A few of the most important moments in my life took place in Long Beach, California, home to this year’s Bouchercon.
When I first moved to Long Beach in 1989 to attend college, I was still exploring who and what I wanted to become. I was both excited and a little bit afraid. The whole world lay before me, but was I ready for it?
Well, it was ready for me.
My visit to Long Beach will be haunted by ghostly memories of my college life — the day I had to flee a restaurant on Second Street when police told the owners to close up shop because the rioters were only a few blocks away burning buildings; afternoons spent in the CSU Long Beach school cafeteria listening to local band Sublime play a set; moments spent meeting two of the most important people in my life …
Twenty-three years ago, I met my husband in Long Beach.
Me and my European friends — chic Spanish and Greek women — headed to a local coffee shop, Midnight Espresso, to attend a poetry reading.
The café was packed and the crowd overflowed onto the sidewalk. We parked ourselves on a bus stop bench and sipped our lattes. A guy we knew, Dumas, came over to say hello. He was carrying a Baudelaire book and was with a guy I barely noticed. Boys who wore baseball hats were not my type.
But then this boy began to entertain us, standing in the middle of the street like it was a stage and reciting poetry, acting out the words, twisting his body and twirling. Who was this guy?
My girlfriends said they were going across the street to check out the cute waiter at the other café, The French Riviera. Was I coming?
At this point, the baseball cap boy was sitting on the bench beside me, speaking poetry into my ear.
I stayed behind, not even aware that my friends had left.
Twenty-four years ago, I met my best friend in Long Beach.
I went to a college party with a German exchange student and was introduced to Manisha. She was exotic and glamorous with with her proper British accent and her giant, kohl-rimmed black eyes and gobs of luxurious black hair.
Although on the surface we were nothing alike — she had been raised in a traditional East Indian family in Zimbabwe where she had a crocodile for a pet — we both instantly recognized one another as kindred spirits and have been best friends ever since.
Twenty-five years ago, I debated whether to change my major at Cal State Long Beach from business to creative writing. I had dreamed of being a writer my whole life. I tossed and turned with the decision and ultimately was afraid that the degree would be meaningless. As a compromise, I decided to study journalism. I became an editor at The Union student-run newspaper and fell in love with journalism, discarding my dreams of being a fiction writer.
It took a long time for me to become brave enough to try my hand at fiction. In reality, it took letting go of my fear of failure — something that could have only come with age and maturity
So, now, when I go to Bouchercon, I will take a day to walk the same streets that a young, idealistic college girl did so many years ago. I will remember the moments and places where I met my husband and best friend. I will recall the excitement of being in my 20s with the whole world before me.
A quarter of a century later, I will return to Long Beach, this time as a published fiction writer. I will embrace the girl I once was — with all her fears and hopes for the future — with the woman I have become.
We are delighted to welcome mystery author Kristi Belcamino to Omnimystery News today.
Kristi’s second mystery to feature San Francisco reporter Gabriella Giovanni is Blessed Are the Meek (Witness Impulse; July 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) and in today’s guest post she writes about the setting for the series.
* * *
When I first sat down to write Blessed Are the Dead, the first book in my series featuring San Francisco Bay Area crime reporter Gabriella Giovanni, I hadn’t lived in California for seven years.
I based my descriptions on locations in the Bay Area on memory alone, which, let’s face it, the older I get, the less reliable that becomes. So, this summer, knowing I was about to embark on writing book three in the series, I included a trip to the Bay Area as part of my summer vacation.
My husband and I stayed in the Oakland Hills and made day trips down by Lake Merritt (where Donovan lives), into San Francisco, and east to Contra Costa County where Gabriella’s newspaper is based. (And a few secret side trips I can’t talk about without creating spoilers for the next book!)
Without giving too much away, some of the places we visited included China Town in downtown Oakland where we indulged in The Best Pork Buns on the Planet at Sum Yee Pastry. We caught a movie at the Grand Lake Theater. We walked the shores of Lake Merritt and spent an evening with our priest friend. (Father Liam in Blessed Are the Meek is inspired by him.)
My husband was impressed that after so many years away, I had described the rectory perfectly in my book. It was everything I had remembered and more. And my priest friend was larger than life. He is more charming, more joyful, and more stylish than my book’s character. Some people might think the priest character in my book is exaggerated, but let me tell you it is only a shadow of the man who inspired the character.
In San Francisco, we headed to the North Beach part of town (The Italian section where Gabriella lives) and we visited Saints Peter and Peter Church. Of course, we stopped for a coffee at Café Roma. Met a writer friend at City Lights Bookstore (Hi David!) and then had beers (Stella Artois for me of course!) and bruschetta at a sidewalk café. And we shopped! I picked up items to giveaway to newsletter subscribers and bought a cool poster of Italy for my kitchen.
Back home in Minneapolis, I am geared up, inspired, and ready to dive into book three, Blessed Are Those Who Weep, knowing that I will visit the Bay Area again, maybe next year in real life, but I’ll be there next week in my new novel!
at My Devotional Thoughts.
Let’s talk rejection. I am somewhat of an expert on it.
After I wrote my first novel, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, a writing teacher told me it was ready to see the world. It was not.
But I didn’t know this at the time. I’d written a book to the best of my capabilities. I did not know how to do any better. So I queried my first New York agent.
To my surprise, he answered right away and requested the full manuscript be sent his way.
Within a week, he had read it. And told me it sucked.
Well, he didn’t use that term exactly, but that’s what he meant. He told me my novel did not measure up to the “heavy hitters” in my genre (mystery).
I broke the rules and shot him an email back asking for advice on how to improve my novel. (Apparently this is a huge faux pas with agents). He responded curtly: “Read bestselling mystery books.”
I refrained from taking photos of my stack of mystery books on my nightstand and/or shooting back a one-word response of “Duh.”
Instead, I sought critiques from other writers and considered the idea of hiring a developmental editor to teach me to write and show me where I needed to improve.
I didn’t have money for an editor, but I did find a stellar group of people to critique my novel. With their insight, I began to learn and finally SEE where my novel was lacking. I spent about a year revising it over and over again. Throughout that year, I kept submitting to agents. Instead of “you suck” I started getting emails saying “I really appreciate the energy of your writing but expected there to be more suspense in the last scene” and other specific, helpful comments that allowed me to revise even more.
At the same time, I was reading every mystery book I could and studying every book on the writing craft I could get my hands on.
So for more, I handled rejection as a challenge: I needed to get better if I were ever going to see my book in the world. I looked at every rejection as one step closer to publication.
At the end of my journey to publication, I had been rejected dozens of times. By the time I had to choose among several agents who wanted to represent me, I already had queried more than 100 agents. Yes, you read that right—more than 100 had turned me down by the time it was my turn to pick and choose.
So the short answer to how I handled rejection is this: I never let it get me down. Sure, I’d sulk for a day (or two), but I soon realized that rejection is part of the writing business.
First, you get rejected when you try to find an agent. Then, you get rejected when your agent tries to find an editor to buy your book. And, then, get ready, there is more: you get rejected when critics don’t see the awesomeness of your book.
Rejection goes hand-in-hand with being a writer.
The only way I know how to deal with rejection is this: Keep writing.
When you are querying your first novel, be busy writing your second book.
When that first novel is out on submission with editors in New York, be busy writing.
When your first book is released into the world, stay busy writing another book.
The solution to everything is why I got in this business in the first place. To write.
Interview on The Pen and Muse:
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I’m from a northern California town called Paradise that was right next door to a college town. And although it was a great place to grow up, I couldn’t wait to move to a city after I graduated from high school. I’m a city girl at heart.
I moved to Southern California and attended CSU Long Beach.
During my college years, I lived in many places, including a block from the beach in Seal Beach with a bunch of Australian rugby players for roommates, in a Mara Salvatrucha gang neighborhood in L.A. with the musician Beck and his super talented family before he became famous, and in the American Hotel, above a punk rock bar in downtown L.A.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
My book was inspired by my dealings with a serial killer while I was a crime reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. I wrote the book to honor the memories of all the kidnapped and killed little girls I wrote about during my newspaper career, but also as a way to purge that monster from my head.
How do you create your characters?
My reporter character, Gabriella Giovanni, sprung to life basically because she was the character I’d always wanted to read. She is a combination of characters I’ve loved by reading former crime reporter Edna Buchanan and Italian-American author Adriana Trigiani.
What inspires and what got your started in writing?
Authors, such as Lisa Unger, Sara Gran, Stephen King, and Owen Laukkanen, inspire me. I’ve known ever since I was a little girl that being a writer would be a dream come true.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
I usually write sitting on a stool at my kitchen counter—glamorous, I know—and almost always need coffee. That’s about it.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
From everything I read or see and from my own twisted mind!
What do you like to read?
Mysteries written by some of the authors I’ve already named. In addition, just off the top of my head, I love authors such as Anna Gavalda, Anais Nin, Hemingway, Umberto Eco, John Fante, Maria de los Santos, and Jackie Collins. I’m not highbrow in my reading preferences. Please smack me if I ever become a literary snob. Please. Give me a good story and I’m happy. Make me cry and I’ll buy your books for life.
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
I have nothing knew to say about this because it really is this simple: read as much as possible and write as much as possible.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Thank you so much for having me!
Fresh Fiction Interview here.
We at Fresh Fiction are thrilled to host Kristi Belcamino, author of BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, which is her first novel to feature San Francisco Bay Area newspaper reporter and crime-solver Gabriella Giovanni. The second book in the series,BLESSED ARE THE MEEK, releases at the end of July, so Kristi is here to talk to us about this series and how her career as a crime reporter has influenced her writing.
What first drew you to the field of crime reporting?
During my first newspaper job at a small weekly newspaper in Minnesota, a big story, a heartbreaking story, broke on my beat. A young woman from the town I covered was kidnapped off a Texas military base. Traci McBride had been on the payphone on the base talking to someone back home when the line went dead. I met her family and later grieved with them when her body was found. I attended her funeral. The emotional weight and gravity of reporting and writing about something so tragic did not escape me. I realized that I had a knack for writing these stories that other reporters shied away from. I felt a sacred duty to write about tragedy in a way that did the victims justice and decided this was the beat I wanted.
In addition, the other stories on the cop beat are fascinating. You can’t make this stuff up. Covering the crime beat is seldom boring. The adrenaline rush of listening to the scanner and running out to cover different crimes and emergencies is probably the same reason many people become cops.
I love coming into work and not knowing what will happen during my shift. On one recent night, I went from standing near first base on a baseball field watching a honeymoon couple throw the first pitch to waiting by the side of the Mississippi River as cops searched for the body of a 14-year-old boy swept under an hour earlier.
What made you decide to write a fiction series drawing on your experience as a crime reporter?
I think I was motivated to write BLESSED ARE THE DEAD by two things.
The first was as a new mother, I was more fearful than the average woman. I knew evil existed. I knew people were out there preying on children because I had met them—in particular a man I spent hours interviewing in jail, talking to on the phone, and exchanging letters.
As a mother, I wanted to purge the memories of this monster out of my head and writing about him was one way to do it. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve found that putting my thoughts down on paper is cathartic. Writing a novel about the man who will forever haunt my thoughts has helped me release some of my angst about such people walking this earth.
The other reason I decided to write a fiction series featuring a crime reporter was pure, unadultered nostalgia. It was my way—as a stay-at-home mom—to vicariously live those glory days again.
I was very luck to work for a newspaper in print journalism’s heyday. Layoffs were very rare and there were only glimmers of the doomsdays to come. Money was free flowing. It was nothing for me to come into work and be told to catch the next flight to another state to cover a big story. I had a company credit card I could use as I wished. In my case, I used it on late nights at the bar, buying drinks for the cops I knew. Fun times.
Can you tell us about the case that inspired the story of BLESSED ARE THE DEAD?
Xiana Fairchild was walking to the school bus stop in Vallejo one morning when she disappeared. Shortly after that, another little girl in Vallejo was kidnapped. Miraculously, that little girl escaped, freeing herself from bindings in Anderson’s car while he was at work inside a nearby building.
He noticed her escape and chased her across the parking lot, but she was able to flag down a trucker and literally jumped through the window into the driver’s lap. Police arrested Curtis Dean Anderson.
He was an immediate suspect in Xiana’s disappearance and the cops and FBI were all over him, but he wouldn’t say anything.
At one point, during jailhouse interviews, Anderson told me, and Xiana’s aunt, Stephanie Kahalekulu that he had also taken Xiana. He also told us about his life as a longtime serial killer.
For Stephanie and I—who now share a bond that can never be broken—the goal was to get him to confess where Xiana was and what happened to her, holding out hope that she was still alive. He strung us both along for months until Xiana’s little body was found, which was heartbreaking.
Anderson was later sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping of the one little girl. Before he died, (supposedly of natural causes in his 40s), he confessed to killing Xiana and several other girls.
How similar are you to your lead character, Gabriella?
Gabriella is much cooler, prettier, smarter, and a better reporter than I ever was. I never lived in San Francisco. I never dated a cop.
She is more rebellious, outgoing, carefree, and confident than me!
With that said, sure, we have some similarities. We are both Italian-American, both crime reporters, both bake biscotti.
When you aren’t writing and reporting, what do you like to read?
I love to read crime fiction, of course. I love Lisa Unger, Patricia Cornwell, Owen Laukkanen, Sara Gran, S.E. Hinton, Stephen King, and many others.
St. Paul Police Reporter’s Mystery Writer Gives Dead their Due
Kristi Belcamino was the police reporter for the Contra Costa Times newspaper in California when she looked into the eyes of serial killer Curtis Dean Anderson.
“I felt like he could see right through me and that he knew everything I was thinking,” Belcamino recalls of her interviews with the cabdriver awaiting trial in the kidnapping of 7-year-old Xiana Fairchild in a small California town.
“I was trying to gain Anderson’s confidence and get him to trust me at the same time he repulsed me and scared me,” she admits. “It was emotionally exhausting and I felt dirty every time I left the jail.”
Anderson, who was found guilty of murdering Xiana, confessed to other killings before he died in prison.
“The FBI is still looking for more of his victims,” said Belcamino, who covers police on weekends for the Pioneer Press.
While Belcamino was working on this high-profile story, she kept her notes, articles and some “disturbing” correspondence from Anderson. That documentation, and her memories of the case, inspired her debut novel “Blessed are the Dead.”
Belcamino’s protagonist is Gabriella Giovanni, a crime reporter for a California newspaper who can’t resist chasing big stories. The story begins with Gabriella losing yet another boyfriend who’s tired of playing second fiddle to her job. But she has little time to ponder being dumped because she’s investigating the kidnapping of a little girl.
The child’s disappearance forces Gabriella to confront painful memories of the kidnapping and murder of her little sister 20 years earlier. When Gabriella interviews the suspected serial killer, he talks unemotionally about how and why he hurts little girls, taunting Gabriella by hinting he might have killed her sister. Gabriella needs all her reporting skills to find the child. If she does, it might heal the hole in her heart.
“Gabriella is way more interesting than me. I’m a boring homebody,” says Belcamino, whose daughters are 9 and 10. “She’s a better reporter and smarter. I am not from a big Italian family like she is, but she’s the character I always wanted to read.”
HONORING THE DEAD
Belcamino is an award-winning crime reporter who’s worked at the Contra Costa Times, the Monterey Herald and the Carmel Pine Cone in California, as well as the White Bear Press in Minnesota.
At Contra Costa, she and two colleagues broke the story about Laci Peterson’s remains being found in the ocean. She was among the first with news that passengers fought back when United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked on 9/11 and crashed in Pennsylvania. Among the passengers was Tom Burnett, a Bloomington native.
In the midst of a career that includes “covering every horrific crime anyone can imagine,” Belcamino says having her first novel published is a dream come true: “I’m used to friends and family liking my book, but when I saw reviews on Amazon from four people I don’t know, it was a thrill.”
She’s also something of a trailblazer because “Blessed are the Dead” is published through William Morrow’s new Witness Impulse, a digital-first (ebook) imprint devoted to thrillers, mysteries and suspense.
The novel was acquired by HarperCollins editor Emily Krump, a graduate of the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn. (Morrow is a division of HarperColllins.)
“Gabriella is a likable character with a strong voice, somebody I wanted to read about for many books,” Krump said. “Kristi’s story is fast-paced, entertaining, all the good things you want when you are publishing books. And she’s wonderful to work with.”
Belcamino titled her book “Blessed are the Dead” because she and her protagonist believe the dead should be honored.
Gabriella says in the novel: “When I became a police reporter, I decided that every single person I wrote about deserved more than just their name in the paper when they died.”
Belcamino came to that realization while working at the White Bear Press in the mid-1990s. One of her big stories was about Tracie McBride, daughter of Jim and Irene McBride of Centerville, Minn. Tracie, a 19-year-old Army private, was abducted in 1995 from her military base in Texas, raped and murdered. (Her killer was executed in 2003).
“I became close to Tracie’s father and realized the emotional weight of these kinds of stories,” Belcamino recalled. “I found I was good at telling the victim’s story and doing them justice. I realized a life is lost.”
NO PLACE LIKE A NEWSROOM
Belcamino grew up in Paradise, Calif., and wanted to be a writer when she was in grade school but didn’t pursue that dream because “I didn’t know structure.”
She fell in love with journalism when she attended California State University Long Beach.
“I saw that it was a real job at which you could make a living,” she explained. “I liked the structure of newspaper stories that have a beginning, middle and end.”
After graduating in 1991, Belcamino and her boyfriend Michael, now her husband, camped on Baja beaches in California and “tromped through Europe.” (Michael and their daughters have a different last name, which Belcamino doesn’t reveal because she’s come in contact with some unsavory people.)
The couple moved to Minnesota “so we could be around his giant Irish family,” Belcamino says with a laugh, and she spent a happy year and a half working at the White Bear Press. “It was the best job,” she recalls. “I was making $14,000 a year working 60 hours a week. I learned more there than I did while getting my journalism degree.”
Belcamino’s former White Bear Press colleague, photojournalist Paul Dols, says, “Kristi was great from the start, so enthusiastic and fun to work with. She was a hardworking reporter, respectful of fellow employees. When we went to an assignment on my motorcycle, she didn’t miss a beat, just jumped on the back with no fear.”
Dols, who is a website editor for White Bear-based Press Publications, recalls being nervous when Belcamino asked him to take her wedding pictures 19 years ago. “She finally said, ‘Treat it like an assignment. Cover it like you would as a photojournalist,’ ” he recalled. “It worked out great, and we were ahead of the curve. Now the candid, journalistic approach is a standard part of wedding packages.”
Belcamino and her husband returned to California after living through some bad Minnesota winters, and Kristi’s reporting career took her from flying over Big Sur in an FA-18 jet with the Blue Angels to watching autopsies and building a big file of contacts in law enforcement.
“Most of them trusted me. They thought I was fair,” she says of the cops, coroners and lawyers with whom she dealt.
Then her first daughter was born in 2003 and she had to make a hard decision about family and career.
“I didn’t think I could be a reporter anymore,” she admits. “I was interviewing people in jail, seeing the dark side of life, then going home to a baby — the definition of innocence — and I couldn’t reconcile the two worlds.”
Returning to Minnesota in 2004, Belcamino and her husband welcomed their second daughter.
When the girls were both in school, Kristi was ready to jump back into reporting. She heard about an opening at the Pioneer Press and started on the Sunday-night shift in December.
“There is no place like a newsroom,” she says. “I’m excited to come into work. That’s why I choose journalism. It never gets old.”
LOTS OF DRAFTS
Belcamino had a couple of free hours during the day when the girls were in school so she began a novel in September and had a first draft completed in a month.
“But the book was not ready to see the world,” she admits. “A New York agent told me, ‘It’s not even close.’ So I gave myself an MFA at home by reading everything about how to write.”
She refined the manuscript through 15 drafts and although she got rejections she had “a glimmer of hope” because some agents took time to offer advice.
Belcamino finally connected with agent Stacey Glick of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, who found a home for “Blessed are the Dead” with Morrow’s Witness Impulse e-book imprint.
