Greg Herren Showed His Teacher How It’s Done

Greg Herren

View Greg Herren’s novels at Bold Stroke Books

Introduction to Murder in the Rue Dauphine (Chanse MacLeod Mysteries Book 1)

My first writing teacher (we’ll call him Dr. Manning) told me I’d never get published.

His exact words were: “If your dream is to be a published writer, Greg, I’d suggest you find another dream.”

That was thirty-two years ago at this writing, and I’ve never forgotten that meeting in his office. I was in my second year of college, and all I had ever wanted was to be an author. When other kids my age wanted to be cowboys or astronauts or baseball players, I always said I wanted to write books. I had been encouraged all through high school by English teachers to pursue the dream. It was, as you can imagine, quite devastating to be told by a writing teacher that it would never happen for me.

Now, of course, having published seventeen novels and over fifty short stories, I can look back on that horrible conference on a snowy afternoon in Kansas with a wry smile rather than anger or bitterness. To say that Dr. Manning’s incredibly cruel words didn’t affect me would be untrue; their deleterious influence kept me from seriously pursuing writing for almost another twenty years. I did take other writing courses at other universities over the course of my collegiate career—and despite the fact that other instructors were encouraging and loved the work I did for their classes, I never could forget Dr. Manning’s contemptuous words, the condescension in his tone as he dynamited my dreams, hopes, and ambitions.

I was thirty-five when I decided to prove him wrong. I wrote his words down on a piece of paper with a black sharpie and thumb-tacked it to the wall just above my computer. Whenever I got stuck with whatever I was working on—or didn’t want to write—all I had to do was look up at that piece of paper and I could hear his patronizing voice and see the supercilious smile on his face as he spoke those words to me.

It always worked.

Murder in the Rue Dauphine was not the first novel I attempted to write; over the years, I’d started and stopped any number of novels. I actually completed first drafts of three novels, and set them aside as imperfect to start another. But there was something about this one that kept me writing, doggedly editing and rewriting, polishing and refining. I had the remarkable good fortune to be mentored by one of my literary heroes, Julie Smith. Julie was a harsh taskmaster, always demanding better work from me. But I learned. I learned to kill my darlings, that every character is important and needs to be fully developed, that dialogue has to ring true, and that I couldn’t just have things happen because they had to for purposes of the plot.

Murder in the Rue Dauphine was rejected by every agent I sent it to, but their rejections were kind, encouraging, and full of praise for my writing ability. One agent recommended I send it to a prominent, openly gay agent who’d represented many gay authors in the past. “He’d be a much better fit for you,” she wrote in her letter, “and I am certain he’d take you on.” Full of hope, I submitted the manuscript to him.

His rejection letter was Dr. Manning all over again:

“Mr. Herren:

I find neither your story or your characters compelling or interesting. As such, there is no way I could possibly represent this manuscript. Best of luck to you.”

Yes, he actually used “neither or.”

To add insult to injury, my manuscript was so unworthy I didn’t even merit the use of a fresh piece of stationary. His note was handwritten on the back of an already used piece of stationary, which he’d torn in half and paper clipped to the title page.

But I wasn’t the insecure seventeen year old sitting in Dr. Manning’s office anymore.

This time, my reaction was I’ll show YOU, asshole.

I submitted the manuscript the next day to Alyson Books. Six weeks later, they offered me a contract, which I accepted.

Two years later, I held a copy of my first published novel in my shaking hands. It sold well, got some really good reviews, and was even nominated for a Lambda Literary Award—not bad for someone who would never be published, or for a book whose story and characters were ‘neither interesting or compelling.’ It launched my career as a fiction writer, and as I mentioned earlier, in the ten years since it first saw print in February 2002, I’ve published sixteen more novels under my own name or pseudonyms. I am currently writing my seventeenth, and have contracts for six more beyond it. It introduced my gloomy private eye Chanse MacLeod to the world—the third book in the series, Murder in the Rue Chartres, did win the Lambda Literary Award for Best Men’s Mystery.

When Bold Strokes Books offered to bring it back into print, the temptation to revise and update it was almost too much to resist. Murder in the Rue Dauphine was written in another time, a time before everyone had high speed Internet and smart phones. But as I proofed the manuscript, the itch to update began to fade. As I read, I was transported to a world that no longer existed—New Orleans as it was in the late 1990’s. Memories began coming back of places that are no longer there—the Semolina’s on Magazine Street, Kaldi’s coffee shop on Decatur, the La Madeleine on Jackson Square. There no longer is a Hotlanta weekend in Atlanta in August. People no longer listen to CD players on shuffle. And when was the last time you saw someone at the gym on the stair climber with a Walkman, listening to a cassette tape?

For that matter, the pivotal point of the plot has to do with a videocassette recording. Who has a VCR anymore?

Not only did Chanse not have a cell phone, he didn’t have a computer!

Today, the notion of a private detective without either is unthinkable. But after finding a body, Chanse has to go knock on a neighbor’s door to borrow the phone!

So, ultimately, I decided to leave the book as it was originally published. I did fix some minor mistakes that got past the copy editor the first time around. Other than that, this is the book exactly as it was originally published—so that the places and events that no longer exist are forever preserved in this book. I loved Kaldi’s and Semolina’s, after all—that was why I put them in the book in the first place.

As Julie Smith told me, “sometimes you just have to say ‘it’s finished’ otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life rewriting it.”

And in case you were wondering, yes, I did send a signed, first edition copy of it to Dr. Manning back in 2002.

-Greg Herren

New Orleans, December 2011

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