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Nashville writer Sallie Bissell keeps readers in suspense with her forthcoming novel

By Michael Sims

MARCH 28, 2000:  Ever since the first poet scribbled in dirt with a stick, established writers have been advising newcomers to obey the golden rule of composition "Write about what you know." Nowadays this hoary motto still gets tattooed on the forehead of every student in a creative writing program. After all, the teachers say, it worked for Ralph Ellison, Jane Austen, and Henry James. But many of the world's best-known writers definitely did not limit their writing to topics with which they were familiar It's safe to assume that Homer never saw a race of one-eyed giants, Mary Shelley didn't reassemble corpses in her spare time, and H.G. Wells never visited the moon.

Nor did Nashville native Sallie Bissell know much about the legal system or Native American life until she wrote a thriller about an assistant district attorney who happens to be half-Cherokee. That apparent lack of firsthand knowledge has hardly held her back Bissell's first suspense novel and an as-yet unwritten sequel (with an option on a third) have just sold for a healthy six figures, and the Dutch and German translation rights have sold for an even healthier six figures. Other translations are in the works. Hollywood is interested. And the first book, tentatively titled In the Forest of Harm, won't even be published until the spring of 2001.

This kind of attention is unusual--and highly satisfying--for a Nashville writer. Like any other town its size, Nashville is full of writers of every species--romance, mystery, historical, juvenile. Some are good, some bad, a couple even excellent. Authors ranging from John Egerton to Steven Womack to Ann Patchett receive popular and critical attention in varying degrees, but few have ever generated the kind of buzz Bissell is getting--a full year before publication.

Will Sallie Bissell put Nashville on the bestseller map? Or will she merely take her place at a profitable table? Nobody knows, of course. Publishing is famously unpredictable. Even highly touted books that were bought for a lot of money sometimes fizzle. But nowadays, as every writer knows, the more attention (meaning money) that a book gets up front, the likelier the publisher is to stand behind it and try to recoup its investment.

The money involved in Bissell's case is impressive, but it doesn't break any records. And although Hollywood is watching, it has yet to hold out a Midas hand. Still, it's fun to watch a native daughter cause such a big splash. And what's really most intriguing about this whole affair is how Sallie Bissell, her Washington, D.C.-based agent, and her editor at Bantam Books in New York are all keeping mum about the details of In the Forest of Harm. In the tradition of mystery and suspense books, nobody wants to spoil the surprise.

While people in New York and Los Angeles are talking about her, Sallie Bissell (pronounced with the accent on the second syllable) laughs about her unplanned reversal of the traditional advice to writers. "Isn't it great? Write something about which you know nothing!" Not that Bissell made up all of her details along the way. She read a great many books and did research around the Nantahala and Cherokee regions of North Carolina. But she did write In the Forest of Harm partially as a change from her other writing gigs. She wrote a thriller for the same reason people read them for escape and vicarious excitement.

Bissell is tall, slender, attractive, and looks younger than her 50 years. She owns the brick Tudor house in which she was born, built by her grandfather on the corner of Gale Lane and Lealand in 1928. During the Civil War, there was a Confederate artillery battery a block away, but now the most prominent nearby landmark is the I-440 overpass. Bissell rents out most of the house but keeps a separate upstairs apartment as her Nashville home. The rest of the time she lives near Weaverville, N.C., north of Asheville.

The attic apartment is reached via a wooden stairway that angles up the end of the house. Formerly Bissell's childhood bedroom, the space consists of living room/kitchenette, bedroom, and bath. Several oil paintings by her mother hang on the walls. Some are portraits of Bissell herself, including one face that peers eerily out of the top of a hollow grandfather clock. Many black-and-white family photos and a huge cartoon of a man playing chess with a chicken complete the wall decor, but shelves groan with other mementos--a doll with stoned-looking eyes, a cone of incense ash in a tiny dish, Peabody College yearbooks from the late 1960s.

