Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Donna Andrews, Mystery Writers of America and Women

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of Mystery Writers of America (MWA), and the 69th year for the Edgar Awards, the awards that honor the best in mystery fiction, nonfiction, play and television writing. The 2015 Edgar Awards will be presented in New York City on Wednesday, April 29th.

This year, Sara Paretsky is President, and Donna Andrews is Executive Vice-President. Donna took
the time to answer some questions about women in MWA. Thank you, Donna.

Lesa -  Donna, Mystery Writers of America is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, and it's the 69th year for the Edgar Awards. Sara Paretsky is currently President of the organization, and you're the Executive Vice-President. Women currently are in three of the four positions leading MWA. Do you see this as a reflection of the mystery genre as a whole?

Donna - I hope it's a reflection of the growing diversity of mystery genre as a whole. I worry sometimes that it's only a reflection of our male colleagues' growing awareness of the value of recruiting women to fill volunteer positions that require a lot of work! But on a more serious note, as in so many areas of our culture, women are making progress, but there's a lot more to be done to honor the women writers of the past who have shaped our genre, to support women writers currently working in it, and to make things better for new women writers who will be entering our genre in the future.

Lesa -  Have the demographics of MWA changed to reflect the times?

Donna - MWA doesn't keep detailed demographics—we are, after all, almost entirely a volunteer organization, and doing demographics properly is hard work! Many of us believe the organization has become more diverse over time, but since we don't formally collect data on race, religion, sexual orientation, or other areas where we hope we are demonstrating our diversity, we can only give anecdotal evidence. And even the percentage of women can be hard to calculate, since one of the techniques women have traditionally used to overcome discrimination is to use male or gender-neutral pen names.

Lesa - What about the Edgar Awards themselves? I still see these awards dominated by men. I may be wrong. What do you think?

Donna - It’s a question a lot of people ask.  To start with, ensuring the impartiality of the Edgar Awards is something we take very seriously. Some of your readers probably already know this, but the Edgars are what's called a peer-judged award—the winners are selected by small committees of working writers who take this responsibility very seriously. Each year the Edgars Chair—this year it's Daniel J. Hale—works to recruit committees whose members are balanced by geography and gender and subgenre. Particularly in the large categories, such as best novel, best paperback original, best first novel, and even best short story, the judges are essentially giving up a year of their life, maybe even giving up the time in which they could have written another book. They will read hundreds of books or thousands of short stories and must winnow that immense field down to a handful of works. I've done it twice, first in the YA category and then in the juvenile, both with fewer books than some of others, but still—those were the years when, more than ever, I always had a book in my hand, wherever I went. It can be a rewarding experience—my writer friend Dana Cameron, who served on a best novel committee, considered it the equivalent of a master class on writing the novel. And it's an awesome responsibility. I bet I'm not the only Edgars judge who more than once upon opening up one of the books I had to read for the award, was briefly overcome by a feeling of “Holy cow, I'm reading for the Edgars! This is SERIOUS!”

Every year when the Edgar shortlists come out, there's a lot of second guessing in social media. People ask why the Edgars “overlooked” one of their favorite books—odds are it wasn't overlooked, it just wasn't in this year's committee's top five. Maybe it was number six. Or maybe they all hated it. We'll never know, because all Edgar panel deliberation are confidential. Maybe another panel would have chosen it not just for the shortlist but as the winner. Each Edgar win and nomination represents that year's committee's best attempt to pick the year's best book, and consider how often you and your fellow mystery reader friends always agree on what the best book of the year is. I think to me it's more frustrating when people complain about an Edgar committee picking a book they've never heard of. To me, that's a good thing, seeing a fine book plucked from relative obscurity by the Edgars.

As you can see, the process is designed to keep the Edgars as impartial as possible—so why aren't there more women nominees and winners? There should be. And more minorities. Just as there should be more diversity in every aspect of society—more women and minorities running businesses and universities and countries. We’re making progress, but there's no quick fix. We will keep looking for ways to help a more diverse population of writers find the time and the space and the confidence to write, and the expertise to negotiate the business of publishing. Under Sara's leadership we're hoping to find some ways to help a more diverse range of writers get their voices heard—and not only heard but appreciated. And meanwhile we'll keep working to ensure that our Edgar committees reflect the diversity we value in our community and our commitment to honoring the best works, regardless of who wrote them.

Lesa -  How is MWA recognizing their 70th anniversary this year?

Donna - We're working with Quirk Books to publish a special short story anthology edited by Mary Higgins Clark. It's called Manhattan Mayhem, and includes stories from Lee Child, Thomas H. Cook, Jeffrey Deaver, Margaret Maron, T. Jefferson Parker, S. J. Rozan, and a dozen others. It comes out June 2, and while they haven't let me read the stories yet, I'm already in love with the cover. Quirk is also publishing the Mystery Writers of America Cookbook this year—it was edited by Kate White and came out on March 24. I do NOT have a recipe in—because I am not much of a cook—but the one recipe from it that I've made (Sheila Connolly's Apple Goodie) was excellent, and I'm looking forward to trying others.

We're also surveying our membership to update our list of the 100 best mysteries of all time—we first compiled this in 1995, and it will be interesting to see how our members' favorites have changed in the last twenty years.

Lesa - And, one final question. Most of my readers are just that, readers. Most
of us are not authors, publishers, or in the mystery field. What is the role
for the much-in-demand reader in Mystery Writers of America?

