An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With Laurie Lynn Drummond
Author of Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You: Stories
By Doris Booth
Laurie Lynn Drummond spent eight years as a uniformed police officer for the Baton Rouge Police Department, until a fateful on-the-job auto accident flipped the course of her life forever. In her superb debut book about female police officers, Laurie tells the gritty, brutal truth about her work, while capturing the courage, compassion, fears, and vulnerability of five women whose ten stories take one's breath away as they face the shimmering images of death and brutality. This is one of the few books well worth the hardcover price of $23.95. It is a work every woman will want to own– a bold reminder of the wounds life can inflict, and of one's remarkable ability to heal.
"A body newly dead has a sweet thin smell to it, a gentle sigh of a smell if the death wasn't gruesome," writes Laurie, "although some suicides have that same sweetness. Sometimes there is the acrid cutting edge of gunpowder that bites the eyes, the nostrils, the throat. Violence has a heavy smell that lingers for days–a taste as well–and a presence, thick and gray and swirling."
Here she talks to Authorlink about her 12-year struggle to write the book that has launched her career as an author.
"I moved to Austin without a job and spent 3 months on a friend's couch." Drummond
AUTHORLINK: This is your first published book. Where did you learn to write so powerfully?
DRUMMOND: I began reading when I was very young, probably because I was frustrated with my mother who would only read a chapter a night from books like Bambi and The Black Stallion. That was not getting it for me. When I was 13, I came to my mother in tears after finishing all the books by Somerset Maugham and Thomas Hardy. "What's wrong?" she asked. "There are no more good books to read, " I wailed. But I should have been wailing that I'd never live long enough to read them all. In elementary school I used to tuck library books inside text books and read them in class. My fifth-grade teacher noted in my report card that I'd make much better grades if I would stop reading library books in class. I suppose my writing grew out of a rich life of reading.
AUTHORLINK: You served in law enforcement for 9 years, the last five years as a Baton Rouge City Police Officer (1981-1985), quit and went back to college, then in 1991, you moved to Austin, TX. But it wasn't exactly an easy transition, right?
DRUMMOND: I nearly starved in the early days. I worked temp jobs for the first three months in Austin. At last I landed a job as an adjunct professor at St. Edward's University and a few weeks later got a job as a proofreader for Butterworth, a legal publisher. They were delighted to have a writer who was familiar with the law. I don't think they understood that my familiarity was with the Miranda rights and the up-against-the-wall-mother-fucker realities of life on the beat. I ended up as coordinating editor for Butterworth and loved that job! My boss, a woman, would let me work at home. I also taught classes for the Writer's League of Texas, and other free-lance proofreading jobs for typesetters. I did this for three years. Those days were financially rough. Then, in 1994 I began working my way up from adjunct to assistant professor at St. Edward's.
AUTHORLINK: What made you decide to move from Baton Rouge to Austin?
DRUMMOND: I promised myself I'd leave Louisiana as soon as I earned my MFA. It took me 14 years. I was never happy therewith the politics, the weather, the flying cockroaches. At Breadloaf, I'd met a woman who lived in Austin. I started visiting her and her husband, and fell in love with the town. I moved to Austin without a job and spent three months on their couch. I had even applied for a job with the University of Texas campus police, but a week later I was offered the job at St. Edward's and eventually at Butterworths. I was saved!
AUTHORLINK: How did you decide initially to become a police officer?
DRUMMOND: I was majoring in theatre at Ithaca College in New York on a college fund set up by my paternal grandmother. But by 1976 the money was running out. My dad said, "Get a job." I did a little research and found the highest paying on campus was as a dishwasher. I lasted two days. The next highest paying job was with the Student Auxiliary Security Patrol (SASP).
I thought, "I don't like pigs, and I don't want to be a narc." Still, I did it. I went through a semester of training and they handed me a flashlight and a badge.
And I discovered I loved the job, loved having access to knowledge the average person doesn't have. The adrenaline of answering calls was intoxicating. Then, through a friend, I got a job as a police dispatcher. Two years later, while still at Ithaca College, I decided I wanted to be a police officer. One local sheriff told me, "Over my dead body I'll hire a woman as a police officer!" A group of women had actually sued to get police jobs in Seattle just six years earlier.
But jobs were also scarce in the depressed Northeast in the late 1970's. On a visit with my family in Baton Rouge, my Dad suggested I approach the Louisiana State University police chief. The chief gave me a temporary job as a dispatcher for four months, and then offered to put me through my first police academy. I served as a plainclothes officer at LSU for two years, working the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift. Then I was looking for a bigger challenge. So, I joined the Baton Rouge Police Department.
AUTHORLINK: And what was your biggest surprise in the larger world of law enforcement?
DRUMMOND: The academy itself had been a shock, but my biggest surprise on the job was being exposed to the under belly of human existence. What I now saw on the beat was 50 times worse than what I had seen at LSU. I worked my first dead body within 6 weeks of leaving police academy. The danger level tripled. BRPD was a whole different ballgame burglaries, rapes, weapons, homicides, dead bodies. The visions and smells last; they never leave you.
"It was a tense time. I couldn't bring myself to write about my experiences during that period." Drummond
AUTHORLINK: How did you make the transition from police officer to writer?
DRUMMOND: I have kept a journal since my senior year in high school, and have written in it almost every day since then. But there is one six-year blank in the journal. That was when I was with the Baton Rouge Police. There are a few entries, like when my 12-year old dog, Honey, was dying. Otherwise, nothing. It was a tense time. I couldn't bring myself to write about my experiences. Journaling has always been a way of exploring what I am thinking, a chance to get my feelings out. And I couldn't do that while I was a police officer. The only way for me to go to my job everyday was to not think about it, or try not to think about what I was seeing and experiencing.
There were a number of reasons why I left the department, but the catalyst was my involvement in a bad wreck that left me in rehabilitation for 15 months. The workers' compensation program approved my taking some classes at LSU.
My mother was anxious for me to get out of police work, and she had just returned to school to get her masters in landscape architecture. She said, "Look, if you'll go back to school, I'll sign up for all the classes you do." I signed up for Roman History, Philosophy of Art, and a short story class, but LSU said, "Sorry. You have to take freshman composition first." Mom said, " I love you, but I'm not taking English again." So, we went to separate classes. The course was taught by a grad student in creative writing. And my first assignment was to write about something that changed your life. I wrote about a fatality accident I'd worked as a police officer.
The instructor said two things. "First, you have to learn to use semicolons. Second, why aren't you writing? You have a story to tell."
So here I am, a cop with a theatre background, enrolled in a freshman composition course. Initially, it was embarrassing to be in a classroom with 18-year olds. The next semester I enrolled in a fiction writing class, and eventually I quit the police department and went on to grad school. To make ends meet, I took a job as a waitress and as a clerk in a contemporary craft gallery. Writing seemed a lot like acting to me. You can study for 20 years and never get anywhere.
AUTHORLINK: What made you quit acting in the 70s?
DRUMMOND: I think I realized how hard it would be to make it. I realized I didn't have the passion to keep at it. Which is what worried me about pursuing writingwould I be passionate enough and talented enough to succeed? I was hoping that somebody would tell me I was good enough to pursue it. No one would; a professor said, "I never tell students whether they have talent or not. It's up to you to decide whether you have the drive to continue."
AUTHORLINK: So how did you make the leap?
DRUMMOND: It took me two years after I got my undergraduate degree to gain the courage to go into the MFA program full time, to embrace fully my passion for writing. That's where I honed my technique, and that's when I began some of the stories that appear in the book-"Absolutes," "Finding a Place," and "Cleaning Your Gun." I worked on four stories in grad school that became a part of the collection. At one point I quit working on police-related stories completely, and got some other stories published. But my major professor told me not to shun the cop stories. "These stories are authentic. They have power. Don't turn away from them to prove other things." It was useful advice.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write Anything You Say. . .
DRUMMOND: Twelve years. I had started the stories in grad school, and continued to work on them and send stories out for publication. But then I started getting full-time contracts with St. Edward's. I really wanted a tenure-track position. Being non-tenured is a tortuous state, so if you want to get promoted and earn tenure, at least at St. Ed's, you have to spend more time teaching. So I did. On the side, I also wrote reviews and articles, doing a rough draft one weekend and the revised piece the next. Teaching and the extra work load left no time or space for creating fiction. I thought, "Maybe I don't have what it takes."
So I made a deal with myself. I said, "Either write or stop calling yourself a writer." I went to a good friend's summer home in Tennessee for ten days. Complete isolation. And I started writing again. I started the first of the "Sarah" stories there in the summer of 2000.
AUTHORLINK: So when did you make the full commitment to writing?
DRUMMOND: In 2000. In 2001 and 2002, I finally took summers off from teaching and made writing my first priority. Even then, it took a while to finish what I had begun. I'm a perfectionist.
AUTHORLINK: Do you mean you were doing a lot of rewriting during that time?
DRUMMOND: Yes. I work and work and then rework my stories. One story that appears in the book I wrote 40 times. I write in an odd way. When I start, I write a paragraph or two, then stop and start at the beginning again, revising as I go, write a few more new paragraphs, start at the beginning again. I call the process "weaving."
"Within a few short weeks, we were in a bidding war between Scribner and Harpercollins." Drummond
AUTHORLINK: When you were finally finished, how did you find an agent?
DRUMMOND: Actually, I wasn't finished. I wasn't even close to finished. This was the summer of 2000the same summer I decided to commit myself to my writingand I attended an agents and editors conference at the Writer's League of Texas in Austin. As a board member, I helped transport guests back and forth. Jim Bob McMillan, then the executive director of the League, figured out the best agent for my work and assigned me to pick her up at the airport. That person turned out to be Jandy Nelson, with Manus & Associates. We had a lot in common, and she asked if I had an appointment with her. I didn't. "Well, let's see how we can fit you in," she said. I had eight stories by that time. I hurriedly typed up a one page summary of the book that night and presented it the next daynot the ideal way to present one's work to an agent. Luckily, she asked me to send her everything I had finished, and she called the next week. The first story in the book, "Absolute," had blown her away and she wanted to represent me.
Jandy suggested that I jettison all the stories that weren't related to police work or female police officers. A great suggestion. But now I was back to four stories, and they don't make a book. So I spent the next two years writing new stories and I turned the collection in to her the first week of October of 2002. Three weeks later, we were in a "best bid" between Scribner and HarperCollins. We went with HarperCollins' offer on Halloween.
AUTHORLINK: How did all of this sudden success impact you?
DRUMMOND: It was unreal. The only thing that kept me grounded was teaching. I remember telling my fiction class matter-of-factly on the Monday before Halloween, "Well, about this time my agent will be getting some kind of official offer for the book." I was a realist. I knew these things rarely happened, once in a blue moon, and to other people. The fact that it was happening to me was surreal.
AUTHORLINK: And how do you feel about the success?
DRUMMOND: I am enormously grateful. This sort of thing is unheard of. I expected an offer for $10,000 or $15,000 for a short story collection. I got a six figure deal for the collection and a novel. Then my agent said, "They're asking for a novel. Can you come up with an outline for one in 12 hours?" I did.
So, we actually got a two-book deal from HarperCollins. The novel is due to my editor January 2005.
AUTHORLINK: And who is your editor?
DRUMMOND: My editor at HarperCollins is Marjorie Braman. She's wonderful.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have to make additional revisions after landing the first book deal?
DRUMMOND: The process of publishing has been an amazing learning curve for me. Marjorie raved about the work, but she also asked for a lot of revisions.
At the time, I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on a four-week residency. I'd applied for the residency to continue working on my memoir, which I was 70 pages into, before HarperCollins had asked for a novel. So now I'd figured I'd start working on the novel, or "That Novel" as I was calling it. Marjorie's revisions on the collection came in my second day in Virginia, and I just burst into tears. She was asking for a major reorganization of the book. I took the whole four weeks in Virginia to revise Anything You Say. And what Marjorie had asked me to do turned out to be brilliant.
AUTHORLINK: What exactly did she ask you to do?
DRUMMOND: She asked me to link the stories together, to interweave them and bring and characters into each other's stories. The revision process was extremely intense. The only thing that saved my sanity was I found an abandoned puppy on my doorstep, and named him Rumi after the poet. He still lives with me and the cat, Smilla, and he sleeps in the bathtub.
I have learned so much from the editing experience. I told Marjorie that when she receives the second book to go ahead and chop it up. I'm ready!
"I never want to change my basic humanity." Drummond
AUTHORLINK: What advice can you give to new writers struggling to break into the business?
DRUMMOND: Quit worrying about getting published and apprentice yourself to the craft. Everybody thinks they can write because they've been doing it since kindergarten. But like art, dance, and theatre, there's an apprenticeship in writing. It's like playing the piano. Before you can play in a concert or recital, you have to practice your scales. Many people come into writing thinking they know more than they do. Every writer should study a foreign language because that's how you'll learn your own. Native speakers don't know their own language as well as non-natives. Read. Read a lot. Published writers who have been working on their craft for 20 or 30 years say they're still learning. Get this notion out of your head that you'll take a couple of classes and then get published. The art of writing doesn't work that way.
AUTHORLINK: You're probably well on your way to becoming a New York Times bestselling author. Have you personally changed as a result of this experience?
DRUMMOND: I never want to change my basic humanity. I want to stay humble and grounded. Beside a heavy travel schedule (24-city book promotional tour) and a sense of surreal-ness, I have worked hard to make sure that who I am and how I live my life hasn't changed. But it will be good to take a whole year off from teaching to focus only on my writing career.
AUTHORLINK: Your charactersKatherine, Liz, Mona, Sarah, and othersare haunting, unforgettable people. How do you, yourself, want people to remember you?
DRUMMOND: As an honest writer, as a good craftsperson, somebody with a big heart, who explores the humanness of all of our hearts and who isn't afraid to explore the darker sides of human existence.