Friday, August 19, 2011

Kate White at the Poisoned Pen

It must not be easy to be Kate White, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. When Barbara Peters from the Poisoned Pen invited me to a small luncheon to meet her, and hear White talk about her latest book, The Sixes, I panicked. What do you wear to lunch with the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan? I had to get a new dress. And, I know I wasn't the only one who went out to buy something new. Lunch was wonderful at T.Cook's. But, most important, Kate White was warm and charming. It was a treat to meet her, and hear her. I was so impressed I went to the Poisoned Pen that night to hear her presentation.

Barbara Peters introduced Kate White, saying she first met her through her friend, Sarah Ann Freed, White's editor at Mysterious Press. White is the author of five books in the Bailey Weggins mystery series, as well as two standalones, Hush and The Sixes, her latest book involving mean girls. Then, Peters turned the program over to Kate.

White told us she needed a break from Cosmopolitan, a break from writing cover lines such as, "Mattress Moves So Hot His Thighs Go Up in Flames." When we laughed, she asked, "Who do you think writes those lines?" Kate always wanted to write mysteries and thrillers. She was a Nancy Drew fan as a kid. She went to New York after college, thinking she would write plays, write for newspapers and magazines. Then she realized she had to pick one. She had won a contest for Glamour, so she picked magazines. And the dream of writing mysteries faded as she worked for Redbook.

White said her New York experience didn't start out as she expected. Her brother, Jim, took her to the train station. Then, he pointed out an older man, and told her he asked him to keep track of her on the train. Kate felt as if she was handcuffed to him, because he stuck with her, and sat with her. She noticed a number of strange looks, but just thought it was the older man, younger woman situation. It was only when she returned from the restroom that she realized why people gave her those looks. She noticed the emblem on his blazer, Green Haven Correctional Institution.

By the time White was a wife and mother, and editor of Redbook, she realized she still wanted to try to write mysteries. She had to try. She said you could drain the swamp at the same time you slayed the alligators. Draining the swamp was the big picture of writing mysteries, while the alligators represented the day-to-day life. So, she decided to write just on Saturdays and Sundays, for at least fifteen minutes. By the time she had four chapters written, Sarah Ann was interested.

Then, thirteen years ago this week, on a Sunday, her boss asked her to come in to work. She drove in, and was told she was going to be the new editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. There had been no rumors of a turnover. When Kate's husband came home with the kids, he asked about the news. When she told him about her new job, he had a big grin on his face, and said, "Wait. I'm going to bed tonight with the editor of Cosmo?" She said it wasn't like she was given the Kama Sutra, and learned it in four hours. Once again, her mystery was set aside.

At Christmas, White pulled out the four chapters to look at them and see if there was any chance she could get back to writing the book. Then, she saw she had killed off the nanny, and she had her lying on a copy of Cosmo. She took that as a sign, and went back to her Saturday and Sunday writing sessions. In March 2012, her sixth Bailey Weggins will be out.

Kate did a quick summary of The Sixes. Phoebe Hall, a celebrity biographer leaves town to lick her wounds while teaching at a small college. She had been accused of plagiarism. The university president was an old friend. They had both been scholarship students together at a boarding school. When a missing girl turns out to have been drowned, there are rumors she had been in The Sixes, a group of mean girls. However, there's another drowning and a murder, and Phoebe isn't sure if The Sixes are responsible.

Then, White said she was going to answer three questions that are asked often. What is your writing process? She was in her late 40s when she started to write fiction. Kate calls the process "Writer's souffle." It takes certain ingredients to make it come together. In her twenties, she never got around to writing. Even the right kind of desk comes into play. At one time, she had a rolltop, and she felt penned in. She can only write early in the morning. And, she found the genre she wanted to write. Mysteries and thrillers are her thing.

Kate had a joke. A woman went to a fortune teller, and gave her $20. The fortune teller looked at her palm, and gave her the money back, saying I can't tell you. But, the woman insisted, saying she could take it. The fortune teller said, "I see a man, maybe your husband, in a pool of blood. He has seventy stab wounds." The woman thought a moment, then said, "Will I be acquitted?" White said she loves those kind of questions.

Where do you get your ideas is the second question she's asked. They're from the outside in. She pulls together germs of ideas. She used The Sixes for an example. She had a mean girl experience herself at seventeen. She was intrigued by someone regrouping her life. There were stories of a series of male college students in the Midwest who had drowned. White clips things. The ideas "hook up."

The third question is, how do you do it with a full-time job. Kate considers herself a serial achiever of things. She didn't fiction while her kids were little. Accepting that starting to write in your 40s isn't terrible.

White used an anecdote to tell what her life was like when the kids were small. Her husband anchored the news in NYC at night, so she was essentially a single mom at night. One night he called, and she told him what they'd done that evening, they had dinner, and she and Hudson did baths, etc. There was a pause, and he said, "His name is Hunter, not Hudson."

She told us she read two time management books that were particularly helpful. One was How to Get Control of Your Life. The other was a book by Ed Bliss. He told a story about slicing the salami. He said it's hard to do anything with a big piece of salami. But, it's like doing a project. If you slice the salami into pieces, put it on a beautiful white Italian platter, it's appealing. So, she decided she could break the writing down. She began by writing for fifteen minutes on Saturday and Sunday. Now, she writes for four hours on Saturday and Sunday.

Barbara Peters said she couldn't stay silent any longer. She wanted to talk about The Sixes. It's a different kind of story. It's Gothic and creepy. It's a campus mystery with terrible crimes and the halls of academia. It's kind of like a country house mystery, with an Agatha Christie community.

Kate said she loves Agatha Christie books with the weekend type whodunits. She loves the idea of setting mysteries someplace like a country house. White is intrigued by campuses. She went to college at an old campus, founded in the 1700s. She was in the first co-ed class. Theoretically, there was a ghost at the school. She researched the ghost, and found out it was the 300th anniversary of the ghost that year. The ghost even appeared in a listing of ghost hauntings in schools. A couple months later, a guy was sent to see her because he had a weird experience. He was walking above Jackson's Garden, and he was hurled across the road. When she checked on it, she discovered it happened on the 300th anniversary to the day of the ghost's death.

Peters and White mentioned Sherlock Holmes and the "Hound of the Baskervilles" while discussing big houses in mysteries. Peters said the revival of Gothics demands big houses. People's taste in reading runs in cycles, and it appears the Gothic novel is back with the heroine in peril. Kate said Bailey doesn't fit in the Gothic mode. She's too flip and irreverent. Barbara quoted P.D. James with one of her favorite lines about the Gothic atmosphere. It's "Wonderful to lie in your bed and know the footstep you hear is not for you."

Peters liked the celebrity biographer as a sleuth. Some have used true crime writers. Nancy Pickard comes to mind. But, a celebrity biographer is different. Kate agreed, saying even hard-boiled thrillers demand a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. Phoebe Hall, a celebrity biography, brings her skills to bear. She has research skills, and she's a good listener. She uses those skills. And, there have been a number of accusations of plagiarism lately. Barbara commented that plagiarism is harder to define with the Internet. It's easy to steal, and easy to be caught, too.

Barbara asked Kate what she sees as the future of print magazines, as the editor of a major magazine. White said she doesn't know. They're preparing many platforms at Cosmo. There are over 6 million unique hits on their website. That has different content from the magazine. There's a Cosmo for Guys that is online only, an app for the iPad. There's Cosmo for Nook. She's assuming that Cosmo will still be around twenty years from now, in a print version, but different, probably with a smaller format.

Peters has said before that digital books are wonderful for backlist and short stories. For instance, Marcia Muller's earlier books are out of print. White said she thinks people will always want to give hardcover books as gifts. What neither of them really understood, although Peters has seen it, is why anyone would want authors to sign their electronic device.

They said no one predicted blogs ten years ago. You just have to be nimble, light on your feet. We don't know what's happening in the future. White said when she took over at Cosmo, it was the first time she wasn't in the age group of the target audience of the magazine. She's a solid baby boomer, and the magazine targets Gen X and Gen Y. That's who she works with at the magazine. It's their point of view. She aware of the youth culture. They're unafraid of technology. Kate said when she leaves Cosmo, she wants to stay involved somehow with the younger audience and the technology.

Barbara said one thing she learned from Cosmo was about the little bags packed to take to work, containing the little necessary items in case you "hook up" and sleep over. White said it's so lame to show up for work the next day in the same outfit. She has a girl do that in the Bailey Weggins book, and try to cover by wearing her jacket differently.

After she leaves Cosmo, Kate would love to do a book a year. She'd like to be active in social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, as other authors do now. It's hard to do with a day job.

Hush, Kate White's other standalone, just came out in paperback. That's about a woman who works in marketing. White likes to have heroines related to her world, so she can do research. The woman is doing marketing work for a consulting company. She's in a custody battle with her husband. Then, she has a one-night stand with a doctor. She wakes up in the morning, and the doctor was stabbed to death. She leaves the scene because of the custody battle, and then senses someone is stalking her.

What triggers her ideas? She keeps clips. She heard a great idea from Laura Day about the creative process. When stuck, put the idea out to the universe. She did that, and was on the phone one day when the whole plot to her first book came to her. She has done that with, "How do I take Cosmo into the next decade?" You have to be receptive to things in the universe for your subconscious to work. With her second book, she was at the spa, and saw some of the tools there. That book takes place in a spa.

She tells people starting in the work world that they need to be receptive to the universe. A fashion editor told her about traveling in Egypt at a time she was undecided about her future. It was on that trip she realized she wanted to work with fashion. "Sometimes you have to be on the bus to Cairo to find what you want." White compares it to an amoeba. Ideas find each other. The more you can input, the better.

Why was there a five-year gap between Bailey Weggins mysteries? She was in the process of negotiating her contract. Her publisher at the time was pushing the series as chick lit, and White didn't see them that way. So, she changed publishers, and HarperCollins wanted her to wait to add any more Bailey Weggins books. So, she did two standalones before the next Bailey. She hopes people still want to see them.

I have my own autographed copy of The Sixes, and now, two lucky people could win autographed copies as well, and two will win a copy of Hush. Check Thursday's contest blog for details.

The Poisoned Pen did a webcast of Kate White's event. Here's the link,, if you'd like to see it. Or, you can watch it here.

Kate White's website is

The Sixes by Kate White. HarperCollins. ©2011. ISBN 9780061576621 (hardcover), 384p.


Liz V. said...

The man in the blazer is great. How wonderful to have a caring brother (with a sense of humor?).

Lesa said...

Wasn't that a funny story, Liz? It probably was wonderful from our perspective. Not so great from hers at the time.

Kay said...

Lesa, I really enjoyed reading every word of your blog today. I particularly enjoyed the fortune teller story!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Kay. Isn't that a great story for a crime writer to tell?

Karen C said...

Another great post, Lesa. I always enjoy reading your blogs after you've met an author - it's just like I was there myself.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Karen! I'm glad you enjoy the recaps. I enjoy sharing the experience with all of you.

kate white said...

Lesa, thanks so much for the wonderful write-up. I am still thinking of my trip to Arizona and how special it was. Seeing you was terrific, and so was being at that fantastic luncheon Barbara gave. And the next day at the airport--got there at about 5:15 a.m.--I saw an incredible purple and copper and gold Arizona sunrise!! Best, Kate