In Conversation With Judy Alter Author of Several Fictonal Biographies of Women of the American West
Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com.
He has been reviewing books for the past fifteen years when he retired from the legal profession.
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Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest award- winning novelist, Judy Alter author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West. Her most recent novel, The Gilded Cage has just be published.
Judy's writings have been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.
Norm: Good day Judy and thanks for participating in our interview.
Judy: Thanks for having me as your guest.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going? How long did it take you to get your first major book contract?
Judy: I started writing short stories when I was about ten and have been writing in one form or another since then. I keep at it because I like to write. I like to work out things in words, whereas mathematicians work them out in numbers.
I think the only major book contract I’ve had was for my first novel, After Pa Was Shot, and the contract came about by serendipity—my husband met a California agent and said, “Let me tell you about my wife.” That agent had a working arrangement with a NY agent who sold the novel to William Morrow. The NY agent ultimately stole a big chunk of my royalties—not enough for the expense of going to court though. I have had one good agent, and a series of disappointments.
Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today as an author?
Judy: Being pigeon-holed both as a y/a author (I did overcome that) and as a small press or midlist author. Some days I think I didn’t have the chutzpah to push myself to the top of the list but then again I’ve had a long and satisfying career, much better than most authors.
Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of the writing process? Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Could you summarize your writing process.
Judy: I’m a pantser. I write from the seat of my pants, with only an idea. Never with a plot outline. Sometimes I get near the end and don’t know whodunit. Then when inspiration strikes, I have to go back rewrite to make it logical. But I definitely write by instinct. And if I’m not enthusiastic about what I’m working on, it really shows.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Judy: The best and most important class I ever took was typing in high school. The most destructive thing is measuring myself against others. I belong to writers’ groups where people make elaborate charts, plot outlines, take endless classes, use lots of complicated programs, and sometimes I’m intimidated. But I think there comes a time, at least for me, when you have to just write—instinct again. You either spend your time “being a write,” learning about the craft, or you sit down and write. I’m of the latter school.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to writing fictional biographies of women of the American West?
Judy: In graduate school I specialized in literature of the American West, it was a natural for me. My first fictional biography was about a little known woman physician, though it now has something like 800 reviews on Amazon. I wrote Libbie (Elizabeth Bacon Custer) because she was a big name and would get a publisher’s attention—pure calculation to advance my career.
Bantam published it and the next two—but as always happens, the program at Bantam changed and they were no longer interested. Leisure published Sundance, Butch and Me, and then for a long dry spell I wrote y/a nonfiction for companies that publish for school libraries—work for hire.
Today, fictional biographies of women are gaining a lot of traction, which gave me a chance to work on The Gilded Cage, a manuscript. I’d written and revised countless times over ten years. I’d like to find another woman I was equally enthusiastic about.
Norm: What is the most important thing that people don't know about these fictional biographies that they need to know?
Judy: That there’s really a lot of solid research behind each one.
Norm: Could you tell our readers something about your most recent novel, The Gilded Cage?
Judy: The Gilded Cage is set in Chicago in the late 19th century. It’s mostly about Cissy Palmer, wife of Potter (built the Palmer House). She early equated great wealth with an obligation to philanthropy.
The rousing history of Chicago, its Gilded Age and its major influence in 19th-century labor troubles, is a big part of the story. I grew up in Chicago, near the grounds of the Columbian Exposition—which is also part of the story. So it was a great joy for me to write this novel…and rewrite and rewrite. All the little things you know about Chicago are there---Hull House, the Haymarket Riot—and some you probably don’t, like the POW camp during the Civil War. The book culminates in the exposition.
Norm: How much research did you do for this most recent novel and where do you get your information?
Judy: I did tons of research and used all kinds of sources. There is an Author’s note that discussed them. Of course my knowledge of Chicago came into it too. There’s a wonderful book titled The Fair Ladies that details the story of the Women’s Auxiliary or whatever—Cissy was very active in that. I read everything I could about the exposition, Cissy (there is one biography), etc.
Norm: What projects are you working on at the present?
Judy: Principally learning to walk again after a broken leg and adjusting to new quarters in a cottage built on the back of my property, while one of my daughters and her family live in the main house. I have four novels in various stages of development but am not enthusiastic about any of them. I blog almost daily, and am beginning to think seriously about a memoir. I did a lighthearted memoir/cookbook some years ago, but I’d like this to be more in depth.
I told my youngest daughter that I didn’t think my life would make a good memoir because I haven’t known much grief, and she hooted. I am the single parent of four adopted children, I have fought a lifelong anxiety disorder, and the list goes on. But I think of myself as happy and healthy.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and our novels?
Judy: Readers can find my WEB PAGE. They can sign up there for my newsletter or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My blog is still at http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com though I’ve change the name from Judy’s Stew to The View from Judy’s Cottage.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Judy: Why aren’t you on the New York Times bestseller list?
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors