Thursday, March 21, 2019

CAN “GIRLS” WRITE INTERNATIONAL THRILLERS?

Here I am at the first ThrillerFest
By Gayle Lynds

Ignorance is bliss, or so we’re told.  Personally, I find ignorance is also destiny.  I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to write international thrillers.  No one told me.  Who would’ve thought!  I loved them.  My girlfriends and guy friends loved them.  It was the 1990s, and everywhere I looked, from beaches to board rooms, from sweaty locker rooms to jam-packed passenger jets, adults and 'tweens of all sexual persuasions, skin colors, ages, religions, accents, and percentages of body fat devoured books by Robert Ludlum, John Le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, and Ken Follett.

Let me back up here....  A few years before I wrote thrillers, I hadn’t realized I wasn’t supposed to cover what those of us in the trade called hard news.  I was a kid reporter for the Arizona Republic, a fine old rag with a reputedly progressive outlook about gender equality.  As far as I was concerned, that was a license to write, and the globe was my beat.

Then, when riots erupted in downtown Phoenix, I asked, then begged (when I want something, I don’t mind a little public humiliation) to go out to cover the mean streets.  But as my male pals rushed off to fulfill the public’s need to know, the city editor explained the work was too dangerous for a girl, and he assigned me to obituaries.

Some consider writing obits an art form.  That's what I told myself, and I really tried to like it.  I worked to convince myself it was enough to know I was doing a service.  Plus, maybe if I just threw in some multisyllabic words, extended my sentences until each was a paragraph long, and used “darkling” a few times, I’d be the Faulkner of Phoenix. 

Right.  All I could think of was Dante’s Inferno.  I was in hell.

For those in the know, obit desk was the classic punishment in a city room.  I could see no escape.  Then a new reporter arrived, general assignment like me, hungry to learn.  Fueled by desperation, I took him to lunch — hot tacos washed down by a multitude of icy margaritas, emphasis on the margaritas.  We talked about the future and his dreams of becoming a first-rate reporter.  Of course, to achieve that, he really needed to experience all that the city room had to offer.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t take over obits. 

Too bad.  I had that juicy assignment.  Obits.  Yeah.

He couldn’t believe I liked it.  But at that moment, writing obituaries became to me the most fascinating, most rewarding, most career-enhancing job ever.  I was reluctant to switch with him.  Still, by the end of lunch, I let him talk me into it.

Sometimes you get what you want not because it’s right or fair or even smart, but because you just don’t know any better.  The city editor threw up his hands, then threw in the towel.  As it turned out, the forces of society’s progress had become evident even to him.  My goal had been escape, but my reward was far greater.  After a lecture and several growls of disapproval, he sent me out to cover the end of the riots.  I went gladly and returned with news stories.  Both of us had done our job — at last.

Thus, in 1996, when my debut novel, Masquerade, was published, I knew international thrillers — or spy novels, if you prefer — had been the domain of male authors for decades.  Still, women were such big fans that they not only accounted for a significant percentage of sales, they also introduced them to their boyfriends, husbands, and sons.  Since I loved spy thrillers, that’s what I wanted to write.  As I said, ignorance is destiny.  It didn’t occur to me I wasn’t supposed to.

But it occurred to others.  The first publisher to whom my agent had submitted Masquerade was a woman.  She turned it down because “No woman could’ve written this.”  Fortunately, my agent sent it next to another publisher (interestingly, a male) who loved it and bought it with no questions asked.  But when the book was published, a couple of men who reviewed for large publications were graphic — telling me in person that they’d never review my books because I was, in effect, cutting off the private parts of male authors.

Then in the early 2000s I was with a publisher who wanted me to write a romance novel next.  She turned out to be terrific, because when I explained that now that I was co-authoring international thrillers with Ludlum, readers would be unlikely to want to read romances by me.  I'd be hurting her bottom line.  She laughed, and agreed.  Whew.

There was also an issue with dust jackets.  One cover sported a woman in a black body suit, aiming a lethal-looking pistol and wearing stiletto heels so high they probably made their first appearance in a comic book.  Another thriller cover showed a couple trotting and holding hands as if they’d just discovered love — not a dangerous international conspiracy.  And those were the two best covers.

You may have noticed that the dust jackets of spy thrillers written by men have little in common with the ones I just described.

To say I was being marginalized is an understatement.  I have no idea why I didn’t quit.  Stubbornness, perhaps.  Or maybe it was simply that I am besotted by the work, by the joy of words and ideas, by high adventure and low politics, by secrecy and smart skullduggery, by the imperative to try to make some sort of sense of our confounding universe, that as long as I can crawl to a computer or a quill pen, I will write.

And, too, if I’d given up, I would’ve missed a lot of fun.
David Morrell & I, 2005 ITW party

Finally, Keith Kahla, a brilliant executive editor at St. Martin’s, found my work, liked it a lot, and took me on.  He helped to repackage my books in such a way that they spoke to large numbers of readers.

Another change was in the times — because of 9/11, readers’ desire for international political fiction was reignited.

