Deep From the Archives
This is an author interview that I wrote in the 1990s.
Writers of the Purple Sage by Barbara Burnett Smith
Barbara Burnett Smith proves that persistence pays. After having an agent for four years, belonging to two active writers groups, and penning several books — yet making no sales — she threw her hands up in the air and quit.
At least briefly.
“I stopped writing, stopped marketing, and even severed my connection with my agent,” Smith said. But, after another mystery writing friend, Susan Rogers Cooper, told her she was too good to not be writing, she gave it another try.
“Talk about a response! I was writing the next day and, within a year, I was published,” Smith said. Not just published, either. Her first sale, Writers of the Purple Sage, was an Agatha nominee for best first mystery.
Overview of the Plot
In this book, Jolie Wyatt faces life as a newly divorced woman living near her ex-husband, Matt. That, by itself, isn’t easy — but, when neighbors suspect her of murder, that prevents any Welcome Wagon volunteers from appearing with a casserole at her doorstep, making life a bit lonely.
Suspected of murder?
Yes. After Jolie had a public argument with a judge, he is murdered. Not just murdered, but killed in the same fashion as the fictional character in Jolie’s unfinished mystery manuscript. So, this makes her feel uneasy around the members of her writer’s group, as she wonders who plagiarized her plot.
Plenty of Praise
A review from Mostly Murder praises Smith’s creation. “Right from page one, Barbara Burnett Smith entices, cajoles and compels the reader to keep flipping pages to the very end. Her depiction of a hundred year old Texas town is illuminating without overwhelming the mystery fan with unnecessary detail.”
Publishers Weekly adds to the compliment. ‘The story is briskly told, the characters well rounded and Purple Sage is promising as a rich setting for future tales from this talented newcomer.”
Am I Jolie?
Smith suspects that part of her successful characterization is because she and Jolie may secretly be twins. “Am I Jolie? I feel differently about that every day,” she said. “We have many of the same characteristics, but we don’t respond the same to every situation, and I’d like to believe that I’m smarter and more mature — or else, she’d be writing about me!”
Smith points out that she and Jolie haven’t had the same life experiences, either. “Jolie may reach the same conclusions about life as I have, but it’s through a totally different path. While I do have an ex-husband, he’s not one iota like Matt. I’ve never been accused of murder, that I know of, and I haven’t broken into any buildings at night.”
Fictional Ex-Hubby Versus Real-life Husband
The kind and supportive character of Matt started out as a completely fictional one, according to Smith. “That’s because, when I wrote the first draft of the book, I wasn’t even dating,” she said. “As the series progressed, though, I caught him saying things that my new husband, Gary, had said — just a phrase here and there. Gary is much more vocal than Matt, and lots funnier, but that underlying solidarity of character is the same. Obviously, I like that in a man.”
Smith’s next book, Dust Devils of the Purple Sage, continued the Jolie and Matt saga. Recently reunited in unmarried harmony, Jolie takes a job at the local radio station, KSGE. There, she deals with a cranky boss and reports on the YMCA pancake supper.
After two men from Purple Sage become newsworthy, though — one as an escaped convict and another as the victim of a vicious murder — Jolie gets personally involved in the story she’s reporting.
This fall, the third book in the series, Celebration in Purple Sage, will arrive in bookstores. In it, Purple Sage is celebrating its centennial, and everyone is coming to the party. “That includes Matt’s parents, and his ex-wife, Cecily, who is from England.”
New Mystery Series in the Works
Smith plans to continue the series, and add another one to her writing roster. Her proposed series would feature two American women who are free to travel now that their children are off to college. In the first book, they fly to Cancun for a vacation.
“While there, they plan to look up the daughter of an old friend, who is working part-time as a volunteer on a dig in Cuba,” she said. “Unfortunately, they can’t find the young women . . . ominous music rises . . . and then strange things begin happening . . .”
Sad note: In February 2014, Smith was hit by a car, and did not survive. Here is more about her legacy. Here is a list of books that she was able to complete; the last one was finished, posthumously, by Karen MacInerney.
Now, I’m returning to text from the original interview.
Looking Back in Time
Smith had had a lifelong interest in acting and community theater. In high school, she wrote a one-act play that was produced, and she also won a couple of awards while writing for a radio station in her twenties.
“My family was polite about my desire to write but, after my first attempts, they stopped reading,” Smith said. “To be fair to them, my first books were probably pretty bad. Now, my family buys my book, brags about me to anyone who will listen, and are generally terrific.”
Rejections? Babe Ruth Struck Out 1,330 Times!
Smith handles rejections with a combination of panache and whining. Earlier in her career, she posted inspirational sayings on the wall; for example, the one reminding her how Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. “Later, the rejections became too much and I was too raw to take them any more,” she said, “but taking a break from writing gave me time to heal and a chance to gain some perspective.”
She believes you have to be a little crazy to enter any creative field. “The odds of actually making a living are terrible! Even worse, any fool can criticize what you’ve done.”
Note from KBS: I’m certainly glad that she kept on going and am grateful that I got to read some of her books and talk to her.