Donna - At MWA we're pretty up-front about our goals—MWA's motto is “crime doesn't pay—enough!” We want to ensure that mystery writers are compensated fairly for their work and treated in a professional manner by the publishing industry. We want to provide education and tools to help both published and aspiring writers improve their craft and reach their career goals. We want to promote literacy—we consider it job security not just for our members but for all of us who practice the writing craft. And we want to promote the genre—to encourage respect for the genre, which essayist Philip Guedalla has called “the normal recreation of noble minds,” and to help connect readers with more of the books they love.

We do see a lot of readers who join MWA because they are passionate about the genre and want to become more involved in it. In my local chapter, for example—and I think we're pretty typical--we have monthly meetings featuring either a writer talking about his or her work or a subject matter expert who can tell us more about some topic of interest to anyone who loves crime fiction—our speakers have included crime scene investigators, FBI agents, police beat reporters who have covered notorious local crimes, the founder of the Witness Protection Program, and the CIA's equivalent of James Bond's Q. And since writers are also readers—in fact, all of us were readers first—there's nothing more exciting than the table talk at an MWA gathering, where you can not only meet one of your favorite writers but learn about what he's working on now or what she's currently reading.

But yeah, our focus is on writers—because that's the best thing we can do for readers. We're all about helping our members write more books and better books, and making it easier for readers to find them—which means the readers benefit even they're not MWA members. What's not to like about seeing your favorite writer able to quit her day job to spend more time writing? Seeing an aspiring writer friend learn his craft and succeed in getting published? Reading a review of a new book and rushing to add it to your TBR list?


Kay said...

Thanks for providing this, Lesa and thanks to Donna for answering the questions. Love her books, by the way. I was very interested in the process of selecting the nominated lists for the awards. I don't think I knew how much time it takes those committee members. Wow.

And, honestly, I think I can see somewhat of a shift in this award to more diverse selections. I always felt that the Edgar nominated books were not ones that would be interesting to me. The last couple of years has proved me wrong.

Lesa said...

It's good to see that shift, isn't it, Kay? I'm with you. I wasn't interested very often in the award-winning books, although I always followed the awards. I can't imagine giving a year of my life to the awards, though!

Donna Andrews said...

If you want to keep track of what books--and how many books--the various Edgar committees are reading, check out our Edgars website:

There's a link near the bottom of the home page to the list of current submissions. We're only three months into the year, and already the best novel category has over 80 books listed!

Lesa said...

Oh, my gosh, Donna. I read a lot, but I only do between 150-180 books a year, not what might be needed to be on the award committee. Granted, I know they don't always read an entire book, but enough of them to know if they meet the qualifications. Even so...

Judy Alter said...

A question about membership: if I read this correctly, readers are invited to join. If so, why then are authors with small presses or indie authors not eligible in this day of dramatic changes in publishing? Is it a question of maintaining standards? If so, does the criteria needs a new look?

Lesa said...

Judy, I hope Donna answers you, because I have no idea.

Carole Nelson Douglaws said...

Good question, Judy. And what about the many authors who have long lists of traditionally published books and have chosen to indie publish because of exploitive clauses in current contracts. Surely an organization dedicated to writers earning a good living and having careers would look at these authors' criteria differently from that of indie-only published authors with no track record? Is there an accommodation for "hybrid" authors in place? True, there is an influx of new, indie-published authors, I understand, but the criteria could be adjusted for the times. And an indie author has just won the top Rita award of the Romance Writers of America, I notice. The times have changed.

Donna andrews said...

Carole and Judy:

At its December 2014 meeting, MWA's board adopted the following

The Board of Mystery Writers of America recognizes that self-published authors are capable of achieving the same level of professionalism as traditionally published authors, and wishes to offer its protection, advocacy, and educational opportunities to professional authors who elect to pursue self-publishing in a manner that reflects the goals and missions of Mystery Writers of America.

a. The current Board charges the incoming MWA Board of Directors to investigate and establish the qualifications for professional self-published authors to become active members of Mystery Writers of America, with the understanding that those qualifications should be sufficiently stringent to ensure an equivalent level of experience and professionalism as that required of active, traditionally-published members.

b. The Board wishes to evaluate its current requirements for active status membership, which reflect Mystery Writers of America’s long-standing dedication to the promotion of professionalism in mystery writing and the protection of its membership as a whole, to ensure that these requirements recognize that unity among professional mystery writers on both the traditional and self-publishing paths is in the best interests of MWA, the mystery genre, and professional mystery writers.

Last year's board passed this change after eleven months of research, discussion, debate, two subcommittees and the recent survey sent to the MWA membership.

Now this year's board is working on the criteria for implementing it. So stand by!

Lesa said...

Carole, Thanks for your question. And, Donna, most of all, thank you for answering!

Anonymous said...

Though I have been a MWA member for a number of years, I learned a lot here. Thanks to both of you!

Radine Trees Nehring said...

Gosh--didn't mean to be anonymous...thing went "bye-bye" before I finished.
Radine Trees Nehring

Lesa said...

I'm glad it was helpful, Radine.

Carole Nelson Douglas said...

Excellent news, Donna!

Kudos to board members like you for coming to grips with these issues.


Lesa said...

It's not an easy task, Carole. I agree with you, kudos to the board members who tackled this.