March 17, 2018

Shelf Life

By Wilda Williams

Librarians who write thrive on how well their chosen careers complement one another

Since this article was published we’ve heard from more librarian/authors…read the update here.

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Several years ago, Oklahoma librarian Will Thomas contacted novelist Anne Perry for an author’s program he was organizing at the Broken Arrow branch of the Tulsa City-County Library System. Little did he dream then that the mystery writer would one day praise his own novel as ‘an exciting page-turner with two original detectives.’

This professional connection to Perry turned out to be fortuitous after Thomas told her he was working on a mystery. She kindly suggested several writing guides, including one by her own agent.

‘I had already started my book before the program on Perry,’ says Thomas, ‘but she definitely gave me the direction on how to do it.’ Perry later read Thomas’s completed manuscript and wrote her favorable blurb for the galleys. Now the fruit of Thomas’s labor and Perry’s advice will appear on library and bookstore shelves this June when Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint releases Some Danger Involved, an atmospheric debut set in Victorian London, which the publisher likens to Caleb Carr’s best-selling The Alienist.

Thomas may have won the most attention from a big house, but he is not the only librarian moonlighting as a novelist this year. James Benn, the coordinator of information technology for the West Hartford Public Schools, CT, has just published his first novel, a World War II thriller entitled Desperate Ground (Quiet Storm Pub.), and Mary-Jane Deeb, a Library of Congress Arab world specialist who also recently headed the LC fact-finding mission to Iraq, has just released her second mystery, Murder on the Riviera (Paraclete; LJ 1/04, p. 164).

April marks the release of The Scandalous Widow (Signet: NAL, see review on p. 113), the latest Regency by Evelyn Richardson (a.k.a. Cynthia Johnson, assistant director of the Cary Memorial Library, Lexington, MA). And Mindy Klasky, the library director of the Washington, DC, law firm Collier Shannon Scott, concludes her five-book ‘Glasswrights’ medieval fantasy series this June with The Glasswrights’ Master (ROC: NAL).

Complementary careers

‘I think the only other professionals who turn to writing as much as librarians are lawyers,’ notes Jayne Ann Krentz, a former librarian-turned-best-selling author of romantic suspense. (Her new Amanda Quick historical, The Paid Companion, will mark Krentz’s hardcover debut under that pen name this June with Putnam.) ‘For writers, librarianship is the ideal complementary career.’ Krentz, who holds an MLS from San Jose State University, worked in the field for ten years, first as an elementary school librarian and then as an academic and corporate librarian, while struggling to get published.

‘I tend to be interested in things in a serial sort of fashion, getting deeply involved and then going on to something else,’ says the Seattle-based novelist. ‘This is the perfect temperament for a librarian, and it is the perfect temperament for a writer.’

While few ever duplicate Krentz’s success and consider writing full time, other librarian-authors have found their writing to be a natural extension of their day jobs. ‘What I love about reference work is that I learn new things every day,’ says Klasky. ‘I may not use everything in my writing, but sometimes there are moments that inspire. For example, I recently read an article about studies done on the subliminal impact of advertising on children. This gave me the idea for a story in which messages by magic could manipulate children.’

Klasky relies on her library life for her writing. For a short story on wartime cataloging, she queried the law library discussion list and received some three dozen responses. She also has done a fair amount of print research using public library sources. She got much of her glassmaking information from an illustrated series of books on medieval crafts published by the British Museum. When doing online legal research, Klasky has to be very cognizant of her resources’ origins. But with fiction, she can be more relaxed. ‘The advantage of fantasy is that I can be selective in my historical accuracy,’ she says.

A Victorian passion

In Thomas’s case, it was a library book that helped steer him down the road to publication. Long fascinated by the Victorian era, Thomas had for several years written essays for various Sherlock Holmes society publications and lectured on Victorian crime fiction. Although he enjoyed such writers as Perry and Laurie King, Thomas considered their Victorian mysteries to be genteel cozies that didn’t really reflect the period.

