In college, I decided I wanted to write for a living; to me, the obvious way to write for a paycheck was journalism. I graduated to work join a couple hundred reporters and editors at the Baltimore Sun, which produced two dailies, one in the morning and the other midday. I wrote for the later paper, named the Evening Sun.
We were the scrappy underdog newspaper. Yet although we competed with the higher-circulation Morning Sun, a lot of us were friends who lunched together during workdays and partied on the weekend. A very small group of women friends from the two papers socialized in a small book club that met one evening every month.
Along with me, one of the founding club members was an energetic young metro section reporter named Laura Lippman (now a NYT-bestselling mystery author) and Susanne Trowbridge (who morphed from editorial research and book reviewing into a popular author website designer). Back in the late 1980s, though, we were strictly journalists.
Within our group, Laura, Susanne and I were especially keen in reading and discussing mystery fiction. Laura and I even daydreamed possible characters, if we were ever to write our own mystery novels. Although we wrote on deadline every day, finding the time and mental space to write a novel was daunting.
Then, after five years at the paper, I married my college sweetheart. I moved with my husband to Japan. Living abroad while Tony was in the Navy felt like an opportunity I couldn’t miss. Like many other foreigners who’d put their professions on hold, I worked as an English teacher to the Japanese.
Through weekly structured conversations, I absorbed a lot of my students’ tales of culture and family life. My reporter training came into play as I asked questions, traveled the country, and recorded my impressions. And I realized this special time, when I wasn’t required to make very much money, was actually a gift. I had the time to try to write a mystery.
I began with enthusiasm, brainstorming a plot that moved from the Japanese Alps to Tokyo and Yokohama. I traveled widely, asked my Japanese friends for help, and took copious notes. But the reporting part was easier than the writing. To my disappointment, I only had sixty single-spaced pages when I returned to Baltimore a couple of years later.
I no longer was a newspaper reporter, but I was still a book club member. Returning to greet everyone and review the list of 24 books I’d missed out on reading, I was stunned to hear from Laura that she had spent the past years working on her own mystery—and had completed the first draft! She’d done it by rising early every morning to write two hours before going to the Sun.
I was thrilled for her—but that old Sun competitive streak was still within me. If Laura could complete a manuscript, I needed to get back to work.
By now, I had a new day job in university public relations. I took advantage of tuition coverage to take night-school classes on mystery writing and novel writing. I found I was different than my friend, who preferred writing without getting criticism along the way. Having to produce pages for my weekly course pushed me along, faster and faster. I finished the first book and treated myself to a six-week trip to Japan to fact check everything.
While I worked on novel revisions, Laura was busy submitting her first Tess Monaghan novel to agents in New York.
When I’d finished my first draft of THE SALARYMAN’S WIFE, I asked Susanne, the veteran book reviewer within our book club, to give me an honest opinion. She read it over a week. Verdict: “Worse books than this get published. I think you can go ahead and submit.”
Susanne was being realistic. I was not Sue Grafton or P.D. James—but I wasn’t worse than some of the ARCs that crossed her desk.
By now, Laura had secured a top agent specializing in mystery who’d landed her a three-book deal with William Morrow publishers. The impending publication of BALTIMORE BLUES was a glorious thing for the book club to contemplate. I kept revising my manuscript, because now I was certain it was nowhere near as good as my friend’s. I decided not to ask Laura to introduce me to her agent. If that agent didn’t want to represent me, I’d feel like such a loser and everyone in book club would feel sorry for me.
I decided to follow my natural instincts to get a bit more vetting before releasing my fledgling manuscript out to the world. I entered a contest for unpublished writers sponsored by the Malice Domestic mystery convention. Winning The Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers’ Grant gave me a positive sentence to include in query letters. I wrote to ten agents who represented mystery authors I admired. Most of their names were gathered from the acknowledgments sections of the books I’d read. One of these agents took me on, and got me a two-book deal with HarperCollins six weeks after submitting. I’ve never had such a quick book sale again!
THE SALARYMAN’S WIFE was published the same year as Laura’s second book, CHARM CITY. We rented a car and drove up and down the East Coast doing readings at independent mystery bookstores. I used my public relations experience to create a press kit for both of us. We shared rooms at conventions, and when HarperCollins and Morrow merged, we were surprised to become sisters under the same publishing banner.
Twenty years have passed, and without a doubt, Laura is ahead of me in both numbers of books published and sales. But that doesn’t bother me. She’s got a huge mainstream following for her novels, which are set in Maryland. I’ve continued writing about Asia, which draws a smaller niche audience, including many readers overseas. Thirteen books in, I’m satisfied to have built a loyal readership that wants to keep on reading my work.
A lot of people denigrate competition, saying that writing is not a game of winners and losers. I agree with that point. Yet in my case, friendly competition with someone who warmly shared her experiences was just the kick I needed to get into the field.
Sujata Massey is an Agatha- and Macavity-award winning author of the Rei Shimura Japanese mystery series. Her most recent books are THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY, THE KIZUNA COAST, and INDIA GRAY HISTORICAL FICTION. In 2017, Soho Press will publish her next book, a historical legal mystery novel featuring a young woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay.
To learn more about Ms. Massey’s most recent novel, click on the cover below: