Writers Talk Shop, Novel, and Pitch Conference
     Commentary by conference attendees

     A Conversation Between Author Kate Gallison and Michael Neff

Kate Gallison, author of the Mother Lavinia Grey mystery series, was an attendee at the New York Pitch and Shop conference in April '07, and later at the Algonkian writer conference at Harpers Ferry. Kate grew up in New Jersey, Illinois, and the Washington suburbs, keeping her eyes and ears open and writing. Her first mystery series, loosely based on her days as a clerk-bookkeeper for the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, featured Nick Magaracz (it rhymes with pots), a down-at-heel detective in Trenton, New Jersey, who was reduced to taking a job with the state government in order to feed his family. Her second series featured Mother Lavinia Grey, an Episcopal priest in a small town in New Jersey struggling to keep her church open and solve the occasional murder. That series was based, very loosely indeed, on the history of Kate's own church, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Lambertville.


The sessions sharpened my focus considerably. They train you to look at your work in a certain way. And of course exposure to the frank opinions of people in the publishing world is priceless ...

- Kate Gallison

MN: Kate, hi. First of all thanks for this interview.

KG: You're welcome!

MN: What made you want to write the novel, Massacre at Bitter Wash, the novel you pitched at the conference? What was your inspiration?

KG: One way to lengthen your life is to stretch it backwards, and so I read a lot of history. Early movies fascinate me. They were both like and unlike stage plays of the time, borrowing actors and melodramatic plots, but developing entirely new techniques for portraying dramatic action. What was shown in them was both like and unlike the way people really lived. Sometimes the intent was to uplift and improve, sometimes to create art, sometimes to separate moviegoers from their money.

I watched many hours of silent movies. Rudolf Valentino was a dreamboat. Greta Garbo in her silent days was like nothing you've ever seen. I read everything I could get my hands on about the early days of silent pictures, the romance, the gossip, the technical details. The industry was a hotbed of drama.

MN: Tell us something about Massacre at Bitter Wash.

KG: 1909 is a year of fierce competition in the infant silent movie industry, where Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company harasses independent moviemakers with lawsuits and sabotage. Nevertheless, Adam Weiss sells all his possessions and invests in a gamble that he and his wife, Emily, can make four pictures in three weeks.

They hire a colorful cast and crew--including a broken-down Broadway matinee idol, a passionate Stanislavsky-trained Russian beauty, seven labor goons, and two young Mohawk Indians on holiday from high steel work--and set up to make movies on the side of a cliff in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

When the dead body of Edison's detective turns up during the filming of a chaotic scene, Adam is arrested for the murder and Emily is on her own. She must solve the murder, elude the murderer, and produce the movies before the deadline falls.

MN: Definitely a high concept novel! Congrats on that and I can hardly wait to read it. But what persuaded you to attend the Algonkian Harpers Ferry and the New York Pitch and Shop?

KG: I Googled my prior editor, Jackie Cantor, and the New York Pitch and Shop came up. I thought, this looks interesting. I have no idea how to write an effective pitch. This is something I can use. Later, the Algonkian people sent me an email inviting me to the conference in Harpers Ferry, and that seemed like something I could use, too.

MN: Do you feel Massacre at Bitter Wash has improved as a result?

KG: I must confess that it surprised me when folks at the New York Pitch Conference fastened on Thomas Edison's dark side as the most interesting aspect of the novel. For me it was the beautiful movie stars interacting, the shaky relationship between the young married couple, and the violent conflict between the capitalists' hired Pinkerton detectives and organized labor. Once you define the book as being about the struggle between the Weisses and Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patent Company, however, a lot of diffuse stuff falls into line.

Then I came home from the recent Algonkian conference at Harpers Ferry, reread the manuscript, and realized I had thrown away a great opportunity in the second-to-the-last chapter to resolve the Edison/Weiss conflict in a meaty and dramatic way. In a word, it was lame. I'm fixing it.

MN: What did you find most effective about the pitch sessions in New York and at Algonkian?

KG: The sessions sharpened my focus considerably. They train you to look at your work in a certain way ... And of course exposure to the frank opinions of people in the publishing world is priceless. I can go sit next to agents and editors at the bar in the hotel at the Bouchercon mystery conference, but after I introduce myself I don't feel that I have a legitimate claim on their professional time, and we end up talking about the weather.

MN: What about the Algonkian approach as a whole?

KG: I've been writing since kindergarten, so at this point I'm not going to change my voice appreciably, although lots of people just starting out can use help with that. What I found most useful was advice about how to set a hook and pull a thread of tension through a work. And of course, the agent's advice (Paige Wheeler) to change my name in order to get a new start in the business. I found that liberating. I'm changing my name. Call me Irene Flemming!

MN: How would you compare the Harpers Ferry Writers Conference and the New York Pitch and Shop to other writer conferences?

KG: Algonkian and New York Pitch Conference focus much more on making one's writing publishable, salable and readable to a modern audience. Not very long ago I attended a workshop where the workshop leader carefully explained to us (if, indeed, I understood what he was trying to say) that not only must literary writing be taught, since it could not be done intuitively, but that literary reading must be taught as well, since no one unschooled in the appreciation of literary writing could benefit from its marvelous subtleties. Bushwah, I said to myself, Philistine that I am. I want to reach a wide audience of readers.

MN: Please tell us, where does Massacre at Bitter Wash go from here?

KG: I'm punching up the scene between Adam Weiss and Edison's second detective--I guess his name is McCoy; that was the real detective's name--and getting an agent. After that we'll see how it goes. I truly think people can have as much fun reading this as I had writing it. And, of course, there are the sequels.

About the interviewer:
Michael Neff is the creator and director of WebdelSol.Com and the Algonkian Writer Conferences.

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