‘My studies of the era shows it was a more violent and vicious world,’ he says. Wondering what it would be like to create a more hard-boiled detective, Thomas began to imagine his characters, enquiry agent Cyrus Barker, an enigmatic martial-arts expert raised in China, and his new assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, a destitute young man with a tragic past.

‘What really inspired my novel was a book that came across my desk,’ explains Thomas. ‘London’s East End: Point of Arrival, by Chaim Bermant, is about the Jews who fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe and poured into London during the 1880s. That gave me the focal point to work with’—the murder of a young Jewish scholar.

Although Thomas does not have a library science degree, his five years working the reference desk and handling adult programming as a customer services librarian has honed his research skills. Seeking to make his Victorian settings as authentic as possible, the author used his library’s resources as well as his own personal collection of research materials. He also drew on interlibrary loans to find original materials, maps, and dictionaries, and he conducted online research. Thomas even took a martial arts class to make sure that the moves his characters used were accurate and realistic.

Just as helpful to his writing was Thomas’s relationship with library patrons. ‘One of the good things about being a librarian and a writer is that patrons will tell you what they like or don’t like about what they read,’ says Thomas. ‘You are receiving feedback on other people’s work that a writer working alone at home would not get. I think some of the changes I made in my novel were due to comments from my patrons.’

The moonlight juggle

Writing a book is a major, time-consuming commitment, practically a full-time second job in itself. ‘The challenge is not in balancing writing with a regular job, which has its own set of expectations that must be met, but in creating a writing life in the time left over after the work day,’ comments Benn, who in addition to his library job serves on the Lyme Public Library, CT, board. ‘There are personal and family demands, and somehow you have to find the discipline to carve out time to write.’ Benn began by writing on weekends and trying to complete just one page a night during the week. It took him a year to finish the first draft of Desperate Ground and another year to rewrite and revise.

‘Librarianship excites and stimulates my writing imagination, and the writing refreshes me for another day on the job,’ says Washington law librarian Klasky. From 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., she works the reference desk and supervises a major reclassification project that also involves extensive weeding and a rebuilding of her library’s collection. Still, early every morning before work, she sets an hour aside to compose the adventures of Rani Trader, a young glassmaker’s apprentice living in an alternative medieval world of nobles, guild members, tradespeople, pilgrims, and peasant outcasts. Klasky continues writing on her way to her job, trying to solve plot and character problems in her head: ‘I have more writing inspiration in that five-minute walk to the subway. There is something about the subconscious mind that clicks in.’ If she has a tight publication deadline, Klasky will work on weekends or schedule marathon writing sessions during vacations.

Libraries inspire Klasky so much that her new ‘Code of the Dragon’ series involves librarians. It is a mixture of traditional and nontraditional fantasy, complete with magic, dragons, and cryptography. ‘My hero librarian will be my chief code breaker,’ Klasky says.

Bridging two personas

Klasky, whose earliest literary effort involved an attempted sequel to Lord of the Rings in the seventh grade, loves fantasy because it offers a useful way to ask serious questions about the real world. But when she was working on her first book, The Glasswrights’ Apprentice, she realized she would have to inform her law firm about her extracurricular activity. ‘Many people don’t understand the genre,’ explains Klasky. ‘Some associate the term ‘fantasy’ with erotica, so I had to clarify to my boss what my novels were about.’ She found the firm to be tremendously supportive, with coworkers showing up at her readings and taking her out to dinner when the book was published.

Cary Memorial Library’s Johnson didn’t experience any difficulties from her employers at the library. Johnson was actually sitting at the reference desk when Signet called her and offered her a two-book contract. However, most of her patrons don’t read romances. ‘They weren’t too excited until we did a readers’ advisory program on various genres, including romance. Then my patrons told me I was a real writer!’

The road to publication

Johnson got published the old-fashioned way: submitting her first manuscript over the transom. ‘It’s the classic slush pile story,’ she says. After being politely rejected by St. Martin’s and Walker, she sent the book to Fawcett, which also turned her down. Johnson then tried Signet: NAL, which promptly lost the manuscript and asked her to send another one. But the fifth time was a charm because Signet published Johnson’s debut romance, The Education of Lady Frances, in 1989. Because she has a visible professional career as a librarian, Johnson chose to use a pseudonym, Evelyn Richardson, rather than publish under her own name. Her nom de plume was originally supposed to be Evalina, the heroine of Fanny Burney’s most famous novel. Richardson is her grandmother’s maiden name.

Thomas had better luck when he sent query letters to the five top literary agents in New York City. ‘Right off the bat, the third and fourth agents both wanted to read my manuscript,’ he recalls. The agent he chose, Maria Carvainis, eventually sold Some Danger Involved and a second Barker-Llewelyn adventure to Touchstone/Fireside after a bidding war between Touchstone and Berkley. ‘For a first-time novelist, to get a two-book deal is amazing!’ Thomas exults. He is now close to completing To Kingdom Come, which revolves around the first IRA bombing of Scotland Yard in 1884.

Unable to find an agent for her first mystery, Cocktails and Murder on the Potomac, LC’s Deeb chose to self-publish with Xlibris. The author of several academic books, she saw this as a way of building her confidence that she could write fiction. ‘In the academic world, I never had any doubts because I knew my material. I knew how to do the research, and I had developed my own writing style. But fiction comes from another part of your mind—when you let your imagination roam.’

Deeb was introduced to Paraclete Press by someone who had read her next manuscript, Murder on the Riviera, and thought it would be right for the small Cape Cod–based publisher. ‘My book is not your John Grisham thriller,’ says Deeb. Set in Provence, the novel centers on a young American heiress and her indomitable French grandmother as they try to solve the murder of a local newspaper publisher. ‘My mystery is cozy, personal, and focused on women, and Paraclete is much like that. It’s a serendipitous and perfect fit,’ she says. Deeb now has a contract to write two more Provençal mysteries for Paraclete, one set at Christmas and one at Easter.

After sending out more than 100 submissions to literary agents and being told by one agent that mysteries were a ‘glutted arena,’ Jim Benn was almost ready to give up. But when he queried the Mystery Writers of America electronic discussion list for advice, one author suggested that Benn contact her publisher, an independent start-up looking for new writers. The result: a three-book contract with Quiet Storm Publishing. ‘This shows the power of the Internet and networking,’ comments Benn.

A leg up

Librarians have the advantage over other writers in knowing how to go after information. Likewise, Johnson notes that librarians know the publishing world better than ordinary civilians. ‘They can research publishers and get a sense of what each house does. Since they know what goes on in their libraries, they can back up their query letters with statistics of various kinds. And since they read reviews, they know what general readers are looking for.’

However, Klasky cautions librarian–writers from overdoing the background work. ‘Many of us who came through the reference side like to do research. It is easy to do one more fact check, but eventually you have to sit down and write.’

Benn agrees. ‘I ‘considered’ writing a novel for more than 20 years. So my advice is to write, not consider. A writing course or a writer’s group can help to jump-start things if the blank page appears daunting. But if you think you have a story to tell, tell it.’

Author Information
Wilda Williams is Senior Editor, LJ Book Review


The Latest from Librarians
(the online edition of this article includes updated information)


James R. Benn, Desperate Ground. Quiet Storm. Jan. 2004. ISBN 0-9744084-8-4. $26.95. Benn, MLS, is coordinator of information technology, West Hartford Public Schools, CT.

Mary-Jane Deeb, Murder on the Riviera. Paraclete. Feb. 2004. ISBN 1-55725-353-6. $19.95. Deeb is Arab world specialist with the Library of Congress.

Donna Hill, Divas, Inc. St. Martin’s. Jul. 2004. ISBN 0-312-31651-8. pap. $12.95. Hill, a public relations associate, has worked in the Queens Borough PL publicity department for ten years.

Mindy L. Klasky, The Glasswrights’ Master. ROC: NAL. Jun. 2004. ISBN 0-451-45982-2. pap. $6.99. Klasky, a lawyer who also has an MLS, is library director, Collier Shannon Scott, Washington, DC.

Earl Lee, Drakulya (See Sharp Pr., 1994), Kiss My Left Behind (Aventine, 2003). He is working on a sequel to his parody of the Left Behind series and works at Pittsburg < ?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = 'urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags' />State Univ., KS.

