Featured Mystery Author
Good grief! He’s got two book series going at one time, he lives in New York in the spring and fall, Florida in the winter and Maine in the summer.
At sixty-two, you would think the man would slow down a bit. But, it’s not in the offing for Stuart Woods. After growing up in the small southern town of Manchester, Georgia, (of which he says he is blest to be from,) he attended the University of Georgia, and graduated with a BA in sociology. He spent the sixties in New York, working for an advertising firm, with the exception of ten months when he was called up to active duty in the National Guard to Mannheim, Germany to “fly a truck up and down the autobahn.” If you know about the autobahn, you know why he says “fly.”
Moving to London, then Ireland, he was about a hundred pages into writing a book, then he discovered sailing. Next, as he says, “everything went to hell. All I did was sail.” Back to Georgia in the U.S., more sailing and the novel Chiefs was finished and published in 1981, eight years after it was begun. Chiefs established Woods as a novelist. It won the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America and he was nominated again for Palindrome. Though only 20,000 copies were printed in hardback, the book, Chiefs achieved a paperback sale and was made into a six-hour television drama for CBS-TV, starring Charlton Heston, at the head of an all-star cast that included Danny Glover, Billy Dee Williams and John Goodman.
He was also awarded France’s Prix de Literature Policiere, for Imperfect Strangers. He is a prolific writer, having twenty-three novels, two of which will be published during the coming months. Orchid Blues, the second Holly Barker novel, was published on October 29th, 2001, and a new Stone Barrington Novel, The Short Forever, will be published in the spring of 2002. The paperback of L.A. Dead is also in bookstores everywhere.
He is a pilot of a Jetprop, which is a Piper Malibu Mirage, sails boats, owns a 28-foot powerboat, is a partner in a 77-foot antique motor yacht, built in 1929 and recently restored to like-new condition. He is married to the former Chris Connor. They live and move among the three properties they own in the United States.
I hear a lot of folks talking about southerners not having access to the New York publishing industry and thus not being commercially successful. Yet, here is a man who seems to have accomplished just that. His attainment of the tremendous accomplishment of reaching a marketable and highly loyal reading public peaked my curiosity, so I contacted him.
Stuart, from your bio, I see you are a well-traveled person. How do you think your exposure to different places has influenced both your writing and characterizations in your novels?
I think it has a lot to do with it. I’ve read about places and lived in them except for Idaho. I meant to go there but never got around to it. So I wrote the book anyway and nobody ever called me on it, so I must have gotten it right.
Chiefs, for which you won the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America, was your first mystery and, as you say yourself, your favorite work. Now, you have several stand-alone novels up and coming (i.e. not in a series.) Can you tell us a bit about them?
Well, I don’t have anything planned specifically at the moment, although I will complete another Stone Barrington book, The Short Forever, which will be out next April, and I'm working on another Holly Barker book which will be out about a year from now. So, although I have wanted to do some stand-alone things, I haven’t made any specific plans yet. I have a couple of ideas, but nothing that I can talk about now.
Stone Barrington, from New York, is a character who is becoming more prosperous as the series develops, and I notice that you deny any comparison between yourself and Stone. True, you are not he, but doesn’t his life parallel your successes and make it easier to write from his perspective?
He and I share a number of cases, but we are very different people. We live differently. We do different work. He’s younger, slimmer and luckier than I am. (Laughs) So, that’s the reason I say there’s not much comparison.
Tell us something of your memories and the influence of others on you in your youth, growing up in Manchester, Georgia.
I put pretty much of my childhood into Chiefs. There are a couple of scenes that are straight out of my childhood there. And the book is very much of the hometown, the family history and the school and friends, plus my memories of the adults in Manchester. Somebody once said that a writer’s childhood is his capital. Manchester gave me whatever capital I have.
I was an only child. My mother taught me to read a year before I went to school, and that had a huge influence, because I became a voracious reader as a child. I also had a good English grammar teacher in high school and that helped a lot.
Do you think of yourself as a plot-developer, a character-developer, stream-of-consciousness, or what?
I think that my books are fairly tightly plotted. I am something of a minimalist…uh, wherever it comes to things like descriptions and that includes character descriptions. I think a writer’s most powerful tool is the mind of his reader. If you can plant just enough in the reader’s mind, then the reader will develop a character, the atmosphere and the location of the novel very quickly.
Do you prefer surprise endings or do you to let things just take their natural course in your novels and wind down?
I like satisfying endings. I want things to come out well. My readers seem to prefer satisfying endings as well. If I leave anything ‘dangling’ they write me letters about it. They like to know everything that is going on, and if I leave anything that is inconclusive, it bothers them—a lot of them anyway.
Why mysteries? You have dabbled in non-fiction and obviously could produce other genre now, with your name recognition. Why not do so at this juncture?
I write what I think I would like to read, although I don’t read a lot of my own genre.
About the only mystery writer I read is me, I guess. I write what comes naturally to me. I don’t struggle to come up with plots. I get them and then improvise as I write. With the passing of years I get more fluent and confident.
Orchid Blues is the second novel in a series about a female chief of police in a small town in Florida-Holly Barker. Why write about a woman in law enforcement—particularly in a leadership position in such a tough profession?
She came about by accident. I belong to a yacht club in England. I got a copy of their quarterly newsletter, which had some want ads in the back, and one of them was for a Labrador Retriever for sale. The headline was “Excellent Working Bitch.”
I thought, what a terrific title for a novel! I could get a novel just out of that title.
So I wrote ahead to my publisher and they agreed to publish under that title. I wrote the book to that title about this woman and her dog, of which either could be called the excellent working bitch. After it was finished, the publisher was concerned that bookstores might not display it, in as much as it had the word bitch in the title.
We argued about this and I finally capitulated and turned it into Orchid Beach instead of Orchid Bitch. I suppose it could have been a bitch series instead of an Orchid series.
Holly’s world is literally turned upside-down during the course of Orchid Blues, in a tragic scene that reminds me a lot of horrid recent events such as in New York, where you live part-time and the Twin Trade Towers. Do you think that is what more of our lives are coming to these days?
I don’t know. I wish I knew the answer to that. Maybe I don’t wish I did. I think we’re going to have to wait and see. Maybe it won’t turn out to be that way.
You have Holly battling white supremacists in the book. Do you think the role of a contemporary writer is to point out prejudice by exposing it only, seeking to correct it, or to overstate it and make it even uglier than it is for the purpose of dramatic effect?
I don’t have any rules about that. I just think it’s interesting and a scary phenomenon. I think it’s bizarre. It makes you wonder how people can become so disaffected that they can turn to these beliefs for comfort. I don’t entirely understand it and I wish it didn’t happen. But it seems to me to be a legitimate subject to write about.
Can you give us some resource that you rely on when writing, for example: legal books, police methods, mystery links, other general writing sites?
I’ve done extensive research for some books. For instance, White Cargo, when I went to Columbia for research and Deep Lie, when I went to Sweden for research.
But for the most part, I write out of what’s in my head. If I get a sticking point in the law or medicine then I call a friend and ask for some advice. But I don’t have any regular resources that I have available. You should write about what you know, and at the very least do some work and research.
Research is more fun than writing. But I write two books a year, so it doesn’t leave much time for anything but writing.
What is the best way that a writer who is struggling to be published can rise above the mediocre and, quote: “Find himself/herself in their craft?”
I think that getting published is not hard. Writing something that is publishable is a lot harder. There are not very many great novels out there in the bottoms of people’s desk drawers. I think that publishers and agents alike are looking all the time for a new challenge—people who write well and their stories. So, I believe that the effort that should be made is to do good work. You do that in order to be published.
What’s it like, getting up every morning and filling Stuart Wood’s shoes?
I’ve have produced a lot and am prolific. I like being prolific. I understand how I feel when I am not writing. I try to be writing all the time, and I am feeling guilty right now because I am not writing anything, and I am going to have to work very hard in December in order to finish a book…harder than I usually work. I usually work twice as hard toward the end of a book than at the beginning. I think writing is a compulsion. I think one of the reasons that there were so many writers that were alcoholics is that they were caught between the compulsion to write and the inability to do so. There is nothing worse than being unable to write and every writer has to fight writer’s block in his own way every time. I have figured out a sort of way for me to do it and I can only hope that others can find ways themselves.
I generally write for a couple hours at a sitting. I write a chapter in that time, which is five or six pages normally. I like to have a beginning and a middle and an end to the day’s work because it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. I don’t like stopping in the middle of a chapter, unless I’m interrupted. Generally speaking, if I can decide where events are going to take place in a chapter then I don’t have any trouble writing them down very quickly. I am a fluent writer.
How does that fluency come about?
First of all, reading all the time as a child and an adult as well. Secondly, I was in advertising as a young man and I gained a valuable skill there. I learned to sit down and write whether I was in the mood or not. If you can learn to do that….that’s why I always advise kids who are getting out of college and want to write--I advise them to get out and take a job that requires them to write a thousand words a day, whether they feel like it or not, like public relations or advertising, magazines…because the ability to write on demand is a very valuable skill.
After I’ve written my chapter, the following day I reread what I’ve wrote and make small corrections. That leads me into the next chapter. Unless I’m away from the book for a long time, I’m able to keep the whole thing in my head and I don’t even reread the whole thing after I’m finished.
I think if you want to make a living at it, you have to write whether you “feel like it” or not. I like being in the position where I have to make my own deadlines and keep them. I would not like to have a contract where I have to write a book that is due two years from now. That just wouldn’t work for me. I like the feeling that I am working for a living and most days I feel that.
You may read more about Stuart Woods at his website, or send him e-mail from there as well. The site is at: http://www.stuartwoods.com
Stuart Woods Bibliography
© 2001 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved