At seven years old I announced that I was going to be a writer. Other kids were out playing, but I climbed the steps to the attic, my stomach in butterflies. There were mysterious things up there. Garment bags that swayed on the line when I moved held the clothes of those no longer with us. I could feel ghosts about. But I had a table, chair, notebooks and pen waiting for me. There was something thrilling and secretive about being on my own. I could smell the raw wood heated by the sun; I caught whispers of cedar and mothballs in the air. I sat and began.
At eight or nine I conscripted my siblings one winter day (they were all I could get in the season) to perform a puppet play of my devising. I positioned them behind the headboard of the bed where they were to stick their arms up and move jouncing puppets while speaking my lines. The prospects for an audience were limited, too. I dragged my parents away from “Meet the Press” to the bedroom to applaud us.
Thirteen, I think. I wrote a schlocky Christmas play which my teacher insisted we present in class. My little girl protagonist saved her family from everything bad—poverty, disease? I don’t remember the details, but she was sensitive, brave, and good.
In high school I wrote a short story about a girl whose mother didn’t appreciate her and wished she were like the beautiful little blonde girl next door. So I killed off the blonde child to teach the mother a lesson. It worked. The mother came to love her daughter who held the winning card of still being alive.
So, yes, I wanted to be a writer. I entered the University of Pittsburgh with a Creative Writing major. I read constantly and the stories got better.
Then in my senior year my college teachers urged me to go to graduate school in writing, but the great schools were far away and I didn’t have money. I disappointed my teachers and myself by declining my acceptances. I sat on the steps of the back porch at home on a warm spring day telling myself I must have been dreaming; only a select few could actually be writers. I had an option that was easy and would provide me with an income—an assistantship in Pitt’s Theatre Department.
This was not a bad decision. I became a director of plays which I later came to see was close to writing. I told actors where to move and how to summon emotion. I taught at Carlow College, down the street from Pitt, finished my dissertation, and got hired to teach at Pitt. I moved up to bigger plays—Shakespeare, Shaw. I bought a house, decorated it, and always eager for a story, waited for the next directing assignment to carry me away.
One summer, restless, with nothing on the schedule, I sat down in my bright little study. And I began putting down a sentence and then another. I had the attic butterflies again.
The teacher who had so wanted me to go to grad school was still teaching! I sat in on some classes, then I thought, why not enroll? While I was teaching theatre, I got an MFA in Writing. Luckily, I finished before the Dean of Graduate Studies noticed. Her memo, weeks later, stated that nobody on the faculty was permitted to earn a degree while teaching in another department!
It was during this period in which I was getting back to writing that I met the man I would marry. He was . . . a writer. (Aren’t these turnings in our lives wonderful and mysterious?) He not only encouraged my short fiction but said he thought I might actually turn out to be a long ball hitter.
I had started a novel about the three Johnstown floods so in 1988 I caught fire, pushing myself to be ready for the 1989 centennial of the Great Flood. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t in time for the centennial, but I kept going back to that manuscript over the years.
My first book of fiction was a story collection, The Man in the Buick, BKMK Press, 1999. Most of my stories had landed at good small presses, but one ended up in a glossy—Mademoiselle. Readers said they wanted to see more of Willa, my comic protagonist, who was six foot two, awkward and lusty. I tried to make a novel of her for years, pretty much alternating with the flood novel, wondering if I would ever figure out how to be a long ball hitter.
One summer, tired of torturing myself with Willa who didn’t have the stuff to keep a long ball going, I decided to put my hard won theatre lessons to use and map out a high-profile plot, something suspenseful with badness and crime in it, something with big actions and consequences. I was not planning to show the scribbles to anyone, but I was having an awfully good time. The police, the FBI, and several attorneys were enthusiastically involved in helping me. After a while I felt I had to write the thing. Each time I emerged from my study saying, “I wrote the wildest things today!” my husband would laugh and say, “Good! Sounds good.” I didn’t show him the work until a year and a half later. It was Taken, my first police thriller.
The FBI agent had told me I had a fine criminal mind, which for some reason delighted my husband. He would often brag about it to friends.
For years I kept company in my study with fictional criminals but also with my band of series detectives. Between 2001 and 2013, I published seven police thrillers with Bantam, Dell, St Martin’s, and The Mysterious Press. The titles are Taken, Fallen, Afterimage, The Odds (nominated for an Edgar (R) award for best novel by the Mystery Writers of America), Hideout, Simple, and A Measure of Blood.
When I saw the 125th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood looming, I thought “This time I’m going to do it.” Out of the drawer came my flood novel. I threw out half of it and came up with a new plot engine. The University of Pittsburgh Press released The Johnstown Girls in 2014, in time for the anniversary. And in 2018, they published The Blues Walked In, my novel about Lena Horne and jazz. Crime had crept into both, but they were typed historical novels.
Often, someone in an audience will ask about the Johnstown book, “How long did it take to write it?”
I tell them, “Twenty-five years.” And they are shocked. I tell them how, early on in my career, when Lore Segal said it took her eighteen years to write Her First American, I didn’t understand. I thought she was slacking!
“Some things take a while,” I say.
Getting back to writing took a while.
It was always there and then it was there.
Visit Kathleen at kathleengeorge.com where she talks about her working process, the themes that obsess her, misguided novel attempts, and even about the Pittsburgh restaurants which feature prominently in her novels.
Regal House Publishing is proud to bring you Kathleen George’s next work, Mirth, as part of our 2022 fall frontlist season.