By Patrick Driscoll
Sharon Healy-Yang, professor of English at Worcester State University, recently published her first novel, Bait and Switch, with Touchpoint Press: a noir mystery in the tradition of classic films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s that combines an intriguing mystery with wit, humor, and genuine heart. Bait and Switch follows Jessica Minton, a smart-talking stage actress in wartime New York, who finds herself suddenly entangled in a web of intrigue, Axis spies, double-agents, drama, and mustachioed men who are as handsome as they are untrustworthy, in a story that is at once funny, thrilling, and clearly written by someone with an extensive familiarity with the genre. The New Worcester Spy’s Pat Driscoll interviews Dr. Yang about her writing habits, advice for budding authors, H.P. Lovecraft, and the importance of cats.
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: Well, fifty years, because the first thing I wrote was when I was eight years old, and I managed to misspell “girl”—I meant to say that a girl was being chased off a bus by a vampire and I kept spelling it “grill.” Why a vampire would take a bus is another question, but my brother read it to my parents because he thought it was so good. So, you know, I’ve always been writing. And I got started because my brother used to write, and I wanted to be like my brother.
Q: Does he still write?
A: Ah, no.
Q: Oh, cool! So you kind of eclipsed him?
A: I did, I went beyond him, yeah. He got the Master’s, I got the PhD, you know how it goes, haha.
Q: Nice! Got ‘em, haha. Have you written novels or short stories before this series?
A: Me and a friend of mine in junior high, we wrote this satire of Dark Shadows. It was almost like a big long soap opera. But I actually had written some novels that, y’know—they’re juvenilia, they were romance novels, sort of Victorian Gothic, Gothic romance, very popular in the 70s. They weren’t bodice-rippers or anything. Kind of like Victoria Holt, that kind of thing. Some of them were satires, too, but nothing I would ever try and publish. They were just for fun.
Q: Definitely, kind of like cutting your teeth?
A: Yeah! Yeah, exactly.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: Ah, well, for just plain relaxing reading, I love—well there’s a lot of different people, it’s hard to say. I just finished reading The Technologist by Matthew Pearl. There’s another writer who’s a wonderful combination of Nathaniel Hawthorne and H.P. Lovecraft named Scott Thomas, I think—I really like a lot of stuff that was written in the 1930s and 40s, you know, mysteries, sometimes ghost stories. I love Dorothy McArdle, who wrote The Uninvited, Theresa Charles, and a lot of people who nobody really remembers that well. I like the writing, there’s a lot in there; it’s a pleasure to read. It’s like sinking your teeth into a good sandwich, you know what I mean?
Q: What attracted you to the genre of “Bait and Switch”?
A: I’ve always liked mysteries, horror (although this isn’t horror), I like humor, I’m a big movie buff—I love movies from the 30s and 40s. I love how they have that noir look, I like the humor, I love the visuals, the literate way things are written, the way things unfurl, the way the characters are developed. And it’s so compact! A lot of these stories are told in seventy minutes, an hour and forty minutes, tops. And it really just works.
Q: And it definitely comes through in the sample I read—like the bit about mugging a G.I. for a Hershey bar, like it’s so spot-on for the tone of the genre. It has such a good conversational, ah, what’s the word—repartee? It was super good.
A: Oh, you liked it? That makes me so happy! Get all your friends to read it. Read it, buy a copy, that’d be even better. We gotta keep my cat in catnip.
Q: I definitely will! Exactly, gotta keep ‘em flush. Do you have a set writing regimen?
A: You know, I can’t write during the school year, because A: I don’t have time, and B: I just can’t focus, because you really just have to immerse yourself in it. So I usually write in the summer. I’ll just find a chunk of time, go out onto the porch and write for six hours, and usually my husband will say ‘you haven’t had lunch, come in and eat something.’ And my hands will be hurting, because I handwrite. The first draft is always by hand, because it flows more freely. I try to do a certain number of hours a week, but it’s really exhausting—I’m inspired by nature, I like to feel the breeze, I love the warmth. I love the fall. I haven’t been able to set anything in the fall yet, but the fourth novel in the series—I’ve written three—the fourth one is set in the fall.
Q: What are the three books so far?
