When Judith Guest is looking to buy a book, she reads the first few pages, which function as the literary equivalent of a movie trailer.
"If nothing catches me, I put it back on the shelf," she said.
The Edina-based author offered a "trailer" for her fifth book Thursday at the Brainerd Public Library, reading the first chapter of "The Tarnished Eye." Judging by the enthusiastic questions that followed, she hooked most of the audience with the murder mystery, which will be released by Scribner's in June.
As part of the library's First Thursday series, Guest, affectionately dubbed "the slowest writer in the world" by her Los Angeles-based editor, offered insight into the creation of "The Tarnished Eye," from the germ of the idea to the completed hardcover to her editor's nudges for a sequel.
Based on Guest's previous success, one might think the publishing process is a breeze. It's not.
Guest's first novel, "Ordinary People," exploring a suicidal young man and his distant parents, was developed into an Oscar-winning film in 1980 directed by Robert Redford. Three more novels followed, including "Killing Time in St. Cloud," co-written by Rebecca Hill. Nonetheless, several publishers turned down "The Tarnished Eye" before Scribner picked it up.
"The publishing business gets more like the movie business every year," Guest said. "They just want blockbusters. There are only like eight publishing houses left, and many of the people who own these houses are not writers. When I published 'Ordinary People,' I naively thought I'd be with Viking forever."
Instead, Guest finds herself with her fourth publisher. The movie industry also has proven tough to crack a second time. Guest has written four adaptations of her novel "Second Heaven," but they are floating in Hollywood limbo.
"The Tarnished Eye" is based on the unsolved murders of a family of six in 1968 in Good Hart, Mich. Guest read newspaper articles on the killings when she lived in Michigan, but the novel didn't start percolating in her brain until eight years ago, and she started writing it four years ago. Six months into writing the book, Guest stalled.
"I never admit I'm stuck," she said. "I just suddenly have nine million other things to do."
Guest realized she was hesitant about tackling the grisly themes of "The Tarnished Eye."
Because the real-life murders are unsolved, and because parallels could be drawn between her characters and real people, she harbored fears for her family's safety. But once she acknowledged her fears, she got back to writing.
"The most important step for a writer is commitment," she said. "I've run into this problem with every novel. I can write and write and write and not be committed. But then one day, you just decide, 'I'm gonna finish.'"
Guest had "solved" the crime in her head before she started writing. However, the hardest part of writing a mystery novel is the art of clue-dropping, she said. If an author doesn't include enough clues, the reader is bored. If she drops too many, the reader solves the mystery before the protagonist.
"I hate novels where I already know the answer," she said.
For the sake of accuracy, Guest ran her manuscript past a Michigan sheriff, who told her that deputies in the state are more likely to address a sheriff by his first name rather than "chief." So Guest replaced every mention of "chief" with "Hugh." Guest's husband read one of the final drafts and pointed out a problem: At one point, Hugh pulled out a "handkerhugh."
Although "The Tarnished Eye" is on the presses, Guest said the temptation lingers to continue editing. She said the key to writing believable dialogue is to read it aloud. After reading "The Tarnished Eye" excerpt Thursday, she admitted to a desire to rewrite a bit of the dialogue.
But even for a notoriously deliberate writer like Guest, new projects beckon. Next in the pipeline is "Don't Be Too Sure," a sequel to her personal favorite from her catalogue, "Second Heaven." There will be no sequel to "Ordinary People" -- "That story is complete," she said -- but the protagonist from "The Tarnished Eye" could possibly be revisited.
"My editor keeps saying, 'We love Hugh, and we're hoping to see him again soon,'" Guest sighed with mock exasperation. "But then I'd have to invent a whole new crime, and I'm not ready for that."
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