By Elizabeth Speth
Biblical history insists that Death rides a pale horse, but author Laura Crum, having penned a dozen murder mysteries against a backdrop of galloping hoofbeats, has taught us that such assumptions are foolhardy. And she has schooled us deliciously.
Crum graciously agreed to an e-mail interview from her home near Aptos, California, where she grows ravishing roses, nourishes the local hummingbird population, enjoys a good whiskey sour, and rides horses on the beach with her young son, whose attention, alas, is beginning to drift toward two-wheeled transport.
Crum is a loyal friend. The majority of her equine herd are ageing horses enjoying a well-earned retirement, lightly ridden on nearby beaches and through local forests. This is just one reason, perhaps, that Crum manifests no regrets as she weighs in on an impressive body of published work. She talks about her brilliant, strong-willed protagonist Gail McCarthy, an equine vet who often finds herself in the middle of murderous mayhem. She is comfortable with the fact that tough, brave cowgirls don’t just fade away. They become mothers and go through dark periods. She speaks fondly of old ranch horses, candidly about the state of publishing today, and revealingly of the small things in life that make us joyful. She is a woman who decided to write what she wants to write. She lives the same way. From the heart.
Thank you so much, Laura, for taking the time to answer a few questions. Would you please give us a brief biography?
Let’s see, I was born here in Santa Cruz County to a family that has been running a family ranch for four generations. I grew up riding my uncle’s horses out at the old ranch. He was a professional rodeo cowboy–a team roper–and this sort of sealed my fascination with the cowboy tradition. I did take riding lessons and learned to ride English and jump horses in my teens, but my true love remained working cattle on horseback. When I went off to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (as an English major), I took along a horse that I’d broke and trained myself, and I trained several other colts while I attended that very horse-friendly college. Upon graduation I did not take a job as an English teacher (which I had trained to be), but rather went to work for a pack station in the Sierras, and then a commercial cattle ranch, followed by several years of working for a succession of horse trainers. Eventually I settled on cutting as my discipline of choice and hauled my horse, Gunner (I still have him today–34 years old this spring), all over the western United States to various events. We won a few buckles, but I burned out on the political aspect of the sport, and took up team roping (which is timed) in my thirties. Gunner made the transition to team roping horse at about the same time that I made the transition from training horses to writing novels.
I had always loved the novels of Dick Francis, and when I realized that I was not getting any younger and I really didn’t want the stress of training young horses any more, I decided to try writing a mystery series in which I would use my background in the western horse world much as Dick Francis had used his background as a steeple chase jockey to create his mystery novels. And thus Cutter, my first book (revolving around the world of cutting horses), was born.
At what point in this biography did you know you wanted to be a writer?
From early childhood I knew that I loved to read and write. I always assumed that I would be either an author or a horse trainer.
Horse training came first, and when I got to the end of that, I began with the novels. Trust me to choose two professions that have failed to make me rich!
Your heroine is equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy. What is your relationship with her? How much of Gail is Laura Crum, and how did you decide who she would be and then go on to animate her so effectively?
I created Gail in a conscious way–basing her physical appearance on my best friend, and her history on another friend (male) who became a vet. I gave her my own opinions, by and large. Over time she became much more like me. In the early books, not so much. I did give her many of my own experiences and the background of the novels comes straight out of my life.
You’ve published quite a few books. Twelve that I know of. Describe writing your first book and the process of getting it published.
I wrote Cutter long-hand in a series of spiral bound notebooks, often sitting in front of the barn while the just-bathed Gunner dried in the sun, or in the pickup while waiting my turn at a team roping. It took me six months to write the first draft, and several years and many rejection notes later, an agent agreed to take me on. Then followed another year of rewrites–the agent was a former editor. At one point she told me that she didn’t like the plot, she didn’t like the protagonist, she didn’t like the villain and she didn’t like the tone. When I asked her what she did like, she said that she liked that it was about horses and it was set in Santa Cruz (!) So you see, I had a long way to go. After this year of constant rewrites my agent began sending the book out to publishing houses, and after ANOTHER year and some more rejections, Cutter was bought by an editor at St Martin’s Press. This was sort of a surprise, because I had always imagined the book as a paperback original, but it was actually chosen by a very respected mystery editor (Ruth Cavin) and came out in hardcover.
All artists are in awe of The Creative Process, I think. Some regard it as an angry god that must be appeased and humored. They are almost superstitious about it. You are a very prolific writer. What is your process?
This is a hard question to answer. To begin with, my process looked a lot like imitating Dick Francis, using my own background. I wanted to write about cutting and ranching and team roping and breaking colts and horse packing…etc, and I used the form of the mystery novel to do it. Whenever I got stuck, I would open a Dick Francis novel and see how the master approached this sort of dilemma. My first two or three novels really show this influence.
