Joan Lowery Nixon is a prolific author, a lover of ice cream and vegetables, specifically artichokes, asparagus, and tomatoes, Californian and half Texan, and the only four-time winner of the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe best juvenile mystery award. She writes historical dramas, heart-stopping suspense tales, page-turning adventure stories, and some of the best mystery books readers will find in the libra.
The Edgar Allan Poe Awards are sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America. Prior to 1989, the sponsor grouped all nonadult mysteries into one juvenile category. Nixon won this award in 1980 for The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), in 1981 for The Seance (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), and in 1987 for The Other Side of Dark (Delacorte). In 1989 the juvenile award was split between children's and young adult tides. In 1994 Nixon's The Name of the Game Was Murder (Delacorte) was named winner of the young adult category,, making Nixon the only fourtime winner in the combined categories.
Nixon grew up in Los Angeles and the Laughlin Park area of Hollywood. Her mother wrote radio scripts and also scribed Nixon's early stories. At age two, Nixon is said to have approached her mother with a request to "Write this down, I have a poem." Her first published work came at the age of 10, when a poem was published on the children's page of Children's Playmate magazine. Nixon's first professional sale came at the age of 17, when she sold a short article to Ford Times. In college she wrote articles for a Hollywood fan magazine as well as articles for many of the general interest magazines such as Woman's Day.
In 1949, she married Hershell Nixon and they moved to Texas. At her first writers' conference, in Corpus Christi, Texas, one of the speakers was John Ciardi, who inspired her to begin to think about writing for children. By then the Nixons had four children. The two oldest--Kathy, then 11, and Maureen, aged six, told her, "If you are going to write for children, you have to write a book and it has to be a mystery,, and you have to put us in it."
Her first novel, Mystery of Hurricane Castle, was published in 1964. She received 12 rejection slips; the 13th publisher accepted the manuscript. When her mother treated her to a year of housekeeper services, and the housekeeper agreed also to watch the preschoolers, Nixon became a full-time writer. Thirty years later, in 1994, she celebrated the publication of her 100th book, A Dangerous Promise. Now she not only writes books but is engaged in coauthoring interactive mysteries on CD-ROMs with two of her daughters.
Her mysteries are set in a variety of locations: imposing castles, remote islands, big cities, and quaint suburbs. Nixon is a graceful writer who spins suspenseful tales populated by well-drawn characters. She says that "writing a suspense/mystery novel is a double challenge, because a well-written novel involves the interweaving of two story lines. The main character has a personal problem to solve and a mystery to solve. The solutions to both must evolve smoothly and together." Many of her protagonists are female--strong, confident, and capable. Her characters control their own fates and not only deal with their personal struggles but solve the mysteries along the way
Most of Nixon's ideas for novels come from common sources--newspapers and stories she hears. She often asks, "What if?." and then proceeds to answer her question. She keeps a pocket file of ideas, to which she addresses the what-if question. She recalls one example:
"After reading a newspaper article about a young farmer in West Texas who was comatose for several years I began asking questions. The article told about the young man's mother, who cared for him and never gave up hope. Eventually an operation for an infection resulted in his awakening from the coma. Surprisingly, the young man recovered and soon was out on the farm working. I was intrigued by the story and offered to take my doctor to lunch so I could interview him."
After learning some basic medical facts, Nixon began to wonder "what if" a 13-year-old girl fell into a coma and awoke four years later. And what if she had been an eye-witness to an unsolved murder? That idea developed into her book The Other Side of Dark (Delacorte, 1986).
"The man who answered the door invited us in," Nixon recalls, "and then left us alone in the house to wait for a tow truck. I began wondering, what if the man who answered the door was not the man who lived there? What if there was a dead body in the house?" Those who read A Deadly Game of Magic (Harcourt, 1983) will recognize the plot.
A real murder in Nixon's neighborhood brought about yet another title. A postal carrier was murdered, and eventually the murderer was found, but many things didn't add up. Nixon speculated that there were actually two murders that day and one of the victims was never reported missing. She began to ask "what if" and eventually developed the theory that one of the victims, someone who would not be reported missing, was an undocumented household worker. The second victim, the mail carrier, most likely witnessed the murder and was murdered to keep her quiet. Nixon wrote the story, Whispers from the Dead (Delacorte, 1989) the way she imagined it had happened.
Her personal experiences, too, produce book ideas. After having a cast removed from a broken arm, Nixon was told that swimming would be the best therapy She and her daughter frequently visited a local hotel with a swimming pool.
"Everyone else swam laps, but one obnoxious guest living at the hotel swam diagonally," Nixon says. "I eventually used the hotel as the location for A Dark and Deadly Pool. When I needed a murder victim I knew just who it would be."
Another mystery, a sequel to A Dark and Deadly Pool, came about from that same hotel experience. Nixon and her daughter Eileen began to produce mystery weekends in the theater. Nixon said, "I could write it but couldn't put it on; Eileen did." The public relations woman at the hotel happened to mention that a two-story room on the 19th floor was said to be haunted and that the room was never rented out. The bellmen often complained about noise from the 19th floor. It seemed to be the perfect setting. A sequel to A Dark and Deadly Pool, The Weekend was Murder, featured a staged murder weekend at a local hotel and a real murder which 16-year-old Liz helps to solve.
Nixon's goal is to write an average of one mystery and one historical novel a year. Sandwiched into this writing schedule are an occasional Western, mysteries for younger readers, and her popular Shirley and Claude picture book series. Ideas for these books come in various ways, just as her mystery ideas do.
Nixon got an idea for a series from a book packager who called to inquire if she had ever heard of the orphan trains. She hadn't, so he sent her a magazine article about the trains. She has now written several titles for the Orphan Train Series. (First called the Orphan Train Quartet, the series title had to be changed when its popularity resulted in a request for more than the first four titles.)
The books are optioned for a television series. A short story about one of the Orphan Train children and her promise to find a good home for her little sister, "Hannah's Promise," published in the November 18, 1994, issue of Scope, earned Nixon the International Reading Association's 1995 short story award.
Nixon's Ellis Island series features three books whose protagonists meet on a boat crossing the Atlantic on the way to Ellis Island. One of them, a Russian Jewish girl named Rebekah, settles with her family in New York and works in a sweatshop. Rosie settles in Chicago with her Irish family, whose goal is to send for others in the family. Kristen and her family emigrate from Sweden to escape socialism and high taxes and to find greater opportunity in America. They settle on a midwestern farm, where they are disappointed to find their new community as traditional as their homeland. Rebekah's story is told in Land of Hope, Rosie's in Land of Promise, and Kristen's in Land of Dreams.
The idea for the Shirley and Claude books came from Jim Giblin, a fellow writer and, at the time, a children's book editor at Clarion. During a breakfast meeting, Giblin asked, "Have you ever thought of writing a Texas tall tale?" That question spawned the idea, and Nixon began to flesh out the details. Nixon thought of her son-in-law, Kurt, who hated the hustle and bustle of Houston, and created a character that she would move out of the hustle and bustle.
Nixon's typical writing day begins at 8 or 8:30 in the morning and continues until shortly after noon. After an hour or so break for lunch, she returns to her writing until 5. She works on her writing at least five and usually six days a week, spending much of her working time in research. Her Orphan Train and Ellis Island books, she says, required more research than anything else she has written. Much of that research involves travel. The actual writing generally takes Nixon three months for a young adult book and three weeks to a month for shorter books. Once she begins the writing process, Nixon concentrates on that particular manuscript until it is finished.
"My main character and my idea grow together in my mind into a plot. It may take a few weeks. In one case it took five years. I like to open stories with action, or suspense, or both in order to hook the reader from the opening sentence. When I have the opening firmly in mind, I work on the ending. I never write a word of a story until I know how I'm going to end it."
With the beginning and ending firmly in mind, Nixon is ready to write a proposal to send to her editor. The proposal usually runs between 10 and 25 pages. Once accepted, the proposal serves as a reference for Nixon, but it is a flexible document, allowing for the addition of characters and changes to the plot.
This year Bantam Doubleday Dell published Nixon's young adult mystery, Murdered, My Sweet. The seventh book in her Orphan Train Adventures series, Circle of Love, was also published in 1997. And on tap is a proposal for a 1998 novel, Don't Tell, and a series of Orphan Train books for readers in the seven-ll age range. That series will be titled The Orphan Train Children. These titles will be shorter than the books in the Orphan Train Adventures series and will have interior illustrations. This younger age group will also be the target audience for her first two (numbers 11 and 12) 1997 Casebuster titles for Disney Press.
Nixon's writing not only attracts readers but writers as well. Those who write as class assignments most often receive a copy of her newsletter; but others who express a desire to become an author, who send their own writing and ask for a critique, or who pour out their own life stories will get as much encouragement, understanding, and moral support as she can give to their situation. Some of the letters Nixon receives present interesting perspectives. One young man wrote that he wanted to be a writer, "but the more I write I know I don't have enough brains to be a writer so I'm going to be a lawyer instead."
In addition to the Edgar awards, Nixon's books have earned her many state choice awards, the Western Writers of America Spur Award, and numerous listings on best books lists. But she says that the best accolades come from her readers. One Christmas, a ninthgrade girl wrote to Nixon that in the first eight grades of school she had never read one book all the way to the end until a friend gave her The Stalker. She loved it and proceeded to read all the books Nixon had written. In her letter the girl said, "Thank you for the gift of reading."
You can read more about Joan Lowery Nixon by visiting her WWW page on the Bantam Doubleday Dell site (http://www.bdd.com/forum/bddforum.cgi/trc/index/nixo). The site has information about the author and a message from the author herself. It also has a hot link to Nixon's e-mail at JNixon5130@aol.com.
By Sharron L. McElmeel
Sharron L. McElmeel is a frequent contributor to LIBRARY TALK and THE BOOK REPORT who often writes about authors and their books. Her most recent publications include Literature Frameworks: Apples to Zoos (Linworth, 1997) and Internet for Schools (Linworth, 1997), which she co-authored with Carol Simpson.
©2005 Sharron L. McElmeel
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