Meet Judith Deborah: an asset to the writing world (interview, part 1)

Judith Deborah photo

Judith Deborah, author of "A Falling Knife"

It was not too long ago that my husband tapped me on the shoulder and said: “You have the Kindle app on your iPad, don’t you? You should get this book!” He then pointed me towards A Falling Knife by Judith Deborah. Since my husband has very good taste, I didn’t hesitate and promptly downloaded the Kindle edition, which was free for one day only. I never regretted my download: A Falling Knife is an engaging, intelligent and well-written book; for testimony besides my own see this review from Kirkus Reviews, as well as Amazon’s review page.

In addition to being a talented writer, Ms Deborah is also a very gracious woman. When I asked her if she wouldn’t mind me publishing a short interview with her on my website, she promptly agreed, and was subsequently very patient with me when I sent her my questions somewhat later than I had initially told her I would.

She has really given my questions a lot of consideration and her answers are thoughtful and offer a good deal of insight into Judith’s writer’s mind. I have published them, unabridged, in this, my first of 2 interviews with her. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed conducting the interview.

Q. What do you love best about writing?

A. It feels very good to read something you’ve written that you know you can be proud of — something you know you’ve worked on very hard, that you’ve polished until it gleams. Also, positive feedback is a huge positive. When you’re writing a long piece, you’re all alone for very long stretches, and it’s easy to lose all sense of the quality of the stuff you’re churning out. It’s a tremendous relief to come out of the cave with the book and have people say nice things about it, especially when they’re total strangers.

Individual pieces offer their own pleasures, too. In A Falling Knife, I enjoyed constructing the plot of the mystery, and had a great time writing two characters in particular — the Orthodox Jewish finance blogger Solly Pinsk and the foul-mouthed trader Cal Buckholtz — because I enjoy the way they talk. In my earlier writing days, I was a big descriptive scene-setter, and tended to lean on that at the expense of interactions between characters. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to enjoy writing dialogue best.

Q. What do you find the most difficult about the writing process?

A. In terms of process, there’s a world of difference between putting a plot together and actually writing scenes. Every time I start a new scene, I’m thrown off badly by the blank screen. (I’m never more industrious a doer of laundry than when I have a new scene to write.) Part of the reason the book took so long (three years) was because I procrastinated so badly every time I had to start a new scene.

Q. This is a question I think every writer gets: do you have a set writing routine, and if you do: what are its origins?

A. I write every morning from 8:00 or so to about 12:30 or 1:00 pm. Before I start work, I allow myself 30-45 minutes to wander around on the Internet reading random things — movie reviews, news items, blog posts by some fashionistas whose writing I enjoy — and to read and answer email. Once I’ve got all that out of my system, I can focus. I’ve learned from experience that there’s no point in trying to hector myself into writing before I’ve had my world news/celebrity gossip fix. It’s like taking kids to the zoo: you might as well get them the ice cream when you first arrive so they can forget about it and pay attention to the animals.

I write on a Mac. I used to write by hand on legal pads, but those days are long past (although I still fetishize pads a bit — I love narrow rule — and really enjoy a nice dark pen). I make liberal use of the Mac’s Stickies application, and have dozens of virtual Post-Its all over my computer screen reminding me of tasks I have to complete for the project.

I have a tiny, overstuffed office in my apartment, but it’s so overrun with books and papers that I ended up writing most of A Falling Knife at a cafe. We’re building a house, though, and I’m going to have a lovely office in the attic with a slanty roof and plenty of space to shove stuff out of sight. That’s where I’ll be doing my writing once we move in.

Q. You’ve made brief mention on your website of your reasons for self-publication. Can you elaborate a little more on what you perceive is the future of self-publishing and how you think it will affect the publishing industry?

A. Just this morning I read a comment by a friend on Facebook, enthusiastically seconded by a series of other people, about a collection she’d just read of dystopian science fiction short stories by a relatively unknown author. In recommending those stories, she was completely defying the conventional wisdom in the traditional publishing industry that nobody wants to read short stories anymore unless they’re written by established names. The self-publishing movement has revealed that many allegedly nonexistent audiences are alive and well, and hungry for material.

The industry has set up barriers to entry based on quality, which is a fine thing in principle (if tough to pull off fairly when the product is judged by such subjective criteria). Where it gets into trouble is when it arbitrarily dictates what audiences want. I know that as a reader, I’m frustrated by the glut of cookie-cutter suspense novels and the relative dearth of clever, old-school, non-cozy mysteries. When I was trying to publish A Falling Knife the traditional way, I was told over and over again that if I turned it from a straight mystery (where the detective assembles clues and deduces a solution) into a suspense novel (where the detective is put in greater and greater physical peril), my odds of success would be much higher. That would have completely changed the character of the book, and I just couldn’t do it. I had to publish it myself because (according to the conventional wisdom) there’s no audience for mysteries by unknowns, even with contemporary settings, that subscribe to a classical, Golden Age mystery structure.

Now, the joke might be on me — the book’s sales are not exactly busting up the charts — but reviews are consistently positive, and there does seem to be an audience for this kind of material. It’s an audience that I’m convinced can grow, and its growth will not necessarily be predicted by industry professionals. I am much happier getting my stuff out there and serving that audience than tossing it in a drawer because of an industry presumption that the audience for it is too small to matter. It’s true that self-publishing enables the foisting onto the public of a great deal of subpar work, but readers are capable of detecting quality. I firmly believe that the best books will rise to the top by virtue of popular acclaim.

Which brings me to the other huge change wrought by self-publishing: the new pricing model. There are two elements to this: the low-priced ebook (defined as anything up to $4.99, say) and the free book. Both of them depend on word of mouth to work.

I used to think giving away books was bananas, but have come to see it’s actually quite brilliant. If you have a backlog and you give away some work for free, that work — provided it’s good enough — will encourage readers to come back for more. That’s where the sales happen. And if you keep the price of your other books low, those readers — people who already value your work — will be more willing to take a chance on the rest of your material, and to tell other people about it. I like the anti-elitist element of this trend — should anybody really be expected to shell out $26.95 for a novel? — and support the principle of trusting the audience to decide for itself what it wants to read and to winnow out quality work on its own.

Q. A Falling Knife is published as “An Evan Adair Mystery”. Does this mean there will be more Evan Adair Mysteries and can you say anything concrete about Evan’s next appearance, such as an expected publication date or even just whether you are working on a draft, or possibly even something about his next case?

A. The project I’ve been working on since A Falling Knife came out is not a mystery — it’s sort of a comedy of manners — but there is a historical subject I’m interested in that I would like to use as the backdrop for another Evan Adair mystery. I’m going to have to keep it under my hat, though. I’ve always found the brainstorming of ideas while they’re still in the germinal stage to be disastrous. Talking about ideas too early has a calcifying effect on them, at least for me.

Q. Finally, a question that interests me personally: how have you managed to combine work, family and writing a book? (I have a husband and only one child, but seem to be laboring under a permanent lack of energy and time. Any insights into this are more than welcome!)

A. I have three young children, and work is a total impossibility when they’re in the house. That means that my sole work time is the morning hours, when all of them are at school. When they get home, it’s all over. Children are sociable creatures, and it’s just not realistic to ask them to let Mommy sit in her office without being disturbed for any length of time. Nor is it practical when they’re still young enough to require supervision.

I don’t mind the truncated workday for two reasons: the morning is my most creative time in any case (I edit well in the middle of the night, but only seem to be able to do new writing early in the day), and I’m the kind of person who requires deadlines to get anything done. It’s helpful, in a maddening kind of way, to look at the clock and know that I’ve got just one hour left and no more. I’m sure a graph of my work time would show a spike in productivity every day approaching the time I have to go pick up the kids.

I’ve wondered sometimes whether the book would have been written faster if I didn’t have such limited work time, but I’m not convinced. If I had all the time in the world, I probably wouldn’t get anything done at all.

I still (to my husband’s chagrin) tend to collapse pretty soon after my kids go to sleep. When I’m well into a piece, I’ll sometimes stay up late into the night to make use of that quiet, peaceful time (editing in the middle of the night is very pleasant), but I pay for it when I have to get up at 6:15 the next morning.


Check back soon on my site for part 2 of my interview with Judith Deborah, which will focus more specifically on A Falling Knife.

You can also follow Judith on Twitter. Her Twitter handle is @JudithDeborah.

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