Author Interviews/Features

       

Judy Alter

Judy Alter   Judy Alter lives in Fort Worth, TX, in a 1922 red brick bungalow with a garden of wildflowers and a Bordoodle named Sophie. She has been involved in all kinds of writing over a long span of years, and is the author of more books than she can count (almost). But like all authors, Judy had to start somewhere, look for opportunities to use her writing skills, and turn those opportunities into a writing career.

Read Susan Wittig Albert's review of Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books; Mary Jo Doig's review of Danger Comes Home; Sharon Wildwind's review of Skeleton in a Dead Space; Mary Jo Doig's review of The Perfect Coed for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.

Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 12/03/2014

I met Judy Alter through her memoir, Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books, which I reviewed in 2009. In my review, I wrote:

I loved Judy Alter's delightful memoir, Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books. This is a book about life and love, kitchens and cooking and kids. It's full of recipes (good food, stick-to-the-ribs American food), and it reflects the times and places of Alter's experiences as a daughter, wife, mom, working mom, and cook. That some of the times and places she writes about happen to be times and places in my own life is coincidental and certainly added to my enjoyment of the book, but I'm willing to bet that you'll enjoy it, too.
Judy's book was so interesting that I wanted to get to know her better—a goal that I've been working at since she joined SCN in 2010. I've discovered that, as a memoirist, a novelist, a blogger, and (most recently) a publisher, Judy has led a remarkable writing life.

Born in 1938, Judy began writing at ten: a series of short stories about Miss Shufflebaum, a prim and proper spinster with a high lace collar, long skirts, and a little blond cocker spaniel who kept getting her into trouble. (At the time, Judy desperately wanted a blond cocker.) In high school, she began sending her stories to Seventeen Magazine, without any luck. "They apparently had a rubber band attached to them," she says with a laugh. "They came back as fast as I sent them." In college, she majored in English, of course.

But it was in graduate school at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth in the 1970s, Judy's passion for writing began to pay off. She was studying American western literature, which eventually launched her career as a western writer. In addition, she wrote an alumni newspaper and edited a medical journal for an osteopathic college and free-lanced for lay readers on medical topics. (She grew up, she says, "in an osteopathic family.")

The idea for Judy's first novel (published in 1978, when Judy was 40) occurred to her via a memoir written by a friend's mother. It included the story of how the memoirist's father, an East Texas sheriff's deputy, had been shot in 1908, when she was only four. "At the time," Judy says, "I was reading young adult books and it occurred to me that I could use the girl as my point-of-view character and make her fourteen instead of four, so she could deal with the events." Titled After Pa Was Shot, the novel was published by William Morrow, and pigeon-holed Judy as a YA and "western" author.

Making the most of the opportunity (and her research background in western history), Judy continued to write fiction and biographies, including six novels for adults and several for young adults, many of which remain available as ebooks. The most important of these were four long fictional biographies of women of the West: Libbie Custer; Jessie Benton Frémont, a Wild West show cowgirl; and Etta Place of the Hole in the Wall Gang. Judy says: "My 'western period' lasted from the late 1960s (when I became active in Western Writers of America), through 2004 when Sundance, Butch and Me was published." Judy's work won awards from the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, the Texas Institute of Letters, and Western Writers of America, Inc., including WWA's Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement. Most recently, the Fort Worth Public Library elected her to their Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

But life has a way of nudging us down unexpected paths. In 1982—in her forties, newly divorced and with four adopted kids ranging in age from six to twelve—Judy was offered a job as an editor at TCU Press. She worked there as an editor for ten years, and then was named director, a post that she held until she retired in 2011. "It was a wonderful job," she says. "I'm sure it shaped my writing because I saw so much writing that worked—and so much that didn't." It also introduced her to authors and book people and gave her an insider's view of the publishing industry.

Judy's editorial work was demanding, but throughout her years at the Press, she continued to make time for her own writing. She took work-for-hire nonfiction assignments (work for hire pays an up-front fee and no royalties and is usually written under a pseudonym) from houses such as Scholastic, Franklin Watts, and Compass Point, producing books that were sold to school libraries. "It was interesting work," she says, "and I learned about everything from vaccines and surgery to shipping vessels and presidential lives."

As time went on, Judy's writing interest turned to mysteries. Her first, Skeleton in a Dead Space, had a long and rocky road to publication via four different agents and many submissions to a tight market. She finished the book in 2007 but it wasn't published until 2011—an illustration of the problems writers face when they're trying to break into a new field. But perseverance paid off: There are now five mysteries in her Kelly O'Connell Mystery Series with a sixth to come, and two in her Murder at the Blue Plate Cafe Series. "I'm moving on to Oak Grove, Texas," Judy adds, "home of the fictional Oak Grove University and English prof Dr. Susan Hogan." She already has a second work in progress in that series. She says she has benefited from her membership in Sisters in Crime, a community of mystery writers and readers, which has helped give her an inside look into the business end of mystery-writing.

And as if she didn't already have enough on her plate, Judy is finishing a book about chili, beans, and beer, proposed four years ago to Texas Tech University Press and now, finally, on schedule for publication in 2015—another example of how long it can take for a project to move from manuscript to print.

The publishing business has changed remarkably in the past decade, and Judy has always been challenged by new technologies. This fall, she published her mystery, The Perfect Coed, as an "indie," an author-published book. Available in both print and ebook formats through online booksellers, Coed is already garnering positive reader reviews. Judy plans to publish her next mystery as an indie, as well.

Indie publishing has meant that Judy has had to work to create an Internet presence. She has an excellent website where you can find lists of all her books. She has been blogging since 2006 ("Judy's Stew,") About her blog, she says,

I think it's important in a blog to talk about life in general and not just your books. So my "stew" mixes writing, grandmothering, and cooking—the three big areas of my life. I'm not afraid to express my strong political beliefs and to a lesser extent my religious concerns. I'm also active on Facebook and, to a much lesser extent, on Twitter. It's all part of getting your name out to the public—which may seem crass but is definitely necessary in this climate.
Judy's Tips for Writers

Network. I've always found it important to join groups of like-minded writers: Story Circle Network, Sisters in Crime, Western Writers of America, etc. Don't lurk—participate, volunteer, become a known voice in the community.

Read. Read everything you can in your genre. What works? What doesn't? How can you make your own work stand out in the crowd?

Revise. Read, revise, set aside to marinate. Repeat endlessly.

Develop a thick skin. Be prepared for rejection, criticism, disappointment.

Persevere. Never give up. That should be your writer's mantra.

I am very glad that Judy Alter's memoir, Cooking My Way Through Life, introduced me to this talented and highly committed writer. For me, her long writing career illustrates the incalculable importance of continued persistence: finding a writing-related interest (for Judy, western history); looking for opportunities to put writing skills to work (Judy's job as an editor and work-for-hire), and sticking with it, even when changing markets and new technologies turn everything upside down.

Truly, Judy Alter is leading a remarkable writing life.

For more information on the author and her books visit her website & blog.

       

#visitors: