Photo: Jackie Atkins/WritersClearinghouse News Service
BY JACKIE ATKINS
[WITERSCLEARINGHOUSE NEWS SERVICE/BIO]
Cape May, New Jersey
From noon to five, every day except Sundays and on holidays, mystery writer Patricia MacDonald works at her day job, writing a new novel once a year for the enjoyment of discerning Americans and the edification of her agent. And the French. They love her best-selling who-done-its in France. Who knew?
She has never experienced what some have dubbed 'writers block.'
'To be truthful with you,' she tells me over a cup of coffee in her brightly-lit breakfast room in her 19th-century house here, full of antiques, knick knacks, and bookcases of French cookbooks, 'whenever someone mentions this term [writer's block], I have no know idea what they are talking about.'
Growing up in Connecticut, the daughter of a mailman whose love of books instilled in her a passion to read, she was sent off to college with aspirations that higher education would secure a good job. “If I told my parents I wanted to become a writer, they would have yanked me out of Upsala College, [a small Lutheran school in East Orange, New Jersey] before the first semester. To say you wanted to write for a living was like saying you wanted to be a hobo.'
She majored in journalism, and was as far removed from the current-reality of being the best selling-women’s writer in France as from any dream of becoming Ms. Universe. Then fate stepped in.
After editing three soap opera magazines, Marvel Comics, the publisher, decided to shut them down. For the first time since she was nine, MacDonald was out of a job. With time on her hands, she started her new career.
MacDonald weathered rejection, finally be introduced to an agent (at a party) who was willing to work with her. Twenty years and twenty six novels later, she sits in her Cape May anti-bellum home and laughs about her wobbly start as a published mystery writer.
Living in Cape May with her husband, Art Bourgeau, owner of the renowned Whodunit? bookshop in Philadelphia, has provided her some advantages. For one thing, there is the beach. “I’m there everyday in the summer.' She isn’t worried about skin cancer because, as MacDonald puts it, “I’m from sturdy Czechoslovakia stock and I cover my face.” For another, she has the love and support plus marketing advice from her mate. “Art knows what people want to read and who the readers of mystery novels are [primarily women]. Every now and then though I will ask him what a man would do [she does have them in her books] in a certain situation and he will tell me..'
I asked her if her husband helps her with plot development. “We don’t communicate like that, after over thirty years of marriage, we know what each other is thinking. Art is the one who gets to read my first draft, though.”
MacDonald has just completed her latest work, I See You, about a family from the Mid-West living in hiding in West Philadelphia.
Personally, if I wanted to become invisible, like the family in the book, the last place I’d chose is a predominantly African-American neighborhood like West Philly where I'd be among the few white persons. MacDonald assures me, that to her readers, the venue will not make a difference because they know little about the city of Philadelphie.
Yes, her biggest fans are French women.
“I’m completely anonymous here,' she laughs (meaning the States, not just Cape May, although here also), 'and I’m glad to be. I want to be.'
I am amazed by this revelation. MacDonald writes some of the best, popular fiction about this country. Her female protagonists are carefully cut from swatches of the finest American fabric. Intelligent independent women from all walks of life and ages, each beset with a personal problem, which quickly escalates into a murder mystery only they can solve. In the process, they work out their own demons as well.
“I write about everyday people, and if you examine French cinema you will find most of it is about everyday life, what goes on in normal existence, how we cope with our daily problems. Here we want a love story, something more exotic, finding out about people with big lives. I don’t write about that. I don’t have a continuing character in each book, which is another reason why I am not as popular with American readers.'
So instead, she gives us Morgen, on the verge of an academic career cut short by the accusations that her best friend murdered her own husband and infant (From the Grave); Shelby, working her way out of a secretarial pool to the top of her profession only to have her only child, her daughter, missing at sea from a cruise ship (Cast Into Doubt); Alex, discovering after her parents' deaths, she has a sister who was given up at adoption and is now in jail for murder (Sisters); or Tess, witnessing, as a child, her sister’s abduction from the family summer camp site and is now visiting this scene years later with questions about the man she identified and sent to the gas chamber (Stolen In The Night). Each person is shaped by each character's circumstances, but all share the same sisterhood, and MacDonald is intent on telling you what she, as a woman (character and herself as same), would do. “The characters see every thing through my eyes, so it makes it very simple to write about them.”
MacDonald’s books have been made into six movies, most notable in the US, Mothers Day.
The tag line for MacDonald latest English edition of I See You, is “How well do you know your neighbors?”
In a world which has become increasingly more disconnected by our use of “social” media as a substitute for backyard networking and front porch banter, she has seen this media forms destroy our social values. As a novelist, MacDonald gives us a mirror into the private lives of normal Americans faced with inhospitable circumstances and an inability to connect for help.
Thanks to be MacDonald's hot book sales in France, it's a shame the French probably get to better understand how we Americans cope than we will ourselves.