Jean Femling's first novel, a 1975 mystery thriller entitled "Backyard," was set in the mythical Orange County town of Sundown Beach. Publisher's Weekly called it a "splendid novel of menace . . . and Jean Femling an author to watch. You'll want her next book."
Fourteen years later, the Costa Mesa writer's second mystery, "Hush, Money," (St. Martin's Press, $16.95) has finally been published.
Set in Newport Beach and told in the voice of auto-insurance claims investigator Martha (Moz) Brant, "Hush, Money" begins with a bang.
An explosion aboard a yacht in Newport Harbor kills its wealthy owner and seriously injures Brant's ex-boyfriend, Rick, and his lady friend who were aboard another boat. The explosion turns out to be a case of arson and Brant, wanting "to howl and smash something" after visiting the brain-damaged Rick in the hospital, is determined to find out who is responsible.
Publisher's Weekly calls the book "even more impressive than her widely praised first."
Two well-received mysteries, two decades apart.
So why the gap?
It's not that Femling, who was working full time and raising three children, was too busy to write.
"I went off on sort of a tangent," she said. "I wrote three other (unpublished) books. They were non-commercial. . . . A couple of good editors saw them, but for one thing or another they didn't sell. I can see, looking back, that at any point I could have reworked one of them, but I was always into the next book."
Femling added: "I was quite innocent in those days. I didn't know any other writers. If another writer had heard a part of the first book they would have pointed out the sort of things editors did soon enough. I would have modified the book and made it more accessible. An objective reaction is just very essential. I get so close to things I can't tell."
With the publication of "Hush, Money," Femling seems on track.
In fact, she's in the middle of writing a sequel to "Hush, Money" that she must deliver to St. Martin's Press by April. The working title is "Getting Mine." ("It's about us hustling Orange County folk," she says.)
A boon to Femling's writing came about nine years ago when she joined Fictionaires, one of Orange County's oldest writing workshops.
"It's been a great help to get feedback from other writers," Femling said. "It's just essential because (before) I was writing in a vacuum."
Femling, who works in the Coast Community College District computer center where she writes a newsletter and various publications, doesn't get to Fictionaires meetings too often anymore.
But, she said, she does meet informally twice a month with a handful of Fictionaires members at the Santa Ana home of author Donald Stanwood where they read and critique one another's work.
"It's been a Godsend for me," she said. "There are advantages to a small group. You don't have the time limitations you have in a bigger group."
Femling, 59, said she has been writing "forever."
As an English major at UCLA, she said, she had "this exalted view of literature," and although she started writing short stories at the time, "I didn't really take myself seriously" as a fiction writer. Eventually, however, she sold free-lance articles to magazines and had several short stories published before Harper & Row published "Backyard" in 1975. (She also wrote one nonfiction book, "Great Piers of California," published by Capra Press in 1984. Her French husband, Marcel Mathevet, took the photographs.)
As Femling sees it, learning to write salable fiction takes time.
"Writing is a craft--you wouldn't learn to be a master cabinetmaker when you first pick up a chisel--and it's a lot of hard work," she said. "It's not anything you learn right away, (although) there are some natural geniuses."
She said she has been tempted to quit writing fiction at times, deeming it a hopeless, quixotic enterprise. But those thoughts, when they came, were always fleeting.
"I can't imagine not doing it," she said. "It's a challenge. In a way its the greatest game in the world . . . like chess, you never know enough about it."
With the publication of "Backyard" in 1975, Femling was one of the first in a burgeoning list of writers using Orange County as the setting for mysteries. As an author, she finds the county "just incredibly rich."
"Everything you could imagine is here," she said. "You've got ethnic mix, different classes, newcomers and longtimers, development. . . . It's just a very dynamic place. My word, how could you ever run out of material?"