A big advantage for authors of ebooks in series is that their readers don’t have to wait a year between books. Belcamino’s second Giovanni mystery, “Blessed are the Meek,” will be published July 29. That’s just six weeks after “Blessed are the Dead” debuted.
“I hadn’t thought about writing a series,” Belcamino says. “I just know that when I finished the first book I wanted to stay in Gabriella’s world.”
BUILDING A DIGITAL FOLLOWING
“I was surprised to get an ebook deal,” admits Belcamino, author of two Gabriella Giovanni mysteries.
“Every writer dreams of holding your book in your hands and you can’t do that with an ebook,” she explains. “I wanted instant gratification, but I had to let go of my ego. I realized I am building a career with readers who will be loyal. Mystery readers read electronically, and that’s my target market.” (Her publisher is doing a small press run of paperback copies.)
Most surveys show that readers of genre fiction — romance, mystery/crime, science fiction — are the biggest consumers of ebooks.
The Association of American Publishers reports that ebooks accounted for 27 percent of overall trade revenue in 2013. And although sales have slowed as the market matures, adult trade ebooks totaled $1.3 billion in 2013, up 3.8 percent from 2012. According to the Pew Research Internet Project, three in 10 adults read an ebook in 2013 but “print remains the foundation of Americans’ reading habits.”
HarperCollins editor Emily Krump says ebooks don’t compete with print editions.
“To my mind ebooks are not replacing hardcovers or paperbacks,” she explains. “They are an additional way to consume material, especially for readers of romance and mystery who may read several books a week and are looking for something new to read on their phone while commuting to work or when they travel.”
Krump says decisions at her company on whether to publish in print or ebook format is made book by book, taking into consideration the audience and how the publisher wants to “break out” a new author.
“We’re not publishing one book by an author; we’re growing a career,” she emphasizes.
-Do you draw from personal experiences and/or current events?
I draw from both personal experiences and current events. In my debut mystery, BLESSED ARE
THE DEAD, I was inspired by all the stories of missing children I had written as a newspaper reporter covering crime. The antagonist in that novel is based on a real serial killer who preyed on little girls. In fact, some of the exact conversations I had with him made it into the book.
-Do you start with the conclusion and plot in reverse or start from the beginning and see where the story line brings you?
Both. I usually know how the book will begin and how it will end right off the bat. It is the middle, or how my character gets from the beginning to end that is usually a mystery to me at first. I like to start off with a general, vague outline but am open to letting the story line take me someplace else completely in that middle part.
-Your routine when writing? Any idiosyncrasies?
I do have a routine. I am a member of what Brad Parks calls the Church of One Thousand Words. Every day I park myself in front of my computer at 9 a.m. with a large cup of coffee and write until I get those thousand words down. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, it is often two thousands words, but my bare minimum, five days a week, is to get those thousand words down.
-Is writing your full time job? If not, may I ask what you do by day?
Writing is my full-time job, but I have a part-time job covering the police beat for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Covering the cop beat in the San Francisco Bay Area was what I did full-time before I had kids.
-Who are some of your favorite authors?
Lisa Unger, Sara Gran, S.E. Hinton, Stephen King, Edna Buchanan, and so many, many more.
-What are you reading now?
Jon McGoran just sent me his new novel, DRIFT. I just started last night and already am halfway through it. Good stuff.
-Are you working on your next novel? Can you tell us a little about it?
I’m really excited to start BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN, the third book in my Gabriella Giovanni Mystery Series. The first book, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD was just released. The second book, BLESSED ARE THE MEEK, comes out July 8th.
-Your novel will be a movie. Who would you cast?
Oooh, I love this question. So fun! I’m such a fangirl about things like this.
Gabriella Giovanni is my main character, an Italian-American crime reporter. I think Elizabetta Canalis would kill it in that role.
Colin Farrell would be her hot love interest, Detective Sean Donovan.
That’s as far as I got with casting my characters!
-Manuscript/Notes: hand written or keyboard?
Computer! I would probably lose my mind if I had to write my novels longhand. Dio mio!
-Favorite leisure activity/hobby?
Throwing small, intimate dinner parties for family and friends with good food, wine, and stimulating conversation, preferably dining al fresco!
I’ll just have a double helping of the cheese course, please, with a glass of wine.
Writer’s Digest: How I got My Literary Agent
By Kristi Belcamino
I PULLED THE TRIGGER TOO EARLY
When my youngest started kindergarten, I sat down and wrote my first book. I naively thought my novel was then ready to go out into the world.
The first agent who requested a full (within an hour of me sending my query) rejected it soundly a week later, with words that still sting to this day: “… it is not strong enough to measure up against the heavy hitters in the genre.”
Body blow! Even though it hurt, he was right. I pulled the trigger much too early.
(Postscript: a year later I asked him to take another look at my revised novel, this time he really liked the writing, but said that type of crime fiction didn’t float his boat. Fair enough.)
THE CALL (NO, NOT *THAT* ONE)
As I hinted at above, I spent a year polishing that first draft. I studied craft, read all the great crime fiction writers and revised over and over again. I, also, continued to query. One day I got an email that an agent wanted to call me. The call, the call, the call!
But it wasn’t.
She spent 90 minutes on the phone telling me everything she liked about my book. When she first started reading it on her phone on the train home, she thought she would switch to her laptop once she got home. Instead, she sat on her couch, with her coat still on and read it until the end. On her phone.
I was ecstatic! But she ended the call talking about our future together but never made an offer. (I’m still baffled to this day.)
But that’s when I knew I was close. Onwards. I’d been corresponding with another agent for about two months when she said she wanted to call me about some revisions I had done. Of course, this time I knew not to get too excited about a call. But this time, this agent offered to represent me. I told her that I’d let her know in a week. I had about 10 other agents considering my manuscript and I knew it was protocol, not to mention good karma, to give them a heads up. But I had pretty much already made a decision to go with her. I really liked her and she was super smart. By the end of the week three agents said they’d get back to me on Monday. Ego restored. I was going to get more than one offer and have to decide. Win!
Then I got an email from an agent I hadn’t even queried: Stacey Glick of Dystel & Goderich. Her colleague had read Blessed are the Dead and dubbed it a “Stacey Project.” She said she’d get back to me Monday morning. I immediately searched her on Publishers Marketplace. Good grief. She’d sold five books just that week alone.
But I wasn’t to be swayed. I would remain loyal to the first agent who offered. I knew her. I liked her.
Silly me. I had no idea what a powerhouse Stacey Glick is.
STACEY THE SUPERSTAR
On Monday, Stacey Glick called me.
By the time I hung up, there was never any question of not signing with her. Never a question. For so many reasons. She is an amazing agent, is super smart, incredibly cool, and knows her stuff. In fact, she already knew what editors would like my book. I could go on and on, but by the end of the conversation, I knew I wanted her in my corner. I didn’t even need or want to talk to the other agents still considering my book.