Jo Manning, The Sicilian Amulet. Five Star: Gale. Mar. 2004. ISBN 1-59414-181-9. $26.95. The prolific Manning is retired head, General Books Library, Reader’s Digest.

Elizabeth McCracken, Here’s Your Hat (a 1994 American Library Association Notable Book), The Giant’s House (a National Book Award finalist), and Niagara Falls All Over Again (2001), she is the only librarian named among the ’20 Best Young American Novelists’ by Granta in 1996.

Tito Perdue, The Sweet-Scented Manuscript. Baskerville. Sept. 2004. ISBN 1-880909-68-5. $24. Perdue, MLS, worked in various academic libraries but now writes literary novels full time.

Meredith Ann Pierce. The Darkangel (Little, Brown, 1982), etc. Her tenth book, Waters Luminous & Deep, published in April by Viking, is a collection of short stories already nominated to be one of the Young Adult Library Services Association’s 2004 Best Books for Young Adults. Pierce still works as a full-time librarian and is the mother of a young child.

Amanda Quick (a.k.a. Jayne Ann Krentz), The Paid Companion. Putnam. Jun. 2004. ISBN 0-399-15174-5. $24.95. A former academic and corporate librarian, Krentz, MLS, helped break the hardcover barrier for romance writers.

Evelyn Richardson (a.k.a. Cynthia Johnson), The Scandalous Widow. Signet: NAL. Apr. 2004. ISBN 0-451-21008-5. pap. $4.99. Longtime librarian Johnson is assistant director, Cary Memorial Library, Lexington, MA, and the author of Regencies.

Marina Snow, Look No Further. Lost Coast. Jan. 2004. ISBN 1-882897-79-X. $19.95. A former academic librarian, Snow retired in 1995.

Dayne Sherman, Welcome to the Fallen Paradise. MacAdam/Cage. Fall 2004. ISBN TK. $TK. A former Science and Technology reviewers for LJ, Sherman is currently Assistant Professor of Library Science and Reference/Instruction Librarian at the Sims Memorial Library of Southeastern Louisiana University .

Will Thomas

, Some Danger Involved. Touchstone: S. & S. Jun. 2004. ISBN 0-7432-5618-2. $22.95. A customer service librarian at Broken Arrow Library, Tulsa City-County Library System, Thomas does adult programming. Nonfiction

Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History. Norton, Jun. 2004. ISBN 0-393-32564-4. pap. $13.95. Rare book librarian at Houghton Library, Harvard, and coordinating editor of the Harvard Library Bulletin; Battles’s book came out in hardcover to good reviews last June.

Roy Bird, Civil War in Kansas. Pelican. Apr. 2004. ISBN 1-58980-164-4. pap. $9.95. A federal project coordinator and consultant for the Kansas State Library, Bird has an MLS.

Graham S. Holton & Jack Winch, Discover Your Scottish Ancestry: Internet and Traditional Resources. Roberts Rinehart. Apr. 2004. ISBN 1-57098-428-X. pap. $16.95. Holton is librarian, Univ. of Strathclyde, Scotland.

Earl Lee, Libraries in the Age of Mediocrity (McFarland, 1995). He is working on a sequel to his parody of the Left Behind series and works at Pittsburg State Univ., KS .

Jess Nevins, The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. MonkeyBrain. Feb. 2005. ISBN 1-932265-08-2. $NA. A reference librarian at Sam Houston State Univ., Nevins is the author of Heroes and Monsters: The Unofficial Companion to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (MonkeyBrain, 2003).

Stephen van Dulken, American Inventions: A History of Curious, Extraordinary, and Just Plain Useful Patents. NYU. Mar. 2004. ISBN 0-8147-8813-0. $26.95. Van Dulken is patent librarian at the British Library.

Robert D. Wood, S.M., Life in Laredo: A Documentary History from the Laredo Archives. Univ. of North Texas Pr. Mar. 2004. ISBN 1-57441-173-X. $24.95. Wood is head, Laredo Archives, St. Mary’s University, San Antonio.

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