Over time I learned to write to a deadline. I never had a regular writing schedule–I’m not that disciplined. However, after my first novel, I had a contract (and a deadline) for all subsequent novels. As the deadline got closer, I’d push myself to get it done. I also learned that feeling “inspired” doesn’t always make for better writing. Some of my best writing came from periods when I was just slogging along, getting it done. I also learned to wait. To let things percolate. Sometimes the answer would just come to me and THEN I would sit down and write.
After quite a few years of turning out mystery novels (I wrote these twelve novels over a twenty year period), my writing became far more about expressing small insights that I wanted to share, and less about trying to write the sort of books that I thought would “sell.” And, quite predictably, I never became a “best seller.” But I did learn to write in my own voice, and no longer needed to imitate other writers.
Publishing has changed so much in the last decade. The word ‘changed’ is inadequate. What are your thoughts on this? What are the challenges authors face today?
Yes, it is SO different from when I started. Then you had to get an agent and your book had to be bought by an editor. “Self-published” was a dirty word and such books were never successful. Editors almost never bought unagented books. And it was terribly hard to get an agent because legitimate agents worked only on a commission basis. Thus they really had to believe in your work before they would take you as a client. And, of course, there were (and are) always an infinite amount more folks wanting to be published than traditional publishing would take on. So the agents and editors weeded out what they deemed the good from the bad. It was really hard to “break in.” (See my story about publishing my first book.)
Now self-publishing is a viable option (though these writers prefer to call themselves “indie authors” I believe). I’m not sure what I think about this. I can tell you that putting my backlist (which was out of print) up as Kindle editions has been quite a nice thing for me. I get a check every month, far more than I used to earn in conventional royalties. But I definitely tend to shy away from all the “indie” books out there. I know some are good–I just don’t know how to sort out the good ones.
We must talk about the horses. They’ve been, and are, a very large part of your life. They are a large part of Gail McCarthy’s life. Can you speak to the relationship between (wo)man and horse in general terms, and in your own experience?
I’ve always been passionately drawn to horses. My earliest memory is of being put on a horse with my uncle and loping along in the saddle with him. Ever since I was first allowed to buy a horse (with my own hard-earned money at the age of fifteen), I have always owned horses. I’ve never lost interest in them, though my life has gone through many changes. I no longer compete on my horses or train horses, but my son and I still trail ride together on our steady mounts. And I still have my two older horses that I competed on for so many years–they are retired now. Gunner (34) and Plumber (25) are featured equine characters in my novels, and Sunny and Henry (our two current trail horses) come into the last two books (Going Gone and Barnstorming). Our much-loved pony, Toby (now deceased and buried here) is featured in Chasing Cans. My life, like my books, has been very much about horses, and I am still passionate about them, although these days living with my horses here on our property probably means more to me than any other aspect of my horse life.
I think there are many women (and a few men) who, just like me, have been passionately drawn to horses all their lives. Some, like me, have been lucky enough to live out their dream. I wrote my novels to all these other horse lovers, including those who never quite had the life with horses that they dreamed of.
(A portrait of the artist in her element.)
What are your writing projects going forward? I know you publish a weekly equestrian blog (it’s marvelous). Do we fans have any Laura Crum projects to look forward to?
I love writing blog posts on the Equestrian Ink Blog. It’s so much easier than writing fiction (at least for me). I probably never would have started my own blog, not thinking that anyone would be interested in my day-to-day thoughts. But having been invited to join Equestrian Ink several years ago, I have really enjoyed writing posts and connecting with readers.
I always meant to write a dozen novels in the Gail McCarthy series, and that goal has been accomplished. I’m not sure if I will write more books about Gail–so far it feels good to end the series at book number twelve–Barnstorming. I recently finished a brief memoir about my real life history with horses that is meant to be a companion to the mystery series. I plan to have it up as a 99 cent special on Kindle in the next few months. My latest writing project is an essay I wrote just for myself–about the magic I’ve experienced in my life. Not sure if I will publish it or not. But it was an interesting experience to write something that I wanted to write just to please myself.
One of my personal favorites among your books is ‘Slickrock’. It reminds me of some wonderful experiences horsepacking in California’s wilderness areas, which are of course renowned for their slickrock. Do you have a favorite amongst your wonderful stories?
As many authors say, it’s like trying to pick your favorite child. All the books are special to me for one reason or another. I think I improved as a writer quite a bit after my first novel–Cutter is definitely a slightly more amateurish book than the others. Slickrock (number five in the series) is the overall reader favorite, that is for sure. It is a book that I really enjoyed writing, and much of the material in it comes from journals that I wrote while horse packing and camping in those mountains. The sixth book, Breakaway, is probably my darkest book. People either love this one or hate it. The last four books (Moonblind, Chasing Cans, Going Gone and Barnstorming) deal with my protagonist getting married, getting pregnant, having a baby and raising a child. As some of us know firsthand, these are huge life experiences, and I wanted to write about them (there are lots of horses and danger in these books, too–I promise). These “mama” books are very special to me, but I am quite aware that many readers preferred my heroine as a single, tough-minded veterinarian rather than a mom. But you can’t please everybody, and in the end I chose to write what I wanted to write. All my books come from the heart.