Then, I realized I had to make the hardest call of my writing career. I had to call the first agent who offered and tell her I was going with someone else.
I felt like the biggest heel on the planet. I was sick to my stomach about it.
But I had to set emotions aside and make a business decision. Even though I had felt loyal to that first agent who offered, I knew in my heart that Stacey was the right agent for me.
And as it turned out, Stacey ended up selling my book to the editor she mentioned during that first phone call. I could not ask for a better editor or agent in my corner!
Writers dream of the day when they walk into a bookstore, see a book they wrote on the shelf, and then hold that book in their own two hands!
But what if a debut author is offered a digital-only book deal? Even if it is with one of the Big Five? No print book. What then? What does she do about that offer?
Well, she takes it!
At least I did.
I was beside myself, thrilled that an editor at one of the “big houses” liked my book. loved it even. At the same time, I had to let go of my dreams— holding my book in my hands, signing a physical book, and going cross-country on a grassroots book tour.
Instead, I had to think pragmatically and long-term, viewing every step I made as another one toward building a career as a writer instead of a flash-in-the-pan moment of ego-gratifying glory. I also realized that mystery readers—my readers—are huge into reading eBooks. All this meant taking the eBook deal.
But I must admit I clung to one tiny glimmer of hope within the fine print of my contract— some authors on the mystery imprint I was with would see a print version of their book. My contract explicitly stated, however, that there were no guarantees of a print version.
However, being the optimist that I am, I read that and thought, as Jim Carrey said in Dumb & Dumber, “So, you’re telling me I got a chance?”
Meanwhile, I wholeheartedly embraced this opportunity to get my book out into the world and began brainstorming ways to market it.
I’d heard of eBook authors giving author talks and then passing around an iPad so people could buy the book since there wouldn’t be a physical book to sell at the event, so I headed straight for the library and bookstores.
My favorite librarian told me that without a physical book, I could not do an author reading.
When I contacted bookstores, I heard the same thing:
No book. No author event.
I wondered if there was anything I could do to increase the chances of my book going to print, but suspected it all had to do with how sales of my book went. I understood that. It made sense. But I also know that I’m terrible at selling anything. At garage sales I usually give half of our things away (much to my husband’s chagrin).
I wondered how could I encourage people to buy my book without being a jerk? I’m still not sure. My answer was to tell people about my book on social media, trying to follow that 80/20 rule (80 percent NOT you or your book and 20 percent blatant self promo).
Meanwhile, as thrilled as I was to be working with one of the big five publishers, I still mourned letting go of my writerly dreams. For instance, when I visited my favorite bookstores, my stomach would sink a little realizing that even though my book was being published, it would not be on those shelves.
There were more discouraging moments:
My brother-in-law said he wouldn’t read my book unless it was in print.
A book editor at a daily newspaper said she only read printed books.
The editor of a mystery magazine said the same.
The resistance was disheartening.
Unlike people who self publish, there wasn’t even an option for me to have a print on demand book. It was up to the publisher whether to print copies of my book. Or not.
There was nothing I could do about it.
One day, I decided to ask once my publisher, once again, what needed to happen for me to see my book come out in print. This time, the answer was “There will be a print run.”
Well, in the business, they call it a SPR, a small print run. I will have a book to hold in my hand. I will have books to sign. I may not be taking that grassroots book tour. I may not see my book in the big box bookstores.
But I will be able to have a book launch party at my favorite mystery bookstore, which has ordered the print book already!
I will be able to hold my book in my hands! I will be able to give author talks at the library! People, like my brother-in-law, will now read my book.
I will be able to—gasp—sign my book!
I had to adjust my dreams a little, but don’t we all. In the long run, I still count the way things worked out as a dream come true.
Five Things I learned Writing BLESSED ARE THE DEAD (Chuck Wendig’s website, terrible Minds.)
* * *
1. I DON’T KNOW A COMMA FROM A HOLE IN THE GROUND.
After a career as a newspaper reporter, writing sometimes four articles a day, you’d think I’d have even a slight grasp on comma use. Nope.
When I was polishing Blessed are the Dead for publication, part of that process involved the publisher hiring a copyeditor to go over the entire manuscript and marking it all up to hell. Demoralizing.
Especially, when I realized that ninety-nine percent of the copy editor’s changes involved commas. Humiliating.
(Incidentally, I also learned from the copy editor that douche bag is two words and barstool is one.)
2. MY FIRST CHAPTER SUCKED.
And so did the second.
Originally, my first chapter had my character, Gabriella Giovanni, lollygagging around at some Farmer’s Market smelling flowers, talking Italian, and picking out the most primo loaf of sourdough bread.
So eventually I got rid of the entire chapter and began with what once was chapter two. Guess what? That was just as boring.
Now, the first chapter in my book is actually what once was the third chapter—where the action is. Go figure.
Don’t be afraid to vomit those words on the paper just to get yourself into your story because you can always go back and slice and dice like I did.
3. EVEN THOUGH I HAVE A BOOK DEAL, THERE’S NOT MUCH DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ME AND EVERY OTHER WRITER OUT THERE BUSTING THEIR BUTT TO GET PUBLISHED.
The best thing I have going for me is my perseverance. It’s not about talent. I’m not any more talented than my friends without a book deal. In fact, in many cases, they’ve got heaps more talent than me.
What I’ve got going for me is the desire to work hard, to be stubborn as hell about not giving up, and a smidgen of luck.
For instance, during my path to publication, I’d hear people say things like this: “I’ve queried my top three dream agents and none of them saw the greatness of my writing so I’m just going to give up.”
Every time I heard that, I’d think, well, after I’ve queried about 400 agents, then maybe I’ll consider writing a different book and querying that.
4. WRITING A NOVEL TAKES LESS TIME THAN YOU THINK.
I’ve become a member of the Church of One Thousand Words that Brad Parks mentions. To be a parishioner is easy, just write one thousand words a day. Minimum. If you do this, you will have a book in three to four months. Period. It’s that easy. Of course, you might spend another year revising that first draft, but to me, that’s the fun part. Once I realized that writing a book could be broken down in this simple way, I was home free.
Five days a week I make sure I write one thousand words. Most often, I write more, often double that, but when I have those thousands words as my bare minimum, I make progress. I also end my day with a feeling of accomplishment. I made my goal.
5. I DON’T KNOW JACK SHIT ABOUT WRITING.
Last but not least, I realized how little I truly know and how much I have to learn and improve. But I’ve learned that this is a healthy attitude to have. The day I think I know it all and give up learning craft or abandon my efforts to be a better writer is the day it all ends.
* * *
My Made it Moment on Jenny Milchman’s blog
One of the cool kids. How many writers, I wonder, felt like we were never that? Recently I got to meet on the road a woman–except for me she will always be a girl–I grew up with. She said something about me still being funny and articulate, just like she remembered me. And I thought, THAT’S how you remember me? Cause it’s not how I remember myself.
Kristi Belcamino details quite a few moments below, and I’d like to point to another one for her, which is that Kristi’s debut novel has just released! Celebrate with us by reading BLESSED ARE THE DEAD (some title, huh?) and get to know a new writer right at the start. Kristi…welcome to the cool kids.
When you are a writer, your idols are, well, other writers.
So, my Made it Moment was when the doors to this magical kingdom of writers—specifically the most warm and welcoming community out there, that of mystery writers—opened wide for me.
Now, I’ve had plenty of brushes with fame in my time—as a reporter I met Edward James Olmos, Dennis Hopper, Jerry Seinfeld, Clint Eastwood, and Reggie Jackson. In addition, I’ve shaken President Clinton’s hand, had Eddie Van Halen bump into me at a party, and lived with the musician Beck and his family in L.A.. But the people who really make me swoon with fangirlishness are other writers!
I knew I had somewhat made it when I began hobnobbing with the kick butt writers I liked to read. (Ask my Facebook friends how much I freak out if S.E. Hinton replies to one of my tweets —she’s done so four times and I’ve about lost my mind EVERY TIME.)
Here are a few of those moments:
- A famous mystery writer (who for now shall remain unnamed until he outs himself) called me and spent an hour giving me advice on the writing world.
- My favorite writer in the galaxy, Lisa Unger, followed ME on Twitter. I fangirled big time over that!
- I had a writerly party this year and had to stop and do a major double take when I realized the people walking around eating my biscotti and drinking my booze were once upon a time just names on the covers of the books on my shelf. And now they are my FRIENDS?! What????
- Knowing that my two favorite authors in the entire UNIVERSE have my debut mystery novel in their hands. (I heard one has it on her nightstand —faint!) Even if they NEVER read the book or read it and don’t like it, the fact that two of the authors I admire most in the world actually have my book IN THEIR HANDS is COMPLETELY MIND BOGGLING.
So, my Made it Moment (s) are realizing that these rock star writers are in some cases my peers and in a few, very lucky case, my friends.
I’ve realized that I can’t control how my book sells — at this point all of that is out of my hands—but no matter what happens with sales, getting a book deal has granted me entrance into one of the most welcoming, warmest, and most supportive bunch of people out there. I will always be grateful to these other writers, who have opened their arms to me and made me feel like I’m one of the cool kids.
Writers and Authors Interview
|Tell us about your latest book.
In Blessed are the Dead, San Francisco Bay Area newspaper reporter Gabriella Giovanni spends her days on the crime beat flitting in and out of other people’s nightmares, yet walking away unscathed. When a little girl disappears on the way to the school bus stop, her quest for justice and a front-page story leads her to a convicted kidnapper, Jack Dean Johnson, who reels her in with promises to reveal his exploits as a serial killer to her alone. Gabriella’s passion for her job quickly spirals into obsession when she begins to suspect the kidnapper may have ties to her own dark past: her sister’s kidnapping and murder. Risking her life, her job, and everything she holds dear, Gabriella embarks on a path to find answers and stop a deranged murdered before he strikes again.
Who are your favourite authors?
My favourite authors are the ones whose books I will buy unseen. In other words, if I hear a new book is coming out from Lisa Unger, Sara Gran, S.E. Hinton, Adriana Trigiani, or Edna Buchanan, I’ll buy it without knowing anything else about it. With that said, there are dozens of other writers I love and read.
Where can people find out more about you and your writing?
People can find me on my website, www.kristibelcamino.com
on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/kristibelcaminowriter, and on Twitter, @KristiBelcamino. For a more personal interaction and early information about my books, they can go to my website and sign up for my newsletter. For the first few months, to celebrate having my first book published, I’m giving away all sorts of cool items, such as a brand new Kindle, bags of Ghirardelli chocolate, a Strand Bookstore tote bag full of all the authors who gave me a blurb, and more.
How long did it take you to write your book?
I started Blessed are the Dead on the September day my youngest started kindergarten and printed out my first draft by my birthday in late October. I spent another year revising the novel. Now, it takes me three months to write the first draft of a novel and about another three to revise it. I buy into Stephen King’s suggestion that writing the first draft of a novel takes a season. In my case, I wrote my latest novel in spring!
Where can a reader purchase your book?
For now, my book is available at all the usual suspects online: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and so on.
What is your work in progress? Tell us about it.
I’m chomping at the bit to begin writing Blessed are those who Mourn, my third book in the Gabriella Giovanni Mystery Series. The first book, Blessed are the Dead, comes out June 10th. The second book, Blessed are the Meek, comes out July 8th. I have a strong idea what the book will be about, but am excited to see where the characters take me this time.
Does your family support you in your writing career? How?
I’m extremely lucky and grateful that my husband supports my writing career. When our children were old enough to attend school full time, he fully supported and encouraged me staying home and writing instead of going back into journalism full time.
What are you currently reading?
I was reading through some promotion materials for my book and saw that my publisher had told people if they like Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series, they would like my book, Blessed are the Dead. Of course, I was incredibly flattered by that awesome comparison, so I decided to go back and re-read the first book in Lippman’s series, Baltimore Blues.
What books or authors have most influenced your life?
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton changed and influenced my life in more ways than I can count. Along with really opening my eyes to injustice in this world, it also showed me that a teenage girl could write a book.
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
When I’m not writing, I’m busy being an Italian-American mama, taking care of my two fierce little girls and spending time with my husband. We live around my husband’s big family and love to spend time with them eating and laughing.
Writerly advice from the trenches
My enterprising client Kristi Belcamino, whose first book comes out in June, has been busy getting ready for her road to publication. One of her recent stops included a piece she did forWriter’s Digest, which I’d love to share with you all.
There is much to take away from Kristi’s article, including advice on the query process that she compares to a road trip with many twists and turns along the way. Her suggestion to not be prepared to stop until you’ve queried at least 100 agents might sound extreme, but she’s got a point about not giving up.
In a clever and entertaining way, she goes on to offer important pieces of insider advice that are widely applicable to anyone looking to develop a writing career. These include 4 key things you’ll need to “pack for your journey”: Perseverance, Work, Teflon-Mentality and Patience. Come to think of it, these 4 points not only apply to writing, but to anything you want to excel at!
Hope you enjoy Kristi’s article, and please share with us if you have other suggestions for the sometimes long, winding road to publication.
I’m honored that my first post is graced by Kristi Belcamino: a writer, reporter and Italian-American Mama. Her debut novel,BLESSED ARE THE DEAD (HarperCollins 2014), is based on her dealings with a serial killer while she covered crime in the Bay area. It is on pre-order here:http://www.kristibelcamino.com/
I asked Kristi if she would give me a guest blurb about her long road towards publication (as I am on that road myself). Thank you, Kristi!
I started my querying without targeting that so-called, mythical person known as “My Dream Agent.”
Although I’d heard other writers talk about the Dream Agent, I was such a newbie, I didn’t even know how to choose a Dream Agent.
Until I came across her. The more I read about her, the more convinced I was that she was My Dream Agent.
This agent killed, slaughtered, took hostages, in the crime fiction market, pulling in spectacular book deals with the flip of a wrist.
And on top of that, she was hella cool.
Soon, I was day-dreaming about hanging out with her at bookish events, closing out the bar at Boucheron — and of course — me on a kick ass book tour after she sold a boatload of my books.
Her clients actually had a name, a Team Name. And they were all friends. And I was the wallflower wanting to hang out with the popular kids. More than anything I wanted to be part of her team.
But as nice as she was – and she was extraordinarily nice AND helpful — turns out that my writing wasn’t her thing.
It happens. Fair enough. We all have different tastes.
So I switched my allegiance to a new agent – this one, SHE loved me. That became my new criteria for a dream agent — an agent who LOVED me back. Screw that one-sided love.
This agent saw a future for my books. Then why wasn’t she offering representation? I was confused.
I’d been wooed and left in the dust before. I’d had two hour long conversations with agents who told me how much they loved me and then dropped me like a hot potato.
Total radio silence.
Without any explanation. Not even a response when I emailed to say I’d had an offer of rep from another agent. Fickle people these agents.
I call it the agent tease. I’ve seen this flirtation between other agents and other writers and the outcome has been nothing more than a tease – no offer of representation to seal the deal. Agents on Twitter who become BFF’s with writers and say, “Send me your work, darling. I love you so much.” And maintain a Twitter relationship for years talking about how much the agent LOVES the writer, without ever responding to the writer about the manuscript she or he sent.
Luckily, I avoided that toxic relationship.
So back to the agent who became my new Dream Agent.
Like the other agent, I wanted to hang out with her. And this agent had more in common with me than the other one. The more I got to know her, the cooler she became to me.
So much so that I wanted our families to hang out and our children to grow up as best friends. I imagined long nights in New York City having great discussions over wine and good food. Basically, I wanted us to be new BFF’s.
I think she felt the same way. But still – no commitment – just a flirtation.
So, I didn’t put my eggs in one basket. I kept flirting with other agents, sending out my manuscript, seeing if they liked me.
Then one day, my dream agent told me she wanted to talk on the phone about my book. I didn’t think too much about it (see agent above who spent nearly two hours telling me how much she loved my book and then dropped off the face of the earth).
But this time, Dream Agent offered. I was stunned. I was thrilled. I was so excited to be BFF’s with her. All my dreams would come true. Our kids would be friends. We’d exchange holiday cards and talk on the phone like gal pals.
But I didn’t accept immediately. I’m a rule follower. I’d studied up on what to do when you got an offer – let all the agents who had your manuscript know about this. (Including the one agent who’d had it for 18 months and kept in touch with me without rejecting it. I’m NOT kidding. She liked the the book, was waiting to see what others had to say about it, yada yada.)
So I sent out emails to all the agents who had my manuscript. I told them I had an offer and was going to respond to the offer within a week and wanted to give them a chance to review the manuscript first.
Then, the ego flailing part happened – agents started dropping like flies – bowing out, wishing me luck. Holy smokes.
This scared the crap out of me. I was on cloud 9 so I hadn’t expected the crushing ego blow of people bowing out. I had no idea this would hurt. Let’s face it, rejection is rejection, any way you dice it. Even when an offer of representation is sitting there on the table, rejection still smarts. But a few agents didn’t dump me.
On Friday night, I got a message from an agent I hadn’t stalked (lucky her, I guess) who said her colleague had passed the manuscript on to her and that she wanted to talk on Monday.
And the agent who had the manuscript for 18 months also emailed to say she’d get back to me, as well.
My ego was stroked. Two other agents besides Dream Agent might like me. I felt like a schoolgirl with multiple offers to the prom. I was “popular!” Who cares about all the agents who dropped off and bowed out when I told them I had an offer. I had the love of THREE agents. My ego was restored.
That was all it meant to me at the time — because after all, I already had established a love affair with My Dream Agent. I am a loyal person. It’s my nature. So, I knew I was going to accept her offer. She knew me, she loved me, and I loved her back.
But then on Monday, I talked to the new, heretofore unstalked agent.
And everything changed.
Not only did I realize there were other Dream Agents out there, but also I knew by the time I hung up the phone with her that there was no possible way I wouldn’t sign with her.
I was, frankly, stunned.
During one phone conversation, she had completely won me over.
Her sales pitch and her personality and her attitude were everything I hadn’t even known I wanted until I talked to her. She was the one.
My choice was clear.
Immediately, I was flooded with guilt. What about my love affair with my so-called dream agent, the one who had wooed me for months?
Part of me tried to justify breaking up with her, saying, well, she could have made an offer to me months before and I would’ve signed with her. But in her defense, she probably was also feeling out the terrain to see if we’d be a good fit.
But the bottom line was that I felt awful dumping her. I was sick to my stomach before I called her back to tell her I was going with someone else. But I had no choice. Every bit of my gut and mind told me this new agent was the right one for me.
So, I made the call. It was one of the hands down shittiest moments of my writing career. I felt like a heel, breaking up with a really wonderful person. But I knew I’d made the right decision – for me and for my career.
And I’ve never doubted that for a second.
Don’t get me wrong — I still want to be BFF’s with my old Dream Agent. I really do. I still think the world of her and would love to buy her a drink one day and talk writing, but I have no doubt I made the right decision.
I couldn’t ask for a better agent to be in my corner, going to bat not only for the book she read, but also for my career and me as a writer.
The other day, a writer friend asked for my advice in dealing with all pesky rejections in the query stage. I asked how many agents she had queried. “Forty,” she said.
“Well, then you’re halfway there.”
I wasn’t trying to be flippant, but if you are serious about getting published, then don’t even think about giving up until you’ve queried at least one hundred agents. Really. But there are a lot of caveats attached to that advice…
First, let me point out that some people send out that first query and bam — agent. Bam — book deal. From what I’ve seen in my limited time in the trenches, this applies to about one percent of the writers out there — or maybe .000001 percent. Not sure. One or the other.
But don’t let me be a downer, go ahead and dream of being that minority and more power to you if you fall into that scenario. The rest of you doomed sorts can join me as I slog through the publishing quagmire I call “Building my Career.”
Luckily, there are many signs along the road that will help guide you in the right direction. Before you begin, you might want to make sure you’re stocked for the trip.
Here are four things you’ll need to pack for your journey:
1. Perseverance. Be stubborn and refuse to ever give up.
2. Work. Cultivate a constant desire to improve as a writer. This means putting words, lots and lots of words, on paper. This also involves studying the craft of writing and reading as much as you can as often as possible.
