|Welcome to New Faces, where we are delighted to introduce new mystery authors! This week we welcome Jane Isenberg, whose new book The M Word is scheduled for release in February.
Welcome, Jane! Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Passaic, New Jersey in 1940, the only child
of an elementary school teacher and a judge. I survived and escaped
to Vassar. There I majored in English during the week and searched
for the required husband on weekends. Mission accomplished,
I moved to New Haven, Connecticut because my husband
was in graduate school at Yale. I became what was then called a
"Yale wife." I taught high school English for seven years, a coming
of age experience which I describe in GOING BY THE BOOK, published by
Bergin and Garvey in 1994.
When I became pregnant in 1969, I began
to teach in community college because the public school system's
insurance did not cover a pregnant woman beyond the first three
months. My daughter was born in 1970 and my son in 1974. After
my department chair told me that without a masters degree, I would
be fired, I earned an MA in English from Southern Connecticut State
Our family moved to Hoboken, New Jersey in 1977 when my
husband accepted a job in New York. The move offered us the
opportunity to live in a house with our two small children and a cat
while we were renovating. This proved to be another coming of age
experience from which I have not yet recovered. I joined the
faculty of a community college in Jersey City.
In 1985 at 45, I was
widowed. In 1989, just as the chicks were beginning to flutter
their wings at the edge of the nest, I began to work towards a PhD
in Applied Linguistics and English Education at NYU. And once again
I began to search for a partner, this time seven days a week. When
I met Phil Tompkins, we lived together for nearly a decade before we
married, just last year.
Are you still teaching, or are you devoting yourself to writing full time?
I continue to teach full time. Most of the time I find teaching
exciting and fulfilling. Other times it is exhausting and
What made you select mysteries as your genre of choice as a writer?
I used to read a lot of mysteries until I stopped being able to
identify with many of the protagonists who were either too young, too
old, or too violent. I decided to write mysteries myself because I
wanted to entertain my fantasy mystery reader, who is female, smart,
collaborative, funny, and menopausal, with stories she could relate
to, stories that are not only engrossing, but also validating. I
wanted to create a protagonist who was like the women I know. I
thought it was high time that a fictional character had menopausal
symptoms. That's why Bel Barrett does some of her best sleuthing
while experiencing hot flashes and dry eyes and counting kegels.
Also, I think the community college is underrepresented in academic
mysteries. It's a vibrant multicultural setting where hundreds of
dramas are enacted daily.
Tell us about getting The M Word published.
I began THE "M" WORD in 1994, working on it summers and weekends.
I got suggestions from my writing group which is made up of three
other English profs and a psychologist, all avid mystery readers. I
also got suggestions from a neighbor and friend who is a
mystery reader and a children's book editor. I confess that I
resisted most suggestions. Meanwhile I tried to find an agent by
sending out sample chapters of various drafts and query letters.
Some agents were immediately turned off by the prominent role of
menopause in the story. But a few praised the concept and
accompanied their rejections with suggestions about the book's
structure. I toughened up and began to follow suggestions.
I also joined Sisters in Crime and attended a panel of newly published
authors who spoke about their experiences. One of them was Barbara
Jaye Wilson. When I felt the manuscript was sufficiently improved, I
queried Barbara's agent, the brilliant and sensitive Laura Blake
Peterson at Curtis Brown. Within two weeks, Laura had sold the book
to Avon. Previously I had queried only those agents whom I
calculated to be older, assuming that the manuscript with its midlife
focus would appeal only to midlife readers. Not so. Laura Blake
Peterson and Jennifer Sawyer Fisher, my savvy editor at Avon, are
both decades away from their first hot flash.
What research was needed for your first book?
THE "M" WORD takes place in an urban community
college, a milieu in which, as a veteran community college prof, I
am very much at home. There is a bit of skullduggery involving real
estate, and as a newspaper junkie, homeowner, and taxpayer, I am
all too familiar with the scams centered around development.
THE "M" WORD required research on menopause which I was doing
anyway since my own hormonal revolution was part of the reason I wrote
the book. Also, the method of death was something I had
to research with the help of my pharmacist, the book DEADLY DOSES,
and the New Jersey Poison Control Center.
Are there writers whose works you particularly admire?
As an English prof, I admire the works of countless writers. But
one in particular stands out in connection with THE "M" WORD, and she
is Bel Kaufman, author of the one-time best seller UP THE DOWN
STAIRCASE. In fact, I named my amateur sleuth Bel Barrett to combine
the karmas of Bel Kaufman and her fictional protagonist Sylvia
Barrett. I admire the way Kaufman entertained us with portraits of
students in their own words and the wit she employed in satirizing
the educational bureaucracy. I wish she'd taken up mystery writing.
What's the family's reaction to having a mystery writer in their midst?
My kids are pleased that I'm writing but a little worried that I
am "cannibalizing" their lives, which, to a certain extent, I am.
My husband is also pleased and enormously helpful as a reader, a word
processing expert, and a one person support group. He will also be a
"web slave" soon, for he has promised to make me a web page.
Tell us about your next book.
THE "M" WORD is the first of a series. I've just completed
the second book and am about to start work on the synopsis
of the third which is due within the year. In the second book, Bel
confronts the murder of a colleague and the often conflicting demands
of a career, aging parents, and long distance motherhood that many
midlife women face.
How can readers get in touch with you?
Readers may e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note
that the second e is missing from my last name in my e-mail address!
Thanks, Jane, and best of luck with the series! Readers, check out our review of The M Word.
January 29, 1999