L. Browne Unravels the Mysteries of Writing
An interview by Duane Simolke.
12/9/02 for StoneWall Society http://www.stonewallsociety.com/
Your mystery novel Murder In Pastel features a gay male central character. Are
you seeing a lot of gay or lesbian main characters in mystery novels?
Browne: I can think of at least ten "active" gay or lesbian mystery series right off the top of my head, a number of them put out by large publishing houses like Kensington, Doubleday or St. Martin's Press. That's a far cry from when Joseph Hansen broke ground with the Dave Brandstetter series back in the Seventies. We writers tend to complain about the current state of publishing, but there are some good things to be said as well.
Simolke: Patricia Nell Warren, a lesbian, wrote The Front Runner. That best-seller has always been one of the most popular gay male novels. So I wasn't surprised when I learned that Colin Dunne is really a woman, D. L. Browne, but I was surprised when I learned that you're heterosexual. Warren was able to transfer her experiences as a gay woman to a gay man. How were you able to write so well about a gay man, and what made you want to do so?
Browne: Beginning writers always get the advice "write what you know." And of course, it's good advice up to a point, that point being that if we all stuck to writing only what we know, most books would be as dull as ditch water. Writing is as much about using one's imagination as anything else. After all, most mystery writers haven't committed or solved crimes, but the good ones can write convincingly from the viewpoint of cops or criminals. I don't agree with the notion that a man can't write successfully from the viewpoint of a woman, or that a "black" man can't write convincing "white" characters, or that an older writer can't write a believable child.
And when it comes to writing characters, I think it isn't even imagination so much as empathy. That's where the part about writing what you know comes in. I don't know what it's like to lose a child, but I know what it feels like to lose someone I love, so I think an able writer takes an emotion or experience he knows and understands, and translates it into imagination. I think you must have done something like this for your own science fiction novel Degranon. Am I correct? So when you ask me how can I write convincingly about a gay man, I simply took what I know and love about men and gave those feelings to a male character. But you know, I'm a big believer in the notion that all humans share a certain commonality and that we can tap into that universality when we need to--in fact, that we should tap into it frequently in order to stay, well, human.
There are writers who are focused on what's unique about their human experience. All the research in the world won't teach me what it's really like to be a gay man in our society. Obviously I'm going to miss a lot of things and get certain things wrong. But what's true for one gay man will not be true for another. All gay men are not the same anymore than all heterosexual women are. So depending on the reader, some things I write, even from the perspective of a heterosexual woman, will hit home, and others will miss by a mile.
Simolke: Tell us more about the mystery series you're writing, and about your new publisher.
Browne: I've just signed a three-book deal with Pocket Books for a new series written under the Diana Killian pen name. It's kind of a literary mystery-romance "caper" about an American teacher vacationing in the English Lake District who gets involved in the search for a long lost literary masterpiece.
Simolke: Do you plan to keep writing about gay characters?
Browne: I just write characters--people--who interest me. So it's not a conscious decision one way or the other, although I do have a half-finished novel featuring another gay protagonist. I need time to finish it, but Pocket's publishing schedule is pretty tight.
Simolke: Why use pen names?
Browne: It's a practical decision, I think. I originally intended to do a number of off-beat stand-alone mystery novels. I figured these would be works that I would have to self-publish and since the first one, Murder In Pastel, had a male protagonist, it made sense to choose a male pen name. At the same time I was actively seeking a traditional publishing contract for romantic suspense novels, books that I felt would be both more commercial and more mainstream. I guess I thought it would be best not to confuse any potential readership by working openly in two such different genres.
Simolke: Even the real name you provide, D. L. Browne, is sexually ambiguous. Any reason for that?
Browne: I started using the D.L. (my first initials) several years ago when I began writing reviews. I noticed that people made assumptions about reviews based on the sex of the reviewer. If I harshly criticized a hardboiled novel, inevitably I would get this..."well, it's not a chick's book" kind of rationalization. So I liked the idea of a pure, non-sexual intellect reviewing books. Interestingly, the more neutral I tried to make my writing "voice," the more readers seemed to assume I was male.
Simolke: For your book Murder In Pastel, you used the print-on-demand publisher iUniverse, and you hired a publicist. How did those experiences affect your writing career and your attitudes about self-publishing?
Browne: I think writers must keep in mind what they hope to achieve from their writing. If the goal is simply creative self-expression, somebody just wants to say she's published a book, then self-publishing offers wonderful opportunity. But if the goal is to make money and actually have a writing "career," then I believe that the best way to use self-publishing is to take that self-published book and use it as a tool to interest an agent or an editor.
I had already been traditionally published when I tried iUniverse. It was an experiment, and there were some positives, but when you self-publish both marketing and promotion lie entirely in your own hands. I'm not good at the business end of writing, so I hired a publicist, but that's expensive. I found out that I prefer the security of traditional publishing, although the creative freedom in self-publishing is exhilarating.
Simolke: Did the success of that first novel help you obtain your contract with Pocket?
Browne: No. I was lucky enough to find an agent who loved my unfinished manuscript and was willing to wait for me to finish the thing. But the thing is, I never stopped pitching my own work to agents and editors even while I was going through the self-publishing process. My theory is you have to keep striking from every angle.
Simolke: Do you think other beginning writers should hire a publicist?
Browne: That's a tough one. For a first book, no. I'd advise a first time writer to do everything possible on her own, and then take that first self-published book and use it as a tool to interest an agent.
Simolke: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Browne: Oh yes. My sisters tell me some of their earliest memories are of me making up stories for them while we all colored in our coloring books. Even if I never sold another story, I'd keep on writing. I write for the sheer love of it.
Simolke: What advice would you give to unpublished writers who have given up on finding traditional publishers for their books?
Browne: That's such a tough one. Some of it just comes down to luck. Some of it...well, here's the thing: Publishing is a business. Don't forget it. Publishers want to publish books that will make money. As writers we may not agree with a NY publisher's idea of what readers want, but if we wish to sell our work, we need to write according to the rules of the people buying manuscripts. This actually leaves plenty of freedom to be true to your own creative self, but if that's not good enough, then be happy because you can self-publish and have it all your own way right down to wacky fonts and grammatical anarchy.
Simolke: What would you like to say to the many readers who bought your first novel?
Browne: A very sincere thank you! The only thing better than writing is getting to share your stories!
(Duane Simolke’s most popular books are The Acorn Stories and Degranon. He edited and co-wrote The Acorn Gathering: Writers Uniting Against Cancer, a fiction collection that raises money for fighting cancer.)
D. L. Browne Website: http://www.girl-detective.net
Simolke Website: http://www.duanesimolke.com
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