November 12th, 2013 09:00 EST
Judyth Piazza Interviews Mystery Writer Jane Grossman on The American Perspective
One of my favorite writers is Mary Wesley, an Englishwoman who wrote wonderful novels, often with surprise endings. Her first work of adult fiction was published when she was 70 years old. For all the years I thought of writing, and just got too busy, I would think of Mary Wesley, and know I had years to go. Well, I finally did it, but I only beat her by one month.
However, Mary was not my only inspiration-there was Carolyn Keene. I gobbled up all the Nancy Drew mysteries so quickly, I had to read the Hardy Boys secretly, because girls in the 1950`s did not read boy books. It was about this time that I wrote my first work of fiction, entitled The Mystery of the Missing Bagels. It was a gift for Father`s Day, and I chose the subject, because my father loved bagels. He kept the book all his life.
I grew up in a suburban environment where everyone read voraciously, and if they were not reading they were playing cards. My earliest memories of Christmas at my grandparents` include two bridge tables going all day and all night. My brother and I fiercely believed in Santa, and saw no discrepancy with our grandparents` Yiddish accents. Nor were we disconcerted by the books we knew came from England via our Anglophile aunt.
At age 10, while our mothers played in their daily card game downstairs, my best friend and I pricked our fingers and vowed, as we pressed our bloody hands together in the bathroom, that we would never-ever play cards. But my reading passion continued. Although I read indiscriminately through my childhood and teen years, and my taste continues to range from classic fiction to nonfiction to contemporary fiction, my body still relaxes the most when I am lost in a good mystery. As a young mother I treasured naptime so I could savor my favorites: Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey.
I was an English major in college (of course), but my early career was focused in the nonprofit sector-from the Mayor`s Voluntary Action Center in New York City, where I ran the College Volunteer Program, to a French NGO bringing information to poor farmers in non-book form. As lovely as it was to have to go to Paris four times a year for work, I was in the wrong business. I needed to be in the book business, not the non-book business.
My first job in my chosen field was at the Corner Bookstore in New York City on the corner of Madison Avenue and 93rd Street. I felt like I had come home. Pre-big discount bookstores, pre-Amazon, our only competitor was the library. Our customers counted on our remembering their tastes, and they were loyal. The store has weathered the changes wrought by the Internet and remains the same-the best bookstore in New York City. When I walk in today, 34 years later, the store feels, smells and looks the same as it did then...a completely comforting sensation.
But as happy as I was there, the time came to make my own statement. In 1982 a friend and I opened the Traveller`s Bookstore in Rockefeller Center. The store became the one-stop shop for guidebooks, maps and phrasebooks, but we wanted it to be more. Our "hook" was to stock fiction and non-fiction for each destination, from mysteries to travel journalism. This made the store more complete in our minds, and much more interesting for us. As much as we conscientiously pursued the best of practical information, we loved the search for literature that was site specific. Although our customers came for the guidebooks, they came back for the joy of reading. We plied this trade for a wonderful ten years, but it was intense. Our customers came to us for our knowledge, for "hand-selling" as they say in the book business, and hence, we rarely left the store. When we started to think about going to a movie under the guise of a "meeting," we knew it was time to move on.
We became consultants. We had an expertise others wanted...we could sell books. Returning to the nonprofit field, we built new bookstores for Teachers` College at Columbia University and Mt. Sinai Medical School, among other public institutions. It was gratifying to provide service to education and medical students, but it was a challenge, to say the least, for two independent booksellers to work within the bureaucracies of huge organizations. One of my favorite memories of this time was an incident at a hospital. After meeting with the vice-president who was our boss, one of her colleagues came into her office to ask who we were. "They don`t work here, do they?" she asked. "No," our boss replied, "they are the consultants working on the new bookstore." "I knew it," her colleague answered. "They look much too happy."
While I believed myself to be a permanent and entrenched New Yorker, in 1997 my life took an unexpected turn-I moved to Cambridge, MA. My husband was offered the opportunity to teach at Harvard for an academic year. We had full intentions of returning home, but he took to teaching; I took to the gestalt; and we stayed.
The move gave me the opportunity to write, not just to sell, a travel guide. I kept looking in vain for a good walking guide to help me discover my new neighborhood. I found instead a new friend who had also emigrated from New York, and together we explored both Boston and Cambridge. The result is Boston Foot Notes, now in its second edition.
These past 16 years have flown by, giving proof to the old saw that the older you get the faster time passes. These years have been momentous-making wonderful new friends, moving to downtown Boston, buying a home in the mountains, doting on five adorable grandchildren, losing parents. Yet there was always Mary Wesley doggedly lingering in the back of my mind. And so one day, I sat down and started to write...
I don`t know if I will write as prolifically as she did in the last decades of her life, but she is my inspiration.