it but never thought of it in terms of being published. So when Joyce Varney, the creative writing teacher on the faculty of the college at which I was working at the time insisted, on the basis of letters I'd written her, that I should be a writer, I ignored her. I mean, really! It was only because she was from Wales and had the tenacity of a Welsh terrier who wouldn't leave it alone that I finally yielded and gave it a try, just to get her off my back.
Joyce sent my very first effort to her editor. It was rejected and rightfully so, but the letter of encouragement I received was all it took to make me take the whole business seriously. Still, it was ten years of hit-and-miss before my first book was published. So I paid my dues. And don't regret a minute of it.
Crescent Blues: Many newly published writers are often surprised at how much of their writing lives must be spent promoting their books. What part of the writing world most surprised you when you were first published?
Chassie West: A) That I didn't become rich instantly. That's said only party tongue-in-cheek. But that's what the average person thinks when they discover you're a published writer. You must make a mint. Yeah, right. The economics of the business have been enlightening.
B) That the publisher does so little to promote a book unless you're a big name or one who's already built up a large fan base. This is the first time I've been able to dedicate any time and energy to this phase of the business. It's not my favorite part of the process. Writing the book was work enough, and I'd just as soon get on to the next one.
C) The awe in which non-writers regard you when they learn you've been published.
D) On the other side of the coin, the complete lack of respect given a writer who has not been published. Until you are, all the hard work you're doing is disregarded, the attitude being well, if you haven't been published, you must not be very good and you don't count.
E) The number of people who say "Oh, I always thought I'd write a book." Or worse: "I have a great idea for a book. You write it and we'll split the proceeds." (Barf, barf, barf!)
Crescent Blues: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to write professionally?
Chassie West: A) Read, read, read! If you don't read, you can't write.
B) Do your homework, i.e., master the mechanics of grammar, of language.
C) Be a sponge. Watch people. Listen to them, the way they talk, what they say as well as what they don't. Watch their body language, the way they move, how they interact with others. These are the models for the characters you'll invent. People are multi-layered. Your characters had better be as well.
D) Be prepared to face rejection, isolation, frustration and constant bouts with a lack of self-confidence. Keep writing anyway. In this instance, you learn by doing. If at all possible, link up with a critique group. If you're lucky enough to find a good one, you will learn even more, both by listening to what others are writing and the mistakes they're making and by having your own efforts critiqued. Be persistent, stubborn, mule-headed about what you want to do. Sooner or later, you'll hit the jackpot. It may be a little jackpot or a middlin' one. But to see your name on a book will be worth every single minute of anguish.
E) Don't talk about it. JUST DO IT!!!!!
Crescent Blues: Has your life changed in any way since you published your first book, or since you published your first book under your own name?
Chassie West: The biggest change in my life since my first book has been the loss of my soulmate, Bob West, who died a little over two years ago. Widowhood has been an adjustment, and writing has helped immensely, kept me focused on other than myself.
I can't say having a book published under my own name has made an appreciable difference since most people in my small universe knew I was a published writer. Seeing my real name on the cover kicked me up a notch, respect-wise, for many, but it's amazing the number of people who still feel you haven't made it and aren't to be taken seriously until they see it on the cover of a hardback. Tough.
Crescent Blues: Now that you've retired from your "day job" can you tell us what your typical day is like?
Chassie West: I am not a morning person, so at 7 a.m., Get up, feed the cats OR ELSE! Back to bed until 9 a.m. Miscellaneous chores until noon. After lunch, it's time to get down to work. I may be in front of the computer for two or three hours or eight to ten hours, depending on how well a chapter is going. I'm a night owl so I rarely get to bed before midnight. Then it's seven o'clock and time to feed the cats again. Sounds boring. It ain't. I LOVE it!!!!
Crescent Blues: What do you do to take a break and refresh yourself after an intense period of writing or promoting?
Chassie West: Read until I'm cross-eyed. There are so many books in my To-Be-Read pile, and I can't wait to get at 'em.
Crescent Blues: Is there anything else you would like to add? This is your soapbox!
Chassie West: I think it's important that we as writers and readers express our appreciation of all those who help promote our books, whether via newsletters, reviews, bookstores signings, TV shows, the Internet, any mechanism I've missed, and simple word-of-mouth. Our books couldn't exist without readers. Getting the news of what's out there on the shelves is a daunting job, one which our publishers leave more and more to us, the writers. So you may not hear it often enough, but we could not survive without you. Thank you so very, very much!!!
Maria Y. Lima
Click here to learn more about Chassie West.