Thanks to the name of the half-Cherokee protagonist of In the Forest of Harm, Mary Crow, friends have appointed the crow as Bissell's personal totemic animal. Toy crows made of metal, plastic, and dyed black feathers adorn her work area.

With Bissell, everything leads to a story. She points to one of two large beds in the bedroom, a huge four-poster with an elaborate carved headboard. "That bed belonged to a relative of mine, who was probably the worst general in the Civil War. His name was Gideon Pillow. I think he surrendered Fort Donelson to Gen. Grant, and the Confederates still vilify him on a regular basis."

More significantly, though, this apartment is a source of inspiration: It was here that Bissell first discovered her lifelong passion for reading and writing--and the ability to lose herself completely in a work of fiction. She remembers a passage in a book she read when she was 8 or 9, a children's book by William O. Steele, in which a boy and his dog battle a bear. Eventually, the boy kills the bear, but at the end of the scene the reader learns that the dog has died during the fight. Bissell gestures around her at the apartment. "I can remember sitting in this very room, lying on my bed and crying my eyes out over that poor dog. And my mother came in and said, 'What's the matter?' And I cried, 'Oh, the dog died!' And she said, 'But we don't have a dog!' "

Bissell says that her mother may have wondered if she ought to have called a psychiatrist, but instead she bought her imaginative daughter a typewriter. Like so many of Bissell's artifacts, the typewriter is still around. It's an Underwood portable, a weighty monster in a loud turquoise hue from the late 1950s. It looks like part of a museum display on the evolution of writing technology; beside it on the desk sits an open black laptop computer.

It sounds too good to be true, but upon receipt of her first typewriter, young Sallie immediately began writing a mystery novel. She knew absolutely nothing about crime or detection, but it didn't matter. She had all the inspiration she needed from the TV shows of the era, starring detectives such as Mike Hammer and Peter Gunn.

Sallie Bissell has been writing ever since. Her first job after college, in 1973, was at Bill Walker and Associates, an advertising agency. She wrote radio commercials for Rudy's Sausage, the Grand Ole Opry, and other accounts. "It was a lot of fun," she says. "It taught me how to write quickly. You need 50 seconds of copy, and you learn that about a page's worth takes 50 seconds to read."

Two years earlier, the former Sallie Stringfellow had married Bill Bissell. After a year of writing commercials, she gave birth to their first child. "I had all these stories I'd written in college, for classes. And I was sitting around one day and I thought, 'You should really do something with these.' " One of the stories, she decided, would make a good romance story. So she studied the genre. Armed with a sense of what the field demanded, she sent off a revised version of the story, and it sold immediately. She still remembers what the magazine paid her $268 and several copies of the magazine. It was the first story she had ever submitted anywhere. "And so I thought, 'Hey, I've got this writing stuff licked! This is easy.' Unfortunately, it was the last thing I sold for 20 years."

Bissell tried to sell a few more romance stories, but her beginner's luck had already run out. And by the time she was 30, she had three demanding offspring, which made it difficult to do much beyond tending to the needs of home and family. "I'd like to say that I got up at 5 a.m. and wrote for five hours every morning, but in fact I got up at 7:30 and desperately tried to get the kids ready for school."

She didn't seriously try writing again until she was close to 40. She wrote one novel, which she now describes as "really bad." Then, in 1993, when she was 43, Bissell and her husband divorced. By this time, both her parents had died, but Bissell credits her mother-in-law Lolita Bissell with giving her the advice she needed to hear. The 89-year-old woman looked her in the eye and told her, "If you want to be a writer, you'd better start now. Otherwise, you're gonna be too old."

