Flashback: Kate Stine – A conversation with SJ Rozan

_12aOriginally run in Crimespree issue 12, May 2006

Kate Stine is one of the nicest and smartest people in the crime-writing world. This year, the MWA is giving Kate and her husband, Brian Skupin, an Ellery Queen Award — by the time you read this they’ll have the statue looming on their mantelpiece — for their contributions to mystery publishing. When CrimeSpree asked me to do this piece on Kate, I might have said yes just because Kate’s so cool. But Kate and I have another connection, too. I consider Kate responsible for my career.

Of course, I’m not the only one. Kate’s published numerous writers — not me, though — and given invaluable advice to many others. She’s helped readers find our books through the magazines she’s worked on and the talks she’s given. (An exhaustive “History of Mystery” is a specialty.) Lots of us feel indebted to Kate Stine, and I’ll tell you what she did for me at the end of this piece. But first: who is this dame, and how did she get to be Kate Stine?

Well, she was born that way, in Indiana, where her great-great-etc., grandparents settled 150 years ago. “After,” she says, “being kicked out of every decent place.” Her parents weren’t writers, but they were big readers. “There were books everywhere. We’d go to yard sales and come home with bags and bags of books.” Did she grow up knowing her destiny was the publishing world, then? No — and yes.

“I was a liberal arts student. My degree is in Psychology.”

That’s the no. Psychology?

“I was in it for the stories.”

That’s the yes.

The stories brought Kate to New York and to the NYU publishing program. “Right away, new in New York, I was thrown together with people interested in the same things I was.” After completing the program, she took a job as editorial assistant at Book of the Month Club. “We had experts — people who sat all day reading nothing but the history books that were submitted, or the science fiction, and then were able to explain in two minutes in a meeting why we should take this book and not that one.”

That job, she says, gave her a wide-open view of the publishing world. After a year at BoMC she left to become the assistant to the publisher at Otto Penzler Books — the redoubtable Otto Penzler. Penzler at that time was also publishing Armchair Detective Magazine, and as Kate moved from assisting to editing at Otto Penzler Books, she also worked part time on the magazine. This began her association both with mysteries, and magazines.

While some of this was luck — the Otto Penzler Books job was open when she was ready to move on from BoMC — it was also a good fit. Kate had always read mysteries. Elizabeth Peters, Dick Francis, Barbara Michaels and Mary Stuart were among her early favorites.

So the inevitable question: Why? What is it about mystery that attracts Kate to read the genre, and to have become such an expert at it?

“It’s a snapshot of life,” she says. “Mystery covers the breadth of human experience. When I started in publishing it was a time when people used to ride up and down in elevators and write whole books about it. Mystery writers were writing about real experience. And mysteries are vivid: mystery writers seem to intuitively get it that people are shaped by their environments, not just the physical environment but the emotional one. The books are about the real world, but you get into the characters’ heads. When a writer starts focusing on why people do things, they look around, look for causes. It keeps a writer from floating into the ether, or into his own head.”

And that environment itself: “It’s detailed,” Kate says. “You’re in that neighborhood in Chicago, on that boat in Florida; you’re running across that English countryside with a good-looking man you just met. Most of my incidental knowledge of the world comes from mysteries. I’m out here living my life based on what you writers put in your books.”

Quite a responsibility. But back to that good-looking man. That would be Kate’s husband, Brian Skupin. “Brian is extremely well-read in the genre,” Kate says. “He has real, in-depth knowledge of Golden Age books, particularly locked-rooms, and he’s also very well-read in contemporary crime fiction. He’s a great resource for me as I edit the magazine.” Now co-owner with her of Mystery Scene, Brian’s “an I.T. guy” with a resume full of things few mortals understand. How did he and Kate meet?

“At Magna Cum Murder. I was on a panel, he was in the audience. After the panel I needed to find the organizer. I had to pick someone to ask where she was, right? So I picked a handsome man.” A few chats during that convention, and then she headed back to New York, he to Michigan. Not long after, in those pre-email days, he wrote her a letter. “It was the perfect way to woo an editor,” Kate says. “But I waited three months to answer. I thought he might be a writer.”

Nevertheless, she did answer, and Brian having moved to England by then, the relationship proceeded by mail until Kate let drop the fact that she’d be at Malice Domestic that May. Amazingly, Brian appeared there, too. In those days Kate was working for the Agatha Christie estate, so visits to England were necessary business travel. Later his job transferred him to San Francisco; handily, Kate was consulting for Mystery.net, which was based out there. Four days before they married, Brian moved to New York.

In 2002 Brian and Kate bought Mystery Scene, a venerable magazine that has covered the crime-writing world since Ed Gorman and Robert Randisi founded it in 1985. Brian and Kate have plans for its future, changing its focus from a publication aimed at writers to one aimed at readers. They’ve increased coverage of Children’s and Young Adult books, and added Jon Breen’s “What About Murder?” column, which reviews non-fiction and reference books.

Which does Kate prefer, editing books or editing a magazine? “Book editing moves at a slow pace. You could sit and grow moss,” she says. “Magazines need you to work fast, make decisions. You have to do your own research, which can lead you in different directions.” Not that she’d turn down her own imprint at a publisher, if the chance came up, but right now her focus is on the magazine.

And the future? Maybe another magazine, totally different: one covering the Hudson Valley, where Kate and Brian have a house. “For the same reason as mystery,” she says. “Covering the Hudson valley touches a lot of different things.” Including gardening: Kate’s an enthusiastic gardener. “Two magazines and a big garden,” she says. “That would be great.”

As long as she doesn’t leave the mystery world. What does she see coming up in crime writing’s future? “Two things, one good and one bad.”

The good things: more Children’s and Young Adult books mean more kids becoming mystery readers. That’s good for the genre, because they’re likely to keep reading as they grow up; and it’s good for the kids, Kate says. “Reading mysteries, kids learn a little bit more about the world than just how to press a button and blow up a convoy. They see how other people live and think. It’s a freelance education.” And, they hope to change the focus of their publication from the writers to the readers. They’ve added Jon Breen’s “What About Murder?” column, which reviews non-fiction and reference books.

And the bad thing? “Now that there’s an entire industry to encourage self-publication — PublishAmerica, freelance editors, writing seminars, those things — more and more people will self-publish. A lot of people seem to think that what an editor does is worthless. “But you know, when you go to a bookstore, you’re not paying for a manuscript. You’re paying for a finished book and that’s the work of both a writer and an editor. Good editing is obvious only in its absence — and a look at most self-published books will prove my point.”

Well, as long as the mystery world has people in it like Kate Stine and Brian Skupin, quality — and passion — will likely prevail.

And here’s my personal Kate Stine story, to show you what kind of a person she is from one writer’s experience. When Kate worked at Mysterious, my agent sent my first manuscript to Michelle Slung, her fellow editor there. Michelle wanted to buy it, but Otto Penzler didn’t. (Otto and I have long since made up, but there it is.) Kate loved the book, I’m proud to say. It wasn’t her problem — it hadn’t been sent to her, so she didn’t even have to write the rejection letter; and she and I had never met — but she called St. Martin’s Press and spoke to her friend Keith Kahla, whom she knew from the NYU publishing program. “I got a manuscript I can’t do,” she told him. “But someone better do it. Call the agent and get your hands on this book.”

That’s Kate. There was nothing in it for her if a first novel by an unknown-to-anyone writer got published by a publisher she didn’t work for. But she loved the book.

And for Kate, it’s always been about the books.