In Conversation with Sherry Harris – Author & Vice President of “Sisters in Crime”

Susan Dunlap, Linda Grant Williams, Nancy Pickard, Betty Francis (outgoing treasurer) and Dorothy Sucher (incoming treasurer) at the 1989 Bouchercon mystery conference in Philadelphia. (Photo: Courtesy of Sisters in Crime)

When an e-mail recently landed in my inbox informing me of this year’s winner of the 2018 Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award, I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more about this year’s winner and, more broadly, about Sisters in Crime — an organization focused on promoting the work of female crime writers — itself. Fortunately, I recently I had the opportunity to speak with author and Vice President of Sisters in Crime, Sherry Harris. Read on to see what she had to say about their organization, its history and mission, their monitoring project, the Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award, their “We Love Libraries” and “We Love Bookstores” programs and much more. 

 

Sherry Harris (Photo Credit: Meg Manion Silliker)

 

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): While I’ve already learned quite a bit about your organization, I was wondering whether you might talk a little bit about how your organization got its start, its history and mission.

Sherry Harris (SH): As you probably know, 1986 was when one of the first women’s mystery conferences was held at Hunter College. That’s where Sara Paretsky started discussing the idea behind Sisters in Crime. Next year, at Bouchercon — which is a huge fan conference — is when they really formalized the organization. For me, it was really interesting to find out that in that small period of time they went from 26 members to 150 members. They really started the organization to have camaraderie amongst female writers and to look into the inequalities between male and female reviews. That is one of the things that is still ongoing. We still have a monitoring project. We have 20 different people who monitor 26 print publications and they break down analysis of female versus male reviews. It’s still not entirely equal. It’s gotten a lot better since the organization started. It’s now like 40 / 60. They also look at the genres that periodicals cover. We have two monitors who focus on the gender of the reviewers and the comparison of how those reviewers generate between male and female. It gives us a lot of detailed information about what’s going on in the reviewing world, which is a great thing for our members, and then we can advocate on behalf of female writers that way as well. 

AD: I feel as though it is especially important because — as you’ve alluded to — historically it does seem that women have been underrepresented. You don’t even have to go that far back.

SH: I agree. So, it’s a very important part of our mission. I’m not sure everyone knows how much detail we go into on doing that. Our actual mission statement says that we’re promoting the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional development of women crime writers. That being said, we do have men who are members as well. We call them our ‘Misters in Crime.’ Some people call them our ‘Brothers in Crime.’ As long as they believe in our mission, we welcome male members, too. 

AD: Which I think is a great thing, because I think that the way you solve the problem of inequality is by working on addressing the issue together.

SH: Absolutely.

AD: And, of course, I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to what has been going on that minorities have also been underrepresented. Perhaps all the more so when you are talking about minority females. 

 

Mia Manansala (Photo: Courtesy of Mia Manansala)

 

SH: And we are so thrilled with the Eleanor Taylor Bland award grant that we’ve started. We started it in 2014. This year’s winner was Mia Manansala. She’s writing about a Filipino protagonist and I love that she can focus on that part of her life and write an entertaining story. It is a $1,500 grant and it is for emerging writers of color and was named after Eleanor Taylor Bland, because she was one of the first people to introduce a female police detective who is African American. She was an amazing author and published some short stories as well. She was just such an inspiration and it was so wonderful that we were able to name this grant in her honor. We’re really trying to get the word out about that, because I think that sometimes writers of color can feel kind of sidelined and that’s one of the things we really want to emphasize — that this is an organization for everybody. It is a place where ideas can be respectfully exchanged. I don’t know if you happened to see it on our website, but there’s something called ‘Frankie’s List.’ Frankie Bailey was our first African American president and she started the list. We keep it so that people can go to it and find those writers that might not otherwise be seen as much. It’s a really fantastic list and I am always glad when I find a new author and I can write them and say ‘Hey, do you know about this list? Let’s add your name to it.’

AD: Sounds like an excellent resource. And, as I said, I think it’s important to read work by people who have perhaps been underrepresented or who have been marginalized. I think it can only be a good thing for people to be more exposed to those points of view and and to really see things from a new perspective.  

SH: It’s what makes our lives more interesting and enriched.

AD: The way I see it, we all benefit from being exposed to a diverse array of opinions and perspectives in literature, just as our lives and our communities are enriched by having a diverse population. A diverse population only makes the community a better place. Similarly, reading a diverse array of work can only be a positive.

SH: I agree. I just read a really fabulous book called Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver. He is a member of Sisters in Crime and it is set with a background of World War II and it goes back-and-forth between now and then. It was really interesting. It is about a gay man navigating life during World War II. It was a great book.

AD: I’ll have to check it out. As the pile of books waiting to be read at any given time can attest, I’m always looking for new things to read. As soon as I’ve read one, there’s another one — or, let’s be honest, another two or three — in it’s place.

