An East of Eden Writers Conference attendee returns to speak as a blossoming novelist.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
At the East of Eden Writers Conference in 2004, Terri Thayer recalls looking with awe at the “real” writers populating the Steinbeck Center that weekend. A quilter for more than 20 years, Thayer had put aside her childhood dream of writing until she moved from her hometown of Niagara Falls, New York, to California. The warm weather of the west thawed Thayer’s heart– and her creative muscles.
“People over here are so creative, and they really treat writing and quilting as art,” she says. “The weather, the ocean and just the physical beauty of the place is all really inspiring.”
That inspiration drove Thayer to begin work on her first novel, Wild Goose Chase, a murder mystery sown into a surprising– and surprisingly satisfying– context: quilting.
Protagonist Dewey Pellicano is a computer techie forced to take over her mother’s quilting business, despite the fact that she knows nothing about it and must brave a sister-in-law’s resentful wrath. When she discovers a murder by quilting razor, madness ensues, and a hunky homicide detective named Buster Healy enters the scene.
What would otherwise read like a formulaic murder mystery gains a refreshing and quirky character as Thayer reveals the appeal of the quilting culture (who knew quilting conventions could be so fun?) which, stitched with murder, creates a reality all its own.
“I really wanted to read the book that I wasn’t seeing on the market,” Thayer says. “And not just [for] sweet little old ladies. Craft becomes the setting, and it’s also what makes people pick up the book.”
Thayer’s work is light, fun and addictive. She manages to thread together a story that stimulates curiosity while satisfying an appetite for a humorous view of life’s tedium. Dewey is going through a crisis that many people can identify with– being thrown into a life one did not expect, or want, with the added element of annoying and even belligerent family members. Her connection with real life and ignoble situations make her stories ring with truth, even as the plot skirts classic themes of romance and murder.
It was at that 2004 writers conference that Thayer submitted the first chapter of Wild Goose Chase to one of the California Writers Club contests, winning third place. While the many workshops centered on topics like revising, dialogue and character development gave her practical strategies and writer talks offered elusive inspiration, the experience of networking with agents and other professionals in the publishing industry provided the confidence she needed to finish her budding cozy mystery.
“What I’ve really learned is how to network,” she says. “I mean, you can be the most brilliant writer in the world, but if you don’t know how to network, it’s really not going to mean much.”
What Thayer finds important in her writing is taking a hobby burdened by stereotypes and expectations, and playing with those stereotypes to explore darker motives and stronger emotions. Thayer enjoys staging her mysteries in the most unlikely of places, and never takes herself too seriously.
“There’s also some humor, and some romance,” she says. “The quilting novels are actually a little bit steamy. Quilters love steamy.”
Thayer now has a pair of three-book contracts with Midnight Ink Publications and Berkley Prime Crime. Her latest books include Old Maid’s Puzzle, a follow-up to her first novel, which continues the trials of Dewey Pellicano as the computer geek weaves her way through a blanket of lies, competition and more murder as she attempts to sell her mother’s quilting business. Stamped Out is a foray into the world of stamping (a process of imprinting patterns and lettering onto fabric, among other mediums), that tells the story of April Buchert, a woman who returns to her hometown in the hopes of finding herself. When a skull tumbles into April’s life, she finds herself solving two mysteries– that of the skull, and the future direction of her own life.
“The protagonist never knows much about the activity she’s thrown into,” Thayer says. “The reader learns with the protagonist. You don’t need to be a quilter– or a stamper– to enjoy this story.”
Thayer plans to attend this conference, and looks forward to meeting “hot-shot” writers such as Jane Smiley, the locally based Pulitzer-Prize winning author of A Thousand Acres, and David Corbett, author of Blood Paradise and Done for a Dime.
“It’s always inspiring for me to see actual writers and listen to them and their own self-doubts. Meeting writers and listening to them is a really big step for me. What they do, it seems so unattainable, and the fact is that they’re just regular people.”
But what Thayer finds harder to swallow is that she is one of the “actual” writers now.
“It’s certainly going to be different to be on the other side,” she says with a laugh. “I suppose that I am going to be one of the speakers now. It’s hard to imagine that I’m an inspiration.”