Karen Lynch was one of the first female police officers in San Francisco. Now a retired former homicide inspector, Lynch has published a memoir calledGood Cop, Bad Daughter about how being raised by a mentally ill mother prepared her for the police force. I caught up with her as she was preparing to tape "Listen to Your Mother," a national series of live readings of works relating to motherhood. I asked her about how she made the leap from cop to published memoirist.
Q: All the years that I knew you as a homicide detective, you said you were going to write after you retired. Then you not only wrote your first memoir, you published it. I've seldom seen someone make a dream come true with that combination of determination and success. How did you manage to transform your career where others have failed? A: Surviving breast cancer and the treatment trifecta -- surgery, chemo and radiation -- made me realize how little time we really have on this planet. All of the considerations that had kept me from writing memoir suddenly became trivial. Would I embarrass myself, my family? Was I a good enough writer? Would people view me as a navel-gazing narcissist? I wanted my children to understand my family history, and not knowing how much time I had left, I wrote my story with an urgency I wouldn't have had without the cancer diagnosis. Another impetus was the idea that telling my story might give hope to young people who are living through difficult childhoods. Had books like The Glass Castle, Liar's Club, and Angela's Ashes existed when I was a child, I would have taken great comfort in knowing I was not alone, and that people go on to escape childhood pain and create beautiful lives. Then in a stroke of good fortune, I reconnected with a friend I'd grown up with, Stephanie Lehmann, author of numerous novels and plays, who had been working in publishing for many years. She offered to read my book and because of her editing, I was able to whittle the 150,000 meandering words I started with into an 80,000-word story. The she gave me the title for the book, which is much more clever than my original title, The Floating World.
Q: While you were writing and editing the book, you were diligently preparing to publicize it by building a large following on Facebook and Twitter. How did you go about it and how has it helped your book?
A: While I was revising the memoir, I saw a post on Facebook for an essay competition through Kelly Corrigan's Notes & Words foundation. I entered "The Road to Kyra," a short story about the adoption of our daughter, and as part of the competition I asked Facebook readers to "like" the essay. During the course of the weeks of voting I acquired about 2,000 new Facebook friends. Many of them are people I once knew casually, but now know much better. Some are people I have never met. Facebook has become a true community for me. I view it as the town square where we all go for comfort and connection. This maybe sounds arrogant or odd, but I view Facebook sort of as my ministry, if you will. I occasionally post that if someone is in despair or need of support, please reach out to me. About twice a week I get a private message where someone wants to chat about something difficult. I love feeling I am being of service in this way. Twitter is another story. I haven't quite figured out how to use it effectively, but I do enjoy posting humorous one-liners. If a writer wants to build a platform using social media, I would recommend posting a couple of times a day, something original, a few lines of your work, an anecdote, or maybe observational humor. Then reach out with friend requests to people you think might enjoy your work. Soon word will spread and others will follow you. During the revision process of Good Cop, Bad Daughter, I attended several transformative workshops. I thank you for pointing me to the San Francisco Writers' Grotto. I highly recommend the Grotto workshops for anyone who wants serious feedback. Julia Scheeres is not only a brilliant best-selling author, she also knows how to teach the skills necessary for powerful memoir, and she is an excellent editor. Her SF Grotto workshops are always sellouts.
Last summer I had the opportunity to work with Pam Houston and Cheryl Strayed at Esalen for a week. The time with those writer/teachers and fellow workshoppers was invaluable for improving the final edits of Good Cop. One other workshop I highly recommend is the annual Sanibel Writer's Conference in Florida. Tom DeMarchi and Karen Tolchin run this conference through Florida Gulf Coast University. The instructors who attend are phenomenal. Steve Almond leads workshops every year and he has a gift for insightful editing. I use his writing tips every day. It's a small conference where fledgling writers have the opportunity to meet and converse with big names like Andre Dubus III, Susan Orlean, Darin Strauss, Lisa Borders, to name just a few. Maybe this all workshopping sounds prohibitively expensive to a starving writer, but I viewed the workshops as an investment in education for my new career, and pursuing an MFA would have taken more time and money than I had.
Q: Your readings in the Bay Area have filled the house and sold out. I've seen acclaimed authors with many fewer attendees and sales. What's your secret?
A: The fact that this is my first book and that I grew up in the Bay Area is the main reason the readings have been so well attended. If I went to another state, it would be more challenging to fill the room. I leaned heavily on my Facebook friends, co-workers, former classmates and coerced them into attending. They all came through for me. Chuck Palahniuk's words ring true to me, and I am paraphrasing him here: As writers we must never be boring. I want people to stay interested in the story I'm telling, whether they are sitting at a reading or turning the page. As a reader, my favorite question is, what's going to happen next? Though I do sometimes love reading poetry, and lyrical prose, I want to write page-turners.
Q: Your book is the first memoir to be published by Christine Bronstein under her new imprint, NBTT (Nothing But The Truth). How did that come about?
A: Christine was my lifesaver. After querying agents relentlessly for about two years, no one had offered to represent Good Cop. In one last flurry of emails, I asked Christine, whom I knew from her women's networking group, A Band of Women, if she knew of any agents who might represent me. Though I was aware Christine had started her own publishing company, I was so naïve about the business it didn't even occur to me that a writer could go directly to a publisher. I thought an agent was a necessary part of the equation. So when Christine asked to read the book, I was surprised and delighted. Luckily for me she loved it, and here we are.
Next NBTT is publishing an anthology called Transitions. The stories are all by women who have experienced life-changing events of one kind or another. My story "Lucky Drive" is about my cancer diagnosis and how that altered the course of my life. Kelly Corrigan contributed an essay to this book, and I am honored to be in the same anthology with someone who was a beacon for me during cancer treatment. Kelly's memoir The Middle Place was a huge inspiration to me as I went through treatment. I thought, "If she can laugh while going chemo, I can too."
Q: What are you writing now?
A: I'm working on a novel, which might be classified in the fantasy genre. Though it would seem police procedural would be my natural milieu, this story starts on a farm. This story came to me from the ethers, and it's my job to write it down. I will see where it takes me, and hope that it becomes a page-turner.