The Mysterious Life of Chassie West Mike Field --------------- Staff Writer "The kid was going to shoot me; that was a given. He had nothing to lose; he'd already shot one cop..." Chassie West knows how to make a mystery novel move. She ought to. Her most recent effort, Sunrise, whose policewoman heroine is introduced to readers as she stares down the barrel of a snub-nosed revolver, is her 20th published book. Released in October 1994, Sunrise was one of just five books nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award, the most sought-after prize in the mystery writer's genre. "Winning an Edgar is the equivalent of the Academy Award," says West of her nomination. "While I'm disappointed I didn't win, I'm thrilled just to have been nominated." The 1995 Edgar for best original paperback went to Lisa Scottoline's Final Appeal, an author who, in a roundabout way, West also had a hand in helping get published. "Final Appeal was Lisa's third book. Her first book, Every Where that Mary Went, was sent to me to critique before publication," a practice not uncommon in the mystery novel genre. "I suggested some changes, and Lisa did in fact choose to incorporate those changes in her book," West says. "I was pleased when she won to think I might have helped launch her career." Although she has been writing for more than 30 years--and has been a published author since 1982--West still hasn't quit her day job. She has worked--except for a five-year hiatus--since 1973 at the Applied Physics Laboratory, where she holds the position of administrative secretary to Senior Fellow Alvin Eaton, former associate director of APL. But doesn't authorship bring with it serial rights and movie contracts and sun-glassed agents waving six-figure contracts in the air? "Let me assure you," says West with a trace of irritation in her voice, "it's only the would-be's that think that way. Anyone who's ever written knows it ain't so." Some books sell well, and some authors do in fact make a pot of money--or more. But they are the exceptions, not the rule, and for the most part many writers put in many long hard hours and are still left struggling to find a way to make ends meet. For Chassie West, though, the potential to score big may be at hand. "I kicked at the door, wishing I hadn't been so fast to shed my shoes. It flew open, bumped against something, and recoiled, starting to close again. The interior was a glimpse into hell. The walls were no longer solid. They were alive, moving, dancing, writhing, red-orange with flames. Black smoke billowed toward the ceiling, folding in over itself as it rose. ... With the distinct possibility that Doc was inside, I had to do something. Me. There was no one else." Sunrise is the name of a mythical small town in North Carolina, a place where the blacks live on one side of town, the whites on the other. Yet, somehow over the years they have all managed to get along. Leigh Ann Warren, the streetwise D.C. cop who escapes the harrowing run-in with the revolver that opens the book (she is wounded before she shoots her assailant), returns to her home on the black side of Sunrise, hoping to heal and forget. All bets are off, however, when Leigh Ann finds a body--a white body--wrapped in a plastic bag and buried in a shallow grave in the town's black cemetery. Whose body is it, and how did it get there? Against the advice of friends and against her own determined wishes, Leigh Ann is soon dragged into a deepening investigation that threatens to tear her sleepy little hometown apart with charges of lies, deceit, murder and molestation. In her reluctant protagonist, West may have found the perfect character to embark on any number of mystery romps. Young, black, smart and single, Leigh Ann Warren is a fresh new face in a genre peopled with English biddies, Belgian detectives and innumerable streetwise private eyes. West's protagonist is different, and in a market literally awash in mysteries, having a difference is what it's all about. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, or possibly because of the Edgar nomination, HarperPaperbacks, the book's publisher, has decided to reissue Sunset as a "midlist" mystery this fall. Originally packaged in bright pink and yellow colors ("They're called neon," West says with a laugh) meant to attract female romance readers, the book was initially marketed in the romantic suspense category, a broad subsection of the romance genre. "Buried secrets. Deadly lies. Desperate passion," reads the current cover when, in fact, there's not much in the way of passion and none of it is desperate. "This is a mystery," she says matter-of-factly about her book. She is excited that Harper is reissuing it and hopeful that the change will win her a whole new category of readers. The switch to midlist marketing will entail new packaging designed to appeal to a broader readership base of both men and women. "The Publisher's Weekly critic remarked that Leigh Ann Warren is somebody they would like to see again and at this point I'm open to the idea," says West, who now owes Harper one more novel on her two-book contract. "Some writers have three or four series running at once. I'd like to try her again. If it got to the point where she no longer grew, then I'd stop." "I increased my speed by ten miles an hour. So did the truck. I slowed to the speed limit. So did the truck, but there was nothing unusual about that. I was being paranoid. I might have continued to believe that had I not looked up a minute or so later to see the pickup filling my back window. It was almost on me and showed no signs of slowing." Chassie West first caught the writing bug after taking a creative writing class at Howard Community College in the mid-1970s. "There were some of us in the class who wanted to keep the impetus going, but the instructor was not available during the summers so we formed a critique group," says West. That group, with some members going and others coming, has been meeting twice a month ever since. "The core five or six of us are still there, and at this point all of us have been published," she says. "In fact, my 20 books are nothing. Some in the group have as many as 40 books to their credit." Her first break came in 1982, when a member of the group told her that Silhouette, a publisher specializing in romance novels, was looking for a black writer to work in their young adult romance category. West sent three chapters to an editor. Soon, she was under contract to produce three books. West's early writing career included her own books as well as books under various well-known pseudonyms such as Tracy West and Joyce McGill. Occasionally, she has written on a write-for-hire basis as well. "When you write-for-hire you receive a flat fee in exchange for relinquishing all rights," says West, who assumed Carolyn Kean's identity to write-for-hire two titles in the Nancy Drew File series, #15 Trial by Fire and #32 High Marks for Malice for another publisher. When published under a more conventional arrangement, where she is paid based on total sales of her books, writing a romance novel is still no road to riches. "A normal book contract will pay the author an advance and then specify a certain percentage of each book sale that will go to the author," says West. "Usually an author will get 2 1/2 to 3 percent of the price of each book. No additional payments are made until the price of the advance is covered, and then when it is, royalty checks are only issued twice a year." Even book tours and other promotional events are largely limited to a select few authors. "I've done some book signings, but it's only the big names that get flown around the country for that kind of promotion," says West. "Until you're recognized and have a following you largely have to promote yourself." Many authors pay for their own limited tours and even print bookmarks or other give-aways in the hope of luring readers. Yet if the business is tough, West has found that the camaraderie of other writers more than makes up for it. "I've discovered that writers are a very generous bunch," she says. "The support that you get from others is invaluable. If anyone is interested in any kind of writing I would say--if it's possible--become a member of a group. It can help get you published, it can help you out and it can just be a lifesaver. We're very excited when a new writer breaks in. Nine out of 10 times, if you ask a writer for help, you'll get it."
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