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"It's Always Been Words and Me"

An Interview with Sallie Bissell

by Robert L. Hall

 
  Driving across Memphis toward the East Side of town, I am looking forward to the interview with Sallie Bissell, a native writer of Nashville, Tennessee.  Upon arriving at Davis-Kidd Bookstore, I find other local writers in attendance in the audience whom I know.  When that happens, I always relax.

For when the local writing folks come out, there is an informality that usually manifests itself in the type of exchanges of information about the writing craft that is useful, in that more personalized and intimate details are presented by the speaker.  There is not that withholding of self that is apparent when either unknowns or distant writers address a crowd of total strangers.

Indeed, Sallie's work is well known by the audience.  She already has a published book: In The Forest of Harm.  It was put out by Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing in January of last year, and the paperback version later that same year.  She is established, and the locals are both happy at her success and eager to share in her news of forthcoming projects.

So, my work is done for me: all I have to do is sit back and listen, taking mental notes of what I am hearing.  When the light-hearted signing and question period is over, Sallie and I retire to a back table near a full-length glass wall with our coffees.  I sit, listening to her, hearing her words and gazing out on the people and vehicles moving around on the parking lot as folks enter and leave the bookstore.  I am impressed by the solid feel of her words -- thoughts in sound.  Then, there is also that ring of genteelness that is ever-present in the learned Southern woman.

Sallie Bissell is a graduate of Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.  She has worked as an advertising copywriter, an art consultant and is a former director of the Tennessee Writers Alliance.  She currently divides her time between Nashville and Asheville, North Carolina.  Her hobbies now include painting, hiking and horseback riding, but she's recently signed up for a crash course in learning how to sail.

How did the writing start, Sallie?

I have a friend who is an ex-New Yorker who lives in Asheville, N.C.  And she is a friend with an author who started a "saddle-club" series of books about little girls and the horses they ride.  She knew that I had had horses and daughters, so she asked me if she should talk to the author to see if she needed any ghostwriters for the series.

I said, "Sure."  So she sent me a test of sorts to see if I could write a chapter like her.  So I did and I could, and uh... that began a very pleasant relationship that lasted about two years.  It was a nice training job to write on deadline, and it was good money, and you got your name in print.

Why write?

I got a typewriter when I was eight years old--on my eighth Christmas.  It was one of those turquoise-blue Underwood typewriters.  I don't know why my parents gave me that for Christmas.  It was an odd gift for a child, but I loved it.  I immediately sat down to write a mystery novel.  I think it lasted all of one page!  But, it was fun-- the best fun I ever really had creating anything at that time.

When I was in the second grade, I won the second grade literary contest: a little story about my dog-- Matilda.  And um... I guess ever since it's always been words and me.  I've never looked back from that.

In your biography, you list a history of doing advertising copy. Could you expand on the experience?

After I graduated from Peabody College, I got a job shortly after that writing radio copy for a lot of clients, most of whom were on the Grand Ole Opry.

I did a lot of radio spots for a couple of years, then started having my children.  I kept reading, kept writing; but I really wasn't writing for publication at that point.

I took a writing course and joined a writing critique group in Nashville.  I wrote my first novel that didn't go anywhere.  It was a mainstream novel about a woman and her family-- you know, it was pretty much first novel type stuff.  It was a third person novel that probably should have been a first person novel, only the first person didn't occur to me at that time.  Anyway... then, I really needed extra income, so I started an art gallery-- actually, an antique print store.  It got pretty profitable, even though I never quit writing.  Only, I got to a point where I realized that if I wanted to do anything as a writer, I was going to have to do it.

What were your first successes?

Well, curiously the first short story I wrote, I sold.  And I haven't sold one since.  So, for a long time, I was just writing, practicing my craft.  Then, I got the job writing the "saddle-club" books.  I came back to Tennessee, did the Tennessee Writer's Alliance jobs, and had written a book while I was back in North Carolina.  Most people said it was good but not much happens.  So, I decided to write a book where a lot of stuff happens: that's how In The Forest of Harm came about.

It sold quickly, pretty well.  I wrote it to the best of my ability and got down a book of literary agents.  I took the advice to heart about finding them and sent in letters.  There are like...five million agents, surely one?

It's what they say to do: write a good query and send in thirty pages.  It's the traditional way to do it that they say never happens.  But, in fact it does happen.

I didn't know anybody in the publishing industry or have any tips or anything.

What was The Forest of Harm about?

It is the story of a young woman who is haunted by the death of her mother.  She returns to the site of that death on what is supposedly a happy camping trip to relax from a very arduous murder trial she has been on, (as she is District Attorney).  While on the trip, they run into a crazed trapper who goes after them.  That is bad enough, but the man whose brother she just convicted of murder-- she has humiliated him on the witness stand, and he is out to get her as well.

He is tracking her, and she is unaware of it.  The trapper sees them first, rapes one of the women and kidnaps another one while Mary, the attorney, is off sketching a tree.  She is faced with a terrible choice:  does she go off to find the missing woman and leave the one she has found who is hurt?  Or does she let her go?  Some very hard choices.

She decides to go after the trapper, who has stolen the woman.  In the meantime, the brother of the killer from Atlanta is after them all.  It is chase, chase, chase.  As they say, there is only one plot in fiction: that is the chase.  We have it coming and going In The Forest of Harm.

How does Nashville and North Carolina provide material for your books?

Most of it is from bits and people that I have met throughout my life.  There is this fella that walks down the road in front of my house.  Unfortunately, he has one of the most evil faces I have ever seen.  He may be a wonderful man, I don't know.  But, he just is a very frightening-looking man.  His face is the one I had in mind when I wrote about the trapper in my first book.

The North Carolina mountains lend themselves to intrigue.  I can just look at the mountains and envision all sorts of things being possible.  They are a fictional gold mine, so to speak.  I guess I see them from a different perspective, being a Nashville flatlander--there, they don't have particularly high mountains, some hills.

How about your present book:  A Darker Justice?

Mary Crow, the same lawyer from In The Forest of Harm, is called to Atlanta from North Carolina.  The FBI has uncovered a plot: someone is killing federal circuit court judges.  Mary's dearest friend, Irene, is a federal court judge in Richmond.  The FBI thinks she may be next on the list.  Only, she rejects the offer of protection, as she doesn't believe that judges should be guarded.  The FBI asks Mary to see about protecting her.  Mary and Irene go at each other about the matter.  Finally, Irene agrees.  They have information that if they can keep Irene alive until New Year's Day, then the conspiracy will be part. That is the premise.

How do you think readers find your work?

I think you can end a book unhappily, but not without there being hope.  If you have no hope, that is not fair to the reader.  You know the saying, "Where there's life, there's hope?" I believe that.  As for my writing... I don't want to pull any punches as a writer.  I will write about violence realistically, but not gratuitously.  It's my intention to involve the reader.  I'm not going to turn away from unpleasantness because unpleasant things happen in life.  I will describe it with as much dignity as I possibly can for the characters and the situation itself.  Um... some of the scenes are terrible and people ask me why I wrote them in such a way.  I wanted to give a voice to those people who have been victims of violence.  I think many times writers can write like TV writers where you see blood, and guts, but no real pain.  I think as fiction writers, we should show the blood and the guts.  But, we need to show the aftermath-- the real, real serious effects that violence and bad things have on people.  If I can do that in a way that, uh...is moving and tasteful, then okay.


Sallie Bissell may be contacted at: sallie@salliebissell.com

Visit her web site at: http://www.salliebissell.com/index.html


A Darker Justice, Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub. (Trd).  Hardcover - January, 2002.
ISBN: 0553801317

In The Forest of Harm, Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub. (Trd.).  Hardcover - January, 2001. Bantam Books, Paperback - October, 2001.  ISBN:  0553582704.

 


2002 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved.