Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It's Never Too Late to Start by Chester Campbell

Chester Campbell was born in Nashville, TN in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. When he was a kid, he loved to read short stories in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Liberty. He never thought about writing until shortly before he was discharged from the Army Air Corps at the end of World War II. He was in the first class (1949) to complete the journalism curriculum at the University of Tennessee. The rest, as they say, is history. He currently writes the Greg McKenzie and Sid Chance PI series.

It’s Never Too Late to Start
by Chester Campbell

I can’t believe I’ve been retired for twenty-one years. Come June 30^th , that’ll be the case. The last of many jobs I held, all related in some way to writing, was management of a Tennessee trade association where I edited a bi-monthly magazine. Prior to that I had been a newspaper reporter, freelance journalist, political speechwriter, local magazine editor, advertising copywriter, and PR flack. When I announced my intention to retire from the association, I made it quite clear what I planned to do. Write novels. Unlike some authors I’ve read about, who say their family and friends ridiculed their efforts, I received nothing but support.

All during the Cold War I had been an avid reader of spy novels by Helen MacInnes, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Ken Follet, Robert Ludlum, and others. When the Cold War wound down about the time I left the workaday world, both the Soviet KGB and American CIA faced either dissolution or serious cutbacks in funding. I used that premise for my first post-Cold War thriller titled Beware the Jabberwock. High-ranking officials of both intelligence services plot the assassination of the Russian and U.S. presidents at an appearance in Toronto.

Several editors said they liked the book but gave the familiar line: “It isn’t quite what we’re looking for.”

That was 1990. Using the same central characters, I turned it into a trilogy, writing The Poksu Conspiracy (much of it set in Korea) and Overture to Disaster over the next two years. All three books required a considerable amount of research, some of it based on my travels in Europe and the Far East. Overture had scenes in Hong Kong, which I had visited, while Poksu made use of my experiences in the Korean War and a visit to Seoul in 1987.

They were fun books to write, but neither sold. I won’t go into my agent problems during this period. Suffice it to say I had several who accomplished nothing. But I stayed at the keyboard (and the library), turning out The Cumberland Caper and The Cambridge Declaration, Grisham-type stories involving ordinary guys who get caught up in conspiracies and are forced to battle their way out.

I also wrote a fictionalized version of a difficult situation one of my daughters found herself in, crafting it in the form of a lecture by a reporter who tells the story. An agent I sent it to found it too heart-wrenching to sell and suggested I might try it as a serialized story in a magazine. By then my daughter had decided she preferred I not push it, so I shelved the idea.

By this time my wife was having serious problems with Parkinson’s Disease, which slowed my writing. When my sisters-in-law came to give me a break, I went on a church seniors’ bus tour to Natchez and New Orleans. I followed that up by writing Hellbound, the story of a similar trip that includes a man who crafted his own false identity after skipping the witness protection program. A Mafia hit squad comes after him and winds up hijacking the bus as a hurricane bears down on The Big Easy.

When my wife died in 1998, I took a Holy Land tour with my brother’s Sunday School class. Out of that came my eighth novel, Secret of the Scroll. This one made it into print in 2002 as the first of a three-book contract with a small press. It came out shortly before my seventy-seventh birthday. Proving you’re never too old to learn, this experience taught me things not to allow in a book publishing contract.

After completing my obligation with Designed to Kill and Deadly Illusions, the second and third Greg McKenzie mysteries, I had problems collecting my royalties and got my rights (and a supply of books) back. I turned to a new micro press formed to rescue authors disenchanted with my old publisher. It gave me more control over things like covers and release dates. Night Shadows Press published the fourth McKenzie novel, The Marathon Murders, in 2008 and will release A Sporting Murder, the fifth, this fall.

Not totally happy with some reviewers calling the McKenzie books cozies (maybe because they feature a senior husband and wife PI team), I decided to try a new series with a little harder edge. The Surest Poison hit the shelves last year. The protag is a six-foot-six single guy who doesn’t mind throwing his weight around. I gave Sid Chance an interesting part-time sidekick, a wealthy former cop who isn’t afraid to use her wiles as needed.

Kaye asked for a photo of my workplace. It’s about as untidy as my daily schedule. Actually, schedule is something of a misnomer. I re-married ten years ago and picked up a grandson, now twelve and living with us, in the bargain. With school and other activities to keep up with, daily (when possible) two-mile walks at the mall, miscellaneous responsibilities like delivering Meals on Wheels, and a variety of chores, no day is alike. I do most of my writing at night, using my laptop in the living room. The office is mostly for the business end of the business. 

With piles of manuscripts on the floor, including a few unpublished ones that I still believe are salvageable, and soon-to-be six published books on the shelf, I’m quite pleased with the way retirement has shaped up. It would’ve been nice to have started a bit earlier, but I’m looking forward to getting my second Sid Chance mystery and my seventh published novel out in my eighty-fifth year. I feel like I’m just getting started.


Patricia Stoltey said...

Chester is one of my many hero fiction writers -- those who started after other careers were finished and plan to continue as long as they can. My first effort (a co-authored audiobook) was released when I was 58, and my first mystery in hardcover when I was 65. It is, indeed, never to late to start!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Congratulations on having such a successful career, Chester! It doesn't matter when it started...what matters is the great body of work you've written and are still writing!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Pat and Elizabeth. I think the important thing is to enjoy what you're doing, and writing has never been a chore for me. Finding time to write is. Of course, you don't really "find" time. You have to make it. That's the hard part.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

I agree with you both - it is truly never too late to start doing anything you've always felt an urge to do.

There are always new and exciting and fun opportunities awaiting us. It's up to us to make sure we don't allow them to slip away.

Chester Campbell said...

Kaye, thanks for having me. You're a doll.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Thanks, Chester! And so are you!!
: >

Always my pleasure to have you here!