SH: I hear you. We actually did some purging a couple of years ago and actually took something like 300 books to the library. I’m like ‘How could we have taken that many and there are still so many in the house?’

AD: I feel like I couldn’t do that. I don’t know how I would even begin to decide which books I’m fine with giving away. Probably because there really aren’t any. I feel like it’s impossible to decide.

SH: I know. I tried to institute a policy of ‘one book in, one book out,’ but that lasted like 10 seconds. It was a good idea, but it went nowhere. I don’t know if you know this, but we have 51 chapters spread across the United States. We have an internet chapter called ‘The Guppies.’ It stands for ‘The Great Unpublished’ — although authors belong to that chapter, too. It’s just a great resource for people who don’t live near a chapter or their lives are too busy to get to meetings. They have online classes and there’s actually a scholarship that is given that’s named for Dorothy Cannell who writes traditional mysteries. It provides funds so that they can attend a conference called ‘Malice Domestic’ that focuses on the traditional mystery and is held every year in Bethesda. It’s a great opportunity for an unpublished author to get to attend a big conference and meet lots of published authors and lots of fans and to just kind of get a helping hand. To me, that’s what the organization is all about. It’s a very personal thing for me. I feel like that’s how I got published and I feel like my job as a published author is to turn a hand down to help raise up the next generation of authors. I don’t mean that as an age thing, but as just between being unpublished and published. We also have a Listserv for indie published authors so they can exchange ideas. It’s just a really active community of people helping each other. 

 

 

Eleanor Taylor Bland (Photo: Calvis Revis)

AD: And I would imagine that for most, as in anything, have a community to engage with is always welcome and always helpful. All the more so in what can be a more solitary occupation. While it is perhaps arguable that it is not entirely solitary — if you are writing fiction for instance, you are coming up with this whole world and this whole cast of characters to populate it — at the end of the day, it is just you and your imagination sitting at your computer. So, it can be nice to be able to engage with other people and have that kind of connection with others, to have that sort of community. 

SH: Right. And you probably kind of experience the same thing doing interviews and writing. You know, for a lot of it, you’re on your own. As for me, personally, I’m a member of two chapters, because we used to live in New England, and so I belong to that chapter. Then we moved to northern Virginia and I joined the chapter here. We have monthly meetings. It’s different with every chapter, but the Chessie Chapter has monthly meetings and we’ll have a police officer come in — we have somebody coming in September to talk about human trafficking. We visited the 9-1-1 call center. We just had a great program on screenplay writing. We get to do a lot of different activities and just talk to each other. I think mystery writers are a quirky breed of people, so it’s fun to be able to get out and talk with each other in person sometimes. 

AD: Sounds like it can be a nice change of pace, too. You know, interacting in person and exchanging ideas and so on.

SH: I know the internet chapter does this too, but I’m sure all chapters will reach out and say ‘Hey, do you want to do a manuscript exchange?’ So, if you need somebody to look over your manuscript and give you some feedback, that is really helpful — especially when you’re starting out — to have other sets of eyes on your manuscript because I think that sometimes our stories play out in our heads like a movie but we don’t always translate that movie to the written page. So, that’s just another benefit. Just this year we also started awarding $150 grants for education, such as attending a writers’ conference. One person used it to pay for books. She was doing a creative writing MFA. So, we could help support that. It’s just a really wonderful new benefit that is a way for the organization to give back to our members. 

AD: Sounds like a great opportunity.

SH: It really is. I just went to a conference called ‘Writers’ Police Academy’ in Green Bay, Wisconsin. So many of the people there came up to me and said ‘I couldn’t have afforded to go to the conference if it weren’t for the grant.’ That was really great to hear. It’s one thing to see it on paper, but another thing to see it actually working. That was really exciting for me to see. Two other programs I really love are our ‘We Love Libraries’ program and ‘We Love Bookstores.’ We have monthly drawings. For ‘We Love Libraries,’ it is so that they can buy books for the libraries and mystery fiction. We don’t require them to buy books from members of Sisters in Crime, but we’re always happy when they do. We also have the ‘We Love Bookstores’ program, and do a drawing every month for $500. So, a bookstore can use the money for marketing or bring in an author to speak, and hopefully promote Sisters in Crime at the same time. They’re two wonderful programs and I don’t think all libraries and bookstores know about them. It’s a really exciting thing. I met a woman with a small, independent bookstore when I was at Writers’ Police Academy and I was able to share that information so that she can apply for the grant, too. 

AD: Speaking of which, it is just so nice to see this sort of resurgence of independent bookstores. Not that indies ever went away entirely, but I think we went through this period of time — which I think you could argue really started in the 1990s. There was this sort of trend toward the these large chains for a little while there and I think that, in recent years, there has been a renewed recognition of the important role independent bookstores play in the communities they serve — and of the importance of continuing to patronize the independent bookstores that exist in our communities to help ensure that they remain a part of our communities for many years to come. 

Sisters in Crime past president Leslie Budewitz interviews Founding Mother Sara Paretsky. (Photo: Courtesy of Sisters in Crime)

 

SH: I know and it is so fabulous to see. I mean, authors need these big box bookstores as well, but there’s just something so personal about an independent bookstore and I am lucky to live in an area with a lot of fabulous ones. Some of them are fairly new, which is exciting to see. 

AD: Yeah. I have to say I feel pretty fortunate as well. There are a number of independent bookstores in my areas as well, like the one I’m going to next month. An author I know has an event coming up at The Book Stall. It’s in Winnetka and it has been such an important part of the community for so many years. They have so many wonderful events every month and it is undoubtedly one of my favorites — though I also have a number of others that I frequent. I kind of try to spread it out. 

SH: It’s a great thing, and it is so nice to meet authors in a group setting like that, because they’re just interesting people. The crime fiction community is what I know best, and everyone is so supportive of each other and so helpful. It’s just really amazing. We also have a quarterly newsletter for our members and a monthly e-mail blast called ‘SinC Links.’ It shares articles about what’s going on in the publishing industry. It might focus on things that are affecting the crime fiction market. It talks about what editors and publishers are buying. It’s kind of a paired down list. You know how many different things there are that you can reach each month about publishing, so it’s a nice way to compile a list of what our volunteers who run that list think are important to the mystery writing community. 

AD: I could certainly see how that would be a better way to sift through all of that information. 

SH: Exactly. Then, in the quarterly newsletter, there are people who will write articles for it. We do features on what different chapters are doing because it might give an idea to another chapter in terms of what they can do about having a speaker come in. We also have a Speakers Bureau. Our chapters can apply to have a speaker — usually a well-known author who is a member of Sisters in Crime — come talk to them. Then, we also give our chapter grants that are $1,000 that a chapter can use to sponsor some kind of event. Last year, we had additional grants because it was our 30th anniversary. We had Sarah Weinman come and speak to us. She has really studied the history of Sisters in Crime and women crime fiction authors, so she came and spoke to our chapter. That was a really great event. It just helps us all learn more. 

 

 

AD: Yeah. I just saw the Chicago chapter’s website and it seems that there was a recent event with Gillian Flynn. 

SH: That’d be cool. I wish I could go to all of them.

AD: It just seemed really interesting.

SH: It is. We really want to focus on growing our membership and on making sure people know what resources are available — the community connections you can make. I got my publishing contract because an editor in New York had an idea for a cozy mystery series and he went to an agent, and the agent went to a friend of mine, all of them saying ‘Do you know anybody who would be interested in writing this series?’ and it came to me. It’s kind of a different way to get a publishing contract, but that’s the kind of personal connection you can make in an organization like this that will help you as an individual writer. 

AD: Actually, I interviewed someone not too long ago, and they talked about how their book came about through an idea that was pitched to them, rather than pitching an idea themselves.

SH: Right. I had no idea anybody could sell a book the way it happened to me until recently. The other thing about getting grants to go and attend a conference and that sort of thing — at Writers’ Police Academy there was this undercover police officer who was talking, and all of a sudden this idea just hit me, which I hope to get to use in an upcoming book. You never know what you’re going to learn. Part of it is the craft of writing, but part of it is also that it sparks ideas.

AD: I could see that. I could see how it would get you to perhaps explore other avenues that you might not have otherwise considered or ideas that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to you — which I would think is useful in and of itself.

SH: It’s been such a great experience since I joined the organization and I hope everyone can have that same kind of experience of having a community of people who understand your woes, and who understand your triumphs, and who want to help everyone else have that same experience. 

AD: Right. I think it’s great to have this group of people you can look to in order to connect with them, but also look to for advice and help with getting whatever you may be working on accomplished.

SH: Exactly. One other thing I really loved which I read is that Margaret Maron and Nancy Pickard agreed that Sisters in Crime should be about being for as much as possible instead of against things. That really resonated with me as I become president and think about how we can reach out to each other and to other writing communities, and grow stronger through that kind of attitude. 

 

 

 

 

Sherry Harris is the author of Agatha Award–nominated Best First Novel Tagged for Death, as well as The Longest Yard Sale, All Murders Final! and A Good Day to Buy in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series. Sherry started bargain hunting in second grade at her best friend’s yard sale. She honed her bartering skills as she moved around the country while her husband served in the Air Force. Sherry combined her love of garage sales, her life as an Air Force spouse, and her time living in Massachusetts as inspiration for this series. Sherry is an independent editor for fiction and nonfiction writers, a member of Sisters in Crime, Sisters in Crime New England, and Sisters in Crime Chesapeake Chapter. She blogs with New England mystery writers at WickedCozyAuthors.com.

For more information about Sisters in Crime, or to find a local chapter near you, please visit their website. You can also find Sisters in Crime on Facebook and Twitter. You can also find out more about this year’s Eleanor Taylor Bland Fiction Writers of Color Award winner, Mia Manansala, by visiting her website. 

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