Julia interviews Nancy Pickard

Nancy Pickard is the bestselling author of several acclaimed mystery series, as well as award-winning short fiction. She took a break from her Jenny Cain series to write THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS, published by Ballantine. Learn more about her star-studded career at the author's web site.

One of the things I love about writing a small town is its universality. Across barriers of language, culture, and state, all small towns, in their essentials, are the same. What's your small-town story? Did you come from one or do you live in one now?

Most of my novels are set in small towns, but the funny thing is that I've never lived in one, myself. Or, rather, I've never lived in what is usually thought of as a small town. Personally, I think the church I grew up in was a small town, and so was my elementary school, and my high school. My college was more like a city. And for many years I lived in Kansas City surburbs that felt and acted exactly like small towns. One of them was even called Prairie Village. How small town is that?! My son says it was an idyllic place to grow up, where he always felt safe on its streets and where he couldn't go anywhere without seeing people he knew (and who would report back to his mother). But amusingly enough, it was in New York City that I fully understood for the first time exactly what you express in your question, Julia. One day years ago I was out walking on the Upper West Side with my literary agent, Meredith Bernstein. As we strolled around her long-time neighborhood, I discovered that she knew the dry cleaner and the grocer and people on the street, exactly as people did in small towns. I realized that for her the Upper West Side of New York City is a small town and that there are people in the world--like her--who create that experience wherever they go. That's when I completely relaxed about my inclination to write about small towns. I realized that some of us are small town kinds of people--even in the middle of big cities--and that I can legitimately write from that very familiar point of view.

THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS seems to spring first and foremost from its powerfully realistic characters. What's your process for developing and working with characters?

(Thank you!) Well, the weird thing is that I think my process is changing. It used to be that I didn't really want to *think* about my characters very much. For instance, I never wanted to make lists of where they went to school, what their favorite colors were, or those kinds of things. I wanted them to reveal things like that to me in the course of the story, which they would do only if they needed and wanted to do it. I didn't care what flavor of ice cream Jenny Cain liked best--unless she needed to reveal that to me as I wrote. I thought of creating characters in the same way that I thought about making friends--I would never hand you, for instance, a questionnaire demanding to know your hobbies. I would wait for that to come up naturally in conversation. Or, if you were coming over to my house and I was serving ice cream, I'd ask so I could be sure to have a flavor you like.

Now, however, although that still remains mostly true, I find that I'm wanting to *think* more about them. When something happens in a story, I don't just wait for them to do what they do--I think about how they'd be reacting to it, and what their options might be, and what effect that might have on the people around them. And I'm finding that this is deepening my feeling for them.

I guess maybe previously I was scared of destroying my creative flow by getting analytical, and maybe I was right about that--maybe it would have had a bad effect. But I have more experience now, and more confidence in my own skill, I guess. Previously, maybe I had more confidence in my characters than I did in myself.

What's your process? Outline or organic?

A little of both. I start with a few ideas, then let them roll out on the page, then stop and think about them and try to plot a little forward, then go back and let it roll again.

Let's talk short stories for a moment. You have won, I believe, the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity and Shamus awards for your short stories. I haven't finished a short story because they keep evolving into novellas. What's your secret to crafting a short story?

I couldn't sell a short story to save my soul until I learned that each one needs an epiphany. There has to be some kind of emotional and/or plot payoff in the end.

Having succeeded resoundingly at every aspect of the crime fiction field you've set your hat on, what pithy words of advice would you have for newbie writers starting out? Craft-wise and commercially speaking?

I'd tell them, be patient with yourself and with the business. It takes years to develop into a publishable writer, but people who aren't yet professional writers tend to think it looks easy and shouldn't take long to master. Ha! There's an iceberg of apprenticeship beneath every snowy peak of writing success. I served my 13-year apprenticeship by being a professional writer of other sorts before I turned to fiction, and even then my first novel didn't get published (thank god), and neither did a whole bunch of short stories. Other writers serve their time by writing a dozen rejected novels before they sell their first one. We don't expect doctors to perform surgery after one day in medical school, and we shouldn't expect new writers to succeed that easily, either.

How has Sisters in Crime evolved over the years? A war story or two here would be fabulous....

The answer that comes to my mind immediately is that the resistance to it has faded away. It was controversial at the start, believe it or not. I remember admiring Sara Paretsky enormously because she was our lightning rod, bravely absorbing a hideous amount of nastiness on behalf of the rest of us. But then at this past Bouchercon, Sisters held its 20th year anniversary party and the joint was packed with everybody celebrating its existence. I was moved to see that and to remember that it didn't used to be that way.

What was it like to win the first Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original with SAY NO TO MURDER?

It was a thrill! I remember William (Bill) D'Andrea, who died way too young a few years ago, stopping me on my way back to my seat and saying, "You're not in Kansas any more." I also remember saying when I accepted the award, "Years from now, some young authors will find out that I won one of the very first Anthony's, and they'll say, 'You're really that old?!" Well, here I am, and yes, I'm really that old, lol.

I think I sensed that those awards would be around for a long time and that it would mean something special to have won a first one.

What's next for Nancy Pickard? What projects are occupying you at the moment? In the near future?

More stand-alones set in small towns in Kansas! More short stories!

My next novel is titled One Place on Earth, and it is a kind of fictional variation on Truman Capote's, In Cold Blood. The ironic idea behind the title is that, if there is one place on earth where someone could feel safe, surely it is in a small town in Kansas. . .and then that turns out not to be so. So very, very not so. I personally believe there is no such thing as a safe place in the material world, and that the only real safety we can have lies within our own hearts and in the loving hearts of other people. I think that theme will be in the book, but I won't know for sure until I finish it. Soon, I hope!

You're known for your Jenny Cain, Marie Lightfoot and Eugenia Potter series. What made you go out on a limb and write a strikingly different stand-alone like THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS?

Partly, it was that I just didn't want to do another series. But mostly, it was because I was ready to start writing the kinds of novels I had increasingly wanted to do. I longed to do bigger books that had mystery, suspense, romance, family saga, varying time periods, and perhaps a touch of the mystical, and I felt that I had finally reached a level of my career where I finally had the writerly tools to permit me to do that.

Nancy Pickard

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“here's an iceberg of apprenticeship beneath every snowy peak of writing success. I served my 13-year apprenticeship by being a professional writer of other sorts before I turned to fiction, and even then my first novel didn't get published (thank god), and neither did a whole bunch of short stories. Other writers serve their time by writing a dozen rejected novels before they sell their first one. We don't expect doctors to perform surgery after one day in medical school, and we shouldn't expect new writers to succeed that easily, either.”