At a recent writers conference, mystery author Wendy Clinch introduced her husband, Jon Clinch, to Charlaine Harris, best-selling author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels. He was also a writer, Wendy said, but of literary fiction.
“Oh, you poor dear!” exclaimed Harris, creator of the “True Blood” characters.
Jon Clinch remembers an equally memorable reaction at a conference five years earlier. When he told an agent his work was literary rather than genre bound, she asked simply, “Why?”
There was a world of difference between those two interactions, though. In the interim, Clinch learned how to sell his fiction.
He went home from the 2005 conference and started writing his novel Finn, a dark retelling of events in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Huck’s Pap’s point of view. Unlike Clinch’s previous (unpublished) manuscripts, this one had a strong hook, and he landed an agent before it was half complete.
The proceeds from Finn, published in 2007, enabled the Clinches to close their advertising agency in the Philadelphia suburbs and move to their second home in Plymouth, Vt. Now they reside full time near Echo Lake, minutes from the slopes of Okemo.
That’s especially important to Wendy, who skis every winter weekday: She has to hold on to her “ski diva” edge. Clinch runs a popular online community for female skiers called theskidiva.com. In the summers, she’s taken up a new, related occupation: writing mystery novels. Her Ski Diva series, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur, started with this year’s Double Black and will continue in January with Fade to White.
Though they’re no longer toiling in the advertising trenches — as they did for three decades — the Clinches had a busy 2010. July saw the publication of Jon’s second novel, Kings of the Earth. The Washington Post raved, “This is the kind of fiction we should be reading,” and Kings appeared at the top of the 2010 Summer Reading List in O: The Oprah Magazine.
Not bad for a literary novelist.
Though Jon, 56, and Wendy, 55, write very differently, they regularly read and critique each other’s work. They’ve been together since they attended Syracuse — “We were children!” says Wendy. And, during an interview at their home on a recent Friday, they converse like two halves of a veteran comedy duo.
Take their response to a question about the research Jon did for Kings of the Earth. The novel’s protagonists are hardscrabble farmers based on a rural family that once resided near Oneida, N.Y., where he grew up.
The real-life Ward brothers gained notoriety in 1990 when one was arrested for murder. Viewers of the national news coverage and the 1992 documentary Brother’s Keeper gawked at their primitive lifestyle. But in Kings, his fictionalized version of the case, Clinch depicts the brothers’ environment — a molding refrigerator, a communal, urine-soaked bed, a school bus full of turkeys — in such intimate detail that the reader can’t help but be drawn into their day-to-day struggles.
Some of the “gritty details” came from his father’s stories about rural life, Clinch says. But the only things he actually researched were a few legal matters and the mechanics of marijuana cultivation (which figures in a subplot).
The rest? “We have an expression in our family,” Clinch says. “When we make something up, we say that it’s the work of our OEB — our own encyclopedic brain.”
“Sometimes I’ll ask him, ‘How did you know that?’” says Wendy, who has straight black hair and intonations that just barely suggest her Jersey Shore origins.
She’s not the only one to ask. Last October, Jon visited Jefferson City, Mo., which was doing Finn as its annual read. “People were saying, ‘How did you get the Mississippi River so right? You must have spent a lot of time here,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’ve never been here in my life. I’ve flown over it a few times.’”
“It’s OEB!” says Wendy triumphantly.
Jon adds, “It’s sympathetic imagination.”
Wendy: “It’s advertising!”
Jon elaborates: “It’s like Robert Preston in The Music Man. It’s getting little details right. It’s that full imagining. When you do it right, it’s so persuasive. When you do it wrong, it just sits there.”
Facetious as he may be in likening himself to a con artist, Clinch knows that “publishing is a lot about marketing,” he says.
The two agree that advertising was good preparation for writing, even though the agency they co-owned for 18 years didn’t specialize in the “fun, glamorous part of advertising,” says Wendy. The Clinches’ copy touted goods businesses sold to other businesses, — “mostly industrial stuff like pumps and wastewater treatment chemicals,” she adds. “If you can write about that, you can write about anything.”
While their daughter, Emily, now 28, was still at home, the couple worked around her school day from their basement office. When she started high school, Jon found himself with an extra hour each morning. “I’d always wanted to write a novel,” he says, “and I started that September.”
He stuck with it — 250 words a day, which he read to Wendy before they started their day’s ad work. At the end of 10 years, Jon had produced five or six novels — he can’t remember which — “that no agent in America wanted to read,” he says. “I call it sort of my do-it-yourself MFA.” The sixth novel — or was it the seventh? — was Finn.
Nowadays, Jon writes about five hours a day. “It’s his job,” says Wendy.
After Finn, Jon says, he embarked on Kings of the Earth as a way of “getting back to a write-what-you-know kind of thing. The voices in it are the voices of people whom I remember from when I grew up.”
His dad, he says, had an upbringing similar to that of Preston Hatch, the brothers’ worldlier neighbor in the novel. Clinch gave his fictional versions of the Ward brothers a name from his own family tree — Proctor — because he “really wanted to show people in their situation in as honorable a way as I could.”
He seems to have struck a chord, and not just with critics who appreciate the novel’s Faulknerian prose. Whenever he reads from Kings, Clinch says, there’s a listener who comes up afterward and tells him about a local equivalent of the Proctor brothers. “On the periphery of most any community,” Clinch concludes, “there’s this group of people ... and you’re aware that their lives are different from yours, and they operate on their own set of rules.”
That’s certainly true in Vermont, where Wendy Clinch sets her mystery novels. The subculture she documents isn’t that of the backwoods, though.
Clinch’s heroine, Stacey Curtis, is a well-educated urbanite turned bartending ski bum. Her adventures are filled with grizzled bar owners, obnoxious rail jammers and flatlanders who complain about bad cellphone reception. The characters frequent après-ski establishments with names such as Cinco de Taco and the Broken Binding.
Clinch says she didn’t base her slightly shabby ski town on anywhere in particular. But, in Fade to White, she names names in an acerbic description of Woodstock: “What was it that caused a town like this to turn itself into something that Walt Disney might have billed as Vermontland?”
Wendy Clinch is self-deprecating when she talks about her fiction: “He does the heavy lifting, and I do the comic relief,” she says of herself and Jon. She likes filling her books with humorous local color more than she likes concocting whodunits: “The mystery for me is kind of secondary,” she says. “It’s more a portrayal of a way of life. No darkness! There’s murder, but that’s the price of admission.”
And, just as important, there is skiing. Clinch gets passionate when she talks about her interrupted life on the slopes. In her youth, she says, she considered becoming a ski bum like Stacey, but marriage, family and career intervened.
Then, one unusually snowy winter in Pennsylvania, “Jon said, ‘How ’bout we go skiing?’” she recalls. “It was like handing Marion Barry a crack pipe and a hooker. It all came rushing back, and I was totally addicted.”
Four years ago, Clinch started theskidiva.com because she was tired of ski sites dominated by guys boasting about “who can do the gnarliest stuff the fastest,” she says. Her site now has 2300 members who use it to connect, both in cyberspace and on the slopes, with other women who ski. “I’d like to say it’s the leading website for women skiing, but I think it’s the only website for women skiing,” Clinch says dryly.
Does a ski diva have to be, well, a diva? The term may have some negative connotations, but “it certainly beats ‘ski bunny’ any day of the week,” asserts Clinch. For her, being a ski diva means “you have the power to be out there and be athletic and embrace the outdoors” — bucking the stereotype of a woman who skis mainly because the man or kids in her life do. To that end, Clinch organizes ski-diva meet-ups where 20 or 30 women hit the slopes with or without their significant others.
For a few years before Finn, the Clinches would make the five-hour-plus drive from Philly to Vermont every winter weekend and spend Sunday through Wednesday skiing and telecommuting. Now, with a more leisurely schedule, they’re putting down roots in their new home — and learning to appreciate Green Mountain summers, Jon says.
He’s working on his next book — which he’ll only say features “a whole different kind of language” from the previous two. Wendy is gearing up for the release of Fade to White. She doesn’t know yet if she’ll continue the Ski Diva series. Readers seem to like them, even if one email correspondent took her to task for her sardonic remarks about flatlanders.
That’s precisely the joke, Wendy Clinch says: “I’m a flatlander! I’m from New Jersey!”
But, like so many before them, these non-Vermont-native writers are getting into the Vermont groove. And they’re refreshingly unpretentious about how they managed it. “We were really lucky that we were able to get out of advertising and come to a place we love and find our way doing this thing,” says Jon.
As she often does, Wendy gets the last word in: “And I get to ski every day. That’s not bad!”