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Tales from the Troubled-Woman Niche

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This spring, I published SoLiAh: The Sara Jane Olson Story–about the woman known as Kathy Soliah and her comrades in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The SLA was the radical group that murdered an Oakland school superintendent and kidnapped publishing heiress Patty Hearst. Now that the book is out, people are asking me why I did this book and how I’m selling it.

The story behind the story began in June 1999 at a book club meeting where members were discussing my previous book, Glensheen’s Daughter, The Marjorie Congdon Story. It was the day that Sara Jane’s arrest had hit the local papers. “Sharon, this is your next book,” one woman said. I wasn’t that interested at first, but started cutting out newspaper clippings “just in case.”

By that time, I had already written two books about “troubled women,” and I seemed to have carved a niche, although less by design than by accident. My first book, An Element of Truth, is about a con artist from Minnesota whose doings came to my attention because she had been my husband’s secretary.


Con Artists for the Small Screen

Although the book was not published, it did become a CBS made-for-TV movie in 1995–eight years after I’d started it. When I was in Los Angeles discussing the teleplay with the writer-producer, he asked if I knew any more women con artists. “No,” I said, “I don’t actually know any,” but then I remembered having heard of Marjorie Congdon in the late ’70s. Accused of conspiring to kill her 83-year-old mother, Congdon had been the defendant in the longest criminal trial in Minnesota’s history. The writer-producer told me to go home and look into it.


I decided to do a book about her with the idea in mind of translating my manuscript into a teleplay again. As with An Element of Truth, I fictionalized the facts according to the screenwriter’s vision of his TV movie. This didn’t work, and after two years, I threw away hundreds of pages. In the meantime, though, I had found a wonderful editor who remembered the Marjorie Congdon story and asked, “Why would you fictionalize that?” Good question.

With her encouragement, I started making cold calls to anyone who would talk to me about Marjorie. I completed hundreds of interviews and collected court transcripts, police records, and other documents. As I began to put everything together, I couldn’t believe that this story hadn’t been written before! The murder had occurred 18 years earlier. Since then, Marjorie had spent time in prison for arson and was connected to other murders as well. Glensheen’s Daughter took five years to write. Then I had to confront the problem of getting it published.


Self-Publishing Plusses & Minuses

I realized that I had a choice. I could sit by the phone and wait for agents to “not” call or for their rejection postcards (“Dear Author, Not for us…”) which would be entertaining for my letter carrier. Or I could self-publish. The idea of self-publishing was daunting, but there was more to my concerns than that. I didn’t want to be considered a “vanity press” so I bought some “how-to” self-publishing books, and used Dan Poynter’s The Self-Publishing Manual as my bible. I followed his advice step-by-step. It was a lot of work.

The bad news was that I had to research and write the book, collect photographs, decide on an editor, find a designer for the interior, and select a graphic artist for the cover. Plus I had to get an ISBN and a Library of Congress number, find someone to do the bar code, choose a wholesaler or distributor, and promote the book so that the bookstores and the general public would know it was out there! Then I had to put on my longshoreman’s hat and haul the books from my garage to the wholesalers and various bookstores around town; this resulted in chronic tendonitis in both arms! Once I had orders for my books, I had to invoice the buyers and make follow-up calls–“Where’s the money?”

Book promotion is a full-time job all by itself, but I enjoy it. The major bookstores want to know what you plan to do to promote your book in order to decide how many to order. To promote SoLiAh, I advertised with Publishers Weekly through PMA and also placed bookstore mailings, which will go to 3,700 specific buyers, and target mailings, which will go to 4,500 genre-specific reviewers. I sent heavy-stock cover reproductions (front and back) to every bookstore in California and Minnesota and the surrounding five-state area (that’s my market). With these bookcovers, I sent cover letters telling the stores that books are available through Ingram and Baker & Taylor. I’ve given radio interviews, and TV interviews will be coming soon.

The newspapers have also picked up the story, announcing that my book is coming out (that’s an advantage of writing about current news). I’m sure there will be book-signings, which is my least favorite thing to do. Book clubs are another story though–thoroughly enjoyable. Unlike people at signings, book club members have already read the book and–just as important–bought it! I like having a discussion about the book rather than standing in front of an audience reading or lecturing. I learn something every time!

The good news about self-publishing is the same as the bad news. In taking all of these steps, I’ve learned the entire process that any book must go through in order to get published. This is something even authors with big-house publishers should know. And the other good news is that money that might have gone to some big publishing company goes to me. Three years after its publication, Glensheen’s Daughter is still a regional bestseller. I’ve sold 16,000 copies, and it’s still selling.


Dominick Dunne, Eat Your Heart Out

Writing SoLiAh: The Sara Jane Olson Story was more difficult than writing Glensheen’s Daughter because I had to include ’60s and ’70s history. Also, Olson’s story was evolving every day in the newspapers as I wrote. At first, she seemed like the housewife extraordinaire who was described in all the papers. However, as time went on, her softness vanished, not only in her facial expressions, but in the tone of her voice, her attitude, her entire demeanor. It was like watching a whole new personality evolve. Some suspected that it wasn’t a new personality at all but the same one she had when she was involved with the Symbionese Liberation Army.


Because it was current news, I felt pressure to finish this story fast. What if Dominick Dunne beat me? This was right up his alley! So I worked 8-12 hours a day, seven days a week for months in order to get my book out in May 2002. When Olson, Bill Harris, Emily (Harris) Montague, and Michael Bortin were arrested for murder on January 16, 2002, I was not thrown for a loop, as some people thought I would be. Their Sacramento bank robbery and murder had been in my book from the beginning. In fact, these arrests gave me an ending that was better than I could have imagined.


Of course, this didn’t change everything. Agents are still forgetting to call, and Random House isn’t banging down my door. But then I’m not waiting by the phone or the mailbox. I expect to be very busy with the “process” of this new book, and I also expect to enjoy every minute of it. At this writing, just after pub date, I already know that SoLiAhwill be reviewed by local publications in Minnesota and by the Los Angeles Times (which doesn’t usually cover self-published books).That’s better than I could have imagined too.


Sharon Darby Hendry lives with her husband, and they divide their time between Bloomington, Minnesota, and northern Wisconsin.

She has two grown daughters.

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