“Regional” — Oblivion or Jumping Point?

by Pari Noskin Taichert

It’s a sad fact. Readers have chided me for it.

I gripe about being considered a "regional writer."

It might not bother me as much if I lived in a region with a large population — and that population supported its authors. But the Southwest just doesn’t come close to "The South" or "California" or "The East Coast."

So, I sulk.

I’ve been convinced that my series — even with its national nods — hasn’t "hit the big time" because those darn New York editors (and reviewers and bookstore owners) don’t understand that a book written with New Mexico as its focus can still have a broad appeal. Hell, I know it can. My readers come from all over the country, and beyond.

I know for a fact that THE BELEN HITCH was passed over at one NYC house because the publisher already had another Southwestern female protag and the marketing department didn’t believe it could "support" two.

Now, some Southwestern authors have done quite well: Tony Hillerman (Navajo Indians), Michael McGarrity (Western lawman), James Doss (Indians/shamans), Rudolfo Anaya (Hispanic culture). But has it  been overdone?

Or, are editors bound by their own stereotypes about the region?

Who else but me writes about a moderately urban, whipped-cream guzzling, reform Jewish gal with a wicked wit and an unending supply of ambitious clients gung-ho about putting their towns and projects on every travel agent’s and tourist’s map?  Who else ever wrote a mystery set in Clovis, Belen, or Socorro County?

I’m unique, gosh darn it. I’m fresh! I’m, um, regional?

It’s enough to make me scream.

Well, sort of.

Lately I’ve been rethinking my stance. I’ve taken to wearing elegant native New Mexican jewelry. At some conventions or signings, you might even find me sporting a classy red-and-green chile (yes, it’s spelled with an "e" in NM) tie.

You see, it occurred to me that all my grumbling was wasting energy and time. Frankly, if every reader in New Mexico bought my books, I’d be close to that big time success I so crave.

So, writing about New Mexico — being called regional — isn’t bad in itself. It gives me an initial identity.

The question I have is: Will being "regional" doom me to be considered a quaint, "little" writer?

It’s the same kind of question I ask about being published by a smaller house. The University of New Mexico Press has been very good to me; it gave THE CLOVIS INCIDENT a voice when no bigger publisher would even consider it. But, will starting with a small publisher — having limited distribution and endorsement from national book chains, limited attention from national news media — doom me to oblivion as well?

(Lest you think I’m being melodramatic, note that I spoke with a well-known, national reviewer who told me that until my books were published by a big house, she wouldn’t consider looking at them.)

Oh, I don’t know.

My hope is, eventually, that when I’ve written enough Sasha books, a broader audience will actually turn to my work to find out about this region — in the same way people turn to Tony HIllerman to find out about Navajo country.

Until then, I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep getting better at my craft, at storytelling.

Each of my books has brought growth. THE CLOVIS INCIDENT is a great first ride. THE BELEN HITCH is a better written and plotted mystery. THE SOCORRO BLAST, my newly finished manuscript, tackles ethnic profiling and how our paranoia — born of the events of 9/11 — have changed the way we treat each other. (Believe me, it still has humor.)

Book # 4 will take a hard, hot look at the chile pepper industry in southern New Mexico.

Book #5 will explore the culture surrounding alternative energy in my state.

After that, I’ll focus on the role New Mexico plays in the space industry; we’re getting a space port (or the sciences at Los Alamos and Sandia Labs).

Obviously, I have many more Sasha stories to tell.

Will they find a bigger audience? A major publishing house? The big time?

Only time will tell.

25 thoughts on ““Regional” — Oblivion or Jumping Point?

  1. Iden Ford

    Building a national audience is a challenge no matter what country. There is prejudice in western Canada toward eastern writers. Many Quebecers only read books that are either mega best sellers, or local. Lousie Penny is successful with a regional Quebec story, and has garnered international success, she is unusual in that respect. Giles Blunt sets his books in the backwoods of Ontario. The important thing is to keep writing what you want to write about. The creative muse will lead you to places you might not have consciously thought about, and listen to that muse. Worrying about what is acceptable to a national house will not assist in the process of creation. You follow the yellow brick road of your own story ideas, and eventually doors open or close. If they close, a mid course evaluation becomes essential, but not whether you keep writing what you want to write about. I honeslty believe there are writers who consciously set out to write what they think will sell in big numbers. To me that is not writing creatively, that is selling creatively.

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  2. Pari

    Iden,Thank you for this post.

    I do know an author who set out to write a bestseller and she succeeded (not mystery)–but I find her work creatively bankrupt. So, you’re right there.

    This whole regional issue is intriguing to me. Why is it so important to keep to our little group rather than expand our perspectives?

    As to writing differently. Nah. I’ve got ideas galore for Sasha. You’re right about changes though. I never set out to look at larger issues than entertaining my readers. Now, I want to do that AND write about ethnic stereotyping, agricultural dynamics, renewable energy politics, the space industry, the new arms race . . . I can do all of that through the eyes of a little ol’ New Mexican who’s smart enough to look carefully at the world.

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  3. Naomi

    I think that there are two sides to this. On one hand, it took Tony Hillerman at least three, four books before he received national recognition. And when he started the Navajo series, he faced a lot of skepticism (Indian detectives? Who’s going to be interested?) So sometimes it takes time.

    But on the other hand, not only editors but readers have stereotypes of regions and groups of people. Ironically, now that the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series has done so well, readers have an expectation that a New Mexico mystery going to have an Indian theme to it.

    So Sasha breaks the mold.

    It seems to me what you’re doing has some parallels to what Cara Black is doing with her Paris series. Strong female character and an introduction to different regions of a place. But Paris is sexier and more well traveled than these small towns in New Mexico. So there’s going to be a battle there.

    I face some of the same issues you face. My Mas Arai series is very culturally “pungent”–only certain groups of readers will be attracted to my books. But they are a faithful bunch and I feel that they will hang on and increase over time.

    I think for the good of my career and the series, I need to delve into other genres and voices. That will, in the long run, hopefully, help Mas survive and prosper.

    I don’t know if any of this resonates with you, but just my two cents.

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  4. Pari

    Oh, Wise Naomi.

    I think there are even more than two sides to the issue.

    Your observation about NM and the stereotyping with readers is true as well. Authors such as James Doss, David and Aimee Thurlo, Susan Slater, Margaret Coel — all take advantage of this desire to learn about the Native American culture.

    Yeah, I’m breaking the mold.

    I agree that one way to expand our (yours and mine) readership is to delve into other genres and voices. And, I do want to write Iris, my protag and series set in Takoma Park.

    But, I also wonder if I can emulate the Hillerman model, if I can stick to Sasha long enough to earn that larger appeal as well.

    I’ll assess after book #4. That will give it enough time.

    No matter what, I doubt that I’ll stop writing Sasha, though she may have to take a back seat if she remains solely with a smaller press.

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  5. Louise Ure

    Hi Pari,

    I find that I disagree with your premise as both a reader and a writer.

    You say that you wish your books were set in a more populated area, where the book buyers supported local authors? Not for me. I read to transport myself, to visit new places, and expand beyond my own world. I go to Margaret Maron’s North Carolina, Steve Havill’s rural Texas, Allan Guthrie’s seamy Edinburgh. And your New Mexico.

    And I guess I’ve never thought of my writing as regional. Sure, my work is set in Arizona, but that’s probably less important to my readers than it is to me. It gave me a framework, a tone and a voice. But the book is still about rape and revenge, denial and moving on.

    You’re probably right about the imbalance of attention paid to smaller presses. I hope your work rises to the level of visibility it so richly deserves, however that happens. You’ve brought me lots of happy reading hours!

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  6. Pari

    Hey, Louise,

    I never thought of my writing as regional until I started getting reviews that said things like, “A bang-up regional cozy” (PW) or ” . . . should endear this especially to fans of Southwestern mysteries.”(LJ)

    Then, it was like, “What? Waitaminute. I write regional?”

    And then, my book got turned down because it was another Southwestern series etc. etc. . . .

    So, it made me think.

    I’m still not sure how I feel about being “regional” per se.

    But I wanted to bring it up, to see what others felt.

    As a reader, I’m with you. I actually prefer books set in places I’ve never been, to see new worlds throug the eyes of authors.

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  7. Lorraine T.

    “Now, I want to do that AND write about ethnic stereotyping, agricultural dynamics, renewable energy politics, the space industry, the new arms race …”

    Please, Pari, be very careful about this. Sneak it in as part of the story. I’ve quit reading writers who push their positions in their fiction, even when I agree with the position, because I’m not reading to have my political opinions, etc. validated, but for entertainment and relaxation — to escape the hard facts of wrongs in our current society.Lorraine

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  8. Pari

    Lorraine,You’re absolutely correct!

    I actually have dealt with some major issues already. In CLOVIS, I examined racism as well as the UFO phenomenon — without banging anyone over the head.

    In BELEN, I took on religiosity vs. spirituality — and didn’t force any one perspective on the reader.

    It’s the same in THE SOCORRO BLAST.

    To me, if I do it right, I’ll bring up questions without preaching.

    Believe me, I’ll be very careful. I don’t like anything shoved in my face either.

    But, there are some very cool issues and realities that will be interesting and fun to explore.

    Sasha is smart enough to notice them and to see several sides to every story.

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  9. Elaine

    Well, I love tagging along with Sasha. Where she lives does color her character, and since I’ve never been to New Mexico, I’m along for that ride as well. But no matter where Shasha would live, she alone is the major strength of your series. Why that hasn’t been recognized beats the hell out of me as well.

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  10. Carstairs38

    I’ll admit, I love reading about an area I know about. However, I don’t let that limit my reading list. I’ll read just about anything I’ve heard good things about. Or if the author is coming through Southern CA on a book tour. To be honest, that’s how I’ve found lots of authors I love. That and recommendations from mystery bookstores.

    Region plays a part for some people I’m sure. But for many readers, I doubt it plays that big a part.

    Mark

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  11. Pari

    Oh, heavens, now I’m wondering if my post sounded whiny.

    Elaine, thank you. That’s how I feel about Sasha. The backdrop makes the read more fun — but it’s Sasha that keeps the series interesting. Just as it’s Molly that keeps us loving your series. Speaking of which . . . what’s happening with that standalone?

    Hi, Mark,The idea of “region” can be broad or narrow. For instance, I think that L.A. writers writing about L.A. have a built-in audience because of where they locate books. But L.A. also has a broader appeal.

    For someone who writes about a place that most people don’t know — the challenge is to avoid stereotype . . . or to embrace it and go with the strengths.

    I think Naomi’s comments were spot-on about me breaking a mold. That can have a positive or challenging affect.

    For me, the jury’s still out. I’ll give it more than two books . . . to assess whether I can achieve my goals.

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  12. JDRhoades

    No one, as far as I know, ever slammed James Lee Burke for being “too regional.”And for that matter, isn’t every writer who puts his character in an actual geographic area a “regional” writer? Aren’t Michael Connelly and Robert Crais’ L.A., Dennis Lehane’s blue collar Boston, Carl Hiaasen’s South Florida, etc. etc. etc., all “regional settings”? How about Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh? Being “regional” hasn’t hurt him.I think you hit the nail on the head, though, when you describe editors who don’t get it when you play against the stereotypes of the region and instead write about how people actually are. “Jews in New Mexico? Whaaaa? Where are the Indians?”

    Sigh…

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  13. Pari

    Yep, JD, every writer is essentially regional. That’s why my readers sometimes slam me when I get upset about the moniker. They cite Eudora Welty, Faulkner etc . . .

    Re: the Jews in NM. Well, in the book I’m plotting now — in Las Cruces, NM — I’m considering having a main figure be Japanese-American. This is because one of the most famous horticulturalists in the development of New Mexico chile was Roy Nakayama. Of course, that’d blow people’s minds too.

    Pandering to stereotypes can be fun and profitable. It’s just not what I want to do with this series.

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  14. Elaine

    Well, then – I guess I’d have to say that I’m a ‘regional’ writer too. Who else uses Carmel, California for a backdrop?

    And Pari – you don’t sound ‘whiney’ at all. Your comments are valid!

    Hey, Dusty! Nice to see you here. Don’t be so shy, okay? πŸ™‚

    The standalone? Nothing is happening. The new Molly book is done-my publisher has it-and now it’s off to the agent hunting wars for me. Suggestions are welcome.

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  15. Beatrice Brooks

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a St. Martin’s editor (now a bestselling author). I had written a saga [1893-1925]. It’s empahsis was on Colorado’s silent film industry, but for part of the book I put my protags in silent-film-era California, thinking I’d get a wider audience. The manuscript was a mess when the editor saw it (over 200,000 words, I think), but he kindly suggested I keep the entire locale in Colorado. I “killed” California and kept it in Colorado. After a dozen rewrites, and chipping away at the blasted book until it was “down” to 140,000 words, it was published by a regional press and sold out in less than 9 months.

    Hmmm…I’m thinking the story of my saga – THE RAINBOW’S FOOT – would make a fun blog πŸ™‚

    As always, Pari, you’ve made me think.

