|Nancy Bartholomew: Murder, Mayhem and Mirth|
Nancy Bartholomew says she's like a psychopath, and she should know. A practicing psychotherapist, Bartholomew routinely hears voices in her head. North Philadelphia voices, mainly. Sierra Lavotini, the Florida stripper with a body and a brain, comes in loud and strong. So does newcomer Angelina Donatelli, running from a mid-life crisis and the Mob in a stolen Pepto-Bismol(r) pink Winnebago. But you shouldn't count out Greensboro, N.C., country and western crooner Maggie Reid just yet.
Like the three leading ladies of her current and future mystery series, Bartholomew specializes in combining mayhem and mirth. At Bouchercon 2001, Bartholomew confessed, she just can't help it. The two naturally flow together in the mind of a soccer mom -- at least they do in the mind of a wild child preacher's daughter soccer mom who used to sing country and western in Philadelphia biker bars.
Crescent Blues: What was the inspiration behind Sierra Lavotini?
Nancy Bartholomew: Desperation. I had really good beginner's luck. I wrote a short story, and Kathy Trochek told me to send it to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Naïve girl I was, I sent it, and they bought it. I thought, this is great. I went out and bought a laptop -- 90 days, same as cash -- because I knew I was going to be famous. I did not publish anything for two years after that.
My husband was like: "What is with this obsession? You need to be working more. You've got a [social work] practice." Pressure. So I thought, I'm going to Sleuthfest, and I'm going to enter a short story contest, and if I don't place in the top ten, then he's probably right. And I'm going to come back be the best little social worker there ever was. But I was facing turning forty in a couple of years, and I thought, I've never taken a risk. I've never done anything that was hard, and it's been a dream of mine to write, so let's give it a shot.
That was all well and good. The conference was going to be in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and my husband loves to go to Fort Lauderdale, so this is great.
I wrote four horrible stories. They had to be set in Florida. So I just I wrote one right after the other. Not good. Then I wrote one that was…okay.
Then, the night before the contest, I'm sitting there in the basement, in the cold, sitting at the computer when my little boy came down. He said. "What you doin'?"
I said, "I'm writing."
He said, "It don't look like you writing, Mama. It look like you just sitting there. If you just sitting there, why don't you install a software [program] for me."
I said, "No problem, Ben." I had so much caffeine, and I was so upset, I threw the box up in the air accidentally, and all the papers fluttered out. The one that landed at my feet said, "Sierra reveals all." I thought, "What a great title. I wonder who would reveal all." Then, it was just like they said; I heard my voice.
I always thought my voice would be a nice Barbara Kingsolver voice. No, it was Sierra. She said, "Yo. Listen. Write this down. I'm gonna talk to you real fast, and I hope you can type." [Imitates the sound of fingers flying over a keyboard.]
I sent it in, and I went to Fort Lauderdale. I remember that I was so nervous I thought I was going to throw up the whole time. Finally, it got to Saturday night. The awards ceremony was in this little disco, and Stuart Kaminsky and his daughter were handing out the awards. When they got to number eight, they called my name. I ran up and got my award, and my Atlanta, Ga., Sisters-in-Crime chapter was there, and we were all having a big time. And I never asked which story got eighth place.
The award's sitting there, and people are congratulating me. I'm thinking, "Eighth place -- woohoohoo. That's okay, but it's not like it's…"
Then they called out my name for first place. I just remember a few people clapping, and Jeremiah Healy was out there, and all these writers and agents were out there. I looked at them, and I couldn't stand it any more. I asked, "So which one won?" I didn't know.
"It's 'Sierra Reveals All.' I think you've got a book there." Stuart was a great mentor, and he was right. I sat down, and Sierra was born.
Crescent Blues: Did you use your Downingtown, Pa., background in the creation of Sierra, or did she spring fully formed from your brain?
Nancy Bartholomew: She sprang, fully formed. I can see her parents; they're not mine. I can see her house. I can see her neighborhood. Every now and then, my dad, who still lived up in Philadelphia, would say, "You remember Wyamissing Avenue. You remember the guy up there who sold the soft pretzels." He would remind me, and he could visually lead me through the old neighborhoods that I lived in after I graduated from college, and some of the places we used to go when we were younger and we would go downtown.
I had worked with a lot of bikers and a lot of strippers, but I never asked them the tricks of the trade or anything like that. I guess I absorbed it.
Sierra is very, very proud of her profession. A lot of the strippers that I worked with in the drug clinic were not. They were, basically, glorified hookers -- and not very good ones. It was if Sierra just stepped out of somewhere.
Crescent Blues: Do you do research now? On your Web site you mentioned a woman named Nova Wite.
Nancy Bartholomew: Nova is an exotic dancer in Atlanta, and I met her on-line, and she invited me down, because she was about to open up a school for exotic dancers. So I went down, and she was dancing in the Club 9 ½ Weeks, and she said, "I read your stuff first, to see whether I thought you were for real. Because if you treated us like bimbos, I was gonna tell you, I won't talk to you. But you got it right."
And the eerie thing was that walking into that club, even down to Vincent Gambuzzo, they were all there. And I was so nervous! I went with my husband and a friend of his. We were walking down this long corridor to go to the door, and the doorman looked just like Bruno. He looks at me. "You're Nancy." He even had a New York accent. The minute I said yes, he goes, "We've been waiting for you. Come on in."
At that point, the men I was with evaporated. No one talked to them. No one saw them. All these naked women came and talked to me. I had never seen two men look more disappointed in their lives. We know the routine at these places. They don't talk to you.
I went in the back, in the locker room, and it looked just like Sierra's locker room. I ate pizza with the girls, and it was nice. They took me in the ladies room and showed me how to put Clinique(r) bronzer on my body and then concealer on your butt for the white lines. They said, "Oh, we would never go to a tanning booth. It ages your skin." And I thought, "Absolutely." They taught me all kinds of stuff.
Crescent Blues: Was that incorporated into Strip Poker?
Nancy Bartholomew: Those experiences were helpful in Drag Strip and Film Strip and Strip Poker. I saw Nova again this summer, and she's doing make-up -- makeovers. She did all my publicity pictures, which if I could ever get them printed out and on the back of a book would be spectacular. I don't look anything like myself. She's just marvelous with that stuff but very interesting. And very interesting for a dancer, because she's an A-cup.
Crescent Blues: Are you involved in Nova's makeover business?
Nancy Bartholomew: No. I just went to visit, and she said, "I want to do [your make-up]." I said, "Please, do." She did, and it was so much fun.
Crescent Blues: Will the pictures be up on your Web site?
Nancy Bartholomew: When I figure out how do it, they'll be up there. My older son, who is about to turn 13 told me, "You cannot put those up there."
I said, "Why?"
"You look strange."
I found out that "strange" means: "You look like one of those women that we don't let you look like." My sons had the same reaction six years ago when I tried acrylic nails. "You are not that type of woman."
I said, "What kind of woman would that be?"
They were so little -- this was five or six years ago -- that they said, "We don't know, but you're not that kind. I could have died from laughing. And they're right; I'm not that kind -- whatever that kind is. I broke every nail off, because I work in the garden. They all fell off. Still it was pretty amazing that they don't see me that way. So they don't like these makeover pictures.
Crescent Blues: Which is interesting, because you make such a big deal about being a bad girl grown up -- the "preacher's daughter" who ran away to become a country and western singer in a biker bar and now writes about strippers.
Nancy Bartholomew: I think that there must be several people living inside me. This conservative person that my boys see in me -- I don't really get with that. Maybe I look like that. Maybe I walk into their classrooms as the good mom with the tray of cookies. Maybe that's what they see, but there's a part of me that's "I am they, and they are me." My sons don't see me as outside of their circle. They want to keep me right there in the house where it's safe, and I don't look like one of those tarted-up women.
However, they like Sierra. When I talk like Sierra they fall on the ground. Unfortunately, I read it out loud at the end of the day. I will never forget -- I was reading one particular scene, and I wasn't aware that Ben, who was five, was there. And I said in [Sierra's voice], "How would you like it if I was to knock your teeth so far down your throat you had to fart to see daylight?" He fell to the ground, hysterical, laughing.
I said, "If you tell one person in your school that. You will not use that. That's Mommy's writing, and you cannot use that."
He said, "Mom, I know what to do. I will not use it in school."
I have to admit I'm whacko. My dad's whacko. My mom's whacko. Everybody in my family is whacko. We all have great senses of humor. Except my mom doesn't like it when I say "shitty," so I guess I shouldn't do that. But other than that, they're cool.
Crescent Blues: Have you shown your parents your writing?