You previously worked as an arson investigator and a PI. What inspired you to turn to writing?
Actually, it was the other way around. I decided to be a writer when I was seventeen years old. Being a P.I. came later.
Initially, I just wrote general fiction; I didn’t read a single crime novel until I was in my twenties. Then I discovered Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Coyle, and I was hooked. At that time, I hadn’t been having any luck selling short stories – which was my first love – so I decided to try my hand at a book-length mystery.
My first few attempts were pretty dismal. Then something triggered my ire. I heard a few overstuffed academicians pontificating that “all plots have been written, and there is nothing new under the sun.” My instant response was to think about young Mary Shelley, back in 1816, conceiving the brilliant and NEW idea of a scientist reanimating dead body parts, but being told that she wouldn’t be allowed to WRITE it, because she was restricted to tired, old plots.
Fueled by indignation and inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I decided that I, too, would write about “life after death,” but, like Mary Shelley, I would come up with something new. From Dracula I borrowed the idea of an epistolary novel. From Frankenstein, I borrowed a feeling of shadowy dread.
Thus was born Julian Solo – about a scientist who devises a method of going into and out of a death-like state, at will (an original concept when I wrote it). I wove into the story likable characters, a tense plot, and enough science to be believable. Julian Solo was my first published novel. It was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America and a Prometheus by the Libertarian Futurist Society. So much for arrogant, nay-saying academicians.
How do your real-life experiences work their way into your stories?
As an IAAI Certified Fire Investigator and court-qualified expert witness, I investigated hundreds of accidental and incendiary fires, and I was privileged to work with my late husband, Charlie King, who retired from the New York City Fire Department as a Supervising Fire Marshal. Charlie and I started our own company, and after he died, I ran the company for another ten years before deciding to devote myself full time to writing.
I met Charlie when I was researching The Boys of Sabbath Street – which, incidentally, is about juvenile fire setters. So, as I mentioned earlier, the writing came first. The stories in my new book, Dabbling in Crime, were inspired by…oh, all sorts of things. Family. Friends. Music. Newspapers. Three of the stories, however, were very specifically based on our arson cases.
You’re a hybrid author – you’re both traditionally and independently published. Do you prefer one method over the other? What made you look to self-publishing?
I prefer being traditionally published, although it has always been brutally difficult to find a literary agent and a publisher. It’s even harder now, because the business of publishing is in transition from print to audio to digital, and … whatever comes next. When I spoke to someone at the Copyright Office recently about digital publications, her dismayed response was, “It’s the Wild West out there.”
Back to your question, though: The best thing about traditional publishers, believe it or not, is the rejection. NOT having that first (or second, or even third) book accepted is sort of like being booed in Vaudeville. If you can’t be a star first time out, there is a strong possibility that your “act” wasn’t good enough. A negative response obliges us to practice, practice, practice. To take out some paragraphs. Change others. Edit. And rethink. It also makes us strong. We learn to wipe away the tears – nobody likes rejection – and go back. Again and again and again. My philosophy of writing comes, not from an author, but from a politician. Winston Churchill said: "Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense."
Now, addressing the self-publishing part of your question. I love it. The rights to all my books had reverted to me. Self-publishing not only allowed me to get them back in print as e-Books, but also to reprint some as trade paperbacks (Julian Solo), publish others that were initially serialized in my newspaper column (Come Home. Love Dad), or issue as print and digital books novels that had been published by Blackstone Audio Books and existed only in audio form (The Boys of Sabbath Street and The Man With the Glass Heart).
You’re releasing a collection of short stories in a few weeks. What’s next on the agenda? Are you working on anything new?
Next on my agenda is Night Sky Over Mount Joy, which is finished, except for some minor editing. It is a crime novel about art, entrepreneurs, eighteen-year-old adventuresses, good cops, bad mothers, murder, and shooting stars. Once I’ve finished the fine-tuning, I will start submitting to publishers.
About Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben's first novel, Julian Solo, was nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar Award and by the Libertarian Futurist Society for a Prometheus. Her crime novel Origin and Cause was nominated by the Maltese Falcon Society for a Falcon; and her adult fable The Man with the Glass Heart was a Freedom Book Club selection. Her fiction has been published by Scribner, Harper, Harcourt, and is also available through Blackstone Audio Books.
Excerpt from Dabbling in Crime
(This excerpt is from “You Again,” a story about what happens when a woman finds an old address books, flips it open, and then calls her younger self on the phone.)
My hand crept toward the drawer.
Within seconds, the address book, with twelve years of my life from eighteen to thirty was open on my lap.
Which was when something odd happened.
Have you ever looked through an old address book? They smell of vintage reality. The joys and pains of friendships in motion. Photographs evoke memories, but the incidents that they immortalize are frozen in time. A single dot in the infinity of dots that start when you are born and end when you die.
But an address book is a continuum. It smells of the 500 times you called Pete, or wrote postcards to Mary and Lou, or sat lonely by the phone waiting to hear from Bill. It recalls the names of friends you scratched out in anger, and the letters you wrote to borrow money or repay a loan. It sings of birthday and Christmas cards, and weeps of condolences sent in sorrow to those experiencing grief.
An address book is the White Pages of your life. The time chart of your wheres and whens. The Manhattan Blue Book of your heart.
Okay. Now I’m getting carried away.
As I did that day when I flipped to “M” to find my old addresses and phone numbers on the page headed “Me.”
There, spread out before me, were a memory, a clarity, a sense and a smell for each of my past homes.
Dabbling in Crime will be available on November 1 on Amazon.
Thank you, Shelly!