Then, in 2004, David Morrell and I founded International Thriller Writers — ITW — which has become a force in the industry (who could’ve predicted that would happen?).  But then, look at the terrific thriller authors who joined us on the first Board of Directors: Steve Berry, Lee Child, David Dun, Tess Gerritsen, James Rollins, and MJ Rose.

In another indication in the change of culture, the Military Writers Society of America awarded my latest spy thriller, The Assassins, the Founder’s Award for Best Novel.  Do they care that I’m female?  Obviously not.
Board 2007: Kathy Antrim, Lee Child, David Dun, Jim Rollins, moi, Diane Capri, Steve Berry, MJ Rose, David Morrell

When the erudite Peter Cannon of Publisher’s Weekly compiled a list of 15 top spy novels.  Masquerade was on it.  What a wonderful honor.  BookNotes claimed, “Lynds has joined the deified ranks of spy thriller authors like Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre.”  With Ludlum, I created the Covert-One series.  I was hoping that the change in culture and my bits of success would help women enter the field.

Still, women struggled.  So in 2016 a group of eight of us banded together to celebrate books, reading, the writing life, and all things thriller.  The result is Rogue Women Writers, and if you’re reading this, you know a lot about us — from our thrillers to our travels, research, and lives.  Today I’m immensely proud that Rogue Jamie Freveletti continues the adventures of Covert-One, while Rogue Robin Burcell has created a series with Clive Cussler.  Other Rogues today are Chris Goff, KJ Howe, Lisa Black, Karna Small Bodman, and S. Lee Manning. 
2016: Chris Goff, moi, KJ Howe, Jamie Freveletti, S Lee Manning, & Sonja Stone

Staying the course is hard, especially when it seems as if everything is going wrong.  Our only solace as writers is in the work itself, and perhaps also in a penchant for blissful ignorance that allows us to gamble, to risk, to keep going where others would tote up the odds and stop.  But these are the sweetest victories of all, and with a soupcon of luck, our destiny.

So reading and writing friends, please tell us about some of the great thrillers you love ... whether written by women or men. 

13 comments:

  1. It's rather amazing to think how similar our backgrounds are--though in completely different fields. Being a trailblazer in a male dominated profession isn't easy. I was the first female police officer for our department, so faced some of what you were talking about--granted a bit different than being a reporter, but I'll bet you and I could nod sympathetically at many of the same issues! Kudos to you for persevering! We are all the richer for it!

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    1. I imagine being the first female must've been terribly challenging, but no one was better up to it than you, Robin. And what a wonderful background from which to write your remarkable novels!

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  2. Thank you for not quitting!!! I’m not sure I’d have been able to persevere through both obits and book covers with stiletto heels! (Though one of mine featured a twenty-something in body-hugging leather, when the character was a 40ish mother of a college age child...)

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    1. oh, my goddness ... I love that ... a 40ish mom tricked out in body-hugging leather! Well, I don't really love it because it didn't illustrate the novel, but it sure does illustrate the point about the importance of truthful book covers!

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  3. Oh the memories of being the "token woman" in the newsroom -- in my case it was a TV newsroom in San Francisco where the only job they would grant to the "only" woman in the room was to be their Weather Girl! (At the bottom of the screen were the words, "Karna's fashions by Saks Fifth Avenue" -- of course, I had to give the clothes back). After FOUR years analyzing cumulus clouds, I was hired away by the competition - KGO-TV, the ABC O&O to be (finally) a News Reporter and Anchor. Much later - thanks to you, Gayle who truly blazed the trail for all of us, I started writing political thrillers and I'm delighted to see so many great women authors being recognized in the field!...Karna Bodman

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    1. Oh, my god, Karna ... Weather Girl! Knowing you, I'll bet you did a stunning job, but what a waste of your intellect and writing gifts. Very glad you finally went "straight" to write your fabulous political thrillers!

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    2. Any old clips lying around, Karna? I'd pay to see that.

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  4. Great blog, Gayle. I never would have known it was so hard.

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    1. What did President Kennedy say ... we do it not because it's easy but because it's difficult, and besides I don't know that I had a choice! :)

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  5. A great blog. I never knew about your news background on the obit desk, by the way. I also did obits in my one year stint as managing editor of a small weekly newspaper in Lebanon, Ohio- but then I did everything. Photography. News. Editorials. Everything except ads. Unfortunately, the paper folded and I had to move on - but it was great while it lasted. Loved Masquerade, by the way. So glad you persevered. I also want to say that being a Rogue has been, well, thrilling.

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  6. LOL, S. Lee! From obits to Rogues ... that's us! You got a very well-rounded education in the J trade!

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  7. You, Gayle, are a modern-day pioneer. Helen Macinnes was a favorite of mine back in the day, then I moved on to the great male thriller writers. So nice to have some female voices in the crowd again. Your write up had me in stitches.

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    1. I love your two thrillers, Chris -- Red Sky & Dark Waters ... great international thrillers. We love to read them, and how wonderful that we're able to write and publish them. Can't wait for your next one!

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