Not only did Bissell follow her mother-in-law's suggestion, she also decided to move. She had spent her entire life in Nashville and wanted to experience something different, so she moved to the mountains of western North Carolina and devoted her time to writing. The fictional Mary Crow's background grew out of Bissell's passionate love of the mountains. "The mountain culture is very different," Bissell explains. "The area up there--Asheville in particular--is a lot like Nashville was back in maybe the '50s. The pace is a lot slower. Ladies still wear hats and gloves to church. They're very sweet people, very kind people--and yet they're thorny too."

Before tackling a thriller, Bissell perched in the mountains near Thomas Wolfe's birthplace, looked homeward, and wrote a novel set in Brentwood. It was about three sisters dividing up a large property after their father's death. She describes this as her favorite piece of writing. Editors told her that the characters were terrific but nothing happened to them. Bissell took this assessment as a challenge: "I thought, 'Well, I'll show you. I'll write a book where something happens.' And that's how In the Forest of Harm was born.

"I was tired of writing about family relationships," Bissell confesses. "I wanted to be real physical, go out and have people do stuff. In the Forest of Harm was just sort of a nice wedding of my interests and what I enjoy writing. I'm not an avid camper, but I enjoy being outside and I enjoy hiking a lot. For example, I always enjoyed James Lee Burke's sense of place in fiction. He describes light in so many ways. I wanted to do that sort of thing."

For a while, Bissell returned to Nashville. Thomas Nelson, the religious publisher, was planning to launch a series of Christian mysteries for children, and a friend recommended Bissell for the job. "I went Old Testament," she laughs. "I put in a bunch of stuff about how when the kids got scared they thought of Daniel and the lion's den." Thomas Nelson turned down the manuscript.

Her effort wasn't wasted, however. Bissell showed the manuscript to a friend who was in her Asheville writer's group. The friend knew Bonnie Bryant, the original author of (and now the blanket pen name for) the Saddle Club books, a popular series aimed at preteen girls. The novels are about the adventures of a group of girls obsessed with horses, and Bissell had ridden horses all her life. She was intrigued and decided to looking into writing a book for the series. There were other factors influencing her decision as well: "This was a time when I was pretty strapped for cash," Bissell remembers. "I had taken a couple of temp jobs."

She passed Bryant's writing test and eventually ended up writing eight Saddle Club books. Each 30,000-word installment took about a month to write. Considering the modest amount of work involved, Bissell received a nice sum for each book--even though it was only one-eighth what the fabulously successful Bryant was receiving as official author and copyright holder.

"The Saddle Club books were a lot of fun to do," Bissell says. "Again, everybody was outside doing stuff. I had to research some of the horse stuff, because I wanted it to be really accurate. I mean, a lot of kids read these books and take them as gospel." She smiles. "I didn't want to lead any young reader down the wrong path."

In 1998, Bissell read from her Saddle Club books at the Southern Festival of Books. "I didn't think anybody would show up," Bissell says. "But I had several young readers who came, and who wanted my autograph, and who were so thrilled. It was one of the most gratifying experiences I've had as a writer. You know, when you write for kids, they just trust you."

A Nashvillian to the core, Sallie Bissell attended Burton Elementary before it became part of the David Lipscomb system, Glendale Elementary, and Overton High School. She has an English degree from Peabody. Even her list of prior claims to fame involve Nashville She shared high school study hall with Hank Williams Jr. and had the same kindergarten teacher as Tennessee Williams. "I think I should point out," she murmurs, "that Williams was at the beginning of [the teacher's] career and I was at the end."

Even though she has spent much of her time of late in North Carolina, Bissell continues to maintain strong local ties. Quick to acknowledge debts and mentors, she credits several Nashville writers, members of the Nashville Writer's Alliance, with encouragement and helpful critique. This informal assemblage of eight or 10 friends is not to be confused with the Tennessee Writers Alliance, which is an official advocacy group. Members take turns hosting meetings at their home. Every Tuesday, they get together at 630 p.m. for small talk before settling down promptly at 7 to read aloud and critique manuscripts. Every major publication results in the author bringing champagne to celebrate with the group. Over the years, members have published all sorts of fiction and nonfiction books, from children's biographies to Warner Books' lead fiction title a couple years ago, Such Good People by Martha Hickman. Every time she's in Nashville, Bissell drops in to visit.