A: Bait and Switch, Letter From a Dead Man, and Always Play the Dark Horse. Bait and Switch is coming out first, obviously.
Q: Do you have any advice to writers starting out, who’ve yet to be published?
A: Well, always keep at it. Keep honing your craft. Read a lot—what kind of helped me was, I started by finding writers I liked and emulated them, but then I found my own way, sort of a way to get started. Keep writing, don’t be discouraged. And write for yourself! I think, get a lot of feedback from people who would be your audience, who would be the kind of people who you’d wanna write for. I think it’s really good to get a writing group, or just have friends who are other writers, and be able to take criticism—but also be able to know when the criticism isn’t really relevant. I just knew I always wanted to write, and I was gonna write anyway. I feel like, if you don’t have talent, then you shouldn’t get published, but if you just enjoy writing, then just enjoy it. I did a lot of research to find, you know, I invested in the Writer’s Guide to Agents, the Writer’s Guide to Presses. I got a lot of rejections, and I went through a lot of revisions. Sometimes when you hear from agents or editors, and they’ll give you suggestions, and you have to think, ‘is this something that is valid, and will make it better?’ or ‘do they want something that I don’t want to write?’
Q: Did you do a lot of research on the period? You can definitely feel it in the dialogue.
A: Oh yeah, definitely. A lot of people say that, I think I have an ear for it. Another thing I do is when I’m watching old movies I’ll write things down. And you’ve probably heard me say stuff in class, you know, it’s sort of part of my patois now.
Q: What genres would you list it under? Is it strictly Mystery/Noir? Is it a Political Thriller?
A: I would say it’s sort of ‘amateur detective,’ definitely mystery. I don’t know if it’s a thriller. It’s sort of how you define it—it’s not violent, it’s not like a Bruce Willis movie, but I think I keep you in suspense. I definitely think the noir part is in there. I guess I would call it ‘historical,’ too, it’s very in-the-period. And there’s a cat in it. You can’t forget the cat.
Q: Definitely! That’s an important part of it.
A: She is, actually.
Q: You mention on your website the notion of ‘Smart-Talking Gals.’ Is that sort of a movement you’re trying to go for?
A: I actually hadn’t thought about it like that. It’s just that, a lot of times when I read criticism about the genre, they always seem to dump women into categories; they’re either femme fatales, or these innocents. And I think an important part of the genre is the Smart-Talking Gal. There’s a person who writes on film, she has an article in the book I’m co-editing with Kathy Healy called Gothic Landscapes, where she writes about working women in film noir, and it’s kind of close to what I’m talking about. I think there definitely needs to be more attention paid to the Smart-Talking Gal. I used to the word ‘dame,’ but ‘gal’ seems way more respectful, you know.
Q: Is there any genre that you’d like to do in the future?
A: Well, I’ve actually done — I’ve completed a Lovecraft pastiche, that sort of combines Lovecraft, noir, and a little romance, which sounds a little bizarre! So I completed it, it’s called Redeeming Time, I have to tighten it up a bit. I’ll see if a publisher wants to do something with it, or maybe self-publish it on Amazon or something. I grew up reading Lovecraft, I love that kind of stuff. In fact, there’s this great website run by the H.P. Lovecraft historical society called Cthulhu Lives, and you can order CDs where they’ve done radio plays of some of his short stories.
Q: Oh, that’s awesome! By the way, I probably should have asked this earlier, but: Are you originally from Massachusetts?
A: Yeah! I was born in Lowell, I grew up in Lowell. I lived in Lawrence for a year, and then I also lived in Worcester for a year when I went to Clark, and then I went to grad school in Storrs, Connecticut, and then I got this job about sixteen years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. And you should see my yard, it’s a fake cemetery now.
Q: Lovecraft would definitely approve. Thank you so much for this!
A: Oh, no problem! Thanks for the publicity! Haha.
Read a sample of Bait and Switch here: (http://sharonhealyyang.com/bait-and-switch/sneak-peek-at-bait-and-switch/) and follow her blog at http://sharonheallyyang.com.)
Hear the entire interview here: http://newworcesterspy.net/smart-talking-a-conversation-with-dr-sharon-yang/