    Hugs,Deni Dietz

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  16. JT Ellison

    Pari’s too modest to tell y’all this, but both of her novels were nominated for Agathas, CLOVIS for best first, BELEN for Best Novel. So there’s a certain justice in that, Pari. Maybe a big press would get you more attention and do away with the “regional” label, but the readers obviously love the books. If the readers think so highly of your series, and Sasha, you’re doing somethig right!I’ll be curious to see if I get labeled regional as well. Nashville isn’t a hotbed of noir mysteries, and I don’t have anything about country music in my books, but there might still be an expectation.

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  17. Pari

    Elaine,I’m glad to hear there’s another Molly on tap.

    Deni,I’ve made you think? Cool. I have to admit I’ve toyed with sending Sasha a bit further afield — to increase audience — but, so far, it wouldn’t jive with the stories I’ve written. Perhaps with LAS CRUCES, I’ll put her in El Paso — but, that city really should be part of NM anyway.

    J.T.,Boy, I’ll be curious to know how the critics deal with the Nashville locale. I’m wondering if this is a phenomenon exclusive to series. Since yours is a thriller (ongoing?) I’ll be very interested to see.

    Also, Nashville is a big city and I think that might have something to do with a broader appeal as well.

    Note, I’m not talking sales here — I’m talkign attitude, how people think about a writer’s work.

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  18. Naomi

    The Nakayama angle sounds interesting! If you need to do research, check out Mas Iwata’s PLANTING IN GOOD SOIL. (Probably at the UNM Library.) Cross-promotional opportunities here! πŸ™‚

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  19. Pari

    Thanks for the tip, Naomi. It would be so cool to cross promote!

    And, today, I just learned that Las Cruces hosts The Whole Enchilada Festival which culminates with the construction (?) of the world’s largest enchilada each year. It’s this weekend.

    You see. None of the tourist schemes I come up with could possibly compete with reality.

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  20. Elaine

    Shucks, J.T.’s right! Two Agatha noms ought to tell you something, Pari! And Sasha is always welcome to vist Carmel should she get a wanderlust – or just feel like a vacation.

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  21. Iden Ford

    BTW I wanted to thank the Murderati clan through Naomi for inviting me to shoot B’con pics for Murderati, I am already planning some interesting stuff for you. In the meantime, if you want to see an interesting touch up job on a very old photograph, link to my blog. Susan Cox Green is one of the most amazing African American women to have lived. She was a former slave from North Carolina, and sired 15 children. She lived to 103 and is the great great grandma of a good friend of mine. Check her out. Thanks Pari for you terrific post again, it always sparks interesting conversation and relevant dialogue for writers.

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  22. Pari

    Elaine,Carmel sounds great. Now, how can I get Sasha there?

    Iden,Thank you.The photo is wonderful.Did Maureen have a chance to read some of the slave literature from the time? The Library of Congress has much of it online and the language and topic matter are both fascinating. I found out about this when I had to write a book review and needed to verify that the novelist’s rendition of the lit. was accurate.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the BCon pix. It would have been so much fun to go . . .

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  23. Chris Well

    Pari, you have hit on the dilemma that comes with having a “label” slapped on you or your work. Maybe I’ve gotten cynical, but it seems like people use labels anymore as an excuse to dismiss an author (or, for that matter, any human being) — it is so much easier to be lazy than to actually judge a book by its own merits.

    But, like you say, if you embrace the “regional” market, there are more than enough people there to keep you in business until New York comes calling …

    (Besides, it seems like a lot of authors who have no “nitch” at all just fall into the hole and are never heard from again.)

    πŸ˜‰

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  24. Pari

    Hey, Chris,Thanks for stopping by. I got so caught up in looking at your blog that I forgot to respond to you here.

    I agree with you about labels. Shorthand often devolves into no-hand at all.

    Like you, I do have a niche and am grateful for it. But I grab the bars of those regional labels and shake ’em a bit, to see if I might spring loose.

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  25. Iden Ford

    Hi again Pari, Maureen read and read and read, we have a stack of books she studied. She used the internet quite a bit as well. And to get some details from a first hand descendant of a North Carolina slave was fantastic. He has a family book which has lots of family history. That’s how I got Susan’ photo. There is also quite a lot written about the Underground railroad and the descendants of those who came to Toronto via the railroad during the Civil War. The story of Emeline and Fidelia in the novel is heartbreaking as were many stories of slaves and their descendants. Anyway yes she has finished the book and the research. Thanks for the suggestion

    Reply

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