3. Teflon-Mentality. Develop a force field to deflect ego-smashing rejections. It is crucial to have the ability to effectively handle rejection, letting them bounce off you, and not allowing them to stop you from plugging away. (See #2 Work.) Get used to it. You think after you get an agent that the rejection is over. HAHAHAHAHAHA. (Sorry.)
4. Patience. Here’s a little secret — the world of publishing runs on a completely alternate universe concept of time. Tired of waiting to hear back from an agent or publisher or editor? Grab a beer and put your feet up. In other words, get used to it.
If you have those four tools in your trunk during your trip, you’ll eventually make it to your destination.
Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not in one year. Maybe not even in ten years. But one day. If you are always working to improve as a writer and refuse to give up, one day you will be successful.
It’s not. But it can happen.
Let’s talk more about that road to publication. Luckily for you, this road is marked with helpful road signs that let you know you are heading the right way.
So, let’s get back to my friend’s 40 queries.
I asked for even more information. Is she getting requests for manuscripts? Yep, no problem there, she said. Well, that tells me that her query is solid. It’s working.
That’s a mile marker she’s passed on her journey.
My next question for her: When she did get a manuscript rejected was it a form rejection or an encouraging, specific rejection with lots of feedback?
Form rejections could mean a detour. Exit and go consult a developmental editor. Feedback with specific rejections could mean revising and resubmitting, especially when more than one agent says basically the same thing needs to be fixed.
If you are getting feedback that takes up the entire page, jump up and down with joy — you are getting close. That road sign says your exit is ahead.
Do the revisions and massage that manuscript even more, if necessary.
Do not give up.
Look for more signs that you are nearing your exit. I remember the day I knew I was close. I was taking a writing class at a local literary center. The teacher said he’d never snagged an agent with his novel. One agent had told him, “It just didn’t make me want to miss my subway stop.”
I practically did a cartwheel in class that day because an agent had called me the day before telling me this:
She’d started reading my manuscript on her phone on the train home and had intended to stop and read the rest on her iPad or computer once she got to her apartment. Instead, she finished reading my book, sitting on her living room couch with her jacket still on.
Although, she never did make an offer of representation, when she told me that story and then I heard my writing teacher tell his, I knew I was close.
Then one day, the ultimate road sign appears: Exit now.
An email in your inbox or a phone call! Yay! An offer of representation.
Congratulations! Go celebrate! I did. I had a helping of bacon ice cream and a shot of vodka. You might prefer a kale shake and a slice of tofu — whatever guns your motor. The point is to take a minute to enjoy this milestone. You’ve made it. So far. We’ll talk about getting that book deal in another post! For now, enjoy your success.
I’ll never be a normal parent
The other day while I watched one child play soccer, my other child played at a nearby park. For a moment I lost track of the child at the park and made some comment to another mom, such as “Wonder where she is? I’m sure she’s fine.”
The other mother, who had four kids and a nonchalant attitude, said to me, almost in relief: “Oh, you’re not one of those ‘helicopter moms?’”
“Oh, but I am!” I said emphatically.
What I didn’t say, but thought was: “I am the worst sort of helicopter mom you’ve ever seen. I’m the mother who checks on her children in her own fenced back yard every five minutes.”
I also didn’t say: “But if you were me and had looked into the eyes of parents who had their child snatched out of their yard and then brutally murdered or never heard from again, then you might feel and act the same way.”
Of course, I didn’t say that to this mother who just let her kindergartener and third grader ride their bikes a mile home alone and without bicycle helmets! Oh, how I envied this mother and her nonchalance, her carefree attitude. I could never, ever be like that. Ever.
And not to mention the fact that the daughter I had “lost track of” was in a fenced tiny park about twenty yards from me and I knew she wouldn’t leave the park and couldn’t leave the park without me seeing her, so my “losing track” meant I was the worst sort of helicopter parent because even though I knew she was in the park, I still needed to visually see her every five minutes to relax.
I know I’m not normal, but how can I be after what I know and what I’ve seen? How could I be normal about parenting, after sitting, night after night, for months in a jail visiting room talking to a man that claimed to have kidnapped and killed dozens of girls and women?
The first time I looked into the eyes of a father whose daughter was abducted, I was a brand new newspaper reporter, all of 22. This man’s daughter, an 18-year-old honor student who had just joined the Army, was grabbed off a Texas military base. Her body was found a few weeks later, discarded under a bridge.
The next pair of distraught, grief-stricken eyes I looked into belonged to another man whose child was taken from a decommissioned military base. Christina Williams, 13, was grabbed while walking her dog on the former Fort Ord. Her body was found seven months later on an abandoned part of the base by bicyclists.
Then one day, I met parents who had children taken, some found dead, some missing forever, but who had been dealing with it for years. There was a different look in these parent’s eyes. The worst one yet. Instead of shell shock and despair, their eyes contained a hollow grief, a lackluster dullness, a weariness and pain that had worn them down to a mere shell of a person. And, how could it have not?
Then, Xiana Fairchild disappeared off the streets of Vallejo and the story was mine. All mine. It was a huge story and I was going head-to-head with experienced reporters at the San Francisco Chronicle. My editors basically told me it was scoop the big paper or lose my job, so I became obsessed with my coverage of the case. As I got to know more about Xiana through her aunt and grandmother, thoughts of this child and the horrors she might be experiencing at the hands of a monster consumed me night and day.
Then, I met that monster.
A man was arrested for kidnapping another little girl (who had miraculously escaped!) and I spent my nights visiting him in jail, trying to get him to confess to taking Xiana in the hopes that she might still be alive somewhere. He told me that he had been killing and kidnapping people for 20 years. He played with me for months, stringing me along with promises to reveal all, but never giving me concrete proof of his crimes.
Eventually, they found Xiana’s remains, but it wasn’t until years later that the man confessed to killing her and other children. He later died in jail. I had already left the newspaper, but they called me in Minnesota for a comment.
One day, haunted by the faces of all the abducted children I had written about, I sat down and wrote a novel about an Italian-American crime reporter, Gabriella Giovanni, who was forced to face her own sister’s abduction twenty years ago when she is assigned coverage of a missing little girl.
Although the novel itself is fiction, the conversations with the serial killer in the book are inspired by the months spent talking to Xiana’s killer in jail, on the phone, and through letters. To this day, writing his name still sends a chill through me.
But writing BLESSED ARE THE DEAD was cathartic, it helped purge memories of this monster and gave me a chance to kill him off in a more satisfying way than the way he really died — succumbing to health issues in a prison cell. A much too easy way to die, in my opinion.
One day, when this book hits the bookshelves, I hope to dedicate it to the memories of all the faces that haunt me: Traci McBride, Christina Williams, Polly Klaas, Amber Schwartz, Nikki Campbell, and Xiana Fairchild.