Bissell says that her motto while writing In the Forest of Harm came from one of these friends: "Just apply seat of pants to seat of chair." This line, sometimes attributed to Ernest Hemingway, sums up the solitary discipline required for any task as seemingly endless as writing a book.

Applying the seat-to-seat principle, Bissell worked on her suspense novel for about a year. Then she returned to Nashville in May of '97 and worked for a year as executive director of the Tennessee Writer's Alliance. Because the job and the Saddle Club books were keeping her busy, she put her suspense novel aside. But while visiting a writers' conference in Georgia, she showed the manuscript to an agent, who expressed interest. Even though the agent didn't end up representing Bissell, she assured the writer that her novel was a viable project. "So I went back to work on it and worked real hard for about nine months," Bissell recalls, "and started sending it out to agents."

It didn't take her long to find one: Robbie Anna Hare, with Goldfarb and Silverberg in Washington, D.C. The agent could not be more enthusiastic about her new find. "Sallie Bissell is a very classy suspense writer," Hare says. "Suspense is a very hard genre, and not too many people get it. Sallie does. She understands that suspense is having the hair on the back of your neck prickle. Her characters are marvelous."

Hare explains the usual procedure by which agents agree to represent writers: "We get a letter of inquiry, in which people say, basically, 'Do you want to read this or not?' But I like to get three chapters as well, because you can't tell anything from a synopsis. She sent me the three chapters, I read five pages, and I e-mailed her and said, 'I want the rest of it now.' And after I'd read the three chapters, I already knew that I was going to take her on. Sallie has that wonderful ability to keep you really engaged. I read thousands of pages a year, and I don't take anything after only five pages."

The next step in the process is for the agent to find the book publisher--and Hare is very pleased with where In the Forest of Harm wound up. "Sallie has a wonderful editor at Bantam, one of the most respected editors of the genre in the business." Both Hare and Bissell prefer not to name the editor, so that she won't be besieged with submissions. As any Nashvillian involved in writing or publishing knows, there are thousands of aspiring scribblers in Middle Tennessee.

Acknowledging that Hollywood has expressed interest, Hare again withholds details. It's impolitic, she explains, to discuss such business, especially when the book hasn't even been published. Even so, word gets around. "[Movie] scouts call up and say, 'Tell us about that book.' Well, we don't tell them anything. But there's a tiny undercurrent that has rippled from the beginning about this book."

Not surprisingly, it's the successful writers who get all of the attention. Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Danielle Steele--the amounts of their book deals are considered as newsworthy as premiere-weekend totals on movies. Meanwhile, this emphasis on dollar amounts is nudging mid-list authors--those respectably profitable writers who used to make up the core of a publisher's list--toward extinction. In other words, it's getting harder and harder to make a living as a writer.

But thanks to the hoopla, casual observers assume that writing in general is a glamorous and profitable profession, and some people even foolishly make the career choice based upon that misconception. Nothing could be further from the truth. The great majority of book writers--fiction or nonfiction--couldn't begin to live on their writerly earnings. If success weren't rare, it wouldn't get the attention it does.

Sallie Bissell's first suspense novel is written and paid for, but it isn't even published yet. Her new career is just beginning. Nonetheless, even the most cynical observer has to admit that she has already leapt ahead of the pack; the attention would appear to be well-deserved. Bissell didn't get into this field expecting to make a lot of money, and here she is already making a nice profit doing exactly what she wants to do. It sounds uncomfortably like one of those follow-your-bliss sermons.

Robbie Anna Hare insists that there is indeed a moral to Sallie Bissell's story: "Her hard work has paid off. That's what it is: hard work and dedication to the craft. And that should be encouraging to other writers."

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