It’s always an honor to have my work included in Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Journal, and I was especially pleased to see my “Turning New York Life into Fiction” in the current issue, Volume 32, Number 1, Spring 2016. The title of the issue is New York City Mysteries 1 (there will be a “2” released in late June). I urge all New York mystery fans to subscribe to the journal and read the entire issue. Here’s my contribution…
Turning New York Life into Fiction
I came to New York in the 1950s, expecting to get a job writing. After all, I’d had good grades from a great writing teacher at Duke; I’d even had a story in the college magazine. (I hope all copies have been destroyed. I report with shame that the story was called “Polly and the Pink Pedestal.” Ugh.) Once in New York I learned how naïve I was. No one was interested in me as a writer. I had to take on a lot of scruffy jobs like answering phones for a carpet company, and babysitting for the carpet company’s owner just to eat. (I did not know how to change a diaper, so that job didn’t last long.)
I lived in a one-bedroom apartment at 601 Cathedral Parkway. It sounded great to my parents, but they didn’t know that I shared the tiny space with three females (one a Duke friend; the other two, strangers), a collie, a pigeon with one wing, and a monkey. I learned that monkeys can’t be housebroken, and have to wear diapers. I detested the animal and refused to have anything to do with him. I still couldn’t change diapers, and had no plans to learn how. I walked the collie instead.
Eventually I was given opportunities to write, but about nothing that interested me—my assignments were nonfiction of a tedious type, but paid enough to get me out of that apartment to one on the East Side with just one roommate, and no monkey.
By this time I’d learned to make notes of the quirks and peculiarities of the people I encountered, or things that interested me, planning someday to put them in a book. (Some were so bizarre I never thought they’d make it, but most have. Some haven’t been used yet, but will probably appear in the future.)
The fight in the ladies room in Fatal Impressions really happened, in the office of a very stuffy company. The urinating on the desk in Fatal Impressions was the well-known practice of a famous Wall Street person, proud of his behavior and bragged about by his employees.
I encountered several rape attempts from “nice college boys,” who’d come to New York in search of adventure, but unlike the girls of today, I’d had good training in self-protection (both my boarding school and college required exercise classes) and I was able to deal with them. Yes, I’ve written about them.
I read books set in New York, and watched TV programs set in New York. I decided I wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to deal with Sex in the City except for the clothes. My books include lots of clothes talk, especially about Coleman’s designing and making her own clothes, modeled after a boarding school classmate whose clothes were wonderful. She had moved to New York and become part of the fashion world.
I thoroughly enjoyed Cagney and Lacey. I loved the idea of two New York women with different approaches to solving crimes, and decided if I ever had the opportunity I’d write a book with two female heroines. I did, and they became Coleman and Dinah, first appearing in my first novel, Restrike. In Restrike, Dinah lives in Greenwich Village on Cornelia Street, where I lived for ten years. Coleman lives in the East Fifties, where I also lived for a long time. Like me, she walks to work.
I learned stalking wasn’t just the bane of film stars. I was stalked twice; once by a man, once by a woman. The man, a rejected would-be lover, broke into my apartment and left a toy gun. He chased me through traffic near Bloomingdale’s, and a psychiatrist urged me to alternate my travels back and forth to work to escape him. (I moved to another apartment instead.) No, I haven’t put him in a book. It was too scary, I just couldn’t write about it.
In a way the woman who came after me was even worse. I had known her years ago in boarding school, where she was always accusing me of something or other. Sample: she claimed I had destroyed her New York Times. I had no idea what she was talking about. The truth was I never gave her a thought—she was a fly that buzzed around me, but didn’t annoy me enough to go get the swatter.
After the school where we met, I didn’t encounter her until she turned up in New York. She began to phone me and accuse me of doing all sorts of things—stealing her mail, preventing her from getting a job. She was obviously deranged. What could I do? I had to do something. I learned that she was married, and I called her husband. He’d heard about all the things I’d done to her. When I told him I hadn’t seen her in years, he didn’t believe me. I recorded some of her calls, sent the tape to the husband and my boss, and asked my boss to tell her husband that I’d never left the office to do the things she said I’d done. I didn’t hear any more from her. Did I write about her? No. I just couldn’t do it. I’ve learned there are things I encounter that I can’t write about.
But New York continues to inspire me to write. The sequel to Bloody Royal Prints will feature a lot of New York experiences.